"You have to admire Hitler! […] Because he was an organizational genius!"
These are not the words of a neo-Nazi. They are words stated, with the utmost conviction, by Jordan B. Peterson, the psychologist and anti-"political correctness" guru whose YouTube channel boasts 2.8 million subscribers, in one of his Biblical Series lectures from 2017.
While Peterson’s hostile statements on feminism and what he calls "cultural Marxism" have been thoroughly dissected in the media, but his views on Hitler, National Socialism, and the Holocaust have not, bar a very few exceptions. Peterson, an academic who declares that he chooses his words "very, very, carefully" has made so many incorrect statements about Hitler that it verges on revisionism.
Peterson has repeatedly said that he has "studied Hitler a lot," but every statement he utters about Hitler makes this very hard to believe. It’s worth diving into Peterson’s unsettling understanding of Hitler, from his strangely generous framing of the Nazi leader, through his misrepresentation of chronology, his misuse of historical sources, to his odd re-writing of Holocaust history.
Starting with the "you gotta hand it to Hitler" quote above: The Nazi leader was not an organizational genius. Hitler failed at almost everything he ever tried to accomplish – bar genocide. Even strictly organizationally, the history of the NSDAP from 1920 to 1933 was fraught with internal conflict, and time and again Hitler would benefit from pure dumb luck.
Peterson has insisted that we must "give the devil his due" and that Hitler did "wonders for Germany’s economy during the first part of his reign." But the economic "wonder" of Nazi Germany is a Nazi propaganda myth. Economic problems were actually rife already by late 1934, and only got worse from there. Hitler’s many aggressive foreign policy actions and his accelerating persecution of the Jews during the second half of the 1930s were partly intended as distractions from the poor economy.
Astonishingly, Peterson argues that what was wrong with the Nazis was not that they were not civilized. In his view, "there’s more evidence, I think, that they were too civilized." This is an atrocious way of describing the most violently racist regime in history.
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He follows this up with a dose of pseudo-psychoanalysis, claiming that Hitler was "resentful" because the art school in Vienna had turned him down "like four times" and he "had just been through World War I." However, Hitler was only rejected by Vienna’s art school twice – once in 1907 and once in 1908 – long before the war.
The Germans also "had plenty of reason to be resentful and hateful," he stated on the H3 podcast in 2017. They had lost World War I, suffered under the Versailles Treaty, and had a desire for "order and revenge," and Hitler "embodied" that.
Sure, many Germans (including Jews) hated the massive reparations payments (although Germany did start the war and had caused massive damages in the other countries). But this is irrelevant when explaining Hitler’s antisemitism, which Peterson constantly downplays, or National Socialism’s eventual usurpation of power.
There was no linear motivation for "order and revenge" when Hitler blamed the Jews for everything: he blamed them despite their innocence. Moreover, the NSDAP had no success in popular elections until December 1929 after having campaigned against the so-called Young Plan, i.e. against reducing Germany’s reparation payments. Fascism, moreover, did not bring "order" to Germany – it brought chaos.
Peterson’s endless barrage of falsehoods includes the outrageous claim that "Hitler was elected" and "by a large majority too. It was a landslide vote; the kind of vote that no modern democratic leader ever gets." Hitler was not elected, and the NSDAP never received more than 37.27 percent in a free election (in July 1932). A small camarilla of conservative politicians, led by Franz von Papen, convinced President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor in a coalition cabinet.
Peterson consistently exhibits an extreme carelessness with facts and chronology regarding Hitler, National Socialism, and the Holocaust.
Mischaracterizing Hitler, and misrepresenting sources
Like most self-proclaimed laymen Hitler experts, Peterson loves anecdotes. He tells a story about how Hitler was sitting around with his buddies in the trenches, then went off for a while and returned to find his comrades were all dead; a shell had exploded and killed them all. Peterson exclaims: "That changes you!"
Sure, it would. There is only one problem: this never happened. It is an open question why Peterson would seek to offer an anecdote that presents Hitler as a victim of psychological trauma, even valorizing him.
But that is only the beginning of Peterson’s serial problems with historical sources. Peterson has on several occasions talked about how he has read "Hitler’s Table Talk," a compilation which Peterson says records Hitler’s "spontaneous" dinnertime comments from 1939 to 1942 (in reality: 1941–1944). He notes how it struck him how many times Hitler referred to the Jews as "parasites," "rats" and "insects."
But the book only mentions the word "parasite" three times, and only once in reference to Jews; "insects" are only mentioned twice, once in relation to the Russian people, and once about actual insects; and the word "rats," mentioned seven times, is only used about actual rats.
Furthermore, "Hitler’s Table Talk" does not contain Hitler’s words verbatim. It is a collection of edited notes made largely from memory and it has to be treated with the critical skepticism that such a source demands. The English translation from 1953 is horribly flawed; it is freely translated from a previous French translation in which the text had been seriously tampered with.
This is not the only time that Peterson misrepresents the content in his sources. He claims that no one in the German Reserve Police Battalion 101 in Poland opted out of shooting Jews, even though their commander gave them that choice, referencing Christopher Browning’s book "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland."
In fact, Browning writes that 10–20 percent of them indeed did opt out. That misrepresentation is perhaps not accidental: one of Peterson’s core hypothesis about Nazism is that everyone is a potential Nazi mass murderer, leaving extremely little room for exceptions for people of conscience.
Peterson claims that Hitler was "obsessed with order and cleanliness; he was a very orderly person […] he was very sensitive to disgust." In a lecture in 2017 he even stated that "Hitler bathed four times a day." This is completely untrue, but Peterson makes a lot of it. Why?
Because Peterson hypothesizes that Hitler and the Nazis were not "afraid of the Jews": his evidence is that you run away from your fears. But faced with disgust, rather than run away, "you want to burn it to the damn ground."
Peterson uses this false narrative of concern with health and cleanliness to argue that Hitler in 1933 initiated "mass tuberculosis screenings...which actually turned out to be a good thing."
But no such massive screenings for the benefit of public health occurred. The Nazis considered tuberculosis a sign of racial inferiority and often referred to Jews as "racial TB" infecting the Volk body politic. Screenings were not "a good thing," but were used to identify people deemed unworthy of life. Tuberculosis was effectively used as a biological weapon in the ghettos and concentration camps during the war.
Peterson is conflating the symptom with the disease. Nazi propaganda indeed often used tropes and images expressing disgust for Jews. But this was a consequence of their antisemitism, not a cause for it. The Nazis were indeed afraid of the Jews. They were, paradoxically, hysterically fearful of the powerful potential for destruction and subversion embodied in the supposedly racially inferior Jews.
Problematically, Peterson’s reframing of the genocidal Nazi hostility to Jews as a natural or instinctive response to disgust minimizes, and effectively denies, the role of rabid antisemitism in explaining the Holocaust. Hitler did not orchestrate the Holocaust because he had OCD. He, and his Nazi henchmen, did it because they were antisemites.
Peterson and the Holocaust: Hitler ‘had a hand’ in it
Although Peterson does not deny the Holocaust, his statements about it nonetheless often borders on revisionism. For some reason, Peterson also very seldom uses the term "Holocaust" when speaking about the extermination of the Jews.
In a 2017 lecture Peterson boldly stated to his students: "Here’s what you should have done if you were a Nazi and wanted to win the war: You should have enslaved the Jews and the Gypsies and had them work […] for the benefit of the victory. And then, if you wanted to, you can liquidate them afterwards. That’s the logical thing to do if you want to win!" He has often repeated this.
But the Nazis did enslave the Jews and the Roma and had them "work for German victory." What Peterson is doing is to frame the Holocaust as an illogical and unintended by-product of the war. The truth, of course, is that the genocide of Europe’s Jews was an integral Nazi war aim, which was considered essential to victory.
Peterson steps far deeper into revisionism on a Joe Rogan podcast from 2017. On that livestreamed show, he started off by implying (by explicitly agreeing with Bret Weinstein) that the Jews were not ‘real’ Germans, since the Jews were "genetically distinct," and that the Holocaust "was rational from the point of view of […] producing members of [Hitler’s ‘genuinely German’] population."
He then questioned Hitler’s own responsibility for intensifying the genocide as the war progressed: "I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say that it was him that did that, although I think he had a hand in it."
This is soft revisionism. It denies all of our extensive historical knowledge showing Hitler’s clear direct responsibility for, and direction of, the Holocaust.
Peterson has repeatedly claimed that Hitler was just "the mouthpiece of the collective unconscious of the German people." He says Hitler developed his ideology through a trial-and-error process whereby he kept saying what caused a good response as he was, partly unwittingly, "being molded by the crowd"; he acted out "the dark desire of the mob." There is no evidence that supports any of this. And it, too, comes dangerously close to Hitler apologetics.
And it is mirrored in his equally misinformed idea that basically all Germans participated in the Holocaust, and that almost every human being has the potential to be a Nazi or even a Hitler. Why is this so pernicious? Because blame placed everywhere is blame placed nowhere.
And Peterson’s claim ignores the inconvenient truth that many Germans – not least many Jews and Marxists – resisted Hitler. The fact that Peterson systematically ignores those heroes and ordinary people of conscience (who often died fighting the Nazis) is problematic. It suggests some kind of collective rather than individual agency, which ends up flattening Hitler’s own agency and responsibility. Most Germans were not fervent card-carrying Nazis. Any serious historian would state that without Hitler there would have been no Holocaust.
But why does Peterson’s misinformation matter?
The reason for Peterson’s re-writing of the history of Hitler Germany and the Holocaust is hard to really discern. He has certainly never expressed blatantly antisemitic views, and he has argued against the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the radical right.
Yet on his blog he has written a response called "On the so-called ‘Jewish Question.’" To frame the issue like this, even if it is meant as a sarcastic reference to the antisemitic far right, is more than irresponsible, considering that this is exactly how the Nazis framed it: die Judenfrage. The "Final Solution," the Holocaust, was the direct Nazi "answer" to the "Jewish Question."
There is, perhaps, an ideological answer to this conundrum. Peterson has a long history of equivocating between Nazism and Communism, and suggesting an absolute equivalence between Nazi death camps and, for instance, the Soviet gulag camps. He seems unable to really see the very crucial differences, perhaps blinded by his equally manifest hostile obsession with what he calls "cultural Marxism" or the "postmodern neo-Marxists."
The railing against "cultural Marxism" (a phrase with a long antisemitic history) is of course something that Peterson, unfortunately, has in common with Hitler and the Nazis. It is his blind spot, and to what degree this hatred of Marxism has influenced his analysis and understanding of Hitler and National Socialism is unknown.
Perhaps connected to this is his trouble deciding whether Nazism was ideologically "radical right" or "radical left," suggesting that "maybe they pulled from the worst of both extremes." This, too, is built on a massive ignorance of the historical research on these topics.
It's worth noting that this narrative happens to fit rather nicely with the views of a pool from which he draws many of his fans: the pro-Trump American right, whose leading figures are engaged in a persistent attempt to brand Nazism as socialist and Hitler as a leftist, if not a Democrat.
It is not unreasonable to assume that this monomania has affected not only his framing of Nazism - but goes to the heart of his discomforting take on the Holocaust and its perpetrators.
Peterson’s sole focus on what he deems to be unanimous mob participation in engineering and implementing genocide appears to have led him to conclude that genocidal tendencies are a universal trait of human psychology. This is obviously untrue. He simply ignores all those who resist oppression and refuse to go along with mass murder.
In doing so Peterson loses track of the absolutely critical roles that both ideology and, ironically, individual human psychology play in turning some people against their fellow human beings in a racist murderous rage.
There is one glaring exception to the Peterson rule: Marxism and its "cultural Marxism" offspring. In this case, it appears he can see nothing but ideology. And he sees it everywhere. Everything that Peterson identifies as a degenerative, bad influence in today’s world he ascribes first and foremost to this phenomenon.
Peterson has certainly never suggested in a lecture that we should admire Stalin’s "organizational genius," even though he far outshined Hitler in that particular department. While it’s acceptable to Peterson to praise Hitler for what "good" he did for the economy or for improving public health in Germany, he would never ever dream of praising Stalin for the same "achievements" in the USSR.
Peterson insists that the crimes of Communism were a matter of Marxist ideology running its logical course. But when he analyzes Nazi crimes, the diagnosis is quite different: he ignores the actual causation of the Holocaust – racist antisemitic hatred – and reduces it to a ‘universal’ human instinct: disgust.
This is why Peterson’s statements about Hitler are not only ignorant, but also dangerous. They feed into the victimhood narrative so central to alt-right identity politics. If there is a way to justify even Hitler’s hatred and resentfulness then, surely, there’s a way to legitimize anyone else’s. It’s a short step to explaining today’s radical right as a group of confused ‘incels’ acting out their universal and reasonable "resentfulness and hatred." They become rather harmless.
But Peterson offers no such discounts to the radical left: for him, they are the real threat today because of their ideological motivation. Peterson has indeed suggested that Antifa is similar to the Nazis because of their "proclivity to violence."
A Princeton University study from 2019 by Joel Finkelstein showed that those who began their YouTube commenting history on Peterson’s channel migrated twice as fast to alt-right content compared to those who had not started there. Moreover, Peterson was favorably referenced in alt-right and white supremacy social media postings in relation to "their most heinous misogynist and white supremacist ideas."
It doesn’t hurt Peterson’s star turn as the alt-right’s favorite public intellectual that so much of his analysis of Hitler and Nazism rests on a pathological hostility to the left, writ large; to fluent rhetoric whose flow won’t be dammed by factual flaws; and to a consistent effort to downplay the central, lethal role of antisemitism in Hitler’s "genius" and the six million dead of the Holocaust.
Mikael Nilsson is a Swedish historian based in Stockholm, Sweden, specializing in Hitler and National Socialism. His latest book "Hitler Redux: The Incredible History of Hitler’s So-Called Table Talks" will be out on Routledge in fall 2020. Twitter: @ars_gravitatis