A specter haunts Europe—this time, not that of Communism, as the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto famously assert, but that of Adolf Hitler. Nearly three-quarters of a century after Hitler’s death, the mere mention of his name instills fear in disputants’ hearts and brings debate to a stop. The reductio ad Hitlerum is now the most powerful of rhetorical weapons; and the faintest, most far-fetched, or plainly false analogy of an idea or proposal to anything that Hitler said or did is often sufficient to discredit it. I doubt that there are many who, in the heat of an argument, have never scrupled to use it.
The reductio ad Hitlerum (or to Nazism, which, in effect, is the same thing, since without Hitler, there would have been no Third Reich) can be insinuated into the most arcane discussions. A few years ago, on a lecture tour in Germany, I had dinner at the home of the local representative of the group that had invited me. He was a cultivated, friendly man, born after the end of World War II, who ran a forestry company. That very afternoon, he confided, he had held a staff meeting to try to devise a company motto. Someone suggested Holz mit Stolz—“Wood with Pride”—and a two-hour argument ensued as to whether the word “pride” represented the first step on a slippery slope to Auschwitz.
I was astonished, since no one present at the meeting could possibly have been personally responsible for Nazism; but there are those, no doubt, who think that Nazism was the apotheosis of German history and that, for reasons deeply inscribed in Germany’s cultural DNA, it remains, and will forever remain, a danger there.
The story of the republishing of Mein Kampf in Germany is suggestive in this regard. Hitler’s book was not formally banned in the country, but the state of Bavaria held the copyright and, until it expired in 2015, never allowed a reprint. To preempt a surge of republication interest and sales once anyone could put out the book, the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, with a large subsidy from Bavaria, spent three years preparing a scholarly edition of 2,000 pages, with 3,500 footnotes. This edition was intended to achieve several contradictory ends: to limit purchases of the book by means of its high price while simultaneously satisfying and sapping demand for it, thereby discouraging publishers from putting forth other editions; to intimidate and perhaps bore readers with an overwhelming scholarly apparatus; and, finally, to demonstrate the absurdity, contradictions, nullity, staleness, and evil of Hitler’s ideas.
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