Nazis Have Always Been Trolls
The Atlantic, March 2019
The coward who gunned down 49 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand left behind a white-nationalist screed rationalizing his mass murder as a necessary act to preserve the white race.
The manifesto is striking for its trolling—its combination of fanaticism, insincerity, and attempts at irony. The killer was particularly obsessed with the idea of “white genocide,” a term that does not actually refer to mass murder, ethnic cleansing, or even violence, but to the loss of political and cultural hegemony in countries that white supremacists think should belong to white people by law. The theory of white population decline is innumerate nonsense; as The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb writes, the conspiracy is a kind of projection, a paranoia that the past genocide, colonialism, and ethnic cleansing forced on the West’s former subjects will be visited upon it.
Although the manifesto itself was written in the distinctive vernacular of the far-right internet, there is nothing new about white supremacists trolling. The Nazis were dedicated trolls who weaponized their insincerity to take advantage of liberal societies ill-equipped to confront them. This was not done just for political advantage—rather, the insincerity itself was a moral act, an expression of contempt for the weak.
The original Nazis were open about their intentions, but their strategic insincerity created a fog of doubt that allowed observers to avoid the obvious. In 1922, The New York Times infamously declared that many believed “Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.” In 1930, even after the Nazis had become the second-largest party in the German legislature, the Times assured its readers that “there is no present basis for assuming that the Nazis will attempt to make anti-Semitism a militant issue in their legislative program.”
Many of the ideological descendants of the Third Reich have raised the banners of liberal principles in their defense. They say they are defending free speech, or due process, or democracy—but their only purpose is to empty these concepts of meaning, to make them as contemptible to their ideological opponents as they are to them. In this, too, they resemble their ideological forebears.
As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Nazi supporters were “satisfied with blind partisanship in anything that respectable society had banned, regardless of theory or content, and they elevated cruelty to a major virtue because it contradicted society’s humanitarian and liberal hypocrisy.” A horrified reaction to such expressions of cruelty merely affirms the importance of being cruel. “Vulgarity, with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories, carried with it a frank admission of the worst and a disregard for all pretenses which were easily mistaken for courage and a new style of life,” she wrote.
The ideas in the shooter’s screed are placed beyond argument, presented as expressions of iron laws of nature. Such writings intend to bait the earnest into making fools of themselves. Both race itself and whiteness by extension are biological fictions made real only by society’s embrace of both concepts; the pseudoscience concocted to justify such definitions changes with political necessity. The shooter’s definition of who counts as white would not have applied 100 years ago, but white supremacy is a nostalgic ideology, one that looks at the past not for wisdom or knowledge, but for fairy tales of pristine white societies that never existed.
“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1946 essay “Anti-Semite and Jew.” “The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors.”
The crimes of the Nazis have, for some, obscured the extent to which they relied on murderous insincerity and the unwillingness of liberal societies to see the Nazis plainly for what they were. In the 1930s, falling for this ploy might have been understandable; with the hindsight of history, it is incomprehensible that many continue to do so. But it is important to understand that weaponized insincerity was an essential element of fascism from the very beginning.
“Apparently it matters little to his followers what he says,” a New York Times reporter wrote of Hitler in 1930. “Their chief concern is how he says it. What he says may not be true to those who know better, but to those who like it it is not without its logic.”
Ultimately, as with the New Zealand shooter, every joke, every pithy reference, every pretend gesture toward the moral standards of liberal democracy has the same punch line: We are going to kill you. There is nothing more profound to unearth from their ideas, or from them.