We call each other "Nazis." Why is that the quick-draw insult to hurl in modern American politics?
Why "Nazis" and not "commies," for instance? The communist governments in various lands have been just as deeply tainted by most of the atrocities charged to the Nazis (and some of them much more deeply). But when "commie" is used from the right, many Americans brush it off as a comical relic of McCarthyite extremism. For the left, the word perhaps involves uncomfortable and complex reactions from many folks on the left, who, McCarthyism or not, still haven't resolved the legacy of heroes of that wing of American politics who seemed to regard Stalin as trustworthy and America as evil.
But "Nazis" wouldn't have been the worst insult in America during World War II itself. It was the "treacherous" Japanese who blindsided us and brought the war to us, as Americans never forgot. It was 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were herded into internment camps on the basis of mere suspicion (similar internments were carried out in Canada, Mexico, and Peru), while no government body took action against the German-American Bund, which had openly advocated for Hitler until the outbreak of fighting.
The Japanese of Japan were ruthlessly dehumanized in American propaganda (they returned the favor). Ernie Pyle, having covered the war in Europe, transfered to the Pacific, and ultimately died there. In one of his first columns from the new theater, he wrote, "In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice."
The Allies had a policy of distinguishing between "good" and "bad" Germans. Our enemies usually were not "Germans," but "Nazis," or even "Hitler." But in the Pacific, it was "the Japs," or even "the Jap." Probably this was because of the Germans' nearness to us in race and culture. In the Pacific War, the good/bad dichotomy took place on the level of "Asian." The "good" Asians were the Chinese and the Filipinos -- on our side.
Yet "Nazi," in the words of Wolfgang Schivelbusch, "has held the supreme place of ontological evil in the American mind since 1945." The distinction of "Germans" and "Nazis" certainly is part of the reason. To call someone "Japanese" today, and mean it as any type of insult would be crudely racist, like similar uses of "Jew" or "Gypsy" or "Welsh" or "Dutch."
Present-day Germany represents no evil to the U.S. If anything, the country is frustratingly pacifistic. Yet "Nazi" is safey deracinated. There were Hungarian, Croatian, Ukrainian, and French Nazis. There were American Nazis. That elevates it to a special category. It emerges, out of the 20th century's fat book of pathological politics, as the ultimate evil, and the word is a "moral lightning rod" affixed to one's political opponents.
But I think there's a moment in American history that helped elevate this word to its present position, if it needed a further push.
Stephen Ambrose noted that of all the peoples the American G.I.s encountered during World War II, they identified most with the Germans, whom the American soldiers regarded as "clean, hard-working, disciplined, educated, middle-class in their tastes and life-styles ... just like us."
Even before the war, even before the Berlin of the 1920s became the first Americanized metropolis in Europe, other Europeans recognized Germany -- a brash, new, militaristic nation -- as the America among them. Its capital was a big, unstylish, fast-moving, technologically advanced parvenu city that non-Germans derided as "the Prussian Chicago."
When American troops crossed into Germany itself in late 1944, they learned the same thing. The surprise that the U.S. propaganda about Germans had not been true hit the soldiers in the invading divisions at the same time they felt the shock of what the Third Reich really had done to forced laborers and Jews -- something the propaganda had not prepared them to see.
Some, even at that point, made the connection and recognized in the common qualities the Germans and Americans a common weakness. The Germans were, in the words of one G.I., "just the type of folk who are content to sit back and let someone else have the responsibility of running the government."
The discovery of piles of emaciated corpses in the concentration camps came at the same time as the discovery of the essential humanness of the enemy and their similarity to us. A report from Europe in the August 1947 issue of "Commentary" noted:
[F]or Americans especially, the individual German is an attractive person. These children were charming little people; they were pathetic in their need ... yet they did not whine or pester; they stood there quietly, with trust in their eyes. And the American heart went out to them.
This is not to say that Americans have Nazi tendencies, or Guantanamo=Auschwitz, or that the U.S. is the new Third Reich. I'll leave that to the contemptible left, which insists it's so because, for instance, we love our flag and the Germans of the 1930s loved their flag. Screeching weasels, rabid with America-hatred.
As for the adults, they strike most Americans in Germany as decent, pleasant, rather kindly people, who respect their parents, love children, and lavish affection on pets; they are admirably clean and orderly, and have all the solid qualities favored by Ben Franklin.
For most Americans, it is increasingly difficult to associate such individuals with the crimes and bestiality of Germans as a group. This is the paradox of the individual German vs. the collective German. A child, a pretty girl, a wise old lady, is friendly to him, and the American cannot remember what he has been told about the German record. The contrast is too great to be believed.
But there is something about the Germans' stagger into darkness in the 1930s that thoughtful Americans can take as a warning. It's particularly worth our while to study and learn that dreadful wrong turn, and how it happened. And maybe, by keeping the "Nazi" insult alive as the worst one in our cultural vocabulary, the partisan loudmouths do us a small favor.
When we were kids in the late 1960s, we "played army" as a core game in the neighborhood. There were as many Pacific war movies on the UHF channels as European war movies. Korea had come and gone; Vietnam was raging. Yet always we played it as "Germans and Americans." I don't think we bunch of little caucasian brats ever could have imagined ourselves as the Japanese, or the North Koreans, or the Viet Cong, even in play. But Germans, yeah, that was just enough like us.