Any public figure should understand that making a positive reference to Hitler is political suicide. This fact was lost on the young Republican political activist Candace Owens, who recently said, “If Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, Ok, fine.” The statement was as insulting as it was horrible. Though Owens didn’t know it, however, she was hitting on a sentiment that was the prevailing view in Europe and the United States before 1 September 1939. That western governments held this view is no less horrible and should make us reconsider what we think about Hitler’s popularity in the 1930s.
First, we should not forget the significance of Germany being awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics or the fact that Hitler was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1938. These are hardly the accomplishments of one who was supposedly a great danger to western civilization. In fact, Hitler’s Nazis had scored a huge victory over what many considered a greater evil: German communism. Winston Churchill summed up much of western business feeling about communism when he stated, “that the strangling of Bolshevism at its birth would have been an untold blessing to the human race.”
The historical record also supports Owens’s claim. As is well documented, the Nazis were given a free hand to enact the Nuremberg Laws, which denied Jews citizenship in 1935. From 1936 to 1939 the Nazis violated a European non-intervention pact with impunity in order to help Franco’s fascists secure victory over socialist and democratic forces in the Spanish Civil War. In 1938, the Nazis destroyed thousands of Jewish businesses and lives during Kristallnacht . Furthermore, the 1939 plight of over 900 Jews aboard the St. Louis desperately seeking refuge from the Nazis illustrates that few were willing to question Nazi domestic policy, let alone help its victims. The ship was turned away in Cuba and then at the Florida coast. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did nothing. After returning to Europe, more than 250 of the 900 Jewish refugees were murdered by the Nazis.
Importantly, Owens highlights the taboo inherent in recounting the positive aspects of Hitler’s impact on Germany. But this taboo restricts a thorough understanding of why Hitler and the Nazis were able to accomplish what they did. Hitler was evil, but evil was not the reason for his success. Hitler received significant support from ordinary Germans (he got 37% of the vote in the 1932 presidential election, but was never “elected”). And many in the West heaped praise on him, including the following from John F. Kennedy on a trip to Germany in 1937: “I have come to the conclusion that fascism is right for Germany and Italy. What are the evils of fascism compared to communism?”
Kennedy’s praise was no doubt driven by economic facts on the ground. Germany’s economy was in a shambles in 1932 with over 6 million unemployed. By the late 1930s, Hitler and the Nazis had virtually wiped out unemployment through a series of social, economic, and military programs designed to prepare the country for war. Hitler and the Nazis also made it a priority to improve German infrastructure, as anybody who has ever traveled on Germany’s vaunted autobahn knows. In the scientific field, the Nazis funded the work of Wernher von Braun that led to the development of the V-2 terror weapon that killed over 2700 English citizens. After the war, von Braun – a Nazi party and SS member – was miraculously able to reinvent himself as the head of NASA. In the US, at least, he is much better known for the moon landing than the thousands of civilians killed by indiscriminate V-2 attacks.
Nevertheless, Hitler’s atrocities completely negate any short-term positive gains on the Nazi road to Götterdämmerung. Consequently, journalists and politicians rightfully lambasted Owens for praising Hitler’s nationalism.
But what if Owens had cited other examples of strong leaders who committed grave human rights abuses on the way toward domestic improvement? For example, if Owens referred to Belgium King Leopold’s horrendous rape of the Congo that left an estimated 10 million Congolese dead, would journalists and Twitter pundits possess the historical perspective to understand how grievous that reference would have been? Had Owens chosen Churchill as an example, would there have been any outcry regarding his genocidal decision to use lethal gas against civilians in Iraq in the 1920s, stating, “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against the uncivilized tribes… it would spread a lively terror.”
Given numerous other legitimate examples Owens could have cited to speak positively about nationalism (Napoleon and Ataturk immediately come to mind), her use of Hitler was disgusting. However, it opens up an important issue regarding why some historical figures are fine to cite while others must never be touched. Examining the reasons makes for a revealing exercise in determining how and why we shape our historical context.
Hitler is the pinnacle of “no go” positive comparison, though negative ones abound. Depending on one’s perspective, however, a quick look around a western Humanities classroom might also yield some discomfort. Though the Union Jack and Old Glory represent progress, they also represent the murderous price of that progress. And on many walls there is the ubiquitous mug of Che Guevara, a blood thirsty misogynist whose sadism is sadly romanticized.
Making positive comparisons to Hitler should always be condemned. But perhaps Owens’s misguided statement can help journalists, government officials and teachers see the uncritical stance we too often take regarding other leaders in order to falsify, exaggerate or outright lie about the past to further a political agenda.