The Cult of Beauty.
One thing that impressed and continues to impress me about Nazism is its subtle, bullying allure. The almost-welcome assault is glancing, almost insidious; definitely not an attention-getting promotional blitz that would leave one less awed but more fascinated perhaps, if not a bit stunned. No, I’m convinced that the root of the curiosity and ultimate attraction of “Hitlerism” is because of its puritanical albeit erotic brutality and righteous violence, the shameless cult of beauty, and its anti-intellectual, almost ritualistic sexuality. The drama is exciting precisely because it’s forbidden to ordinary people. In a certain sense it was (and is) a magnificent experience.
In my last blog post I raised the question about Pope Pius XII and his complicity with the Nazis before, during and after the war, and asked the simple question: Why? Why did he side with unmitigated evil rather than the savagely and unjustly persecuted? A reader wrote in and answered it for me – The Holy See wanted to do everything he could to welcome Germany back into the Catholic fold – a schism that had existed since Martin Luther was excommunicated in 1517 for posting his Ninety-Five Theses, which paved the way, unwittingly, for the Protestant Reformation that spread throughout and transformed Europe and the world.
But I don’t buy it – it’s too schoolbook and obvious. And understandable, almost excusable, or at least justifiable granted the intended end. But the audacity of this betrayal is in such bad taste and so morally repugnant and cowardly that that can’t be true. I think the answer to most of the malevolence that’s foisted onto the world, especially if it’s particularly cruel or vehemently denied is done for personal and selfish reasons. Pius was the papal nuncio to Germany for years before the war, and so had many, many friends in high places throughout the Third Reich. He was notoriously antisemitic. So he was just helping old friends climb the Nazi ladder (and later helped them escape their reprehensible pasts). He then simply watched silently from the sidelines in a sick quid pro quo as the Jews of Europe were murdered in the millions because he believed in his holey, unhappy heart that they had it coming. I know that sounds like a callous blanket judgment, without nuance or empathy – but there’s no other conclusion that’s not self-serving or insulting, especially for an opportunistic coward like this particularly fallible “Voice of God On Earth.” He’s since been beatified believe it or not.
That said, I think most of us reject Nazism’s machismo and the horrific world of the concentration camps, but that unconsciously or subconsciously we are fascinated by its atrocious power and inescapable, dominating amorality, which seems, even today, to be impervious to irony or cliché. The Nazis may have been the vanguard of the plague that came close to achieving a total technologization of the state, and, thus, I am convinced that the only moral position possible is to take an implacable stand against it, even if that mean’s risking and sacrificing one’s life. However futilely it might seem. Because Auschwitz meant death, total absolute death – there could be no poetry after it – the vexing question of how to resist without endangering not only oneself but also one’s family is actually quite irrelevant.
I’ve also come to the conclusion that all thought shouldn’t cease with Adolf Hitler, that if, in the course of agreeing with a line of reasoning that might appear to run parallel for a time to arguments the Nazis had also held dear, one should not therefore slam the books, close the inquiry, and stop thinking in such a direction any further. That would be equivalent to letting the dead Hitler set up barriers on all the intellectual roads which could yet prove interesting and instructive and so would be a curious revenge for the Nazism which had been not only a monstrosity and a nightmare, but had also for a few years conquered Europe from within, conquered it before the war even started, conquered it psychologically decades and maybe even centuries prior to any hint of a Holocaust. But to learn from the lessons of history we must first understand what those lessons really are.
One lesson is: I think it’s a failure of imagination and a catastrophic mistake to take Hitler at his word, that Nazism, initially, had any benevolent intent. To unify a war-battered people, to kick-start a devastated economy by creating a vast infrastructure of roads and railroads, to modernize industry – in short, to create a democratic regime that would rebuild and then rule a proud and inspired country for a thousand years is total tosh. I think it was Carl Jung who once said something like “If you don’t know the motive, look at the result, and then infer the motive.” So let’s look at the result with a jaundiced eye and then take an educated guess at to the reason/means to that end; measure the monolithic weight of defeat and wretchedness against the osmian grains of other possible truths and obtuse views. Victory is how you define it.
In my opinion Hitler never intended to win the war. In fact, he never even wanted a war in the first place, but it was the best way he could think of to kill the most Jews the quickest. In fact, war was the perfect ruse, a world-shattering diversionary smokescreen that masked the self-imposed prison of Hitler’s smallness – to exterminate the Jewish people entirely and efficiently by throwing an impressive industrial complex behind the idea – and with subversive but triumphant intensity. He wasn’t motivated by hate, as is often mistakenly assumed, but by disgust, which is why he used Zyklon-B – it was equally effective in killing Jews and lice. I’m not kidding – a gaskammer was originally a building where clothing was disinfected.
Hitler didn’t blunder into Russia; he didn’t make errors of judgment in North Africa or miscalculate the strength of Patton’s divisions, or any of the post facto armchair general horseshit that fills volumes and volumes of history books and biographies and autobiographies, ad nauseum. Hitler only wanted to win the war if it meant he could kill more Jews. But given the choice between victory and extermination, he was very clear going all the way back to Mein Kampf: he’d rather kill Jews. Think about it – if Hitler’s priority was conquest he wouldn’t have committed so much critical manpower and staggering amounts of scarce resources, especially toward the end of the war, to annihilating the Jews. He would have concentrated the might of the Reich to actually winning, and putting the Jews to work toward that end. Once victory was declared, he could kill the lot of them with impunity afterward. Instead, he kept all those murderous furnaces burning at a supreme cost to himself and his Reich until the Allies were literally banging on the gates.
It’s essentially a disease-avoidance system put in place by natural selection to prevent us from consuming harmful food and vile bodily fluids. But I think it’s possible that disgust evolved not just for disease prevention, but also as a useful albeit ad hoc yardstick to distinguish “us” from “them.” In essence: we’re clean because we don’t eat pork (or shellfish), and you do so you’re not. Disgust, it goes without saying, is not necessarily a good guide for morality, but we can’t always rationalize away our horror. But it’s there, ingrained, painful, permanent. Morality may be geographical as Betrand Russell once quipped, and I think in a similar sense so is disgust, but there are also transcendent human truths.
That said, I’m thinking there’s a scary, and ultimately murderous consequence of morality based on disgust, especially when it’s extended to out-groups – lumping together the “them” into a category and equating it with what’s physically disgusting, threatening, or guilty. To paraphrase the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “Moral rules based on disgust blind and bind” and become righteous, take-no-prisoners movements, particularly if the state or the law is heavily freighted in their favor. The Jewish Solution is the logical ultimate result of this spiteful, delusional and murderous “moral” endgame.
With these things on my mind I intended on writing a monograph that dealt with the most important problems of our time, of all time: how to face evil, the implications and demands of a totalitarian system on the individual, the conflict between overt behavior and secret, cherished beliefs, the destruction of self-respect, the fulfillment of the death wish – in fact the simple but confounding challenge of moral goodness. My whole goal was to find a certain universal truth, to make an attempt at radical subjectivity without being overly or overtly solipsistic. The answer turns out to be very simple, but not very easy. All, all of us must say, in every thought and action, not matter how small, even at infinite cost to ourselves, no.
Why the continued appeal then? It seems to me what’s distinctive about the Nazi version of the old idea of the “noble savage” is its unvarnished contempt for all that is reflective, critical and pluralistic. It celebrates a society where the exhibition of physical skill and courage and the victory of the strong are its main aspirations. It glorifies surrender and glamorizes death, doesn’t it? Another side of the fascistic ideal: a culture where women are merely breeders and keepers – excluded from all ceremonial functions because they represent a threat to the integrity and strength of men. Isn’t this mindset undeniably misogynistic and paternal, Prussian even? His paranoic psychosis – to murder people considered racially inferior and thus dangerous to the Master Race in an effort to cleanse and purify – drew widespread support from centuries-old hatred and prejudices – envy is the first and strongest human emotion – until the masses made the righteous homicidal revenge fairy tale their own.
There is a general fantasy about uniforms – and Hitler and his agitprop henchmen knew this was one of the keys to their magical vengeance. Uniforms suggest community, order, identity, competence and legitimate authority. Why the Nazis in general and the SS in particular? Because they were the incarnation of the right to have total power and to treat others as absolutely inferior. Isn’t it understandable, boring even, that the s/m movement has embraced and sexualized Nazi aesthetics? Of course. But this doesn’t neutralize one bit the heinous message of the SS and the Nazis: we are supremely violent, yes, but also supremely beautiful. Have a look for yourself at Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or even Fritz Lang’s prescient fears of lovely alienation and beauty in the machine-future world of Metropolis.
In communism, the official art expounds and reinforces utopian morality, a collective ethic, but suffers from one fatal flaw: it’s ugly. In Nazi aesthetics physical perfection is the standard and the beauty is truth and truth is beauty idea is innate in all of us, not incidental. Nazi art is prurient and romantic and implies an ideal eroticism, verging on the homoerotic, and our tumescent hearts are hardwired to beat faster to this beguiling (tin) drum. I dare you to watch Charlotte Rampling’s Gestapo-fantasy striptease in The Night Porter and try to pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.
“To be the spiritual battlefield of European antagonisms – that’s what it means to be German” wrote Thomas Mann, and I think even and especially today, for slightly different reasons, that’s not just pathetic and impudent rhetoric. Was Nazism the grotesque fulfillment and betrayal of German Romanticism? The Eclipse of Reason? The logical culmination of Western Progress, a simple and temporary “distorted phase of Wagnerism?” Or have theses themes – political, economic, and sociological become more complicated and convoluted and, I suspect, less morally adequate to explain away the collective guilt that Germany still seems to be suffering from today? And the bending over backwards out of shame and remorse, the suicidal immigration and twisted cultural and environmental Gordian knots that confused and conflicted country is tying itself up in now are as heart-wrenching as they are unnecessary I’m afraid. And they’re almost all un-untieable.