Is it worth it to spend time, effort and mental energy on political arguments about history? Is Nazism/Fascism left or right-wing? Did Hitler do nothing wrong?
Many various political movements appear to place great value on legitimacy derived from historical arguments. Antifa and the so-called “Alt-Left” identifies themselves as Anti-Fascists, the goodness derived from being in opposition to something bad is at the core of their identity and perceived legitimacy. Without that legitimacy derived from a historical argument, they’re simply a violent mob with a marked penchant for destruction. You could in fact label them as “Starbucks-phobic”, based on their repeated smashing of their windows. The argument over the placement of Nazism and Fascism on the left/right political spectrum is also a hotly contested issue. Dinesh D’Souza makes a compelling case in his “The Big Lie” that those ideologies are firmly planted on the left, based on their historical origins, sources of inspiration, the core people involved and so on.
The Alt-Right is another contemporary political movement that is deeply involved in political history. I don’t want to use a broad brush, but a lot of prominent thought leaders within the movement have an affinity for Nazi Germany and Hitler in particular. Obviously, you can find desirable traits in almost all systems of though. The Nazis were pioneers in animal welfare, anti-smoking, environmentalism and so on. You can draw inspiration from the Nazis involvement with these causes without justifying or rebranding their obvious evils. To me it is unfortunate that many Alt-Righters go too far. There appears to be a desire for a historical rehabilitation of the Third Reich. Arguments over this political history are important factors to their arguments over the role of Jews in orchestrating the calamities currently befalling the West.
Is all of this a waste of time? Would it be more productive to let the past lie, forget these esoteric debates and focus on the present instead? I agree with the sentiment that the past does matter and that it is highly relevant to our perceptions of ourselves, of our opponents and current political questions. Typical establishment conservatism has shown us what happens when you cede the “historical battleground” of political history to your adversaries. The left has skilfully applied derogatory labels to the right for decade after decade. They’ve been able to push their view that Nazism and Fascism belong on the political right. Thus, they’ve successfully smeared political opponents for a long time into silence and defeat. This case study alone should dissuade us from discarding the relevance of historical arguments.
An analogous political issue is immigration and the debate over amnesty. By letting the left take ownership of the issue and dictating the narrative and frame, the right has needlessly lost a lot of valuable ground. By not disputing the framework of immigration as a political issue, the left has unopposed been able to wage demographic warfare across the Western world. The same is for the most part true when it comes to political history. Study of this field has to a large degree been relegated to leftist academicians, thus giving them yet another weapon in their quiver to use against the right. This however does not mean that arguments about political history are always beneficial. I want to contrast the Nazism/Fascism debate with the Alt-Right “history project”.
To me as someone mostly on the “outside” of the Alt-Right I find it unfortunate that so many prominent thinkers are spending so much time, effort and political capital on a far-fetched and questionable rehabilitation of the Nazis. Yes, it is legitimate to be sceptical about the official narratives about history and yes, many Allied war crimes have not been covered to the extent that they should have. Individual bravery amongst the soldiery of the Third Reich is another forgotten aspect of history. But for the most part the defence of National Socialism makes all the other political arguments found within the Alt-Right suspect. They might argue that their project is necessary to unshackle the benefits of eugenics, a strong nationalistic societal structure, not being afraid of criticising Jews and so on. But that only serves to prove my point. Their legitimate and useful points are lost in the noise. The defence to me appears to go beyond specific aspects of the Third Reich that might be desirable. Their affinity seems to me to encompass the totality of the historical project that the Third Reich was. That is an unnecessary own-goal in my eyes. Why provide your opponents with the ammunition they’re going to use against you?
We have thus far seen that political history is indeed relevant and important to the political debates of the present. Arguing about it is key, in that it normalises challenges to the narrative. That is useful when it comes to deconstructing the frame surrounding contentious issues erected by one’s political opponents. You could also say that similar to the scene from “The Dark Knight” where three criminals face each other with a weapon on the floor in the middle of the room, someone is going to grab the weapon and use it against you, even if you hold yourself above it all. Ceding history is both dangerous and not just inefficient, but anti-efficient in that it will set your side back by a lot.