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Nazi Modern

Soon, the twentieth century will be put into a museum. Its curators will face many difficult tasks: how to arrange its galleries and exhibits, and where to put the horror of Nazism? In one scenario, the museum might be dominated by a long corridor, a spatial counterpart to a time line, with the central gallery culminating in a triumphant display of democratic political systems, market-oriented economies, and thoroughly global communications, a display whose artifacts might include the “Good War,” the Internet, and the Kronos Quartet. Approaching these objects through the central gallery, one would pass a series of other corridors diverging to the left and the right, corridors housing shrill political manifestos, uniformed youth brigades, and pale-colored ration cards, all recalling the once confident enemies of liberalism: the communists, the fascists, the Nazis, and other political “utopians.” The central gallery would serve as a reliable moral compass, celebrating the righteousness of the West (France, the United States, and Great Britain), drawing attention to the once wayward East (Germany and Russia). The defining event of the century would be World War II, one that put in proper place and perspective the entire century. National Socialism, in particular, would provide a frightening, anachronistic contrast to the political liberty and social emancipation that Europe has achieved in the last decades. Yet such a marvelous museum might well be too perfect. Outside, the furies of nationalism, the prospect of wholesale ecological degradation, and persistent economic fears would continue to assault the certainties on display inside. [End Page 1]

Alternatively, to acknowledge the indeterminate aspects of our own fin de siècle, the gallery could be laid out less strictly, less confidently. Instead of a central gallery with diverging corridors to regulate the flow of impressions, the building would house a shifting configuration of clusters and nodes, and exhibits from the same decade might be widely scattered and juxtaposed with apparently alien materials. The artifacts would be assembled not to reveal the twentieth century’s progressive advance, but to trace and dramatize its curious collaborations, the collusions that made the century possible: the different histories that it drew upon, the glorious nostalgias that it fashioned, and the various futures that it imagined. Whereas the first museum would house the displays of liberal modernization, celebrating the enhanced ability of individuals to mobilize resources in the context of a highly differentiated capitalist economy and an open political democracy, the second would chart the genealogies of modernism, tracing the different ways that people and institutions have tinkered to make themselves secure in the dangerous zones of a constantly changing world. 1 Obviously, Nazism has a claim for inclusion in such a retrospective exhibition because it provided one, albeit extreme, answer to the economic and political crises of post-World War I Germany. Its claim is compelling not because National Socialism bears resemblance to the modern democracies of the period after World War II, or because it adopted and celebrated automobiles, airplanes, and other futuristic technology, but because it conceived of Germany as both the object of the social and economic forces of industrialization and, thanks to those same forces, as a potential subject that possessed the capacity to reorganize political life and prosper amid dangerous conditions. The Nazis were modernists because they made the acknowledgment of the radical instability of twentieth-century life the premise of relentless experimentation.

For most historians, Nazism has been regarded as the improbable outcome of disastrous political and economic conditions. Germany’s precipitous military defeat in 1918, the near civil-war conditions that followed the revolution, the hyperinflation of 1922 and 1923, the long-winded recession in the mid-1920s, and finally the devastation of the Great Depression all added up to a worst-case scenario in which the rise of Hitler becomes comprehensible. Almost any textbook on the Weimar Republic will take readers through this house of horrors and lead them straight to the Nazi seizure of power in January 1933. (Indeed, Nazis and neo-Nazis are routinely regarded as the most reliable register of the troubles of both the first and the second German republics; Nazism, seen in this way, stands for system failures...