The Spirit of Totalitarianism

Polls say that only about one fifth of the nation is now aware of the Holocaust. This is probably just as well because it is just too awful an experience in human history to dwell upon and because the slogan of the survivors, “Never again!”, now appropriated for the worthy cause of gun control, had not deterred subsequent genocides. For my part, I cannot get away from the Holocaust and perhaps the Second World War will remain alive for as long as any in my generation, born in World War II, remain alive. I vividly remember as a five year old playing with my toys underneath a table while the adults (and me too) saw the British newsreels of bulldozers moving thousands of corpses that they deposited into deep trenches that would be covered with lime and then earth. The banquet was organized by those who had survived and those who had come over before the war from the Polish city of their birth, and a lot of people were in tears. Who needs such memories? But I am concerned with how quickly we lose a sense of the desperation of those outside the totalitarian regimes of the time and the sense of absolute horror that I  and so many Americans supposed permeated life within those regimes. In our time, when totalitarianism is restricted to North Korea, what with its slavish love of its leader, and China and Russia now just ordinary authoritarian regimes, concerned more with securing their leaders than making their entire populations miserable, how are we to get a sense of those times?

One try was the recent movie “The Death of Stalin”, which struck me as off the mark because it made its audience laugh at the terror even high ranking Kremlin leaders felt that a new development would put them in line for death. What if Stalin recovered? Who would take the fall for the leadership having made any preparation at all for a succession? They all hate Stalin but have gone along with him. That is played as farce but it is a cold porridge we are asked to swallow. Totalitarianism is not easily played as farce and that led me to think, for the first time, that Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” was a real accomplishment because it contextualized its satirization of the Third Reich with a stereotypical tale of Jewish swindlers out to take money away from aging widows just too happy to cooperate in exchange for sexual favors and by the use of a woman secretary straight out of an old time burlesque routine. But the takeoff on Hitler was so over the top that it had little bite, as was also the case with Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, who treats Hitler as a clown. Lubitsch's “To Be Or Not To Be” is much superior in that Jack Benny and the other actors play the clowns and the Nazis are the sinister forces that they have to manipulate. How to grab hold of the sinister, to make it come alive?

A recent documentary, “Hitler’s Hollywood” also fails to do the job. It consists of very brief excerpts from many of the comedies, historical dramas, and musicals produced under Joseph Goebbels for the benefit of the Third Reich and claims that the films show a fascination with death and with surrender to the collective will that is characteristic of Naziism, this based on some quotes from Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag, as those authorities are backed up by critics of an earlier generation, such as Siegfried Kracauer. But the narrator does not look attentively at any of the films or seem to know much about film or literary history. The theme of the beautiful death is there in Wagner and, before that, in Goethe; it is a cliche of Romantic literature. The tango sequence in one film is very similar in choreography and staging to a scene in “Gold Diggers of 1936”, a Warner Brothers musical, and so may be a characteristic of filmmaking that decade rather than an expression of German or Nazi consciousness. The narrator says that the film industry was “a dream factory” for Naziism, when that is the exact term used by Hortense Powderhouse to describe what Hollywood, USA was doing at the same time.

Looking at even these brief excerpts allows drawing a very different conclusion from the one provided by the narrator. The Nazis were depicting what they thought was a conception of the wholesomeness of German life as that was threatened by the international Jewish-English conspiracy. Women are glorified as healthy and robust in their beauty, as are the young men who are seen washing up before donning their uniforms in Leni Richenfeld’s “Triumph of the Will” so that they can march to the stadium and listen to the Fuhrer’s oration. Politics grows from fitness and grace and morality, or so is the story to be told. Even there, the story is not far off the Hollywood tropes of the time, what with G. I. Joe conquering Nazi aristocrats and technology and skulduggery with common sense and practical intelligence as well as women who prove to be plucky and serious minded. It is the times, not the nation, at work here, everywhere in the Western world.

Then how can we get hold of the reality of totalitarian evil? My suggestion is that history and memoirs provide the best avenue into the heart of this darkness. Hannah Arendt, for all her virtues, was too apocalyptic in her pronouncements, claiming as she did that totalitarianism was a new thing under the sun, a form of evil different from what evil had been before, when it was just an intensification, an excess, of the evil that could also be found in Calvin’s Geneva or the Spanish Inquisition or the medieval war of Innocent III against the Albigensians. The Nazis adopted very pedestrian techniques to give them control over everything going on in their societies, and that provides the most satisfactory meaning for Arendt’s famous phrase “The banality of evil”: evil operates through simple rather than Wagnerian gestures, even if, collectively, those measures add up to a gotterdammerung.  

Victor Klemperer, in his memoirs of his time as a dispossessed professor in Germany from the beginning to the end of the Third Reich, always thinking even at the beginning that the regime did not have long to last, documents how society operated. As soon as the Nazis gained power, one of them had to be present at every departmental faculty meeting at every university. That was the effective end of academic freedom, right there at the beginning. The fear settled in very quickly. And the organization of German society remained to the very end. Klemperer was only able to get out of showing properly granted identity papers to the still functioning governmental bureaucracy when he could claim, with a good deal of plausibility, that his records had been lost because of the firebombing of Dresden. And we know from other sources that firing squads for deserters were still being carried out as the Soviet troops were entering Berlin. The determination to maintain social order is astonishing and even morally praiseworthy. There is no descent into anarchy but simply a change of who is in charge.

I remember reading as a teenager Eugen Kogon’s “The Theory and Practice of Hell”, published in 1950, which was an early spelling out of how extermination camps functioned, down to the most grisly details. It was far more shocking that either Elie Wiesel's “Night”, which is now considered suitable assigned reading for high school students, or Primo Levi’s “Death at Auschwitz”, which fulfills its author’s Dantesque ambition to report back what Hell was like. So we have two extremes: the Arendt view that the concentration camps were an epitome of what life was like in the Germany of the Third Reich, the concentration camps the true heart of the regime, and the view, as displayed in Goebbels's movies, that this was an authoritarian regime dedicated to truth, wholesome beauty and material progress, one supported by the vast majority of its population, that was brutal only towards its essential enemies. The Goebbels view remained plausible perhaps until the the first Thousand Bomber Raid by the RAF on Cologne in May of l942 or perhaps until the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 or perhaps until the landing in Normandy in 1944 had become secure, any of those events making clear that the defeat of Germany was unavoidable unless it developed an atomic bomb in time, which it could not, just having jet planes not enough to turn the tide of battle. That the society carried on even after these three dates is a tribute to the German people, given how difficult it was to work up a political resistance. Germans did what the British government would have advised its subjects to do if Britain were invaded: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. I wonder if the citizens of the United States would have acted in so organized a fashion under similar circumstances.

Some evidence that evil during the Third Reich was ordinary and everyday and absorbed into the ordinary round of life, that another meaning for that incisive phrase, “the banality of evil”, is supplied in Milton Mayer’s  “They Thought They Were Free”, first published in 1955. The author interviewed ten Germans soon after the war and expected to find the same surrender to evil that Theodor Adorno and others in the Frankfurt School who had by that time returned from their exile in America expected to find: brains so curdled by Nazi propaganda that they could no longer tell right from wrong. But what he finds, though I am not at all sure he realized this, was support of the opposite hypothesis. His Germans, all former Nazis, regarded themselves as anti-Semites still, but claimed that they had no social hatred for the Jews; it was just that you couldn’t trust them when it came to money and they felt sure that the Jews who had been deported had been compensated for their financial loses. Mayer thought the anti-Semitism was what held the Nazis together, in that the Nazis were action first and thought a long time later and so never had a well worked out ideology, which is a point with which I disagree, the classification and eugenics and theory of race very well worked out by Nazi theorists.

My reading of the interviews is that anti-Semitism was a side issue, even if recounting after the war what had happened to Jewish relatives or to their own sense of themselves as Christians was heart-wrenching. It was so easy to maintain a surface conformity. A high school literature teacher knew not to teach “Julius Caesar” or “Hamlet”, which were, after all, about rebellion against the state, but there was no trouble with “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream”, and you could even act bravely by reminding the class that Mendelsohn was a Jew. “The German Spirit”, as it was called, did not need a list of censored books because teachers knew how to censor themselves by avoiding books that spoke in favor of rebellion against the state, and as one informant put it, that is banned in America too. So you could survive if you were careful, which meant guarded in the expression of opinion, so your personal defeat was only moral and psychological, to be reflected upon, years later, in the safety of a Nazi failure that had been forced on the German people from the outside. Life could be ordinary if you did not distance yourself from it with a moral compass.