Re: Nazi Thought Contagion

Aaron Lynch (
Tue, 07 Oct 1997 17:03:59 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 17:03:59 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Nazi Thought Contagion
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Aaron Lynch responding to Nick Rose:

Hi Nick.

>Some thoughts, comments and general devil's advocacy about your
>piece on Nazism:=20

At least it's not F=FChrer's advocacy! ;-)

>1) The adversative mode - an alternative hypothesis
>It is certain that emotional involvement in an argument is a
>powerful device, but for what purpose? This reminds me of
>Ridley's 'Origins of Virtue' where in one section he talks about
>the role of emotional display in terms of supporting tit-for-tat
>kinds of altruism. Reciprocal altruism (from classical
>sociobiology) requires some 'faith' on the part of the giver -
>that the receiver will reciprocate. By expressing emotion (which
>Ridley describes as increasing our investment in the deal) we can
>demonstrate our readiness to reciprocate, or our outrage at being
>cheated. If I steal money off you and you go beserk, I can see
>by your investment of emotion that it may not be worth my while
>keeping the money - and give it back. Is the Nazi's use of
>emotion a device to support reciprocal altruism. Are people
>(neutral to the argument) intimidated by the Nazi threats - or
>convinced by the epic display of emotion that the Nazi is
>justified when he complains of crimes committed against him and
>his race.

Actually, I would not attribute the theory of reciprocal altruism purely to
"classical sociobiology." Axelrod's seminal work in this field, THE
EVOLUTION OF COOPERATION (Basic Books, 1984) discussed both genetic and
cultural modes in the evolution of reciprocal altruism. Classical
sociobiology gets credit for kin selection and inclusive fitness.

I would say that the underlying mechanisms of tit-for-tat style altruism
may well have been exploited by the Nazi ideology, bearing in mind that the
ideology falsely informed its hosts that they had been "defected against"
by the Jews, the Communists, etc. Yet the sincerity of the subsequent epic
rage displays could well have won persuasive receptivity in freshly exposed
neutral listeners. They might well have thought "this guy must REALLY TRULY
have been wronged in order to have become so resentful and angry." Though
it is not a specifically adversative mechanism, it tends to augment, not
displace, the adversative propagation effect of intimidating the
non-neutral opponents into silence.=20

>Given that much German insecurity at the time was due to their
>feeling that they had been hard done by at the WWI armistice -
>losing much territory, extortionate reparations, etc. I think it
>would be simplistic to suggest that people did not stand up
>against Nazi memes simply because they were intimidated. I
>certainly think that both the British and American governments
>(and probably popular opinion) became convinced that perhaps the
>German people had been hard done by. Which is why they did
>nothing when Hitler marched back into the third Reich.

My argument regarding intimidation pertains only to those people who
disagreed with the Nazi message not voicing their disagreement. What you
are saying about the particulars of Nazi ideology and World War I explains
why some listeners were sympathetic. But bear in mind that Nazism
out-propagated other right-wing nationalist movements from 1919 until 1933.
It started on a truly tiny scale, unknown to the outside world. My article
addresses mainly the long propagation from obscurity to viability in
national elections, not the subsequent toleration, sympathy, and
appeasement from outside powers.=20

>2) The origin of Nazi Anti-Semitism?
>The Jewish consiracy, which many Nazi's blamed for coming out of
>WWI so badly, was certainly used as justification for the
>deportation, and eventually extermination of that people. But as
>you point out anti-Semitism was hardly new. Examples off the top
>of my head include the spanish inquisition, and the behaviour of
>many of the armies travelling to the crusades (which took the
>opportunity to harrass the Jews of the Rhine - certainly in the
>1097(?) crusade). Medieval Christianity certainly contains many
>examples of anti-Semitism - but the Nazi's hardly appeared to be
>employing medieval christian doctrine. You say that
>anti-Semitism has its origins in the memetic evolution of
>Christianity - but there is (to my knowledge) no evidence of such
>neotony occurring in 1930's Germany within Christian thinking.=20
>Indeed much of Nazi racial thinking was based on a perversion of
>Darwinism - which you entirely fail to mention!

Anti-Semitic memes had long since started to propagate as social and
political thought contagions, as opposed to specifically religious thought
contagions. Hitler, for instance, held anti-Semitic memes long before he
knew he would go into politics. I can state that anti-Semitism had its
origins in the evolution of Christianity, but this does not require that it
remain forever attached to Christianity or that 20th century anti-Semites
were all Christians. Consider, for comparison, that triskaidekaphobia has
its origins in a numbering system long since forgotten!

>3) What about Communism in 1930's Germany?
>Many of the processes and points you make about the Nazi's could
>also be held for the Communists at the time; they were not
>opposed to using violence and being aggressive in debates, the
>upper classes as part of a conspiracy to keep the worker poor,
>the attraction of wealth confiscation (from the rich), etc.

>Your model for the success of Nazism in 1930's Germany is
>interesting - but why did it succeed over it's chief rival ...
>Communism?? (which had been so successful in Russia). I mean
>can it be described in terms of differential survival. It is one
>thing to say that Nazism was a good replicator - but another to
>say why Nazism was a better replicator than another ideology.=20
>Without this the story is incomplete - IMO

Indeed, my treatment was brief and focused on the Nazis. Even in this, it
only helps explain how belief propagation proceeded far enough to put
Hitler into contention for national office. The memes of Machiavelli and
then some had much to do with how he became "F=FChrer" in the political
struggle for with other national figures, without gaining an absolute
majority of votes.

Yet the Nazis were indeed the most aggressive, militaristic, and armed of
the political parties from an early stage. Part of this actually flows from
the particular match of memes and their propagation environment: the memes
were strongly nationalistic, which gave them disproportionate receptivity
among the military and the WWI veterans. This, of course, meant a greater
flow of armed, tough, and militarily trained men into the Nazi movement.
That in turn made Nazism more intimidating and adversatively effective than
German Communism, whose ideology did not focus on German nationalism.
National Socialism was also politically palatable to a fair fraction of the
working class, while Communism had trouble among the middle class. Of
course many other particulars come into play...

Thanks for the interesting comments.=20

--Aaron Lynch

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