In the current media climate of "fake news" accusations and divisive partisanship in the United States, it is no wonder that history as a powerful way of making sense of the past and its connections to the present has also been dragged into the crossfire.

Photo of Library of Congress stacks by Torsten Kathke

On the one side are those who, often for a popular audience, bend historical truths to the point of breaking, peddlers of usually simple lies that confirm the worldview of a constituency of ready believers. On the other side, professional historians (most prominently Princeton University's Kevin M. Kruse) have taken to Twitter to refute this jumbling of historical facts by countering with detailed explanations.

Among the popular deniers of important historical developments that explain the current state of US politics, former American Enterprise Institute fellow, popular conservative author, and documentary filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza is one of the most visible. Recently, he restated his unfounded argument (from his 2017 book The Big Lie) that the Democratic Party platform of today resembles that of the Nazi party in Weimar, Germany.

It does not, but many are ready to believe the rhetorically astute D'Souza's bad-faith arguments because they suit preconceived notions of who the "bad guys" are both in history and in present politics. The problem with D'Souza is not just that he is bad at history. He is actively attacking the fundamentals of what it means to research, interpret, write, and understand history while laying claim to the term. His method would be sophistry if it were in any way subtle.

Recently, D'Souza answered a tweet critical of him (since deleted) in characteristic fashion:

This reply is a great example of historical distortion: D'Souza makes the claim that the 25 points are similar to the modern Democratic Party platform. But he completely ignores the context, including that most points in that platform are highly specific, making a comparison moot. Clearly, some primary source analysis is in order.

David Walsh has already done a great job on this, but let me add my German perspective here, based on reading both the original German version and the English translation (check out the German Historical Institute's "German History in Documents and Images" page for both).

Let's break down the 25 points:

  • 1–3 are related to the Versailles treaty and to German territorial claims.

  • 4–9 are about who does and doesn't get to be a German citizen (Jews explicitly excluded) and what their rights and duties are supposed to be.

  • 10 states that citizens have the right – and duty – to work but this work should not negatively affect the community (of German citizens, as defined in 4–9).

  • 11 wants to abolish income not based on work.

  • 12 demands that private profit from war should be absorbed by the state.

  • 13: all businesses that have been formed into trusts should be nationalized.

  • 14 demands profit sharing in large industrial enterprises.

  • 15 calls for old age insurance.

  • 16 wants a "healthy middle class" which includes communalizing big department stores and renting them out to small traders. This is specifically anti-Semitic: most large department stores were owned by Jews.

  • 17 calls for land reform and the abolition of speculation on land.

  • 18 demands ruthless prosecution of crimes against the "common interest." Again this posits a community of citizens which is quite narrowly defined as Germans "by blood" against whom these crimes are committed.

  • 19 wants a German common law to replace the "materialistic" "Roman law."

  • 20 calls for public education paid for by the state in the interest of the state (again, this is a state of racially defined Germans).

  • 21 wants the state to "ensure that the nation's health standards are raised by protecting mothers and infants, by prohibiting child labor […]." It further demands that this happen "by promoting physical strength through legislation providing for compulsory gymnastics and sports, and by the extensive support of clubs engaged in the physical training of youth."

  • 22 wants a "people's army," not a "mercenary army."

  • 23 is long. It wants non-Germans out of the press and seeks to legally combat "deliberate political mendacity and its dissemination in the press." It wants prosecution of everything the Nazis deemed "fake news" and therefore means repression of opinions.

  • 24 calls for religious freedom, as long as it doesn't "threaten [the] existence" of the state or "offend[s] the moral feelings of the German race." In essence, the Nazis here don't want to scare off conservative Christian voters but have a narrowly-defined view of what "religious freedom" means.

  • 25, finally, seeks to create a strong central power in the state. The specific context of the time and place is again essential here. They want to win power and don't want federalism to hold them up.

Looking at all of this, it becomes clear that this is a very specific document coming from a very specific moment in history. Most points address grievances a good number of Germans had against what they thought kept them poor: the Versailles Treaty, capitalists, etc.

It is an agglomeration of lines of thought that had become prominent in Germany and elsewhere during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a program, it was neither original (in fact, a good portion was cribbed from that of another party, the DsP) nor groundbreaking. It was a collection of grievances.

It is highly anti-semitic, either explicitly  – when Jews are mentioned – or implicitly  – when they are implied to hold power or money they somehow don't deserve, as in the provisions concerning department stores. The latter led to Nazi policies that had repercussions into the twenty-first century. The final large property restitution case in connection with these was settled only in 2007.

The Nazi program was a product of its time. It was an instrument of the Nazi party. It posits there is a "community" of "natural" German people, a "Volksgemeinschaft." This word had come out of the nationalist discourse of the nineteenth century was commonly used by Germans of many political affiliations. The Nazis, however, meant it in a highly restrictive definition, which would soon exclude not only Jews but also critics of the regime, such as Social Democrats.

According to the Holocaust Museum, "[m]ost prisoners in the early concentration camps were German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and persons accused of 'asocial' or socially deviant behavior."

Much of the program, especially the supposedly "socialist" aspects, was quickly abandoned. Hitler repeatedly forced thinkers who aligned with certain socialist positions into conformity with his wishes, or out of the NSDAP altogether.

As the US Holocaust Memorial Museum further points out "The 25 points remained the party's official statement of goals, though in later years many points were ignored." The 25 points were meant to agitate and win votes. They had outlived their usefulness after the Nazis gained power. All of the programs explicitly wants to serve German "Volksgenossen" and exclude everyone else. It is not socialist (even under the most generous interpretation of the term): it doesn't seek to subsume all, or even most economic activity under the state, and equality is only ever meant for the Volkgsgemeinschaft of "natural" Germans. Social historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler called any vestiges of socialism in National Socialism "verballhornt," that is, a corruption or parody of the original idea.

Writers like D'Souza, in his The Big Lie have willfully misunderstood generations worth of scholarship on Nazism. Ten years before him, Jonah Goldberg, in Liberal Fascism, treads some of the same ground, but with much more intellectual acumen, and presenting a more rounded and complex argument, which, however, ultimately still failed to convince many critics.

Ideas have complicated histories. Like any time period and place, 1920s Germany saw many ideas in the public discourse that found expression elsewhere later. They ebbed and flowed, they were picked up – in earnest, or, as in the Nazi case, mere rhetoric – in many other places. How and why and to what effect is among what historians debate about. That is how history works. It is not part of the historical method to find some words and ideas you don't like, and to then look for ways to link them to the biggest crimes committed ever by humanity.

A historical assessment of anything tries to look at as many contributing strands as possible, then attempts to disentangle them. Most importantly, it historicizes them, that is, it looks at both changes and continuities over time. That is what's truly at the heart of any history, the interplay of change and continuity. If you only ever find one (e.g., "all bad things are leftist"), you are either acting in bad faith or are not looking very closely.

D'Souza especially supplies the history version of creationism: he knows what he believes already, and then tries to make the evidence fit these beliefs. He can't be convinced with facts because the very method by which the facts are arrived at is spurious to him. History is complex. It is never possible to directly equate anything with anything. Events, developments, ideas… they are connected, but history never repeats. History, for want of a better metaphor, is like jazz: variations on themes.

To understand the history of something well, it's not enough to read one book or watch one documentary. Even the ones that are produced to high academic standards have biases and cannot cover every aspect of any historical moment. It's only in the weighing of arguments and checking of sources and their interpretations that a wider picture of a time and place past emerges. Contrary to popular opinion, historical books are not generally unreadable tomes. They are often engaging and enlightening.

Suggested Readings

History and Historical Thinking

American History, General

US Political Parties and Racism

German History, General

National Socialism

Torsten Kathke originally posted a version of this discussion on Twitter as a thread of 28 tweets. Read the thread by @torstenkathke: "The problem with D'Souza is not just that he is bad at history. He is actively attacking the fundaments of what it means to research, interp […]"