In July, a couple of friends and I went to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum annex near Dulles airport—the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. I had been there several times, but it was a first for my friends. While we were walking around the area dedicated to planes from the Second World War, one of my friends piped up excitedly as we came to the German section, exclaiming that he didn’t know why but he was fascinated by Nazi stuff. My friend is no (open, at least) admirer of the Third Reich. So, what explains his interest?
I might dismiss his fascination as a personal quirk if I did not frequently notice it elsewhere. The History Channel and similar educational programming allot a strangely large amount of hours to Hitler, the Nazis, and World War II in general. We might excuse this as something to be expected. People exaggerate the historical importance of things closer to them in time, and it is reasonable to argue that nothing in living memory was as important in world history as the Second World War. However, there appears to me to be more coverage of the Nazis than Mussolini’s Fascists, Stalin’s Communists, and the Japanese warlords. Indeed, we seem to be more interested in Hitler than in Roosevelt or Churchill. Is it that we already feel like we know enough about the allies? Or is it something else? Look at books, films, and plays, nonfiction and fiction, that deal with the Nazis. Brownshirts are, indeed, everywhere.
Maybe evil is just more interesting to people. For contemporary Americans, Hitler has become the archetype of evil. Any discussion that questions such established wisdom is taboo, even among those who eschew the “politically correct” speech codes of our decadent society. Consider last week’s example of Patrick Buchanan’s article, “Did Hitler Want War?” In it, Buchanan argues his point from Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War that the British gave the Polish military an unwise guarantee that they would declare war on Germany if the Germans invaded Poland to reclaim Danzig. I first read Buchanan’s article on Human Events Online, but Human Events dropped the article afterward. Human Events of all publications! For it was into the warm embrace of Human Events that Ann Coulter turned after National Review booted her following her inflammatory (and, I might add, quite sensible) comments on September 13, 2001:
We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.
As you can see, Human Events is not the typical, spineless conservative publication. Yet, even that organization will not tolerate what the chattering classes are calling Buchanan’s apology for Hitler. No, Adolf and the Nazis are the eternal abomination.
Nonetheless, such an abomination fascinates us, just as Charlie Manson, Jeffrey Dalmer, and Austrian dungeon perverts fascinate us. Their existence in time and space is curious. How is it, we might wonder, that such creatures came to be—almost with the zoological wonder that one has when he first sees Australian sea dragons.
Yet, the Nazis are far more interesting than psychopathic criminals. Arendt’s opinion aside, they were not banal. The Nazis dreamt big; in the midst of a bourgeois age, they sought a thousand year Reich. They wanted to resurrect civilizational glory. They wanted socially and biologically to engineer a higher human type. They wanted to carry out in deed a particular vision that they found in Nietzsche—that of the Übermensch. National Socialism incarnated the deification of the will to power, and their short lived experiment provided horrifying—but fascinating—results.
I think that their grandiosity is what attracts many people. They are admirable in this way, though the same quality repulses our moral sensibilities. For there is a certain beauty—even if tainted with madness—to which their delusions of grandeur aimed. It is the same beauty condemned by moralists who criticize the pharaohs for the construction of the monuments to their everlasting memory. Certainly, we may imagine the plight of Egyptian slaves, but the pharaohs—not the salves—captivate our imaginations today. They were willing to expend life and energy to paint a beautiful portrait. We may think ourselves morally superior, but who does not secretly think, or at least consider, that their use of resources was well spent? The same may be said of any great civilization. Consider Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, China, the Mohammedan caliphates, the Turks, Spain, or Britain; their glory came at considerable human cost. It is rather inconsistent—and bourgeois—to admire the accomplishments of such civilizations on the one hand and then righteously to dismiss them as monsters who cared nothing for human dignity on the other. One of a different turn of mind might note that only such civilizations understood the concept of human dignity. All lesser peoples and ages simply spend their days like beasts in the field, without productive toiling or anything to show for their fleeting years. Are they happy savages—or bovine embarrassments to our race?
Walk around Saint Petersburg today. Peter the Great had it built at considerable expense in money and lives. It is a testament to the human soul, and yet it was made with sweat and blood. I am not proposing that we follow the old idiom, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” as our foundational moral principle, but it is true. I am no consequentialist, but I suspect that we are so obsessively concerned with following certain moral principles that we have stifled the will to live for something that actually justifies human existence. I was quite fond of the recent Battlestar Galactica series, which posed a recurring question that is worth asking—do we really deserve to survive? Shouldn’t we attempt to make the affirmative clear rather than just invoking principles such as human dignity and the Christian dogma about man’s being made in the image of God? For these principles all too often poorly correspond to the facts.
I am, moreover, not excusing the Holocaust or the other inhuman terrors of the Third Reich because the Nazis set their visions admirably high in other ways. Nonetheless, what intrigues us and attracts us to the Nazis, I believe, is that they sought a more noble civilization than our bourgeois society dedicated to material comfort. Of course, the Nazis were socialists and, as socialists, quite hostile to the aristocracy that makes such noble aspirations possible. Like all modern political movements, they were very confused—about man, ethics, and politics. Anglo, liberal commercial republicans, the National Socialists, and the Communists all hoped that their revolutionary regimes would be able to reach the same cultural and artistic heights of the old pre-revolutionary regimes. Yet, they all had their own hierarchy of goods. Liberals and Communists were inordinately concerned about equality and prosperity, though even the Soviets had occasional glimpses of national glory—of something higher than a Marxist paradise where laborers and peasants would magically transform into well cultivated gentlemen. The Nazis, by contrast, had a more transcendent vision of man and society—less animalistic and, therefore, ironically more apt to lapse under demonic influence without proper guidance and principles. Indeed, the Nazis were socialists who cared about class equality, economic prosperity, and the other boring concerns of the Left. Yet, they also sought to elevate man into something greater than an appetite. They understood social order in more traditional terms—as a hierarchy. They loved excellence. They extolled the human characteristics that make societal survival possible, like strength, discipline, and loyalty.
To a certain extent, the Russian Soviets did the same, and to the same extent, Stalinist Sovietism is interesting. Yet, I would argue, the Soviets were fascinating and admirable despite their official Marxist ideology. Russian Communist hypocrisy rendered the Soviets less repulsive than they would have been had the pigs actually acted like pigs rather than men. For the Russians were too patriotic actually to believe in lifeless, bloodless internationalism. They were too dedicated to beauty and greatness to allow the soul killing flatness of Communism to smother them completely in the ant hill of Marxist mediocrity.
The Nazis (and, to some extent, the Soviets when they acted like men rather than the Borg) are interesting to us; for like sirens, they sing a tempting song that we can remake the world into a more beautiful place. A writer on the National Review once commented that revolutionaries were perfectionists with guns. I love that expression, as it is very insightful. Social engineers and other perfectionists who want to make man worth his existence are attracted to totalitarian regimes because only such tyrannies have the power to allow these mad artists to attempt to paint their pictures on the canvas of mankind. As a conservative with little confidence in such endeavors, I still admire their spirit. Such people should not be given power—they overestimate the ability of their reason to understand and to judge correctly, but they are intriguing souls, nonetheless. Honestly, I much prefer them to boring bureaucrats who seek to master human reality in the same managerial fashion and yet aim no higher than the petty redistribution of wealth, the building of public pools and housing for crackwhores and their bastard spawn, and the endless amounts of tasteless cheese and butter to facilitate the breeding of undesirables. At least, the old school eugenicists of the Left and the Right did not seek their own society’s destruction wittingly.
When Leftists have called me a Nazi, I thus understand why. They fulfill Godwin’s Law, and, clueless as they are, they think that anyone who does not celebrate their horrible, egalitarian dystopia harbors Nazi fantasies. I find it unfortunate that they are unable to see the grotesque animality of their social vision. “Do no harm” is their compassionate principle, but like a foolish doting mother with her spoilt brats, they fail to see how one can harm compassionately by rendering those in one’s care so repulsive, weak, and ugly as not to be worth the air that they breathe. Having been nursed on such tepid milk from old, soured teats, it is no wonder that some find Jägermeister sweetly intoxicating.