One of my Facebook friends posted about a book that led to my thinking about this issue. Here’s the exchange:
Now I’d like to revise and extend my remarks on the subject, just a bit.
If there’d been such a thing as a Nazi personality, my job as a novelist writing about the Nazi period would have been considerably easier. I could have run down a DSM-like checklist of traits to make sure each of my antagonists had at least five out of nine of them, and I’d have considered my work done.
But I know from research that the Nazi movement attracted a wide range of personality types, up to and including top leadership. There were airy eccentrics like Hess and Rosenberg. There were coldly analytical careerists like Heydrich, Mueller, Speer, and Schacht. There were corrupt egomaniacs like Goering. There were those who mixed traits like the Himmler (careerist mixed with eccentric). There were idiot hangers-on like Von Ribbentrop and obsessive bigots like Streicher. There were sadists like Roehm and Goeth. Sympathizers to the Nazi vision ran the personality gamut as well, from the most ordinary block leader to eminences like Martin Heidegger. (And, let’s not forget, 37% of Germany’s voters in 1932.)
Instead, I take Nazism to be best understood as the vision of Adolf Hitler, a vision to which all Nazis and Nazi sympathizers accepted to a large degree. Because the charismatic nature of Hitler’s leadership reduced the emphasis on practical policy, this vision is best understood as a set of shared ethical and moral precepts:
1. Human beings are animals, and like animals they must struggle against others to earn the right to survive. To the Nazi, this is not merely a description of the way life is; it is a vision of how life ought to be.
2. Human beings can be divided into races, which have certain fixed qualities that are carried in their blood.
3. Civilization is the expression of the creative impulses of the best race. The purpose of civilization is to facilitate the breeding and creative power of this superior race.
4. A civilization proves its greatness by warring with and dominating weaker rivals, subjugating their peoples to the superior culture.
5. A civilization that has become weak must rededicate itself to fostering a pure racial community and to driving out those weak elements that threaten to retard its growth or actively conspire to undermine its pursuit of racial domination.
6. By subjugating, dominating, and (if they become a threat) annihilating weak races, the strong race, secure in its pure, thriving, culturally ascendant community, is acting in a way that is morally consistent with nature and with the best impulses in humanity. To act otherwise would be to invite a catastrophe comparable to the sacking of Rome, to let humanity collapse into a second dark age.
7. Jews are the most dangerous of the weaker races because they act as parasites, latching on to civilizations other than their own and draining them of their creative vitality through their encouragement of race mixing and egalitarian politics. For the German nation to strengthen itself, the Jews must be excised, by whatever means necessary, from the German racial community.
You should thank me. I just saved you 792 pages of Mein Kampf.
The Nazi vision, in its strange mixture of Social Darwinism with collectivist yearning, was heavy on the sorts of ideas that were broadly acceptable among Western peoples of the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Goebbels recalls his first meeting with Hitler in his diaries:
We met. We asked questions. He gave brilliant replies. I love him. The social issue. Completely new insights. He has it all thought out. His ideal: a mixture of collectivism and individualism. Production must remain a matter for individuals. Big corporations, trusts, etc. are all to be nationalized. This is what we discuss. I can accept this firebrand as my leader. I bow to his superiority; I acknowledge his political genius!
What made Nazism so vicious, particularly as a governing philosophy, was that it placed no limits, legal or moral, on what the superior race’s community could do to preserve and perpetuate itself. Morality was important in dealings among members of the racial community, but there was no need to extend moral consideration those who were either unwilling or biologically unqualified to join. Indeed, to do so was a sign of moral weakness that could lead to the end of civilization. Because Hitler never said that any method was too radical, and instead berated his lieutenants when they showed restraint–see Hjalmar Schacht and Wilhelm Frick as examples–his underlings quickly understood the new norms. Advancement within Hitler’s Germany meant figuring out ways, the more radical the better, to strengthen the German racial community or to hobble and isolate threats to it.
Such an political and social arrangement doesn’t require the populace to be either pathological or brainwashed. Instead, people are made to understand their position in society and how to advance it, and they take care of the rest themselves. Those most suited to prosper in such a setting–those who share the regime’s philosophy and are willing to do what the regime decides is right, legal, and moral–will advance. Because their advancement carries a high degree of social status–medals, impressive job titles, money, invitations to fashionable affairs–and because they believe that the leader they follow must be acting in their and their country’s best interests, they assume that they must have acted ethically.
It is thinking like this that makes speeches like the one Heinrich Himmler gave to his SS colleagues possible:
I want to also mention a very difficult subject … before you, with complete candor. It should be discussed amongst us, yet nevertheless, we will never speak about it in public. Just as we did not hesitate on June 30 to carry out our duty as ordered, and stand comrades who had failed against the wall and shoot them — about which we have never spoken, and never will speak. That was, thank God, a kind of tact natural to us, a foregone conclusion of that tact, that we have never conversed about it amongst ourselves, never spoken about it, everyone … shuddered, and everyone was clear that the next time, he would do the same thing again, if it were commanded and necessary.
I am talking about the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. It is one of those things that is easily said. “The Jewish people is being exterminated,” every Party member will tell you, “perfectly clear, it’s part of our plans, we’re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, a small matter”. And then along they all come, all the 80 million upright Germans, and each one has his decent Jew.[mockingly] They say: all the others are swine, but here is a first-class Jew. [a few people laugh] And none of them has seen it, has endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500 are there or when there are 1000. And … to have seen this through and — with the exception of human weakness — to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned. Because we know how difficult things would be, if today in every city during the bomb attacks, the burdens of war and the privations, we still had Jews as secret saboteurs, agitators and instigators. We would probably be at the same stage as 16/17, if the Jews still resided in the body of the German people.
We have taken away the riches that they had, and … I have given a strict order, which Obergruppenführer Pohl has carried out, we have delivered these riches to the Reich, to the State. We have taken nothing from them for ourselves. A few, who have offended against this, will be judged in accordance with an order, [loudly] that I gave at the beginning: he who takes even one Mark of this is a dead man. [less loudly] A number of SS men have offended against this order. They are very few, and they will be dead men WITHOUT MERCY! We have the moral right, we had the duty to our people to do it, to kill this people who would kill us. We however do not have the right to enrich ourselves with even one fur, with one Mark, with one cigarette, with one watch, with anything. That we do not have. Because we don’t want, at the end of all this, to get sick and die from the same bacillus that we have exterminated. I will never see it happen that even one … bit of putrefaction comes in contact with us, or takes root in us. On the contrary, where it might try to take root, we will burn it out together. But altogether we can say: We have carried out this most difficult task for the love of our people. And we have suffered no defect within us, in our soul, or in our character.
There is no hypocrisy in this. I’ve no doubt Heinrich Himmler believed that morality was best structured along these lines–ethics among those the superior race, death and suffering to everyone else–that he had acted according to this morality, and that he was by virtue of this a man of integrity. This attitude was not the product of mental illness or an ordinary personality defect. It was instead the product of an unshakeable faith in a morality that endorsed treating “inferior” human beings as a “bacillus” to be eradicated for the health of the “superior”.
Leni Riefenstahl’s first Nazi Reichsparteitag film, today rarely seen and overshadowed by her later efforts, was called Der Seig Des Glaubens (Victory of Faith). The title was apt. Ordinary people, economists, doctors, lawyers, scientists and philosophers threw in their lot with Hitler because they saw in his vision something inspirational. I imagine it was pleasant, particularly in the aftermath of surrender and in the midst of economic privation, for them to believe that they were part of a superior race with a special destiny to bring about a second renaissance of Western culture, if only the sources of Germany’s decay could be rooted out. And as long as that vision of the second renaissance was kept clearly in mind, it was possible to rationalize any act, however horrible, needed to bring it about.
From Goebbel’s diaries, on the day Germany attacked the Soviet Union:
3:30am. The heavy artillery is thundering now. God bless our weapons! Outside, Wilhelmplatz is empty and silent. Berlin is slumbering, the Reich is slumbering. A great, wonderful era giving birth to a new Reich. A painful birth, maybe, but it is already striving towards the light. A new fanfare is resounding. Powerful, thunderous and majestic.
If the Nazi period has any warning for us, it is that we need to have a healthy terror of what a victory of faith can do.