Why We Shouldn’t Hate Nazis

What Reading Tolstoy Can Teach Us About The Rise of Hatred

Napoleon enters Moscow as it burns following the battle of Borodino

Like many others, I’ve been trying to understand the sudden rise to prominence of Nazis and hate groups. Did 8 years of a black President really set back race relations in America? Did the rise of Trump allow all of these people who secretly harbored hatred for other races and immigrants to shed their disguises? Is Naziism simply a better political philosophy than history has given it credit for? These explanations didn’t add up, and while it would have been easy to dismiss these people as racist bigots, that didn’t feel right either.

I’ve recently read stories that further complicated the situation. In the first, Kevin Wilshaw, a gay, Jewish man quits his position of leadership in a white supremacist organization, with his only explanation for joining and leading a group that is directly opposed to his own existence being that he was lonely and wanted to be a part of something. In the second, a black man asks a neo-Nazi at a Richard Spencer event why he hates him, and can get no response out of the man, until finally, after much emotional distress and a hug, the man responds, “I don’t know.” This is a powerful statement on its own. A man has publicly voiced his support for a philosophy of hatred, declared his own race to be superior to all others, risked being ostracized by normal society, and donned a symbol of hatred associated with one of the most vile regimes to ever come to power, all for no apparent reason. Despite his lack of an answer, the question still stands: Why?

I couldn’t put together a cohesive moral story for the actions of these disenfranchised young men until I came across a passage in War and Peace in which Tolstoy describes the attitude of soldiers towards prisoners in the aftermath of the destruction of Moscow during Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia.

“This is it! … It’s back again!” Pierre said to himself, and an involuntary shiver ran down his spine. In the change that had come over the corporal’s face, the sound of his voice and the rousing, deafening drum-tattoo Pierre recognized the mysterious, inhuman force that drove people against their will to murder their fellow men, the force he had seen working to full effect during the execution. There was no point in panicking, or trying to avoid this force, or appealing on bended knee to the men who were acting as its implements. This much Pierre had learnt. You just had to wait and stick it out.

Tolstoy describes a force that drives people to do horrific things against their will. I had been trying, and failing, to understand hatred as a choice, hatred as an emotional end, hatred as a rationalized emotion that made sense in the twisted world these men had constructed for themselves, when the key to understanding them was to understand that they were not acting out of rational choice, or even irrational passion. They were being driven by a collective force that exists outside of them, that none of them could individually explain or describe.

This collective force is part of the natural human desire to fit in with a group. Hate groups appeal to men with no prospects because they provide a sense of community and belonging, which is also where they derive their power. Who hasn’t stretched the truth to fit in better when talking to friends? Whether it’s acting like you know a band better than you do, or pretending you like sushi more than you do, everyone is familiar with the contortions of self that are necessary to smooth group social experiences. The rise of hate groups is a lesson in how those distortions can add up to violent ends. That’s why the neo-Nazi had no answer for the protestor, and why there are so many stories of people renouncing their white-supremacist beliefs after sitting down and having a conversation with a black man. They hate to fit in, and they never question their beliefs.

It’s the ability of a group to perpetuate beliefs that none of its members individually support that explains the rise of white supremacist and hate groups. These groups manufacture hatred, and angry young men consume it, and by doing so they find a target for their directionless angst. Instead of futilely being angry at the world for their station, they can blame minorities and immigrants. By joining a hate group, they can give their unhappy lives meaning, and, as the story of Kevin Wilshaw shows, that is a powerful thing.

Meanwhile, the leaders of these groups cynically exploit these men’s anger for their own craven ends: power, wealth, and fame. They no more believe in what they are saying than a salesman peddling snake-oil, but their words provoke their misguided followers to commit acts of violence and do real harm to society. Instead of imagining the lives of immigrants and minorities, and realizing that their suffering is the same, the followers of these groups dehumanize them and turn against them, while being blind to the outright manipulation of their leaders.

Through this lens, three things are necessary for the rise of hate groups:

  1. Angry young people, who suffer due to an impassive, impersonal force
  2. Demagogues, who exploit these men’s suffering for their own gain
  3. The inhuman force that collectively leads humans in groups to commit horrific acts against their will

Currently, there are plenty of angry young people suffering at the hands of the economy, drug addiction, and the general decline of American social fabric. There will always be demagogues seeking power, especially when given a voice on the Internet, but it is only in hard times that their words will resonate. And the inhuman force is as much a part of humanity as love, creativity, and forgiveness.

As for why all of this means we shouldn’t hate Nazis, the answer is clear. These groups have power because they offer their followers something they aren’t getting from the rest of society: a feeling of belonging, being a part of something, being cared for, being a part of something larger than themselves. Society has failed them, and driven them into the open arms of hate groups. They give their hard, unhappy, meaningless lives meaning. Hating them only reinforces the lesson they’ve learned: that society doesn’t care about them and they’re better off on the fringe. To stop hate groups, we have to remove their power — we have to show their followers that we do care about them, that they can find meaning in life without resorting to hatred, and that there is a better way. We can’t do that by hating them.

What can we do instead? Show them that we care. As Tolstoy proclaims, there is little point in appealing to them when they’re controlled by the inhuman force that drives their hatred. Instead, we have to reach out at other times, when they’re vulnerable and open, as friends. People don’t become angry and isolated overnight, it’s a gradual process, as they realize that other people aren’t trying to understand their problems and don’t care about them. We have to show them that we care.