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Of Freedom and Dark, Cruel Lies



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One of the enduring mysteries of the Holocaust is how the refined people and culture of Germany so quickly succumbed not only to Adolf Hitler’s claims that the Jews, long an integral part of that country, were responsible for all manner of economic and social woes in their nation, but also that they were not worthy of consideration as human beings. Indeed, Hitler often referred to Jews as animals, and his rhetoric regarding “Pure Aryan” blood and superiority was grotesquely dehumanizing for all who were not defined as a part of that group. I say this concern remains inscrutable, aware that thousands of scholars and authors have sought to understand it, but conscious nonetheless that whatever they have argued concerning the possible rationalizations and factors at play among Germans for supporting or countenancing the Shoah, one must always confront the undeniable fact that it was predicated on an obvious, dark fantasy. Moreover, that assertion could easily, then and now, be identified for what it was: a lie generated by a political paranoiac. [1]

I am not concerned here with whether Hitler suffered from a psychosis or mental disorder, but instead with the question of why so many Germans were willing to believe or tolerate his lie as a rationale not only for the absolute evil that resulted in the murder of more than 6 million individuals—including tens of thousands of infants and children—but also for a ruinous war. And yet, a clear majority did so behave, and some, especially those in the Nazi Party and its armed affiliate, the SS, embraced Hitler’s unsubstantiated hatred with especial mercilessness and passionate ideological and personal loyalty.

Indeed, despite the abiding moral and political significance of this historical conundrum, I have slowly concluded that scholars will never “explain” fully why Germans adopted the course they did, regardless of what issues analysts may identify as contributing to that population’s willingness to pursue and allow it. Surely, a part of the allure of Hitler’s Great Lie for some Germans were the dismal economic conditions of the Weimar years. For some, perhaps, it was fears for themselves and their families; that is, of the implications of those economic and social realities for their futures. But for many more, as Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, has argued, this matter was more complicated than this explanation suggests. For Levi, the Enlightenment’s distinction between good faith and bad faith implicit in these sorts of evaluations of this phenomenon,

… presupposes a mental clarity which few have and which even these few immediately lose when, for whatever reason, past or present reality arouses anxiety or discomfort in them. Under such conditions there are, it is true, those who lie consciously, coldly falsifying reality itself, but more numerous are those who weigh anchor, move off, momentarily or forever from genuine memories, and fabricate for themselves a convenient reality. [2]

I strongly suspect that this psychological process was at play for many Germans as the Holocaust unfolded as well as in why so many were so willing to countenance, if not always embrace, the lie on which it was predicated. Having said this, it is worthwhile recalling that every genocide that one can name, from the events in Armenia, Serbia and the Balkans, to Indonesia to Cambodia and Rwanda and Myanmar, among others, was based on self-evident and simplistic lies. Indeed, genocidal hatred of just this stripe is still afoot in Myanmar, as I write.  Laying aside the issue of who actually served as murderers in these various events, broader populations allowed the unbridled fury to proceed, licensed by the lie those killers had adopted. Some of those perpetrators, as Levi implied, believed they would personally profit by the mistreatment and murders of their targeted population. Some took over the homes once occupied by those they had slaughtered (as occurred in Europe and Rwanda and elsewhere), or symbolically felt themselves aggrandized because they could exercise power and heap contempt on a population their leaders had degraded and declared subhuman. Many Nazi leaders, no doubt, and many other Germans, as well as Rwandans, Serbians, Burmese and others, adopted this stance. At least some share of these power-over wielders were willing, to paraphrase Levi, coldly to falsify reality in the name of attaining and maintaining power, often accompanied by a capacity to practice unfettered cruelty. [3] These individuals could and did practice self-deception and “willed stupidity” on a scale that is difficult to understand, let alone accept. [4] As Levi has contended:           

Power is like a drug: the need for either is unknown to anyone who has not tried them, but after the initiation, which can be fortuitous […], the dependency and need for ever larger doses is born, as are the denial of reality and the return to childish dreams of omnipotence. [5]

In this reading, contextual conditions may prompt an individual to listen to a would-be leader’s scapegoating lies, but it is the apparent psychologically imagined power—which, it must be recalled, need not be, and often is not, real—conveyed by that lie that leads those people to accept or countenance and/or act on it. As Levi put this point, “In other words, the intoxication with power is so powerful as to prevail even in conditions seemingly designed to extinguish individual will” (Levi, 1986, p. 55). Protracted and undisputed power, as heralded by dehumanizing and cruel rhetoric, rather than reality, creates, “… a distorted view of the world [and] dogmatic arrogance.” [6]

So, we come full circle: Those who welcomed or tolerated Hitler’s Great Lie, by not calling it out for what it was, were not all brutes, sadists or psychologically deranged. Instead, they were,

… average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked, save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces. … They were, for the greater part, diligent followers and functionaries, some fanatically convinced of the Nazi-doctrine, many indifferent, or fearful of punishment, or desirous of a good career, or too obedient. [7]

These individuals were also the subjects of Nazi propaganda and of the fabrications its architects tirelessly presented and represented in support of Hitler’s darkest lie concerning the Jewish people. The endless and publicly traded and legitimated fabrications doubtless played a role in the relative quiescence of the German population as an unmitigated and pitiless horror was unleashed in its name.

My reflection on Hitler’s Great Lie and the German population’s response to it led me to consider the parallel fact that a share of the United States population and the leaders aligned with them purport today to believe that immigrants constitute a threat so marked to the nation, to them personally and to their families, as to justify building a “wall” to keep them out. They have gone further to accept widespread erosions or outright abrogations of those refugees’ and immigrants’ civil and human rights, justified on the grounds of their alleged (and mendaciously ascribed) contemptible criminal behavior as a class. [8]

Immigration is so supposedly terrifying that the President, the self-proclaimed leader of this group of Americans, has contended that it justifies the declaration of a national emergency and the cruel treatment of refugees and other potential immigrants, a stance the conservative Cato Institute has rightly critiqued as completely empty. [9] Indeed, as a factual matter, there is no security crisis or emergency on this country’s southern border. That Trump has labeled it so may appropriately be understood as America’s current equivalent of Nazism’s Great Lie. As with Germany and its Jews, this invention can be quickly exposed as the falsehood it is with but a few minutes of reflection and a quick review of the facts. Nonetheless, a crowd of roughly 6,500 Americans attended a Trump rally on February 11, 2019 in El Paso, Texas, during which the President led them in full-throated chants calling for construction of an edifice to address the targets of this lie. [10]

None of this is to say that America today faces the prospect of launching its own Shoah or that Trump is Hitler recast. He is a demagogue surely, and a deeply cruel one, without regard for the rights or interests of even his most ardent enthusiasts, but he is not Hitler. It is instead to say that Americans, supporters and non-supporters of Trump alike, should heed the many lessons of history and be deeply concerned when a significant portion of their number prove willing to embrace and countenance a dark and obvious lie and to act heartlessly and anti-democratically in its name. The question for all citizens of good will should not be, “Is this malevolent reality afoot in the United States?” It is clearly ongoing for a share of the populace willing to embrace it. Instead, the question should be how best to address the fact that a portion of our country’s citizenry has shown itself willing to degrade itself and the nation by giving credence to a cruel lie. This fact, and the implications for our polity’s continuing capacity to ensure its provenance as a self-governing people in the face of this and other similar propagandizing, should concern all friends of freedom.


[1] Redlich, Fritz. Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[2] Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved: Essays, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988, p. 16.

[3] Levi, p.16.

[4] Levi, p. 6.

[5] Levi, p.55.

[6] Levi, p.55.

[7] Levi, p.189.

[8] Savage, Charlie. “Presidents have Declared Dozens of Emergencies, but None Like Trump’s,” The New York Times, February 16, 2019, Accessed February 19, 2019.

[9] Nowrasten, Alex. “There is no National Emergency on the Border, Mr. President,” Cato At Liberty, February 15, 2019,  Accessed February 16, 2019.

[10] Fox News, “Trump Holds 2020 Campaign Rally in El Paso, Texas,” Accessed February 15, 2019; Robertson, Lori, D’Angelo Gore and Eugene Kiely, “Fact Checking Trump’s El Paso Rally,” Fact Check.Org., Accessed February 16, 2019.  

Publication Date

February 25, 2019