Could the Internet Have Prevented WWII?



Godwin’s Law – the notion that every conversation on the Internet eventually ends up talking about Hitler and the Nazis — comes at last to the Nobel Prize ceremonies.


You probably know that new Nobel Laureates in Literature are asked to give an acceptance lecture at the award banquet – and that some of them having proven quite memorable, such as William Faulkner’s famous “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail” in 1950.

You may also have read that this year’s Laureate, France’s Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, used the occasion to say something that, if not quite as profound and enduring, certainly has provoked a lot of discussion. What Le Clezio said was:

“Who knows, if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler’s criminal plot would not have succeeded–ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day.”


That’s a pretty extraordinary comment, suggesting as it does that somehow, digital technology, had it been around at the time, could have stopped the most evil figure of modern times. And not only that, but would have done so via ridicule.

That last part strikes me as a particularly French point of view, as if social embarrassment might have frozen the Beer Hall Putsch in its tracks, Hitler, Hess, Bormann et al slumping away to the general laughter of amused Munich burghers. That might work west of the Meuse – but having seen rows of passed-out drunks in silly hats arrayed on the hillside outside the beer tents at the Oktoberfest, somehow I don’t think it works the same way in Bavaria.


But let’s leave aside that little bit of Gallic reasoning and ask the more interesting question: Could the Internet have stopped the Third Reich and saved more than 30 million lives?


A number of commentators found even that notion risible; they pointed out that the Internet has done little or nothing to alleviate the horrible fate of the victims in Darfur, or even Zimbabwe. If the Web can’t stop a bunch of stoned teenagers with AK-47s, much less a petty tyrant starving his country to death, how could it have had the slightest chance of stopping a racist megalomaniac commanding the world’s most powerful army and ruling one of the world’s wealthiest nations? In making this argument, most writers simply dismissed Le Clezio’s notion as absurd on its face.


But I’m not so sure there isn’t something to his notion. Not only that, but I think it’s an interesting exercise to look at this idea more closely – if nothing else, to perhaps give us some clues on how to fight dangerous totalitarian movements in the future.

Let me explain. I’m not a scholar of the Nazism or of the Third Reich, but I do know enough to appreciate that it had a very distinct trajectory consisting of several eras. The first was young Adolph Hitler, like many other disgruntled WWI veterans, finding himself in a Germany that seemed to be falling apart under the weight of Versailles payments, war loss guilt, an economic depression, Weimer excesses, and a growing internal threat from the Communist Party. He eventually drifted in an extremist group, the National Socialists, where he found not only like-minded individuals, but also a gift for leadership. Eventually, but prematurely, in 1923, these Nazis led by Hitler attempted a bungled coup d’etat, during which Hitler was arrested and imprisoned.


This is the period, in which Hitler and Brown Shirts looked like bunglers and buffoons, that I think Le Clezio is talking about. So, had the Internet existed and videos of the Beer Hall Putsch been posted on YouTube, would there have been sufficient ridicule to drive Hitler and his gang out of public life forever?


I don’t think so. On the contrary, I think just the opposite is true. Even at that young age, Hitler was apparently already a mesmerizing speaker (at least to the German mind). Imagine what he could have done with a popular blog, a constant stream of laudatory YouTube videos, a multi-media website devoted to Mein Kampf, and a vast e-mail list. In fact, I would argue that Hitler would have been more successful in the 1920s, the Nazi’s attracting new members and donors not just in Bavaria but throughout Europe and even from the American Bund (which otherwise didn’t happen for another decade).


But the 1930s, I think, are a very different matter. A little story: As it happens, I was born in a little Bavarian town (at least it was then; now it’s a tech business center) called Furstenfeldbruck. My father was an U.S. Air Force officer (and, as I’ve written before, a spy) and we lived in Munich.

Keep in mind that this was 1954, and Munich looked like a city with more parking lots than people – all of those vacant areas being where the rubble of the bombed city had been bulldozed away. And what I remember is that years later, my mother told me that she used to look out the kitchen window at all of the men waiting at the bus stop each morning – and wonder: How many of them were Nazis?


The answer was: a lot of them. But the point is that my mother couldn’t tell. There was nobody wearing armbands at that bus station, no one who looked like a guard from nearby Dachau. Even my father’s German assistant, an extraordinary man who had fought on both fronts during the war, worked with U.S. intelligence for thirty years and then, in retirement, devoted his time to helping Serbian refugees, had once proudly worn the uniform of the Hitler Youth.


Somehow, it was during that interval between when he left Landsberg prison at the end of 1924 and when he was named Chancellor of Germany in 1933 that Hitler, despite being the object of ridicule by much of the nation’s intellectual and upper-classes, managed to galvanize the entire country behind him, including those men my mother saw standing at the bus stop. He did so with brilliant propaganda, ruthless tactics and appealing to a common scapegoat – the Jews – for all of Germany’s problems.

It is during this period that I think the Internet, had it existed, might well have stopped Hitler. Imagine ten thousand blogs and websites, all exposing the excesses of the Nazis: breaking leaked information from Hitler’s circle, showing cellphone videos of the horrors of the SA purge or Kristallnacht, showing how Hitler’s poisonous vision in autobiography and speeches were now unfolding across Germany – and pointing to its obvious conclusion. Most of all, giving persecuted Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals a voice beyond the increasingly Party-controlled media. All of this would have embarrassed Hitler and the Nazis in a very different way than Le Clezio suggests, but it might have been much more effective. In showing the Nazis for the low-rent thugs they were, the Internet might have created enough doubt among the German middle class to take away the votes Hitler needed to take power.


After that, it would have been too late. Once the Nazis took over the Chancellory, the Party would have censored the Web in Germany – and eventually all the countries it occupied – subverting it to its own ends as a propaganda organ and a tool for surveillance of dissidents. The Third Reich Web would have been, like the Nazis themselves, a dangerous institution.


With one exception. I think the Internet might have stopped – or at least forestalled long enough for an Allied victory – the Holocaust. I can imagine fuzzy cell phone pictures of the ovens at Auschwitz, or videos of the Warsaw ghetto, or train schedules across Poland, somehow making their way to Allied servers and from there by-passing the mainstream media to explode on the pages of blogs and websites all over the world. Secrecy – and Allied indifference – were crucial to the Final Solution. The Internet, even an underground one, would have made both impossible.


So even if the Internet, had it existed, likely have failed to stop World War II, it might well have stopped the worst government-sanctioned mass murder in history. And that’s enough to say there may be something to Jean-Marie Le Clezio’s remarks after all.