[Cross-posted from New Books in History] I occasionally teach Western Civilization and you may have taken it in college. We all know the drill: Greeks-Romans-Dark Ages-Middle Ages-Renaissance-Reformation-Scientific Revolution-Enlightenment-Romanticism-Modernity. Or something like that. I teach Western Civilization as a “march of ideas”: Reason, Beauty, Freedom, Equality, Justice (caps intended) and the like. This way of telling the tale is sort of Whiggish, as historians like to say. It takes the liberal democratic present as its starting point and goes looking for the origins of a familiar now in an unfamiliar then. Flawed though it is, the “march of ideas” way of telling the story of the West works, at least for me, and I imagine it works for many of my colleagues.
It did not work for Nazis, for they did not believe ideas–liberal-democratic or otherwise–move history; rather, they believed races moved history, and more particularly the all-conquering Aryan race. Beginning from this premise, the Nazis re-imagined Western Civilization through a racist lense. The results, as David B. Dennis shows in his detailed, thoroughly-researched, and eye-opening book Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2012), were simply bizarre. Nazi writers–including many very learned academics–cast reason aside and “Aryanized” a past that was obviously not “Aryan” (whatever that means) in any way. The question, of course, is not whether any of it was true–it’s all the purest bunk. The question, rather, is whether anyone really believed it, a question David and I discuss at some length. Listen in.