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Explaining, Again, The Nazis' True Evil

Protesters shout anti-Nazi chants after chasing alt-right blogger Jason Kessler from a news conference on Aug. 13 in Charlottesville.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Protesters shout anti-Nazi chants after chasing alt-right blogger Jason Kessler from a news conference on Aug. 13 in Charlottesville.

Nazis don't always look like bad guys in funny helmets. The Nazis and other bigots in khaki slacks and bright polo shirts who marched in Charlottesville chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans I'd rather not repeat on a Saturday — or at all. But it's discouraging to feel that you have to explain, more than 70 years after Nazi Germany was defeated, why Nazis are still the menace that embody evil.

The 20th century saw a lot of state-sanctioned mass murder: Stalin, Mao, Mengistu and Pol Pot, Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Ethiopia's Red Terror, the Great Purge, the Cultural Revolution, and more. In America there were lynchings and the cruelty of official segregation, which followed the end of slavery, and the massacre of so many Native Americans.

To cite one or another doesn't excuse any. But Nazism was something extraordinary. The laws on race and citizenship they began to impose on taking power in 1933, which were encoded in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, invoked blood, soil and the twisted science of eugenics to make anti-Semitism and Aryan supremacy the law. They used those wicked decrees to begin to engineer the murder of millions.

Much of the west was slow to believe they should worry about Nazism. Distinguished people, including George Bernard Shaw and Charles Lindbergh, said Germany's repression and race laws may be repellent, but were Germany's business; or that the U.S. and Britain committed equivalent crimes with segregation and colonialism. It was Winston Churchill, in June of 1940, who called the advance of Nazism, "a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science."

The fight to defeat that "perverted science" was bloody, costly and came close to failing several times. But when the war was won, the U.S., Britain and Canada were forced to face their own most painful contradictions, and began to turn themselves into better, freer and more diverse societies.

I've interviewed young Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members. They seem to be loveless, clueless clods, who see only skin color and ethnicity — or "blood and soil" as the Nazis of the 1930s and 2017 call it.

The world barely escaped from the death grip of Nazis 70 years ago. The men and women who won that battle gave us freedom, as much as those who served Washington, Lincoln and Harriet Tubman. It dishonors those who struggled against Nazis to forget the evil they were brave enough to confront — and defeat.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.