March 28, 2005
Return of the Swastika (1)By Charles A. Coulombe
[The first in a three part series]
The recent contretemps over Prince Harry's wearing of a swastika on a (wildly inaccurate) Afrika Korps uniform at a masquerade party made headlines around the globe. All sorts of folk were up in arms: some called for abolition of the Monarchy, others called for Germany's ban on the obnoxious symbol to be extended throughout the EU. Thoughtful pundits in thoughtful venues wondered what it all meant.
Shortly thereafter, the Los Angeles Times piously warned Germany about the dangers of rising neo—Nazism. Of course, the Times is much given to lecturing countries like Bolivia, Sri Lanka, and the Ivory Coast about their internal affairs; doubtless its editors believe the role their newspaper played in inciting the 1992 Rodney King riots qualifies them as experts in civil unrest.
Nevertheless, there are indeed skinheads in Germany who invoke the name of the Fuehrer, demonstrate, and wreak mayhem upon immigrants and others. Given the German birthrate, I pointed out to my close friend Axel (a German living with his wife and children in Aachen, the city of Charlemagne) that if the skinheads really wanted to help their Fatherland, instead of beating up nonwhites, they should marry their girlfriends, settle down, and start producing more Germans. His response was, 'You wouldn't say that, Charles, if you had ever seen any skinhead women!' I suppose he had a point.
But do these lads and their colleagues in the rest of Europe really pose a threat? Growing up in Hollywood in the 60s, I was used to seeing George Lincoln Rockwell's minions, the American Nazi Party, in their brown shirts on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. In the early 80s, college pals and I would ring up a phone—number we jocularly called 'dial—a—Nazi,' and listen to hate messages which inevitably began with the stirring opener, 'America Awake!,' in the most toneless Midwestern accent imaginable.
The Second Coming
To be fair, the Nazis inspire a fear out of all proportion to their actual accomplishments. That is to say, 6,000,000 Jews and 7,000,000 Gentiles are a fair number of dead. But Stalin topped it, and Mao topped Stalin. I suppose, however, that as Stalin was for a time our ally and Mao's heirs have most favored nation status from us, it would be psychologically unhealthy for us to dwell on their misdeeds. Convinced by the Calvinist bedrock of our national psyche that we are God's chosen people, such dwelling would force us to confront things we would rather not.
That is a pity: because it is precisely from that refusal to examine ourselves that the danger of a Nazi revival stems ——— we are that much less likely to recognize it when it comes. How, then, are we to see the new Reich in our midst? We must first take a good hard look at Nazism itself.
To do this, there are two glaring elements of the Nazi mystique we must forego ——— and this will be hard, because focusing on them has allowed us to ignore the remaining and most important part of the package. The first element we need to leave out of our consideration is the pageantry and spiffy uniforms. I realize that three generations of militaria collectors will be disappointed, and that those jackboots and black breeches are a huge part of the hold the Nazis maintain on the imagination. But to identify the torchlight parades and the goose—stepping with National Socialism is to mistake the beast for its hide.
The second element is anti—Semitism. Given what everyone knows, or thinks they know, about the Nazis, this will seem mystifying at best and perverse at worst. But never mind; we know about the 6,000,000 Jews, and how they died; but a closer look at the 7,000,000 Gentiles that Hitler also killed will actually tell us more clearly why they died. Rabbi Marvin Hier has said 'to universalize the Holocaust is to cheapen it.' Pace the good rabbi, I would say rather that to universalize it is to understand it, and so better to realize his lofty intention of never allowing it to happen again.
Those two elements temporarily put aside for the purpose of analysis, just what was Nazism? What sort of an ideology was it? In a word, it was an odd mix of materialism and immanentism, an exultation of the ideal over the real. In part, it reflects the misery whence arose Adolf Hitler; also, in part, it derives from the positivism and social Darwinism that were such a huge portion of the late 19th century intellectual milieu. In that, of course, National Socialism has much in common with both Marxism and Fascism, to say nothing of Japanese neo—Imperialism during the same period.
Of this mindset there is perhaps no better example than the storied eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, issued in 1910—1911, copyrighted by 'the Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars of the University of Cambridge,' and 'Dedicated by permission to His Majesty George the Fifth, King of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions Beyond the Seas, Emperor of India, and to William Howard Taft, President of the United States of America.' This set has been a great boon to me in my work as a writer, to no small degree because its articles on literary, historical, folk—loric, and religious topics (the areas in which I write) tend to be better researched and more detailed than those of the present edition. But it has a higher value than that, which might be guessed at by the dedication's omission of King George's title of 'Defender of the Faith.'
More even than its continuing value as a reference work, this encyclopaedia is a window on a vanished world more evocative than a Merchant & Ivory film. In article after article, the hopes and dreams of the dominant circles in the Anglo—Saxon world before the slaughters of the two World Wars are revealed. In the preface, we are informed that the present edition has been much influenced by the sociology of Herbert Spencer. This Englishman was the foremost promoter of the Manchester School and Social Darwinism in America, of whose philosophy Andrew Carnegie wrote in his autobiography, 'Light came as in a flood and all was clear.' Professor Clinton Rossiter put it in his Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion, 'The greatest of American laissez—faire conservatives was an English Liberal.' Something to consider when comparing American and English (or European) political labels. In a nutshell, Spencer was the spokesman for what we call in the States the 'Gilded Age.'
What is Civilization?
Today the thesis that all men are one brotherhood needs no defence. The most primitive aborigines are regarded merely as brethren who, through some defect or neglect of opportunity, have lagged behind in the race. Similarly the defective and criminal classes that make up so significant a part of even our highest present—day civilisations, are no longer regarded with anger or contempt, as beings who are suffering just punishment for wilful transgressions, but are considered as pitiful victims of hereditary and environmental influences they could neither choose nor control.
Were Dr. Williams writing today, of course, he would use less pompous diction and be a bit more Politically Correct. But he would have no need to substantially alter his convictions for a contemporary audience. Further on, however, he launches into a description of a kindred development which has great implications:
The essence of the new view is this: to recognise the universality and the invariability of natural law; stated otherwise, to understand that the word 'supernatural' involves a contradiction of terms and has in fact no meaning. Whoever has grasped the full impact of this truth is privileged to sweep mental horizons wider by far than ever opened to the view of any thinker of an earlier epoch. He is privileged to forecast, as the sure heritage of the future, a civilisation freed from the last ghost of superstition———an Age of Reason in which mankind shall at last find refuge from the hosts of occult and invisible powers, the fearsome galaxies of deities and demons, which have haunted him thus far at every stage of his long journey through savagery, barbarism and civilisation.
Indeed! But in addition to this wonderful news, the good doctor goes on to explain away the advanced weaponry which the growth of the technology he extols has made possible:
Formidable as these weapons now seem, however, the developments of the not very distant future will probably make them quite obsolete; and sooner or later, as science develops yet more deadly implements of destruction, the time must come when communal intelligence will rebel at the suicidal folly of the international attitude that characterised, for example, the opening decade of the 20th century.
Dr. Williams further assures us that patriotism must inevitably give way to humanitarianism, which will banish all the evils and barbarisms of the past. And just what will be the result of that humanitarianism? Mark well:
Equally obvious must it appear to the cosmopolite of some generation of the future that quality rather than mere numbers must determine the efficiency of any given community. Race suicide will then cease to be a bugbear; and it will no longer be considered rational to keep up the census at the cost of propagating low orders of intelligence, to feed the ranks of paupers, defectives, and criminals. On the contrary it will be thought fitting that man should become the conscious arbiter of his own racial destiny to the extent of applying whatever laws of heredity he knows or may acquire in the interest of his own species, as he has long applied them in the case of domesticated animals. The survival and procreation of the unfit will then cease to be a menace to the progress of civilisation.
Alas, Dr. Williams did not predict the horror of the trenches into which the governments of Europe, inspired by the principles he espoused, flung a generation of youth, just four years after he pontificated. Our first great dystopia, Brave New World, extrapolated these same principles, and came up with both fantasy and horror on its hook. Huxley's work aside, however, it was not just Oxbridge and our own Ivy League that held these principles, by a long shot: prior to the First World War, they could be heard in the lecture rooms of all the great universities of Europe. From those warm greenhouses, they filtered down via adult education courses and popular writers to those of the masses who took pride in their literacy: they can even be found in the pages of Tarzan and Bomba the Jungle Boy. Indeed, they could be picked up by such an autodidact as Adolf Hitler, to say nothing of Margaret Sanger.
There were concomitant views, to be sure: as a purely physical creature, the individual man (as opposed to Man, in the abstract) had value only insofar as he both benefited society and could produce: in a word, as a mere economic unit. His past traditions were, as superstitions, not merely things that would in time be swept aside, but in fact must be so swept, and the sooner the better. Of these, none was so vile as Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. So too, for the 'brotherhood of Man' to fully emerge, existing aristocracies, and particularly monarchies, must be removed ——— the more so as their ultimate justification lay in those very superstitions slated for destruction.
Yet, as Dr. Williams indicated, this brotherhood was not to be extended to 'low orders of intelligence,' that is, to '...paupers, defectives, and criminals.' Of course, the ranks of the latter would, for at least some theorists of this school, necessarily include those who opposed realization of this beautiful dream ——— most notably priests, nobles, sovereigns, and opposing theorists. After all, regardless of the immediate effects the elimination of such miscreants might have, the ultimate good of the whole was sufficient justification.
The three centers of Hitler's youth ——— Braunau ob Inn, Linz, and Vienna ——— were respectively small town, provincial capital, and Imperial seat; in his first two locales, he was sure that it was mere parochialism that allowed his obvious personal and artistic qualities to be overlooked, and that surely he would achieve fame and fortune in Vienna, that center of art and music, that city of dreams, the age—old citadel of the Habsburgs. But his rejection at the hands of the art school there was even more pronounced that that suffered in the provinces.
The Vienna which rejected Hitler wasn't the city we think of — a town of music and laughter, of clever epigrams and light—hearted operettas. In fact Vienna, like the Empire centered there, was a paradox. It boasted an established Church (the Catholic), an hereditary Monarchy and Nobility that was the most tradition—bound and ceremonial in Europe, and an active secret police and censorship bureau (the latter inevitably headed by either a playwright or a poet, presumably under the supposition that it took one to know one).
Hitler hated what made Vienna what it was: its multinational, particularly Slavic, population; its wealthy culture vultures, particularly the Jews; and above all, the House of Habsburg and the Catholic Church. Identifying all of these with reaction, and the German element of the Empire with progress, he transferred his loyalties to progressive Germany and the House of Hohenzollern, which had made Bismarck's achievement possible. It is in this personal context of his that we must find the roots of the Shoah.
Charles A. Coulombe's most recent books are 'Rum: The Epic Story of the Drink that Conquered the World' and 'Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes.' He is currently working on a biography of four—time Olympic—gold—medal winner Pat McCormick. In 2004, Mr. Coulombe was named a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Sylvester by Pope John Paul II.