What an astounding article from Harper's archives. Written in 1941 by Dorothy Thompson, the article is an early dissection of the Nazi regime but, more importantly, of the fact that nationalist fascism and state-level politics driven by "othering" can (and will) happen anywhere that it is allowed to. It's beautifully written and incredibly pertinent. From the suggestion that those who are "too young" to remember the Great War are those most willing to take part or most easily blinded to the issues that Nazism presents, to the idea that simply plying people with healthiness and education without equally administering to "the soul" (i.e. morals and ethics) leads to a naive and childish world view.
Nazism has nothing to do with race and nationality. It appeals to a certain type of mind.
The bulk of the piece is a thought experiment around a dinner party in America. The characters are an amazing assortment of people, each immediately recognisable as both a stereotype and also eerily similar to someone you know. Not one of them is perfectly encapsulated and what Dorothy does so well is to split out each trope into the sinister and the pleasant, whilst showing that even those who would never "go Nazi" may have less-than-ideal characteristics, and that's kind of the point.
The rich are picked apart into those who would "defend America" out of a kind of racist, American-elitism; those that have come from generations of elite and simply can't comprehend a system where their status is questioned; those who have fought for their position from poverty and ultimately hate both themselves and the privileges of their peers, who would turn to Nazism as a way to get even; and those who are simply rich through good fortune and knowing when to bend a knee, who would chase power. She says of the third:
But Mr. C is not a born Nazi. He is the product of a democracy hypocritically preaching social equality and practicing a carelessly brutal snobbery... He would laugh to see heads roll.
Most sinisterly is the fourth rich man, the "spoiled son of a doting mother" who has always had his way, so spends life pushing the boundaries to see if they truly exist. He is considered one of the two "only born Nazi in the room". The other is a trade unionist or labour lawyer, someone who has made a living representing the working man, but who ultimately is a borderline eugenicist and secret Antisemite; someone who believes in the "strong leading the weak".
Of the women, she speaks of "Mrs E" who is so cowed by her husband as to believe herself subservient, yet so ignored that she would leap at the ideal of Nazism. There's more than a little of the "Ladys for Trump" brigade about her:
She will titillate with pleased excitement to the first popular hero who proclaims the basic subordination of women.
And on it goes. She looks at the people who are working at the party and how, even here, there are tiers of snobbery and elitism; the different Jewish communities and how some are driven by fear or internalisation of their own othering (or likely both) to renounce themselves and side with their destroyers, whilst others can see the reality and know there is nothing they can do
In the middle is the young German, a perfect Aryan figure, eyed with caution by everyone there. He is the least Nazi in the room, because he has seen the ideology with his own eyes. He has educated himself on American politics, Greek philosophy, and utterly believes in democracy. His friends all "went Nazi" and he now spends his nights helping build plane parts to ensure that they never make it across the Atlantic.
The people in the room think he is not an American, but he is more American than almost any of them. He has discovered America and his spirit is the spirit of the pioneers.
The overall skewering of society still feels incredibly current, and it's a brilliant piece to read. Her conclusion may be a little black and white to me, but it's still a neat summation:
Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi... But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor
tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success—they would all go Nazi in a crisis. Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t-whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi.