Thursday, April 19, 2012

Another Casualty of the Hitler-Did-It-Too Gambit

Others, like Brad DeLong and Mark Thoma, have gone after Acemoglu and Robinson for their “argument” that, because Hitler used massive stimulus to extricate Germany from the Depression, there is nothing intrinsically progressive about Keynesianism.  I want to make a different point.

Hitler and his minions were evil and did unspeakably awful things on a massive scale.  Are we clear?  Now, let’s talk about the complications of real history.

The Nazis did not descend on Germany sprouting horns and hooves.  True, reasonable people knew from the start they were very bad news, but there were aspects of the Nazi program that were attractive as well.  High on the list was a realistic program to restore economic growth, including large-scale stimulus, capital controls and renunciation of the Versailles debt.  Remember that, before Hitler, there was Brüning.  It should also be mentioned that the Nazis had an exceptionally progressive environmental and public health agenda, including restrictions on smoking, pesticide-free agriculture, workplace safety and improvements in diet.  If you doubt this, read The Nazi War on Cancer, an extraordinary, mind-bending book by Robert Proctor.

Again, none of this justifies a regime that committed such colossal crimes—but that’s not the issue.  Hitler was not an incarnation of pure evil, just an exceptionally destructive but in some ways normal political leader.  He rose to power by addressing real needs of real people.  You don’t prove that vegetarianism or organic agricultural are reactionary by showing that they were sponsored by the Third Reich, and the same goes for Keynesian stimulus.  Repeat: it’s about seeing Hitler not as a slogan or comic book villain, but as a real life historical figure with layers of complexity.

And once again, since I will probably be misunderstood: yes, the racism, militarism, totalitarianism and genocide were unspeakably horrible.


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