Washington. -- Newt Gingrich's firing of Christina Jeffrey during her first week on the job as house historian was as unfortunate as his hiring of her. Teaching about Nazism (and, for that matter, communism) is done poorly in America, and he shouldn't have fired her for trying to correct that.
The speaker gave this patronage job to a conservative historian undistinguished but for her loyalty to and dependency upon Gingrich. Then he fired her for a 1986 critique of a school history program on the Nazi genocide of Jews and others during World War II. Dr. Jeffrey had written that the course "gives no evidence of objectivity. The Nazi point of view, however unpopular, is still a point of view and is not presented, nor is that of the Ku Klux Klan."
Her charge that the course material was too one-dimensional to meet minimal academic standards is credible; the same is true of most texts on Nazis. The Klan's role in a program on Nazi atrocities was presumably to suggest that the German nightmare of 60 years ago could happen here.
If so, a major reason might be that most Americans know of Nazis only as caricatures: They were conformist goose-steppers (like many armies). They claimed to be a superior breed of people (a belief put forth in almost every culture at one time or another). They were anti-Semitic and persecuted blacks, communists, Gypsies, immigrants and the handicapped (hardly dead paranoias today). They deported and massacred millions of people they regarded as inferior (ethnic cleansing, we might say). And they censored and burned books and denied civil liberties (as do most authoritarians).
This comic-book view may demonize, but it hardly explains Nazis. Our World War II ally, Stalin, ordered many times more murders than the Nazis. Since then, America has supported dictatorships that censor and destroy publications, trample on human rights, promote anti-Semitism, think they're better than other folks and march like toy soldiers.
Polls have never shown America so united as in the 1991 Persian Gulf war to restore to power a dictatorship that does all of the above. Some of our Central American and Persian Gulf clients have even engaged in genocide. The U.S. and its NATO allies are mostly ineffectual witnesses to atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, with the new twist of ethnic mass rape.
Crude caricatures of Nazis do not intellectually equip Americans to identify, let alone to argue against or withstand, a rise of neo-Nazism here. From the history taught in most high school and college courses, how would Americans have any inkling as to what was Nazism? How could they understand the appeal to && Germans in the 1930s of National Socialism? And if they don't understand the appeal, how will they see it coming, if it comes here?
It is fashionable in some liberal circles to condemn right-wing politicians as "Nazis." But few who use the label have a clue to what it means, or would recognize political advocacy in that direction. That Nazism is evil is widely accepted, but suppose it came to us as . . . The New Order? Who would know, and how?
When Dr. Gingrich hired a psychotherapist to teach House Republicans how to use charged buzzwords and psychobabble in casting aspersions on Democrats, did that smack of Josef Goebbels?
Do his calls to curb diverse fonts of knowledge -- from the many House "caucus" legislative service organizations to public broadcasting and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities -- amount to a Nazi-like effort to monopolize information? Or is the speaker trying to free the marketplace of ideas from competition financed by the central government?
When he fires a historian for politically incorrect utterings, is that what the Thousand-Year Reich would have done? Or are calls for her firing and the whole "political correctness" movement more conformist than anti-fascist?
If affirmative action does little for the most disadvantaged blacks, while allowing the best black students to slack off, knowing that they won't need scores as good as their white colleagues to get into the best schools, is that anti-racist, or sophisticated buy-off-the-leaders racism?
When the Los Angeles chapter of the American Mensa Society publishes articles calling for extermination of folks who are old, homeless or retarded, are these self-identified high-IQ people asserting a Nazi-like superiority? Or is it more conformist to suggest that the rest of us are too dumb to debate euthanasia?
Were the Nazis too far left, too far right, too nationalistic and xenophobic, or what?
Does Dr. Gingrich's advocacy of "welfare reform" and orphanages for the offspring of welfare rejects hint at a move toward Nazism? Or is that more true of the present welfare state, as it consigns the poor to high-rise state-defined ghettos, isolated from employed people?
Do federal entitlement programs approach National Socialism, or can that be said of efforts to cut off some benefits?
Are Ross Perot's simplistic railings to be considered a foreshadowing of fascism, or are they clarion calls to individualistic Americans?
Are the "gun nuts" closet Nazis, or are they the likely opposition to any Nazi move in this country? What about those who would ban all firearms, except for police?
In the former Soviet Union, are rising nationalism and support for the Serbs possible harbingers of a resurgence of Nazism in Europe?
Calling for Dr. Jeffrey's firing, Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said her remarks were "an affront to tens of thousands of my constituents who are Holocaust survivors," and to millions of World War II veterans. Yet all she did was criticize a course segment because it provided no understanding of the Nazis.
Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that "The first lesson of history is the good of evil." Whatever her credentials as House historian, Dr. Jeffrey was correct in calling for more understanding of -- which is not to say sympathy for -- "the Nazi point of view."
Among the most-visited attractions in Washington is the U.S. Holocaust Museum, opened in April of 1993. A visit there is a bummer of a day, immersion in the awful history of man's inhumanity to man. Yet 3.4 million people have already visited. The curators, hardly Nazi sympathizers, did not shrink from presenting "the Nazi point of view" along with the horror. We can't say "Never Again" without knowing to what it must be said.
Suppose new Nazis come without jackboots, or master race pretensions. Suppose they have the best PR guidance and spin control as good as their German progenitors? Suppose the sacrificial demons they offer are old people or babes without fathers or immigrants, instead of Jews?
How will we know them? Can we count on the press corps that savaged Dr. Jeffrey to tell us?
Edward Roeder is Washington editor of Sunshine Press, whose latest political reference publication is "Congress on Disk."