When Adolf Hitler’s party emerged from Bavaria with a philosophy called “Nationalsozialismus,” two of that word’s syllables were quickly repurposed by Hitler’s cosmopolitan opponents. They started calling the new party Nazis — implying, to the Nazis’ great displeasure, that they were all backward rubes.
That original, taunting meaning of “Nazi” is now long gone, replaced forever by the image of history’s most despised regime. This is precisely why the word has resurfaced in American conversation, aimed at the white supremacist arm of the so-called alt-right: It is perhaps the single most potent condemnation in our language, a word that provides instant moral clarity. Not everyone, though, is entirely comfortable with this new usage. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb finds “Nazi” insufficient as a label for American racists, because when we use it, he writes, “we summon the idea of the United States’ moral victories, and military ones” — references that make little sense when we’re talking about American-made moral failures. Lindsey E. Jones, a Ph.D. student of history in Charlottesville, tweeted that a long history of American racism is “conveniently erased” when figures like the white nationalist Richard Spencer are reduced to “Nazis.”
But if “Nazi” isn’t quite the right word for the fringe groups now attempting a takeover of national politics — if it’s sloppy and inexact and papers over just how widespread some of these bigotries are — then “Nazi” will, in a way, have returned to its roots. It began as a broad, imprecise and patronizing slur. Then it became a precise historical classification. (One that, you might argue, “conveniently erased” widespread anti-Semitism throughout Europe and America.) Now we find ourselves arguing over whether it can serve as a general epithet again — a name for a whole assortment of distasteful ideologies. Nearly 80 years after Kristallnacht, we are not exactly sure what a Nazi is, or should be.
Sasha Chapin, “Marching Orders”, The New York Times Magazine (10 September 2017), 12.