Earlier this week, Magic writer and streamer Travis Woo devoted an hour of his stream to discussing and deconstructing Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s infamous book of propaganda. In doing so, Woo broadcast false and immoral lies upon which Hitler constructed his rise to power as leader of Nazi Germany and the brutal genocide known as the Holocaust. Woo’s discussion on stream evidenced, at the least, deep ignorance of the subject. This irresponsible and misinformed discussion polluted the Magic airwaves and embarassed Woo’s publisher, Channel Fireball, who subsequently suspended Woo indefinitely from producing further content on their behalf. In this special edition of A Planeswalker’s Guide to Earth, Hipsters Jess Stirba and Curtis Weimann respond to the wrong and venomous spread of Hitler’s ideology by providing historical and contemporary context to help you understand why Woo’s actions were so toxic. —Brendan McNamara

by Jess Stirba, Content Manager
& Curtis Wiemann, Contributor and Editor

Who wants to hear my take on Mein Kampf?”

With that statement, and a host of caveats that indicated he fucking knew better than to spread Hitler’s poison, Travis Woo spouted some anti-Semitic idiocy on Twitch Tuesday night. Because this is the Magic community we have created. This is the Magic community we deserve.

It’s not his fault, though; America has long disregarded discussion about the true causes of the Holocaust. It’s far easier to assume that every German during the period was evil than to grapple with the fact that the Nazis thought they were good people doing the right thing for their nation and the world. It’s horrible, because it means that it could happen here. It’s horrible, because it means that your neighbor could turn on you when primed with the right propaganda.

Of course, perpetuating propaganda uncritically only makes it more likely to occur.

Woo’s initial thought was laudable: he wanted to know more about the rise of the Nazis in Germany. He believes, as do I, that there is value to be found in the examination of the rise of such a hate-filled political movement. Here’s the difference, though: I knew I wasn’t going to find the answers to that question in Mein Kampf, the most notorious piece of propaganda in Western history. Instead, I read The Coming of the Third Reich by British historian Richard Evans, generally considered to be the best take on the subject.

Shockingly, I ended up with a better understanding of the root causes of the Holocaust than Woo did. Let’s discuss them.

What it comes down to is this: Germany, after World War One, was in disarray. The Treaty of Versailles, and specifically Article 231 (the “War Guilt Clause”), had left Germany in economic ruin. Forced to send significant reparations abroad, at a time when the entrance of women into the workforce meant there were more people competing for fewer jobs, many German men were unable to transition back into civilian life post-war. Their difficulties were complicated by the failure of the German government to maintain its social safety net; the federal government shifted the costs for veteran welfare to the state level, and they in turn instituted a series of means-testing requirements that forced many to go without the benefits they earned.

This created a situation where a lot of battle-hardened men were forced into poverty and boredom.

Meanwhile, a generation of younger men had missed out on the opportunity to prove themselves through the battlefield, and found themselves endeavoring to enter the job market at a time when, again, that was difficult to do. Many failed, and ended up with nothing to occupy their time. The politicians, who were unable to deal with the underlying economic causes due to their treaty obligations, went scrabbling for a scapegoat. There were several at hand.

Woo highlighted the Jews, the group of people who bore the worst of the Nazi rage. Their hatred was not restricted to that minority faith alone, though; Roma, trade unionists, women, Catholics, and the LGBT community (which had been experiencing its first taste of legitimacy in Berlin at that time)—all were blamed. The mechanism for this demonization was through epistemic closure and the polarization of media sources. People started to live their lives in silos, where they read their party’s newspaper, went to clubs and churches with like-minded folk, and worked each other up into a lather over the perceived enemies within who were the true cause of all their troubles.

In short, they let their reality be governed by propaganda, and shut out anything that challenged their worldview.

In response, some of these targeted populations tried to flee. But many remained in Germany, believing that the only way they could change the hardening minds of their fellow citizens was to stay and get their neighbors to recognize their humanity. But these attempts to raise awareness of their basic humanity were perceived by the reactionaries to be an attempt to force social change that made them feel uncomfortable. In effect, the maintained visibility ended up cutting against these minority groups and women, because they stayed high-profile targets upon whom the population might pin blame for the continued failure of their government to function. Goon squads of Brownshirts, grateful for the purpose and masculine affirmation they received through being part of these nationalistic vigilante groups, at first began to simply harass these now-hated groups, in order to take a stand against the perceived enemies within, before working themselves up to real violence. Then the Nazis pointed to that violence, blamed their usual targets, and claimed that this violent epidemic was the reason that Germany needed the strong hand of the Nazi party at its helm.

In short, the dehumanizing, factually inaccurate propaganda that Woo uncritically rereads did its work, and eventually, despite never once winning a popular election, the Nazis rose to power by holding the government hostage until it collapsed. It’s not as exciting a story as the Jews prompting their own attempted extermination, but it’s a fuck of a lot truer than the one Woo was trying to tell.

This is relevant information, and all Americans should remember it, particularly as we see a presidential candidate calling for the forced expulsion of 11 million people living in this country based solely on the geographic coordinates of their birth. But it’s folly to blame the victims, people who lacked power in everything but the victors’ propaganda. Woo should know better, and now hopefully you do too.

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An element of Nazi era propaganda which deserves specific rebuttal is the idea that Germany’s Jewish population (and, by occasional extension, the Jewish populations of conquered rivals like Poland or France) somehow were to blame for the events of the Holocaust. Woo brings it up from his reading of Kampf (“I’m not going to say the Jews deserved it, but they took it to a point where the Germans were going to revolt.”). Following controversial comments by presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson regarding the Third Reich’s institution of gun control, other commenters offered a similar idea, stating that “(i)f Jews in Germany had more actively resisted the Nazi party or the Nazi regime and had diagnosed it as a malignant and deadly cancer from the start, there would, indeed, have been a chance for the people of that country and the world to be moved to action by their bold refusal to be enslaved.”

Both of these perspectives come, I feel, from a profoundly short-sighted view of history. The conditions outlined above for the rise of the Nazi Party and the consolidation of the Third Reich were unique, but the base anti-Semitism that underlay it was not. Through the medieval past and into the modern era, the feudal, imperial, and eventually national states of Europe defined themselves along ethnic and religious criteria, which almost always left Jewish communities as legally-delineated second class citizens. In the medieval past, this was largely motivated by the prominence of explicitly Christian society, which held other religions as perilous for the very health of the soul and Jewish practitioners in particular as responsible for the rejection and execution of Christ in Jerusalem. Jewish peoples were frequently barred from owning land, and as such a trading network of Jewish communities throughout the Christian and Islamic worlds blossomed, leading to bigotry surrounding perceptions of Jewish usury or greed.

After a purely Christian state hegemony (arguably) faded through the mercantalist imperial period and Enlightenment of the 17th through 19th centuries, anti-Semitic opinions and violence continued. Writing from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to the text of Mein Kampf hold up Jewish people as fundamentally other, alien to the fabric of good, Christian society, without any evidence or motivation beyond age-old antipathy. Germany’s actions might have been unprecedented in their scope, but not in their bigoted motivation. As England (1290), France (1306), and Spain (1492) each consolidated under strong central governments through the high medieval period, rulers in each nation cast out their native Jewish populations in an effort to recast their country as a single ethnic entity. Imperial Russia, which had a large Jewish population throughout the medieval and early modern period, underwent a series of brutal massacres and anti-Semitic reforms in 1881-1884 and beyond to exterminate or force the departure of Jewish communities. Even Woo’s quote is telling of this attitude and its unintended continued life—the Jews who “took it to a point where the Germans were going to revolt” were just as “German” as their Nazi oppressors, but the idea prevailed that they were somehow disloyal or “other” in the popular imagination.

From this standpoint, where Jewish populations existed as frequently-targeted religious minorities in hostile Christian majority states such as 1930’s Germany, it is hard to credibly argue that German Jews were responsible for their oppression during the Nazi regime. Despite incredibly vitriolic anti-Semitism which had roots back to early Christian doctrine and eschatology, German Jews were not responsible for wide-scale financial or social control which was manufactured to justify their oppression—they merely possessed a historic association and stigma with financial activity dating back centuries. Nor did they have access to weaponry and armaments with which to combat the insidious rising force of the Nazi party—as guns were already limited in post-war, demilitarized Germany, and those present were not widely available to an already-stigmatized minority. Even given these immense impediments, Jewish peoples resisted, leaving Nazi-occupied territory to enlist with foreign allies, refusing to surrender family and friends, and even directly confronting the German war machine on their own ground despite impossible odds at the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 and elsewhere.

Jess Stirba is a casual student of history. You can read her weekly column here, Command of Etiquette, and her bi-weekly role on Dear Azami at Star City Games.

Curtis Wiemann is a lapsed student of history. You can read the full Planeswalker’s Guide to Earth archive here, and look forward to more installments on a semi-regular basis.

 

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