Codifying Our Worst Impulses: The Ideas that Started World War II

 

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, the deadliest violent conflict in human history.  Death tolls vary, but often reach 80 million souls.  What caused it?  Lists of proximate causes never end, but the only credible “root cause” is simply: ideas.  Three countries started World War II: Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union.  While popular summaries rarely list the Soviets as initiators because Hitler double-crossed Stalin two years later, Molotov and Ribbentrop’s  so-called Treaty of Non-Aggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a Treaty of Aggression Against Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Romania.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What ideas led the leaders of Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union to war?  The obvious answer is extreme nationalism – the view any action is morally praiseworthy if it advances the interests of your nation-state.  Heinrich Himmler said it best:

For the SS Man, one principle must apply absolutely: we must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood, and to no one else. What happens to the Russians, the Czechs, is totally indifferent to me… Whether other races live well or die of hunger is only of interest to me insofar as we need them as slaves for our culture; otherwise that doesn’t interest me. Whether 10,000 Russian women fall down from exhaustion in building a tank ditch is of interest to me only insofar as the tank ditches are finished for Germany.

…When somebody comes to me and says, I can’t build tank ditches with children or women. That’s inhumane, they’ll die doing it. Then I must say: You are a murderer of your own blood, since, if the tank ditches are not built, then German soldiers will die, and they are the sons of German mothers. That is our blood. That is how I would like to indoctrinate this SS, and, I believe, have indoctrinated, as one of the holiest laws of the future: our concern, our duty, is to our Folk, and to our blood. That is what we must care for and think about, work for and fight for, and nothing else. Everything else can be indifferent to us.

Almost everyone understands that Japan and Germany grew extremely nationalistic during the 1930s.  Few realize that the same holds for the Soviet Union as well.  Under Stalinism, anything that advanced the interests of the Soviet Union was the moral imperative – starting with the reabsorption of all the breakaway territories of the Russian Empire.

By itself, however, extreme nationalism need not generate war.  Rationally speaking, the best way to advance the national interest is with peace and consumerism.  The leadership of Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union, however, all angrily rejected this bourgeois, “shopkeepers’” perspective.  Instead, they equated the national interest with the power and glory of the government – and angrily denounced Western “plutocracies.”

This was most obvious in the USSR, which deliberately eradicated the rich, business, and private property itself in order to build a totalitarian militarized society.  But Germany’s National Socialists had a similar vision.  Their goal was not to build an idyllic consumer society, but a mighty war machine.  Unlike the Soviets, however, the Nazis had the common-sense to harness the rich, business, and private property rather than destroy them.   As Hitler told Nazi defector Hermann Rauschning:

He had no intention, like Russia, of “liquidating” the possessing class. On the contrary, he would compel it to contribute by its abilities towards the building up of the new order. He could not afford to allow Germany to vegetate for years, as Russia had done, in famine and misery. Besides, the present owners of property would be grateful that their lives had been spared. They would be dependent and in a condition of permanent fear of worse things to come.

The same holds for Japan: Its leaders equated the national interest with the power and glory of the Japanese government, not the safety and prosperity of the Japanese people.  So while the Japanese government happily used the domestic rich and domestic business, it truly bled them dry during the war.  As Walter Scheidel explains in The Great Leveler:

Japan was once one of the most unequal countries on earth. In 1938, the country’s “1 percent” received 19.9 percent of all reported income before taxes and transfers. Within the next seven years, their share dropped by two-thirds, all the way down to 6.4 percent. More than half of this loss was incurred by the richest tenth of that top bracket: their income share collapsed from 9.2 percent to 1.9 percent in the same period, a decline by almost four-fifths.

However rapid and massive these shifts in the distribution of income, they pale in comparison to the even more dramatic destruction of the elite’s wealth. The declared real value of the largest 1 percent of estates in Japan fell by 90 percent between 1936 and 1945 and by almost 97 percent between 1936 and 1949. The top 0.1 percent of all estates lost even more—93 percent and more than 98 percent, respectively. In real terms, the amount of wealth required to count a household among the richest 0.01 percent (or one in 10,000) in 1949 would have put it in only the top 5 percent back in 1936. Fortunes had shrunk so much that what used to count as mere affluence was now out of reach for all but a very few.

What’s the right word for “equating the national interest with the power and glory of the government rather than peace and consumerism”?  There are many candidate labels  – “statism,” “romanticism,” “populism,” “communitarianism,” “anti-capitalism.”  But none is quite right, so we might as well stick with the label that activists who equated the national interest with the power and glory of the government have preferred throughout the 20th century: socialism.  Obviously, there are many kinds of self-identified socialists – including socialists who unequivocally seek a peaceful, consumerist society.  Historically, however, these are rare – and since I’m not a socialist, I say that “real socialism” equals “what most self-styled socialists do when they have power.” Whatever label you prefer, the key point is that all the regimes that started World War II praised the power and glory of the government to the skies – and brought traditional elites – the rich and business – to their knees.  Or their graves.

Before you join me in blaming World War II on nationalism and socialism, though, there’s an obvious objection: These ideas have been ubiquitous for ages.  My response: The emotional impulses behind nationalism and socialism – impulses like xenophobia and anti-market bias – are indeed long-lived and widespread.  Far more children dream of being warriors than merchants.  But the initiators of World War II turned these knee-jerk feelings into bodies of thought.  They codified humanity’s worst impulses into explicit, militant, self-conscious ideologies.  And they took their ideologies seriously enough to kill for them – and often to die for them.

Does this mean that every latter-day nationalist and socialist is morally comparable to the architects of World War II?  No; that’s absurd.  The reason for this moral non-comparability, though, is disturbing.  The rhetoric of modern nationalism and socialism remains grotesque.  Anyone who says “By any means necessary” is, by implication, saying, “If it takes 80 million deaths for us to win, then so be it.”  The saving grace of latter-day nationalists and socialists is that almost all of them are hypocrites.  They may say, “By any means necessary,” but thankfully few have the stomach for it.  As I’ve said before, if your ideas are bad, hypocrisy makes them less bad.

Still, I am dismayed by the renewed popularity of nationalism and socialism.  I don’t think World War III is coming this century.  If it does come, however, I will blame the nationalists and socialists who take their scary slogans to heart.

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Tom Woods: A Stake Through the Heart of Socialism (27m)

This episode features a lecture by historian and Austro-libertarian Tom Woods as published on his podcast in 2019. This is a lecture taken from the Ron Paul Homeschool curriculum (found at RonPaulEducation.com) and explores the economic calculation problem inherent in socialist economic planning. Purchase books by Tom Woods on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (27m, mp3, 64kbps)

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Education Needs Separation From State

Once again we approach that saddest time of the year: when the majority of parents send their kids back to school; back into the local government concentration day-camps.

If you’re someone who mistakes schooling for education you probably believe this is good.

School is a socialist babysitting system funded by your neighbors. If you’re OK with forcing others to fund things you want, then go ahead and support the government schools. I can’t support socialism.

Schooling is also a system where organized bullying is cheered while the freelance competition, provided by the victims’ peers, is officially frowned upon. I oppose all bullying.

I’m not saying education doesn’t happen in schools, but when it does it’s in spite of the schooling, not because of it. Kids are automatic learning machines and it’s almost impossible to short-circuit their hunger to learn. They’ll usually manage to learn everything they need to know, and more, even under the worst conditions.

The fact that many people still believe schools educate — because kids come out knowing more than they knew when they went in — is evidence of this.

The real goal of schooling is to train kids to be useful, and not too dangerous, to politicians. Don’t question too much, and only within approved boundaries. Sit down, be quiet, obey the bells, and be force-fed authoritarian propaganda.

This style of training — called the Prussian Model, after the country America copied — creates adults who are unlikely to break free from this early indoctrination and will largely comply with arbitrary orders from politicians and their attack dogs. This is useful to governments and is why governments everywhere want to control schooling.

They use the unsupportable claim “it’s for the children;” if they can also fool the adult population into believing it’s about education it works even better.

This isn’t to say the teachers are bad. Most have good intentions, they are just saddled with a toxic system. A system that shouldn’t exist. The teachers are victims almost as much as the under-aged inmates, but at least they get paid.

There are good teachers, but there are no good schools. If this claim angers you, congratulations — you are showing symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, where captives (and former captives) begin to relate to their captors, even taking their side, defending them from criticism. Stockholm Syndrome makes people loyal to “their” school.

My appreciation for education explains my opposition to schooling. It is essential to separate education from the state before the damage is irreversible.

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Socialism Sucks, and Everyone Ought to Know It

Today my friends Bob Lawson and Ben Powell have released their new Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World.  Intellectually, EconLog readers will know the score, but Socialism Sucks embeds good economics and economic history within an irreverent travelogue.  Modern socialist rhetoric is so ahistorical and otherworldly that it’s great to hear reports about what North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba are actually like.  Along the way, Lawson and Powell thoughtfully explore the whole “That’s not real socialism” slogan. Quick version: Contrary to First World socialists, it’s the hell-states that are real socialism, and the success stories of Scandinavia that are fake socialism.

I actually had the privilege of workshopping the draft of this book.  Some of the attendees urged Bob and Ben to rewrite the book to appeal to young progressives, but I insisted that this was a task for a completely different book.  Socialism Sucks speaks to people with common sense and a sense of humor who simply don’t know much about socialism.  That includes 95% of American conservatives, who normally have negative feelings about the socialist label but who couldn’t tell you about the Holodomor, the Gulag, the Great Leap Forward, or the Laogai, much less the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Killing Fields.  Talk radio is going to try to angry up its listeners anyway, so it might as well angry them up against smug nostalgia for a totalitarian idea that murdered over a hundred million people and reduced dozens of nations to slavery while claiming to be the greatest of heroes and humanitarians.

Do Lawson and Powell really think that young self-styled American socialists are plotting mass murder?  Do I? My answer, at least, is, “I severely doubt it, but I shouldn’t have to wonder.”  When activists gush about the glories of socialism as if the Soviet Union never existed, all people of common decency should be horrified.  The right response to the slogan, “We want Sweden, not Venezuela” really is, “The Venezuelans didn’t want Venezuela either, but that’s what they got.”

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Europe is Better For Some

The question was: In what ways is living in Europe better than living in America?

I’m not delusional. I am sure there are things about living in Europe that are better– or that I would consider better– than living in America. But my subjective list wouldn’t be the same as that guy’s subjective list. Because much of his list is based on statist lies.

  • you get six weeks paid holidays;

(The cost of which is going to come from somewhere, and it’s not out of the employer’s pocket. That’s just the economic reality. Yes, it is “paid”, and you are paying for it one way or another. Sorry to burst your bubble.)

  • you get universal healthcare;

(TANSTAAFL. He means “health care” paid for through theft, and rationed as bureaucrats see fit.)

  • you get a proper pension plan;

(“Proper” in whose eyes? Paid for by whom? Where is the trade-off… or does he deny there is one? Yes, a nice pension would be… nice. And maybe if the U.S. government in America hadn’t imposed “Social Security” they might be more widely available here.)

  • you can live in romantic, old cities that are 2.000 [sic] years old, in houses that are 500 years old, with modern conveniences;

(That sounds nice. Living far from any city sounds even better.)

  • weekend trips offer abundant, historical and romantic destinations at an amazing density; you could live somewhere for ten years and go somewhere new and interesting every weekend under an hour away;

(That has some appeal.)

  • no guns;

(He means a government monopoly on gun possession– a police state; not “no guns”.)

  • free schools;

(Theft-funded schools instead of education. Just like in America.)

  • free universities;

(Theft-funded universities.)

  • life and attitudes generally seem more gentle;

(Sheep usually do seem that way. As do the wolves– good and bad– who want to blend in with the sheep until they strike. Don’t confuse outward demeanor for a lack of inner fire.)

  • the variety is amazing – drive an hour, and you can be in a place with a different language, architecture, cuisine, and culture entirely.

(I’m guessing he didn’t travel around America very much before he moved to Europe.)

I guess if you want socialism and a police state where only the government is properly armed, Europe (excepting some of the more enlightened places) might be “better” for you. The whole world seems to be going down the socialism sewage pipe. If that’s your thing, go for it.

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Scott Adams Defends Socialism

On a recent podcast, I noticed a bit of pro-socialism dishonesty from Scott Adams. I wasn’t really surprised, because he is a government supremacist, after all. And you can’t really have a state without embracing socialism.

It was hard to listen through to the end, but I did because I knew it would be important to refute the dishonest claims he was making.

He was first saying that it’s meaningless to be against socialism because socialism is not a thing; it’s multiple things and no one can explain why they believe it’s bad. He attributed this to people being brainwashed by the “anti-socialist” media (FOX News?) they absorb.

But, no one can explain why they believe it’s bad?

Challenge accepted– Socialism is the attempt to base a “society” on theft (usually, by government); driven by envy and entitlement. Taking anyone’s rightfully owned property from them when they’d prefer not to have it taken is theft, even if you like what the property is used for.  Even if the stolen property is used for “good” purposes. I believe this is bad. Pro-socialism people think it’s OK. Who is being reasonable here?

Then he went on to claim that socialism didn’t destroy Venezuela because other countries do fine with socialism. That it was because Venezuela had a tyrant (who imposed too much socialism) rather than because Venezuela was socialist.

He claimed that America does fine with the “little bits” of socialism the US government imposes, and that European countries do fine with the socialism they have. This is also dishonest.

Yes, the US is socialist. I’ve been pointing this out for ages. Democrats are openly socialist, and Republicans are socialists in denial– they still want socialism, they just call it “national security”, “border security”, or whatever socialist programs they like. Am I OK, or better off, because of that “little bit” of socialism?  I’m more than willing to get rid of it to find out which is better.

But, he’s almost right. A little bit of (antisocial) socialism won’t destroy a society just like a small robbery won’t wipe out an individual. But it’s still theft and it still isn’t good. You might survive it but you’re better off without it. And, socialism and robberies frequently escalate into the thief killing the victim. Not always. You probably won’t be murdered as long as things don’t go off the rails in directions which shock, threaten, or thwart the thief, but your death is always on the table for thieves.

If you’ve convinced yourself that ethics aren’t a real thing, that being pragmatic is the way to go, you can justify anything. I hope you don’t follow anyone down that path.

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