“It Is Not Truth Which Matters, But Victory”

In general, I don’t think it’s fruitful to spend a lot of time trying to figure Adolf Hitler out.

I certainly understand the impulse: when we discover monsters in our midst, we are strongly motivated to examine them carefully.  Partly, this is prurient – they are fascinating.  But partly, this is survival: we must learn to spot them, so that we can stop them sooner in the future.

But to stop them, we don’t really need to understand them; we just need to be able to recognize them.  Which is lucky for us, because the truth is that we will never really be able to understand them.

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Hitler at Nuremberg in 1934.  From iwm.org.uk

Hitler is the best and most important example of this incomprehensibility. Oceans of ink have been spilled examining and psychoanalyzing Hitler through his books, his speeches, his relationships, and his actions, but he remains a cipher.  Why did he do the things he did?  Was he an evil mastermind? An ordinary megalomaniac who happened to be at the right place at the right time?  Did he really believe all the things he preached, or was he merely manipulating the people around him?  How are we to understand his contradictions?

The question which has always most troubled me is: did Hitler understand that any of his actions were wrong?  Let’s take, for example, the attempted extermination of the Jewish people: did he understand that most people would think that was evil?  He employed euphemisms, which implies that he did.  

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What, then, did he make of that?  Did he believe that he acted for good but that he alone in the world saw the truth?  Did he believe that everyone secretly agreed with him (i.e. that the world would be better without Jews) and that only he had the courage to admit it?  Or did he fail to trouble himself with questions of right and wrong at all?

As I’ve said before, I don’t usually trouble myself too much with these questions, since I believe that they are essentially unanswerable.  We will never know what Hitler “really” believed – it is enough to know what he definitely did.

But I recently read Albert Speer’s memoir, ‘Inside the Third Reich’, and it got me grasping again after this old question.  Speer was Hitler’s architect and then his Minister of Armaments.  He spent quite a lot of time in Hitler’s company, and in his memoirs, he mentions something that Hitler said to him in 1936:

“There are two possibilities for me: to win through with all my plans, or to fail.  If I win, I shall be one of the greatest men in history.  If I fail, I shall be condemned, despised, and damned.” (p. 101)

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Speer with Hitler in 1937, designing the World’s Fair German Pavilion.  From historytoday.com

Despite my own good advice, I have become fixated on this quotation because it implies that Hitler was aware that other people would consider his actions atrocious.  He may have considered the atrocity negotiable – he seemed to believe that victories would justify him – but he was cognizant of the fact that, in the world he inhabited, his plans were unacceptable.  He saw that he needed to remake the world in order to make himself righteous.

I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘damned’.  Damnation is total; it describes the unredeemed.  His use of it suggests that he knew that his actions would be considered not merely bad, but in fact evil.  And, to be frank, I sort of quail in front of a mind which can see the evil it is about to do as evil and still do it.

Even if this quote offers a glimpse into Hitler’s darkness, maybe it’s better not to peer too hard after it.  Ultimately, Hitler will never satisfy those of us who want to understand evil – he will never yield up his own true beliefs.  Maybe it will suffice to say that, in this one case, Hitler was ultimately correct: he did fail, and so he is condemned, despised, and damned.

The title of this post is a quote from Hitler, from a speech before the Reichstag in Berlin in January, 1939 – it is not the opinion of the author.

Featured image from biography.com

Whoso Rewardeth Evil for Good, Evil Shall Not Depart from His House

Sometimes, I’m glib.

Actually, I’m often glib.  Usually, even.  Always, maybe.

Anyway, I was glib last week when, while addressing a recent Bookends column in the New York Times, I wrote, “Reading is great”.

The fact that I was glib does not mean that I was wrong: reading really is great.  I believe, in all sincerity, that written language, our ability to record, preserve, and transmit information, is humankind’s greatest achievement, our best, perhaps only, hope of progress.

But while the ability to read is our paramount intellectual accomplishment and the great joy of my life, it can still bite me in the ass.  There is so much to read, and not all of it brings welcome news.

This month, the cover article of The Atlantic magazine is by Jeffrey Goldberg, and is called, ‘Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?’

Goldberg’s thesis is this: the Holocaust caused a temporary recession, or perhaps merely a masking, of Europe’s historically endemic anti-Semitism.  The effect is now wearing off, and a new wave of anti-Semitism from Muslim immigrants has exacerbated it.  The hatred that was always there is creeping back out into the open, and while Goldberg doesn’t believe that Europe has found itself back in 1933, he wonders whether it might not have found itself back in 1929.

The evidence which Goldberg marshals to support the existence of significant anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly in France and Sweden, is persuasive; less persuasive, perhaps, is the evidence in support of its increase.  But this is pretty cold comfort: first of all, I find Goldberg essentially credible, and so extend him the benefit of the doubt.  But secondly, isn’t it bad enough that there is still anti-Semitism in Europe?

Anti-Semitism is primitive, and appalling, and stupid.  It was primitive, and appalling, and stupid in 1933, and then we were all given a terrible lesson.

Of course, the Holocaust was much, much more than a lesson – it was a genocide.  But, at the very least, it should have been a lesson.  Millions of people fell victim to a base prejudice: a lesson is the very barest minimum of what that should have been.

The Holocaust should have obliterated anti-Semitism in the mind of every civilized person of every race, religion, nation, or creed on the planet.  That it didn’t, that the deaths of six million innocents only bought Europe’s Jews a century of reprieve, makes me despair.

Six million lives was far, far too high a price to pay to rid us of one prejudice – if it could not even do that, then we are hopeless, a wretched and evil species doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over and over, hamsters on the Devil’s own wheel.

What is the point of recording information if we cannot or will not learn from it?  The act of writing is hopeful: it supposes that knowledge might be cumulative, that every human might not have to start from scratch, that the path to wisdom might be shortened.

But if six million deaths will not teach us, then what chance does the written word have?  What can the reason, the argument, the logic, or the witness of past persons do for us if their very deaths leave us unmoved, as stupid, vile, and ignorant as we were before?

And we are stupid, vile, and ignorant.  We cherish our bigotries and our hatreds more than we cherish each other; we preserve them and pass them on from generation to generation like twisted little heirlooms.  Truly, what pieces of shit we have proved to be.

I have read too much history to have any faith in us anymore.  No one has any right to surprised by Goldberg’s article: given a long enough timeline, man will always turn on man.

I’m not surprised; I’m sad.  More than that, I’m disgusted: what a pathetic excuse for a species we are.  Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?  The evil in man has made itself felt in every place, in every time – perhaps the better question is, where would they go?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.

Should I Forgive H.L. Mencken?

When I endeavor to admire men of the past, I often find myself thwarted by limitations in their thinking which are symptomatic more of their age than of their incapability.

There are technologies in thought just as in other areas of human accomplishment, and they are purchased in the same way as revolutions in medicine, communications, or military technologies: by the slow accumulation of discoveries on the part of many individuals, few of whom were working towards the same ends.  There are giants, but they are very rare, and they stand on the shoulders of many smaller men.  Secularism, equal moral standing for other races and religions, democracy, woman’s suffrage: perhaps it is as unreasonable to expect people to have anticipated these revolutions as it would be to have expected them to sit down and build an atom bomb from scratch.

Abraham Lincoln, during the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, said:

“I will say then that I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.”

George Orwell, a man whose mind I admire perhaps more than any other, in 1934 wrote (to a woman!), “I had lunch yesterday with Dr. Ede.  He is a bit of a feminist and thinks that if a woman was brought up exactly like a man she would be able to throw a stone, construct a syllogism, keep a secret etc.” (George Orwell: An Age Like This 1920-1940: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, p. 136)

These men were clear, brave, and forward thinkers; it is probably unreasonable to expect them to have been perfect.  But it is always disappointing when men who saw so much fail to see things which seem to obvious, and so important, to us now.

I have always enjoyed H.L. Mencken, and admired him in the same way, but to a lesser degree, that I admire Orwell: as a man who was little susceptible to the pressures of conventional thinking and who told the truth as he saw it, clearly and well.  However, as anyone who has read much of his work knows, he was prone to assertions like this one:

“They [Jews] strike other people as predominantly unpleasant, and everywhere on earth they seem to be disliked.  This dislike, despite their own belief to the contrary, has nothing to do with their religion: it is founded, rather, on their bad manners, their curious lack of tact.” (Treatise on the Gods, p. 286)

I believe that Mencken was smarter than that, and, if he wasn’t, he should have been.  If Mencken had believed, from the faith in which he was raised and which he had never examined, that Jews were going to hell, one might then plead that, though he was wrong, he was a victim of his context.  But he didn’t; he derived his own pseudo-empirical anti-semitism, and I don’t feel that I can see past that.  It doesn’t diminish his writerly skill, but it absolutely mitigates against my admiration for him as a thinker.

I don’t believe that, in this case, saying, “Yeah, well, when he was writing, anti-semitism was prevalent” solves this problem – what I admired about Mencken was his ability to see through the prejudices of lesser minds.  I see this not as a failure of his time, but a failure in his calling.  And I hold it against him.

Image of Mencken taken from Wikipedia.