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Tocqueville and/or Hitler?

"Ushering in Banality," by Jeff Koons, 1988

Jeff Koons, Ushering in Banality, 1988

1,562 words

A quick quiz: who said the following, the great interpreter of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville or the German dictator Adolf Hitler:

  • “In general, only simple ideas can take hold of the mind of the people. A false, but clear and precise idea will always have more power in the world than a true but complex idea” (253).
  • “[T]here is in this world only patriotism, or religion, which can make all citizens walk for long towards a common goal” (159).
  • “The most dangerous of ills which is threatening the future of the United States is born of the presence of the Blacks on its soil” (499).
  • “So long as a religion finds its strength in feelings, instincts, and passions which one sees reproduce themselves in the same way throughout all historical epochs, it overcomes the efforts of time, or at least it can be destroyed only by another religion” (440).
  • “Strength is then often one of the first conditions for the happiness and even existence of nations. [. . .] I know of no more deplorable condition than that of a people which cannot defend or depend upon itself” (249).
  • “They [colonial Americans] then transported the legislation of a rude and half-civilization people [the Israelites] within a society whose spirit was enlightened and whose customs were gentle” (83).
  • “Do you see that opulent citizen? Does he not resemble a Jew of the Middle Ages who fears showing his wealth?” (273).

The person who said all of these things was of course Tocqueville,[1] but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Hitler, for he made much the same points. I don’t know if the similarities struck me because I was reading Democracy in America around the same time I first ventured through Mein Kampf. I had the distinct impression that Hitler had read Tocqueville’s big famous book before sitting down to write (dictate) his own big famous book. But who knows, great minds thinking alike and all that.[2]

I am not saying Tocqueville would have approved of German National Socialism. There are obviously differences of emphasis: Tocqueville notes the importance of national power and sovereignty; Hitler virtually reduces the notion of “freedom” to these. For Tocqueville, individual liberty (notably freedom of the press) and limited government were checks, however imperfect, on democratic tyranny, whereas Hitler advocated in effect an unabashedly authoritarian dictatorship destined to be an aristocracy, in order to maximize German freedom understood as national power and sovereignty. Tocqueville is also an able critic, no doubt inspired by the Napoleonic example, of apparently providential “great men” and the limits of state power. He in effect describes the vanity of Napoleonic power in the face of the steady rise of Americanism, prefiguring Americanism’s later annihilation of Prussiandom.

Nonetheless, I am struck at the number of arguments Tocqueville and Hitler both made:

  • That equality is a lie and that the public should be enlightened through an aristocracy.
  • That ethno-cultural homogeneity was a tremendous virtue in any society and indeed a precondition for nationhood.
  • That individual selfishness can be attenuated, or even sublimated, in defense of the public good through appeals to a civil-religious patriotism.
  • That citizens can be made to invest themselves in and identify with the public good through participation in government. (In Tocqueville, through township democracy, in Hitler, through participation in the various activities of the party-state.)
  • That the maintenance of class distinctions is doomed and futile. (Tocqueville asserts the impossibility of maintaining discrete classes in the modern age in the face of a kind of inevitable meritocracy, as intelligent and disciplined bourgeois worm their way up. Hitler makes a virtue of this with an absolute cult of meritocracy and war on class prejudice. In this limited sense, I do not believe it is provocative to deem Hitler a Tocquevillean democrat.)
  • Both foresaw the rise of America and Russia, as contiguous nation-continents, to eventually dominate Europe, something Hitler saw a disaster which had to be prevented by whatever means necessary.

Of course, when Hitler makes any of these observations, this is proof of his dark cynicism and hatred (I distinctly remember this in school), whereas when Tocqueville does it, it is testimony to the enlightened subtlety of his democratic theory.

Tocqueville, as a proud French aristocrat, refers to “our forefathers, the Germanics” (483), because the French aristocracy was said to descend from the Frankish conquerors who had founded the monarchy (and, incidentally, given their name to the country). In this respect, the Germanophobic French Republic — with Sieyès’ call to topple the “foreign” (because Germanic-descended) French aristocracy and the Third Republic’s refrain of “our ancestors, the Gaulish,” specifically to deny to Germanic component in the French nation — was an enormous regression which contributed to the fratricidal world wars.

I am not the only one who has noticed these parallels between Tocquevillean and Hitlerian thought, though the issue seems to be underinvestigated.

The noted French-Jewish demographer Emmanuel Todd has argued that, in overcoming old class distinctions, Hitler’s revolution “represented for Germany a critical moment of democratization.”[3] SS General Léon Degrelle, who after the war recounted that Hitler had once said to him, “If I had a son, I would want him to be like you,” wrote a lengthy book entitled Hitler démocrate.

John Lewis Gaddis, the top American Cold War historian, was quite struck by Tocqueville and Hitler’s predictions of Russian/American domination. (Gaddis, while very conventionally anti-Hitler, also claims in passing that Stalin was more authoritarian and murderous.)

The anti-Hitler historian John Lukacs observes:

Allow me now to return to Tocqueville (whom Hitler had surely not read, and who would have been anathema to him). [. . .] In the Third Reich, the majority gave not only its passive but its active consent to the Führer. Hitler was more of a populist (and, in the broadest sense of the term, more of a democrat) than Napoleon III, more so than other dictators, such as those in South America or Mussolini or Kemal. As a matter of fact (as he himself said), Hitler was not really a typical dictator — but this was not, as some of the Functionalist historians argue, because he was hesitant, circumscribed by his bureaucracy, or “weak.” He was more than a dictator; he was something else. “The old tyrants,” Chesterton said, “invoked the past; the new tyrants will invoke the future.”[4]

Strange as it may seem, Hitler and the National Socialists claimed that “the people” ruled in the Third Reich, as was claimed in the United States of America, the French Republic, and the Soviet Union. National Socialist rhetoric and propaganda largely agreed with the form, if not the content, of Abraham Lincoln’s famous slogan of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” For the National Socialists, the Third Reich was a people’s regime in the truest sense, symbolized for instance in the proliferating use of the prefix Volks- to refer to innumerable concepts and institutions.

I will not attempt to provide a full account of National Socialist theory of popular government. But suffice to say that the fascists believed liberal democracy to be at best misguided and at worst a fraud: individuals are unequal, therefore the principle of “one man, one vote” is invalid as a legitimizing principle. And anyway, the “liberal democracies” are actually dominated by the oligarchic and media elites who bribe politicians and shape public opinion. Furthermore, as Carl Schmitt noted, the “liberal democracies” are happy to in effect become basically arbitrary temporary dictatorships in wartime, and nothing is more common than for a liberal democracy to go to war without the people’s consent. (The latter two points, it seems to me, have been the most decisive factors in Western history in that most decisive first half of the twentieth century.)

For National Socialists, the only reality of popular rule is when the most patriotic and enlightened elements of the population rule. When the Germans with the greatest feeling of being German rule, then one can say Germany rules itself. (As opposed to when a bunch of internationalist politicians with ties to foreign powers and global plutocracy rule.)

Fascism in both its Italian and German forms was a sincere attempt to meet the challenge of inevitable Tocquevillean democracy through systematic participation of the masses in an unabashedly populist and aristocratic regime.

Today, in the age of affluence and the borderless Internet, other forms of democratic and aristocratic politics must rise.


1. Alexis de Tocqueville, De la Démocratie en Amérique (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), volume 1. To those seeking to find the equivalent passages in English translations, I can only say that Tocqueville’s text begins after a lengthy preface on page 33 and concludes with footnotes at page 625.

2. Schopenhauer: “all men who think for themselves are fundamentally in agreement.”

3. Todd writes:

[T]he American historian David Schoenbaum has shown that Nazism, despite its backward-looking discourse on the return to blood and soil, represented for Germany a critical moment of democratization. In a very particular social sense, the National Socialist experience was the equivalent of the French Revolution with its version of the night of August 4 and the abolition of privileges. Farmers, workers, small and great bourgeois, great and small nobles, then sat together in brotherhood in the mess halls of the SS or, more modestly, of the Wehrmacht. Nazi anti-Semitism, a principle of exclusion and even of destruction, allowed German society, which had long been literate, to overcome the principle of inequality inscribed in its traditional family structure.

Emmanuel Todd, Après la démocratie (Paris: Gallimard, 2008), 140.

4. John Lukacs, The Hitler of History (New York: Knopf, 2011), 111.


One Comment

  1. The Last American
    Posted August 23, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Interesting read. Both Mein Kampf and Democracy in America are on my reading list.

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