I’m not likely to upload my other final, but this is the one for the totalitarianism class, with which I’m overall satisfied. It’s long, but after the usual mess of outlining and selecting sources, wasn’t hard and was even enjoyable to write.
VIOLENCE AND PUBLIC APPEAL:
UNDERSTANDING NAZISM AND THE CREATIVE-DESTRUCTIVE ETHIC
“The war liberated the barbarian instincts of the individual and society to a degree that was previously unimaginable,” the German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtewanger wrote acridly in 1931. “National Socialism has skillfully organized the barbarity. Among the intellectuals it is called OBG: Organized Barbarity of Germany.” A fierce critic of Nazism for the past decade, he was shortly after forced into political exile, where he continued to attack Hitler and his party for the danger (he foresaw) they posed to Jews and civilized Europe.
Feuchtewanger was not the only prominent intellectual to voice his fears about National Socialism; nor was he the only Cassandra to flee Germany as his fears were realized; nor was he the only one to describe National Socialism chiefly in terms of its barbarity. Some few others, especially Marxists, virulently attacked Nazism for its perceived brutal element, though ultimately their voices went unheard. A natural retrospective question for the historian is why Germany was not more receptive to their warnings. Did Germans not see the violence inherent in the Nazi program? Did they see and accept it as necessary for grander aims, or as a regrettable part of an essentially good package? Did it actually add to National Socialist appeal? It is of course impossible to enter completely into the mind of the imaginary “average German,” and an accurate survey would probably demonstrate a diversity of answers. But the fact of the election of the NSDAP and the popularity of Hitler indicate a general reaction of either ignorance, tolerance, or approval for the more violent aspects of Nazism.
This essay focuses on this question of violence. Given that authors such as Ian Kershaw insist that the German people did not want war and were opposed to public displays of violence, and yet violence—against Jews, against criminals, against the “oppressors” in Europe—seems central to the Nazi program, this essay will evaluate such claims, looking especially at an anti-fascist article written by Walter Benjamin and a speech by famous novelist Thomas Mann, both composed in 1930, the year of the September election which saw an astonishing NSDAP increase of ninety-five parliamentary seats. In the light of these texts and the work of thoughtful historians, this essay will attempt to piece together an understanding of the intellectual assent of the German population to violence as a method for creating the Third Reich.
One of the first to openly fear the future of the Nazi movement and condemn it was a middle-aged intellectual named Ernst Bloch. Like Lion Feuchtewanger, he was a fully assimilated German Jew, most famous to history as an heterodox Marxist philosopher who asserted the eminence of romantic utopianism as a driving political-revolutionary force. In April of 1924, he had an article published in Das Tagebuch called “Hitler’s Force.” Therein he cried against the religious devotion of undiscerning youth to Hitler, who “did not deserve the indulgence of his judges and this farcical [post-putsch] trial…. We should not underestimate our opponent [Hitler] but realize what is a psychological force for so many and inspires them.”
Bloch was an acquaintance of and influence on Walter Benjamin, also a German Jew of considerable stature as a Marxist intellectual. His fate would be more tragic than those of Bloch and Feuchtewanger, who went into exile, both of whom he would surpass in international fame: he took his own life in 1940 on the Franco-Spanish border while fleeing the invading German army. Benjamin’s denunciation of fascism came six years later than Bloch’s, and it was more focused on the theoretical question of the aesthetic glorification of Great War violence as presented by nationalist ex-soldier Ernst Jünger, who was never a member of the Nazi party but whose writings were associated with that movement. Benjamin’s 1930 article, published in Die Gesellschaft as “Theories of German Fascism,” does not explicitly name the National Socialists, but almost certainly this party was the primary German manifestation included in the condemnation, given the results of that year’s election.
Benjamin’s article attacks fascist violence-glorification almost without reservation. He starts by noting the astonishing disconnect between the veterans’ experience of ruthless modern warfare and their espousal of violence. Both pacifism and fascist militarism, he argues, embrace a common belief in the essential non-relative character of war. However, “Even the most consumptive pacifism has one thing over its epileptically frothing brother for the moment,” Benjamin declares: “a certain contact with reality, at least, some conception of the next war. The authors like to speak—emphatically—of the ‘First World War.’ Yet how little their experience has come to grips with that war’s realities…” Rather, they hold to an ideal of heroism anachronistic in the face of modern killing machines, a cult that “is nothing other than an uninhibited translation of the principles of l’art pour l’art to war itself.”
At this point he makes his interpretation of fascist rhetoric clear: “War—the ‘eternal’ war that they talk about so much here, as well as the most recent one—is said to be the highest manifestation of the German nature. It should be clear that behind their ‘eternal’ war lies the idea of cultic war….” To the fascists, Benjamin argues, coming to terms with the loss of the Great War meant refusing to end the war, complying “with the desires of the bourgeoisie, which longed for a decline of the West, the way a schoolboy longs for an inkblot in place of his wrong answer. They spread decline, preached decline wherever they went.” Benjamin understands the German fascists as being stuck on the events of eleven years previous, trapped in an idealism that refuses to let them pass their energies into a productive peacetime sphere. Militarists like Jünger look with suspicion on a civilization that restrains their destructive impulses and denies what is seen as a primal expression of German being.
To this Benjamin responds, “And what do you know of peace? Did you ever encounter peace in a child, a tree, an animal, the way you encountered a patrol in the field?” To him fascist ex-soldiers such as Jünger (and presumably Hitler) are “professional freebooters. Their horizon is fiery but very narrow.” He concludes by turning back to “the home front,” saying that the fascists abstracted the concept of war from the Great War experience, applying soldierly heroic virtues to class warfare in a hideously depraved social idealism. “What these authors mean by nation is a ruling class supported by this [class warrior] caste, a ruling class—accountable to no one, and least of all to itself…. [I]n this mystical theory of war,” he adds, “the state naturally plays more than a minor role.” Violence is necessarily more than rhetoric; it is one of organized fascism’s tools for the future, to be employed indiscriminately both internally and externally. To Benjamin, fascism is a Moloch that consumes men and ideals in a madness for total attrition and an obsession with technological apocalypse.
Even without getting overmuch into his historical-sociological theories of cause, the relevancy of Benjamin’s article to the questions asked at the head of this essay should be readily apparent. Fascism’s glorified presentation of violence signaled clear danger to society, the promise of wars and state lawlessness. Benjamin understood the Great War as the last chance for Germany to learn its lessons. A nation that will not break through the “sinister runic humbug” of war-worship is doomed to upheaval and death on a catastrophic scale.
The fact that Benjamin was not addressing the Nazi party particularly still leaves open the question as to whether National Socialism paraded its destructive propensity or distanced itself from the language of war. Benjamin dealt with German fascist ideology on theoretical level that was probably not much accessed by the average voter. For a denunciation at once parallel and not directed solely at fellow intellectuals, we turn to another major figure.
Thomas Mann, a Nobel prize laureate, was one of the most famous German novelists of the twentieth century. His middle-class critique of the Nazis simultaneously advocated the moderation of the Social Democratic Party. This view most famously appeared in his address of October, 1930, “An Appeal to Reason.” This speech was presented in Berlin at a meeting that required police protection to prevent Nazi troublemakers from breaking it up, and it was published in the liberal newspaper Berliner Tageblatt.
Mann begins his address with a social commentary on the problematic situation of artists such as himself in post-Great War German culture. Art, despite its spiritual importance in resolving “the conflict between the social and the ideal,” seems frivolous and superfluous amid the misery and material distress of the war and ensuing, seemingly unending depression. So Mann professes to feel compelled, as a bourgeois German in the midst of national crisis, to discuss the political reality as he understands it, including the September election, which he sees as unambiguously the rise of a deadly fanaticism and an assault on democracy. He puzzles for a while why Germans, who are “by nature not radical,” would flock to National Socialism; he reviews the circumstances of the World War defeat, highlighting the indignity and unpalatability of the Versailles Treaty. The “German mind” is weighed down by the trauma of events and unsettled concerns of political identity; Mann concludes, “The German people took advantage of a garish election poster, the so-called National Socialist, to give vent to its feelings.” This was augmented by the mystical sense of a new non-bourgeois epoch that came with the economic decline of the middle class, which Nazism supplied with an anti-rational, “orgiastic” worship of the “darkness of the soul,” a “fanatical cult-barbarism” spooned down sensation-seeking German throats with pagan, romantic language. National Socialism denied the “idea of human freedom as a relic of the bourgeois state of mind,” offering salvation from present troubles by immersion into the opiate of “epileptic ecstasy,” something fundamentally anti-German.
Mann further comments that “militant nationalism displays itself less militantly for foreign than domestic consumption”; this is both hypocrisy for the sake of international tolerance of its outrageousness and a signifier of inward-looking violence. “[I]ts fanatical love of the fatherland appears chiefly as hatred not of the foreigner but of all Germans who do not believe its methods, and whom it promises to destroy root and branch (even today that would be a rather large order)….” Statements like this, and the remarks that follow about the increasing focus of nationalists on national purity, seem both ironic and prophetic. Mann’s conclusion is that the moderate citizen ought to find his political identity in socialism, which is “anti-intellectual by economic theory, but in practice… friendly to the intellect.” He finishes his speech by advocating as steps to truly rebuilding Europe the revision of the Versailles Treaty and the formation of a solid Franco-German alliance.
What is to be made of these presentations of Nazism? At the very least, it can be said that the inherent violence of National Socialism was apparent not only to paranoid Communist trumpets. The question remains of whether this recognition required consciously connecting the dots. To Mann, certainly, Nazism’s popularity suggested cultic rejection of rationality and willful disinclination to worry about the consequences of fanaticism, rather than mere ignorance, but he was still speaking of the fewer than one-in-five who voted for the NSDAP in 1930—it is much harder to accept majority public support for “Hitlerism” under the same label, being composed of more than just young, hot-blooded radicals. To assist in approaching the question, I will employ a distinction between externally-oriented violence and internally-oriented violence.
Externally-oriented violence, that is, violence directed at a population other than that directly subordinate to the regime, manifests itself most obviously as war. Ian Kershaw in The ‘Hitler Myth’ comments that “although the overwhelming majority of the population clearly wanted ‘national success’… it was just as clearly unwilling to entertain the idea of major sacrifices to attain them, least of all… another war.” To Kershaw it seems evident that most Germans feared another 1918, and he suggests repeatedly through his book that Hitler’s credibility often hung on his ability to maneuver international politics with audacity while still keeping Germany from outright armed conflict. His early foreign policy successes fortified the German population for the invasion of Poland, for which trust in Hitler was by now implicit enough to ensure continuing public support for his regime. This is echoed by other historians. David Welch in The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda hails popular acceptance of the war as a propaganda victory commensurate with early military successes, rather than something for which Germans had previously built up enthusiasm.
If we return to Benjamin and Mann, we can see some of this reflected in their work. Both implicitly assert that the specter of the Great War hung heavy over Germany; the question of how this specter should be dealt with may have proved decisive for evaluating Nazism. To Mann, the best option would be to move forward, abandoning the symbols of humiliation, into an age of reconstruction and peace. But the National Socialists had a different method of catharsis, one built on vengeance and revitalized conflict.
Walter Benjamin believed that one major characteristic of fascism was its refusal to let go of the Great War, and a philosophy of violence consequently afflicted its entire political program. Omer Bartov’s analysis concurs: in Mirrors of Destruction, he considers the German method of coping with Great War slaughter and defeat one which exalted violence and the “battle community” as bringing forth the highest warrior attributes. According to Bartov, many, including Jünger whom Benjamin critiqued, were infected with a glorification of the “aesthetics of destruction,” a conceptual framework which leant itself only too easily to total war and genocide.
We must still deal with the difficulty of Nazism as a popular phenomenon. If Hitler ultimately managed to slide a moderate population into bellicosity, the said population must have either not realized that the Nazism was leading them toward war (as he obviously was), or they tacitly accepted it. Perhaps Germans believed that Hitler would hold back the warmongers in his party. This essay will return to the question after some attention has been given to the question of internally-oriented violence, which comprised a substantial portion of Benjamin’s essay and Mann’s address. For if the German public genuinely believed at the beginning that the militant National Socialists would not take them to literal armed conflict with their neighbors, surely they were disturbed, as our writers above were, at the violent language employed in discussions of purification and national identity. Did it strike a negative chord when Hitler in a 1932 speech compared positively Nazi idealism with the savage wars of religion, or stated, in a way that would seem ominous even without the benefit of retrospect, “Where is the organization which can boast, as ours can, that at need it can summon 400,000 men into the street, men who are schooled to blind obedience and are ready to execute any order—provided it does not violate the law?” Or did it ring sinister when Goebbels openly railed in 1925, “To talk of calm today is to make the cemetery one’s home; to be peaceful under this government is to be pacifist and cowardly…. [A] government, a system that is inwardly thoroughly mendacious, is meant to be overthrown; that therefore one must sacrifice and fight for the new state”?
Nazism’s primarily internal focus was recognized by contemporaries. For instance, one National Bolshevist wrote in 1926, “What distinguishes us above all from… national socialists… [is that] they are, similar to social democracy, driven almost exclusively by the point of view of domestic politics. They think too much of ‘hanging the criminals of November’; their intentions are too much dominated by hate, revenge, retaliation.” The revolutionary rhetoric of Hitler and Goebbels did focus heavily on national reform and the complicity of the socialists in the stab-in-the-back. Indeed, one could reasonably assume that this might distract voters from the concerns of war and externally-focused violence discussed above. And yet the undeniably violent overtone to domestic affairs, one might think, should not have improved Nazi standing.
William Sheridan Allen cites a disconnect in his study town of Northeim between the deeds of Nazis and public perception, the latter being rooted in an optimistic view of the more intellectual National Socialists as truly representing the party, as opposed to those whose misdeeds were as bad as any ruffians’. This can only serve as a partial explanation, for the violence perpetuated by the brownshirts was freely used and condoned by Hitler and other major party members. We cannot forget the repeated emphasis of Benjamin and Mann as to the essentiality of National Socialist “barbarism”—something brute and primal and anti-rational, and yet, in their minds, something which in itself attracted followers.
This issue is one of the chief interests of Robert Gellately in Backing Hitler. He argues that Hitler and his regime continued to operate under wide public knowledge and consent, their tactics of terror notwithstanding. Gellately comments harshly, “On balance, the coercive practices, the repression, and persecution won far more support for the dictatorship than they lost.” He cites the stated aim of the Kripo (police), “‘to exterminate’ criminality and to work for the ‘lasting and complete annihilation’ of the ‘criminal enemy of the people,’” and its literalization in the extreme methods used against criminals and enemies of the people, categories increasingly broadly defined. This kind of violence-for-the-sake-of-order, Gellately makes the case, was viewed positively in the eyes of most and served as adequate segue into Nazism’s genocidal projects. Violence was a tool to remove chaos, build a nation anew, and destroy those who contributed to its unhealth, and this paradigm the Germans accepted.
I suggest that Germans generally did not fear realities like war and violence the way they feared the related but not synonymous ideas of “defeat” and the “stab-in-the-back,” the latter of which was an obsession for early Nazis. The Great War left a bitter taste of ruin that rose again at Stalingrad, but most Germans too readily suffered the triumphs of Poland and France and too readily swallowed the sweet promises of National Socialism, which did not shy from the language of sacrifice and death but exploited it as a glorious path to a greater Germany. When the dream was smothered in the snows of Russia, only then did some of the less fanatical begin to reject the terrible means of its intended accomplishment.
This is how the fears expressed in Benjamin and Mann can be reconciled with the admiration and apathy of the general population. If Benjamin speaks of the Nazis as war-addicts and Mann describes them as destruction-exalting cultists, most Germans saw in them a dedicated force for a better world. Germans’ disinclination to violence, insomuch as was thought worth protesting, extended only to that which could be manifested as such on their doorstep. Violence had been reduced to a tool, a part of a creative-destructive ethic, rather than an undesirable effect in itself. Gellately’s research is clear in demonstrating Germans’ awareness and passive consent to extreme measures. If they had not bought into the heroic, sacrificial language employed by party fanatics, and if they praised an avoidance of “bloodshed,” they at least minded less when the blood spilled was not that of their sons and husbands but sprang freely from the veins of criminals, enemy nationals, and racial misfits.
James C. Scott’s book Seeing Like a State points out the facet of the modern state which is its taking upon itself enormous power with utopian intent. A regime with a fully mobilized industrial society at its disposal in extreme cases sees in abstracts such as morality the only interfering factors in a drive for a national ideal—weakness in the bridge to a perfect good. Recklessness and ruthlessness lead to unintended consequences and, in the case of the Nazis and others, a deliberate and staggering death toll. This is perhaps closest to what Mann refers to as anti-rationalism, which he accounts to being no less than a rejection of thought and morality for action. Indeed, he suggests that Nazism was but one manifestation of a host of modern anti-rational ideologies: fascist Italy, revolutionary Russia, Lapuan Finland, and Sanationist Poland, all of which had totalitarian-utopian aspirations and brutal reputations. The power of the modern state combined with fervid, desperate idealism is nothing less than organized barbarity.
This utopian drive was represented in rhetoric which had transparently violent implications and was unambiguous about the need for near-absolute control. During the French Revolution, the figure of Hercules was employed to represent a similar fusion of will and strength, the massive, masculine power of the people to destroy and create anew. The Nazis needed no such antique god to stand for them: their sign was the Führer, who held life and death in his hands and sought the best interests of Germany. That he would contain violence and direct it against her enemies, within and without, proved not his evil but his strength of will, something from which many even of the less fanatical bent could seek to benefit.
As demonstrated by the examples of Mann and Benjamin, the currents of violence were visible and comprehensible well before the National Socialists were in a position to fix the nation’s fate. The Marxist thinker Benjamin hardly needed his theoretical framework to know that fascist fixation on destruction would end in disaster; the moderate novelist Mann understood that a Germany plowed by Hitler would reap the whirlwind. Popular acceptance of violence as a legitimate means of the state unchained the barbarism that both these men saw and feared. Thomas Mann’s older brother and fellow novelist, Heinrich Mann, would warn the nation in 1931, “The Reich of the pseudo-Germans and pseudosocialists [Nazis] will be established consciously by the shedding of blood, but that is nothing compared to the blood that will flow as it falls.”
Allen, William Sheridan. The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945. 1965. Reprint, New York, New York: Franklin Watts, 1984.
Bartov, Omer. Mirrors of Destruction. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Benjamin, Walter. “Theories of German Fascism.” Translated by Jerold Wikoff. In Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 159-164.
Bloch, Ernst. “Hitler’s Force.” Translated by Neville and Stephen Plaice. In Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 147-149.
Feuchtewanger, Lion. “How Do We Struggle against a Third Reich?” Translated by Don Reneau. In Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 167.
Gellately, Robert. Backing Hitler. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Goebbels, Joseph. “National Socialism or Bolshevism.” Translated by Barbara Miller Lane and Leila J. Rupp. In Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 127-129.
Hitler, Adolf. “Address to the Industry Club.” Translated by Raoul de Roussy de Sales. In Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 138-141.
Hunt, Lynn. Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. 1984. Reprint, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2004.
Kaes, Anton, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, eds. The Weimar Republic Sourcebook. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1994.
Kershaw, Ian. The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Mann, Heinrich. “The German Decision.” Translated by Aufbau Verlag. In Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 164-166.
Mann, Thomas. “An Appeal to Reason.” Translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter. In Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 150-159.
Niekisch, Ernst. “Where We Stand.” Translated by Don Reneau. In Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 338-339.
Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.
Welch, David. The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda. 2nd ed. London, New York: Routledge, 2006.
 Lion Feuchtewanger, “How Do We Struggle against a Third Reich?” trans. Don Reneau, in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1994), 167.
 Ernst Bloch, “Hitler’s Force,” trans. Neville and Stephen Plaice, in Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 148.
 Walter Benjamin, “Theories of German Fascism,” trans. Jerold Wikoff, in Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 160.
 Ibid., 161.
 Ibid., 162.
 Ibid., 163.
 Ibid., 164.
 Thomas Mann, “An Appeal to Reason,” trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter, in Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 150.
 Ibid., 151.
 Ibid., 153.
 Ibid., 154.
 Ibid., 155.
 Ibid., 157.
 Ian Kershaw, The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 122.
 Ibid., 143-144.
 David Welch, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda, 2nd ed. (London, New York: Routledge, 2006), 117, 119.
 Omer Bartov, Mirrors of Destruction (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 21.
 Adolf Hitler, “Address to the Industry Club,” trans. Raoul de Roussy de Sales, in Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 140.
 Joseph Goebbels, “National Socialism or Bolshevism,” trans. Barbara Miller Lane and Leila J. Rupp, in Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 127.
 Ernst Niekisch, “Where We Stand,” trans. Don Reneau, in Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 339.
 Allen, William Sheridan, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945 (1965; Repr., New York, New York: Franklin Watts, 1984), 84.
 Robert Gellately, Backing Hitler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 259.
 Ibid., 46.
 Kershaw, 130.
 Thomas Mann, 154.
 Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (1984; repr., Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2004), 104-105.
 Heinrich Mann, “The German Decision,” trans. Aufbau Verlag., in Kaes, Jay, and Dimendberg, 166.