A Historian’s ‘Toxic Take on History’
By Michael Kleen
May 3, 2010
World Net Daily
It is rare when a historian so fragrantly engages in intellectual dishonesty, but Ron Rosenbaum, in a Slate commentary titled “The tea party’s toxic take on history,” typifies such a case. In this article, he hurls vitriol at members of the tea party, its ideology and its “historically ignorant misuse of words such as tyranny, communist, Marxist, fascist and socialist.” Because tea-party partisans often conflate the terms or use them interchangeably, Rosenbaum argues that they are “utterly uneducated in history” and mocks their imagined moment of realization that “Hitler’s party” was called the National Socialist German Workers Party.
“Historical ignorance is dangerous and can have tragic consequences,” Rosenbaum concludes, but he is engaging in some historical ignorance of his own. While many tea partiers have an excuse for their ignorance (thanks, public schools), Rosenbaum, who spent a decade researching and writing a book called “Explaining Hitler,” has no such excuse.
We already know the Nazi party and the German left were bitter enemies, as Rosenbaum illustrated in his study of social democratic opposition to Hitler in Munich, but that does not mean they were diametrically opposed. Is it ridiculous to find similarities between the National Socialists, fascists, communists and socialists? Not as much as Rosenbaum would like his readers to believe. Hannah Arendt, for example, detailed some general similarities between the structure of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951). Both were mass societies organized around party ideology and a cult of personality. Both sought total control over the individual.
Beyond these cosmetic similarities, there were plenty of ideological similarities between National Socialism and socialism as well. The 1920 program of the National Socialist German Workers Party, or NSDAP, included demands for: “Abolition of unearned (work and labor) incomes, breaking of rent-slavery; the nationalization of all (previous) associated industries (trusts); a division of profits of all heavy industries; an expansion on a large scale of old-age welfare,” as well as nationalized health care and education. For these and other reasons, Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, in his 1952 treatise “Liberty or Equality,” argued that the 25-point program of the NSDAP championed labor and working-class interests.
Nazis also attacked capitalism. In Herbert Selpin’s 1943 film “Titanic,” the owners of the White Star Line were portrayed as greedy fat cats more concerned with increasing the value of their stock than the safety of their passengers. The film ends with an epilogue stating that the 1,517 dead passengers were “forever a testament of Britain’s endless quest for profit.”
Like socialists and communists, many Nazis envisioned a society where the inequality of the past would be erased. When Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth, introduced Hitler at the 1934 party congress in Nuremberg, he began by saying, “Here stands a youth that knows no class distinctions.” Hitler followed by telling the assembled youths, “In the future there must be no ranks or classes, and you must not let them begin to grow in you.” Of course, not all Nazis shared this view. Some, like Heinrich Himmler, envisioned a return to the medieval world. Like all mass movements, the National Socialist movement was not a monolith.
What about fascism and socialism? It is typical to assume that fascism has nothing in common with the left, but history is not so simple. Benito Mussolini was, until the age of 38, an avid and influential revolutionary socialist. He was editor of the Italian Socialist newspaper Avanti! until he broke with the party leadership over its position on World War I. After Mussolini was deposed in 1943 and Hitler bullied him into setting up a puppet state called the Italian Social Republic in northern Italy, he returned to his leftist roots and nationalized all companies with more than 100 employees. Nicola Bombacci, a founder of the Italian Communist Party and an old friend of both Vladimir Lenin and Mussolini, helped write the new fascist economic policy.
National Socialism and fascism were “middle-way” ideologies – compromises between capitalism and Marxism/socialism. They contained a complex amalgamation of beliefs, so how they are viewed depends on where the viewer stands on the ideological spectrum. From a free-market, individualist perspective, there is very little difference between the collectivism of National Socialism, fascism or socialism. All adhered to an ideology that embraced centralized government, a totalitarian mass society, the worship of the state and a planned economy to one degree or another.
It is impossible for Mr. Rosenbaum to not have an understanding of these complexities after having studied Nazism for so many years, and it is my contention that someone who deliberately obfuscates historical truths for political ends is behaving much more irresponsibly than someone who oversimplifies history for political ends. Both are guilty of distorting history, perhaps, but only one of these is really guilty of engaging in “fraudulent history.” One depends on a perspective that judges all collectivist ideologies as equally bad – the other on a deliberate suppression of historical facts.
As a public intellectual and historian, Rosenbaum should know better, and that is intellectual dishonesty at its worst.