Hitler and me.
I think about Hitler a lot. Not in a morbid or pathological way, but because I’m fascinated by the whole mass murder thing and how it happened, could happen, and may well happen again in the future in such a seemingly civilized society such as Germany, or ours for that matter. I’m not talking about the logistics of it, or the actual details of the operation, but in the psychological depravity and absolute malevolence sense that I just can’t wrap my mind around. I guess it's the story of Cain and Abel times 6 million. I first became fascinated by Hitler while watching Jacob Bronowski’s masterful documentary series The Ascent of Man, and the scene at the end where he grabs a handful of Auschwitz pond mud that contains the ashes of cremated Jews is still so powerful and moving to me.
On a sidebar note, I have since come to realize that Stalin and Mao were much, much worse than Hitler, tallying up together nearly 100 million of their own people cruelly murdered or starved or worked to death with a callousness of intent that keeps me up at night – but that’s a discussion for another day.
The continued extermination in the face of certain and immediate defeat doesn’t make sense if you think that Hitler was trying to win the war, or believe his high-minded talk about the Third Reich and the Master Race. If he was intent on victory, he would have put all the Jews and gypsies to work for the war effort so the Nazis wouldn't get completely destroyed and humiliated. And then when they did win, he could kill all of them afterwards. He wouldn’t have devoted a substantial amount of resources and personnel to continuing the extermination effort unless his object wasn’t to win the war, but to create the most chaos and agony in the greatest number of people and nations as quickly as possible before Germany finally lost. Which makes Hitler an even more heinous and contemptible human being than I originally thought he was because the ideal he espoused was just a noble enough sounding front to mask his true intention: mayhem and murder.
Gloria Steinem said something once, and I’m paraphrasing, that was along the lines of “If my mother had only loved me there wouldn’t have been a women’s movement.” This always struck me as incredibly strange and yet believable and horribly sad at the same time. Am I comparing Gloria Steinem to Hitler? Yes of course, trolls and simpletons!
For sure not, but I think war is almost never declared and fought for rational reasons, or even good reasons. It seems to me the reasons are usually pathological and personal, tricked out to sound sane or necessary and therefore are psychologically attractive and justifiable to the weak, like-minded or gullible. Gloria’s war was fought because she felt lonely and unloved and was going to make sure everyone else who harbored the same bitterness and alienation bought into the movement, which she was smart enough to disguise as equal rights and empowerment.
I don’t mean to impugn her character, since I don’t know her, or open up a discussion of the pros and cons of the women’s movement, because they’re irrelevant to my point. Since she did say that the ideology was born out of resentment and disgust there must be some truth to it. As Jung observed: If you don’t know the motive look at the result and infer it. As Hitler and the other totalitarian butchers knew full well, the only way to make everyone equal was to make everyone equally poor, terminally starving and absolutely terrified every minute of their lives. Or just kill them – mors ultima linea rerem est.
So without a smooth segue (but not quite a non sequitur), as Peter and I were driving from Princeton to Columbia on the penultimate leg of the Old’s Cool Tour he was telling me about a trip he and his girlfriend had made to Danzig in Poland this past summer. He said the beaches on the Baltic Sea are absolutely beautiful and essentially without tourists or even luxury hotels – it’s like stepping back in time. Anyway, they were driving along the coast and came across a sign for 'Stutthof Concentration Camp Museum.' They turned into the main gate and saw the Lager, virtually untouched since1945, open, but weirdly without visitors.
They went inside. The administration building, crematorium and barracks were almost exactly the same as they were 70 years ago. Even the front gate is essentially the original. He told me how eerie and disconcerting it was walking around the grounds alone. So alone.
We drove across the George Washington Bridge at about this point in the story, and I thought how uniquely and almost surreally beautiful the Manhattan skyline was under a clear sky and smiley-face sun, in contrast to the conversation. Peter then said how the very beach they were on that morning was the one the prisoners were marched to and then shot as they stood in the sea just ahead of the Soviet troops, who liberated the camp and freed the remaining few who had managed to hide or escape.
The way I figure it is Stutthof is in each of our hearts, whether we're aware of it or not, because we all would have been prison guards there committing unspeakable acts if it weren’t for the randomness of our birth. We’d all like to think we couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to act like that, and take comfort in the fact that we can dream how we would have heroically resisted – but history and biology say otherwise. So embrace the dragon – it’s the only way you won’t be a naïf your whole life and most likely when it rears its ugly head a pathetic dead victim. Admitting your potential in all its loveliness and latent malevolence, is the only way to become fully alive and human.
We pulled up to Grant’s Tomb, which is our Columbia University stop since we can’t get anywhere near the campus with our cars. Nobody can; not since 9/11. The others were already there. Wertin asked if I knew who was buried in Grant’s Tomb. I did; it's an old joke. He mentioned how Grant was one of his heroes and a great man. I said how I used to be glad we won the war; now I’m not. Sherman's March, Lord Acton, and Appomattox all figured in as the discussion turned back even further to a different war and other trains of thought, plains of distraught.