Weimar Turmoil and Racial Incitement

Joseph Goebbels faced a significant challenge when he accepted a prominent party posting in Berlin in October of 1926. While the Nazi party had some strength in the south and north of Germany, it had virtually no support in the capital, where the Social Democrats and Communists effectively competed in elections but the public barely knew the National Socialists existed. Goebbels set out to change this by staging provocations against his political adversaries, marching his uniformed followers into their political strongholds, forcing a response, drawing their protest, and thereby winning free publicity. When the Nazis were portrayed as a growing menace in the opposition press, this only served to enhance the image of the movement Goebbels was working to build. To further publicize the movement he founded a weekly newspaper, Der Angriff (The Attack) and used it to promote the party's vision.

In no small part due to his aggressive tactics, the streets of Berlin became scenes of political violence. Communist and National Socialist activists frequently brawled, and these brawls occasionally resulted in fatalities. As the Berlin police sought to stem the violence, Goebbels denounced them as agents of "The System" that both he and his communist adversaries were seeking to destroy. Goebbels worked to discredit the police by portraying them as little more than tools of Jewish interests deployed to squelch the true German spirit while simultaneously portraying National Socialist thugs as persecuted victims of "The System" he accused the police of serving. The demonization of law enforcement was a key to weakening the hated Weimar Republic; it also legitimated the comprehensive political rejection that National Socialism represented.

Goebbels was master of media manipulation who knew how to turn even the deaths of his own followers to significant political advantage. When National Socialist activists died in street fighting they were hailed as martyrs to the cause. For Goebbels, a dead activist remained useful as a rallying point around which the movement could coalesce; the deceased could stand as an example of the selfless devotion the movement claimed to inspire. He proved to be highly adept at delivering funeral orations; one might even say he never let a death go to waste.

Despite the ultimate defeat of the regime he served, the techniques of political warfare Goebbels pioneered remain powerful and effective, especially when they go unrecognized and unchallenged. While each nation's experience is unique, there is a certain malevolent logic at work in every totalitarian critique of the status quo, and parallels are apt to suggest themselves wherever such critiques are made. The anti-Semitic denunciation of an amorphous enemy  ("The System") used by Goebbels as shorthand to identify the Weimer Republic as an illegitimate Jewish imposition on a hapless Germany has its contemporary echo in the charge of "systemic racism" leveled against the United States. With everything from the American founding to the use of innocuous phrases like "master bedroom" denounced as a cleverly disguised racist impositions, "systemic racism" serves to identify a persistent, ubiquitous, and yet highly nebulous enemy -- an enemy whose depredations (which we are assured may be found everywhere and at all times) must be aggressively exposed and denounced, though the enemy itself can never be concretely defined or precisely pinned down. As grounds for protest, "systemic racism" is little more than a ready-made catch-all trotted out as needed to fuel politically useful racial paranoia which the critical racist may then wield as a weapon against anything deemed deserving of devastating condemnation. As a politico-rhetorical weapon, critical race theory bears some likeness to anti-Semitism.  

The parallels do not end there. The American media's recent treatment of law enforcement also reminds one of the political climate of Weimar Germany. The portrayal of  law enforcement as little more than a uniformed band of unregenerate racists reminds us of Goebbels' characterization of the Berlin police as agents of hidden Jewish interests. The deliberate defamation of law enforcement using isolated incidents cynically woven into a critical racist narrative is one of the most shameful episodes in recent American history. To those of us who remember the public appreciation heaped upon "first responders" in the wake of the attacks of 9/11, the current effort to poison the public mind against these same first responders is nothing short of astounding. Yet it makes a certain sense -- if one thinks like Goebbels. While there may be a variety of motives at work, one could surmise, for example, that if one wished to centralize political authority and saw a need to establish a national police force in place of local police forces, what better way to justify this than by denouncing the latter as irredeemable racists in need of replacement?

Then there are the martyrs. In its role as amplifier of grievance, our shamelessly politicized media can be relied upon to continue parading before the public that hallowed list of names said to belong to martyrs of systemic police racism -- names one cannot fail to notice are made up almost entirely of politically unaffiliated thugs posthumously recruited into a political cause to which they had no connection in life. These morbid commemorations remind us of the worshipful treatment of the putatively heroic martyrs of the National Socialist movement on the occasion of their deaths. Taken as episodes of political theater, these funerary performances aren't so much intended to honor the dead or comfort their families as to indict the hated enemy and incite resistance to it, an aim Goebbels would certainly recognize; he understood the value of clarity, and he well knew that the world is so much less confusing when viewed through the lens of hateful oversimplifications. And so these names have been (and no doubt will continue to be) invoked to justify, even sanctify, episodes of rioting and widespread political violence. Criminality, then, in all its spontaneous ugliness, is conflated with legitimate political protest. The original criminal act is excused if the "martyred" criminal's race serves to advance the preferred political agenda, and mob violence is then effectively encouraged to support that agenda, which may in its turn be excused as a reasonable response to an intolerable outrage. Still, the martyrs themselves often seem to be victims of tragic circumstances rather than advocates of any political program, their elevation to martyr status purely a function of their race. Criminals of color that are killed in confrontations with white police officers serve to drive the narrative that any such outcome must be a racist act, and so virtually any criminal of color that happens to meet his end as a consequence of police intervention is a candidate for the list. The exploitation of tragedy for political gain is undoubtedly a practice as old as political life itself, and Goebbels was a highly skilled practitioner of this dark art; he eagerly sought political benefit even in the death of his own political partisans, but at least, unlike the American left, he wasn't a grave robber.

Recommended further reading: Lemmons, Russel, Goebbels and Der Angriff (Lexington, 1994)

Image: Heinrich Hoffman

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