The Nazi problem, a Stoic take
What should we do when faced with advocacy of Nazifascism?
Surprisingly, contemporary society seems to have a Nazi problem. I say surprisingly because you would think that, after World War II and the Holocaust, we would be done with that particular pernicious ideology. But, apparently, we are not.
From time to time, over the past several decades, both Germany and Italy have seen the occasional resurgence of overtly Nazifascist movements, sometimes in the form of violent protests enacted by misguided young people, at other times in the guise of thinly veined attempts to reconstitute the Fascist party, as was the case for the Movimento Sociale Italiano in Italy.
The United States has not been immune from the danger either. Nazism is popular enough in certain quarters of the hinterland that in the movie The Blues Brothers (1980) Jake and Elwood have some fun running a bunch of Illinois Nazi into a river.
More seriously, presumably we all remember the incident that took place in Charlottesville (VA) back in 2017, where one person was killed and 35 others injured at a rally held by White Supremacists. Not to mention, of course, the hideous history of the Ku Klux Klan, a quintessentially American fascist organization that has been responsible for hate crimes since the 1860s, immediately after the Civil War.
This essay is being published on my Substack newsletter, and the hosting platform has been at the center of a controversy triggered by an investigative article published in the Atlantic that pointed out that Substack has a (small) presence of Nazi sympathizers who make money out of their vile crap, with Substack enabling them while taking its usual cut.
Here I’d like to explore the problem of what to do with Nazifascism with the aid of Stoic philosophy and see where that may lead. I am specifically concerned with the question of whether and to what extent a Stoic should be tolerant of Nazifascism. Should we engage with Nazifascists in open discussion? Should we attempt to persuade them of the wrongness of their ways? Let’s see.
First, though, we should begin by clarifying what we are talking about. The Merriam-Webster defines Nazism in this fashion:
“The body of political and economic doctrines held and put into effect by the Nazis in Germany from 1933 to 1945 including the totalitarian principle of government, predominance of especially Germanic groups assumed to be racially superior, and supremacy of the führer.”
The M-W definition of fascism similarly reads:
“A political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti in Italy between 1920 and 1944) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”
If you compare the two definitions, you can see why I chose to talk of the more general issue of Nazifascism, a term actually in common use in continental Europe, rather than specifically of Nazism or Fascism. These two “philosophies” have the following elements in common:
(1) Advocacy of a form of autocratic government centered around a single strong man;
(2) A strong type of nationalism;
(3) Race supremacism;
(4) Intolerance and forcible suppression of any opposing viewpoint.
I sincerely hope we all agree that (1)-(4) make for the sort of society we don’t want and are in fact morally obligated to resist, if someone where to attempt to establish it. I will not argue the point, as I take it to be a self-evident no brainer.
Let us now get to Stoicism. The baseline Stoic attitude toward a Nazifascist has to be that these people are not evil, but rather misguided. Here is how Epictetus explains the point:
“‘Shouldn’t a thief or an adulterer be eliminated, just for being who he is?’ No, and you’d do better to phrase your question like this: ‘Should we do away with this person because he’s mistaken and misled about matters of supreme importance, and because he’s become blind—not in the sense that he’s lost the ability to distinguish white and black by sight, but because he’s lost the mental ability to distinguish good and bad?’ If you put the question like this, you’ll realize how inhumane it is, and see that it’s no different from saying, ‘So shouldn’t we kill this blind person, or this deaf person?’ If a person is injured most by the loss of the most important things, and if the most important thing in every individual is right will, what’s the point in getting angry with someone if he loses it?” (Discourses, I.18.5-8)
The Stoics assume, following Socrates, that people don’t do evil on purpose, but only as a result of ignorance of what is truly good. Nobody, not even Hitler or Mussolini, gets up in the morning, goes to the mirror, and asks his reflected image “What sort of evil can I do today?” while at the same time laughing the laugh of a Disneyesque villain. Hitler probably genuinely thought that the German people were superior to other “races” and that they deserved to dominate everyone else. Mussolini likely believed that fascism was the only viable solution to Italy’s post-WWI social and economic problems.