Nazi Rhymes: 4 Intellectuals
The following is a piece I wrote for Newscentral24x7 as part of a series depicting the parallels between Nazi Germany and present day India. It was published on the 3rd of June 2018.
It is telling how often demonizing the word “intellectual” precedes the implosion of a democracy. A key characteristic of fascist and authoritarian regimes is their open hatred of intellectuals. This is easy to understand once one realizes just how much of a threat intellectualism is to authoritarians.
As with most things about the man, Hitler’s hatred of education bordered on the absurd. He once stated that “Universal education is the most corroding and disintegrating poison that liberalism has ever invented”. The vilification of intellectuals and his ideas reached fever pitch on the 10th of May 1933 when student bodies sympathetic to the Nazi party organized public book burnings across Germany. Among the authors whose books and ideas were thus symbolically burned away were Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Karl Marx and Kafka. Also condemned to the fires were the works of Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who in a cruel twist of fate had prophetically written in 1822 that, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”
Hitler’s vilification of intellectuals was key to the success of Nazism in German society. The Nazis made it a point to go after academics that showed even a hint of opposition to their poisonous ideology. In particular, they focused their ire on historians. For two reasons.
First, historians play a key role in interpreting the traditions of a nation which, in turn, gives context to its present state. To put it another way, a historian was more likely to say “Europe was a powder keg set to blow even before the great war kicked off” vs “The Jews did it”. They act as (according to Albert Levi) “custodians of the national memory”. In Germany’s case, getting people to view Hitler as another “Bismarck” legitimized his place in collective German psyche as the saviour of the Fatherland. Put the weight of history behind a man and he can easily transcend irritations like “law” and “constitutional rights”. This was the fearless patriot willing to speak the truth. The lone lion keeping the jackals at bay. The hero that would save the Fatherland and reclaim its stolen honour from the hands of the wretched traitors. Bismarck reborn! And having historians confirm that view was integral to the whole plan.
In the RSS/BJP’s case, this involves revising India’s history as that of a secular republic. India was never a secular nation, not according to them anyway. It is a land that was “stolen” from the Hindus, (an idea that makes up one of the core tenets of Veer Savarkar’s “Hindutva”) the “true” people of “Bharat Mata” (Mother India). If it wasn’t for the evil machinations of the “outsiders”. India would still be the shining jewel of the east. Its honour unblemished and protected by the hands of the brave Hindus that called this place home since the dawn of time. Good thing we now have a lion that keeps the dynastic foxes at bay. This is the fearless patriot with the 56-inch chest. The hero that would save the Motherland and reclaim its stolen honour from the hands of the wretched pseudo-secularists. Vishnu reincarnated!
One can see why anyone, dead or alive, that would laugh in the face of such idiocy cannot possibly be tolerated.
Second, historians and other qualified intellectuals are best equipped to subject the state and its actors to critical analysis. Nothing exposes a secret better than the harsh light of truth. And the truth is something no fascist can afford. Nazism fundamental tenets were basically, just a grandiose lie. Aryans were not the master race. Jews were not the reason for losing World War One. But both those ideas were the bedrock of Nazi ideology. And historians were perhaps the best counter to those ideas. No wonder the RSS/BJP makes it a point to scream “pseudo-intellectual” at the drop of a hat. Or why it labels the very founding story of India as a secular republic as a lie. It cannot afford anything less.
But what was more disturbing than the rejection of these intellectual ideas was what replaced them. Pseudoscience, rewriting of history and unquestioning nationalism were the new ideals. This easily paved the way for, among other things, the Nazi eugenics program, the implementation of the“Hitler youth” in schools and the propagation of the Aryan superiority myth to the point where it was simply accepted as “fact”. The Hitler Youth program was particularly disturbing. By instilling the idea of blind obedience to the Fuhrer in the young, an entire generation was systematically brainwashed into becoming unquestioning fanatics. Some of the most inhuman perpetrators of Nazi war crimes came from the Hitler Youth.
Everything intellectuals promote is in direct opposition to what authoritarian regimes require for survival, ie, blind obedience and absolute deference to authority. The tolerance of dissent, questioning of authority, instilling rationality, independent thought and promoting a “marketplace of ideas”, these are the very antithesis of fascism. Anyone viewing these notions as a “problem” is clarifying their intent. Societies that ignore them do so at their peril.
Intellectuals are not just an annoyance, but a direct threat to fascist regimes. Knowledge is power and the last thing they want is a powerful opposition. Or worse, a well-informed electorate. Nehru wrote an entire book on history by scrounging pieces of paper whilst he was imprisoned. Savarkar, on the other hand, was busy begging for clemency. The former is a villain, the latter an unsung (but pro-Sangh?) hero. Too bad he wasn’t Muslim. It would mean one less false idol to demolish.
Another way of looking at it is this: any person that espouses the RSS’ ideology and can quote scripture is a true “intellectual” whereas anyone who disagrees is a “pseudo-intellectual” at best. If it doesn’t fit the preferred narrative it must be a lie or a conspiracy. Best to view such selective and servile erudition with suspicion. There are only two kinds of people that think this way. Fanatics and slaves.
Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda said it best “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
“The truth is the greatest enemy of the state”. One would think that line would hold special significance for a nation that has “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth alone triumphs) as its national motto.