What Is Political Sophistication?

by The New Republic Staff | September 24, 2006

by Jeffrey Herf

In this age of terror fueled by the ideology of Islamic extremism, some old insights of the liberal historiography of the roots and nature of Nazism remain relevant. In works published in the 1960s and 1970s, two of Nazism's preeminent historians, George Mosse in this country, and Karl Dietrich Bracher, in the Federal Republic of Germany made a similar point about the political significance of ideological fanaticism. Mosse did so in The Crisis of German Ideology, The Fascist Revolution, and other works in which he examined the popularization of extreme nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism. Bracher's contribution came in many works including The German Dictatorship, the now classic work on the collapse of the Weimar Republic, the Nazi entry into power in 1933 and the nature of the resulting regime, and a more recent essay collection, Turning Points in Modern History. These liberal historians wrote against the background of two forms of what Bracher called the underestimation of Hitler. The Communist parties dismissed the autonomous impact of ideas in history and politics and mistakenly viewed Hitler as merely a tool of German capitalists. The elites of German conservatism before 1933 and then the foreign policy establishment in England, France also failed to take Hitler's ideology as a serious guide to his policy. As Bracher put it, the history of National Socialism was also the history of its underestimation. To be sure, as Ian Kershaw in his magnificent recent biography of Hitler has pointed out, conservative elites at home and abroad supported Hitler because they agreed with some, at times quite a bit, of what he had to say. Yet for liberal historians the basic point remained intact: Winston Churchill was the exception who proved the rule regarding a widespread underestimation of the political impact of Hitler and National Socialist ideology. This underestimation, the refusal or inability to understand that Hitler meant what he said was thought to be a mark of political sophistication in the 1930s. Even during World War II, Franz Neumann, author of the Marxist classic, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism written while he was in the Research and Analysis Division of the OSS during World War II, concluded that the Nazis would not murder the Jews because they needed a live scapegoat to serve as a lightning rod for the frustrations generated by monopoly capitalism. On January 31, 1941, a day after Hitler repeated his infamous "prophecy" about exterminating the Jews of Europe, editors of The New York Times wrote that "if there is any guarantee in his record, in fact, it is that the one thing he will not do is the thing he says he will do." Both Neumann and the Times editors stood on long standing traditions that viewed ideas as instruments for other, more profound or real interests. The great classic of the postwar years which did take Nazi ideology seriously, Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism took specific issue with this liberal and left-wing reductionism. Arendt and for that matter FDR and Churchill, redefined the meaning of political sophistication so that it came to mean a willingness to pay very close attention to the ravings and rantings of political fanatics. In so doing, she implicitly reversed the meaning of sophistication and naïveté. It remains difficult for political and intellectual elites in liberal democracies to give fanaticism the causal impact it deserves. When Osama Bin Laden declared war on Americans and Jews in 1998, the Republican Party was so obsessed with the grave threat to national security posed by the stains on Monica Lewinsky blue dress that it tried to impeach Bill Clinton. Al Gore as Presidential candidate in 2000 had little to say about terrorism. The Bush team came into office focused primarily on the issue of the rising power of China. Though the Bush White House bears considerable responsibility for the collapse of bipartisanship in foreign affairs since 9/11, so too do the lingering habits of long outmoded political sophistication among liberals. On September 5, President Bush gave a sensible and factually accurate speech about what the radical Islamists believe. It makes for chilling but important reading. The response of many liberal commentators and politicians was to dismiss it as election year tactics. Lurking in these liberal impulses are the aftereffects of a habit of mind that finds it difficult to believe that radical Islamists actually believe what they say, despite the daily headlines they create of mayhem and murder. Yet now a leader of the government of Iran has said he wants to "wipe out" Israel and is thumbing his nose at international efforts to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The traditions of liberal historiography of the Nazi era have powerfully addressed the problem of underestimation. Frank and frequent talk about what the radical Islamists are saying should not be primarily the preoccupation of right of center politicians and journalists. As the impact of the Bush administration's misuse and misunderstanding of the American occupation of Germany on American policy in "postwar" Iraq has tragically indicated, comparisons and analogies need to be balanced with awareness of historical specificity of different times and places. Yet in order that the history of radical Islam not again be the history of its underestimation, liberals should foster a kind of political sophistication that rests on the lessons of this most famous previous case of underestimation of political fanaticism.

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