The Source of Candace Owens’ Ahistorical Claims about Hitler and German Nationalism

I will say one thing about Candace Owens: She can stir up attention. On the day she testified before a Congressional panel on white nationalism, she trended on Twitter nearly all day. Much of this attention came via Congressman Ted Lieu’s act of playing a video of Owens opining that Hitler

…was a National Socialist, but if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, okay fine.

Lieu then accused Owens of “legitimizing Hitler” when he directed a question about Owens remarks to Eileen Hershenov, a representative of the Anti-Defamation League who also offered testimony to the panel.  While I don’t think Owens “legitimized Hitler” in all Hitler did, I do think she erred in her contention that Hitler wasn’t a nationalist and that he would have been “fine” if he had kept his policies and ambitions within Germany’s borders.

As Kevin Kruse and Matthew Boedy have convincingly demonstrated, Owens specifically and Turning Point USA generally are not accurate in their depictions of history. With influences including Dinesh D’Souza and David Barton, this is to be expected. However, there is another influence who should be called out.

Enter Yoram Hazony

Let me be clear that I don’t believe Candace Owens defended Hitler’s atrocities or legitimized the Holocaust. She specifically rejected that idea later on and it isn’t consistent with anything else she has said on the subject. At issue is her effort to suggest that a nationalist can’t have aspirations beyond national borders and that Hitler was not a nationalist. A ridiculous and dangerous extension of that claim is that Hitler’s policies and actions would have been fine if he kept them to Germany. I don’t want to see a Trump version of Hitler Youth, do you?

Cato Institute senior policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh helpfully points us to Owens’ intellectual influence — Yoram Hazony. It turns out that Owens doesn’t get Hazony right on every point. According to Nowrasteh, Hazony outlines a defense of nationalism which defines nationalism in such a way that Hitler was never a nationalist. Here is the heart of the argument:

According to Hazony, a nation is combination of “a number of tribes with a common language or religion, and a past history of acting as a body for the common defense and other large-scale enterprises” (18) and that “the world is governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference” (3).

Hazony contrasts nation states with imperialist states that have universal ideals that he claims leads to conquest.  Thus, nation-states cannot seek to conquer other nation-states as that would make them imperialist states because they do not respect the independent course of other nations.  According to Hazony, a state cannot be a nation-state and imperialist (dominating or seeking to dominate other nations) at the same time due to his unique definition that conveniently excludes the “bad” nation-states.  In my reading of the literature on nationalism, historian Douglas Porch was more likely correct when he wrote: “Colonialism was not, as Lenin claimed, ‘the highest stage of capitalism.’ Rather it was the highest stage of nationalism.”

2. Hitler and the Nazis were not nationalists.

Following his definition of nationalism, Hazony repeatedly claims that the Nazis were not really nationalists.  I know of no other serious historian of the Third Reich or other thinkers on nationalism who would go so far as to say that Hitler or the core ideology of the National Socialist German Workers Party weren’t nationalists.  They were, of course, nationalists.  The first point of their political platform was: “We demand the unification of all Germans in the Greater Germany on the basis of the people’s right to self-determination.”  The evidence that the Nazis considered themselves nationalists, that others considered them nationalists, and that they fit into the scheme of nationalism is so massive that it would be silly to run through it all.

A problem for current nationalists is that Hitler was in fact a nationalist. That is why they have to engage in such ahistorical reasoning to turn him and the Nazis into something else.

Even with the historical revising, I don’t think it helps to use Hitler as a hypothetical since he actually existed and has a historical record. “If Hitler” doesn’t work because Hitler really did things in Germany. He said things nationalists say and did things that nationalists do. You might as well say, if Hitler wasn’t Hitler, then he might have been okay. That isn’t what she said and that counterfactual argument isn’t much help as a support for any position.

As it is, Owens’ own words have her arguing that Hitler was actually okay when he stayed in Germany. However, this is lunacy. A review of Nazi party activities in Germany to make Germany great quickly put the lie to that idea.

To any Turning Point USA students reading this. Please do not become what you critique. Many of you blast moderate and liberal academics. You think academics are strident and closed to conservative ideas. You think academics close off debate and silence conservatives. Thus far, this conservative professor has found Turning Point USA leaders to be unwilling to self-correct, closed to the facts, and stridently partisan on issues which are matters of fact and verification.


35 thoughts on “The Source of Candace Owens’ Ahistorical Claims about Hitler and German Nationalism”

  1. When you’re arguing over the applicability of labels what you’re really doing is fighting for the hearts and minds of the lowest intellectual rung of the public – those who lack the mental capacity to reason beyond them.

    Whether Wilhelm, Hitler, Lincoln, Washington, Franklin, Hancock, De Gaulle, etc were nationalists is hardly relevant to anything unless the current debate is between the appropriate balance of national and international power. Generally with nationalism versus internationalism the rational position is to be no more internationalist than average, because being more internationalist than average weakens you more than average and being more nationalist than average alienates you more than average.

    People don’t care about Hitler because of the nationalism any more than they do his vegetarianism and socialism. It’s really the racism, genocide and authoritarianism that’s at issue – the banning of books, the creation of ghettos, concentration camps, etc. Which makes this whole debate little more than a giant Godwin Rule violation. The proper thing for Candace to have done with this issue would have been to ignore it for the folly it is.

    Now you may say nationalism leads inexorably to the other vices. But authoritarianism has proven far more reliable at this – the USSR was internationalist yet had many of the same or similar evils, as did the Papacy of old.

    Trying to hang all the evils Hitler committed on nationalism is really just a shameless political ploy, therefore, by authoritarian internationalists. That isn’t what this article is doing, but it is what Candace is trying to counter. She’s doing this at the level of “Hitler wasn’t nationalist” because perhaps a plurality of the voting public, or certainly a decisive slice of it – can’t reason beyond basic label comparisons. Remember – half the voting public has a two digit IQ. It’s always nasty fighting for their votes and results in silliness like what Candace is doing here.

    Best to treat her as a politician and not an intellectual. But someone needs to explain her error for the record, so I’m glad the Doc took care of it 🙂

    1. Hitler didn’t use vegetarianism to gain power and push people to support his atrocities. He did use nationalism to do that.

      When nationalism keeps getting used as a starting point that leads to xenophobia, racism, anti-semitism etc. then it isn’t all that hard to see why people start thinking it isn’t such a good idea.

      1. That’s the excellent counterargument I expected, bravo. I don’t think all nationalism inexorably leads there, but my counterexamples involve guys who owned slaves or in Gandhi’s case hated Muslims so it’s not the prettiest picture, and I could be wrong.

        Nationalism does need to be paired, or pared, with a strong national ethic of liberty, equality, and humanitarianism or it turns ugly, but that’s true of anything.

        Thanks for making me continue to think about this one.

  2. Thanks for this thorough examination and commentary. What I wonder or question is even asking her to testify at such a hearing… I, like Lieu, disagree with Candace on many things and part of me might enjoy trying to trap her into something, but really… These newly rising “nationalists”, soft-white-supremacists and MAGA groupies(like the Coventry kids); the last thing they need are bigger platforms… People like Lieu need to learn to leave some of these people, especially the celebrity seekers like Owens, Spencer, etc, out of the spotlight.

    1. Lieu didn’t invite her. The GOP did. He thought it would be best to play her own words at the hearing to undermine her credibility . I’m not sure he was successful.

  3. This is a very in-depth analysis that completely misses the point of the controversy, which is that Lieu made a very bad faith effort to associate Owens with Nazism, and then got his a** handed to him in spectacular fashion, even as Owens was mischaracterized again by Nadler. She is not careful enough in what she says, and needs to up her game if she wants to engage in serious debate, but Lieu deserved every bit of the blowback he received.

    David Barton is a laughable nobody, except among xian fundies and those who simply haven’t listened to him long enough to find out he is laughable. The current discussion around nationalism/economic nationalism has Steve Bannon at the center of it, not “Christian nationalist” types. If Bannon can rope them in for his own purposes he will (as evidenced by his backing of the crackpot Roy Moore in AL), which IMO is very unfortunate.

    1. David Barton is a laughable nobody, except among xian fundies

      Oh, how I wish this were true. He is quoted by US Congressmen, has been invited to give input on textbooks by the BOEs in several states including Texas which has a huge affect on national education, he’s a favorite guest of Glenn Beck who’s had him on dozens of times, Republican primary candidates often seek his endorsement, he was vice chairman of the Texas Republican party. I wish he were a fringe figure, but he is not. He’s not fringe, just not well known.

      1. ‘I wish he were a fringe figure, but he is not. He’s not fringe, just not well known.’

        How terribly true! Many, many conservative Christians (millions perhaps?) adore his wreckless ‘teachings’ as truth from on high. He’s a star among the gilded clan of prosperity teachers and dovetails nicely into their end times fear and conspiracy theories. Birds of a feather… The term ‘Toxic Christian’ has never been more accurate and shameful. I’m so thankful for Dr. Throckmorton, Kevin Kruse, Randall Balmer, John Fea, and the others who help debunk these fraudulent teachers. We need many more like them to confront the massive amount of malignant misinformation being produced. I’m a refugee from the Prosperity Gospel and Dispensationalism. Free at last. Blessings to all here.

        1. I guess I must just not intersect with these people. I have attended conservative evangelical churches since 1996 in Ohio (C&MA), Chicago (Imploded Megachurch) and now Tennessee (EFCA), and I have never even heard this guy mentioned except with Glenn Back in that movie thing they did years ago, and on this blog. I went to see that movie with three other Christians who went to Harvest Bible Chapel, and all of us were like, hmmmmm. Seems off. Is he big with Mormons?

          1. Regardless of whether you had heard of Barton before, it is quite likely you or people you know have been effected by the nonsense he spreads.

            Just like a lot of people may have never heard of Nicolosi, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t affected by the conversion therapy movement he had a huge influence on.

          2. Yes, that’s very interesting. I also have never had a truly objective perspective on conversion therapy, either, because I had a good friend/fellow small group member years ago who was a believer in it and, by all appearances, is a happy husband and father 20 years or so later. That doesn’t mean I discount the stories of all the people who felt harmed by the therapy or the manner in which it was conducted, but simply that I’m not even able to buy into the idea that no one wants it or benefits from it according to their own account. I have no “energy” around all of that debate, but I do believe ALL people should have the ability to define themselves because of my friend.

            I attended a fundamentalist church as a kid with my parents, but those were the days of Jack Van Impe, Hal Lindsey, etc. So my experience there is of little relevance today. My mom is still in that sphere, but she has gravitated away from the Christian market of ideas and is more into talk radio stuff like Mark Levin. I spend a lot of time talking her down and trying to convince her that the world is not falling apart. Actually, I also spend a lot of time talking my liberal friends down and trying to convince them that world is not falling apart. Fragile times.

          3. I don’t think Barton is particularly big with Mormons — nor is Glenn Beck particularly big with Mormons despite his claiming to be one.

            Barton’s primary audience is Christian nationalists — those who believe that the US was founded as an explicitly Christian nation and should continue to be so, that the Founding Fathers were great Christian men (despite, for example, Jefferson’s well-documented Deism), and that the US is God’s special country. Often combined with wanting to move the US toward theocracy — or wanting Christians to “take back” the US like the Muslims took back Iran. Often combined with an idolatrous level of patriotism — where “God and Country” are equal objects of devotion. Often combined with right-wing politics, including sometimes white nationalism.

            If you have not encountered much Christian nationalism in your Evangelical church journeys, consider yourself fortunate. Or one might encounter Christian nationalism without Barton being explicitly mentioned as a source, but his influence often lurks in the background.

          4. I can’t honestly say about the Mormons. I ‘suspect’ so because of his affiliation with Beck. He (Barton) is seen with Kenneth Copeland and on Jim Bakker’s crackpot show. I think Barton is mostly seen on youtube and the various ‘Christian’ cable TV channels, and videos shown at local churches. It seems he is welcomed most by the ‘Word of Faith” Charismatic movement types like Copeland, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, … the crowd I left, and of course Mike Huckabee. Google Barton on youtube and you’ll get the frame of his many absurd ideas and outright distortions. That you’ve been a diligent Christian these many years and have little knowledge of Barton is very encouraging to me, maybe he’s not as influencing as I fear. In that case I will be very glad to be wrong. Blessings upon you and Peace from God our Father and Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

      2. Glenn Beck speaks to a pretty narrow ideological band. I can see him having influence in Texas. I would be VERY interested to see how his fingerprints can be found in public school textbooks that are in common use, if that’s the case.

        1. Glenn Beck’s empire has come crashing down lately, but he was pretty big at his peak, which was right around the high of the Tea Party. I think you are underselling just how influential he was for a time.

          Also, I would say Barton has very little influence on public school textbooks, thankfully. But that’s not because he’s a laughable nobody. It’s because despite his recommendations, good people fought against the changes he wanted to make.

          1. Barton has a great deal of influence on public school textbooks because he helped write the Texas high school ones which are used all over the country.

    2. The article doesn’t “miss the point”. It’s making its own, related point. One that needed to be made somewhere.

  4. And the president* reportedly keeps a copy of Mein Kampf at his bedside. What is least credible about this information about Trump is that he might have actually read Mein Kampf- maybe Melania, or Ivana, or Stormy have read it to him from time to time. Some like a cigarette after- maybe Donnie likes the mellifluous prose of Mein Kampf.

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