Saturday, January 14, 2017


A couple weeks ago, looking for something to read, I picked up from my shelf The Germans by Gordon A. Craig, an eminent historian of Germany.

I keep coming upon passages that, in the current context, seem to ring a bell.

The chapter on "Romanticism" is an insightful overview of the flight from rational thought. I was struck by the relationship to a sense of helplessness:
Sociologically, Romanticism was always - as the sociologist of literature Leo Lowenthal has suggested it was in its first phase - an essentially bourgeois movement, and politically it was an escape from the bourgeois dilemma of powerlessness. Thus, it was significant that the years 1830-1848, when bourgeois self-confidence was at its height, and when the German middle class had every expectation of seizing political power, as the middle class had succeeded in doing in France in 1830 and in England in 1832. But the failure of the revolution of 1848 destroyed these hopes and did serious and permanent damage to middle-class amour propre and self-confidence, and in the subsequent period escapism and regressive behavior became the order of the day. (p. 197)
Craig traces the glorification of the peasantry and the denigration of city people, presenting a passage from the social geographer W.H. Riehl:
In the peasants the practical statesman can mobilize living history against an educated younger generation that has lost its historical sense; he can mobilize a living realism against the abstract ideas of the litterateurs; he can mobilize the last elements of nature against an artificial world; in the peasantry he can bring the power of community and mass to bear against a cultivated society that is distracted to the point of being without objective and, as individuals, denatured and degenerate. (p. 204)
Then there's the writer Julius Langbehn, who wanted "to resotre the organic community, which would lead to a resurgence of individuality and a rebirth of art and a truly Germanic culture."
How this was to be done Langbehn did not make clear, although his contemptuous rejection of reason leads one to infer that the change would be effected by will and, in all probability, by violence, since his aim was not the reform but clearly the annihilation of modern society. His book was, in fact, a Romantic manifesto against the nature, and even the tempo, of contemporary life and an appeal for a return to an existence that would be simpler, more spontaneous, and guided by intuition rather than by rationality. (pp. 206-207)
Wilhelm Stapel wrote:
More important than all the vivisection of intellectualism is the growth of a national myth, a myth that is not sweated out of the nerves, but one that blossoms forth from the blood. For it is not rationalism but myth that produces life. It is comprehended in Bildung. It is the sense and content of our time. For that reason, there is enmity, and there must be enmity, between nationhood (Volkheit) and intellectualism. Volkheit is faith and growth. Intellectualism is skepticism and barrenness. The spirit (Geist) is in the Volkheit; in intellectualism there is only calculation. (p. 208)
Not surprisingly, this rejection of reason was not merely an innocent choice of one way of using our minds vs. another. It had serious consequences:
Before 1914 anti-Semitism was like a stubborn low-grade infection that did not seriously impair the health of the social body, but defied all attempts to cure it. ... The historian Theodor Mommson, who in the late 1870s had been the first to take up arms against the anti-Jewish writings of his colleague Treitschke, said with discouragement a decade later: "You are mistaken if you believe that anything could be achieved by reason. In years past, I thought so myself and kept protesting against the monstrous infamy that is anti-Semitism. But it is useless, completely useless. ... It is a horrible epidemic like cholera - one can neither explain or cure it. One must patiently wait until the poison has consumed itself and lost its virulence." (p. 140)
There's also a recurring element of destruction as a virtue, a world so spoiled that it should be smashed to bits to make way for a new start:
And there was always the expressed readiness to reject the Weimar Republic and all its works for some undefined but splendid dream world of the future. Thus, in 1931, Franz Mariaux, in a work entitled significantly The Junk Heap, spoke of "the great drunkenness of the madness (Wahnsinnsrausch)" in which the old world would be destroyed and new life be born. (p. 208)
You can probably tell where this is leading.
Hitler spoke to every one's secret grievance and hidden desire as well as to the collective mood. Fest says, "Without this correspondence between the individual- and the social-pathological situation, Hitler's acquisition of such a magically demanding power over their spirit is unthinkable."
By the time he'd been in power six years, Germany had had recovered from the Depression, taken over Austria, and seized the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, lands that had been part of the Holy Roman Empire.
Haffner cited a speech of April 28, 1939, in which Hitler had boasted that he had overcome the chaos in Germany, restored order, increased production ina all branches of industry, eliminated unemployment, united the German people politically and morally, "destroyed, page by page, that treaty which, in its 448 articles, included the most shameful oppression ever exacted of peoples and human beings," restored to the Reich the provinces lost in 1919, returned to heir fatherland millions of unhappy Germans who had been placed under foreign rule, restored the thousand-year-old unity of the German living space, all without shedding blood or inflicting the scourge of war upon his own or other peoples, and all by his own efforts, although, twenty-one years earlier, he had been an unknown worker and soldier. This outburst, Haffner commented, was "nauseating self-adulation," couched in a "laughable style. But, zum Teufel!, it's all perfectly true - or almost all!" (p. 68)
And the apotheosis:
the foundation of Hitler's power over the German people was his ability, from the moment when he began to articulate and mobilize these feelings of anxiety and give them direction and thrust. "None of the followers whom he began, after a shaky beginning, to attract," Fest writes, "was able to express the basic psychological, social, and ideological motives of the movement as he was. He was never only their leader, he was always their voice." He was at once the embodiment of the "backward-looking utopianism" of millions of his countrymen and the promise that it would be achieved by means of a satisfyingly violent vengeance upon all those who had brought Germany to this critical pass. (p. 67, emphasis added)

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