Military history

THE INTELLECTUAL ROOTS OF THE THIRD REICH

But aside from history, where did Hitler get his ideas? Though his opponents inside and outside Germany were too busy, or too stupid, to take much notice of it until it was too late, he had somehow absorbed, as had so many Germans, a weird mixture of the irresponsible, megalomaniacal ideas which erupted from German thinkers during the nineteenth century. Hitler, who often got them at second hand through such a muddled pseudo philosopher as Alfred Rosenberg or through his drunken poet friend Dietrich Eckart, embraced them with all the feverish enthusiasm of a neophyte. What was worse, he resolved to put them into practice if the opportunity should ever arise.

We have seen what they were as they thrashed about in Hitler’s mind: the glorification of war and conquest and the absolute power of the authoritarian state; the belief in the Aryans, or Germans, as the master race, and the hatred of Jews and Slavs; the contempt for democracy and humanism. They are not original with Hitler—though the means of applying them later proved to be. They emanate from that odd assortment of erudite but unbalanced philosophers, historians and teachers who captured the German mind during the century before Hitler with consequences so disastrous, as it turned out, not only for the Germans but for a large portion of mankind.

There had been among the Germans, to be sure, some of the most elevated minds and spirits of the Western world—Leibnitz, Kant, Herder, Humboldt, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Bach and Beethoven—and they had made unique contributions to the civilization of the West. But the German culture which became dominant in the nineteenth century and which coincided with the rise of Prussian Germany, continuing from Bismarck through Hitler, rests primarily on Fichte and Hegel, to begin with, and then on Treitschke, Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, and a host of lesser lights not the least of whom, strangely enough, were a bizarre Frenchman and an eccentric Englishman. They succeeded in establishing a spiritual break with the West; the breach has not been healed to this day.

In 1807, following Prussia’s humiliating defeat by Napoleon at Jena, Johann Gottlieb Fichte began his famous “Addresses to the German Nation” from the podium of the University of Berlin, where he held the chair of philosophy. They stirred and rallied a divided, defeated people and their resounding echoes could still be heard in the Third Reich. Fichte’s teaching was heady wine for a frustrated folk. To him the Latins, especially the French, and the Jews are the decadent races. Only the Germans possess the possibility of regeneration. Their language is the purest, the most original. Under them a new era in history would blossom. It would reflect the order of the cosmos. It would be led by a small elite which would be free of any moral restraints of a “private” nature. These are some of the ideas we have seen Hitler putting down in Mein Kampf.

On Fichte’s death in 1814, he was succeeded by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel at the University of Berlin. This is the subtle and penetrating mind whose dialectics inspired Marx and Lenin and thus contributed to the founding of Communism and whose ringing glorification of the State as supreme in human life paved the way for the Second and Third Reichs of Bismarck and Hitler. To Hegel the State is all, or almost all. Among other things, he says, it is the highest revelation of the “world spirit”; it is the “moral universe”; it is “the actuality of the ethical idea … ethical mind … knowing and thinking itself”; the State “has the supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the State … for the right of the world spirit is above all special privileges …”

And the happiness of the individual on earth? Hegel replies that “world history is no empire of happiness. The periods of happiness,” he declares, “are the empty pages of history because they are the periods of agreement, without conflict.” War is the great purifier. In Hegel’s view, it makes for “the ethical health of peoples corrupted by a long peace, as the blowing of the winds preserves the sea from the foulness which would be the result of a prolonged calm.”

No traditional conception of morals and ethics must disturb either the supreme State or the “heroes” who lead it. “World history occupies a higher ground … Moral claims which are irrelevant must not be brought into collision with world-historical deeds and their accomplishments. The litany of private virtues—modesty, humility, philanthropy and forbearance—must not be raised against them … So mighty a form [the State] must trample down many an innocent flower—crush to pieces many an object in its path.”

Hegel foresees such a State for Germany when she has recovered her God-given genius. He predicts that “Germany’s hour” will come and that its mission will be to regenerate the world. As one reads Hegel one realizes how much inspiration Hitler, like Marx, drew from him, even if it was at second hand. Above all else, Hegel in his theory of “heroes,” those great agents who are fated by a mysterious Providence to carry out “the will of the world spirit,” seems to have inspired Hitler, as we shall see at the end of this chapter, with his own overpowering sense of mission.

Heinrich von Treitschke came later to the University of Berlin. From 1874 until his death in 1896 he was a professor of history there and a popular one, his lectures being attended by large and enthusiastic gatherings which included not only students but General Staff officers and officials of the Junker bureaucracy. His influence on German thought in the last quarter of the century was enormous and it continued through Wilhelm II’s day and indeed Hitler’s. Though he was a Saxon, he became the great Prussianizer; he was more Prussian than the Prussians. Like Hegel he glorifies the State and conceives of it as supreme, but his attitude is more brutish: the people, the subjects, are to be little more than slaves in the nation. “It does not matter what you think,” he exclaims, “so long as you obey.”

And Treitschke outdoes Hegel in proclaiming war as the highest expression of man. To him “martial glory is the basis of all the political virtues; in the rich treasure of Germany’s glories the Prussian military glory is a jewel as precious as the masterpieces of our poets and thinkers.” He holds that “to play blindly with peace … has become the shame of the thought and morality of our age.”

War is not only a practical necessity, it is also a theoretical necessity, an exigency of logic. The concept of the State implies the concept of war, for the essence of the State is power … That war should ever be banished from the world is a hope not only absurd, but profoundly immoral. It would involve the atrophy of many of the essential and sublime forces of the human soul … A people which become attached to the chimerical hope of perpetual peace finishes irremediably by decaying in its proud isolation …”

Nietzsche, like Goethe, held no high opinion of the German people,* and in other ways, too, the outpourings of this megalomaniacal genius differ from those of the chauvinistic German thinkers of the nineteenth century. Indeed, he regarded most German philosophers, including Fichte and Hegel, as “unconscious swindlers.” He poked fun at the “Tartuffery of old Kant.” The Germans, he wrote in Ecce Homo, “have no conception how vile they are,” and he came to the conclusion that “wheresoever Germany penetrated, she ruins culture.” He thought that Christians, as much as Jews, were responsible for the “slave morality” prevalent in the world; he was never an anti-Semite. He was sometimes fearful of Prussia’s future, and in his last years, before insanity closed down his mind, he even toyed with the idea of European union and world government.

Yet I think no one who lived in the Third Reich could have failed to be impressed by Nietzsche’s influence on it. His books might be full, as Santayana said, of “genial imbecility” and “boyish blasphemies.” Yet Nazi scribblers never tired of extolling him. Hitler often visited the Nietzsche museum in Weimar and publicized his veneration for the philosopher by posing for photographs of himself staring in rapture at the bust of the great man.

There was some ground for this appropriation of Nietzsche as one of the originators of the Nazi Weltanschauung. Had not the philosopher thundered against democracy and parliaments, preached the will to power, praised war and proclaimed the coming of the master race and the superman—and in the most telling aphorisms? A Nazi could proudly quote him on almost every conceivable subject, and did. On Christianity: “the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion … I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind … This Christianity is no more than the typical teaching of the Socialists.” On the State, power and the jungle world of man: “Society has never regarded virtue as anything else than as a means to strength, power and order. The State [is] unmorality organized … the will to war, to conquest and revenge … Society is not entitled to exist for its own sake but only as a substructure and scaffolding, by means of which a select race of beings may elevate themselves to their higher duties … There is no such thing as the right to live, the right to work, or the right to be happy: in this respect man is no different from the meanest worm.”* And he exalted the superman as the beast of prey, “the magnificent blond brute, avidly rampant for spoil and victory.”

And war? Here Nietzsche took the view of most of the other nineteenth-century German thinkers. In the thundering Old Testament language in which Thus Spake Zarathustra is written, the philosopher cries out: “Ye shall love peace as a means to new war, and the short peace more than the long. You I advise not to work, but to fight. You I advise not to peace but to victory … Ye say it is the good cause which halloweth even war? I say unto you: it is the good war which halloweth every cause. War and courage have done more great things than charity.”

Finally there was Nietzsche’s prophecy of the coming elite who would rule the world and from whom the superman would spring. In The Will to Power he exclaims: “A daring and ruler race is building itself up … The aim should be to prepare a transvaluation of values for a particularlystrong kind of man, most highly gifted in intellect and will. This man and the elite around him will become the “lords of the earth.”

Such rantings from one of Germany’s most original minds must have struck a responsive chord in Hitler’s littered mind. At any rate he appropriated them for his own—not only the thoughts but the philosopher’s penchant for grotesque exaggeration, and often his very words. “Lords of the Earth” is a familiar expression in Mein Kampf. That in the end Hitler considered himself the superman of Nietzsche’s prophecy cannot be doubted.

   “Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner,” Hitler used to say.* This may have been based on a partial misconception of the great composer, for though Richard Wagner harbored a fanatical hatred, as Hitler did, for the Jews, who he was convinced were out to dominate the world with their money, and though he scorned parliaments and democracy and the materialism and mediocrity of the bourgeoisie, he also fervently hoped that the Germans, “with their special gifts,” would “become not rulers, but ennoblers of the world.”

It was not his political writings, however, but his towering operas, recalling so vividly the world of German antiquity with its heroic myths, its fighting pagan gods and heroes, its demons and dragons, its blood feuds and primitive tribal codes, its sense of destiny, of the splendor of love and life and the nobility of death, which inspired the myths of modern Germany and gave it a Germanic Weltanschauung which Hitler and the Nazis, with some justification, took over as their own.

From his earliest days Hitler worshiped Wagner, and even as his life neared a close, in the damp and dreary bunker at Army headquarters on the Russian front, with his world and his dreams beginning to crack and crumble, he loved to reminisce about all the times he had heard the great Wagnerian works, of what they had meant to him and of the inspiration he had derived from the Bayreuth Festival and from his countless visits to Haus Wahnfried, the composer’s home, where Siegfried Wagner, the composer’s son, still lived with his English-born wife, Winifred, who for a while was one of his revered friends.

“What joy each of Wagner’s works has given me!” Hitler exclaims on the evening of January 24–25, 1942, soon after the first disastrous German defeats in Russia, as he discourses to his generals and party cronies, Himmler among them, in the depths of the underground shelter of Wolfsschanze at Rastenburg in East Prussia. Outside there is snow and an arctic cold, the elements which he so hated and feared and which had contributed to the first German military setback of the war. But in the warmth of the bunker his thoughts on this night, at least, are on one of the great inspirations of his life. “I remember,” he says, “my emotion the first time I entered Wahnfried. To say I was moved is an understatement! At my worst moments, they never ceased to sustain me, even Siegfried Wagner. I was on Christian-name terms with them. I loved them all, and I also love Wahnfried … The ten days of the Bayreuth season were always one of the blessed seasons of my existence. And I rejoice at the idea that one day I shall be able to resume the pilgrimage! … On the day following the end of the Bayreuth Festival … I’m gripped by a great sadness—as when one strips the Christmas tree of its ornaments.”25

Though Hitler reiterated in his monologue that winter evening that to him Tristan und Isolde was “Wagner’s masterpiece,” it is the stupendous Nibelungen Ring, a series of four operas which was inspired by the great German epic myth, Nibelungenlied, and on which the composer worked for the better part of twenty-five years, that gave Germany and especially the Third Reich so much of its primitive Germanic mythos. Often a people’s myths are the highest and truest expression of its spirit and culture, and nowhere is this more true than in Germany. Schelling even argued that “a nation comes into existence with its mythology … The unity of its thinking, which means a collective philosophy, [is] presented in its mythology; therefore its mythology contains the fate of the nation.” And Max Mell, a contemporary poet, who wrote a modern version of the Song of the Nibelungs, declared, “Today only little has remained of the Greek gods that humanism wanted to implant so deeply into our culture … But Siegfried and Kriemhild were always in the people’s soul!”

Siegfried and Kriemhild, Brunhild and Hagen—these are the ancient heroes and heroines with whom so many modern Germans liked to identify themselves. With them, and with the world of the barbaric, pagan Nibelungs—an irrational, heroic, mystic world, beset by treachery, overwhelmed by violence, drowned in blood, and culminating in the Goetterdaemmerung, the twilight of the gods, as Valhalla, set on fire by Wotan after all his vicissitudes, goes up in flames in an orgy of self-willed annihilation which has always fascinated the German mind and answered some terrible longing in the German soul. These heroes, this primitive, demonic world, were always, in Mell’s words, “in the people’s soul.” In that German soul could be felt the struggle between the spirit of civilization and the spirit of the Nibelungs, and in the time with which this history is concerned the latter seemed to gain the upper hand. It is not at all surprising that Hitler tried to emulate Wotan when in 1945 he willed the destruction of Germany so that it might go down in flames with him.

Wagner, a man of staggering genius, an artist of incredible magnitude, stood for much more than has been set down here. The conflict in the Ring operas often revolves around the theme of greed for gold, which the composer equated with the “tragedy of modern capitalism,” and which he saw, with horror, wiping out the old virtues which had come down from an earlier day. Despite all his pagan heroes he did not entirely despair of Christianity, as Nietzsche did. And he had great compassion for the erring, warring human race. But Hitler was not entirely wrong in saying that to understand Nazism one must first know Wagner.

Wagner had known, and been influenced by, first Schopenhauer and then Nietzsche, though the latter quarreled with him because he thought his operas, especially Parsifal, showed too much Christian renunciation. In the course of his long and stormy life, Wagner came into contact with two other men, one a Frenchman, the other an Englishman, who are important to this history not so much for the impression they made on him, though in one case it was considerable, as for their effect on the German mind, which they helped to direct toward the coming of the Third Reich.

These individuals were Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, a French diplomat and man of letters, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, one of the strangest Englishmen who ever lived.

Neither man, be it said at once, was a mountebank. Both were men of immense erudition, deep culture and wide experience of travel. Yet both concocted racial doctrines so spurious that no people, not even their own, took them seriously with the single exception of the Germans. To the Nazis their questionable theories became gospel. It is probably no exaggeration to say, as I have heard more than one follower of Hitler say, that Chamberlain was the spiritual founder of the Third Reich. This singular Englishman, who came to see in the Germans the master race, the hope of the future, worshiped Richard Wagner, one of whose daughters he eventually married; he venerated first Wilhelm II and finally Hitler and was the mentor of both. At the end of a fantastic life he could hail the Austrian corporal—and this long before Hitler came to power or had any prospect of it—as a being sent by God to lead the German people out of the wilderness. Hitler, not unnaturally, regarded Chamberlain as a prophet, as indeed he turned out to be.

What was it in the teaching of these two men that inoculated the Germans with a madness on the question of race and German destiny?

Gobineau’s chief contribution was a four-volume work which was published in Paris between 1853 and 1855, entitled Essai sur l’Inégalité des Races Humaines (Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races). Ironically enough, this French aristocrat, after serving as an officer in the Royal Guard, had started his public career as chef de cabinet to Alexis de Tocqueville when the distinguished author of Democracy in America served a brief term of office in 1848. He had then gone to Hanover and Frankfurt as a diplomat and it was from his contact with the Germans, rather than with De Tocqueville, that he derived his theories on racial inequalities, though he once confessed that he wrote the volumes partly to prove the superiority of his own aristocratic ancestry.

To Gobineau, as he stated in his dedication of the work to the King of Hanover, the key to history and civilization was race. “The racial question dominates all the other problems of history … the inequality of races suffices to explain the whole unfolding of the destiny of peoples.” There were three principal races, white, yellow and black, and the white was the superior. “History,” he contended, “shows that all civilization flows from the white race, that no civilization can exist without the co-operation of this race.” The jewel of the white race was the Aryan, “this illustrioushuman family, the noblest among the white race,” whose origins he traced back to Central Asia. Unfortunately, Gobineau says, the contemporary Aryan suffered from intermixture with inferior races, as one could see in the southern Europe of his time. However, in the northwest, above a line running roughly along the Seine and east to Switzerland, the Aryans, though far from simon-pure, still survived as a superior race. This took in some of the French, all of the English and the Irish, the people of the Low Countries and the Rhine and Hanover, and the Scandinavians. Gobineau seemingly excluded the bulk of the Germans, who lived to the east and southeast of his line—a fact which the Nazis glossed over when they embraced his teachings.

Still, to Gobineau’s mind the Germans, or at least the West Germans, were probably the best of all the Aryans, and this discovery the Nazis did not gloss over. Wherever they went, the Germans, he found, brought improvement. This was true even in the Roman Empire. The so-called barbaric German tribes who conquered the Romans and broke up their empire did a distinct service to civilization, for the Romans, by the time of the fourth century, were little better than degenerate mongrels, while the Germans were relatively pure Aryans. “The Aryan German,” he declared, “is a powerful creature … Everything he thinks, says and does is thus of major importance.”

Gobineau’s ideas were quickly taken up in Germany. Wagner, whom the Frenchman met in 1876 toward the close of his life (he died in 1882) espoused them with enthusiasm, and soon Gobineau societies sprang up all over Germany.*

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