Nationhood becomes Nazism

Jonathan Schell

December 09, 1992|By Jonathan Schell

EUROPE is being haunted by the ghost of the most repulsive personality it ever produced, Adolf Hitler. The visitation could scarcely be more surprising. There are a few things that the world really does put behind it, and for more than a half a century, it looked as if National Socialism was one of them. Of all the world's political creeds, none was more thoroughly repudiated. Even in the hour of its success, Nazism lacked the intellectual respectability possessed by the other main organizing ideology of totalitarianism -- communism.

Hitler himself combined the horrifying with an ineradicable streak of the ridiculous. Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, the aristocratic resister of Nazism who was shot by the Gestapo in 1944, wrote in his diary in 1936 that he had once eaten in a restaurant at the same time as Hitler, and would, if he had guessed what Hitler's future was to be, have assassinated him. "But I took him for a character in a comic strip," he wrote, "and did not shoot."

To disrepute was later added the odium of utter defeat, in World War II. Yet today, in the wake of communism's downfall, Nazism is with us again. It is with us in Germany, where right-wing groups are waging a campaign of violence against foreign workers and where a caller, claiming responsibility for the recent murder of three Turkish women, shouted "Heil Hitler" into the phone. However, it is not in Germany -- where the majority still seems unenchanted by neo-Nazism -- that the spirit of Hitler is most virulently alive, but in Central Europe.

The term "ethnic cleansing" may be new, but the practice is not. Before hitting on the "final solution" to the "Jewish problem" (like "ethnic cleansing," Nazi phraseology often needs to be handled with the verbal tongs of quotation marks), Hitler considered mere expulsion of the despised minority. (Madagascar would be a good place for Jews to live, he thought at one point.) It was Hitler who, more than any other figure of our century, successfully taught and implemented the doctrine that certain types of people are garbage, and that by driving them out of your country, or by killing them, you can make yourself "clean" -- that mass murder is the path to "purity."

Even today, one is reluctant to enter into a discussion of Hitler's ideas, for fear of admitting them into respectable intellectual debate. Yet the fact is that they had roots in a certain intellectual tradition, and today that same tradition is putting forth new shoots.

Somewhere near the heart of the tradition is the idea that the defining feature of a nation should not be fundamental law, creating the basic rights and duties of all citizens who happen to live there, but membership in an ethnic group defined by language, tradition, religion or race. In a part of the world where such groups are geographically intermixed, such a definition of nationhood leads easily to "ethnic cleansing" (which expels non-members of the group from one's claimed territory) and aggression (which claims territory in other countries in which members of one's ethnic group happen to live). It was, in part, ambitions of this sort that led Romanians, Hungarians, Slovaks and Croatians to fight alongside Hitler in World War II.

The stubborn persistence of "ethnic cleansing" owes largely to the way it seems to flow logically from basic decisions about the nature of politics and government that are being made by more and more governments and would-be governments in Central Europe. Once you have said that your nation is Serb, or Croat, or Ossetian, or whatever, you have drawn boundaries that, instead of surrounding nations, run like patterns of cracked glass through towns, streets, even families. You have fashioned an invitation to civil war. The world is unlikely to see a revival of the National Socialist Party. But it has already seen a revival of the massacres that follow when the ideas on which that party was based are adopted again.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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