Podcast host Dan Carlin has a get rich quick scheme. Write a book about the benefits of Hitler’s Third Reich and bathe in the fame-inducing controversy. The volume would almost surely be a bestseller.
This is particularly clairvoyant in the age of resurgent nationalism and free speech voyeurism. That is to say there is a growing group to whom the book would be consumed affirmatively at face value, i.e. the same group who carried torches in Charlottesville. There would then be those who defended the author against the inevitable backlash, contending that they disagree with the book’s content but defend the essayists First Amendment right to express it. The author could embark on the now well-trodden tri-podcast tour that leads from the Rubin Report to Waking Up to the Joe Rogan Experience.
So why hasn’t anybody written said book?
It seems that the answer lies in the fact that it simply hasn’t been considered by those with the intellectual standing and authorial aptitude to do so. The idea seems absurd to us because our grandfathers fought the Nazis. Holocaust survivors still walk the earth today. An individual born the day that the Berlin wall fell will turn 29 this year. Put simply, the wound is too fresh.
The natural sequitur then arises; how much time has to pass before we remove the moral weight of our modern sociopolitical reality? Further, should history be judged on a sliding moral scale or should we hold one ethical standard in want of reaching objectivity?
It’s illustrative to think about why we attach the label “The Great” to certain historical figures. That taxonomy is unanimously reserved for those who conquered considerable swaths of territory. Cyrus, Charlemagne, Frederick II. George Washington’s heroism lies in his generalship against an oppressor and his subsequent providential presidency, but no one would conflate him with the son of Philip II because he wasn’t a conqueror. That isn’t to say that Washington doesn’t reside among history’s legendary figures, he most certainly does, but he is relegated to the 1B group. The 1A group is reserved for the Alexanders, Caesars, Khans, and Napoleons.
A thought experiment to ponder; what if World War II had gone differently? It’s not so difficult to imagine. Churchill’s “darkest hour” is so called because Britain and the allies had their backs against the wall. Had Hitler not been fighting a two front war and had a few key decisions swung in a divergent direction, it’s entirely conceivable that the Third Reich would have been victorious and would have subsequently annexed considerable territory. Such has been the topic of thousands of pages of bestselling alternative history. It is fascinating because it is eminently plausible.
If this was the reality in which we found ourselves, would Hitler be considered historically great today? The reflexive answer is no, Hitler’s atrocities would not allow him to be venerated. Assuming this is true, would the same hold in 100 years? After all, we can be almost certain that if you asked one of the subjugated people of Eurasia if they thought Genghis Khan would be fancied a reformer to many a future historian, they almost certainly would have answered in the negative. All the rape, pillaging, and brutal murder of innocent people would have informed their words. To take a more recent example Napoleon Bonaparte is revered today, less than 250 years from his death, and has been for some time. Historians discuss his social and military reforms in glowing terms, despite the fact that he brought back slavery in France and brutally subjugated women.
Let’s turn to a slightly more benign issue. How moralizing should we be when we evaluate American presidencies? Conservative history says that it’s not our place to impose our modern values on past leaders. In fact, Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen would have you believe that much of American history represents better times than those we live in today. Leftist historians and social commentators like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky represent the flip side of the coin. To them, Ulysses Grant and Teddy Roosevelt aren’t heroes to be admired but rather oppressive bigots who believed in the superiority of the white race.
It is also worth considering how to weight those individuals who push back against the norms of the sociopolitical environs from which they benefit. For example, George Washington was a slave owner but he despised flogging and almost never allowed slaves to be flagellated by others on his estate without his explicit approval. Reaching further, Julius Caesar was well known for granting clemency to political enemies who had wronged him and often refused his men their burning desire to loot and pillage conquered cities.
There are two ways to evaluate this reality.
Some say it is to the eternal credit of these figures of the past that they showed moral fortitude within the context of their situation. To employ a demonstrative modern example, many believe that human beings in the near future are going to look back at our mass consumption of animals and see it as unethical. If this turns out to be the case, it seems reasonable to credit farmers who allowed their livestock to roam free range over those who stacked chickens on top of each other in cages too small for them to stretch their wings. Sure, the post-animal consumption world will find their killing of animals unethical. With context, however, they were the progressives of their time.
Others say these gestures are largely irrelevant if the individual sows the reimbursements of an immoral system. Julius Caesar extending mercy to the leftovers of the people he just slaughtered or George Washington being nice to the slaves that work his fields isn’t morally courageous. Just because slave ownership was common in the late 18th century doesn’t mean it wasn’t obviously wrong, and anyone who actively decided to purchase human beings doesn’t deserve moral forgiveness because they didn’t beat them as often as was standard. This is analogous to people today who hold deeply racist views but defend themselves because they have a token black friend. Their racism cannot be excused because there is one black person with whom they can be in the same room. We know bigotry is wrong today just as George Washington knew slavery was wrong and Julius Caesar knew sieging a city and murdering its inhabitants was wrong. Moral relativism need not apply.
As with so many things, a consistent worldview lies somewhere in the middle of these two diverging perspectives. To pretend morality is irrelevant to history is a foolish endeavor. Moral judgement should be withheld when it comes to issues like sexual norms or social interactions, not when it relates to slavery or mass killing. At the same time, applying modern morality to 56 BC or 1250 or even 1800 is not a fair methodology. To keep this view consistent, almost anything that is modern must be viewed more favorably than the past. This severely limits a useful study of history.
It is worth thinking about who we uphold as heroes, which is often lost in this discussion. Studying history is how we determine today’s course of action, and who we seek to emulate is immensely important. We should continue to study the accomplishments of Napoleon, Genghis Khan, and Henry VIII but shift the prism in which they are regarded. These are the most important figures of history because of their impact on the world, not because of their heroism. It’s not heroic to conquer Gaul or invade Russia, but it is both amazing and formative in relation to our modern geopolitical reality.
Marcus Porcius Cato and Susan B. Anthony are heroes, as are Martin Luther King and Herodotus. These individuals had their moral faults as well and those should be considered and scrutinized. That said, the end result of their behavior was to impact the world in a way that made it morally better, and thus we are safe to honor them as heroes. The Caesars and Alexanders get all the glory, but these are the figures who are truly great, both in accomplishment and in fundamental goodness.