I learnt from a German friend yesterday that Germans are afraid of waving their friends good-bye. Why? – because raising one’s arm at that height is too similar to the Hitler salute. That is how deep we’ve buried him. You can’t speak German in public as vigorously as him, wave like him, wear a moustache like him, you dare not even name your child Adolf which, until 1945, was a perfectly normal name to have in Germany. Have taken the demonization of Hitler too far?
Before I’m accused of giving his legacy a chance (which I most definitely am not), I’m just going to say that others have done worse or just as bad – Stalin, Mao, Hirohito, to mention a few. Why don’t we treat the legacy of these men as badly as we do Hitler when, after we examine the facts, we see that their actions towards humanity were just as sinister, profound, diabolical, and on even a greater scale than what Hitler did? If I walked down the streets of Bristol today and asked random people what they felt about Hirohito, they probably would not even know who he was. What about Stalin? They’d probably say ‘Russian guy right?’, ‘Communist and therefore bad…I think’, ‘Isn’t he the guy who….something to do with the Cold War?’ However, if I asked a random person on the streets how they felt about Hitler, I’d probably get a reply of certain and confident abhorrence. If I gave the Hitler salute I would expect many people to recognize what I did and be disturbed. Yet everywhere I go I see people who wear glasses like Hirohito and who have the silent and icy grin of Stalin. Why aren’t these items/features/behaviours treated with the same abhorrence?
The first lesson to learn if you ever want to do anything completely evil and still leave a legacy that is not completely negative, is don’t suffer a complete defeat. Hitler’s Nazi Germany was completely and utterly defeated, and he left himself no hope of leaving a positive legacy because he killed himself. Hirohito surrendered and could do just that, claiming ignorance to much of the evil of his generals (which I partly believe), not to mention the fact that he was a constitutional monarch and therefore might not have had that much power in the first place. Stalin and Mao were actually on the winning side in World War II. Their legacies achieved such greatness that they were ready to start another war against the very allies who helped them win in the Cold War.
The second lesson to learn is that, even in the celebrated age of science, scientism, and claimed objectivity, we are not creatures who are primarily persuaded by truth. We don’t abhor Stalin and Mao as we do Hitler because we are not taught to; it is not part of our culture, and culture is biased. After all, Hitler was probably Britain’s greatest ever menace, but then so was Stalin to so many in Eastern Europe including dozens of millions of Russians, and Hirohito was the menace to, say, the Chinese. Consider Mao’s Great Leap forward which left about 50 million corpses in its wake. We ascribe to the legacies we are taught, which smells of subjectivity and relativism.
Are we ever given the chance to step out of what our culture teaches us and think for ourselves? Who tells us who to love and hate, and how much to feel that way about certain people? Culture reproduces itself through information; through education. Our cultural gate-keepers control much of this. I personally find culture a constraint, and that is something to bear in mind the next time you make judgements on legacies. To say that I cannot wave like Hitler and then say that it’s ok to have the icy grin of Stalin is inconsistent for someone who wants to think for himself.
What is the solution? First, respect culture. It’s not the sort of thing that’s meant to make sense. All we know is it means a lot to its adherents, and its corollary sentiments runs deep. Secondly, never fear to ask questions about it when it comes to making your own personal judgements. Never! Thirdly, find people who think differently to you. It is one of the fastest ways of learning new things and getting closer to the truth. The aim of the ThinkCitizen is to have an accurate representation of reality before making judgements.