There’s a very weird thing I hear sometimes from people talking about fascism, and specifically about the Nazis. It’s this implicit assumption that the bad thing about Hitler’s Third Reich is that it was racist. That is so wrong it makes me actively nervous.
Their despicable racist policies were one of the bad things about the Third Reich, but if you leave it out, you still have all the other things about the Third Reich. To limit their evil to racism is to vastly underestimate it. Their domestic policies were evil, their foreign policies were evil, their economic policies were evil, and their military policies were evil beyond all comparison. If they had had nothing whatsoever against Jews, Romani, and Serbs, but done everything else the same, they would still have been breathtakingly, bottomlessly evil.
This may strike some people as a defense of the Nazis, as though I’m trying to write off their racist policies as not important. This reaction is based on an unexamined assumption a lot of people hold, that the worst thing you can call someone is racist. Why would I want to call Nazis something other than the worst possible thing? This is, obviously, a very confused viewpoint. I think we can all agree that if someone harbors resentment against you because of your race, but does not murder you, that is better, from your perspective, than someone who murders you for non-racial reasons.
To get a sense of how unthinkably murderous the Nazi regime was, let’s turn to the hardworking researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. According to their figures, civilians and prisoners killed by the Third Reich total around seventeen million human beings, of whom less than half were killed for being members of ethnic or religious minorities. In other words, most of the innocent civilians the Nazis slaughtered were killed because of all their other horrible policies besides the racist ones.
Of course, all of that ignores the most obvious and bloodiest policy of the Third Reich, the one about building their economy on expansionist war. The total number of people who died in WWII is generally estimated around 60 million, give or take ten million human lives. That includes around five million German citizens who, had their government been less bellicose, could have lived out their lives enjoying excellent beer in peace. The Soviet Union lost just under 14% of its entire population in the war; that’s one out of every seven people. The years 1939-45 represent the single greatest slaughter of human beings, in absolute numbers, in the bloody history of our species.
I emphasize all this because understanding fascism is what makes it possible to recognize it. Setting exterminationist racism as its defining criterion just makes it easy to write off various other fascist policies because oh, those don’t really count. So the next time someone says “You can’t call so-and-so fascist, I don’t see any death camps!” bear in mind that the death camps were a fraction of the horror, and ask yourself why the person you’re talking to chooses willful blindness.
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