Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin

Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin
Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic," Berlin

Saturday, April 25, 2015

4/25 On Pain

In the last part of this class we will be dealing with writers who attempt to bridge the gap between culture and politics, each of whom have their own take on nihilism. In the first part of the class we looked at the history of the idea of nihilism, not only as an abstract concept, but in how it manifested at a specific point in time–Weimar Germany–and expressed through various cultural forms: painting, literature, photography, film, music, dance, architecture being the most emphasized. In the second part of the class we looked at the political and historical context in which this took shape, and the difficulties of building and stabilizing the political system. Now, we will be looking at two authors writing in the post-Nazi era, after 1933, one ultra-conservative (but maybe not quite a Nazi) and one rather unorthodox communist. Both of whom, like I said at the beginning, draw upon the cultural and political forces we have been looking at in an attempt to synthesize the two together–and both offer a possible solution to the problem of nihilism in modern society.

Ernst Jünger’s essay, “On Pain” was written in 1934 the second year of Hitler’s dictatorship after taking power in 1933.  Jünger (1895-1998) was a conservative–conservatives helped bring the Nazis to power–but soon regretted the Nazi seizure of power. After the war he became one of the most influential voices in German literature. Many other prominent Germans despite their sympathy or support for Nazism retained influential positions in society even after the war. This essay offers a way to interpret the authoritarian worldview the Nazis shared. Four elements in particular are important to consider: 1) The significance of pain as a human experience; 2) The relationship of pain to so-called "traditional metaphysics" which supports liberal political values; 3) The growth of a totalitarian state as the only way to deal with "pain"; 4) The importance of technology and bureaucratic organization in changing our perception of pain. 

The basic premise of the essay is that pain is the central experience in human life and that most if not all human behavior–at the level of the individual and at society–is organized in relation to how it deals with pain. This viewpoint does not differ significantly from the Freudian view of instinct theory, and remember that Freud himself was a conservative (often identified as a Hobbesian) who favored a strong state to preserve civilization. Jünger preaches submission to the totalitarian tendencies of the age, the mass organization of people into collective forms ready at anytime to sacrifice themselves to preserve the higher order. Only with this kind of submission can the state function freely to protect the people from "pain." The strongest states are those that can endure the most pain. This idea seemed attractive to a German populace that had undergone a lot of pain in the last 20 years. His essay analyzes the creation of what he refers to  as the "worker type" and "specialization" within the education system in relation to the pain and the organization of the state, as well as the impact of technology its "penetration" into human life–all defining aspects of the Nazi regime. 

Although he anticipates what would later be called totalitarianism the term itself was not coined until the 1950s in the book by the political theorist and German émigré Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published 1951. The major defining aspect of a totalitarian government, Arendt says, what separates it not only from democratic governments but even other so-called dictatorships, is the mass mobilization component. In other words unlike other forms of dictatorship which usually try to pacify or suppress the masses or depoliticize them, a totalitarian government, in almost all cases led by some kind of authoritarian political party actively works to co-opt and involve the public in political and social projects. Of course this is done in the most rigid, hierarchical, top-down fashion and the people have little choice but to obey. This form of power is constituted through the strict control of almost all institutions in society, including political parties and the media (ideology is central), but including trade and labor organizations, and even social and leisure activities. Jünger believes that this form of control is desirable, and is made possible through the power of technology that makes it possible to organize much more complex social systems.

Jünger also endorses the historical theory stating that liberalism basically died during the World War I and we have now entered a "post-liberal" phase in history. He is not the first to state this argument. Nietzsche–who is a strong influence on his and everyone's thinking–made similar arguments in the 1880s when he said things like "God is dead" and proclaimed the coming of the "superman" (übermensch). Liberalism and protestant values have always been closely associated with each other, from Weber's Protestant work ethic, to the promotion of liberal government and markets by the Protestant Anglo-American powers. Totalitarianism is then modern and advanced whereas the old liberal democracies are old-fashioned and outdated, and ill-suited for dealing with pain in modern life. Totalitarianism is a consequence of nihilism, and the only solution for the individual is to deindividualize themselves, submit to the process and become integrated within the technologically fused social-political-economic structure that has now replaced the traditional distinctions of different fields of activity supported by the liberal belief in the separation of public and private interests.

Order and Progress
Liberalism as a political system and ideology still exist. This sense of continuity with the past is related to the idea of progress. Progress is the foundation of liberalism. Up until World War I, liberal governments in the United States, parts of Europe and parts of Latin America that had established liberal governments had believed rather uncritically that as technical and material development increased that social problems would become more manageable; that social conflicts between classes would be lessened; and that countries would resolve international conflicts peacefully (this latter view is summarized in the German philosopher Immanuel Kant's 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace"). The foundation of this belief is usually traced back to Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who made the famous proclamation, to paraphrase slightly: "if we learn to obey nature, we can control nature." In other words by discovering the laws of nature through the scientific method we can learn to adapt ourselves better to nature which will also give us some limited control over nature as well. Progress can be measured by how we have learned to obey/control nature. In a certain sense, Jünger does subscribe to this theory as well, although he claims to differ, since he has not really abandoned the idea of conquest over nature. Totalitarian government uses every means of science and technology available in order to better tighten control, and since this control is used to control pain, Jünger does implicitly at least, argue that the totalitarian state does represent a stage of progress past the older liberal-democracies.

Since World War II, liberals cannot hold on to their old ideas of progress anymore at least not without significant denial and indifference. Contemporary liberals have a much more cautious, reserved idea of progress now which revolves around the idea of "interest groups" and "pluralism." Where 18th and 19th century liberals would speak of perpetual peace and "universal brotherhood" (but how brotherly can it be when it is spread so far to people unknown?) liberals now define progress only in terms of material well-being and even then reduce that to a series of empirical "indices" or an index like income level, education level, life expectancy, etc. The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) uses those same variables (income, education, life expectancy) as its measurements in determining the quality of life throughout the world. http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/

Jünger's critique of liberalism is that it basically denies or conceals the relationship to pain. The existence of pain contradicts the dominant values of liberal society which holds out the myth that good will always triumph over evil. He also contrasts this with artistic depictions of pain, noting how modern and ahead of their time these painters were:

Pain’s disregard for our system of values greatly increases its hold on life...Our children’s tales close with passages about heroes who, after having overcome many dangers, live out their lives in peace and happiness. We hear such assurances with pleasure, for it is comforting for us to learn about a place removed from pain. Yet, in truth, life is without any such satisfying end... (p. 4).
Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights: Hell, 1504
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Copy of The Last Judgement by Hieronymous Bosch, 1520

If there is any doubt about this, the experience of the war will confirm the cruel indifferent equality of life:

In war, when shells fly past our bodies at high speeds, we sense clearly that no level of intelligence, virtue, or fortitude is strong enough to deflect them, not even by a hair. To the extent this threat increases, doubt concerning the validity of our values forces itself upon us. The mind tends toward a catastrophic interpretation of things wherever it sees everything called into question (pp. 5-6).

Jünger acknowledges the real gains and benefits made during the liberal era, while suggesting that these advancements have had a weakening effect on people at the same time as it breeds complaceny:

In this situation, the biased belief that reason can conquer pain loses its allure. This belief is not only a characteristic feature of forces allied with the Enlightenment, but it has also produced a long series of practical measures typical for the human spirit of the past century, such as–to name just a few–the abolition of torture and the slave trade, the discovery of electricity, vaccination against measles, narcosis, the system of insurance, and a whole world of technical and political conveniences...Our recognition of these achievements already lacks the noteworthy cult-like characteristic still familiar to us from our fathers. Born in full enjoyment of all these blessings now taken for granted, it seems to us as if in truth rather little has changed (p. 10).
Or that liberalism has produced material benefits on a scale not seen before in history. These are the tangible symbols of progress and they help create the impression that liberal values define the world:

The breadth  of people partaking of goods and pleasures is a sign of prosperity. Perhaps most symbolic are the grand cafes, in the halls of which one is fond of replicating the styles of the Rococo, Empire, and Biedermeier. They can be called the true palaces of democracy. Here one senses the dream-like, painless, and oddly agitated ease that fills the air like a narcotic. On the streets it is striking how the masses are dressed in such undeniably poor taste, yet in a uniform and “respectable” fashion. Bare and blatant poverty is rarely seen. The individual is greeted by a wealth of conveniences, such as the path paved for education and a career choice of preference, the free market of labor, the contractual character of almost all social ties and the unrestricted freedom of movement. The potential for conflict is thereby greatly reduced (pp. 12-13).
However, appealing liberalism may be, Jünger insists that pain is still always just beneath the surface, even if it expresses itself in the restlessness of boredom:

As a rule one will not have to go far to uncover the pain. Indeed, even the individual is not fully free from pain in this joyful state of security. The artificial check on the elementary forces might be able to prevent violent clashes and to ward off shadows, but it cannot stop the dispersed light with which pain permeates life. The vessel, sealed off from pain’s full flow, is filled drop by drop. Boredom is nothing other than the dissolution of pain in time (p. 13).
Jünger’s intent then is to argue for a means to control pain. He says this comes through detachment. In a strange way, Siddhartha practiced a similar detachment from the world. Notice the reference in the passage, to the “priestly-ascetic kind.” Weber speaks of detachment as an essential quality of a political leader. However in Nazi Germany, the destruction of individuality also creates a sense of detachment. Jünger refers to this elsewhere as "objectification" or turning the individuals in society and society itself into objects that are manipulated by the state. The term objectification originally referred to the process of externalizing ideas through labor, or making something concrete and real. In Jünger's case, the "liquidation" of the individual might be more appropriate, in other words to dissolve the inner life of the individual, including all resistance to power, into nothingness. This is accomplished by separating the connection between body and mind, the body is simply an object to be manipulated, the mind is just a reflection of the stimuli applied to the body. Jünger will make several references to attacking "zones of sensitivity," including the body, as if sensitivity itself or being a sensitive person is a vice. In the logic of totalitarianism, the liquidation of the individual is necessary to protect the individual from pain:

This detachment emerges wherever man is able to treat the space through which he experiences pain, i.e., the body, as an object. Of course, this presupposes a command center, which regards the body as a distant outpost that can be deployed and sacrificed in battle. 
Henceforth, all measures are designed to master pain, not to avoid it. The heroic and cultic world presents an entirely different relation to pain than does the world of sensitivity. While in the latter, as we saw, it is a matter of marginalizing pain and sheltering life from it, in the former the point is to integrate pain and organize life in such a way that one is always armed against it...Indeed, discipline means nothing other than this, whether it is of the priestly-ascetic kind directed toward abnegation or of the warlike-heroic kind directed toward hardening oneself like steel. In both cases, it is a matter of maintaining complete control over life, so that at any hour of the day it can serve a higher calling. The central question concerning the rank of present values can be answered by determining to what extent the body can be treated as an object (pp. 16-17).

Once the body has been objectified it can better assimilate itself to technological organization. Unlike liberals who originally saw scientific progress as an unmixed blessing, the application of science and technology to warfare has instead contributed to "dehumanization" (another term for objectification) as this chillingly prophetic passage shows:

Recently, a story circulated in the newspapers about a new torpedo that the Japanese navy is apparently developing. This weapon has an astounding feature. It is no longer guided mechanically but by a human device--to be precise, by a human being at the helm, who is locked into a tiny compartment and regarded as a technical component of the torpedo as well as its actual intelligence.... 
If one enlarges upon this thought, one soon realizes that it is no longer considered a curiosity once achieved on a larger social scale, i.e., when one disposes over a breed of resolute men obedient to authority. Manned planes can then be constructed as airborne missiles, which from great heights can dive down to strike with lethal accuracy the nerve centers of enemy resistance. The result is a breed of men that can be sent off to war as cannon fodder (p. 18 italics added).

Besides the rapid introduction of technology into all areas of human life and its penetration into humanity another aspect of the post-liberal world is the transformation of liberal education into  specialized education. Specialization is the process by which the individual converts themselves from the old humanist idea of the individual (the liberal arts) into a productive function, disciplined into performing a certain action, whether it be skilled or unskilled. Jünger also argues against "free inquiry" and provides the usual authoritarian argument for why information should be controlled–so as not to undermine the war effort (Germany was not at war in 1934, however, in a totalitarian state there is constant "preparation" for war). This also completes the process of liquidating the individual by destroying the sensitivity of their minds:

A second zone of sensitivity is devastated by the assault on liberal education. The effects of this assault are much less apparent. This has various reasons, but the most important one is that we continue to idolize ideas that artificially support the principles of liberal education, especially the idea of culture. Yet this changes nothing on the ground, because the assault on individual liberty inevitably involves an assault on liberal education. This becomes apparent when we are forced to deny the right of free inquiry. Free inquiry is impossible wherever its essential purpose is preparation for war, because, like a blind man, free inquiry opens all doors arbitrarily. Yet today the only door to unlock is the one to power. Free inquiry is pointless once it becomes clear what should be known and what should not (p. 20).

Despite supporting the manipulation of knowledge and information which inevitably will degrade the population, Jünger is also concerned with the growth of the masses and the lumpenproletariat.  "Mass," refers more to the lack of integration in a localized community, that defines the term.  The masses came from the proletariat, the workers, and the petty bourgeoisie: small shop-owners, artisans, and small businessmen who all generally struggled economically during the Weimar period and in some cases were threatened with their livelihood becoming obsolete as new forms of economic activity and new economic processes replaced older ones. 

In an ironic pattern that seems to recur often in politics: social classes who are marginalized give their allegiance to political leaders who represent the very same forces which are marginalizing them in the first place (large industrial monopolies). The Nazis are able to "transfer" this resentment and hostility towards Jews, communists, liberals, reason, and anything else they deemed a threat. The masses are in a sense homeless, anonymous, and alienated. The lumpenproletariat, unlike the proletariat are unemployed, or work irregular even illegal jobs: they are like the criminals and homeless that you see in M. It is out of the lumpenproletariat that the Nazis will recruit their street-fighters; just as they recruited their organizers out of lower middle class private organizations; the masses will later cheer them as they strip the people of their rights.  

Jünger devotes a lot of time to talking about the impact of photography on increasing our awareness (and hence our control) of the human body. He seems to appreciate the objectivity of photography, again, for its lack of sensitivity:

The photograph stands outside of the zone of sensitivity. It has a telescopic quality; one can tell that the event photographed is seen by an insensitive and invulnerable eye. It records the bullet in mid-flight just as easily as it captures a man at the moment an explosion tears him apart. This is our own peculiar way of seeing, and photography is nothing other than an instrument of our own peculiar nature (p. 39).
Photography, then, is an expression of our peculiarly cruel way of seeing. Ultimately, it is a kind of evil eye, a type of magical possession. One senses this very clearly in places where a different cultic substance is still active. The moment a city like Mecca can be photographed, it falls into the colonial sphere (p. 40).
He uses examples drawn from combat and colonialism, one can now study in close detail how people die and can access documentary evidence of foreign locations. Traditional cultures are known to have believed that if you are photographed it will steal your soul, or as he says a type of magical possession. A more harmless example could be even something like NFL films which are highly praised for their quality as they allow the viewer to analyze in detail how the game is played and how the players move. Professional athletes of all sports are usually required to study films of themselves or other athletes playing in order to learn how to perform better, move better, and correct mistakes–of course all this applies to the military as well.

The profussion of violent imagery, and the fast pace and constant danger of modern life forces people to become more tolerant of pain and death:

The human will disciplines and outfits this flesh with such painstaking care that it now seems more indifferent to injury. Today, we again are able to bear the sight of death with greater indifference, since we no longer feel at home in our body as we did before. It no longer accords with our style to stop a flying show or a car race simply because of a deadly accident. Such accidents lie not outside but inside the zone of a new kind of security (p. 43).

 Precisely because we have the technology to study the body more and its appearances we become more conscious of appearances (especially our own) and more aware thus changing humankind’s standards of beauty, but also social interaction and human behavior as well, as well as turning beauty into a commodity (i.e posters and pictures of Lola the cabaret singer):

The desire to see physical beauty in keeping with different standards is no less noteworthy A close connection to photography is also present here, especially to film, which is essentially the model of beauty. The eye has many occasions to grow accustomed to viewing the naked body, such as in sports, public baths, rhythmic dancing, but also in advertisements. We are dealing here with forays into the erotic zone, whose meaning has yet to be revealed even if we already have an inkling of it (p. 44).

Jünger reacts to these changes with a sense of regret–perhaps already seeing the direction Nazism is going in–but also sharing a fairly general suspicion of technology shared by many in his generation. His reference to the Copernican age is also a reference to Kant who considered his philosophy centered on the individual to be a "Copernican revolution" in philosophy, in other words just as Copernicus showed the earth was not at the center of the universe, the end of the Copernican age is the end of the age of the individual as the center of politics and society:

We  find ourselves in a situation where we are still capable of grasping what is lost; we can still sense the destruction of values and how the world is becoming more shallow and superficial. New generations are growing up far removed from all our inherited traditions, and it is an amazing feeling to see these children many of whom will live to experience the year 2000. By then, the last remnants of the modern, i.e., Copernican, age will most likely have disappeared (p. 45).

In such a situation, pain remains the only measure promising a certainty of insights. Wherever values can no longer hold their ground, the movement toward pain endures as an astonishing sign of  the times; it betrays the negative mark of a metaphysical structure (p. 47).
Pain  dissolves–or negates–the structures of "metaphysics," systems of ideas based on concepts like: freedom, justice, and progress. In a very real sense pain is the ultimate reality, the others are illusions. Jünger's lament over the conditions of modern life and the loss of values are familiar themes that many other writers have approached as well. However, not many writers can bring you in to the "eye of the storm" so to speak and provide a sociological and cultural analysis of life inside Nazi Germany–even if Jünger is careful to avoid any explicit reference to the Nazi party. At many points it seems as if the essay is to provide a strategy for how to adapt to life like this, which is basically be an obedient worker and do what you are told. For most conservatives life under these conditions is still preferable to communism. 

There are many things that can be said about this in relation to politics and culture today. Ultimately, the biggest criticism that can be thrown against Jünger I believe is that despite his posturing and all the pseudo-macho and heroic rhetoric he does not really confront pain at all. Instead, he runs away from it by preaching  a kind of "spiritual suicide" which frees the individual from pain, but only by making them dead on the inside, mechanically going through their lives doing exactly what the authorities want them to do. If you want to have real life, you have to learn to live with pain and not just suppress it or block it out. In other words, totalitarianism represents a desire to destroy life physically and spiritually in order to be free of the sensation of pain, something not too far from Freud's conception of the "death drive." 

Next class we will continue discussing the changes in perception and experience in the works of Walter Benjamin.

Assignment Due 5/2: Choose a passage from Jünger, write it out, explain the meaning of it, and why you chose this passage.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

4/18 Nazism

In January 1919,  the same month that Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered in Berlin and shortly after Weber delivered his speech to the students at the University of Munich, the German Worker’s Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, DAP) was formed in Munich by right-wing nationalists and former soldiers. A few months after in September, a police spy and veteran of the war, Adolph Hitler infiltrated the party. As part of his cover he gave speeches in support of the party’s strong anti-communism, Antisemitism, nationalism, and its promise to resolve the differences between business and labor and lead Germany back to prosperity and its past glory. He had a strong effect on the audience. Soon he abandoned his cover and became a real member of this party that claimed to represent the common man and would lead Germany back to greatness. In 1920 the party is renamed the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP, or more commonly, the Nazi Party).

The symbol they adopt the Swastika is originally a symbol used in Ancient Indian society and found in other ancient cultures like the Greeks and the Celts. The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit word "svastika" and means "to be good" or "being with higher self."

By 1921, Hitler is the sole leader of the party. In 1923, Hitler attempts to seize power in Munich. He fails and police kill over a dozen of his supporters (Hitler reportedly fled the scene) and he is put in jail. Despite committing what could clearly be called treason he is released less than a year later in December 1924. During his time in prison, he writes his biography and political statement Mein Kampf (My Struggle) where he outlines his future plans for Germany among these are: revenge against France for the war and its harsh treatment of Germany after, expulsion of the Jewish influence, and the conquest of “Living Space” (Lebensraum) so that Germany could possess enough resources to be fully self-sufficient. 1923 is also significant because it is the same year in which German inflation hit its peak when a pound of bread cost three billion marks. In 1923 France also occupied parts of Germany’s Western industrialized areas in order to enforce Germany’s war reparations; it was also the year after Italian fascist dictator and future war ally Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy who became an inspiration to Hitler.

Germany in 1925 was much different than 1923. The government had managed to get inflation under control; diplomatic relations with other countries improved from a series of treaties; war reparations payments were reduced; and foreign trade expanded especially with the United States who also helped the Weimar government in the other areas as well. Hitler had to adjust his tactics, switching from a revolutionary seizure of power to participating in the political system by gaining representation in the parliament (Reichstag) while still openly condemning the political system. Although their party membership steadily grows they have difficulties gaining political power. As late as 1928, the Nazi party receives less than 3 percent of the vote in national elections. The German Communist Party (KPD) the offspring of the Spartacists and the Worker’s Councils, and the arch nemesis of the Nazi party and also openly condemning the political system has three times as many members in the Reichstag.

In general, however, the political system was in crisis and voters were deserting political parties and retreating into private life and private associations. Many of these organizations increasingly took on a nationalist and in many cases an anti-Semitic character. The officials who ran these organizations later supplied the Nazi party with disciplined party organizers and activists. This and the weakness of political parties were decisive factors in the Nazi seizure of power.

In late 1929 the Great Depression hit worldwide as a result of the crash of the stock market in America and resulting mass bank failures. Germany was particularly affected because its economy had become deeply linked to the U.S. economy. Unemployment increases from about 1.5 million workers in 1929 to over 5 million workers in 1932 out of a total population of about 60 million. The Nazi’s capitalized on the severe economic disaster. By 1930 they had become the second largest party in the Reichstag after the Social Democratic Party (SPD), it now became impossible to form a majority in parliament without them. Street fights between Nazi and Communist forces intensify. The centrist government under Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, invokes article 48 of the Constitution and declares a state of emergency in order to keep the government functioning because the Nazis are completely uncompromising and will not work with the more moderate parties. Years later, French Marxist, Alfred Sohn-Rethel would note the conflict between different "factions of capitalists" the newer, more prosperous industries siding with Brüning and the older, less successful industries-namely coal, construction, and steel-favoring the Nazis.

In 1932 they became the largest party in the Reichstag. Hitler runs for president (Reichpresident) against the incumbent Paul von Hindenburg who is 84 years of age and in poor health. He was pushed to run because Brüning and the other government leaders believed that this old-school monarchist who openly condemned democracy was the only man who could beat Adolph Hitler. Hitler loses narrowly. Hindenburg appoints Hitler Chancellor of the Reich (Reichkanzler) in January 1933, ten years after he fails to seize power and is sent to jail, and two months before Franklin Roosevelt is sworn in as the 32nd President of the United States (The 20th amendment of the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1933 to change the date the president is sworn in to January).

In February, the Reichstag is set on fire. The Nazis blame the Communists for the fire and under the pretext of a terrorist attack, the Reichstag Fire Decrees are passed immediately and the Enabling Act is passed in March 1933 granting Hitler’s government full dictatorial powers. All of the communists and about a ¼ of the social democratic representatives in the Reichstag are arrested, beaten, or otherwise forcibly prevented from voting for this law. Only the remaining members of the SPD vote against the Enabling Act, the Catholic Center and conservative parties vote for the Enabling Act. This act gives permanent emergency powers to the German Chancellor, Hitler, who promptly suspends all civil and political liberties. 

The Weimar Constitution remains in effect but from this point on it is just a formality. Political parties are dissolved except for the Nazi party and it becomes illegal to form new parties. The government begins cracking down on communists, artists, intellectuals, trade unionists, social democrats, and other political opponents. Feminists are attacked, as are homosexuals as traditional patriarchic values are forcibly re-established. Jews and all racial minorities are persecuted and denied any legal protection. The first concentration camp is created at Dachau, near Munich, the birthplace of Nazism in 1933. Around the cultural center of Weimar which represents the highest achievements of German art and humanism, the Buchenwald concentration camp is constructed in 1937 (along with hundreds more). Buchenwald and Dachau were among the first concentration camps in Germany liberated by the U.S. and allies in 1945 (the first concentration camp liberated by the U.S. was Natzweiler in France in August 1944) this was the first confirmation for the West of the true horrors of the Nazi regime. On the Eastern front the Russians liberated the Majdanek concentration camp in July 1944 in Poland. It is in Poland where the "death factories" like Auschwitz and Treblinka are established.

By 1934, Hitler’s dictatorship is firmly established.  Hitler purges the party of all but his most loyal supporters and those who share his ideology. Several political executions occur, including the man responsible for Hitler being sent to jail in 1924. President Hindenburg dies in office. Hitler fuses the offices of Chancellor (technical leader) and President (emotional leader) into the new title, The Leader (Fürher).

By 1935, the militaristic and expansionist ambitions of the fascist leaders are evident. In 1931 Japan occupies Manchuria in Northern China and establishes the puppet state of Manchukuo (Japan had also occupied the Korean peninsula since 1910 and Taiwan in 1895). Hitler’s ally Mussolini invades Ethiopia in 1935. Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African nations not to be conquered by European imperialists in the 19th century. Unlike Liberia however which was founded in the 19th by American colonists looking to transport freed slaves, Ethiopia's origins date back to the Aksum Empire stretching back to the time of the Roman and Persian Empires, and for centuries had been an independent and sovereign power. Fascists in Italy were driven by the the idea of recreating the Roman Empire that once controlled the Mediterranean and set about trying to conqueror North Africa to accomplish this. The modern day state of Libya is actually a product of Italian fascism which fused together three separate colonies in Northern Africa and renamed it Libya in 1934. The Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, puts up a good fight against a superior force.  The Italian fascists resort to using chemical weapons against the Ethiopians, even attacking Red Cross hospitals. Selassie becomes an icon of anti-fascism and becomes Time magazine’s "Man of The Year" for 1935, but the Italians conquer Ethiopia. In 1936 Germany occupies the Rhineland, an area that had been declared a "demilitarized" zone after the first world war. 

Also in 1936 Germans and Italians support a fascist revolt in Spain led by General Francisco Franco against the republican government in Spain. Already in 1933 a fascist government was installed in Portugal under António de Oliveira Salazar, the "New State," or Estado Novo. This also inspires Getúlio Vargas who had ruled Brazil since 1930, a former Portugese colony, to institute a Estado Novo in Brazil in 1937 until the return of democracy in 1945. The Spanish Civil War is seen by many as a testing ground for World War II, the Germans were able to test out their war equipment and see how well it performs. It performs well because by 1939 Franco is installed as the fascist dictator of Spain. Ironically, Franco and Salazar who stayed neutral during the war are possibly the most successful of the fascists in a way. Salazar lasts until 1968, the regime itself lasts until 1974. Franco and his regime last until his death in 1975. Both nations, however, were accepted into all of the major international organizations after the war like the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after World War II.

In 1937 Japan launches a full-scale invasion of China. International relations theorist Immanuel Wallerstein refers to World War I and World War II as the "Thirty Year's War," suggesting a radical reinterpretation of of historical events. Eurocentric historians date the beginning of World War II to the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the invasion of China in 1937 could just as easily be considered the beginning of World War II, because it was a continuous and unending conflict between the two Asian powers which expanded into Japanese conquest of European colonial empires and into the war against the U.S. and Japan in 1941 (however the "official date" is still given September 1st, 1939).

Despite the obvious militaristic nature of the fascist governments many celebrate Hitler’s success. The economy grows on average 9% between 1933-1939, roughly similar to the level that the Chinese economy is growing today. Unemployment was lower in Germany than in the United States during the 1930s, although workers were paid less on average than U.S. workers. 

John Heartfield, AIZ, 1935

Many U.S. business executives at Ford and General Motors praise the Germans success like GM head William S. Knudsen, who called Nazi Germany "the miracle of the twentieth century" and later as head of GM was the first civilian to be promoted directly to an U.S. Army General and played a key role in directing the economic side of the U.S. war effort in the 1940s. Hitler in turn praises industrialists like Henry Ford both for their success in business and antisemitism.  The Nazi Volkswagen project was meant to imitate the success of the Ford Model T, while Ford published articles like The International Jew (Hitler was known to have a portrait of Ford in his office). In 1936 Germany hosts the Olympics and in 1938 Hitler is named Time "Man of the Year." 

Groups like the America First Committee (largely funded by business executives) were committed to non-intervention in the war and peace with Germany right up until the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941. Another controversial, and seldom discussed, event is the alleged "Business Plot" planned against Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 to overthrow the government and replace it with a fascist regime. Although no one disputes that plans were made, the extent of the execution of the planned coup is disputed, but it is believed to have involved major U.S. corporations such as General Motors, DuPont, Ford, and JP Morgan and other businesses with close ties to the Nazi regime, as well as private organizations like the American Legion and the American Liberty League. In 1935, American novelist Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) publishes It Can't Happen Here, it takes place in a fictional U.S. taken over by a fascist government who similar to the Nazis claim to be restoring traditional values. The irony of the title is that even as the country becomes more of a totalitarian dictatorship characters are constantly assuring each other "fascism could never happen here."  Even more ironically, the fascist paramilitary group in the story are referred to as "The Minute Men," a distorted version of the colonial militias who were supposed to "be ready to fight in a minute." In 2005 a group using that name who claim to be "a nightwatch on the border" has emerged composed of private individuals who have taken it on themselves to enforce "border security." 

By 1938 however, Germany is making obvious moves to occupy other countries. Hitler (born in Austria near the birth of the Nazi movement in Bavaria) occupies Austria without a fight. Through a vote, the country becomes part of Germany. Next, Hitler tries to occupy the German speaking areas of Czechoslovakia. The British and French governments allow him to do this believing this will satisfy the Hitler’s ambition at the end of 1938. A few months later in early 1939, Hitler invades and occupies the rest of Czechoslovakia absorbing its factories, its resources, and its workforce into the German military machine. 

In August 1939 the Germans and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin sign a “Non-Aggression Pact” promising not to attack each other. This signals to the world war is inevitable.  Prior to this, the Soviet Union had maintained a "Popular Front" stance working with liberal democratic governments in the West with an anti-fascist alliance. In China, a similar alliance is struck between the communist forces of Mao Zedong and nationalist Chiang Kai-shek who interrupt their own civil war to make an alliance against Japan that lasts till the end of the war, eventually culminating in the communist takeover in 1949. 

On September 1st, 1939 Germany invades Poland. On September 3rd, Great Britain and France declare war on Germany. They begin an advance into Germany that stalls out and ends in stalemate. Poland is conquered in less than a month after the capital Warsaw is heavily bombed, the first time a city had been systematically bombed from the air, and becomes the site of some of the worst atrocities of the Nazi regime. Hitler and Stalin divide Poland before Hitler turns his sights west; the Second World War is underway.

How then did Hitler and the Nazi party come to power? We have discussed some of the political, economic, and cultural variables that led to this. Obviously the strength of extremists movements like this capitalized on economic crises to push its message. Look at Hitler’s actions in 1923, and the strength of the party after 1929. Many have also looked to the political system as making it easier for the Nazis to gain power without a majority.

Germany during the Weimar period, unlike the U.S. system, had multiple large political parties competing against each other. Germany also had a voting system that allocated seats in parliament according the overall percentage of the vote each party captured. Most of the time, one party falls short of having a majority of the vote (n < 50%). Parties then form “coalitions” or alliances with other parties to reach the majority threshold. When the government was originally created there was a “Weimar Coalition"  made up of the parties most supportive of the government. 

The SPD was the largest party but still depended on other parties like the Catholic Center Party and the German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei, DDP) to form a majority. The DDP was made up of left-leaning liberals and intellectuals like Max Weber, this party was the weak link in the chain however and could not deliver enough of the votes. After 1920 this coalition never received a majority again. In order to form a majority government a “Grand Coalition"  would have to include the conservative, right-leaning parties, like the German People’s Party (Deutsche Volkspartei, DVP) that represented big business interests, or the German National People’s Party (Deutschenationale Volkspartei, DNVP) which represented the remaining feudal nobles and was the most conservative class in Germany outside of the Nazis.

The Nazis from the beginning identified themselves as representing the true Germans, Das Volk (the people). The other conservative parties also tried to identify with the “volk” and used it in their names. The Nazis were given political legitimacy when they were endorsed by the DNVP as a junior partner. Many of the old school aristocrats were equally anti-Semitic and had equal contempt for democracy, they foolishly believed that they could control Hitler and the Nazis while using their popularity. This changed after 1930 when the Nazis became the dominant partner in the alliance. Most of the conservative elements in Germany believed that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by foreigners and intellectuals who had too much influence in society. The Nazis promised to “get their country back” and restore Germany to its proper place in the world.

They were also against both communism and capitalism, blaming them both on Jews, even though that seems like a contradiction. They promised to resolve the struggles between business and labor, and originally tried to portray themselves as a non-communist alternative for the working classes. In a sense they were not lying since their strategy was to substitute racial struggle for class struggle. German businessmen and workers should put their differences aside and recognize their racial superiority over other races and nations. After coming to power the Nazis were able to control class struggle by controlling the prices of products and wages of workers. Independent unions were destroyed in favor of a Nazi controlled national union, the German Labor Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF). Managers and executives of major corporations were mostly left in control, since little that they did was offensive to Nazi ideology, but they had to follow the directions of the Nazi bureaucrats, but on the other hand the government became their biggest customer with an increasingly bigger demand for goods to satisfy their war production. Hatred of capitalism was more of the international aspect of capitalism than any opposition to large-scale industry as long as it was under the control of the German government.

Some of the earliest interpretations of the Nazi regime like Franz Neumann’s Behemoth (1944) originally saw Nazism as the logical consequence of "monopoly capitalism." Assuming that the free-market system of supply and demand broke down during the first world war, Nazism is only an attempt for large industrial monopolies to maintain control over production through the power of the state. In other words it emerges as a crisis response to communism. Capitalism, which had developed largely in a Protestant religious framework, also had some ethical principles that imposed some limitations on the process of accumulation for industries. Under the Nazi regime these limitations are gone and the ruthless pursuit of accumulating capital and wealth without any limitations becomes normal. All the war production by the Germans after 1936 that helped rebuild its economy needed to find some kind of outlet. The behavior of the Germans during the war would be to take over all factories and industrial components and try to squeeze every last bit of resources and wealth out of the country similar to a "leveraged buyout" of another company. The Germans also used slave labor in the construction of roads and factories. Signs with the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work is Freedom) were hung over the entrances of many concentration camps like Auschwitz. The “Final Solution,” the plan to exterminate all the remaining Jews in Europe, was implemented when the Allies started bombing German cities in 1942.

Major corporations in Germany benefited during the Nazi regime. Especially in the first few years of the Nazi regime, Hitler believed that automobile production was the key to reviving German industry (much as it had become the cornerstone of American industry). Companies like BMW profited under the Nazi regime. BMW actually stands for Bavarian Motor Works, it was founded in 1916 producing airplane engines for the German air force. This origin can be seen in the BMW emblem which is actually a plane propeller spinning against the blue sky. After the Treat of Versailles was signed in 1919, a stipulation of the treaty made it illegal to produce airplane engines in Germany for five years. The company switched to making motorcycles and cars. The famous design of BMWs then partially comes from the unintended consequences of the peace treaty which resulted in stripped down air plane engines installed in cars and motorbikes. After 1924 they were allowed to resume making airplane engines. During the Nazi era after 1933, production of airplanes increased dramatically. The No. 2 person in the Nazi regime was Hermann Göring, the head of the Air Force (Luftwaffe), which was a key element in the German strategy of warfare the Blitzkrieg (lightning war). BMW now admits to using as many as 20,000-30,000 slave laborers during the Nazi regime as well as producing military equipment for the Nazis.

The automobile was invented by Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler in Stuttgart in 1885, also the birthplace of Hegel. Ironically, Daimler and Benz were working separately and independently from each other and both began a process of inventing more complex internal combustion engines from the 1870s that culminated in the first "horseless carriage" (technically Benz is given credit for his design being patented first).

The first automobile, Karl Benz


Until 1926, Benz and Daimler operated separate companies that eventually merged (Daimler also had another partner named Maybach). Daimler-Benz AG the company that produces Mercedes Benz also produced military equipment for the Germans, and reportedly used the most slave labor of all the German car manufacturers. Daimler-Benz also owned Chrysler from 1998-2007.

Volkswagen was founded in 1937 by Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche (designer of the Porsche sports car and also designed several prototypes for tanks). Porsche had originally worked for the Daimler company before founding a design consulting firm that became the original Porsche company in 1931 (the sports car brand was not produced until after the war).

Founded during the peak of the Nazi regime, Volkswagen (People’s Car), was seen as a vehicle for the common people of Germany instead of the luxury brands Germans were already famous for. Volkswagen today also owns Audi and even foreign brands like Bentley (BMW owns Rolls Royce who made airplanes for the British during the war).

Besides the major car manufacturers other German corporations benefited from the Nazis. IG Farben, the parent company of Bayer, the company that invented aspirin, was allowed to perform experiments on people in concentration camps, and also developed “Zyklon B” the nerve gas used in the gas chambers in Auschwitz and other “death factories.” Hugo Boss, the fashion designer, designed the Nazi SS uniforms. The Deutsche Bank, at one time the largest bank in the world, helped confiscate Jewish owned businesses and loaned the funds to build Auschwitz.
Deutsche Bank Towers, Frankfurt, Hesse, Germany

Apart from the German companies that benefited from the Nazis major American corporations did as well. The support shown by many Americans for the Nazis in the 1930s until the U.S. entry in the war is a shameful chapter in American history. Linguistic theorist Noam Chomsky, who grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, recalls people throwing block parties after Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940. In 1939 a major rally for American supporters of the Nazis was held at Madison Square Garden (not something you will see on the "50 Greatest Moments at MSG"). Besides these more individual and anecdotal examples there was active financial, trade, and commercial linkages between American banks and firms and their German counterparts. By the 1920s General Motors and Ford Motor Company were already considered “multinational corporations” having set up offices and production plants in many corners of the world. Henry Ford was an open Nazi sympathizer who also owned Ford Motorwerke in Germany which produced vehicles for the Nazis. General Motors purchased German auto manufacturer Opel and became sole owner in 1931. Although both companies claim they lost control of operations during the Nazi regime both companies still retained legal control throughout the Nazi era and benefited from the profits of these companies during and after the war without ever being asked to pay anything in reparations, the U.S. government actually paid them after the war to repair damages to their facilities. Opel is known to have produced as many as half of all the trucks used by the Nazis during World War II. 

The Union Banking Corporation was a large bank based in New York City that had its assets seized in October 1942 under the Trading with the Enemy Act for dealings with Nazis. This bank was owned by Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. a Wall Street investment bank that was run by W. Averell Harriman, later Governor of New York in the 1950s, and one of the highest-ranking advisor in the FDR and Truman administrations in the 1940s; Robert Lovett, another high-ranking advisor and later Secretary of Defense after World War II; and Prescott Bush, (among other partners) father of George Hebert Walker Bush, and grandfather of George W. Bush. Prescott Bush was also implicated in the business plot to remove FDR in 1934. Brown Brothers Harriman is the oldest and largest private bank in the United States.

John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War during World War II, and later High Commissioner of Germany during reconstruction in the post-war era also had linkages to Nazi officials and industrialists through his association with IG Farben. Harriman, Lovett, and McCloy would later be dubbed the "Wise Men" of U.S. foreign policy along with other close friends of theirs.

The International Business Machines Corporation, better known as IBM, provided the tabulating machines (literally counting machines) that enabled the Nazis to organize the Holocaust. 

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt would later speak of the "banality of evil" when writing about the infamous trial of Nazi Adolph Eichmann in the 1960s. Banality refers to something trivial, inconsequential, or overly concerned with small details. Her point, is that unlike popular depictions, most Nazis were not raving psychopaths but most seemed like very ordinary, boring bureaucrats.

Despite the obvious benefits and advantages given to major industries during the Nazi era, not all are convinced that the Nazi regime was an outgrowth of monopoly capitalism. Fredrick Pollock, of the Frankfurt School, described the Nazi regime as a form of “state capitalism” where  he says, “the power motive takes precedence over the profit motive,” in other words although industries are still run as for profit businesses their activities are directed by the state in the interest of increasing national power, not maximizing profitability. This state exercises control by its ability to control financing and credit, the prices of raw materials, and the wages paid to workers, as well as setting production goals for corporations to follow. The new ruling class is composed of industrial managers, the party bureaucracy, and the government bureaucracy (including the military). This assumes that the political realm is independent somewhat of the economic realm.


Certain aspects of the Nazi regime, most notably the Holocaust are difficult to explain using economic analysis, the war itself became extremely unprofitable and damaging to the German economy yet it continued, so if decisions were made only on the basis of profitability it would be hard to explain these things. Also most of the Nazi leadership including Hitler did not come from the industrialist class in society.

Besides political and economic factors there are certain cultural factors to look at. For one, many point out that since the Germans had no history of democracy that they had a weak commitment to the democratic process. Certainly many of the political parties did, both the NSDAP (Nazis) and KPD (Communists) were openly committed to the destruction of the political system despite participating in it, while other parties like the conservative DNVP openly favored returning to the German Empire. At the same time, Weimar Germany had a very active civil society. The concept of civil society has recently become popular again since the late 1980s and 1990s during the wave of revolutions that toppled the communist governments in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The idea of  a network of voluntary private associations (or interest groups) were believed to be the key mechanisms in explaining the transition from a communist state to a liberal democratic state. However, evidence of a similar institutional structure was present in Weimar Germany, and it remains unclear how important a role civil society plays in sustaining a democratic government even if it may play a role in overturning an authoritarian government. 

Still, it is unlikely without the severe effects of the Great Depression the Nazis would have been able to take power. It should also be said despite all their appeals to the working class, the Nazis failed to ever gain much support among the working class who were either communists or social democrats. Nazis drew most of their early support from disgruntled army veterans (Hitler was one himself); the lumpenproletariat: the unemployed, irregularly employed, or illegally employed urban classes (like the criminals in M); and the petty bourgeoisie or the lower middle classes. This latter group is sometimes hard to define, they were not poor but were not among the top levels of society. They were not the ones who ran the large national and international corporations but the regional and small businesses, they were “the big fish in the small pond” so to speak. The petty bourgeoisie formed the biggest base of support for the Nazis in the earliest days. The big industrial and financial bourgeoisie were somewhat skeptical of the Nazis at first because of their vaguely socialist rhetoric. However Hitler himself despised the socialist aspects of his party and purged these elements after 1934. From the early days he tried to appeal more to business interests who eventually came around to Hitler seeing in him a way to stop communism.

Probably what set Hitler apart from other demagogues was his ability to exert “charismatic authority” (the Weberian concept) over his audiences, who saw in him some super-natural quality. Hitler was an admirer of Nietzsche and thought of himself as "the superman" (Übermensch) creating a new order of values that disposed of the weak liberal notions of human rights and substituted it for a philosophy of power legitimated through violence. This combined with claims to speaking for the “real Germans” and promises to “restore German greatness” struck a chord with insecure Germans who felt lost and directionless in their lives, and all too willing to find scapegoats for their alienation. One of the most common claims made by early Hitler supporters was the feeling that “he made me feel like I was not alone anymore.” Charismatic authority, combined with an appeal to tradition, and the highly bureaucratic nature of the party would then indicate all three major forms of authority identified by Weber (traditional, bureaucratic, and charismatic) and serves to illustrate that although these concepts can be analytically separated, in reality there is no clear separation between these forms of authority. The highly disciplined administrative staff that attached itself to Hitler would be an example of what Weber referred to as "the routinization of charisma" or the process of institutionalizing charismatic authority.

What lessons if any are there from the Nazi regime? I would argue that it seems sometimes that the extremes of the Nazis and the Holocaust is almost overemphasized sometimes to make them appear more distant from the rest of Europe and the U.S. Again, Arendt's comment on the banality of evil is instructive. Popular representations of Nazism and the Holocaust like the film Schindler's List (1993) are open to criticism on this point for depicting Nazis as barbaric savages instead of the more "human" banal bureaucrats that Arendt speaks of. This exaggeration is perhaps explained by an even deeper criticism against the inability to reflect upon the connection between our own way of life and atrocity, for example, Imre Kertész, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner in Literature, who wrote in response to the film, "I regard as kitsch [junk] any representation of the Holocaust that is incapable of understanding or not willing to understand the organic connection between our own deformed mode of life and the very possibility of the Holocaust." From this perspective a disturbing set of questions emerge: Do we in the U.S. today have people who like to separate “real Americans” from the rest and constantly talk about “taking our country back” and resort to all kinds of hysterical and paranoid theories? Do we not have those who exploit scapegoats, external or internal, as a way of directing attention away from other (possibly self-inflicted) problems? Do we not have those who manipulate people through the mass media to promote conformity? Is the country constantly at war or in a state of preparation for war? Do the military producers and contractors in this country (including companies like General Motors or Boeing) have a strong influence over government? Does our government keep the population under surveillance and detain individuals even without trial? These are all aspects of the Nazi regime as well. In other words are the Nazis a mirror through which we look at our own society, an extreme exaggerated behavior and worldview that reveals hidden impulses in all modern societies, or something totally alien? 

Leni Riefenstahl
Supposedly the first thing the Nazis would do when they conquered an area is to set up a public address (PA) system. Hitler articulated what would later be known as "the Big Lie" theory in Mein Kampf (the bigger the lie, the more outrageous, the more people will think its true). The Nazis employed propaganda and tried to manipulate the masses in their own country and in occupied areas as well. The following film is a propaganda film entitled “Triumph of the Will,” (Triumph des Willens) made in 1934, distributed by Ufa in 1935 and a reference to the Nietzschian notion of the “will to power.” The film was directed by Leni Riefenstahl who was given almost unlimited resources to construct this film. One thing that stands out is the complete absence of Antisemitic rhetoric in the film. This is because as we have already discussed film had become one of Germany's top exports and the propaganda conscious leadership also wanted to create a good image for the rest of the world. 

The other film is entitled Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) a French film produced in 1955. The script was written by Jean Cayrol, a concentration camp survivor. It is noteworthy that this was not produced by a German. Even in France the film caused controversy for one scene that shows the back of a French police officer's head watching people being loaded into camps. This is because after Germany occupied France in 1940 a "collaborationist" government was set up in France--the Vichy government. In Germany there is even greater difficulty fully coming to terms with past crimes. Major political cleavages in Germany today are drawn along the lines of: how is the Nazi regime to be interpreted within German history?  Please note this is an extremely graphic film depicting scenes of the Holocaust and is far more disturbing than anything else that we have seen in this class. [sorry if you have to watch deodorant ads before watching a Holocaust film]