Why are we obsessed with the Nazis?

In the new, transnational vision that has emerged among historians in our own era of globalisation, nazism appears as an ideology drawing on sources from many countries, from Russia to France, Italy to Turkey, rather than being the culmination of exclusively German intellectual traditions, as the historians of the postwar generation argued. Racial doctrines borrowed from the French theorist Arthur de Gobineau were married to a distorted version of social Darwinism originating in Britain, antisemitism derived from Russian and French writers was fused with anti-Bolshevism imported from the Whites in the Russian civil war, the worship of violence and hatred of parliamentarism taken from Mussolini’s Italian fascist movement were joined to ideas of national reawakening taken from Kemal Atatürk’s nationalist revolution in Turkey.

Following this trend, historians have come to see the Nazi extermination of the Jews not as a unique historical event but as a genocide with parallels in other countries and at other times, not only the German extermination of the Herero tribe in the Kaiser’s colony of Namibia before the first world war, but the actions of the Turks in 1915, of Stalin in Ukraine in the early 1930s and of the Hutus in Rwanda, to name only three of the mass murders of the 20th century.

Yet while such comparisons can add to our knowledge and understanding of what Hitler and the Nazis did, they can also blur distinctions by homogenising all acts of mass murder until it is impossible to tell them apart. Only in Germany did the eclectic hotchpotch of European ideas that formed the ideology of National Socialism rise, triumph and put itself into practice. And the genocide it inspired was different from other genocides: for Hitler, the Jews were not merely subhumans to be eliminated in the interests of an allegedly superior race, they were the “world enemy” of the “Aryans”, endowed with almost superhuman qualities, to be hunted down and ritually humiliated wherever they were found before they were killed without exception. That is why modern neo-Nazis find it so important to deny the atrocities of Auschwitz, and that is the reason above all others why the Nazis linger so powerfully and persistently in our collective memory.