Ruled by Fools Like Hitler and Trump

Eric Voegelin: Hitler und die Deutschen (English translation: Hitler and the Germans) ISBN 978-3-7705-3865-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ In 1964 the political scientist Eric Voegelin gave a series of lectures in Germany about the Germans’ relationship to Hitler before, during and after his reign. Voegelin’s main idea: Social, religious and philosophical elements characteristic of the German society of the 19th century led to the rise of Hitler. These essential traits of the German society can be summarized as an utter intellectual depravity and survived the fall of Hitler and constituted in the eyes of Voegelin a latent threat even after World War II. The lectures were meant to show students alternative ways of thinking and acting.

Voegelin’s style is incomparable. He is incredibly well-read, and his ideas are easy to understand if you have a minimum knowledge of history, philosophy and religion. His arguments are logical and well illustrated. His language is vivid and deliberately provocative. Intellectual and rhetorical excellence mark this work.

Voegelin’s reflections about the Germans and Hitler remain relevant to this day. There are so many parallels to the Americans and Donald Trump: The man’s intellectual limitations, his disdain for science and truth, his vulgarity, his total lack of savoir-vivre. His addiction to adulation, his hubris – and the narrow-mindedness or outright falsehood of those who voted for him.

Voegelin’s distinction between first reality and second reality anticipates the present-day issue of “fake news” and “alternative facts” that may shape the future of entire nations. Many Germans fell for Hitler in the 1930s, many Germans fall today for the right-wing party AfD. And many Americans will fall a second time for Trump next year. That’s my prediction. If the fool twists the facts and presents this reality long enough as the only reality, ordinary people will become fools in their own right and do foolish things. Foolishness is contagious and there is no antidote.

Don Quijote was a first-rate fool, guided by wishful thinking and his fantasies. Jordi Savall has recorded the most wonderful music popular during Cervantes’ lifetime:

Riding with Don Quijote on a Medieval Tune

Fighting for Equal Opportunities in a Fantasy World

Cornelia Funke: Tintentod (English title: Ink Death) ISBN 978-3-7915-0476-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ The third and last volume of Cornelia Funke’s fantasy trilogy is no less thrilling than the first two. A page-turner that should delight any voracious reader of fantasy novels. We return of course to the four main characters: Meggie, a young girl, Mo aka “Silver Tongue”, a bookbinder and Meggie’s father, Resa, Meggie’s mother and an enigmatic man of the name of “Dust Finger”. All four have different magic talents and all four are waging a battle against evil in a fantasy world, the “Ink World” which for us readers obviously exists only in a book. For the characters however, lifted by the power ofvthecworld from the real world to the fantasy world, “Ink World” is a matter of life and death, as we have seen in the first two volumes.

And then there are two young boys courting Meggie, who is experiencing her first heart-breaking love adventure. There is no lack of evil characters, triggering quite a number of unfair fights, betrayal being always an option, and ample occasion to show rafinesse and galantry. But I will say no more as I don’t want to spoil anybody’s reading pleasure. Funke’s power of imagination knows no limits, the plot is admirable, there’s a plethora of magic effects – Harry Potter and his friend Ron would be delighted! But what about the end? Well, the end may be satisfying for the majority of the readers I guess, but unfortunately not for me. It frustrated me and made me furious.

Funke has given away the chance to portray a combative mother fighting successfully for her rights as an individual: Resa, Meggie’s mother. She is such a strong and courageous person in the novel, but her strength and her courage are not well used. She deserved a major part in the shaping of events, but Funke does not go beyond the common stereotype: She has ideas, feelings and wishes of her own, but she has no opportunity and no right to fulfill them. She is compliant with the wishes of Mo and Meggie, who get their way in leading a heroic life, while she is relegated to a secondary role, a hero’s assistant, but not a hero in her own right. That’s shameful.

This omission made me quite angry since, from a pedagogical point of view, this is opposite to what young girls should be taught: They should not stand back and they should fight for equal opportunities – in the real world as well ad in a fantasy world. For discrimination is a daily experience for women, young and old, and a novel written for young readers, female and male, should be encouraged to think beyond existing stereotypes.

So no, I am not happy with the end and I am not happy with the role given to Resa. A missed opportunity, as I said, and to compound for this deficiency, let’s hear about a combative, clever woman who got what she wanted: Sheherazade. A few years ago, the composer John Adams wrote an orchestral piece called “Sheherazade.2” for the violinist Leila Josefowicz:

Sheherazade – Only Smart Women Survive

Tortured by Uncertainty

Javier Marias: Berta Isla ISBN 978-3-10-397396-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A romance, a spy thriller, Spain and the United Kingdom are the playgrounds and the subject is human endurance and the infinity of love. Sounds familiar? Right the past review had those ingredients as well and if it is a coincidence that I read the two books one after the other it is at least a strange one. “Berta Isla” however has nothing to do with the Napoleonic Wars, its framework is the Cold War, the end of the Cold War and the British government’s war against the IRA.

Tomas, the main male character is gifted for languages, so gifted he is recruited straight from University of Oxford by the British intelligence service MI6. He is young, talented, ambitious, and his wife Berta, living back home in Madrid, though not too happy with her husband’s repeated absences, tags along. She also puts up with Tomas’ unwillingness to speak about his job and the transformation of his psyche after his return from his studies. But one day, Tomas doesn’t come back. Inquiries about him lead to nothing? Is he alive? Should she wait for him? Should she start a new life? How far does love go? How much patience can one expect in the light of zero information.

Berta raises a child on her own, she sees time go by, the Franco era ends, the Cold War ends, and still there is no information about Tomas. The British intelligence service sends her money as a way of compensation, that’s it. Questions haunt her: Had he been deployed to the Falklands to fight as an undercover agent? Did he fight the IRA? Berta is contacted by a strange couple in Spain that seem to threaten her. Is that related to Tomas’ missions?

No knowing how to make sense of the disappearance of a beloved man is Berta’s tragic fate and her life in the midst of a sea of unanswered (unanswerable?) questions are the basic ideas of the novel.  I appreciated the plot and the language, but I found it too long. Berta’s many reflections of her and Tomas’ fate, the description of her conflicting feelings take too much space in the novel to remain interesting until the end. I found this truly sad as I did like the novel as such.

Do you know the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo? You should. Listen to his Concierto de Aranjuez, it conjures a tragic Spanish fate, a heart-braking mood and passionate love:

A Spanish Tragedy in the Embassy’s Office

A Man of Courage and Integrity

Ulrich Schlie: Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. Biographie ISBN 978-3-451-03147-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Carl Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg’s world and mine are some 70 years apart, and this may explain my harsh judgment of his person and the motives that led him to lead the 1944 putsch against Adolf Hitler. I still don’t like Sophie von Bechtolsheim’s book that I reviewed in my previous post, but this biography gave me a much better and much-needed understanding on who Stauffenbergwas and what drove him to try to kill Hitler.

Stauffenberg was a patriot in a positive sense. As a member of the German nobility, he had very high ethic standards, some of which we have come to consider typically German: industriousness, personal honour, discipline and last but not least a deep emotional bond to Germany. As a student he initially wanted to become an architect and in a school essay he wrote that “every building should be considered a temple dedicated to the German people and fatherland.” Now you may smile just as I did, but I perfectly understand what the young man meant. A certain naive idealism is not uncommon at the age of 14, and his generation was convinced that Germany had a special destiny.

From his early youth on Stauffenberg had been influenced by the German poet Stefan George as Schlie points out. George was en vogue and emphasized the unity of life with one’s life’s purpose (Einheit von Leben und Werk). One of his poems “Clandestine Germany” (Geheimes Deutschland) announced a new kind of order, a state founded on the preeminence of spiritual elements. That “clandestine Germany” could be constructed as an alternative to the political system in Germany after World War I, the Weimar Republic, as an alternative also to its economic model of unrestricted capitalism, and as the chance for a spiritual rebirth after the disastrous defeat of 1918. Nothing in George’s ideas suggest a sympathy for the growing Nazi movement. George saw himself as a new source of German nationalism, but he abhorred the vulgarity and the violence the Nazis stood for.

George was a poet however and not a politician or a political scientist. He didn’t work out a blueprint for a new German state or for the revolution necessary to bring that new state about. It was less a plan than a dream. This may explain why Stauffenberg had a reasonably solid plan for the attack against Hitler and the following putsch, but little idea on what Germany would or should look like once the Nazis had been driven from power. Too many uncertainties remained during the planning phase in 1943/44.

How would the Allies react? A quick cease-fire would perhaps make the putsch acceptable to the majority of the Germans, but would the Allies play along? And if so, under which conditions? An unconditional surrender would have been unacceptable for Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators as this would mean repeating the mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles, one of the reasons why the Nazis found a receptive audience in the 1920s. The Allies however showed no interest whatsoever in the conspirators’ plans.

Stauffenberg decided early in his life to join the army and become an officer. He saw it the best way to fulfill his personal ideals: to serve the state and to be ready to sacrifice his life for Germany. Stauffenberg had found the purpose of his life. It was only later that he realized that this state and with it Germany as a whole had been hijacked and perverted by the Nazis. His wish to overthrow the Nazis can be understood as a continuation of his actual mission. He and his co-conspirators would turn back the wheel of history and return to those German values Stauffenberg had taken up from Stefan George.

As important as George’s influence was for Stauffenberg as an intellectual stimulation, his political consciousness however was shaped just as much by current political affairs: the failure of the parliamentarian democracy of Weimar to provide for a secure, politically and economically stable environment in which Germany could prosper. Much has been said about why the Weimar Republic failed, suffice to say that the reasons were numerous and the political-philosophical mindset of most Germans was only one reason. To Stauffenberg and many others the armed forces appeared as the only anchor of stability. It emphasized courage, self-sacrifice, honour and discipline, four virtues mostly absent from the debates in the Reichstag. It it is these two elements that makes a military dictatorship attractive to many even today.

The Nazis needed the support of the armed forces to come to power. They promised to return the military to its former strength and thus gained the loyalty of thousands of officers, whose mindset was mostly national-conservative. Nothing indicates that Stauffenberg ever was a convinced Nazi, says Schlie. In 1930 the young man had been promoted lieutenant, and when Hitler grabbed power in 1933 he certainly did not oppose him. He believed Hitler as millions of Germans did. That year he wrote to George: “Anyone who builds a stable foundation for his power, must be applauded.”

Stability was the issue of the day and that was what Hitler had promised. As for the means to achieve this stability, it would take a few years and the first military setbacks during the invasion of the Soviet Union before Stauffenberg would deem the price too high. By then he had also understood that Hitler’s totalitarian regime was totally opposed to his own political concepts and that being at war on three fronts would lead to disaster. In 1939, on the eve of the German invasion of Poland, Stauffenberg called Hitler a fool. And with the Soviet victory in Stalingrad in 1942 he became convinced that Hitler must be stopped, if necessary by force.

Ulrich Schlie’s book allowed me to reassess Stauffenberg’s life and his motivation. That’s why I read it, that’s why I had hoped for. The superficial information I had researched on the internet in connection with that other review had left me dissatisfied. This was the book I needed to understand the man. His origin explains his political conservatism, his experiences with the Weimar Republic explain his distrust of the parliamentary democracy. But he had precise moral compass and a tremendous amount of personal integrity and courage. A true leader, quite unlike the Führer.

Stauffenberg grew up with the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favourite writers, and I remember I post on my other blog about a Rilke poem dealing with the question whether one has achieved one’s life’s goal or not. Stauffenberg did achieve his goal. He died because he had risen up to fight evil. That poem of Rilke has some very special magic, just like the piano piece I associated with it. Franz Schubert wrote it.

A Pilgrimage from Youth to Old Age

Getting to Know Stauffenberg? Not Really.

stauffenberg

Sophie von Bechtolsheim: Mein Großvater war kein Attentäter ⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-3-451-07217-8 Killing a tyrant is a complicated issue. Not from a practical point of view. It can be done. It has been done actually. Cesar, Louis XVI, Tsar Alexander II, Nicolae Ceausescu… But is it legitimate? And if so, under which circumstances? What if the killer has no noble motive, but just happens to be psychopath? What if he acts for personal gain? What if he wants to become a tyrant himself?

I came to reconsider this question when I started to read this book about Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, one of the men and women that plotted (and failed) to kill Adolf Hitler in July 1944. Hitler was evil, of course, but killing a man is an immoral thing, isn’t it? The last time I had thought about it was in 1989, when I took an undergraduate course in political theory and tried to deal with the ancient Greek philosophers’ ideas on the subject. The Greeks came to the conclusions that killing a tyrant is a complicated thing.

Had Stauffenberg’s plot succeeded, World War II might have ended earlier than it did. But would it have been right for Stauffenberg to blow up the Führer with a bomb when Stauffenberg mostly wanted to save Germany from a humiliating military defeat, that would strip it of its earlier military gains? His motive wasn’t to propagate a liberal democracy in Germany, far from it. Democracy was totally unpopular in Germany after the failure of the Weimar Republic and would have been unfeasible in 1944 after an eventual cease-fire. The Allied powers had to force it upon the Germans after the total defeat in 1945.

The plotters around Stauffenberg were concerned about the suffering of Germans, dying at the Eastern front or at home in the bombed cities. Those very Germans who had elected the Nazis in 1933 with a substantial majority. The plotters wanted a powerful, autocratic Germany minus Hitler and his Nazi clique. They were aware of the horrible crimes committed against the Jews and civilians in the occupied territories, but to stop this wasn’t their primary or even secondary motive. They acted out of a feeling to save Germany’s honour, the honour of some other Germany, not perverted by Hitler’s fantasies.

Sophie von Bechtolsheim is a German historian born in 1968. She is also the grand-daughter of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the subject of her book. Stauffenberg was a plotter, but he was much more than that as the title suggests. He was a husband, a father, a German national-conservative, a soldier, a faithful Catholic. Von Bechtolsheim’s intend was to sketch a personal portrait of the man. I had high expectations that unfortunately have not been fulfilled by the book. Von Bechtolsheim gives us some background about the Stauffenberg family, and that’s it.

Stauffenberg was executed by the Nazis a day after the failed attack on Hitler and, as a careful conspirator, he had left no written traces about his plans, his motives, his reflections, his political ideas. He knew right from the beginning that he was playing with fire. For that reason von Bechtolsheim draws from the memories of relatives, mainly Stauffenberg’s wife, of friends and surviving co-conspirators. It adds a little to the picture of Stauffenberg, but not much. To historians the book is utterly irrelevant and certainly no alternative to a well-researched biography. To political scientists her comparison of modern-day terrorism and the bomb attack of 1944 is at least bizarre.

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was a gifted and enthusiastic cello player. I valued this piece of information in von Bechtoldsheim’s book more than anything else she wrote. Given his education, he certainly was familiar with the Romanticists’ beautiful chamber music. So here we go with the appropriated music, Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor:

Beautiful World, Where Are You?