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The continuing presence of Nazism

Why Nazism? Many of the theories proposed to explain something so horrible and bizarre have had an ulterior purpose—it was all about big business, Christian antisemitism, authoritarian child-raising practices, or whatever. Pick the thing you like least about European society, and that’s what caused the Nazis. A contemporary eyewitness account by a young German, “Defying Hitler” by Sebastian Haffner, adds a realistic and troubling perspective:

In Haffner’s view, the German character that flourished in the ’30s was formed in the years 1914 to 1923, during World War I and during the monetary and political chaos that followed. The uncertainty of the times, the changing governments, the periodic revolutionary outbursts, the escalating value of the mark to the point that the very idea of value was negated—all of these combined to create a freedom from stability that was experienced by the populace, particularly the young, as thrilling.

“A generation of young Germans,” Haffner writes, “had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere.” The stability that followed Gustav Stresemann’s becoming chancellor in 1923 marked “the return of political liberty,” which, Haffner writes, Germans regarded “not as a gift, but as a deprivation.” Haffner goes on: “The great danger of life in Germany has always been emptiness and boredom … With it comes a horror vacui and the yearning for ‘salvation’: through alcohol, through superstition, or, best of all, through a vast, overpowering, cheap mass intoxication.”

What’s troubling about this interpretation is that it makes something like Nazism a perpetual threat in modern times. Plato suggested long ago that when settled distinctions in value disappear the resulting chaos is eventually placed in some kind of order by the strongest obsession, and the political consequence is tyranny. When there is no God, no ordered moral cosmos, the strongest compulsion becomes God and works its will to the limit of technical possibility—a limit much less restrictive today than in antiquity.

Incoherence in values did not, of course, come to an end in 1945. Our rulers are very much aware of the problem. Hence the continuing fixation on the Nazis almost 60 years after their utter destruction. To obviate the danger our rulers see of popular obsessions and irrationality taking over public life they have hit upon the expedient of liberating obsession in private life and destroying the ability of the people to act collectively. We have bread, circuses, pornography and political correctness so that we do not have Kristallnacht and Nuremburg rallies. The guiding strategy is to deal with assumed popular incapacity for self-rule by reducing yet further the ability of the people to act intelligently and coherently. All intelligence and cohesion in public life are to be supplied by rational bureaucratic and market institutions. The role assigned the people is simply to support the system and pursue their own interests and indulgences within the limits of what the system allows.

It’s a bold strategy, and one that so far has been startlingly successful. Popular passions and indeed popular views of every kind have successfully been kept out of government: consider, for example, affirmative action, church-state relations and immigration. The strategy even generates the grounds of its own justification. The more the current regime degrades the people the less they can rule themselves and the more necessary it becomes for government to be their custodian. Even if the regime was originally based on a false premise, that the people and their institutions can’t be trusted, as time passes the premise becomes truer.

The success of the regime is therefore the destruction of the people. It is no longer war but popular degradation that is the health of the state. Many have claimed that since the Wars of Religion politics has been able to build solidly because it has aimed low, at stability and prosperity instead of any transcendent good. The problem is that if you leave out the Good the low eventually becomes very low indeed. Politics wholly divorced from the transcendent comes to aim at the abolition of the things that make us human, because those things also make us harder to manipulate. To be a conservative—to care for a humane future—today is to reject all that. That is the necessary extremism of the contemporary Right.



I agree that giving people lots of license to pursue private obsessions diverts energy from the political sphere. But Mr. Kalb is going farther than that, suggesting that moral libertarianism has been deliberately cultivated by the elites of the modern West so as to keep the people from expressing their passions in a public and collective way, which would, the elites fear, lead to a resurgence of Nazism. What is the evidence for that?

Ok, I’m confused. Weimar Germany was full of “bread, circuses, pornography and political correctness” and got Kristallnacht anyway. Plus I think the Third Reich was, in its own way, trying to be a rational bureaucracy and commercial culture (even inventing the Volkswagen.)

The trouble with Germany is that it has been studied so many times that the period is lost in a sea of interpretation. And political pundits always find “ominous parallels ” that may or may not link our time with theirs.

Plus I think our society affirms a transcendent, just not the Christian version. It affirms that All Men Are Created Equal and everyone’s culture is equal valid and equally pointless. The True, Beautiful and Good are equal to the neutered, multicultural vision. But you knew that.

To Mr. Auster: I used “strategy” to refer to the functioning of a system together with the understandings of those creating the system and the implications of those understandings. If those things form a coherent and effective whole I say there’s a strategy. I’m not sure it’s possible to avoid somewhat figurative language in discussing social systems, which lack a single guiding intelligence but nonetheless act intelligently. Maybe “implicit strategy” would on the whole have been more literally true.

The effect of moral libertarianism is not only to divert energy from the political sphere but also to weaken human connections other than those that go through the state bureaucracy and the market. Think of the current condition of family life or the churches or even routine civic association—the “bowling alone” syndrome. Moral libertarianism atomizes. It also makes people less able to run their own individual lives and so more dependent on their custodians. The effect, especially in combination with political correctness (which from one perspective is moral libertarianism made compulsory) is to make it unlikely that the people will act effectually in ways their rulers don’t want them to act.

As to the understandings behind the promotion of moral libertarianism, it seems clear that opposition to it is thought implicitly Nazi. Think of the immediate response to Buchanan’s 1992 “culture wars” speech. People said it was better in the original German. Beyond that, think of the years of propaganda about inclusiveness, tolerance, expressive freedom, and lifestyle choice on the one hand and hate, repression, and the authoritarian personality on the other. It seems clear that the two complexes are thought opposed, and that Nazism is thought to sum up and form a sort of natural end result of the latter. It also seems clear that action by the people not mediated by state and market is thought dangerous and tends to be lumped in the Nazi camp. Think of the radical religious right, rightwing gun nuts, pro-lifers, and various tendencies favoring local control (states rights, 10th amendment movement, neo-confederates, etc., etc., etc.). They’re all in the camp of hatred, repression and irrationality.

The point of what I wrote is that Haffner’s account suggests that the liberal attitude and approach is not altogether crazy. If moral incoherence creates the risk that the people will be drawn to a tyrant, because the order created by a tyrant is the best they can conceive collectively, then one possibility is to help bring about an end to moral incoherence. That would be a sort of Confucian approach. The problem with it is that it can’t be relied on to work because it aims at things that are too high for us to control. Modern political thought tries to build solidly and reliably by aiming low. That overall approach suggests the strategy that I say is the one (implicitly) chosen: if the problem is that the people can’t be relied on to act intelligently, then make them incapable of acting at all.

To Mr. Carver: is it true that Weimar Germany was full of bread, circuses, pornography and political correctness? I thought PC was absent, the lack of bread many experienced helped the Nazis rise to power, and pornography had not been diffused throughout the society to nearly the extent it is today so that it was divisive rather than disintegrating. Part of what I intended to say is that something that when localized is divisive, and so gives rise to conflicts, when widespread can be disintegrating and so prevent conflicts by making it less likely people will do anything effective.

I agree that 1933-1945 German has been studied and interpreted to death. Still, one must form one’s thoughts on it somehow. It seemed to me the memoir provided a helpful link to reality.

It seems to me Freedom and Equality, like The Will of the Leader, are substitutes for traditional understandings of what is transcendent that don’t really work and so lead to big problems.

I wouldn’t have thought that it was terribly controversial to claim that cultural dissolution has been deliberately cultivated as part of an anti-fascist strategy. What else is behind the phrase “make love, not war”? The strategy informs books such as The Authoritarian Personality or even the Left Book Club introduction to George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. The logic is not hard to follow. If fascism has its roots in an authoritarian personality engendered by traditional cultural patterns, it is incumbent upon anti-fascists to disolve or transform these patterns. A popular (if a bit too contemptuous of the Frankfurt School) explication of the strategy can be found in one of the early chapters of Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West.

One problem I find with these arguments is that the liberalism of today is part of a continuous tradition dating back to at least the Renaissance.

The attack on the family, for instance, began in earnest from at least the 1860s, when a British Whig aristocrat, Lord Lyttleton, seized funds bequested to traditional boy’s schools and set up schools intended to train girls for the professions. (English divorce laws were first liberalized in the 1850s.)

The attacks on civic institutions did not therefore originate as part of an anti-fascist strategy. They seem to be the result of the historical ideal of an autonomous, self-created individual.

When we relate to the bureaucracy we do so as atomised individuals - much more preferable to those who are instinctively liberal than a dependency on institutions like the family or church.

Still, I find Jim Kalb’s arguments interesting as there is an obvious liberal obsession with fascism that needs some explanation.

It is one thing to say that liberalism or moral libertarianism makes Nazism its rhetorical polar opposite and chief bogeyman, telling people that if they’re anti-liberal, they’re Nazi. It is another thing to say that the primary motivating impulse of moral libertarianism—which, as Mark Richardson points out, was around long before World War II—is to prevent society from becoming Nazi. I just don’t see that.

I agree that the roots of liberalism go very far back. Also, I think it possible to present contemporary liberalism as the logical working-out of a fundamental conceptual error made hundreds of years ago (see ). Nonetheless, I don’t believe in historical inevitability. If the present situation isn’t strictly inevitable then particular conditions have molded it and retarded or advanced the progress of the things that shape it, including liberalism. And even if long-term trends and accepted understandings condition what happens I think there is some point on occasion in viewing public policy as a matter of human decision.

It seems to me the experience of totalitarianism molds and supports present-day liberalism just as the experience of religious war molded and supported the liberalism of John Locke. For many people a drop-dead argument in favor of rule by liberal elites is terror of populist illiberalism. That concern is not just fantasy or rhetorical habit. Nazism and fascism really happened, and in highly civilized countries. Moreover, on the liberal understanding of things they’re a standing danger. If someone believes that no goods transcending desire are available to us, so that human life is simply a conflict of desires, each as valid as the others, then in a technologically enlightened age that can’t take seriously the inarticulate restraints of custom some formal system for giving equal weight to each person and his desires comes to seem the one alternative to accepting the absolute tyranny of the strongest as the sole political principle.

It seems to me that line of thought, the liberalism of fear, plays a decisive role in making deviation from liberalism unthinkable today. Depart from it at all and you’re on a slippery slope to Hell. It’s given weight to a view of liberalism as an orthodoxy only a monster could question rather than a collection of tendencies one can pick and choose among or reject altogether. And it seems to me that unity and sense of absolute necessity has greatly aided the advance of liberal causes, including moral libertarianism.

An additional thought—contemporary liberalism very clearly ties the notion of truth in religion and morals to political violence. Former president Clinton and others have gone so far as attribute a belief in exclusive truth to Hitler as an explanation for what he did. In any event, non-libertine morality does seem to depend on the notion of trurh in morality. So once again liberalism seems committed to libertinism as the alternative to violent political extremism.

Still another thought (sorry for using VFR as my personal notepad!)—the view I present is a development of the view one sometimes runs into that the liberal regime as defined by Locke and the Founding Fathers was originally an attempt, for the sake of peace and attainable well-being, to divert men’s passions from religion and honor to commerce and individual material advancement.