At The Baffler website, Megan Carpentier takes the occasion of Trump’s election to point out the folly of the Great Man theory of history. The horrific crimes of the Nazi party, she says, were the work not of only one maniacal leader and his ilk, but of a population largely willing to go along with them, even if they didn’t actively participate. To think that history is made otherwise is to absolve ourselves of shared responsibility—and to deprive ourselves of the agency to put history on a different course. Here’s an excerpt:
We like to think of Hitler and the Nazis as uniquely evil, but the Holocaust wasn’t just committed by Hitler and the 10 percent or so of Germans who joined the Nazi party: it was committed by tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of people throughout Europe and even the Soviet Union, many of whom said they were “just following orders,” and abetted by men and women across the continent who, at best, simply looked away as atrocities were committed in their names.
That infamous Nuremburg defense, of course, takes on new meaning when a President Elect has suggested that he will order members of the military to torture prisoners, create (or resurrect) a Muslim registry and encouraged his supporters to engage in acts of violence against protesters. We all like to think that we’d stand up to wholesale abrogations of our fellow Americans’ constitutional rights (or, at least, for the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness). But a large body of psychological research suggests that once we’re ordered to do something atrocious, we feel relieved of the burden of feeling guilty about doing it. As matters stand, we have to train college kids to intervene when they witness sexual assaults, because the most common psychological reaction to being a bystander to an atrocity is . . . to stand by.
We’ve already instructed generations of Americans to believe that history is made by Great Men who carry the rest of us along, rather than millions of individuals’ decisions (in and out of the voting booth). The scariest question to consider in 2017 and beyond isn’t whether President Trump will use the power of the federal government to commit acts that many of us, under other circumstances, might consider at least travesties and at worst atrocities. It is, rather, the question of whether Americans will shrug their shoulders, cheer him on as long as the economy improves, or participate.
Image: A sticker on a signpost in Belgium. Via The Baffler.