Humanize Your Enemy

What is your problem with Nazis: their beliefs or their tactics? It seems to me that the answer should be “both,” that they use reprehensible tactics in service of horrifying ideologies. As decent people we should reject not just their beliefs but also their behavior.

I look at the response to the New York Times article about “the Nazi next door” and I’m troubled. Not that the article is criticized – all things are open to critique – but that it’s being criticized from the point of view that it’s wrong to humanize Nazis.

See, dehumanization is a Nazi tactic.

Now, few people say it’s wrong to ‘humanize’ the Nazi being profiled. They say it’s wrong to ‘normalize’ him, but this is semantic. They’re saying it’s wrong to present him as a human being like you and me, that any profile presenting him as anything more than a degenerate subhuman is hurting our cause and helping theirs. That’s what ‘normalize’ has come to mean – presents something we don’t like in any fashion except utter disdain.

First things first: Nazis are human. Tough pill to swallow, but it’s true. They might like to act like they’re of a superior race, but they’re not. They’re of the same mud and blood as the rest of us.

A few years ago I had the privilege to visit Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum. To say that this was a life changing event would be an understatement; even though I had grown up around Jewish communities and had been taught the Holocaust my whole life, Yad Vashem contextualized so many things for me, took them out of the history books and made them real. Made them present. Made them tangible in ways that shook my very soul.

One of the things Yad Vashem illuminated for me was the humanity of the Nazis. Not the big guys, per se, but the rank and file. The regular people. The Germans who watched the Holocaust happen and did nothing. The neighbors of Jews, the customers of Jewish shops.

That had always been the mystery for me – how had this nation turned this way, and done so so quickly? But Yad Vashem illuminated it – the people were just people, and there was no fundamental difference between me and these people.

And that’s terrifying. Nazism isn’t some unknowable evil, a source of faceless bad guys for Indiana Jones to mow down. Nazis were people, regular people, people who had families and lives and loved others and thought of themselves as good. And yet they still participated in – or at least ignored – atrocities.

That’s the scary part. We can’t put a line between us and Nazis – there’s no part of their brain that’s wrong, there’s no twist in their DNA that makes them bad. They’re just like us, except they’re reacting to a situation in a way that we hope we wouldn’t react.

So how did they end up reacting that way? Conditioning, of course, as is the case for all of us. And one of the ways they were conditioned to react that way: they saw Jews and Gypsies and gays and the handicapped as less than human. They dehumanized them. They stopped “normalizing” them.

It was done in really fascinating ways. At Yad Vashem I saw anti-Semitic board games, for instance – children were indoctrinated into hating Jews by games! It was done in culture, by making Jews and other “undesirables” into stereotyped monsters, and then slowly taking away their rights. Over time the one-two punch of dehumanization and slow rollback of rights led to the ghettos and then the camps.

It didn’t even take that long.

What I came to understand – not just know, but understand – at Yad Vashem was that good people turned on their neighbors, turned on folks they had liked and been friends with. Not because the Germans were inherently bad or tuned to be evil, but because they had been conditioned to see other people as not people.

That scares me, because that’s a function of humanity. We are BUILT to do that. Our evolutionary heritage has given us in-group thinking, and we discount the needs and comfort of anyone in the out-group, especially if we come to believe that out-group is a threat. This is ancient thinking, outdated thinking, but it’s wired into our brains after hundreds of thousands of years. From those two ape tribes that skirmish for a watering hole in 2001: A Space Odyssey all the way up to today, when Nazis see other people as less than human, it’s still happening.

And it still happens when we, the good guys, look at Nazis and say “Don’t humanize them.” It still happens when New Yorker writer Jesse Singal gets dogpiled on Twitter for saying that your racist family at Thanksgiving dinner are still human beings. The tactic – dehumanization – is exactly the same. And it’s a bad tactic.

I’m not going to defend this particular Times piece, but I do want to ask you to consider how you think about your “enemy.” Are you removing their humanity? That does make it easier to hate them, after all. And they’re probably removing your humanity. It’s so tempting to believe that two wrongs can make a right.

Humanize Nazis. Remind yourself that Nazis aren’t just Out There somewhere, living below the Mason-Dixon or in trailer parks or whatever. They live right next door to you. Their ideology has crept into “polite society.” Humanize them to remind yourself that everyone is vulnerable to toxic ideas, and to remind yourself that you can only defend decency and diversity when you know it’s under attack, and since Nazis no longer just look like stereotypical Nazis or white supremacists, we must be ever vigilant.

But also humanize Nazis because it’s better for you. Don’t stop fighting them or even punching them – sometimes it’s gotta be done – but stop dehumanizing them. Stop playing their game. Don’t adopt their tactics. We’re not better as individuals, but our belief system is better, and we have to live by that system.

Calling people monsters gives us comfortable distance from them, that allows us to present as virtuous without doing the hard work of looking within. It’s how GIs could go to Europe to battle Nazis and then go home to America and live in Jim Crow states, after all.

It’s scary to think there are monsters out there. But maybe it’s even scarier to think there no monsters after all, just other human beings who are messed up and confused. The stark divide between good and evil is comforting, and it’s comforting to relegate Nazis to eternal Them status as we organize our world into Us and Them. But that’s not how it really works.

The sooner we face the scary and uncomfortable fact that Nazis are, deep down, no different from you and I is the sooner we can address the core thinking and confusion that allows people to become Nazis in the first place. You want to eradicate Nazi thought? That’s going to require thinking of Nazis as people, and understanding how they got to that thought in the first place.

And recognizing how alluring some of that thought is, especially the thought that allows us to declare other human being not human. Or that allows us to stop “normalizing” them.