Who would be a Nazi ?

This essay is dated but very pertinent today. Dorothy Thompson is just a name to most who are younger than I am but she had things to say that still speak to us 70 years later. Of course, Nazis are extinct, at least in the classical sense. They survive, however, as a type. This is as up to date as a guide to personality as it can be.

It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times–in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis.

It is preposterous to think that they are divided by any racial characteristics. Germans may be more susceptible to Nazism than most people, but I doubt it. Jews are barred out, but it is an arbitrary ruling. I know lots of Jews who are born Nazis and many others who would heil Hitler tomorrow morning if given a chance. There are Jews who have repudiated their own ancestors in order to become “Honorary Aryans and Nazis”; there are full-blooded Jews who have enthusiastically entered Hitler’s secret service. Nazism has nothing to do with race and nationality. It appeals to a certain type of mind.

It is also, to an immense extent, the disease of a generation–the
generation which was either young or unborn at the end of the last war. This is as true of Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Americans as of Germans. It is the disease of the so-called “lost generation.”

This part of the essay is an anachronism since Nazism and Jews were two sides of an argument at the time. Let us, however, rename the two sides “leftist and Israeli.” Makes more sense doesn’t it ?

Sometimes I think there are direct biological factors at work–a type of education, feeding, and physical training which has produced a new kind of human being with an imbalance in his nature. He has been fed vitamins and filled with energies that are beyond the capacity of his intellect to discipline. He has been treated to forms of education which have released him from inhibitions. His body is vigorous. His mind is childish. His soul has been almost completely neglected.

At any rate, let us look round the room.

The gentleman standing beside the fireplace with an almost untouched glass of whiskey beside him on the mantelpiece is Mr. A, a descendant of one of the great American families. There has never been an American Blue Book without several persons of his surname in it. He is poor and earns his living as an editor. He has had a classical education, has a sound and cultivated taste in literature, painting, and music; has not a touch of snobbery in him; is full of humor, courtesy, and wit. He was a lieutenant in the World War, is a Republican in politics, but voted twice for Roosevelt, last time for Willkie. He is modest, not particularly brilliant, a staunch friend, and a man who greatly enjoys the company of pretty and witty women. His wife, whom he adored, is dead, and he will never remarry.

He has never attracted any attention because of outstanding bravery. But I will put my hand in the fire that nothing on earth could ever make him a Nazi. He would greatly dislike fighting them, but they could never convert him…. Why not?

Beside him stands Mr. B, a man of his own class, graduate of the same preparatory school and university, rich, a sportsman, owner of a famous racing stable, vice-president of a bank, married to a well-known society belle. He is a good fellow and extremely popular. But if America were going Nazi he would certainly join up, and early. Why?… Why the one and not the other?

Anybody think of John Kerry just then ?

Anyway, read the rest of it. It is startling and sobering to think how little has changed but the names. Credit for my finding it should go to The Anchoress

Another brief thought occurs, maybe this is a repeating theme in our history.

We think of ourselves as a meritocracy but we all know someone who wanted just a bit of a thumb on the scales. Maybe more than a thumb. I think my one complaint about Dorothy Thompson is that she might give more credit than is due to family and background. I think the blood of such families has gotten very thin the past 50 years. Many years ago, in Boston, I knew a few men who had used their family fortune to allow then to seek achievement in medicine and to ignore the necessity of earning a living that would support a lifestyle like that of John Kerry, although not so flamboyant. One such was J Gordon Scannell, chief of thoracic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1965. As Scannell Moving Company trucks passed outside, he spent his life in a taxing profession. Another, who became famous (although unknown as a real person) was Edgar Kahn, whose life was fictionalized by Lloyd C Douglas in his novel, Magnificent Obsession, in 1929.

I see the parallels today and wonder about human nature and how little it has changed.

27 thoughts on “Who would be a Nazi ?”

  1. My mother had a metric for judging people. “They would have hidden us from the Nazis in their basement.” There are not many of them. Most of the ones who pass the test these days are evangelicals.

  2. Perhaps if you readjust your image of a National Socialist to something more rational and reality-based than a blood-thirsty authoritarian with jack boots, a can of cyanide and an ambition to become chief executioner, you will see Nazis virtually everywhere. A guy who’s loyal to his family, nation, culture, racial group and the place on the map where Nature placed him – Nazi. The one who senses that each of us has the duty to see his life as something larger than himself – Nazi. He who shows reverence for the immutable laws of Nature – Nazi. The youth who’s proud of his nation, his ancestry, respectful of authority, determined to succeed both in his own interest and in that of his people – definitely a Nazi in the making. And those who see not what the society can do for them, but what they can do for their country, their people, their culture – you know their name, too.
    National Socialism has not given out its last breath. It can, and hopefully will, become the platform of choice for a whole lot of ordinary folk who see that self-obsessed existence in the terminal stage of a rotten to the core liberal democracy turned odious, hostile and repulsive has too little to offer in both the spiritual and existential sense. When the true Leader takes the stage, I suspect we’ll be quite surprised at how many answer the call.

  3. I take it you will answer the call, Anonymous. Keep those boots shined. You will need to please your masters.

    I’ll start to be concerned when the people who write comments like yours start signing their names to them.

  4. To be a nazi you must (i) obey (ii) have no empathy, (iii) have no personal judgment.
    These traits are not part of human nature, they are exactly the opposite : when human nature has been erased, suppressed.
    These traits result from (still widespread) authoritarian child-raising, where values like discipline, obedience and control of one’s emotions (don’t cry) are dictated, and questioning of authority is prohibited.
    Unfortunately, you will find this anywhere in the world.
    Have people learned anything from Milgram experiments ? Or from these authors : Alice Miller, Olivier Maurel…
    Isn’t it logical that authoritarian education make authoritarian adults ?
    Common sense, someone … ?

  5. Magic Garden: I think it might be a little easier to become a Nazi. What if the crucial trait is simply a strong desire to see oneself as better than other people? When an ideology comes along that offers that, you join up. Then, when someone suggests mistreating some disfavored group, you go along because it’s just too painful to think of identifying yourself with the hated scapegoats instead of with the people on top. And then someone suggests treating the disfavored group a little bit worse than before . . . and so on. (Of course, being human, you find perfectly reasonable excuses for all this. The disfavored group really is bad or harmful to the rest of society, etc.)

  6. “It is also, to an immense extent, the disease of a generation–the
    generation which was either young or unborn at the end of the last war.” Sebastian Haffner, who was 7 at the end of WWI, would have agreed with the “young” part of this. He observed that the most enthusiastic Nazis tended to be those who were old enough to share in the excitement of WWI, especially the early days, but not old enough to be exposed to its horrors.

    Naziism was a *youth movement* to a greater extent than often recognized.

    Haffner also observed that many people in Germany had learned to look to *politics* for the excitement in their lives, rather than finding internal sources of meaning and satisfaction.

    His memoir (my review here) is an essential source for anyone seeking to understand how Germany became, in his words, “a pack of hunting hounds directed against human.”

  7. I remember reading that essay, when I was in college, and exploring the bound copies of WWII era magazines in the library archive, although I forgot who wrote it and which magazine it was in, but the meat of it stuck with me. It was written in that weird time in between, when the war had been going on in Europe for nearly two years, and Americans were still technically neutral, but many of them deeply sympathetic — and concerned — about what was happening under Nazi occupation in Europe.
    I think that I had read Eric Hoffer’s “True Believer” at about the same time, so that I was already alerted about looking that certain personality type who would be drawn into becoming an enthusiastic collaborator.

  8. There must be some defect in the soul that wants to obliterate itself by becoming part of something “larger.” If the Party requires it, it cannot be wrong. The defective soul attempts to eliminate the necessity of choice, consequence, duty, morality, and honor because it sees its incapacity and is unwilling to strive and develop. It worships little earthbound gods because it is terrified of the great One.

  9. Pat B., is that you (at the top of the section)?

    seems like many genocidal movements are youth driven. the khmer rouge were, as were the people responsible for the cultural revolution in the prc.

    there wasn’t anything particularly unique to the nazis, they were just another run of the mill mass movement. hoffer covers the psychology of such movements very nicely.

  10. I believe the cultural and societal exclusivism, racism and nationalism which gave rise to Nazism are still present in many parts of the world, in Germany of course, but especially in third world countries with uneducated populations where scaled-down and less sophisticated forms of Nazism (nationalism, socialism, racism, exclusivism, isolationism)have thrived resulting in massive and systematic killing too (Khmer Rouge’s extermination of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities). But Nazi Germany intrigues us because that society was presumably one of the most educated in the world at the time. In my opinion, the United States is probably the other side of the story because they valued more its pluralism and universality and they didn’t follow the path of exclusivism and isolationism advocated by many Americans at the time.
    But I believe I am a product of my society’s idiosyncrasy and cultural traits, more than all the books I could ever read, and most of the times I stand on the side of society more than anything else, I believe in society after all, and I were a member of a society which values its exclusivism more than its universality and humanism, then I will probably be a Nazi in that society.

  11. Except for the “brilliant” and “intellectual” part, Mr. C in the essay kind of reminds me of Obama.

  12. Jose Angel de Monterrey…”But Nazi Germany intrigues us because that society was presumably one of the most educated in the world at the time.” Indeed. And one of the things this piece of history teaches us is that education is no guarantee against monstrous behavior.

    On the evening of the same day on which Sebastian Haffner watched the Prussian high court–the Kammergericht–cave in to the Nazis, he attended a cabaret performance at which the commedian, Werner Fink, had the courage to mock the regime. In the morning, the Prussian Kammergericht, with its tradition of hundreds of years, had ignobly capitulated before the Nazis. In the same evening, a small troop of artistes, with no tradition to back them up, demonstrated the courage to speak forbidden thoughts. “The Kammergericht had fallen but the Katakombe stood upright.”

    It is unlikely that Werner Fink had enjoyed a level of education anywhere near as advanced as the judges of the Kammergericht. It comes down to the character of the man or the woman: education is not a panacea.

  13. Peter Drucker, who left Germany in 1933, wrote about three men he knew who became at various levels Nazis or Nazi enablers..

    –Reinhold Hensch, who came from a working-class family, became an SS officer. He summed up his motivations to Drucker thusly: “Now I have a party membership card with a very low number and *I am going to be somebody*.”

    –Paul Schaeffer became editor of a major newspaper, believing he could influence the regime toward moderation. He disappeared when the front that he provided was no longer needed.

    –An un-named professor, a distinguished biochemist and a “great liberal,” was expected by many to raise objections at the faculty’s first meeting with their newly-appointed Nazi watchdog. His main concern was about maintaining the level of research funding.

    Interestingly, Hensch had a Jewish girlfriend…he advised her to leave the country and asked Drucker to help her when they both went abroad.

    Knowing these people led Drucker to object to the Hannah Arendt “banality of evil” formulation:

    “Evil works through the Hensches and the Schaeffers precisely because evil is monstrous and men are trivial…Man becomes the instrument of evil when, like the Hensches, he thinks to harness evil to his ambitions; and he becomes the instrument of evil when, like the Schaeffers, he joins with evil to prevent worse…I have often wondered which of these two did, in the end, more harm–the Monster or the Lamb; and which is worse, Hensch’s sin of the lust for power or Schaeffer’s hubris and sin of pride? But maybe the greatest sin is neither of these two ancient ones; the greatest sin may be the new twentieth-century sin of indifference, the sin of the distinguished biochemist who neither kills nor lies but refuses to bear witness when, in the words of the old gospel hymn, “They crucify my Lord.””

  14. I am pro-choice but think that the social acceptance of abortion is an example, with which to think about the ease with which people can be converted to a belief they would have considered an abomination a few years before. Social acceptance is a powerful pressure.

  15. Rather than answer any comments – I did read them – let me give some explanation of Nazism that I think expands on many ideas here. It was essentially tribal in a very primitive sense, not nationalistic. Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and others living within the German borders were not included in the vision. Germans living elsewhere were considered part of the fold. Nazis saw the countries descended from Germanic tribes – England was still thought of as predominately descended from Angles and Saxons – as natural allies, and were puzzled by the UK’s unwillingness to ally with them.

    Prussian tribalism especially was at the heart of this, with a sense of Prussian superiority that dated back through WWI, Nietzsche, Fichte, Frederick, and perhaps on beyond. They believed they were destined to rule others, not because of their ideas, but because of their character. In one sense, it was simple tribalism, such as one would find anywhere else in the world, except they had the power to enforce it.

    This explains much of the “give oneself for a greater cause” attitude, though perhaps not all. I see greater causes, however misguided, as at least some improvement over being only for oneself. But things that can rise higher can also fall farther. As CS Lewis noted, devils are not made from fallen monkeys, but from fallen angels. This is why each expanding of the circle – family, clan, tribe, nation, all mankind, can bring forth greater goodwill but also carries the danger of greater destruction – the ideal (if only possible) of communism or the UN become instead forces for evil. Which, given the imperfectability of mankind, they always will.

    The authoritarian nature is not uniquely German, but certainly has had a long run in Prussian culture.

  16. AVI…insightful comment. I think the distinction between nationalism and tribalism is an important one. Nationalism is somewhat analogous to the crew as a ship believing that “our ship is better than other ships” or the employees of a corporation believing “our company is the best in the industry.” Tribalism, in the sense you use the term, could involve (in the analogies) groups of sailors or employees who do not necessarily identify with the ship or the company so much as with members of the same group on other ships or in other companies.

  17. David,

    thank you for bringing up the example (or metaphor) of the the Hensches and the Schaeffers and of those who, like the biochemist professor, commit the sin of indifference.

    As usual, it provoked me to read some more beyond your inestimable comment, specially regarding Hannah Arendt and more about Peter Drucker..I always enjoy it so much when something or someone inspires me to spend hours researching and reading.

  18. Drucker’s first (and perhaps least-known) book, “The End of Economic Man,” dealt with of the factors leading to the rise of totalitarianism generally and Naziism specifically…

    In a chapter titled “The Return of the Demons,” he addresses the psychological roots of Fascism. One of these was the experience of the Great War–“Modern war appeared to be the denial of all tenets on which the mechanical and rational conception of society is based. This was not because war is amechanical and arational, but because it reduces mechanization and rationalization to absurdity…the war showed the individual suddenly as an isolated, helpless, powerless atom in a world of irrational monsters.” Another factor was the Great Depression, which “proved that irrational and incalculable forces also rule peacetime society: the threat of sudden permanant unemployment, of being thrown on the industrial scrap heap on one’s prime or even before one has started to work. Against these forces the individual finds himself as helpless, isolated, and atomized as against the forces of machine war.” As a result of these factors, “The European masses realized for the first time that existence in this society is governed not by rational and sensible, but by blind, irrational, and demonic forces.”

    In a later chapter, Drucker specifically addresses the rise of anti-Semitism: “The real explanation for racial anti-Semitism in German, and even more in Austria, is that the substitution of the Jews for the hostile forces of bourgeois capitalism and liberalism was made possible, if not mandatory, by the unique social structure of the German bourgeoisie..Unlike the middle classes in western Europe, it was liberated from above. Its emancipation was not a social end in itself; it was effected for the purpose of national unification. Politically and socially the bourgeoisie therefore never became a ruling class.” (He means prior to Weimar) He then provides data indicating extensive intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in the German and Austrian middle classes, so that whereas the ruling classes before the war had been entirely non-Jewish, “the mixture with Jewish blood was the specified distinction of the new ruling class…When this class failed and when its rule led to the emergence of the demons, it became therefore “rational” to hold the Jews responsible and to personify the demons as Jewish.”

    Later: “Nazi anti-Semitism…has been caused precisely by the absence of any distinction, conflict, and strangeness between the German Jews and a large part of the German people–to wit, the liberal middle classes. The Nazis do not persecute the Jews because they remained a foreign body within Germany, but actually because they had become almost completely assimilated and had ceased to be Jews.” And

    “(Anti-Semitism) has nothing to do with any qualities of the Jews themselves, but exclusively with what the internal tension in Naziism requires the Jews to look like…The real enemy is not the Jew, but the bourgeois order which is fought under the name of the Jew. Nazi anti-Semitism stems from the failure of Naziism to replace the bourgeois order and the bourgeois concept of man with a new constructive concept. And this makes it imperative to denounce bourgeois liberalism and capitalism, yet impossible to resort to class war.” Later:

    “It must be understood that for the convinced Totalitarian the personification of the demons and their persecution and oppression appear not only justified but alone reasonable. He is genuinely unable to understand why the outside world does not see the demons.”

  19. maybe i am mis-remembering things, but i read in shirer that the nazis intended to exterminate *all* non-germanic peoples. if that is the case, then the killing of the jews was only the first of many planned genocides — making them (the jews) unspecial as victims.

    aren’t tribalism and nationalism really the same impulse, expressed at different scale factors?

  20. Possibly the entire community of muslims worldwide might be considered to be already proto-nazi. Certainly many in the Islamic world resonated positively to the movement during WWII, and many in that region today hark back to it in earnest admiration.

    In retrospect, Nazism might even be considered to be nothing more than a modernist Aryan aping of the prophet’s message, and methods.

  21. Cjm…I would read “nationalism,” as used by AVI, as encompassing all people within the nation’s boundaries, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation. During WWI, for example, there were plenty of nationalist German Jews. But 20 years later, German Nazis felt (officially at least) more of a sense of affiliation with a fellow member of the German-speaking “tribe” in Czechoslovakia than with the Jew who lived next door to them and who may well have fought in the trenches beside them during the first war.

  22. Ah, quite refreshing to read people who have a somewhat different take than mine who do not immediately launch into sneers and condescension to put me back on the right path. I could stay on the conserva-liberta side of discussions for that joy alone, I think.

    Nazism as a youth movement was mentioned above, and that is certainly true, though I would add a bit to that. Most movements are youth movements, especially if violence is involved. When the tribe is threatened (even psychologically, more on that later), young men get activated and are looking for a fight. This is why when competing groups live near each other, the crime rate goes up even within each group. But Nazism was perhaps especially so. As David’s wonderful excerpt from Drucker shows – I have never read that last, and thank you – there was a sense that Germans had failed their destiny, failed their ancestors, in WWI. Chesterton had advocated that the defeat of the idea of Prussian superiority must be crushed utterly, or it would rise again. The idea that Germans were still superior, but had weakened themselves with Jewish admixture, was thus still attractive. That Jews had almost entirely assimilated was thus to their disadvantage, for it suggested that only the most ruthless of purges would suffice. Youth are especially susceptible to calls for impossible purity.

    The Nazi elite, interestingly, were not recently elevated barbarians and shopkeepers, but artists and philosophers. They provided the intellectual framework of historical German superiority and destiny that the youth moved in. They were suffused with Hesse, Wittgenstein, Spengler, Heidegger, Fichte, Nietzsche, and Hegel. Patrick Geary: “Fichte made important contributions to political nationalism in Germany. In his Addresses to the German Nation (1808), a series of speeches delivered in Berlin under French occupation, he urged the German peoples to “have character and be German”–entailed in his idea of Germanness was antisemitism, since “he argued that making Jews free German citizens would hurt the German nation.”[4] Fichte answered the call of Freiherr vom Stein, who attempted to develop the patriotism necessary to resist the French specifically among the “educated and cultural elites of the kingdom.” Fichte located Germanness in the supposed continuity of the German language, and based it on Tacitus, who had hailed German virtues in Germania and celebrated the heroism of Arminius in his Annales.”

    Their belief in superiority was not adopted conveniently for power but was in their bones. It was not an odd eruption but a natural outgrowth of their culture.

    Why less-German people were attracted to the idea – the proper discussion here which I have not contributed to – is less clear. Ionesco found it all puzzling, though he described it fearlessly in “Rhinoceros.” Thompson finds it less puzzling, perhaps because she was not so fully a creature of the left. Certainly the Germanness would not be a draw, though perhaps a sense of innate superiority on other grounds caused them to think that they would get a pass and would contribute to making the new order (See George Bernard Shaw). But simple fear and self-protection, a desire to persist physically though the individual be shattered, was in play.

  23. AVI…”Why less-German people were attracted to the idea”

    Especially in times of great uncertainty, many people are attracted to *whoever speaks with the greatest self-confidence*, and this is not always, or perhaps even most frequently, a voice on the side of the angels. As Yeats put it:

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity

    Arthur Koestler analyzed the attraction toward self-confidence, using sexual attraction as a metaphor for political attraction, in his novel of ideas The Age of Longing…AVI, if you haven’t seen my review/essay on this book, you might find it interesting. Link.

    In the 1930s, the most self-confident movements around were Naziism and Communism, and many people believed that the only choice was one or the other of these forms of totalitarianism.

  24. “The European masses realized for the first time that existence in this society is governed not by rational and sensible, but by blind, irrational, and demonic forces.”

    Of course, this is also a characteristic of Islam. Allah is not the God of Christianity who invites men to try to understand His will. Allah makes arbitrary and obscure decisions and you are not invited to understand them.

    This is the theme of the excellent For the Glory of God by Rodney Stark. He makes the argument that the “rational God” of Christianity led to science while the arbitrary God of Islam stopped the adherents development.

  25. In the actual Nazi Germany the man loyal to his family, nation, and culture was named Stauffenberg. The man who wanted to destroy all Germans because they couldn’t be used in his mad schemes was Hitler.

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