Monday, May 30, 2011

The why of Hitler

I was just sitting down on my porch to write a post in the nearly 100 degree heat on WWII when a flock of pigeons exploded off the telephone wire running between two evergreens they habitually sit on, and flapping like mad birds flew about in every direction. A second later a fairly large sized hawk flew by which I only saw for a second as it swept over my house and out of sight. Apparently, it wasn’t looking for lunch as it didn’t seem to give them any notice.

It makes for a nice metaphor about WWII, Hitler being the hawk, and the European neighbors being the pigeons, rushing about in disorder, at least in the 1930s. But, metaphors are limited, and this one would have been better if the pigeons got their act together and kicked the tail feathers out of the predator. That didn’t happen. The hawk flew away, and after flying about in separate packs for a minute or so, they all settled down on the wire again. A vibrantly yellow finch, who comes by a few times every day to sit on the same long stalks to peck on the candy corn colored tubular flowers at their top, also came by. He wasn’t alarmed by the hawk at all, but maybe he wasn’t on the menu. I tried so hard to fit the little yellow flitter into the metaphor here, but no luck. Maybe Switzerland. So, back to the war.

I started reading WWII history with Winston Churchill’s six volumes aptly named The Second World War. I don’t know how many books I’ve read on the war since then, but right now I count 30 volumes on my shelf completely or mostly about it, one in the mail on the way, one I’m reading now from the library and another on my bed which I start and stop. I would estimate these volumes comprise roughly one half the total number I’ve read so far. Often if you read that much on a subject, you can become expert in it. But, without question, this merely makes me a rank amature on the subject, because there is an endless amount of information about the war and I can’t imagine you can call yourself an expert unless you’ve read hundreds instead of dozens of books on them (although, I have a friend who once told me he was going to read four books on the Civil War one summer, after which he would be an expert). Though the general outline of the war is very familiar to me, and it is relatively difficult for an author to totally surprise me, in every well researched volume I pick up that is not a general history, I find oodles on information I did not know before, so much so that I’m sure I forget most of it, at least until I read it again, maybe years later, and refresh my recollection.

There are so many WWII histories that you can break the war down into categories. What interests me much more than works on battles and weapons are those on intelligence and codes, commando and partisan activities and diplomacy. But, perhaps most of all, what I gravitate to is the question of why people fell for Hitler, loved him, died for him, and what does it say anthropologically more so than sociologically or culturally. In other words, what does the fact that a man like Hitler and his detestable cohorts were able to so deeply influence a country, that they trusted him so much, even when their destruction became imminent and obvious, say about humans in general, as opposed to just Germans?

I am lined up to read Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which takes the position that ordinary German’s knew about and were willingly participants in the extermination of the Jews and others. As I haven’t read it, I can only offer my bias against it -- that he goes too far, that while many German citizens were fine with the financial destruction of the Jews, the vicious harassment, the theft, and even their being rounded up – but that most of them did not know of the extermination and were horrified when they learned. Of course, I could be wrong, and I'll let you know.

One of the first insights I received in trying to understand what had gone through the German citizens’ minds I got from reading Albert Speers’ Inside the Third Reich. I think I read it in law school, so between '81-'84. Speer, for anyone who doesn’t know, was Hitler’s architect, perhaps the closest thing Hitler had to a friend for a long period of time, then his armaments minister (after the predecessor was perhaps assassinated for telling Hitler things he didn’t want to hear). He performed miracles in armaments for Hitler, having what many describe as a genius for organization (certainly a stereotype of Germans, but it was even more so for Speer). Although personality-wise, he was nothing like Hitler’s other closest ministers and followers – not even being particularly anti-semitic in the perspective of his time and place - in many ways he was closer to Hitler than any of them. He was dignified, and not personally greedy, emotional, or grotesque in comparison. Consequently, many expected he would be Hitler’s successor.

But, Speer needed workers to perform his industrial miracles, and he used the foreign slave labor that was provided for him, even at times callously emphasized his need for more (but at other times suggested well treated German workers, even women) and suggesting punishment for resistance. Nothing could get in the way of his work. While there is evidence that when he directly saw the conditions the slaves worked in, he was outraged, and tried to ease their plight, and to get as many Jews as he could for sophisticated work that would require better treatment for them, there can be no doubt that his acts were those of a war criminal.

You only need ask Speer himself, because unlike the other Nazis at the Nuremberg Trial, he mea culpa’d as loud as he could, even though made him persona non grata among his co-defendants and among many Germans. He also undoubtedly, particularly during the last year, fought hard at the risk of his own life to stop Hitler’s scorched earth policy and intended destruction of Germany’s people at the time of final defeat. These activities undoubtedly saved his life, as he was given 20 years at Spandau Prison (the subject of another book of his), instead of being hanged like most of the others.

Of course, Speer was subject to criticism by not only Nazis, but by those who felt he had merely acted in a fashion to save his own life by making him seem reasonable and sympathetic.

“Georg Thomas, the head of the Wehrmacht’s economics and armaments office, characterized him as a masterful liar, as adept at prevaricating by omission as commission. By pretending frankness he aimed, first of all, to disarm the opposition. He then tried to mask the truth with flurries of statistics, profound generalities that at first glance seemed relevant but in actuality evaded the question, and by a subtle shifting of responsibility." (From Justice at Nuremberg [“JaN”], another landmark WWII history). It wasn't just Thomas. JaN’s author, Robert E. Conot, had far less trust in Speer than did the judges.

Even were he dishonest about his activities or knowledge (and I’m sure he was), he also showed great moral courage (although he always insisted he was not a hero type), repeatedly risking his life in the end by disobeying, even countermanding Hitler’s orders, despite still being within his reach and power. Had he been given the death penalty, as he perhaps deserved, I do not believe he would have complained.

Certainly, everyone agreed he was extremely intelligent (although, oddly, he was generally not considered a great architect except by Hitler, even among his friends and co-workers) and it is hard to believe that he did not understand when all was lost, that these behaviors – countermanding Hitler’s orders and admission of guilt - were his best chance to survive. But, it is quite possible, that in such an incredibly conflicted man, contrary simultaneous thoughts are possible. He could be honest and dishonest, a slave master and a protector of slaves at the same time.

But, given his great intelligence, far more so than most of the other high ranking Nazis, why did he feel as he did about Hitler? One answer is power, but, it does appear, like so many others, he truly believed in Hitler. Following is a description of his is first exposure to Hitler from his own Inside the Third Reich:

“Hitler was delivering an address to the students of Berlin University and the Institute of Technology. My students urged me to attend. Not yet convinced, but already uncertain of my ground, I went along . . . The room was overcrowded. It seemed as if nearly all the students in Berlin wanted to see and here this man whom his adherents so much admired and his opponents so much detested. A large number of professors sat in favored places in the middle of a bare platform. Their presence gave the meeting an importance and a social acceptability that it would not otherwise have had. Our group had also secured good seats on the platform, not far from the lectern.

Hitler entered and was tempestuously hailed by his numerous followers among the students. This enthusiasm in itself made a great impression on me. But his appearance also surprised me. On posters and in caricatures I had seen him in military tunic, with shoulder straps, swastika armband, and hair flapping over his forehead. But here he was wearing a well-fitted blue suit and looking markedly respectable. Everything about him bore out the note of reasonable modesty. Later I learned that he had a great gift for adjusting-consciously or intuitively-to his surroundings.

As the ovation went on for minutes he tried, as if slightly pained, to check it. Then, in a low voice, hesitantly and somewhat shyly, he began a kind of historical lecture rather than a speech. To me there was something engaging about it-all the more so since it ran counter to everything the propaganda of his opponents had led me to expect: a hysterical demagogue, a shrieking and gesticulating fanatic in uniform. He did not allow the bursts of applause to tempt him away from his sober tone.

It seemed as if he was candidly presenting his anxieties about the future. His irony was softened by a somewhat self-conscious humor. His South German charm reminded me agreeably of my native region. A cool Prussian could never have captivated me this way. Hitler’s initial shyness soon disappeared; at times now his pitch rose. He spoke urgently and with hypnotic persuasiveness. The mood he cast was much deeper than the speech itself, most of which I did not remember for long.

Moreover, I carried on the wave of enthusiasm which, one could almost feel this physically, bore the speaker along from sentence to sentence. It swept away any skepticism, any reservations. Opponents were given no chance to speak. This furthered the illusion, at least momentarily, of unanimity. Finally, Hitler no longer seemed to be speaking to convince; rather, he seemed to feel that he was expressing what the audience, by now transformed into a single mass, expected of him. It was as if it was the most natural thing in the world to lead students and part of the faculty of the two greatest academies in Germany submissively by a leash. Yet that evening he was not yet the absolute ruler, immune from all criticism, but was still exposed to attacks from all directions.

* * *

Here, it seemed to me, was hope. Here were new ideals, a new understanding, new tasks. Even Spengler’s dark prediction seemed to me refuted, and his prophecy of the coming of a new Roman emperor simultaneously fulfilled. The peril of communism, which seemed inexorably on its way, could be checked, Hitler persuaded us, and instead of hopeless unemployment, Germany could move toward economic recovery. He had mentioned the Jewish problem only peripherally. But, such remarks did not worry me, although I was not an anti-Semite; rather, I had Jewish friends from my school days and university days, like virtually everyone else.”

Keep in mind, the first draft of Speer's memoirs was written while he was already in prison and an edited version not published until he was long out. All that was at stake was reputation, and that might have been enough reason to criticize Hitler, but not to praise his qualities as he does here, were it not true.

Although the passage only says so much, it struck me some 25 or so years ago when I read it, that it was the type of thing I was looking for, because at least it tries to explain what it was that attracted him. And, we know from so many others that it wasn’t just Speer. There were millions of Germans who felt as he did. In fact, it was the crowds, Speer claimed, who really led, which is maybe not as astonishing as it first sounds: “But as I see it today, these politicians in particular were in fact molded by the mob itself, guided by its yearnings and its daydreams. Of course Goebbels and Hitler knew how to penetrate through to the instincts of their audiences, but in a deeper sense they derived their whole existence from these audiences.”

There is something to that. Yes, there were Germans who were appalled by Hitler and Nazism, and many learned to be silent about it.  But the connection between Hitler and Germans seems to surpass any other I have known of in modern times. If we ever listen to Hitler now, it is for laughs. Particularly to non-German speakers, his mannerisms and passions now seem obviously pathological, even ridiculous to us. Yet, he connected with the German people on a deep and personal level and many who served him long suffered conflicting feelings even after they learned everything.

“Underrating Hitler has become a norm, less for historians of course than for the media, but it is the media which largely informs the public. It has never been quite clear why so many intelligent people find it more comforting to deprecate Hitler’s manic gifts than to view them with awe. But he was by no means only manic--as already said, he could also be intelligent and be considerate in his more personal relations. Certainly all those who lived around him were keenly aware of his exceptional capacity for compartmentalizing. Hitler would no more have had the ladies of his household-his four secretaries or the young wives of his aides, such as Below, and those of his closest associates, Speer and Brandt--disturbed with war horrors than he would have had the gentlemen of his court, and quite a few of them were indeed gentlemen, involved in his most secret of secrets.”

These are words from Gitta Sereny, a phenomenal and unique historian whose Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, of which I am almost finished. I consider it one of the finest WWII histories I have ever read, although perhaps it seems so to me because it concerns so much my special interest.

The following paragraph summarizes her lengthy book as well as anything:

“I have asked a number of these people what they would have done if they had known of Hitler’s plans of the murder of Poland’s elite and of the Jews. It is a measure of their honesty that none of them simply said they would have departed in horror. I think several of them spoke the truth when they said that they would have felt horrified. But I believe that all of them would have tried to put it out of their minds: not because any of them were monsters, but because they were totally convinced that Hitler wasn’t, and that therefore, whatever they might have heard couldn’t have been quite as bad as it sounded-not ‘if the Führer knew.’”

Over and over, Hitler’s persuasive abilities are described as hypnotic. Sereny writes: “The word ‘hypnotized,’ describing Hitler’s ability to bend people to his will, came up in almost every conversation about him. Even though many of those who had lived in his immediate surroundings professed to deplore Hitler’s crimes, there was not only a defensive but, curiously enough, an almost pleasurable element in their descriptions of these hypnotic powers they had been subjected to. It was almost as if the fact that they-so few among so many-were in a position to provide such a description made them feel somehow proud. It was perplexing. And with the single exception of Traudl Junge, who had been the youngest member on Hitler’s staff, none of them expressed a retroactive understanding that what he had hypnotized his people into was--however secondhand, however removed--participation in murder: of millions of Russians in POW camps, by starvation and exposure; of Jews and Gypsies, by shooting and gassing: of slave laborers and concentration camp prisoners, by overwork, hunger and torture.”

Yet, despite what she says there, Traudl also spoke of “that tearing feeling of pity, yes, for Hitler too. Even today, when I know of his terrible crimes, I can still think of him affectionately, for what he was to me.” When it was all but over and he sent the two oldest secretaries away, they asked to stay, despite knowing they could be killed.

Speer’s assistant, Annemarie Kempf, who Sereny seemed to adore, stated to her: “I often wish now that I could say that I had by then unequivocal feelings of hatred for Hitler. But it wouldn’t be true; it was never so clear-cut. It was very ambivalent, very complicated. One’s feeling about him had been too deep, life became too confusing, too violent, loud, ugly. One couldn’t really think.”

Speer himself writes in Inside the Third Reich, “During my activity as his architect, I noticed that being near him for any length of time made me feel weary, exhausted and empty, as if it paralyzed any effort to act or think independently. It was because of this that, when he named me Minister, I tried to schedule my discussions with him two or three weeks apart, thereby maintaining detachment from [him].”

Hitler’s hypnotic influence seems to have extended over his closest associates, including those we are certain are homicidal maniacs.

One of Hitler’s secretaries, Christa Schröder, relayed the following story to Sereny: “I clearly remember a day in 1941, I think it was in early spring . . . I don’t think I will ever forget Himmler’s face when he came out after one of his long, ‘under four eyes’ conferences with Hitler. He sat down heavily in the chair on the other side of my desk and buried his face in his hands, his elbows on the desk. ‘My God, my God,’ he said, ‘what I am expected to do.’ . . . Later, much later,” she said, “when we found out what had been done, I was sure that that was the day Hitler told him the Jews had to be killed.”

Himmler was undoubtedly one of the more loathsome characters surrounding Hitler, and it is hard for us to give that credit. We don't want to think of him as having normal feelings. But, Speer, who detested Himmler and thought him mad, certainly had no reason to be an apologist for him decades after his death, but said to Sereny:

“. . . Himmler was a very paradoxical personality . . . I have read many memoranda in which, for instance, he regulated precisely the treatment for workers in concentration camps-so many calories, so many vitamins-and if they had received them, believe me, it would have been enough. The fact that they didn’t get it had less to do with Himmler than with the stupendous corruption in all administrative areas, with countless people amassing fortunes for themselves . . . Certainly he was cruel and ruthless in his persecution of individuals . . . but he did have this other side, and I can perfectly visualize him coming out of Hitler’s office after one of those ‘under four eyes’ conferences, and slump[ing] down at a desk and saying, ‘My God, what I am required to do.’ Perhaps he wasn’t saying it to Christa Schröder, but rather to himself, as a reaction to what he had experienced on the other side of the door. Yes, I can see him having just that reaction . . . .”

If that was true, Himmler was schizophrenic, at least as laymen use the word. It was a term Speer applied to his own behavior, particular in the last two years of the war – almost openly opposing Hitler, even contemplating killing him for a while – and in another ways, wanting to be with him until the end. When Sereny asked him why he was relieved that his plans to kill Hitler with poisonous gas fell through – fear or danger or his feelings, he answered: “Both, I think. I think I was afraid, for myself and also for my family. But I’m not sure that that was the primary reason for my relief. You see, the curious thing, throughout those two weeks when I thought of little else, was that whenever I could get back to Berlin I almost particularly sought Hitler’s company. At the time perhaps I thought it almost particularly sought Hitler’s company. At the time perhaps I thought it was a safety precaution. But later I didn’t think that was the answer. I think I needed to be near him; his nearness and his death were in some way fused together. It’s again that same thing, isn’t it? That division in myself, my schizophrenia about him?”

This conflict lasted through the end. Speer stated as much at Nuremberg: “On April 23 (1945) I flew to Berlin in order to take leave of several of my associates and—I should like to say this quite frankly—after all that had happened, also to place myself at Hitler’s disposal. Perhaps this will sound strange here, but I was still so beset by conflicts about what I had done . . . I somehow needed to clarify my feelings and my relationship with him, and that is why I flew to see him. I didn’t know whether he knew of my ‘doings,’ nor did I know whether he would order me to remain in Berlin. But I felt that it was an obligation not to run away like a coward, but to face up to it once more.”

He also told Gereny that he couldn’t bear to be “on the outside. . . Somehow I had to be in, on the end.’”

Understanding what Speer – and by analogy – what Germans felt for Hitler is so complex, it is almost maddening:

“’We often say that genius and insanity are closely related,’ Speer observed in a monograph . . . “This could have been applied to Hitler at a pretty early stage.” Even before the war Hitler had had periods of mental disturbance. Sometimes in the midst of an important report or discussion, people became aware that he was staring rigidly at some fixed point in space; and no one knew how much, if anything, he had heard. By 1944, Speer said, Hitler ‘often reminded me of a senile man.’” (from JaN).

When I was growing up, I was all but overwhelmed, as were many kids in Jewish families, with stories about the holocaust and warnings that it could happen here at any time. I can’t deny that this has had an effect on me in ways, although psyches are so complex, it is hard to say what character traits, likes or dislikes of mine, I can fairly attribute to it. But, I think for certain some, or at least parts of some, like my deep-seeded distrust of authority and charismatic figures, and such a preference for individuality that I don’t even like to join organizations and even prefer watching individual sports to team games. And, if you haven’t noticed before, I have a pretty intense dislike of partisan knee-jerk behavior which demonizes political opponents and prefers character assassination to reason. Almost every day I argue with people online who, perhaps because they are protected by anonymity, engage in vicious rhetoric. What concerns me most is that when someone goes way over the line, even to the point of calling for genocide, so few people open their digital mouths to say anything about it. It’s not because they are afraid, it’s because they are on the same team. And nothing can be too extreme for them, unless it is said by someone they rightly or wrongly see as a political adversary. Then, the slightest insult or disagreement is seen as extreme and unforgiveable. Yet, I have little doubt, if I knew these people, we could have as polite political conversations as I have with anyone.

I don’t really believe in people with hypnotic abilities. Sure, some people are better speakers than others and have an instinct of determining what their audience wants to hear and then giving it to them with real or apparent sincerity. But, unless the audience is receptive, most speakers are not going to be successful.

And, America is not mid-20th century Germany either. Despite our many mistakes throughout our short history, particularly with past treatment of blacks, Indians and others, we do also have a conflicting tradition of liberty, individuality, and despite all of our political shouting at each other, a tremendous amount of tolerance for each other, for freedom of speech and religion, the peaceful transfer of power, and other enlightenment values. I don’t expect a Hitler to arise anytime soon. We wouldn't have it. I think.

Of course, history can change in a week or a single night. A nuclear explosion on American, perhaps even Israeli soil, would change anything. For example, 9/11 created great animosity towards Muslims. I was saddened to see last year, the great majority of Americans polled, wanted to somehow stop, legally or illegally, the building of a Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero. If I were interested in voting for Newt Gingrich, his demagoguery on that issue alone would have dissuaded me. Then again, after 9/11 and during the GZ Mosque protests, there was almost no violence against Muslims that could be attributed to it. Meanwhile, a minister in Florida burns a Koran, and group of Muslims go crazy in Afghanistan and slaughter innocent Westerners there to help them.

To 1930s Germans, suffering from their devastation after WWI and the Versailles Treaty, Hitler seemed like the solution, and for a while, some positive things happened for them. At one point, Speer said to Gereny, “[Y]ou prove that you cannot understand. You cannot understand because you can’t empathize with that absolute commitment to country which is-or perhaps was, as today’s young Germans don’t seem to feel this-a characteristic of Germans of my and earlier generations. When a minute ago I mentioned our ‘tragedy,’ it was that in those earlier years Hitler and Germany were one, for those men as well as of course for me. . . .”

Hans von Luck, a Panzer commander (Panzer Commander also being the name of his memoirs), wrote little on the subject, but what he write was poignant: "How could a people from whom a Goethe and a Beethoven had sprung become blind slaves of such a leader and fall into hysteria whenever he made a speech, as for instanc at the Berlin sports stadium? I believe all people are ready to follow idols and ideals if they become sufficiently emotionalized. Though every epoch brings forth its own idols, the people who cheer them remain the same."

I think of that every time some poltical figure in America is treated like a saint or glorious leader, whether on the left or right. It’s what we need to remember in America. We shouldn’t ever feel the way von Luck or Speer describes. A man or woman, no matter how much we like them, cannot ever be the answer. I don't care whether it's Barack Obama or Sarah Palin. Neither can a political party. The real solution is always adherence to pre-set rules of law and to enlightenment values, many enshrined in the constitution. 

And, I know, some reading this may think it wasn't necessary to point this out and that you've heard this song from me in other forms. But, an awful lot of people out there really seem to disagree with it - to want to find some great man or woman to lead them and tell them what to do, how to think, feel, believe and act. I can be as stubborn as they are.


  1. "I do not believe he would not have complained"???? I think that means you believe he would complain. Quibbling aside Dr. B., if she did not drop dead from shock, would be very proud of you. You have become quite the historian. Time for you to write a history, me thinks. Perhaps something on this very topic, The Pathos of Hitler or some such. by the by, for a graphic understanding of the non-military German reaction to Hitler, read "Every Man Dies Alone" by Hans Falada.Gripping stuff. You are a truly entertaining and erudite writer. Proud to say I knows ya.

  2. Ironically, possibly the very last thing I did before hitting publish just before midnight last night was to look at that sentence to make sure it wasn't a double negative. Good job me, eh? Oh, well. I always say, if people can only find one or two typos or mistakes in my posts, it should count as a miracle. Maybe when someone pays me for it I'll do a better job proofing. I could fix the error, but I'll leave it as it is so that people won't ask - what the hell is Bear talking about?

    Thank you for your kind words (but, seriously, who are you and what did you do with the real Bear?) If I knew how to market a book, I might write one. Not sure this would be the topic though. I have kind of a defense mechanism that goes up around the holocaust. I never watched Schindler's List nor went to Anne Frank's house when I was in Amsterdam.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .