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by Jean Bethke Elshtain

The Nazi Seduction

Why do Hitler and the Nazis continue to fascinate?

The deluge of books about Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler apparently knows no end. In addition to those here under review, dozens of others have appeared in the past two or three years alone, and many more are sure to come. By contrast, scholarly study of Stalinism and the gulag is relatively neglected. As Anne Applebaum observes in Gulag, although "some eighteen million people passed through this massive system," we pay far less attention to Stalin's victims than we do to Hitler's. Many of the millions killed during the Stalin era were simply "driven to a forest at night, lined up, shot in the skull, and buried in mass graves before they ever got near a concentration camp—a form of murder no less 'industrialized' and anonymous than that used by the Nazis." But no archival film-footage records these scenes that played out behind the Iron Curtain, no harrowing photos comparable to those that followed the liberation of the Nazi camps. Stalin's victims "haven't caught Hollywood's imagination in the same way. Highbrow culture hasn't been much more open to the subject."

Why is it, Applebaum wonders, that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger "has been deeply damaged by his brief, overt support of Nazism which developed before Hitler had committed his major atrocities," yet "the reputation of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre has not suffered in the least from his aggressive support of Stalinism throughout the postwar years, when plentiful evidence of Stalin's atrocities was available to anyone interested." Her answer is that the literary Left, many of whom were enchanted by the Soviet experiment, did not want to broach the subject. Indeed, this has been so much the case that decades after Stalin's death, it was still possible "for an American academic to publish a book suggesting that the purges of the 1930s were useful because they promoted upward mobility. … It is possible—still—for a British literary editor to reject an article because it is 'too anti-Soviet.'" It is impossible to imagine a literary editor rejecting a piece for being "too anti-Nazi." The terror famine of the 1930s killed more Ukrainians than Hitler murdered Jews. Why so little attention? Literary and academic bias is one answer, the tendency of a "small part of the Western Left ... to explain and sometimes to excuse the camps" is another, but neither fully suffices.

Perhaps, Applebaum muses, because the Soviets talked about a classless society and a utopian world without division, they seem more attractive to us. "Perhaps this helps explain why eyewitness reports of the Gulag were, from the very beginning, often dismissed and belittled by the very same people who would never have thought to question the validity of Holocaust testimony written by Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel." So the subject is repressed. Then too, "no one wants to think that we defeated one mass murderer with the help of another." Better not to acknowledge that in the talks that ended World War II and decisively shaped the postwar world, the Western allies gave their blessing to Stalin's stranglehold over Central and Eastern Europe.

And yet, even after this accumulation of explanations, we are still left with something of a mystery. Why is Nazism in general, and Hitler in particular, so much more interesting to us than is Stalinism in general, and Stalin in particular? Frederic Spotts' unsettling book—perhaps the most disturbing of all those under review—may aid us in coming closer to an answer. Nazism combined elements of a "will to power" and a compelling aesthetic sensibility. Hitler specialized in staging spectacular "visuals" and generating an aura of palpable power. Is it possible that something of the original appeal of the Nazi imagination remains potent, seducing even those who genuinely deplore Nazism's monstrous crimes?

Spotts traces Hitler's early years as a disillusioned veteran of the Great War, a kind of "bohemian aesthete" searching for a "philosophy of culture." He hoped to make the grade as an artist. And he wasn't that bad, according to Spotts. Those who have dismissed Hitler the artist as thoroughly second-rate are simply wrong, Spotts claims. To be sure, Hitler was not very adventurous in his painting, pursuing standard modes of representation at a time when the entire direction of art was moving toward expressionism. But he was immensely bold when he finally settled on a plan to aestheticize politics instead, pursuing grand visions of a European Culture Center at Linz and in other sites in the Thousand Year Reich. The Nazi aesthetic would make of Germany a new Rome, with grand public buildings and popular access to all the glories of culture—minus, of course, the decadent and degrading influences that threatened from a number of directions.

Hitler was immensely knowledgeable about the major opera houses of Europe. He planned to design opera houses with perfect acoustics and a grand, classical design. He collected art with alacrity—simply seizing much of it when he came to power—and among his art works were "at least seven paintings with Jewish subjects or references." The ideal for Nazi-era sculpting was to express "the characteristic and the enduring" and to "avoid phantasy." Art would be made available to the public not only through opera and symphonic festivals but also through the aesthetic construction of tunnels and bridges—much of this was successful, Spotts demonstrates, with designs planned to blend in with natural wonders rather than to detract from them while, at the same time, being classically modernist in style as befit the relative newness of auto-travel—and through generating mass products, like the famous Volkswagen, that displayed clean yet functional lines.

One finds oneself thrown off-guard reading Spotts' work. We prefer not to credit Hitler with the talent and knowledge he demonstrably possessed, especially in the area of design. We prefer to think of him as an inadequate yokel, a barbaric bumpkin, a monumental fraud as an artist as well as a monster. We can then separate Hitler from ourselves in all things. But Spotts suggests that this is too simplistic by far and lets the rest of us off too easily. Paying attention helps us to recognize the fusion of architecture and aggression as characteristic of the Nazi style —and may help to account for why it remains interesting. We think of the spectacles, even the design of costumes (those iconic Nazi uniforms), down to the last detail. (This was Hitler's doing, too.)

Even as the war rumbled along and began to go badly, Hitler's associates found they sometimes could not keep him focused on the challenges at hand. He would rather spend his time looking at designs for the great new European Cultural Center with its "suspension bridge … theatre, opera house, command headquarters, stadium, art gallery, library, weapons museum, exhibition hall, concert hall … planetarium, a technical university and an institute of metallurgy … a new railway station," on and on. Indeed, on these and other subjects, Hitler could not be shut up. He was still going on about the glorious cultural future in his final days in his bunker.

Spotts acknowledges that all absolutist rulers seek to overwhelm others through the building of "gigantic buildings. They are motivated by self-assertion and self-worship, and they accept no limits to their extravagance. But Hitler," he adds, with a touch of hyperbole, "went well beyond the others. He alone used aesthetics to help get and keep power. … Because his interest in the arts was also personal and genuine, and because—for all his railing against art for art's sake—he saw culture as the supreme value in itself," he was bound to try to control culture from top to bottom. So worried have Western democratic officials been about the "incendiary power" of Hitler's aesthetics post-Nazism, most of his watercolors have been kept under lock and key.

Spotts would have done well to spend a bit more time reminding us of what else was going on as Hitler raved about the beauty and flaws of the Paris Opera House and how he would avoid the flaws in his opera houses. A kind of conceit often overtakes the cultivated, that immersion in things of beauty and great classical creations of art, architecture, and music, must, ineluctably, refine the soul and forestall brutalities and cruelties. It doesn't—or shouldn't—take much more than one viewing of films showing orchestras comprised of camp prisoners, hence themselves doomed, playing Mozart as condemned Jews, Slavs, and others marched to be gassed, to dispel any illusion that art will, in the end, spare us much of anything. The human soul is too readily split into various compartments where never the twain doth meet.

Or worse, as Hitler demonstrates. The twain did meet, and he turned Nazism into a vast aesthetic production. Even the elimination of the inferior was an aesthetic process, of sorts, for the National Socialists. The inferior constituted a blemish on the body politic, as if someone had soiled an otherwise beautifully composed painting. They must, therefore, be got rid of so that the picture would be perfect. This aesthetic is most in evidence in the gassing and killing programs aimed at persons with physical and mental handicaps. They were grotesques, a Brueghel's gallery of monsters that must be expunged. Those with disabilities and ailments destroyed what would otherwise be a lovely painting with all the elements in place. The upshot seems to be that perhaps we should love art for its own sake because art is no guarantee at all that spiritual and ethical uplift will follow.

There is one caveat I dare to utter, however. Hitler was no great reader of fiction. It is rather difficult to imagine him with Thomas Mann or George Eliot in his hands. I'm sure that many a monster on the small scale has read those works. But if you allow those works to really have their way with you, perhaps, just perhaps, you will learn a thing or two about being more kind or decent or compassionate or brave or discerning. Literature will not make you any of these things unaided. But, given a certain prior formation, it may help you to deepen desirable qualities. One way or the other, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics is a disturbing book.

It gets no better with Robert N. Proctor's award-winning and powerfully contrarian book, The Nazi War on Cancer. The National Socialist state was, in many ways, "progressive" in its approach to public health—at least for the majority of the population whose health counted to the state. What Proctor calls the "conventional narrative" treats the medicine of the Nazi era as one vast "monstrosity" with science, or pseudo-science, being put to the task of declaring whole categories of persons "life unworthy of life" and hence expendable. The Nazis are labeled occultists and irrationalists. Proctor insists this must be rethought in order to take account of the following:

Nazi nutritionists stressed the importance of a diet free of petrochemical dyes and preservatives; Nazi health activists stressed the virtues of whole-grain bread and foods high in vitamins and fiber. Many Nazis were environmentalists; many were vegetarians. [Including Hitler himself.] Species protection was a going concern, as was animal welfare. [Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring barred vivisection in all scientific work noting the "unbearable torture and suffering in animal experiments" and he threatened to commit to concentration camps "those who still think they can treat animals as inanimate property."] Nazi doctors worried about overmedication and the overzealous use of X-rays; Nazi doctors cautioned against an unhealthy workplace and the failure of physicians to be honest with their patients—allowing momentous exclusions, of course, for the 'racially unfit' or undeserving.

The Nazis had established the link of smoking to lung cancer decades before public health officials in Western democracies acknowledged this fact. In fact, Nazi Germany first established the tobacco-lung cancer link in the late 1930s. Smoking was banned in public places. Even soldiers were barred from smoking openly on the streets. "Sixty of Germany's largest cities banned smoking on streetcars in 1941 and smoking was banned in air-raid shelters. … Smoking was banned on all German city trains and buses in the spring of 1944; Hitler personally ordered the measure to protect the health of the young women serving as ticket takers." An educational campaign blanketed the Third Reich with information and propaganda urging pregnant women not to smoke for fear of harming the unborn child. The Nazi state attempted to "curb asbestos exposure" and to "secure food quality."

How are we to understand this? Did such measures run counter to Nazi ideology or in tune with it? In fact, Proctor's account demonstrates that such public health measures were in perfect synchronization with the National Socialist state's insistence on a fit population and on preserving and increasing the fitness of the already fit—or those with the potential to be so. The unfit were dealt with in other ways, as we know. The "pioneering" work of the Nazis in the area of public health is something we prefer not to think about: How can those who were so monstrous undertake efforts that the vast majority of "right thinking" Americans support? And how to explain the direction the Nazis moved, in any case?

Proctor draws our attention to some interesting facts. For example: "physicians joined the Nazi party in very large numbers," as did some "60 percent of all biologists." Germany at the time of the Nazi rise to power was already the most "powerful scientific culture" in the world, "boasting half of the world's Nobel Prizes and a sizable fraction of the world's patents." Along with extraordinary innovations in basic physics and engineering— dangerous to the Allies, given the potential for applications to weaponry—were similarly advanced and successful programs, including the most "successful cancer prevention program of the era." Aggressive breast self-examination programs were launched, urging women to detect tumors "at an early stage; Germany's seems to have been the first such campaign anywhere in the world." Proctor points out that such campaigns did not begin in the United States until some three decades later. Nazis deployed physicians to factory floors to oversee the health and safety of workers (Proctor adds that Germany was "the first nation to recognize lung cancer as a compensable occupational disease for uranium miners").

There is more. Nazi "nutritionists mounted a frontal attack on the Germans' excessive consumption of meat, sweets, and fat, and argued for a return to 'more natural' foods such as cereals, fresh fruit, and vegetables." Repudiating the public/private distinction central to liberal societies and liberal political philosophy, the Nazis declared that the personal was indeed the political. One slogan declared: "Nutrition is not a private matter!" Each person's diet was a matter of state concern, for the state was responsible for the health of the body politic. Hitler himself declared that "reforming the human lifestyle" was "far more important" than anything else he might accomplish. Hitler loathed obesity and launched campaigns against it both within the ss and in the polity at large. Mothers-to-be were urged to "avoid alcohol and nicotine during pregnancy and while nursing"; one poster that blanketed the Reich urged prospective mothers to "Drink soft cider instead!"

The bitter irony at the heart of the National Socialist public health campaigns was perhaps most apparent at the notorious Dachau concentration camp, which "became one of the world's leading producers of natural botanicals and spices"—indeed, the "largest medico-botanical research station in the world"—thanks to the work of thousands of slave laborers. Thus the detritus of the Reich, the unfit, were compelled to labor for the health of the genetically superior Aryan race. "By 1940," Proctor declares, "few nations were as conscious of, and willing to root out, hazards in the healthy citizen's food, air, and water."

What does all this add up to? The obvious point is that "there was no single 'community of science' or medicine under the supposedly totalitarian conditions of Hitler's fascism" and, Proctor continues, this account demonstrates that the "relations between 'science' and 'society' are more complex than is commonly imagined." Beyond that, Proctor's summation of his own extraordinary research is a bit of a letdown: "we need to better understand how the routine practice of science can so easily coexist with the routine exercise of cruelty." Yes … but how? Proctor offers precious little guidance. The closest he comes to accounting for Nazism's apparent contradictions—kill those, improve the health of these—is that the "social policies ultimately favored by the government equated value of life with ability to work." This and a eugenics ideology accounted for the decisions to kill the mentally ill and physically handicapped—some 200,000 perished in the run-up to the killing camps.

We can take Proctor's irenic comments further. An obsession with health and fitness invites an idolatry of the body. In the case of Nazi Germany this was a form of collective narcissism: we, the fit, revel in our fitness and revile the unfit. Fitness is measured by who is productive. The unproductive are suited only to be killed. Perhaps those who led lives of salutary fitness and productivity might be permitted to live out the end of their lives in peace. But those who, by definition, can never be fit must be excluded and, finally, the only way to do that is to eliminate them entirely lest they drain the public treasury and pollute the gene pool. Moments of rather uncomfortable recognition flare up as one reads Proctor's text. To be sure, our society-wide obsession with appearance and fitness is culturally sanctioned and fueled rather than being state-mandated from the top, at least most of the time. The state does, however, set guidelines and tell us that this or that is a public health issue—like our protein intake or our cholesterol levels. We don't eliminate the unfit. But we are wary of the visibly unfit and we certainly wish they would shape-up—I refer, of course, to those with no other signs of disability.

I don't want to minimize, as but one example, the health disaster that is obesity—for the individual and, overall, for the society in expenditure of public monies for the extra medical care and sustenance the obese invariably require. But is that really how we want to take the measure of a human life? The crime of National Socialism is that it reduced the human person to a scale of fitness and capacity for work that was meaningful in the eyes of the Reich. But fitness is not required to enter the Kingdom of God, and it certainly should not be a prerequisite for being a member in good standing of the City of God in her earthly pilgrimage. Fortunately, Americans don't much like to be hectored. I know the reaction of many to the latest health warning is to go out and have a big helping of whatever food has just joined the "do not eat" list. The tendency of Germans of the Nazi era to fall in line—for good (reducing lung cancer) and ill (eliminating the racially unfit)—suggests that it is better, all-in-all, for a society to consist of persons who evaluate all claims about what nutrition requires or science demands with a grain of salt—or several, if you aren't worried about your blood pressure.

If National Socialism extolled the genetically and nutritionally fit body, what did it say about the mind? Unsurprisingly, the Nazis declared that there was no such thing as the "human" mind in general; there were only racially determined minds in particular. It followed that psychoanalysis, which enjoyed a robust existence and following in Germany prior to the Nazi takeover, could not coexist in its established form with the Nazi state, as psychoanalysis was the sick "science" of the Jewish mind. Freud's findings had no applicability to the healthy mind of the superior Aryan. One of the first books to explore this subject, Geoffrey Cock's Psychotherapy in the Third Reich, is now available to readers in an expanded second edition. His volume is joined by James Goggin and Eileen Brockman Goggin's Death of a "Jewish Science"; together these books tell a story with a distressingly familiar trajectory. The Nazis come to power; destroy the autonomy of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (and other similar institutes), "Nazify" the enterprise in order that it might serve as a cultural prop for the National Socialist state, and redefine the science of the mind in order that the practice follows in lockstep.

It is only in the last 20 years that "some twenty professional articles and four books have been published on the history" of this episode in Nazi Germany, write the Goggins, and this is therefore a good time to take the measure of this nasty story and the role that various well-known figures, most importantly Carl Jung, played in it. Goggin and Goggin emphasize at the outset that although none of the "individual German gentile psychoanalysts" at the re-named Göring Institute "could be characterized as perpetrators of atrocities," they did display "varying degrees of collaboration and resistance, degrees of cowardice, betrayal, and attempts to stand one's ground, degrees of pragmatic ambition, careerism, and misplaced idealism." Can psychoanalysis be properly said to have survived during the Third Reich, or was it perverted beyond recognition? The Goggins articulate their "one central conclusion" up-front, "namely, the major ideas and world view represented by the psychoanalytic movement did not, and could not, survive in Nazi Germany."

Totalitarianism in general cannot permit a free psychoanalysis to be practiced. For, whatever one thinks of psychoanalytic interpretation of mental activities, it is a mode of thinking that stresses the mind's complexity, its historicity, and its richness. Totalitarianism relies on a far cruder model of what our minds are all about. Totalitarianism requires mass conformity, while psychoanalysis aims at freeing the analysand from the cruel demands of an overly harsh superego. It follows that totalitarian requirements are incompatible with analysis as theory and practice. Because the Nazi and Stalinist states punished "thought crimes" (in Orwellian language), psychoanalysis could properly be seen as encouraging such crimes. After the purge of Jewish analysts, one non-Jewish analyst who continued to practice was eventually executed because he had dared to evoke Descartes' cogito in a presentation. As well, analysis requires mutual trust and an affective bond between the analyst and analysand. Totalitarianism aims to destroy the possibility that such bonds can be formed and can hold.

We learn that the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (BPI) was one of the most advanced in the world. Although Jewish psychoanalysts predominated, among their colleagues were distinguished non-Jewish practitioners. All that ended with the Nazi triumph. Hermann Göring's nephew, a doctor named M.H. Göring, took over the bpi, now re-named the Göring Institute. Practitioners were required to read Mein Kampf and to "make its philosophy central to the way they practiced." And, of course, that text meant "racial ideology" and anti-Semitism—the view that non-Aryan minds and Aryan minds operated on different dynamics and to different ends. Because without freedom and autonomy, psychoanalysis cannot function properly, the conditions of the Third Reich meant, by definition, the perversion of this enterprise. This conclusion seems so straightforward, one wonders why the Goggins spend as much time as they do proclaiming it repeatedly: "We contend that. … " The reader can certainly arrive at the conclusion the Goggins advance many times over in light of the evidence cited.

The Goggins also tell the tale of the fate of Marxist-oriented psychoanalysis in the Reich—although this story is, by now, rather well-known. Less well-known, perhaps because people prefer to deny the facts, is Jung's complicity in the Nazification of psychoanalysis. This, too, isn't a new tale. But Jung's reputation, for some reason, hasn't suffered in the way Heidegger's has. Why not? The Goggins note that Jung's views can certainly be considered racist. Even before the Nazi era, he wrote an essay proclaiming the inferiority of the "Black man" and arguing that America, in particular, has a problem because the "inferior man (the Black man) has a tremendous pull because he fascinates the inferior layers of our psyche." Jung served Nazi interests well in the early years of the Göring Institution. He co-authored, with Göring, a tribute to a psychologist who early on had recognized the "importance of genealogy, eugenics, and race." He criticized Freud in a manner that reinforced Nazi views concerning the "Jewish science," and he praised and endorsed Hitler's assertion that he, Hitler, had emerged from a specifically Germanic "racial soul." Thus, the Goggins write, "Jung validated and made respectable the idea that Freud's psychoanalysis was a Jewish psychology that was irrelevant to Aryans."

Geoffrey Cocks had already demonstrated the ways in which certain of Jung's pronouncements and lectures had been cleaned up in dubious translations by Jungians trying to preserve the aura that surrounds their guru. No matter how hard you try, however, it is difficult to flee from the implications of such words as these—Jung on the Aryan distinction from the Jew:

The Jew, who is something of a nomad, has never yet created a cultural form of his own and as far as we can see never will, since all his instincts and talents require a more or less civilized nation to act as host for their development … In my opinion, it has been a grave error in medical psychology up to now to apply Jewish categories … to German and Slavic Christendom. [Freud] … did not understand the Germanic psyche. Has the formidable phenomenon of National Socialism, on which the whole world gazes with astonished eyes, taught them [Freud's disciplines] any better?

What is interesting about all this is that Jung offered not a shred of evidence to back up his claim about the differences between Jewish and Aryan psyches. Post-Nazism, Jung ignored his own glorification of paganism, an "exaltation," the Goggins write, that "was inconsistent with the central tenets of all established Christian religions. His thinking in the 1930s and long afterward was similar to what is now called New Age. Jung's mythical beliefs in 'the primitive and barbarian nature of Aryans,' and his call for the worship of the Germanic God Wotan, clearly designate his thinking as anti-Christian as well as anti-Semitic."

The Goggins comment acerbically that Jung's subsequent "cleansing" of his past and belated outrage at the Holocaust deny altogether the role he played in helping to "set the stage for that event." I have never myself understood why Jung's often unintelligible ramblings are considered "friendly" to religion. Perhaps the Goggins can help to dispel that view—but, then again, probably not, as people have a propensity—one pointed out again and again by Freud and accounting, in part, for why people find him cranky—for soothing themselves rather than confronting unpleasant facts. The Goggins conclude that psychoanalysis can only flourish in open systems, most especially liberal democracies "in which the values of knowledge, freedom, and autonomy of the individual are shared by psychoanalysis."

What these texts, taken together, demonstrate is that Nazism involved far more than a gang of thugs taking over state power. National Socialism was an entire Weltanschauung that penetrated every aspect of German life, including art, industry, technology, medicine, nutrition, health, and psychology. It was a culture of death par excellence which, paradoxically perhaps, believed that only the fittest bodies were suited for the supreme sacrifice. Others were to be expelled in inglorious ways as befits the racially and physically inferior. These books also remind us that those in our midst who, for ideological reasons, succumb to the temptation to equate the issues contemporary Americans face to the horrors of Nazi Germany, or of any other totalitarian state, do a tremendous disservice to the truth. Such comparisons are daft, of course, as those who engage in them, including some professors, boldly proclaim America a fascist state before approving audiences—if recent experience is any indication—without any fear that the Gestapo will pay a little visit and their next audience will be fellow prisoners in a lager. But these flights of fancy are not merely self-flattering; far worse, they minimize what anti-Nazi dissenters, those precious all-too-few, actually faced. We in the American academy should thank God for our blessings, open our hearts to the real suffering of others in our own society and elsewhere, and open our eyes to facts, however unwelcome. Such recognition may be a side benefit of works such as those noted in this review.

Jean Bethke Elshtain is Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is the author most recently of Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (Basic Books).

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