Hitler's Evil Twin

I drafted this post a while ago, but hadn't published it yet.  I was holding back for a number of reasons.  For one I didn't have many entries and didn't want to get away from the strict science orientation of the blog (although I think there are themes in here that matter to science).  For another I didn't want it to accidentally go viral and have people misinterpreting the below.  Finally, I've been hearing rumors of Nazi sympathizers doing horrible things in Germany and I didn't want to get into any kind of ongoing Nazi debate on the internet.

Why did I finally publish it?  Well, there are only about 6,000 neo-Nazis in Germany out of a population of over 82 million people, and I have a policy of not letting the tiny number of neo-Nazis steer my thoughts and actions.

It seems everywhere I go on the internet people are talking about Hitler and Nazis, so it's not like you can avoid it.  And despite a lot of historical hindsight and, "yes, but in the Nazis' time [X], which explains how [Y] happened!" kind of insight, I still feel like everything I read is missing the point in some fundamental ways.

Everything's coming up roses Nazis :(

With that as preamble, let's talk about Hitler.  Because since the 1930's everyone has been talking about Hitler, pretty much all the time.  And for good measure, we'll throw in some Nazis.

From Peter Jackson's excellent game Munchkin

Why do people talk about this subject so much?  Maybe it's because it's a horrific tale of human tragedy, where ordinary people joined in and helped slaughter their neighbors.  Yet the Holodomor happened at nearly the same time in the Ukraine and most people have never even heard of it.  This was a systematic, intentional slaughter of millions of people.  The pictures that survived are horrific.  It was coordinated by a totalitarian dictator and supported by the victims' neighbors - who later themselves became victims.  It has the same classic elements as the Holocaust, so why is it obscure history but the Holocaust is frequently brought up by politicians making inappropriate references?  Just like the Holocaust, the Holodomor was well-documented at the time and has been researched ever since.  There are even whole nations who've denied it ever happened, and people who go around saying it was a hoax.  It happened in a historically similar time and place to the Holocaust.  Why the fixation on one event, but not the other?

I think there's something about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis that remains disturbingly unexplained for most people.  If I describe how Stalin starved the Ukraine while exporting grain from that same country, you can chalk it up to how horrible Stalin was, and how he had an iron grip on power.  Russian communism was brutal, and given the circumstances under which it took power, it's easy to see how we got from the Tzars to the gulags.  That story makes sense.  Even before you learn all the details, you get comfortable with the progression of events.  You can be comfortable with a world where one group of people starved and murdered another group of people, because you can understand the lies and false beliefs that led to it.

But how do you explain the Holocaust?  Going into WWI, Germany was where great science happened in Europe.  Even leading up to WWII Germany was respectable, even if they did some terrible things during the Great War to stir up menace, many of those reports were exaggerated anyway.  How could so many people continue to cheer on a madman when they had to know what he was doing behind a very thin curtain?  This is the question, and I think the reason we keep accusing each other of going down the same road the Nazis did.  We don't know how they went so quickly from nice people to "literally Hitler", so we don't know if ... maybe? ... we're going down that same road.

One problem with the all-too-frequent references to Hitler and Nazis is that they erase all sense of meaning about who Hitler and the Nazis were and what they stood for.  These terms have become a general superlative to mean "the worst ever", so pulling meaning back out becomes difficult the more the terms is inflated away from its original context.    When "I don't like the way you think" becomes synonymous with "You are literally Hitler, and your supporters are Nazis" we've strayed far from actual historical comparisons.  This is especially jarring when a group that was a target of Nazi purges is accused of being Nazi.

So what is the popular conception of who Hitler was?  Most of the time, when I see people describing Nazis they see Hitler as some mega-maniacal sociopath who imposed a warped personal view of pure "Arians" and irrationally demonized Jews - possibly stemming from some personal hatred.  Through relentless propaganda, Hitler's personal prejudices were hammered into the souls of previously non-racist Germans.  This eventually wore them down until they just went along with his crazy schemes.  They were blinded by Hitler's charisma and somehow didn't see the evil inherent in his plans until they were already complicit.  At that point, they were too far in to resist anymore and they went along with the killing through pure inertia.  This eventually created a system that ran under its own evil power and took over society in a way that was bent on world domination and genocide.

The problem with this story is that it's so far from normal human experience that it doesn't make sense.  There are too many questions about how this could possibly have happened.  For example, how did Hitler push all this propaganda to the point where people were literally okay with murdering millions of people?  The usual story is that it was both relentless and gradual, but that's kind of a contradiction.  How could the messages be so relentless that people couldn't help but ignore them, but also so innocuous that people didn't notice?  How could Hitler sneak in these messages gradually over time, yet he started out as a pariah in prison only a few short years earlier?  This didn't happen over decades or centuries, like the rivalries between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.  It was too quick for this 'gradual' story to be believable.

But if we reject the standard story we come back to this fundamental problem: how do we explain how polite German society was so completely co-opted by evil?  Hitler was terrible, but there are scores of horrible leaders we can name from the past.  The real question is how was he so persuasive?  Indeed, not only were the regular citizens caught up in the horror, the intellectual classes and even the scientists bought into it at the highest levels!

Though not everyone was a Nazi, the ideology became so universally accepted that when they started murdering people en masse the public outcries and demonstrations we'd normally expect from such audacious behavior didn't happen.  The implication is that it could just as easily happen to us if we're not vigilant against it, so we have to decry Nazi tendencies as soon as possible so we don't end up accidentally going there.  If there really was some secret to Nazi propaganda that was both subtle and strident, both relentless and invisible, how do we defend against that?

The implication is that any society anywhere could be caught up in a similar trap unless they exercise constant vigilance against the extremists in their midst.  This in turn leads to the idea of the Overton Window, where some ideas are so horrible we can't even discuss them in polite society lest we inadvertently stumble into popular support of a murderous totalitarian regime.  This response is understandable.  If we don't know what caused the awful Nazification of Germany, we also don't know how to prevent it.  Thus, the need for extreme caution and eventually the tired trend of everyone calling everyone else a Nazi.

But maybe the reason the standard narrative is incomprehensible isn't because 'it could happen anywhere'.  It's because we've lost some crucial historical context about what Everybody Thought 80 years ago, but which went without saying.  The problem with things everyone takes for granted is that if we're going back to piece things together we can easily miss the part everyone knew, but didn't need to call out.  This 'missing piece' solves the riddle of how Nazi ideology led to the horrors of the Holocaust, without resorting to vague ideas about human psychology.

And maybe, if we can understand what happened, we can finally get past it and stop calling each other Hitler.

How did they Justify the Unjustifiable?

It's true Hitler didn't like Jews for personal reasons, but as I said that's only the uninteresting half of the story.  The other part of why he hated Jews was because anti-semitism was culturally acceptable in the Germany of his day.  And although he was more than happy to get behind his scientists when they wanted to exterminate all the Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, etc.; the idea of targeting these specific groups didn't come from Hitler or the Nazis.  He followed, rather than led, the fashion of his day.  This seems odd to us today, because it feels like the lesson of the last century is that if we can stop the next 'Nazi' group, or keep another Hitler form rising to power, we'll inoculate ourselves from extremism.  But that's the wrong lesson, if any, to learn from that crisis.

How did it become fashionable to seek extermination of whole classes of people?  Believe it or not, it came from bad science.  Specifically, it came from a bad scientific theory that was broadly believed.  One of  the most accepted "scientific" theories at the time was called eugenics.  Most people today have heard about this theory, but it's been long enough since it was mainstream that we've lost touch with what 'eugenics' actually meant to the people of the day.  So at the risk of this post becoming like a Russian nesting doll situation, we need to look closer at what it meant to believe in eugenics.
The main idea behind eugenics came about because of the following question: Why are White Europeans doing so well?  From the context of the Europeans asking this question, they'd just experienced an age of conquest where whole continents fell to superior technology.  They introduced mathematics and writing to indigenous people around the globe, but for the most part didn't see an equivalent flow of technology and culture in the opposite direction.  (Please note that there was technology and culture to flow the opposite direction but it was often ignored due to bias or other reasons.  To understand the origin and persuasive power of the theory in question, it's important to understand what the people perceived, even as we understand that perception was limited and inaccurate.)

From their vantage point humanity had reached a peak of social progress.  This peak was clearly evident in white, developed societies like those of the Germans, British, and Americans.  Everywhere else around the world people were living in abject poverty and had no way to progress except by the generosity of the 'more civilized', 'advanced cultures'.  Just look at Africa, South America, or Asia of 1700-1900 in contrast to Europe and North America.  There was simply no comparison, and scientists of the day attributed these differences to racial distinctions, since clearly at the time only white nations had successfully modernized.  (This ignores the major discoveries advanced by, for example, Middle-Eastern cultures, Chinese culture, ancient American cultures, etc.  Again, the collection of evidence was biased but the question, "why are they doing so much better than everyone else" was of significant concern to the people at the time.  It had been debated for many decades before Hitler came around.)

To the people interested in this question, the perceived technological and political superiority represented an advancement in the human race.  They developed a theory that Europeans created advanced society due to genetic differences between themselves and every other 'race'.  What was their answer to the question, "Why are white people so successful?"

"Because white people are uniquely capable of producing civilization."  Without white people, the rest of the world would look like ... well, like it had before white people came a-conquering.

There was a problem, though.  Those unsuccessful races have looked at the advancement of successful white races and they want a piece of it.  (For the purposes of eugenicists, this included Jews, homosexuals, and anyone who could conceivably be viewed as having a negative genetic pedigree, based on their heavily biased criteria.)  'Degenerate races' have been invading white societies, and breeding!  In this case, the word 'degenerate' literally meant 'less genetically advanced' to their way of thinking.

The 'problem' of interbreeding is concerning if you believe that white genes are the reason for societal advancement.  Serious scientists argued that without a strong genetic representation of white people the current level of civilization would collapse.  'Degenerate' people were breeding their inferior genetic material into the white gene pool, they thought.  They argued that genetic contamination would prove the downfall of civilization itself!  To them this was an existential threat to modernity: foreign, inferior races contaminating the only gene pool capable of sustaining civilization.  If nothing was done about the problem it would destroy all progress as we know it, and we would devolve to brute beasts.  (In retrospect this is obviously dumb, but that's because we benefit from hindsight.)

(Since this is the internet and people are crazy about this kind of thing, let me be clear: none of this is my belief.  Most of it is based on spurious correlations, and I will write in future posts about why this kind of thinking inevitably leads to gross errors of exactly this sort.  If you quote me using the above paragraphs out of context, may you burn in hell.  Ditto if you try to use the above to revive the discredited theory of eugenics.)

As you can see, eugenics wasn't so much about creating a "master race" as much as it was about defending against a perceived racial invasion from outsiders.  In Germany and elsewhere this was established before Hitler came to power.  It was the scientific consensus at that time, without Hitler making any grand speeches.  We often think of Hitler using his popularity to promote things like antisemitism, but it was the other way around.  Hitler used the prejudices that against these groups that already existed to propel his own personal popularity.  He said things people already believed to gain support.  And eugenics was widely believed.  Academic institutions had for decades been pushing the idea that the groups of people Nazis later targeted were dangerous to society as a whole - and needed to be dealt with as soon as possible.

Eugenics wasn't just mainstream in Germany.  It was mainstream everywhere.  For comparison, not believing in eugenics in the 1930's was like saying you don't believe in the theory of evolution today.  (I don't have a problem with evolution, so please don't draw unnecessary parallels here.  Just because one popular theory was false and immoral doesn't mean all of them are.)  The point of the analogy is that to deny eugenics and its predictions was, at the time, to put yourself solidly at odds with the consensus of all serious scientists worldwide.

Denial meant not being taken seriously, and going directly against all academics.  In the US, eugenics resulted in movements like mandatory sterilization programs.  It inspired Margaret Sanger to found Planned Parenthood, because she wanted to counteract what she saw as an alarming trend of black women having lots of children while white women had fewer and fewer children.  In her mind this was a crisis of genetic fitness.  You could characterize these movements as racist, but that's inadequate to describe the overall feeling people had.  Racism was probably a factor, but it doesn't exactly explain things like sterilization of intellectually stunted white people, or targeting of poor people generally.  Deep down these initiatives were motivated by fear.  This same thinking was what fundamentally drove the Nazi exterminations.

German science in the 1930's was understood to be really good - in keeping with a long tradition of German excellence in science.  The theory they were following, which would later be credited with setting back German science by decades, was simply a thorough application of a generally accepted scientific theory.  In other words, it wasn't Hitler who destroyed German science with his crazy ideas.  It was a plausible-sounding theory (plausible to people of the day, at least) that was actually very wrong.

A ship full of Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany famously went around to other nations asking them to take them in.  They were refused by every nation the boat visited, including the US.  Nobody else wanted an influx of "degenerates", and for the same reason Hitler was trying to get rid of them: their genes were viewed as catastrophic to any society that accepted them.  After this, Hitler began to eliminate "degenerates" through alternate, notorious means.

The War Through a Eugenics Perspective

This explanation also helps us to understand the motivations of Hitler and his scientists in the waning days of the war.  As early as 1943, it became clear the Nazis had no path to victory.  Hitler achieved most of his victories through lightning-fast attacks that threw his opponents off guard, not through overwhelming force over a prolonged campaign.  When his ability to use quick surprise attacks disappeared, the only rational path forward for him was to work toward a negotiated peace.

For example, Germany could have saved many of their own citizens and lots of post-war pain by ending hostilities and retreating a bit (probably keeping much of their conquered territory) once the tide turned against them.  Instead of a prolonged and unwinnable war in Russia, they could have used their fierce reputation to keep their war gains and rewrite the map of Europe.  Yet Germany would continue to fight on for an additional two years after all hope of victory was lost.  Some of Hitler's supporters famously turned against him, and attempted an assassination and a coup (there were many assassination attempts).

There were a couple of attempts by rational people to end the war and declare defeat before things got too bad.  Meanwhile, Hitler didn't slow down his extermination program, despite the war effort crumbling around him.  He didn't divert resources from the concentration camps toward the war effort.  He doubled down, diverting scarce resources from the war toward his counterproductive killing campaign.

This makes no sense if all Hitler wanted was world domination.  How could Hitler be a military genius, incredibly persuasive, and super dumb?  That makes no sense.  It does make sense, though, when we understand that Hitler and his scientists were in the grip of a theory that transcended the war.  For eugenicists, this was about the survival of civilization itself.  They convinced Hitler that the path to ultimate German victory was by purifying German society of all corrupting genetic influences.  When success in the war became unattainable, success in the struggle to purge Germany became more important.

Hitler kept complaining that the war was caused by controlling Jewish influence in the US and England.  In his mind, the fall of civilization predicted by his scientists was imminent.  Jews were advocating pluralism in the West, and Egalitarianism in the East - both ideas that would accelerate 'degenerate' contamination.  He couldn't prevent defeat in WWII, but he could prepare Germany for the future genetic global conflict.  Even though he was sure to lose this war, he would one day be celebrated by the German people for cleansing their society - exactly the opposite of what other, 'misguided' countries were doing.  This was the "greater", long-term conflict Hitler wished to win.  The Allies might win WWII, but eugenics predicted they would collapse under the genetic corruption at their core.  German civilization, the theory predicted, would ultimately survive because of the relentless hard work of the Nazis.  The obvious irony here is that the reason for Hitler's archetypal infamy is the exact reason he thought he would be praised by future generations.

How to Not Be a Nazi

There are a couple of things we can learn from this example.  Strikingly, none of them seem to be anything people use Hitler or Nazis for today.
  • A persuasive leader doesn't impose his vision onto the masses.  The masses impose their vision onto a sufficiently persuasive leader.  When enough people believe something is true, a persuasive leader can implement the unholy will of the masses - unless he is checked by institutional barriers.  It would be wise, then, to guard against replacing institutional barriers against the tyranny of the majority with discretion by elected leaders (remember Hitler was elected and popular).  Destroying protections of minority voices - of any kind - prepares the way to atrocities.
  • A persuasive theory can have devastating impacts on society and the world.  It's easy to look at population-wide or epidemiological evidence and think we know something profound.  The problem with this pattern of extrapolation followed by implementation is that the part of the scientific method that is easiest is the "formulate a hypothesis" step.  The human brain is really good at recognizing patterns and assigning causality.  The genius of the scientific method is how it can channel that natural tendency toward eliminating wrong hypotheses.  Unfortunately, even among good scientists there's a tendency to believe a hypothesis before gathering new evidence.  Even contrary evidence can be explained away.  "The experiment wasn't well-controlled."  "The methodology was flawed."  "The effect isn't detectable at small scales, it should be implemented more broadly."  This bias problem is a constant battle.  There are a million ways to rationalize why your idea must be right, and anyone who disagrees must be wrong.  After all, the theory is so beautiful and explains so much complexity it has to be true.  This creates stealth ideology you can't even personally recognize.  You think you're the only one working from sound scientific principles.  In the case of eugenics, the theory was really difficult to falsify.  Think about it: besides showing the logic is highly flawed, how can you disprove the theory experimentally, short of doing massive society-wide experiments over the course of decades?  Even then, it wasn't the evidence against eugenics that convinced scientists to abandon it.  It was abandoned long before the evidence came in, because it was revealed to be morally wrong.
  • Hitler was a popular demagogue with an ax to grind.  Nazis were a natural outgrowth of popular concepts that came directly from academia.  This theory was spurred on in the popular imagination by fomenting in-group/out-group dynamics and then letting them fester.  If this happens again, it probably won't come from some unpopular idea that suddenly gains popularity in some inexplicable way.  It will come because a series of long-held popular beliefs are finally unleashed and allowed to remake society after their ideals.  Think the world would be a better place without [insert political party here]?  Maybe the only reason we aren't reliving the horrors of WWII is because of that group of people you compared to Hitler and the Nazis.
Do we see this today?  I think it's easy to see trends of this on the political Right and Left.  Calling someone who disagrees with you a fascist or a Nazi is ironically similar to what the Nazis and fascists did to create the murderous dynamic in the first place.  Whether you're railing against immigrants or neo-Nazis, the script is the same.  There is some scary group of people invading society and if we don't act vigorously in our own defense civilization itself will be lost.  Fear is the motivating principle.

The Nazis were known to secretly frame their opposition by creating fake 'supporters' who said and did things no normal person could condone.  This has interesting parallels to modern trends of smear campaigns, which create fake digital (and sometimes real) 'supporters' of various causes and then have them say outrageous things.  This is used to paint otherwise-understandable political disagreements as crazy right-wing/left-wing people who are the proverbial enemy that will bring society down in flames.  We dismiss the worst arguments of the other side (instead of engaging with their best ideas) and are led to believe they are an open threat to society (instead of a valuable resource whose contributions should be embraced).

But the infamous tyrants of yesteryear weren't anything like the crazy astro-turf comments being trotted out as typical examples of "why we need to do something about this".  Those tyrants were horrible, but the thing that makes them scary is how very understandable they really were.  The phenomenon that led to concentration camps wasn't some freak accident, where a sociopath randomly came to power and somehow magically imposed his crazy vision on a broken nation.  If that were the case, the easy lesson to learn would be "make sure you don't put sociopaths in power."  And although that's probably a good heuristic, it's not going to save the world from the next Hitler.

The problem with Hitler was that he played on the exact fears and concerns people already had.  They're concerns we still have about the fragility of modern society.  His agenda exactly matched the agenda of the most solidly agreed-upon scientific consensus of the day.  He didn't co-opt the state, so much as agree to everything, with the absolute power to implement it all.  How do we stop that situation from happening again?

EDIT: A previous version of this article inaccurately labelled the movement 'social Darwinism', but the correct term is 'eugenics'.  Although there is a version of eugenics that is forward-looking (trying to create a 'master race') here I focused on the argument many contemporary observers from 1900-1939 would have recognized as the emergency imperative eugenics predicted.  To anyone who still thinks eugenics is even slightly a good idea, I am working on another post that should put that idea to rest.  Until then, consider whether inbreeding (intentionally shrinking genetic diversity) is good a strong long-term genetic strategy.


  1. "Before exterminating Jews, Hitler famously loaded a large number of people onto a boat and sent it around to other nations asking them to take them in, because he didn't want them. They were refused by every nation the boat visited, including the US." I seem to remember that Hitler initially just wanted to expel the Jews but this section seems to imply that the German government under Hitler's direction tried to send a boatload of Jews away as some sort of pilot program, or in some Machiavellian scheme to be able to later say, "Hey we tried to just expel them, but nobody wanted them!" But if this is the incident you're describing:


    Then there doesn't appear to be any evidence of the refugee boat being a Nazi initiated effort. Or am I missing some other incident?

    As far as your analysis, I would like to see it applied more directly to what's happening currently. You did some of that, but I would have liked more specificity.

    1. Thanks for the correction. I updated the post to take out Hitler as the direct cause of the voyage. I doubt Hitler would have tried to cover his tracks in the way you suggest, because he thought the science placed his actions on the moral high ground already. He wasn't trying to apologize for what he was doing.

      As to applicability, I'd say we're taking all the wrong lessons from history, expecting it to repeat instead of just rhyme.

      In context, social Darwinism was competing with an older theory that white people had a responsibility to 'civilize' other people. (Racial equality separated by circumstances was, unfortunately, not a major competing theory for the differences in transnational prosperity.) This competing theory 'failed' given the decline of the British empire, whereas the American experience seemed to 'prove' that the only viable way to continue civilization was through extermination, otherwise the conquering would happen in the other direction. Thus, the race war rhetoric. Not just Hitler, but most scientists at the time would view the Planet of the Apes scenario to be a natural outgrowth of doing nothing - or 'worse' integration. Thankfully, neither of those theories is alive today.

      Instead, many people see current political tensions as irreconcilable. More than that, people on both the right and left seem to think the other side isn't just wrong, but liable to destroy all civilization as we know it.

      I have good friends on both sides who can agree this rhetoric is happening, "but in my case it's true that if they get their way it will destroy society." The problem really isn't with one side or the other, it's with the perception that we can't get along because both sides are only willing to engage with the worst arguments of the other.

      Take the alt right as an example. An alt right sympathizer once tried to explain his position to me. It wasn't "exterminate the Jews", so much as, "racially mixed societies don't work; the only solution is racial segregation" mixed with some paranoia about Jews having the ability to steer global events. How popular is the alt right idea about "white superiority"? Vanishingly small. How popular is their idea about "racial incompatibility" and a rejection of pluralism? I'd say that, like the actual Nazi example, it's so common that it's not even really their idea. Just one they coopted to their worldview.


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