Saturday 1 March 2008

How do We Assess Them? Do We Really Understand The Nazis?

This post does belong in the sequence on human history, though it might be considered as almost a break in the narrative sequence.

It appears, because we have now reached the event that defines our era.
The second world war is the origin myth of the modern age. In so many ways, the world that appeared in the ashes of 1945, is the world we still live in.

The boundaries between states are those that emerged at this time. The power relationships that we live with, had their origins at this time. Only two major events have happened since, decolonisation, and the fall of the Soviet Union.

It was an epoch making war, and we live with it's results today.

We look at in very simple terms; it is often simplified as being the ultimate battle between good and evil.

There is a partial sense in which this interpretation is correct, but it not only naive, it is dangerous to take this interpretation at face value.

I sometimes think that the whole western world is partly existing in a state of social post traumatic stress, vis a vis the second world war. It was a horror on a scale beyond previous comprehension.

It brought home to humanity the enormity of the power at the disposal of our species, our capacity for ill. In a sense, it re-ignited theology, we could dimly grasp the reality we had started to imagine was no longer real, that it was just another superstition.
Evil was real.

But we remain stuck in the mindset of treating the whole Good versus Evil battle with almost religous reverence. We struggle to understand it, we watch endless documentaries about this movement and its results, but as a society, I'm not sure we are any the wiser.
If you have to threaten people with prison, because they challenge the accepted version of events, then the only reality is, we are scared of raking up the home truths of Nazism.

What we often overlook is that Nazism was not the creation of people who made a deliberate decision to serve Evil. That the results of their actions, certainly were evil seems beyond dispute, but the same can be said of much of the history of twentieth century Communism.

With the Nazis, the case seems clear cut. They had their shot, their Thousand Year Reich ended in piles of rubble and the human tragedy of Auschwitz.

But what was National Socialism?
This is something we don't like to look at. And this is where we go wrong.

National Socialism WAS evil. But it didn't KNOW it was evil. It believed it was good. That is the point. It was founded on assumptions that happen to be WRONG, and it was ultimately defeated, because it's world view was incorrect.
Ultimately, at the deepest level, it really is correct, that if Nazism had been right, it would have won.

To understand Nazism, you need to understand the following premises.

Firstly, one needs to understand one of the curious facts of the human species. Races LOOK a lot more different, than they actually are.
We now know, that the common ancestors of ALL humanity, didn't live so very far back. At this time, it was assumed that racial differences were much greater than they are.
It was maintained that white man had evolved certain characteristics not present in other races. It was thought that white man's brain worked differently.

Racism was actually defended on scientific grounds. Different races, were not quite different animals, but they were almost so.
To Scientific racists, it was not Man who was the pinnacle of evolution, it was white man.
Shockingly, this is actually stated in Darwin's Descent of Man. Darwin himself held this view.

The second key assumption critical to understanding the Nazis, is understanding the conspiracy theory they believed. The Nazis believed that a global council of Jewish elders had been conspiring for centuries to pervert the wholesome virtuous civilisation of Aryan man.
The Jews were the fifth columnists throughout the West, ultimately devoted to the establishment of a world Zionist state.

And to the Nazis, so much was part of this plot. The Nazis believed that the world was sick with the poison of Jewish lies, and it was their duty to cleanse it.
This led them into adopting a flawed attitude to progress.

They used science when it suited them, but when it didn't, they claimed that the science itself was false. In their minds, there were two types of science, good true Aryan Science, and lieing Jewish science.

And this of course, is the point. Had this view been right, had the science they rejected, been lies, they would have won the war. In fact, they lost the war because they rejected the contribution to science made by Jewish scientists. The Nazis refused to accept relativity theory, for example.

National Socialism is wrong, because it believed that human races are different, that there is more virtue in one, than in another. Had this theory been right, again, it would have been proved by the victory of their creed. It isn't, so it lost.

It really is that simple. National Socialism involves the overestimation of the virtues of one race at the expense of others. It is a theory that when tried, turns out not to be true. The point is, we don't need to try it out again. Proving the theory wrong, had disastrous consequences.

But there is another side to the story, one which is overlooked, as we stare back with hindsight at the immense humanitarian disaster that was caused by this system of thought.

It was scarily efficient. It turned a country on its knees into a superpower in the space of six years. It was very good at harnassing human energy. It was defeated, because it woke the rest of the world up, the rest of the world had to maximise its efficiency, it had to pull together in a way it never had before to win. It involved making a covert pact with another devil to defeat the main devil.

When we strip away the huge flaws and the ingrained hatred and contempt of social outgroups that remain one of the pillars of Nazi thought, the other pillars are ones we can see as those which cannot help but motivate.

It is the idea of a people, all pulling together out of love for their common cause. Nowadays, we see that as being humanity as a whole. But if you replace humanity as a whole, with ethnic Germans, then it is a values system we recognise. If you treat the rest of humanity, rather as the alien in the Alien films is to be seen, then Nazism makes sense.

When we see the screaming rallies, shouting 'Sieg Heil' in unison, what are we really thinking?
It sends a shiver down our spines, because we know what it led to, but we cannot deny that we can feel what they felt too.
We can see what it was that Hitler did to the German people and how he did it. He pressed all the right buttons.

In a very real sense, ordinary Germans DID sell their soul to the devil. But they got something back. If you kept quiet, kept cheering, ignored the strange noises in the flat next door in the middle of the night and pretended next day that no Jewish couple had ever lived there, Hitler gave you a better life, a better, more efficient Germany.

The Nazis created a mindset that we partly envy. We can see that something they did, worked.

Could it have lasted? I'm not sure. In a sense, it did not understand itself, it was a thought system based on huge contradictions, it was INGSOC without self-knowledge, it could not survive the attainment of its own ideals, and had no way to perpetually postpone them in practice to maintain its own momentum.

But it did have goals. This is perhaps the secret of why it still mesmerises. Had it won the second world war, the first man on the moon, would have planted the swastika. It would have driven technology forward at an amazing rate, in that sense it was highly efficient.

But ultimately, its perversion of science would have turned the world into a wasteland.

I think perhaps, the really scary point about Nazism, is in the starkness of what it was attempting.
Ultimately, the hopes of man rest in science. There is much that the Nazis attempted to do, that we shy away from, because they attempted it, and the results were so awful.
But much of it wasn't wrong to attempt, it was the assumptions made that were wrong. Eugenics, it always seems to me, is a case in point. If your aim is to eliminate black people and gay people, then yes, it's based on flawed premises, and if you carry it out the way the Nazis did, it's not good. But genetic engineering is not bad, simply because it's eugenics.

They raise a huge question in our minds, because we look at what they did in such a short space of time.
And they leave us, agonising over the question; Their experiment was a failure, it was based on a flawed way of thinking, but somewhere in there, were things that worked, that created amazing successes and created a culture that incentivised those within it in an amazing way.

The Nazis were a prime example of evil succeeding by mimicking good.
What we need to come to terms with, is what the good was that they were mimicking, and why it is we cannot, even now, put those dynamics to GOOD use, in our own society.


Anonymous said...

I would agree that the Nazis are not very well understood, and the terms of good vs. evil miss a lot of the point as to their ascendency.

On the other hand, I think the basic misunderstandings originate in much of the mythology that we have created around Nazism since WWII. The most critical is that many believe that Nazism was a movement localized to Germany of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. It only takes cursory research to discover that it was, in fact, an international movement that required key investors from Switzerland, the US, the UK, Australia, and the White Russian diaspora (so to speak). Furthermore, as many who have chronicled Aktion Adlerflug can tell you, that movement did not end with the German surrender in April 1945.

That brings us to a second false notion about the Nazis: that they were efficient. They weren't efficient at all. First off, they literally got Germany to pick a fight against the rest of world, while spending huge amounts of resources persecuting many of its able-bodied citizens in concentration and death camps--something in direct opposition to Ludendorf's precept of total warfare, which the Nazis otherwise followed. That's hardly a model of efficiency. Even their labor in infrastructure and industry was severly hampered by the seriously weakened state of the slave workforce. Once again, this isn't efficient.

That Germany was able to mobilize for war after reparations and depression had more to do with international contributions, many of them from such corporate giants as Standard Oil (which formed a joint partnership with Farben AG), The Chase Bank (the only bank operating in Vichy France at one time, and a critical player in the foreclosure of Jewish properties), IBM (the US company that allowed for Nazi records and data efficiency, without which the Nazis would have been up a creek, in this regard), General Motors (whose Opal subsidiary produced the vehicles necessary for Nazi expansinism, among them the Panzer tank), and other US, UK conglomerates. The Nazis did very little by themselves, nor could they, for their other expenditures of worktime were devoted to such things as racial research and the like.

Because of the setbacks created by WWII, Nazism as a movement retreated to South America, and has yet come to the point where it can dominate a country as it did Germany and Austria. Thus, even if you're thinking of it in broad terms, they are hardly models of efficiency.

I understand why you say this. It's repeated ad naseum in public schools, in the press, in political and popular dialogue, and no one ever questions it, or offers any critical analysis of it. Furthermore, Nazi Germany, on the surface, seemed to develop at lightening speed, from quasi third-world country to invading force within the span of twenty years.

But it's like living on credit cards without having a job. They can get you lots of things fast. But when you can't pay, your creditors will also repossess you fast. What's more, once they've taken away what you have, you're in far worse condition than when you started--also, very fast. So, the best thing you could say about this model is that it's only efficiency is in getting one farther away from their desired goal in the least amount of time. In any case, it's not a model of efficiency to emulate.

Anonymous said...

"Evil succeeding by mimicking good" - yes, that was what it was , up to a point - that and appealing to the worst instincts in people. It is so frightening that this could have happened in a western European country - and one with a great cultural history - in such recent times. Because no one would speak out at the beginning, as much as anything else. And of course it is happening again - all over th3 world.

Anonymous said...

x-dell- As I pointed out, it wasn't sustainable efficiency, it was unsustainable long term, for the reasons you have outlined.

It fulfilled the dynamics that Orwell describes as how the economy of Oceania works, only it didn't understand itself.

I was thinking more in its brutal ability to harnass human energy, that seems to be the quandry.

It was able to get a lot out of people.

Welshcakes- I think what it did was tap into a crucial dynamic of our make up- and we se that at it's rallies. That's the key, I think.
Take me, my main aim in work is to get paid as much as I can, for as little real work. That is, tacitly, the aim of most people.
I come alive at events like football matches, or in nightclubs.

The Nazis tapped in to that, they made people WANT to serve, WANT to work.

Imagine if people felt the passion they do about their football clubs, towards their social contribution.
That, I think was the good dynamic that they perverted.

Stress- I don't think I have full blown Post Traumatic stress, though I think it can be brought to it, given enough pressure.
It was turned into that during the last Autumn, I think, but right now, I think I'm just fine.

Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking. The bottom line seems to suggest that there are some boundaries we dare not tread; knowledge we might CHOOSE not to gain.... *although the first humans never thought that way, when desiring the fruit of knowledge*