As if to remind us that bad people can get into power when good or indifferent or aggrieved people put them there, Brunhilde Pomsel, who spent three years working for Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, died this past weekend. She was 106 years old.
In a film about her life released last year, Pomsel said,
I wouldn’t see myself as being guilty. Unless you end up blaming the entire German population for ultimately enabling that government to take control. That was all of us. Including me.
I know I have often wondered what I would have done if I had lived in Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s. We should remember that the resistance to Nazism started long before Hitler began to exterminate the Jews and other “inferior” people and make war in Europe. Some people saw it coming and, of course, we all would like to think we would have been dissidents like, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who passionately resisted the Nazis and paid for it with his life. Part of a group of resisters whose plot to kill Adolph Hitler failed in July of 1944, Bonhoeffer was hanged in April of 1945, just two weeks before the concentration camp in which he was held was liberated by U.S. troops. Another two weeks after that, Nazi Germany was no more.
Brunhilde Pomsel addressed those who, far from the real-time dominance of Nazism in pre-war Germany, still have harsh words for Germans who didn’t do enough to stop what we can all today clearly see as unspeakable horror:
The people who today say they would have done more for those poor, persecuted Jews… I really believe that they sincerely mean it. But they wouldn’t have done it either. By then the whole country was under some kind of dome. We ourselves were all inside a huge concentration camp.
I don’t want to overstate this. I want to be careful. America under Tr-mp is no concentration camp. There is no “dome” over the country. We see massive protests against Tr-mp’s actions almost on a daily basis. The ACLU is enjoying massive fundraising to fight those actions in court. We see something that looks like unparalleled historical resistance to Trumpism. But as we can also see, Trumpism is different from anything we have witnessed in modern American history and we don’t know how this will all end. Therefore, we need to try to understand it.
No doubt you have heard by now that Tr-mp gave his chief political strategist, Steven Bannon, former head of a white nationalist-racist website called Breitbart “News,” a regular seat on the National Security Council, while reportedly downgrading the roles of the director of national intelligence and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There has been a lot written about this already, and a lot written about Bannon, but, like so many other events surrounding the strange and dangerous times in which we are living, I want my views on the record.
We don’t have to speculate what is in the mind of Steve Bannon. We have the website he ran, which is itself enough to scare anyone who can read. But we also have an eye-opening, heart-stopping Skype appearance he made in 2014 at a conference put on by a right-wing Christian group (“think tank”) called the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. Here is how the group—which is closely tied to reactionaries within the Catholic Church, most of whom don’t at all like Pope Francis—describe their mission:
Our primary aim is to promote this vision of authentic human dignity mainly by supporting Christians in public life, assisting them in presenting effective and coherent responses to increasing efforts to silence the Christian voice in the public square.
Now, you can easily see that the premise for this mission is that Christianity—read: Western Christian Civilization, since the focus of this group is in Europe—is under siege. Christians are being attacked by secularists. They are being attacked by Muslims. They are being marginalized, “silenced.” The response to this clash of civilizations, at least for DHI, is “through the active participation of the Christian faith in the public square.” To that end, they invited Steve Bannon, who they now feature on their website, to address their 2014 conference at the Vatican.
Buzzfeed has helpfully transcribed Bannon’s remarks, which are available in an audio version and some excerpts on YouTube. I will provide long passages of his thoughts here (which I have highlighted), and ask you to keep in mind that this man may be closer to Donald Tr-mp than anyone around him. Bannon essentially sleeps in Tr-mp’s troubled mind. Here you go:
I want to talk about wealth creation and what wealth creation really can achieve and maybe take it in a slightly different direction, because I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. And it’s really the organizing principle of how we built Breitbart News to really be a platform to bring news and information to people throughout the world. Principally in the West, but we’re expanding internationally to let people understand the depths of this crisis, and it is a crisis both of capitalism but really of the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West in our beliefs.
It’s ironic, I think, that we’re talking today at exactly, tomorrow, 100 years ago, at the exact moment we’re talking, the assassination took place in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that led to the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the bloodiest century in mankind’s history. Just to put it in perspective, with the assassination that took place 100 years ago tomorrow in Sarajevo, the world was at total peace. There was trade, there was globalization, there was technological transfer, the High Church of England and the Catholic Church and the Christian faith was predominant throughout Europe of practicing Christians. Seven weeks later, I think there were 5 million men in uniform and within 30 days there were over a million casualties.
That war triggered a century of barbaric — unparalleled in mankind’s history — virtually 180 to 200 million people were killed in the 20th century, and I believe that, you know, hundreds of years from now when they look back, we’re children of that: We’re children of that barbarity. This will be looked at almost as a new Dark Age.
But the thing that got us out of it, the organizing principle that met this, was not just the heroism of our people — whether it was French resistance fighters, whether it was the Polish resistance fighters, or it’s the young men from Kansas City or the Midwest who stormed the beaches of Normandy, commandos in England that fought with the Royal Air Force, that fought this great war, really the Judeo-Christian West versus atheists, right? The underlying principle is an enlightened form of capitalism, that capitalism really gave us the wherewithal. It kind of organized and built the materials needed to support, whether it’s the Soviet Union, England, the United States, and eventually to take back continental Europe and to beat back a barbaric empire in the Far East.
That capitalism really generated tremendous wealth. And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who come from really working-class environments and created what we really call a Pax Americana. It was many, many years and decades of peace. And I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.
As you can see, Bannon is not a stupid man. Unlike Tr-mp, he has been educated, as well as indoctrinated. He has a philosophical-theological view of the world that goes way beyond anything Tr-mp is capable of grasping, let alone articulating. Bannon goes on in his talk to describe three distinct forms of capitalism. He negatively discusses “crony capitalism” and “Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism,” contrasted against “the ‘enlightened capitalism’ of the Judeo-Christian West.” He worries that young people are being seduced by Randian capitalism:
And if they don’t see another alternative, it’s going to be an alternative that they gravitate to under this kind of rubric of “personal freedom.”
Bannon then mentions “an immense secularization of the West,” which he again ties to our youth:
I know we’ve talked about secularization for a long time, but if you look at younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration.
So, Bannon is worried about young people being attracted to a selfish form of capitalism and a secularization of culture, which secularization many find liberating, but people like Bannon find threatening.
Next, he turns to ISIS and its use of “the tools of capitalism,” including Twitter and Facebook, crowdsourcing, and so on. The intent, though, seems again to cast ISIS in a struggle against the Christian West. He says,
They have driven 50,000 Christians out of a town near the Kurdish border. We have video that we’re putting up later today on Breitbart where they’ve took 50 hostages and thrown them off a cliff in Iraq.
That war is expanding and it’s metastasizing to sub-Saharan Africa. We have Boko Haram and other groups that will eventually partner with ISIS in this global war, and it is, unfortunately, something that we’re going to have to face, and we’re going to have to face very quickly.
Now, it is important to note here, first, that these Islamic extremist groups kill many more Muslims than Christians. Bannon focused only on the awful death of Christians. Second, ISIS is not conducting anything that can be called a “global war.” Even in 2014, when Bannon spoke these words, ISIS was not a threat to the world in the sense that it constituted a force that could destroy Western Civilization. ISIS could and can strike Western civilians here and there, mostly through “inspired” cells or individuals, and they are fighting and losing against Western-trained and supervised Muslim soldiers, but they had and have no ability to build and hold a caliphate. They are losing ground every day.
But this elevated idea of “radical Islamic terrorism” is a powerful one among many Christians in the West, especially reactionaries who, like Bannon, believe several forces are at “war” with Christianity and the civilization it both created and then “saved.” All right-wing media is obsessed with this idea. You see it everywhere, particularly on Fox “News.” And Bannon’s Breitbart.com is now perhaps the number one purveyor of this view worldwide.
In any case, during his Skype talk beamed into the Vatican, Bannon went on to appeal to the moral “purpose”of legitimate “Christian” capitalism and gave the gathered Christian reactionaries a chillingly misguided view of the world:
So I think the discussion of, should we put a cap on wealth creation and distribution? It’s something that should be at the heart of every Christian that is a capitalist — “What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us, that divine providence has given us to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?”
I think it really behooves all of us to really take a hard look and make sure that we are reinvesting that back into positive things. But also to make sure that we understand that we’re at the very beginning stages of a global conflict, and if we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries that this conflict is only going to metastasize.
They have a Twitter account up today, ISIS does, about turning the United States into a “river of blood” if it comes in and tries to defend the city of Baghdad. And trust me, that is going to come to Europe. That is going to come to Central Europe, it’s going to come to Western Europe, it’s going to come to the United Kingdom. And so I think we are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism, and on top of that we’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.
There’s that term “global war” again. That is how these people see the world. There is a cosmic struggle going on between the forces of good—Christianity and the capitalist civilization it built in Europe and the U.S.—and the forces of evil—secularization and “Islamic fascism,” which as we now know with Tr-mp’s latest Executive Order on travel restrictions, has essentially been reduced to simply Islam.
Bannon’s global war involves American teapartiers, as well as teapartiers in Europe, who are, he says, on the side of “middle-class and working-class people.” This is where the idea of populism is married to extremist Christianity. This is the hook that helped Tr-mp pull in a crucial number of working-class voters in crucial places in November. Bannon calls it a “center-right revolt” that “is really a global revolt.” He says the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the government’s response to it fueled the rise of the tea party. He says the “bailouts in 2008 were wrong.” In so many ways on this subject, Bannon sounds like Bernie Sanders. Like here:
So you can understand why middle-class people having a tough go of it making $50 or $60 thousand a year and see their taxes go up, and they see that their taxes are going to pay for government sponsored bailouts, what you’ve created is really a free option. You say to this investment banking, create a free option for bad behavior. In otherwise all the upside goes to the hedge funds and the investment bank, and to the crony capitalist with stock increases and bonus increases. And their downside is limited, because middle-class people are going to come and bail them out with tax dollars.
And that’s what I think is fueling this populist revolt. Whether that revolt is in the Midlands of England, or whether it’s in Middle America. And I think people are fed up with it.
You can see how this message, which Tr-mp consistently voiced after Bannon came on board to provide some campaign message discipline, managed to bring a electorally sufficient number of Bernie supporters and union workers Tr-mp’s way. But this, again, is a troubling marriage of legitimate economic concerns about crony capitalism and Randian selfishness with a very dangerous narrative about Christianity involved in a holy war, particularly with Islam, which has some 1.6 billion adherents.
Bannon responded to a questioner at the event who asked what was “the major threat today, to the Judeo-Christian Civilization?” Bannon mentioned how “secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals,” but then quickly pivoted to the real target:
But I strongly believe that whatever the causes of the current drive to the caliphate was — and we can debate them, and people can try to deconstruct them — we have to face a very unpleasant fact. And that unpleasant fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act [unintelligible].
You can see that Bannon’s mindset—and he is absolutely convinced he is right—is that there is, already, an absolute clash of religions that will end in a real “global war” (again that term). If you need more convincing on how Donald Tr-mp’s closest adviser sees the world, and how the events around the world are dangerously and frighteningly cast as a holy war of honor, he ended his part of the discussion with an answer to another questioner, which I will present in full:
Questioner: One of my questions has to do with how the West should be responding to radical Islam. How, specifically, should we as the West respond to jihadism without losing our own soul? Because we can win the war and lose ourselves at the same time. How should the West respond to radical Islam and not lose itself in the process?
Bannon: From a perspective — this may be a little more militant than others. I think definitely you’re going to need an aspect that is [unintelligible]. I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam. And I realize there are other aspects that are not as militant and not as aggressive and that’s fine.
If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places… It bequeathed to use the great institution that is the church of the West.
And I would ask everybody in the audience today, because you really are the movers and drivers and shakers and thought leaders in the Catholic Church today, is to think, when people 500 years from now are going to think about today, think about the actions you’ve taken — and I believe everyone associated with the church and associated with the Judeo-Christian West that believes in the underpinnings of that and believes in the precepts of that and want to see that bequeathed to other generations down the road as it was bequeathed to us, particularly as you’re in a city like Rome, and in a place like the Vatican, see what’s been bequeathed to us — ask yourself, 500 years from today, what are they going to say about me? What are they going to say about what I did at the beginning stages of this crisis?
Because it is a crisis, and it’s not going away. You don’t have to take my word for it. All you have to do is read the news every day, see what’s coming up, see what they’re putting on Twitter, what they’re putting on Facebook, see what’s on CNN, what’s on BBC. See what’s happening, and you will see we’re in a war of immense proportions. It’s very easy to play to our baser instincts, and we can’t do that. But our forefathers didn’t do it either. And they were able to stave this off, and they were able to defeat it, and they were able to bequeath to us a church and a civilization that really is the flower of mankind, so I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do what I call a gut check, to really think about what our role is in this battle that’s before us.
Brunhilde Pomsel died this weekend. The Nazism she served died in 1945. One of the filmmakers who told her story spoke to CNN about meeting with her on her 106th birthday just weeks ago:
She was just an old woman, very weak. But she was still very interested in international politics. She hoped that her life story would be a warning to present and future generations about the dangers of right-wing extremism.
Let me be clear about this: Trumpism is right-wing extremism, even if it is divorced from Nazism or paleo-fascism or racism. It is right-wing extremism, even if it is married to legitimate concerns about the exploitation of the working class through crony capitalism or Randian economics. There is more than one feature to Trumpism’s ideology, just as Hitler’s Nazi Party featured prominently both German nationalism and antisemitism.
What does link these two ideologies, though, is the idea of cultural superiority and the idea that such superiority is being lost. In Hitler’s case, it was the superiority of the Aryan “master race” and the culture he was trying to restore to greatness, no matter the cost. In the case of Trumpism, as Steve Bannon represents it, the Christian West is under attack, its existence is gravely threatened, and it must be defended or else. Remember his description of what he is defending: “a church and a civilization that really is the flower of mankind.”
I happen to believe that what we call Western Civilization, as it has developed over time, is the best way to achieve the greatest amount of well-being for mankind. I don’t think there’s much doubt about that, given what we have seen throughout history. And whatever role Christianity played in its rise, the values that make our civilization the best of all the alternatives have nothing to do with the church, or the Church. If Western Civilization is a flower, it is not a Christian flower. It is not a Jewish or Islamic flower. We really shouldn’t consider it a Western flower. If it is truly valuable as a way to increase well-being in the world, rather than a mechanism to spread Christianity, it has to be truly “the flower of mankind.” All mankind, East and West.
And if we don’t push back on the view that Christian civilization is at war with the rest of the world, what we now call the West will, indeed, be at war with the rest of the world. Ironically, if Western Civilization is lost, it will be lost not because a small group of Islamic psychopaths destroyed it, but because Christian warriors pledging to defend it overreacted to a relatively small threat and betrayed its most essential values.