The title of this post was the underlying theme of a brilliant conference, “Peut-On Faire l’Histoire du Nazisme ?”, in 2015, by a Professor of History at the Sorbonne, Johann Chapoutot, one of the world’s top specialists in the history of the Third Reich. He gave substance to the well-known expression (quoted by celebrities like Bruce Lee and Peter Finch !), exploiting his vast erudition and speaking without notes for over an hour, to reveal how logical it was, given the historical context, that the German people (all famously accused by Daniel Goldhagen’s expanded doctoral thesis at Harvard, of being “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”) not only accept but applaud the author of “Mein Kampf”. In a nutshell, Chapoutot explains that Hitler made it possible for Germans to “faire le deuil”, “to complete their mourning”, for the tragedy of their disastrous defeat in World War 1. Hitler allowed them to get over it, to give themselves hope, a life and a future. The professor may not be aware of the reference, but Hitler did, after all, what forty years later the Catholic Church advocated in the Second Vatican Council : “The future belongs to those who provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping.” By restoring belief in the trilogy “Kaiser-Gott-Vaterland”, Chapoutot insists, the Führer succeeded in getting Germany to believe in itself again, to the point, for many, of accepting its destiny to become the unifier of Europe (if not leader of the world as its master-race). Rather than knee-jerk condemnation of the Third Reich, its monstrous Final Solution and racist planetary ambitions, we should, the Professor tells us, first “contextualize” the historical mentality that led to it. “Understand rather than judge” ? I would respond : “Not exactly. Understand BEFORE judging.”
To pursue my personal reflection, I must recall that Jesus’ injunction in Matt. 7:1-3, “Judge not, lest you yourself be judged”, has been grossly misunderstood. We should indeed hesitate before judging others, and pay attention to that beam in our own eyes rather than criticize people for the speck they have in theirs. We do not refuse to judge. Judging others – a necessary function in human society – is to be done, Jesus is saying, in a way we would like to be judged ourselves : fairly, justly, humanely. Pope Francis later clarified his famous “Who am I to judge ?”, when questioned about homosexuality : it is not the orientation that is “sinful”, he said, but the act. Many do not share his moral judgement, though it must be admitted that it was a step in the right direction. (A sort of “approbatio interrupta” ?)
The Sorbonne professor is not a revisionist. He is not suggesting that we should in any way condone the atrocities of National Socialism. I would like to believe that he is rather appealing for empathy with the German people whom we, their victors, were determined to make suffer a vengeance bordering on their extermination through the Treaty of Versailles. They had given Hitler the power he diabolically exploited to try to subject the world to his tyrannical dictatorship. But in the thirties they saw his vision as the restoration of their dignity and the only guarantor of their survival. We should understand this, BEFORE we judge them for their initial blindness and subsequent collaboration in attempting to make his perverse dream a reality.
I would add an updated footnote to all this, not mentioned by Johann Chapoutot. We should be careful, today, of comparing the crimes of Nazism with the terrorism of Daech and Al Qaïda. There is, in fact, no comparison between the secular fanaticism of the S.S. and that, religiously inspired, of radical, suicidal Islamist terrorists. The destruction of the Third Reich and the death of its founder put an end to Nazism and Hitler’s project of world domination. But even after the destruction of Daech’s strongholds, its ideology continues to spawn recruits. It is only when we begin to understand the origin of Islamist fanaticism that we will be able to eradicate its root causes. We need to understand not only before judging. We need to understand before we do anything.