tolerating fascists

The daughter of a friend, 13 years old, was talking to me about history at the weekend. She has been studying the inter-war years and the rise of German fascism. She told me that she had made herself unpopular in an discussion with her friends afterwards because (she said something like) she had not found Hitler that bad.

Her reasoning for this had three elements: i) the judgement demonising Hitler, the individual, was misplaced; he was just a man with reasons for why he was like he was, childhood trauma etc; ii) he was in a society whose responsibility for Nazism must be situated in the historical context of the damage caused to the national psyche by post WW1 reparations; iii) it must be admitted that the Nazi’s did do things which people liked, stabilise the nation, provide employment even if it was at the cost of a common enemy.

This came to mind today thinking about a theme to which Zizek often returns about ideological force implicit in the word tolerance. Tolerance is for him its opposite: to be tolerant of somebody is to accept their difference provided it is not shoved in your face lets say. In this way to be tolerant of someone is to acknowledge that you don’t really like them but you can put up with them, tolerate them. To be tolerant is in the end to be intolerant of them.

Tolerance in its political and religious uses suggests that the other, even that other eventually in violent confrontation with you, is no more than someone who you do not fully understand and who does not by extension, understand you. Such thinking has informed post-apartheid policy in South Africa and in mediation work in Rwanda, bringing victims together with perpetrators of violence, letting them at some level share their humanity from which intra-subjective understanding will emerge offering the possibility of some way out from grief and guilt.

My young friend’s position is analogous to this: Hitler was not so bad but the conditions of his life both personally and historically meant that he was expressing himself in such and such a way. What fascinated me about her point was that she at the age of 13 had developed such a strong position whereby her critical positioning was that no one is to blame and that blame itself is the responsible agent. History taught in the school clearly left the space for such thinking.

Zizek suggests that such reasoning is the expression of a dominant ideological force whereby philosophical and religious ideas that may be radical in intention (we are all equal, you must learn to find yourself) are managing human agency towards a form of radical inaction. Nobody is to blame, everybody is, at most, a misunderstood child coming to terms with a more or less catastrophic gestation.

I feel that my friend’s daughter had obviously imbibed the broader lessons of her schooling (tolerance towards others) and applied them to the field of historical studies.

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