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

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.

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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?

About Being Led to the Nazi Slaughterhouse

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Raul Hilberg: Die Vernichtung der europäischen Juden (Translation by Christian Seeger, Harry Maor, Walle Bengs, Wilfried Szepan; English title: The Destruction of the European Jews) ISBN 978-3-596-24417-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Raul Hilberg’s scientific study of the Holocaust, first published in 1961, ranks among the best works about this difficult subject of all times. It is easy to see why: The author consulted tens of thousands of source documents, from original Wehrmacht and SS paperwork to the records of the Nuremberg War Criminal Tribunals. The level of detail of this study makes it a valuable tool for historians and political scientists. The level of detail makes it also a challenging, at times exhausting read.

If you decide to read this book, be warned: Hilberg describes the three distinct phases of the destruction of the European Jews – expropriation, concentration and finally the killing – without resorting to any emotional language. There is no dramatic element that softens the impact that the account of how a well-organized bureaucracy meant to systematically kill millions of people may have on the reader’s mind. The neutral description of the planning and execution of the confiscation of stocks, gold, jewels, houses, furniture and personal belongings, of the deportation from all territories under Nazi control, of the ever-growing apparatus of the SS and finally of the running of concentration, labour and death camps – all this makes Hilberg’s study a brutal book.

The German edition counts some 1000+ pages, and it would be a futile effort to try to summarize the content of the three volumes. I will instead focus on an aspect that was new to me. Something that became a hard-to-chew-on food for thought. According to Hilberg, there was hardly any Jewish resistance. The Jews, whatever their origin, did not put up a fight before being led to the slaughterhouse. Actually, if you permit the allegory, they readily lined up in a disciplined queue, encouraged by the elders of their respective council.

Hilberg has a psychological explanation that I wouldn’t have though of: 2000 years of European anti-Semitism had taught the Jews to assimilate, to accommodate, to submit to the stronger. They had survived prosecutions, expropriations, discriminations and expulsions before. Under the Nazis, it wouldn’t be different, many experienced leaders thought. Give in a little, buy the Nazis off, suffer silently, be patient and forthcoming, and after some hassle they will leave us alone.

What the Jewish communities initially did not realize, was the fact that the Nazis actually wanted to go the anti-Semitic way down until its very end: the physical destruction of all European Jews. They couldn’t imagine that the Nazis would build an administrative system able to kill all Europeans Jews and would be quite willing to use it. When the first news of horrible crimes being committed in a little Polish town called Auschwitz filtered back to the ghettos or to countries occupied by German forces, people found it hard to believe. And the well-planned Nazi deception campaign was successful in entertaining the myth that the Jews would be resettled or sent to labour camps, where they would be fed and clothed.

Centuries of submission had taught European Jews not to resist, to obey and to believe in their survival however discriminating the Nazi measures would turn out to be. The lambs ultimately trusted the wolves and their sweet talking. Herein lies the tragedy of Europe’s Jews, and perhaps it may explain why some of Israel’s politicians today have this “We can trust nobody except ourselves” reflex. Israel, the old and new home of Judaism, is seen as the only place where Jews could feel safe. The unwillingness to compromise, the “all-or-nothing” intransigence may have their roots in the Holocaust. Perfect safety in Israel is an illusion of course, because the creation of Israel untied a bundle of other security problems. But this idea may have its origins in the shattered Jewish illusions about mankind after the Holocaust. Many have questioned the possibility of God after Auschwitz, even more have question the idea of trusting non-Jews.

When I was done reading the three volumes of the German edition, I realized that if the Nazis share the main responsibility of the destruction of the European Jews, the widespread and at times virulent anti-Semitism in the past centuries played a crucial factor to model the mindset of both the perpetrators and their victims. An aggravating factor is the fact that the Allied powers fighting Hitler did nothing to stop the Holocaust. The rescue of the Europeans Jews was no strategic priority. For this reason I believe that the Holocaust’s last chapter has not been written yet if it ever will be written. Future generations will judge us on how well we Europeans learned the lessons of an act of unparalleled cruelty, of a crime whose dimensions even Hilberg’s 1000+ pages of scientific analysis can only sketch. They will assess how well we fought anti-Semitism in Europe after Word War II. And how well we fought any other form of discrimination.

Is it appropriate to speak about music in the context of the Holocaust? I should think so. Some thought that after Auschwitz neither poetry nor music would be possible. But such an attitude would hand over victory to the Nazis posthumously. In 1967 Dmitry Shostakovich has written a violin concerto in C-sharp minor that might stimulate your mind to reflect the value of a human life: yours and your neighbour’s:

Paranoid Feelings as the Sun Sets on the Countryside

From Emigration and Expulsion to Extermination

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Götz Aly: “Endlösung” Völkerverschiebung und der Mord an den europäischen Juden (English title: Final Solution: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews) ISBN 978-3-596-29756-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ As you may have observed, my interest in Judaism and more specifically in the genesis of the Holocaust and its meaning for the Jews and us today has been growing. The more I read, the more I see how many facets the subject has and how much I still do not know. The German historian Götz Aly has published already in 1995 a much applauded study with a very special focus: How the Nazis’ idea to regroup all European citizen of German origin inside the Reich lead to the expulsion of the Jews of their homes and ultimately to their death.

Before World War II, people of German descent lived in Poland and Russia, in the Balkans, in Italy, in the Baltic Republics and on the Black Sea coast. Heinrich Himmler’s idea was to move all these people into Germany. They would live in the houses of the expelled Jews and in the homes of those Poles who would be expelled from the Polish territories annexed by Germany and incorporated into the Reich. The new German settlers would inherit the Jews belongings, the Jews’ confiscated money would serve as their starting capital. An ambitious plan. The trouble was that there never were enough suitable homes or transport capacities to transfer millions of people from their original home to somewhere else, inside or outside the enlarged Reich.

Aly has consulted many original documents as far as they are still available. He also had to interpret many of these documents as the Nazis progressively started to use neutral terms to hide what would become known as the “final solution”: the extermination of all Jews in Europe. Initially, the plan was to group the Jews temporarily in ghettos and later in a huge, closed community in Eastern Europe, somewhere in the conquered territories of Poland and the Soviet Union. These plans came to nothing as the Germans did not achieve a decisive victory over the Soviet Union. The conquered areas were not big enough or not suited for settlements and chaos ensued. The Germans from outside the Reich were already on the move, but the Jews and the Poles had not yet left.

Intermediate solutions had to be found. Mental asylums and hospitals for disabled persons became available as the Nazis proceeded to kill this group of people. It was a temporary solution only, but it gave the SS a first occasion to test efficient killing methods like the use of carbon monoxide and later the insecticide “Zyklon B”. Another plan to resettle the Jews in Madagascar faltered when it became evident that the Germans would not be able to win decisively over the British-French alliance and thus control the sea lanes and France’s colonies in Africa. More chaos ensued. It was not helped by the fact that Nazi bureaucracy was at times paralysed by conflicting priorities (like the Wehrmacht needing trains to move tanks), by infighting, sheer incompetence and clashes between top brass like Himmler and Hans Frank, the ruler of occupied Poland, the “Generalgouvernement”.

This book is a fascinating read, but it is a tough one too. To approach the logic of killing millions of humans from the bureaucratic or administrative angle, is a challenge both for the author and for the reader. Unfortunately Aly loses himself sometimes in minute details which doesn’t help the purpose of explaining “how” the Nazis gradually began to see in the killing of millions of Jews the only way to deliver on their promises to the German people. Voluntary emigration had not fully worked, displacement and concentration shifted the “problem” east, but since the East lacked the space to accommodate millions of Jews, the Nazis – and with them the Jews – were caught in a trap.

“The internal logic of the Nazi state evolved in a tense climate caused by huge transformation and expansion plans, unstable temporary solutions and limited resources”, Aly writes. “This lead to practical constraints, high expectations and the need for action on the background of rassist values well-anchored in the German population.” And he states that the ideas the Nazis developed were absolutely rational and not really far-fetched. Which means that such an event as the Holocaust could repeat itself under similar circumstances. A horrifying idea.

Despite the very matter-of-fact tone of the book, reading it was an emotional endeavour. Actually Aly’s rational approach made the madness of the Holocaust more palpable than any personal account, with all the emotions such a narrative would transport. The desperation, the loneliness, the lack of options of the Nazis’ victims made me think of the bleak perspective Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winter Journey” sketches:

Wandering to the Point of No Return