Reflections after Class

One of those questions came up in class tonight with a group of MA students discussing Peter Fritzsche’s Life and Death in the Third Reich (Cambridge, MA, 2008), a question where I grow perhaps too animated, maybe conveying impatience, even arrogance, or, if I’m lucky, simply passion. What was the difference between communism under Stalin and nazism under Hitler?

The differences are stark, but there’s that pesky word “socialism” and the collectivist rhetoric that is so easily conflated or confused with “collectivization,” never mind the existence of economic plans, mass murder, and a host of apparently shared phenomena commonly subsumed under the heading of “totalitarianism.” So why does this question sometimes cause me to push back instead of letting students gradually begin to understand, taking as many intermediary steps as they need to get there?

I would like to blame the heat and my tiredness after a forty-eight-hour power loss at home, and there’s something to that. But this is also one of those topics that can get my goat under better conditions, unless I am prepared for it. I am ready these days when teaching History 100 (“Western Civilization”), but the question took me by surprise in the context of a graduate survey of modern Europe. I am beginning to think it should not have.

Something about this question can elude or confound even well-informed graduate students like those in my current class. Something is getting lost in translation from a past that grows more distant, more remote. The words “nazi” and “socialist” and “communist” are on many lips in these United States, but they’re employed in our own contemporary struggles over ideology, identity, and politics. They help us to create meaning in our own world, but this circumstance complicates the already difficult task of understanding the Germany and Soviet Union that existed in the 1930s and 1940s.

Perhaps it’s time to choose some primary sources for the students to analyze in at least a portion of our next class.

Contemporary Political Rhetoric and Teaching History

Earlier this month I did a post on my Hist 100 blog that might be of some interest to readers here, “Contemporary Politics and History.” My audience was primarily freshmen in their first semester at university, most of them too young to have voted in the last election.

I have said this in class, but it needs repeating here: Our contemporary American political discourse about socialism and nazism has absolutely nothing to do with those terms and phenomena in actual history. While we are not in class to talk about American politics, I want to point out how language and history are being abused for political purposes. I am not doing this to undermine the stances of politicians who use hyperbole to make their points. There are perfectly good ideological and policy reasons that one can bring to either side of the health care debate, the energy policy debate, environmental policy debates, and so on. But none of these reasons has anything to do with Hitler, nazism, communism, or socialism—not if we are being honest, and as long as we are willing to see the slippery slope argument for what it is, a logical fallacy.

This abuse of history used to just offend me as a citizen who knew something about history, but addressing the abuse became part of my teaching job this summer when I had a student try to explain Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” That is when I realized that not only was history being abused for political purposes, but our contemporary political discourse was getting in the way of students understanding the past. That’s why I wrote a blog post on my own history blog sarcastically entitled, “What Having a Socialist Nazi in the White House Means for the Classroom.”

I could follow the logic of the student who described Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government,” if I were willing to understand the past in terms of this country’s contemporary self-image, but I am not. We need to take the past on its own terms and try to understand it in some detail before we attempt easy analogies. In other words, my concern relates to historical thinking, that is, that thing I began teaching you with the reading assignments from August 31st, including Gerald Schlabach’s “A Sense of History.”

This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me on this date.