Monday, October 29, 2007

Sieg, Ach!

(I could stare at a picture like this one for hours. The whole scene is surreal.)

I've read a lot of stuff over the years about World War II. If we discount the stuff I managed not to learn in high school history class, I didn't really discover the topic until my early college years, when I stumbled upon William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on my parents' bookshelves. The book was 1,369 pages long--far, far longer than anything I had ever read (maybe longer than everything I had read to that point combined), and I was aware that if I had been assigned the book for a class there would have been NO HOPE of my getting through it. But as it was, I could hardly put it down. It read like a novel, and the axiom that "truth is stranger than fiction" kept running through my mind as I went: this actually happened. This was one of humanity's seminal cultures, one of the most civilized and educated places on Earth, and it descended in front of everyone into absolute hell. In all its lurid details--combined with thousands of available photographs of the events--it was quite beyond what even a brilliant author of fiction could pull off.

After this book, I went through a several-year period where I read a number of other accounts of the war, and particularly about the historic happenings in Germany. Though I've taken breaks to read on many other subjects, this topic is one I end up returning to with some regularity. I'm currently just underway with The Third Reich in Power, Richard J. Evans's second volume of a planned trilogy on Hitler. I read the first in this series, The Coming of the Third Reich, several years ago; it dealt with the maneuvering and events which led to the Nazis' rise in power and Hitler's ascension to the dictator's throne.

This present book picks up from there. After a short recap of the events covered in the first book, he takes off with a detailed description of what life was like in Germany under Nazi rule. Under the headings "The Police State," "The Mobilization of the Spirit," "Converting the Soul, "Prosperity and Plunder," "Building the People's Comunity," "Towards the Racial Utopia" and "The Road to War," he covers all aspects of life in Germany during the six years between the Nazi takeover of government in June, 1933 and the onset of World War II with the invasion of Poland in September, 1939. The final book, The Third Reich at War, will cover the administration's final seven years.

I'm always rather paranoid--understandably, I think--to make it quickly known that find nothing compelling about the underlying philosophies of Nazism. I have no shred of sympathy toward their motivations or goals, nor is there any rational part of me that admires or feels sympathy for their tactics in achieving their ends. But I'm lying if I don't say that I find the whole business magnetically fascinating. I knew from my first reading 20-odd years ago that, as a teen-ager in Germany at the time, I would absolutely have been sucked in by Joseph Goebbels' propaganda and by the tide of social change sweeping the nation at this time, a tide which promised the world to its adherents and harsh punishments to its opponents. I don't think at any time I would have believed that Hitler and his henchmen were right, only that the carefully-strategized presentations would have worked on me. The flags and rallies, the marching songs, the snappy uniforms, the incessant propaganda, the sense of being part of the privileged "in crowd," these things all have their pull.

This is an uncomfortable realization, to say the least. And as an adult, I think I might well have ended up in a camp because of my inability to drink the Kool-Aid. But as a very young man, it's a different story. Of course, that in itself rather kept me awake a few nights, presenting a clear challenge to my sense of morality and decency and propriety. And in the end I had to be content to conclude that I was utterly fascinated by the story even as I felt a repulsion and dread for all those who suffered unspeakably at the hands of these men. And as I've gotten older, my repulsion has grown.

I think one of my chief struggles was with the question of tactics versus achieved ends. Might does not make right, and there's not even a little part of me that thinks it really does. But there is an inescapable sense that the world as it currently is was shaped and arrived at by way of violent struggle. There's a darwinian sense that some parts of the world simply are; whether we think them right or not doesn't really enter into it. (I think of a pack of hyenas stalking and killing a wounded animal.) Where is that line, and when do we cross it? Much of what all of us think of as "right" was determined at one point by violent action, and things might well have turned out differently for all of us. There's another of those sleep-preventing thoughts. I don't admire the Nazis' tactics, just as I don't admire any of their philosophical motivations. But there's a thrilling sense of ruthless accomplishment about the years of Nazi ascendency and the early years of the war. What could be accomplished with the same ruthlessness applied to different, honorable and supported goals? Or would the ruthlessness ALWAYS brand the outcomes as bad? Do the ends EVER justify the means? Maybe for most people Hitler was not even close to any lines, and these questions do not arise for them. But for me, my mind swirls with this stuff the whole time I'm reading.

I think Hitler's racial ideas, something at the very foundation of all he tried to achieve and of his methods for achieving it, are utterly and demonstrably wrong. The whole edifice of Nazi rule becomes a quasi-legitimate-looking enterprise built upon an inescapably rotten and illegitimate foundation. But in the post-Versailles environment of Germany in the '20s and early '30s, one senses how the public could admire and crave a strongman to keep the chaos at bay, and how they could sacrifice vital civil liberties and freedoms in exchange for a bit of security. Certainly government, and maybe even society itself, was teetering precariously in Germany between the wars. This is one of those disastrously serendipitous circumstances which launched the Nazis improbably to the halls of power. But it raises lots of delicately uncomfortable questions. In our own country in the present day, very many people are utterly frustrated with government's inability to move forward decisively in much of anything. They're frustrated with our legal system, which is rife with criminals being freed on technicalities and with lawyers getting huge settlements for nonsensical things, with governmental corruption and scandal, with the lack of accountability. The peace is kept, presumably, because society is functioning at a pretty high basic level. But if things turned sour... The idea of a single person cutting through red tape and fixing things at the point of a gun seems wrong, surely; and yet, in some dark part of the psyche, it has a satisfying aspect.

Your view, of course, depends on which end of the gun you find yourself. Part of the reason our government moves so slowly is because the electorate is divided and diverse viewpoints are trying to find accommodation. Any single act is bound to be opposed by about 60% of the population, and the wheels of compromise move very slowly and have an outcome that pleases no one. Not everyone is happy with this system; there are many people even today who are in favor of giving up civil liberties in pursuit of security, and would vote to have others' liberties curtailed as well. There are a lot of religious groups who would see their agenda mandated upon others and whole classes of freedoms eliminated. It's the same general idea, in a milder form.

I think I used to have a general sense from my previous readings that Hitler might have gone down in history as one of the most effective and influential leaders of all time--that is, with a not necessarily monstrous taint--up until the point that he started exterminating people. This book reminds me that this view is quite wrong. His ascent to power was bloodier and more ruthless than my memory had retained. It really was a reign of terror just to get him into office, and people were beaten and murdered in huge numbers as a strategy for quashing resistance and dissent. The terrorism and lawlessness of this pre-war period may have been mild compared to the wanton genocide that followed, but it only appears mild in that context. Looked at without respect to later mass atrocities, the Nazis were never less than sociopathic and toxically deadly.

These are just things bouncing around my head at the book's beginning. I don't know that I have, or will have, anything new to say on the subject. But it's a topic which stirs things up for me. So far, Evans's book is most interesting. He's not introducing me to things I didn't know before, though, and we'll see if my interest in revisiting the story holds up for 700+ pages or not.

(Interestingly, after looking online to see what Wikipedia had to say about "Sieg, Heil," I was surprised to learn that even saying the phrase in Germany will get you three years in jail. What a country does in the aftermath of someone like Hitler, how they cope with their presence in such a dire place in the history books, is another post--and one which I have no idea how to write.)


Laura said...

I certainly understand your fascination. It's frightening to think that there is a resurgence of Nazi ideology in Europe right now, especially in reaction to Muslim immigrants from Asia and North Africa who are "threatening the culture". That's partly why Germany has such strong hate speech laws - to keep these people in check.

What happened to Germany after WWI should be classified as war crimes, but that certainly does not make it right what Hitler did.

"one senses how the public could admire and crave a strongman to keep the chaos at bay, and how they could sacrifice vital civil liberties and freedoms in exchange for a bit of security."

Hmmm... we better watch ourselves, huh?

wunelle said...

Yeah, I wonder if these lessons we should have learned are not too large to just be taken on faith (as it were); I wonder if we don't need to re-learn them first hand from time to time.

The problem might be that nowadays the lessons may come at too high a price (i.e. wmd).