Weimar Germany, 1918-1933…and the USA in the Present Era

Victor Davis Hanson has published an article titled Weimar America, which begins with the line:

Something eerie, something creepy, is happening in the world—and now in America as well. 

Hanson sees some very disturbing similarities between Weimar then and the USA now.  Definitely read the whole thing.

Recent events in the US, such as the level of sympathy for Hamas and the outbreaks of virulent anti-Semitism, seem to have taken many people (not including Hanson) by surprise. But this has been building for a long time.  Hanson’s article reminds me that in 2016, I wrote a post titled The United States of Weimar? and updated it a month later.  I’m republishing these posts here, following the page break.  Some of the links may not work anymore.

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The Hollow Men

…and hollow women, too.

I’ve been writing for years about the rise of toxic ideologies on America’s college campuses–totalitarian, anti-Israel, outright anti-Semitic–but still have been surprised by what has happened in these places since October 7.  We need to discuss the reasons why it’s gotten so bad.

A few days ago, someone republished an essay, written in 2016, by a professor who has taught at several ‘elite’ colleges.  Excerpt:

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture. It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them:  they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.

And when someone has devoted the first 18 years of their lives in large part to jumping through hoops in hopes of making a good impression on some future college admissions officers…and then, in many cases, having to get good ratings from professors whose criteria are largely subjective…that someone is unlikely to develop into a person with a strong internal gyroscope. Quite likely, they are likely to be subject to social pressures and mass movements.

Someone at X said that the Cornell student arrested for making threats against Jewish students was probably just trying too hard to fit in and win approval of his peers and took it a step too far.  My view is that there’s no just about it…the desire to fit in and win approval is very often the reason why people commit evil acts.  I’m reminded of something CS Lewis:  Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.

The above sentence is from a talk that Lewis gave at King’s College in 1944.  Also from that address:

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

So yes, the passion for approval has always existed. But I feel sure it is much stronger, or at least has fewer countervailing forces, among people who experience today’s college admissions race and its eventual fulfillment.

The students about whom the professor wrote in the essay linked above have not only been encouraged to devote their time to hoop-jumping, they have also been told again and again that their country and their society are evil–that their ancestors were evil, and their parents are probably evil as well.  And that practically all aspects of culture more than 5 years old, whether traditional songs and folktales or classic movies, are harmful and certainly unworthy of study except for purposes of deconstructing their bad examples.  And, of course, relatively few of these students are influenced by or have seriously studied any traditional religion.

So they will likely be attracted to ideologies that promise to give a sense of meaning and coherence to their lives.  I’m once again reminded of something in the memoirs of Sebastian Haffner, who came of age in Germany between the wars.  He says that when the economy and society began to significantly stabilize–which he credits to Gustav Stresemann’s chancellorship and the introduction of the Rentenmark into the monetary system–most people were happy:

The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.

But not everyone was happy.  A return to private life was not to everyone’s taste:

A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.


To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.

I think that in America today, we have a considerable number of people who get, maybe not all of the entire content of their lives, but much of the content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions.  And I suspect that this phenomenon is stronger among the students described by the professor in his essay than in the American population at large.

Someone at X remarked that “Social justice progressivism (SJP) is the first time most people—including most Christians—have encountered a truly vital religion. Rarely since the peace of Westphalia and the scientific revolution have we seen its like.”  (SJP is, of course, basically what we call Wokeism, as it has been called by some of its proponents.)  He continues:

I use “religion” here descriptively, not derogatorily. I never liked the New Atheists and their dismissal of religion. Religion, broadly defined, is the unified source of a person’s moral and epistemic beliefs, put into practice. People in my circles panic, at times, over the apparent progressive takeover of institutions: universities, the government, the media. They appeal to goals of institutional neutrality, to a sacred role of science as being above petty political concerns, to political traditions—and people are startled and upset, time and again, as they feel SJP tramples those traditions. But that is precisely what we should expect from a vital religion. As Helen Lewis memorably points out, many young progressives would never think to judge someone for marrying across religious lines, but to marry across political ones is unthinkable. Religion is just a belief, after all, and you can’t judge someone based off of that. But politics? Well, some things are sacred.

What are your own thoughts on the outbreak of support for Hamas atrocities among college students and academics?  Were you surprised?  What factors do you think drove it, and how, if at all, can it be reversed?


Faustian Ambition (updated)

A post on ambition at another blog (in 2010) , which included a range of quotations on the subject, inspired me to think that I might be able to write an interesting essay on the topic of ambition in Goethe’s Faust. This post is a stab at such an essay.

The word “Faustian” is frequently used in books, articles, blog posts, etc on all sorts of topics. I think the image that most people have of Faust is of a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for dangerous knowledge: sort of a mad-scientist type. This may be true of earlier versions of the Faust legend, but I think it’s a misreading (or more likely a non-reading) of Goethe’s definitive version.

Faust, at the time when the devil first appears to him, has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of knowledge–in many different scholarly disciplines–and is totally frustrated and in despair about the whole thing. It is precisely the desire to do something other than to pursue abstract knowledge that leads him to engage in his fateful bargain with Mephistopheles.

If it’s not the pursuit of abstract knowledge, then what ambition drives Faust to sell his soul? C S Lewis suggests that his motivations are entirely practical: he wants “gold and guns and girls.” This is partly true, but is by no means the whole story.

Certainly, Faust does like girls. Very early in the play, he encounters a young woman who strikes his fancy:

FAUST: My fair young lady, may I make free
To offer you my arm and company?
GRETCHEN: I’m neither fair nor lady, pray
Can unescorted find my way
FAUST: God, what a lovely child! I swear
I’ve never seen the like of her
She is so dutiful and pure
Yet not without a pert allure
Her rosy lip, her cheek aglow
I never shall forget, I know
Her glance’s timid downward dart
Is graven deeply in my heart!
But how she was so short with me–
That was consummate ecstasy!

Immediately following this meeting, Faust demands Mephisto’s magical assistance in the seduction of Gretchen. It’s noteworthy that he insists on this help despite the facts that (a)he brags to the devil that he is perfectly capable of seducing a girl like Gretchen on his own, without any diabolical assistance, and (b)a big part of Gretchen’s appeal is clearly that she seems so difficult to win–a difficulty that will be short-circuited by Mephisto’s help.

Mephisto, of course, complies with Faust’s demand…this devil honors his contracts…and Faust’s seduction of Gretchen leads directly to the deaths of her mother, her child by Faust, her brother, and to Gretchen’s own execution.

Diabolical magic also allows Faust to meet Helen of Troy (time and space are quite fluid in this play) whom he marries and impregnates, resulting in the birth of their child Euphorion.

So, per Lewis, yes, Faust is definitely motivated by the pursuit of women. But this is only a small part of the complex structure of ambition that Goethe has given his protagonist.

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An Unexpected Defeat

‘When the crocus blossoms,’ hiss the women in Berlin,
‘He will press the button, and the battle will begin.
When the crocus blossoms, up the German knights will go,
And flame and fume and filthiness will terminate the foe…
When the crocus blossoms, not a neutral will remain.’

(A P Herbert, Spring Song, quoted in To Lose a Battle, by Alistair Horne)

On May 10, 1940, German forces launched an attack against Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Few people among the Allies imagined that France would collapse in only six weeks: Churchill, for example, had a high opinion of the fighting qualities of the French army. But collapse is what happened, of course, and we are still all living with the consequences. General Andre Beaufre, who in 1940 was a young Captain on the French staff, wrote in 1967:

The collapse of the French Army is the most important event of the twentieth century.

If it’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. If France had held up to the German assault as effectively as it was expected to do, World War II would probably have never reached the nightmare levels that it in fact did reach. The Hitler regime might well have fallen. The Holocaust would never have happened. Most likely, there would have been no Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.

This campaign has never received much attention in America; it tends to be regarded as something that happened before the “real” war started. Indeed, many denizens of the Anglosphere seem to believe that the French basically gave up without a fight–which is a considerable exaggeration given the French casualties of around 90,000 killed and 200,000 wounded. But I think the fall of France deserves serious study, and that some of the root causes of the defeat are scarily relevant to today’s world.

First, I will very briefly summarize the campaign from a military standpoint, and will then shift focus to the social and political factors involved in the defeat.

France’s border can be thought of in terms of three sectors. In the north, the border with with Belgium. Early French military planning had been based on the idea of a strong cooperative relationship with Belgium: however, in the years immediately prior to 1940, that country had adopted a position of neutrality and had refused to do any joint military planning with France. In the south, the border was protected by the forts of the Maginot Line (the southern flank of which was anchored by mountainous territory bordering on Switzerland and Italy.) In between these regions was the country of the Ardennes. It was heavily wooded and with few roads, and the French high command did not believe it was a feasible attack route for strong forces–hence, the Maginot Line had not been extended to cover it, and the border here was protected only with field fortifications.

The French plan was based on the assumption that the main German attack would come through Belgium. Following the expected request from the Belgian government for assistance, strong French forces were to advance into that country and counterattack the Germans. In the Maginot and Ardennes sectors, holding actions only were envisaged. While the troops manning the Maginot were of high quality, the Ardennes forces included a large proportion of middle-aged reservists, and had been designated as lower-class units.

The opening moves seemed to fit expectations. The Germans launched a powerful attack through Belgium, and the Belgian government made the expected requests for help. Andre Beaufre:

Doumenc sent me at once to Vincennes to report to General Gamelin (the French supreme commander). I arrived at 6.30 AM at the moment when the order had just been given for the huge machine to go into operation: the advance into Belgium. Gamelin was striding up and down the corridor in his fort, humming, with a pleased and martial air which I had never seen before. It has been said since that he expected defeat, but I could see no evidence of it at the time.

There was heavy fighting in Belgium…but the German attack on this country had served to mask their real point of maximum effort. Early in the morning of the 13th, it became clear that massive German forces were moving through the Ardennes, which had turned out to not be so impassable after all. A massive German air attack paved the way for a crossing of the Meuse river and the capture of the town of Sedan. French officers were stunned by the speed of the German advance–they had expected delays while the Germans brought up heavy artillery, not understanding that dive bombers could play a role similar to that traditionally played by artillery. And the bombing was psychologically-shattering, especially for inexperienced troops. The famous historian Marc Bloch had been exposed to many artillery barrages while fighting in the First World War: in reflecting on his service in 1940, he observed that he found aerial bombing much more frightening even though it was, objectively, probably less dangerous. (Bloch later joined the Resistance and was captured by the Germans and shot.)

The French command never really recovered from the unexpected thrust through the Ardennes and the fall of Sedan. Beginning on May 27, the British evacuated their troops at Dunkirk. On June 14, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned. He was succeeded by Philippe Petain, a hero of the First World War, who immediately sought terms with the Germans. The “armistice”–basically a surrender–was signed on June 20. By Hitler’s order, it was signed in the same railway car where the armistice of 1918 had been signed. Hitler was present in person for the ceremony: William Shirer was fifty yards away, and was studying his expression through binoculars: It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.

Many military factors were involved in the defeat–obsolete doctrine on armored forces, inadequate use of radio communications, a strange and cumbersome military organization structure. But the roots of the 1940 debacle are not to be found only–or perhaps even primarily–in strictly military matters. A major role was played by certain characteristics of French society and politics of the time–and some of these factors are spookily similar to things that are going on in America today.

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Nuclear News Update

The big news, of course, is that Germany has now closed its remaining reactors.  You can see the changes in their energy production and consumption mix at Electricity Maps.  It would be an irrational decision in any case, and under current circumstances seems pretty close to insane.  The good news is that there seems to be a lot of strong negative reaction to the shutdown, coming not only from conservatives and people mainly concerned with the economy, but also from a lot of people who are strong environmentalists and believers in the essentiality of CO2 reductions for climate reasons.  (Here’s a pro-nuclear rally at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany)  It is also interesting that Forbes magazine, a publications which IMO has becomes substantially less impressive and useful in recent years, ran an article responding to the shutdown with the headline Germany Embraces Pseudoscience.

Around the world, there are a lot of very positive things happening with Nuclear.

One of the two new reactors in the  very-long running expansion of the  Vogtle power plant in Georgia, Unit 3,  is operational and connected to the grid. Unit 4 is scheduled to enter service around the turn of the year.  These reactors are Westinghouse AP1000s.

French Members of Parliament voted to eliminate the targeted limit of 50% of energy produced by nuclear, which was passed in 2015 in the name of being ‘green’.  Mark Nelson recalls a righteous rant from 2017 in protest about a plant shutdown that was required by this limit.

In Poland, there are a lot of nuclear projects on the table.  The US is lending the country $4 billion to partially fund the construction of up to 20 Small Modular Reactors, which are projected to be BWRX-300s from the GE-Hitachi joint venture.  However, it appears that the first plant in Poland to go operational will be a large plant based on Westinghouse AP1000s.

Here is a spreadsheet of the potential Polish nuclear projects, with the customers, reactor types, and estimated timing.

A major problem with nuclear, and a reason often given for taking a dismissive attitude toward this energy source, is the length of time require to build new plants.  An example of a nuclear project accomplished on a considerably better than typical schedule is the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant in the United Arab Emerates.  The link (twitter) describes the approach that was taken; there’s also a video interview with Mohammed Al Hammadi, CEO of Emirates Nuclear. Looks interesting–I watched the first 15 minutes so far–Al Hammadi is an EE and started out as an engineer doing power network design. The reactors in this plant are based on a Westinghouse design and fabricated and installed by a Korean company.

Attitudes are changing toward nuclear in Denmark.

A large nuclear plant in Egypt is being constructed by Russia, with 85% of the cost ($28 billion) paid for via a loan from that country.

4.2 GW of nuclear capacity under consideration in Bulgaria.

Nuclear plant construction costs by country, over time.  (at Twitter)

Attitudes toward nuclear in Germany, by age range. (also at Twitter)  Compare these numbers with those from the same poll, two years ago (in the comments)…attitudes have become more positive. Will the politicians listen?

A deal among GE-Hitachi Nuclear, the TVA, and the Polish company Synthos Green Energy, involving GEH’s small modular reactors.

NuScale Power, which is focused on Small Modular Reactors, has placed an order for long leadtime materials with Doosan Enerbility of Korea.  The initial modules are for a project of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, targeted to be in commercial operation as early as 2029.

But also, some not-so-favorable news:  Taiwan is shutting down a nuclear reactor which is apparently in perfectly good shape.   Angelica (at Twitter) says:  “The 985MW BWR from GE has served Taiwan well for 40 years. But for politics, it could have served for 40 more. What a tragedy…but also, a farce.”  (I wonder what kind of message about Taiwan’s strength and seriousness this shutdown sends to the CCP…never mind, I already know)

This post isn’t by any means a comprehensive report, just a roundup of some recent news and analysis that caught my eye.  See also my previous Nuclear News, featuring the currrent Miss America, Grace Stanke.