Spot the Nazi

Harper’s Magazine has a reprint of an article written by anti-Nazi activist Dorothy Thompson in August 1941. The piece, titled “Who Goes Nazi?”, provides an armchair analysis of an imaginary dinner party, with Thompson pointing out the tendencies that separate potential fascists from their more resistant peers. Opportunism, excessive self-regard and lingering frustration are key traits, she argues, even as a good sense of humor and a deflated sense of self-importance serve as inoculations.

In the end, she sums up by saying:

“Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. They may be the gentle philosopher whose name is in the Blue Book, or Bill from City College to whom democracy gave a chance to design airplanes–you’ll never make Nazis out of them. But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success–they would all go Nazi in a crisis.”

Today’s dinner parties are fortunately free of the taint of Nazism, but they can inspire similar thought experiments about the potential choices of our companions. Everyone has wondered whether they would collaborate, stay silent or speak out in the face of unrelenting repression. Thompson’s article provides a provocative guide to the appeals of authoritarianism. During a time when our government is seeking to expand its authority to wiretap our conversations, monitor our e-mails and even torture and indefinitely detain citizens, her words seem alarmingly relevant.