I, too, have a "Nazi Problem"
when words cease to hold meaning, history follows suit
After a few weeks away from my favorite corner of the Internet, I had the naive expectation of returning to Substack to discuss how I independently published my latest novel, The Requisitions, an interwoven narrative set in 2023 and 1939 about what happens when we stop learning from the past.
But alas, even the best laid plans are subject to being ruined by Nazis.
Yes, you read that correctly. According to a few
moralistic concerned Substack writers with substantial subscriber bases and a fear of a threat to their brand Nazi Newsletter hordes, Substack is teeming with Nazis, which means
I, too, have a “Nazi problem,”
but I wouldn’t dare make such a claim without first presenting the evidence, because wouldn’t it be irresponsible to suggest anyone has a “Nazi problem” without being absolutely clear of what that statement entails?
I hold a BA in Holocaust Studies from the University of Vermont. I wrote an honor’s thesis on the Jewish Councils of Poland and the Nazi machinery of destruction.
I hold an MA in the psychology of genocide from University College London, where I used psychoanalytic theory to better understand what drives seemingly ordinary people to commit mass murder.
As a private tour guide in Paris, my most popular walk is about the rise of fascism in Europe and the Nazi Occupation of Paris.
My latest novel, The Requisitions is about history, memory, and World War Two,1 but I wouldn’t dare say it’s about Nazis simply to peddle my wares, because if I did, I’d be coopting a loaded word to grab your attention and entice new readership whilst masquerading as morally superior—which would be tantamount to profiting off the term “Nazi” whilst decrying the very act … wait a tick.
Part I: Substack’s “Nazi Problem”
The saga began on November 28, 2023, when the Atlantic published an article with a c
omedically alarmist title of “Substack Has a Nazi Problem.” What ensued might best be described as a good old fashioned puritanical American moral panic.
In the article’s first paragraph, the author, a fellow Substack writer with 13,000+ subscribers, suggests, categorically, that Substack has become “a propagator of white supremacy and anti-Semitism.” The author goes on to cite his “informal search of the Substack website and of extremist Telegram channels that circulate Substack posts” to suggest that some Nazi newsletters have “thousands or tens of thousands of subscribers” without giving any further details or proof.
While the author did maintain enough journalistic integrity to clarify that there weren’t actually Nazis everywhere on Substack (the number was in fact “a tiny fraction” of newsletters), the point had been made, loudly:
Substack had a Nazi problem,
and anyone willing to do a key-word search of white-nationalist term would be able to discover “at least sixteen” newsletters with “overt Nazi symbols.”
But the Internet was just getting started. Even more popular Substack newsletters began to express concern that their readers would stop subscribing because Substack’s newsletter service also allowed room for Nazis.
(It'’s important here to specify that Substack is not a publisher, but a newsletter service. I, the writer of if not, Paris, am my own publisher. This may seem inconsequential, but in fact it makes all the difference. As the FT correctly pointed out, “There is no good reason why Substack should be making political judgments about how to use its space any more than, say, a postal service does.”)
Once the word “Nazi” was out of the bag, everyone on Substack was at risk. It was like that old Wikipedia gam—how many clicks does it take to get to
Hitler Nazis?—except suddenly for Substack writers and readers, the answer was zero, and prominent writers like Margaret Atwood herself found themselves in the dubious position of deciding whether by virtue of simply using Substack’s service, they were in fact supporting Nazism.
And then, the extremely popular Substack newsletter Platformer (172,000 subscribers, paid + free; the popular tech newsletter always puts its name in bold in its own articles, so I’m following suit) became sufficiently concerned about
its brand image the “Substack Nazi problem” that it threatened to leave Substack pending a further investigation of the Nazi threat. Finally, someone was going to get to the bottom of it—and they did.
As of this week, Platformer has discovered six accounts it deemed “explicitly Nazi,” five of which Substack banned for violating rules against incitement to violence.
A key piece of information, however, was left out of Platformer’s analysis of “Nazi publications,” which for some reason didn’t make it into their January 8 article: none of the “Nazi” newsletters Platformer itself had flagged were monetized, which means Substack wasn’t ever, in fact, making any money off of Nazis. (Aseloquently put it in his recent critique of the investigation, Platformer “made the mistakes a lot of journalists have made when they aren’t careful enough to separate reporting from activism.”2)
In other words, after seven weeks of investigating whether or not Substack did in fact have a “Nazi problem,” Platformer flagged six accounts—yes, six—
.00001% of all Substack newsletters.
Five out of 500,000 + Substack newsletters were sufficiently Nazi to be banned. (As for the Atlantic’s November 28, 2023 assertion that some “Nazi newsletters” have “tens of thousands of subscribers,” there is no evidence that this is in fact true. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that there aren’t plenty of bigots out there (Substack is a blogging service, after all) but it does mean the entire Internet now thinks Substack has, or used to have, a “Nazi problem”—and this is egregious and irreversible. Since when did the term “Nazi” stop meaning what it means?
Part II: The World Has a Nazi Problem
When historic words lose their meaning, history itself becomes debatable.
To cite Shalom Auslander in his mic-drop post about the whole subject, “Nobody faces any admonishment for labelling people Nazis […] And so the words die. Verbumocide, in the first degree. And that is a damage far worse than anything financial, and utterly irreparable.”3
In other words, calling anyone with nationalist and/or bigoted views a “Nazi” gives far too much power to the very real Nazis who are more than happy to see the term become debatable and subjective.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 109 White Nationalist groups in the USA in 2022 and 30 neo-Nazi groups.
There’s only one correct answer if you believe specific words have specific meanings.
“Nazi” is a truncation of National Socialist, which is itself short for the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), a political party led by Adolf Hitler that tried to conquer most of the world and was responsible for the systematic murder of 11 million human beings, including 6 million Jewish people.
Whether or not you agree with the 7-week hoopla that resulted in rooting out five “Nazi newsletters” amongst 500,000+ is beside the point—Substack listened to the community (especially its most lucrative writers) and is now committed to “actively working on more reporting tools that can be used to flag content that potentially violates our guidelines.”
During my most cynical moments writing this piece, I wondered why a few prominent Substack writers with many thousands (or tens of thousands) of followers would take it upon themselves to bite a hand that feeds thousands of independent, anti-Nazi writers—because of Substack, more writers can make a living doing what they love than at any other time in human history.
So if we are sufficiently concerned about the potential existence of quasi-Nazis on Substack, why not write 74 million stories about the people who voted for
Donald Trump a white supremacist in the last American election? Or why not write about what’s happening in Germany right now, where far-right groups are considering migrant deportations; or you could write about why most white Americans choose to live in communities that are still segregated; or we could uphold our moral righteousness by causing an Internet flame war about a few lonely Nazi-wannabes with fewer than one hundred subscribers total …
It all smacks of self-serving absurdity to me, but alas, such is the nature of the world these days. It’s almost as if some types of people with a whole lot of unresolved generational guilt in their bellies prefer to invent problems in spaces in which they
profit are comfortable, rather than confront their own participation in systems they’re supposedly against.
Wait a tick …
For a signed, limited-edition of The Requisitions (149/300 copies remain), either subscribe annually to support independent & equitable publishing ($60) or order a copy here ($30, incl. shipping from France)
Shalom Auslander continues: “Because now the word Nazi is officially one step closer to death […] The word “Nazi” is already on life-support, and every incident like this only nudges the plug just that little bit further from the outlet.”