“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

American Warrior

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Lieutenant Commander Worf

I read a great book this week, ‘In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius’, by the linguist Arika Okrent, and while I really enjoyed it, it did have one unfortunate consequence: it interested me, against my will, in Klingon culture.

I don’t know whether you happen to be familiar with the Klingon founding myth, but I’m going to quote it to you in its entirety:

With fire and steel did the gods forge the Klingon heart. So fiercely did it beat, so loud was the sound, that the gods cried out, ‘On this day we have brought forth the strongest heart in all the heavens. None can stand before it without trembling at its strength.’

But then the Klingon heart weakened; its steady rhythm faltered and the gods said, ‘Why do you weaken so? We have made you the strongest in all of creation.’

And the heart said, ‘I am alone.’

And the gods knew that they had erred. So they went back to their forge and brought forth another heart.

But the second heart beat stronger than the first, and the first was jealous of its power. Fortunately, the second heart was tempered by wisdom: ‘If we join together, no force can stop us.’

And when the two hearts began to beat together, they filled the heavens with a terrible sound. For the first time, the gods knew fear. They tried to flee, but it was too late. The Klingon hearts destroyed the gods who created them and turned the heavens to ashes. To this very day, no one can oppose the beating of two Klingon hearts.” (Star Trek Deep Space 9, Season 6, Episode 7)

When the first Klingon heart met the second Klingon heart, they had no further need of other beings, and so they destroyed their creators and the place where their creators dwelt.

This myth is read at Klingon weddings; this is Klingon romance.  And that makes sense, because the Klingon are a warrior people.  They define themselves by their destructiveness towards non-Klingon.

I don’t want to do a deep dive into Klingon, but that founding myth snagged in my mind.  Founding myths are how a culture tells itself who it is, and while the Klingon aren’t real, Americans are.

And we also have a founding myth about destroying our creators.  Sure, sure, we didn’t obliterate the English and turn London “to ashes”.  And, yes, we tend to couch our myth in the language of freedom and democracy.

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‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ by Emanuel Leutze, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But our myth is a war myth nonetheless.  In fact, many of the pillars supporting our national identity are martial myths: the drive to self-determination of the Revolutionary War, the victory of pure, disinterested abolitionism during the Civil War, the manner in which we selflessly saved the world from the Nazi menace during World War II.

 

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U.S. Marines raise the American flag on Mount Suribachi, on Iwo Jima, 1945

These are all myths – specifically, they are all warrior myths.  They tell the story of an invincible people who solve their problem with righteous arms and always fight for good.

I think that this is why the Klingon myth has been banging around my mind since I read it: it reminded me of my own country.  Compare these two sentiments:

“’If we join together, no force can stop us.’…To this very day, no one can oppose the beating of two Klingon hearts.”

“Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country that we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.” – Patrick Henry, Speech at the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond, March 23rd, 1775

But, of course, we are neither invincible nor righteous.  On our best day, we are a nation with feet of clay (so to speak) like any other.  We have our good moments and our bad moments.

But warrior nations must take care, because their bad moments are so often brutal.  And their myths give them permission to be brutal – they excuse brutality by hiding it behind God-given indestructibility.

But, as we bomb yet another Middle Eastern country and posture aggressively on the Korean Peninsula, it’s worth asking: must we fight always?  Are we so sure that we’re righteous?  Why do we greet every conflict with one hand already inching towards our holster?

We might remember instead the Klingon proverb: there are no old warriors.

Peaceful, Evil Man

To Tony Judt, With Humility and Apologies

     There are minds so strong and lovely that one quails at the idea of disagreeing with them.  The error must be yours, you think, because their thinking is so sure and clean and reliable.

     When I find a discrepancy between my thinking and that of a greater mind, I usually retire, but every once and awhile, an admired intellect will assert something that I feel strongly is incorrect, and I find myself unable to give way.

     That happened to me this week.  I have been reading, with enormous pleasure, ‘When the Facts Change‘ by Tony Judt, the lucid, moderate, incisive historian of post-World War Europe. Judt is the sort of author is who is so reasonable and articulate that he is dangerously persuasive, and I find myself, usually, in total agreement with him.

     So I was caught up short when I read something in this book with which I disagree pretty categorically:

“It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity.  War – total war – has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era.  The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902.  Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either Communism or Fascism would have seized hold of modern states.  Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust.  Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot.” (p. 274)

     These data are cherry-picked.  

     First of all, it is certainly coherent to lay the victory (though not the rise) of Communism in Russia at the feet of World War I, but to suggest that, for example, the millions of deaths in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) were a result most proximately of World War I is ridiculous – the People’s Republic wasn’t even established until 1949!

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A ‘struggle session’ in Harbin in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, featuring public humiliation.  From scmp.com

     Or: perhaps the first British concentration camps in Africa were built because of the Boer War, but what about the detention camps they used for massive deportations of Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950’s?  Describing the “Mau Mau Uprising” as ‘total war’ seems like an enormous stretch, even when one considers how reluctant the British have been to be honest about it.

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British soldiers looking for Mau Mau fighters in Kenya in 1954.  From guardian.com

     Or: what about the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the truly blood-curdling actions taken by the occupying forces there?  

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A Japanese soldier poses with decapitated heads in Nanking in 1937.  From ‘The Rape of Nanking’ by Iris Chang

     Or: if we must restrict ourselves to the treatment of African-Americans in modernity, what about the Jim Crow era in the United States, which was nothing if not atrocious?

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From atlantablackstar.com

     There are more.  The truth is, there is no limiting circumstance on human evil.  To suggest that there is, is to indulge in optimism completely without cause.

     Judt’s assertion offends me because it implies that, in the absence of war, people can be trusted not to lash out at each other genocidally, and this is clearly not the case.  The arc of human history does not bear this out; the history of the twentieth century does not bear this out; neither the history of my nation or his bears this out.

     Humans require no special context to commit evil.  They do not require war to commit genocide.  They do not need to be in extremis to commit atrocities.  They do it in all places at all times whether or not they have war as an excuse.

     This capacity to annihilate one another is not a limited or circumscribed capacity – it is a human capacity.  If we keep looking for reasons why we could never have done the same terrible things as other people, if we keep looking for special circumstances which explain why cruelty and murder and evil are not universal, then we aren’t going to see the next evil coming.

     We have to take responsibility, not for the evil we have or have not done, but the evil we are capable of doing.  To say that only people in certain circumstances might commit atrocities is logic preliminary to explaining why we cannot commit them.

     But every nation, people, or creed will have the opportunity to strike cruelly at another people, and, if they are convinced beforehand that they are not capable of it, then they will think less critically about what they do.  It is only by acknowledging that we may all do terrible things unless we are careful that we will see the need to take care.

     And we must take care.

 

Featured Image from law.georgetown.edu/library

Where All Are Guilty

     I’m not sure what we’re all doing here, exactly.

     I think it’s fair to say that when the Allies liberated the German concentration camps in 1945, most of the world was shocked by what they saw there.  They had not known that mankind was willing to commit an enormity of that measure.

     And so we learned then what we were really capable of.  Maybe we should have known before – the record of man committing evil against man is as old as history itself – but, for whatever reason, we did not even seem to suspect before then.  Certainly, we knew after.

     We saw that we were monsters, that we would tear each other apart for the sheer joy of it, that we would grind out the lives of the young and the vulnerable by the million to sate our own blood-thirsty needs.

     The Germans were not the first people to commit genocide, and they weren’t the last. But they were a fully modern, secular nation, and that proved to us that no creed or technology of thought yet devised places a people out of the reach of those terrible impulses.  It seems we carry our capacity for annihilation with us, that we are born with it, like our capacity for love or language.

     Those camps were our own darkest heart brought to light, and when we looked them full in the face, we faced a choice: we could abandon ourselves to the despair of the wicked, embrace the nihilism that such evil implied, or we could repudiate it.

     However, since human evil is a fact, since it has touched every age and every nation, in order to deny it in ourselves, we must believe that we can change.  And, in order to change, we must be able to learn.  If we cannot learn, history will bend again and again towards those camps, towards the ovens and mass graves, and we will be monsters still.

     But what would it mean to learn away evil?  Presumably, it would not merely mean that we refrained from rounding Jews into camps and exterminating them, or rounding anyone into camps and exterminating them.  It would mean understanding the grave errors in thinking which led us there.

     The most serious error is this: that it is useful or correct to think about groups: national, religious, socieconomic, racial groups, as moral units, to fear or condemn them as though they were individuals.  Treating groups as individuals, as though they possessed the characteristics of individuals (‘values’, ‘intelligence’, ‘trustworthiness’, ‘criminality’), is rarely useful and often evil, and the events of the last century (not just the Holocaust, but also the American Civil Rights movement, the advances of women’s rights in much of the world, the slow death of European colonialism, the enormous genocides in China and the USSR) should have convinced absolutely every thinking person of that.

Brexit 'Breaking Point'
UKIP Pro-Brexit, Anti-Immigration ‘Leave’ Ad

     But my own countrymen have just elected a man to the office of the President of the United States in a large part because of his propensity for exactly this kind of thinking: his willingness to treat Mexicans as a group, “blacks” as a group, Muslims as a group, to act upon them as though they were individuals, to register or ban them.  We are still making this same mistake.  We aren’t learning.

 

     This lesson is so important, so necessary to the functioning of a moral society, that, if we have failed to grasp it after everything we’ve seen, then all our manners and petty ethics and customs are so much farse: play-acting at true civilization, and I don’t understand why we bother.  If the dark evil still beats within us which causes us to drive the other out into the cold because he is the other, to strike him down or deny him, then why are we bothering to honor our speeding tickets or queue at supermarkets or refrain from parking in the handicap spots?  If we still haven’t learned that children are children wherever they come from, if we are still willing to let them die because we can’t look past their category designation, then we are doomed and I don’t understand why I pay my taxes or say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.  These are the trifling rituals of civilization – we have failed to grasp the fundamentals.

     I will pay my taxes; I will say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because I wish to participate in a civil and good society.  But these gestures do not make a society civil or good – they are just niceties propping up a rotten structure unless we can learn and move forward, can understand our mistakes and become better.  And we aren’t better yet.

 

Header Image:

Selection of Hungarian Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Poland, May 1944.— Yad Vashem Photo Archives, taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website, http://www.ushmm.org

‘Notes for Those Going on Leave’

Some documents are worth quoting in their entirety.  From Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 (and which he, in turn, found in the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defence in Podolsk), a leaflet produced by German soldiers on the Ostfront for the gallows-amusement of their fellow soldiers:

“Notes for Those Going on Leave

You must remember that you are entering a National Socialist country whose living conditions are very different to those which you have become accustomed.  You must be tactful with the inhabitants, adapting to their customs and refrain from the habits which you have come to love so much.

Food: Do not rip up the parquet or other kinds of floor, because potatoes are kept in a different place.

Curfew: If you forget your key, try to open the door with the round-shaped object.  Only in cases of extreme urgency use a grenade.

Defence against Partisans: It is not necessary to ask civilians the password and open fire on receiving an unsatisfactory answer.

Defence against Animals: Dogs with mines attached to them are a special feature of the Soviet Union.  German dogs in the worst cases bite, but they do not explode.  Shooting every dog you see, although recommended in the Soviet Union, might create a bad impression.

Relations with the Civil Population: In Germany just because somebody is wearing women’s clothes does not necessarily mean that she is a partisan.  But in spite of this, they are dangerous for anyone on leave from the front.

General: When on leave back in the Fatherland take care not to talk about the paradise existence in the Soviet Union in case everybody wants to come here and spoil our idyllic comfort.”

The exploding dogs referenced above were a Soviet innovation.  The Red Army soldiers would train a dog to look for their food under vehicles, cars, and tanks.  They would then strap anti-tank mines to the dogs’ backs and send them over to the German lines.  The dogs would go crawling under German cars searching for treats, the bottom of the car would catch the mine, and the mine would explode.

The Germans learned pretty quickly to shoot all dogs on sight, but the idea that any creature that crawled toward their camp might be a bomb terrorized and demoralized the Germans.  Apparently, even the Nazis didn’t enjoy shooting dogs.

Bad Bummer on the Ostfront

“Red Army units also shot their German captives, especially Luftwaffe pilots who had baled out.  There were few opportunities for sending them to the rear, and they did not want them to be saved by the enemy advance.” – Antony Beevor, ‘Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

Operation Barbarossa launched on June 22nd, 1941; the German army invaded the Soviet Union in a move which surprised no one except the leaders of the Soviet Union.  In the next three weeks, the German army advanced well into the Soviet Union and over 2 million Soviet soldiers were killed.

The Ostfront is a bleak chapter of human history, with atrocities to go around.  And while apologies should never be made for the murder of prisoners of war (at which, if course, the Nazis also excelled), there is something devastating about soldiers so certain of the enemy’s advance that they execute POWs lest they find themselves fighting them again.  Imagine the desperation they must have felt as the German army advanced further and further into their country, closer and closer towards their homes and families.

Have you ever been moderately or seriously injured?  Shot, stabbed, sliced, had a bone badly or visibly broken?  The moment you realize that the boundaries of your body have been breached is a bad one.  There is a sick, sinking feeling, before anything actually hurts, when you see that the world has intruded into you and you understand that you are not OK.

I wonder whether that is at all how it felt to watch the Germans advance into your country.  One’s relationship to one’s country is obviously different, more complicated and less…implicit, than one’s relationship with one’s own body, but they might be equally vulnerable to the sense that something hostile and alien and hard has come driving into a space which was your’s and safe and has hurt it.  Two million Russian soldiers killed in three weeks – which does not include civilian deaths – a rate of killing which must have felt like national hemorrhaging.

One of the challenges in thinking about the Ostfront is finding someone to really root for.  With one genocidal regime pitched against another, it’s hard to feel good about any outcome.  But while some evils are perpetrated by evil individuals, some are perpetrated by sad, misguided, or desperate ones.  While Soviet soldiers certainly committed evil acts, they were being borne down on upon by one of the most frightening forces humans ever unleashed upon one another.  They were angry and they were scared, and we can understand that without apologizing for it.

Quotation at the top is from Antony Beevor’s book Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943.