Underestimating Political Fanaticism

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THE SPINE SEPTEMBER 25, 2006

Underestimating Political Fanaticism

Jeffrey Herf, the eminent historian of modern Europe, with an emphasis on totalitarian Germany, is a long-time contributor to TNR. He is also on the "faculty" of our Open University blog, and yesterday posted a brief comment "What is political sophistication?" It seems to be just an historical observation about the underestimation by European elites of Hitler, in particular, and Nazism, in general. Herf writes about two scholars, Karl Dietrich Bracher, a professor in Germany whose work I do not know, and George Mosse, among the most provocative and influential intellectual historians, also of modern Europe. Until his death, Mosse was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and long-time contributor to TNR. (How subtle would have been his "Open University." Alas.) I know his corpus well.

In any case, Herf's posting on why so many did not recognize or wish to acknowledge the peril Nazism posed to civilization is well worth reading. But his real point seems to me to be the virtual identity of this phenomenon in the thirties and the eagerness of many right now to deny or underplay the menace that Ahmadinejad and, for that matter, Hugo Chávez are to liberal society. But, of course, not just the individuals but their thought, such as it is, and their reliance on the resentment of crowds for their power. One way of denying these is to place responsibility for these phenomenon on George W. Bush, as if--had John Kerry been elected--we'd not have heard of either Ahmadinejad or Chávez or the new alliance between terrorism and populism. And soon we'll be hearing that electing a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president would bring this all to a quick close.

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