• April 16, 2014

Reason, Emotion, and Hitler

Reason, Emotion, and Hitler 1

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Popperfoto, Getty Images

Reason, Emotion, and Hitler

Popperfoto, Getty Images

Adolf Hitler loved books—that nasty bent for book burning notwithstanding—and the book industry loves him back. Type his name into Amazon, and while he doesn't trigger the English-language numbers of Jesus (186,740) or Lincoln (70,710), he registers a solid 18,597—a stunning figure for someone who died less than 70 years ago.

There's no reason to react only cynically, mumbling that sensationalism and extreme violence sell books, and so what. In light of Hitler's heinous impact on the world as paradigm of evil, despoiler of countries, mass murderer of Jews, non-Jews, the disabled, fellow Nazis, and pretty much anyone else who got in his way, the attention to every angle of his life makes sense. As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum recently showed in its startling report that the Nazis ran 42,500 camps in Europe rather than the previously estimated 7,000 or so, believing that we already know everything we need to know about the Holocaust is profoundly premature. Let historians focus on Hitler's military strategy one year, on his library the next. Ultimately we move toward a fuller picture of what every affected party might call "the catastrophe."

Yet one distinction traditional to many philosophers, and still fundamental in common-sense culture, rarely gets central discussion in the avalanche of material about Hitler: reason versus emotion. The questions run in two directions.

Was Hitler rational or a hyperemotional madman? Did he make reasoned decisions on the whole, even philosophical ones, however morally abhorrent they were?

And how do we, or should we, react to him long after his suicide perhaps cost the world the most provocative of "Hitler books"—his postwar memoir? Is cold, rational assessment ultimately the only respectable reaction? Or is that itself an outrage? Must his immense moral crimes trigger not just somber condemnation in us but also ferocious anger, bristling moral fervor, barely stoppable tears?

Three new books provide an opportunity for mulling over those questions without zeroing in on them directly. Hitler's Philosophers (Yale University Press, May), by Cambridge-trained historian Yvonne Sherratt, examines Hitler's enthusiasm for philosophy, the thinkers in the field who prefigured and fueled his ideological leanings, as well as (awkwardly, given her title) some prominent figures who opposed him. Hitler's Charisma: Leading Millions Into the Abyss (Pantheon, April), by Laurence Rees, longtime director of the BBC's history programs and author previously of books including Auschwitz: A New History, sedulously takes us through Hitler's career with regular attention to how his much-attested-to charisma, which worked on many but not on all, empowered him. Otto Dov Kulka's Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (Harvard University Press, March) presents the most intractable document of these three—a noted Israeli historian of the Holocaust, committed in his career to sober, scholarly work about it, shares his memories and dreams of the time he spent in Auschwitz at the ages of 10 and 11.

Sherratt wrote Hitler's Philosophers because German academe keeps even today the "terrible secret" of "how philosophy was implicated in genocide." Philosophy being "iconic to German culture," she explains, the terrible behavior of many German philosophers made Nazism more possible.

Sherratt exaggerates the freshness of the territory she explores. In light of the work of Victor Farias, Hugo Ott, and Emmanuel Faye, the putative greatest of 20th-century German philosophers, Martin Heidegger, stands exposed and delegitimized as a committed Nazi—only dead-enders who ride his coattails in academe still worship his work. Similarly, superb scholarly studies like The Heidelberg Myth: The Nazification and Denazification of a German University, by Steven P. Remy (Harvard), documented with extraordinary care the shame of German humanistic academe and professors during National Socialism.

Was Hitler rational or a madman? And must his crimes trigger not just cold assessment and condemnation but also ferocious anger?

Sherratt's book falls short of Remy's as sophisticated scholarship. Remy diligently outlined such duplicity in German academe as the postwar revision of scholarly works written during the Third Reich to eliminate unacceptable passages. (The still-undercriticized Hans-Georg Gadamer cleansed one of his 1940 lectures of its celebration of völkisch ideology.) Sherratt, who, to be fair, announces at the outset that she's intentionally written her book in a popular style, nonetheless too often sounds as if she's writing Hitler's Philosophers for Beginners, sprinkling amateurish judgments (Nietzsche "always wrote in a poetic, aphoristic style, never with clarity or logic") and outrageous ones (that the great German logician Gottlob Frege's anti-Semitism leaves all of analytic philosophy "tainted by association with Hitler").

Still, helpfully and in the spirit of Remy, she notes how Nazi philosophers who flourished under National Socialism, such as Hans Heyse, Eugene Fehrle, and Carl Schmitt, all got away with murder in their postwar careers. In general, she remarks, "from 1945 until well into the 1960s, German philosophy departments were mired in cover-ups of atrocious pasts."

Her book's strongest contribution is its overview of Hitler's self-conception as the "philosopher-Führer"—his "astonishing" "identification with great German philosophers." Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who knew how to please her Führer, gave him an eight-volume edition of Fichte. Hitler made a famous visit to Elisabeth Nietzsche to honor her brother, apparently making off with Friedrich's last walking stick as a souvenir. Like previous scholars, Sherratt credits Hitler with reading, or at least skimming, the German philosophical greats—Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer—drawing ideological strength from them as he sought to join their ranks with Mein Kampf.

 While the efforts of philosophy scholars like Walter Kaufmann to disabuse us of simplistic interpretations of major German philosophers as proto-Nazis remain important, Sherratt's citations of anti-Semitic remarks by Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, and her emphasis on Nietzsche's celebration of powerful, unsentimental Übermenschen, remind us that such interpretations—including Hitler's—did not come out of thin air, and that the German greats remain oversanitized in the way we teach them in Anglo-American philosophy departments.

Moreover, her accounts of minor German philosophers who anticipated Nazi philosophy and, later, administered it—from such familiar figures as Alfred Rosenberg to the obscure Alfred Ploetz—drive the bleak picture home. To view Hitler as a nonrational thinker obsessed by primal hatreds ignores German philosophical work that, picking up steam in the late 19th century, presented repeated rationales for why the state enjoyed supreme (Hegelian) priority over individuals, and why alleged foreigners like Jews needed to be removed from it. As Hitler put it: "To carry a philosophy to victory, we must transform it into a fighting movement." By about 1940, Sherratt writes, "the German mind was his," even if some major thinkers saw through him: Adorno described Hitler as "a mixture of King Kong and a suburban hairdresser."

On the matter of Hitler's rationality, Sherratt quotes him declaring that "there can be nothing of value which is not in the last resort based on reason." Yet the future Führer boasted that he "carried Schopenhauer's work with me throughout the whole of the First World War—from him I learned a great deal." A key element Hitler loved in Schopenhauer was the latter's glorification of will over reason, leading Hitler to remark, "Once will is gone, all is gone." Might that be the overarching philosophical rationale for one of Hitler's most controversial leadership habits: his insistence on officials' carrying out his orders and ambitions regardless of immense evidence that they could not be put into effect?

That Hitler managed to get slews of "rational" means-ends thinkers beneath him to act on his extraordinary orders is why Rees finds Hitler's charisma so central to grasping him. He opens his book with a Hitler epigram—"My whole life can be summed up as this ceaseless effort of mine to persuade other people"—a thought that corroborates his self-image of "philosopher-Führer." Rees's spotlight on charisma forces us to think hard about what it means to persuade, to argue, to reason—or simply to assert one's will.

Rees accepts Max Weber's authoritative criteria of charismatic leadership: It contains a strong missionary element, requires a persona emphasizing "heroism" and a track record of some success, projects a sense of legitimacy rooted in personal strength, displays an intuitive grasp of mass psychology, knows how to enlist that psychology in one's favor, and maintains a prophet's goals of redemption, salvation, and personal destiny.

For Rees, Hitler's charismatic persuasiveness also turned distinctively on the nature of his audience. To succumb to Hitler's charisma, Rees argues, it helped immensely to be hungry or humiliated by the First World War and Versailles, to be unemployed or feel betrayed by democracy, to be eager to put the blame on someone else.

Rees attributes Hitler's "entire charismatic leadership" to "his rhetorical skill." Thinking classically about rhetoric, reason, and emotion, one might see Hitler as drawing more on Isocrates' emphasis that one persuades particular people at a particular time and place than on Aristotle's suggestion that certain techniques work universally.

Yet Hitler, in some respects, fits uneasily with the picture of a philosophical reasoner using calculated techniques. Rees observes that Hitler "found it impossible to debate any issue. He would state his views and then lose his temper if he was systematically questioned or criticized," and was "the least likely person in the world to change his mind on any issue he thought was important." Hitler specialized in "screams, tantrums, rapid changes of mood, sulks."

Rees notes, however, that the "overconfidence" implicit in such behavior was widely "perceived as a mark of genius" and persuaded millions—in part because Hitler made "in an extreme form" arguments already in the minds of his German listeners. Was that not a canny use of reason? Hitler understood, says Rees, that it's smart to present oneself as "infallible." Hitler may also have thought it effective to appear volatile. Rees writes that Hitler rooted his hatreds in "an emotionality that was given such free rein as to appear out of control. The ability to feel events emotionally and to demonstrate that emotion to others was a crucial part of his charismatic appeal."

German listeners, according to Rees, thought of Hitler as someone who spoke with "conviction" and an "absolute certainty" that they liked. And it was not only such figures as Albert Speer and Riefenstahl who recognized Hitler's charisma—even George Orwell, a dedicated anti-Nazi, conceded in his review of Mein Kampf that there was "something deeply appealing" to people in Hitler's underdog manner. Rees also outlines how Hitler himself could be a crafty means-end reasoner administratively. He chose not to stoke fights with German church leaders despite his mocking of Christianity privately, or with fired military commanders, letting many move back to comfortable private lives.

Together, Sherratt and Rees help us understand that where we place Hitler on the spectrum of reason and emotion depends on our criteria for the two concepts—their logical connection, our sense of how they're linked biologically, our judgment on what evidence counts for which. On the whole, when Sherratt and Rees condemn Hitler, they do so soberly and rationally. And yet the force of Rees's whole book—that emotional elements of susceptibility to charisma bear the blame for why Nazism wreaked such havoc—also suggests that immoral emotion should be countered by moral emotion when lives are at stake.

Otto Dov Kulka's book inadvertently makes one feel the force of suppressed emotion that can discombobulate an author. Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death is a strange, disjointed book.

A historian of the Holocaust, Kulka writes that he has never seen Shoah and has "refrained from reading anything literary or artistic that describes or tries to describe Auschwitz." He says he has never wanted to mix his "scientific historical research" with his autobiographical thoughts. Here those personal thoughts come accompanied by a single example of that research: an appendix, "Ghetto in an Annihilation Camp," one of Kulka's scholarly articles.

In the fragmentary excerpts from his tape-recorded diary, including recurrent dreams—in one, Dr. Mengele has become a postwar tour guide at Auschwitz—we see how emotion too long suppressed can devolve into incoherence.

For it is in the clash between Kulka the historian and Kulka the somewhat perplexed survivor that one feels the force of emotional rather than rational reaction to the Holocaust. The appendix is clear, exact, and detailed in its explanation of how the "family" camp in Auschwitz served as a Potemkin village for the Nazis—once the purpose was served, almost all inhabitants were executed. In contrast, Kulka's personal reflections ramble abstractly in artless, multiclaused sentences that typically end up repetitive and opaque. He does not, like Primo Levi, bring a scientist's precision to the organization of his thoughts. Instead, he intones the mantra that Auschwitz was "the Metropolis of Death," that a principle of "no one gets out of here" ruled. If one emotional survivor's response to the Holocaust is fury, another may be a somber inability to describe.

Kulka appears to recognize a certain bloodlessness in his cobbled-together book. He admits that his recollections often leave out "the violence, the cruelty, the torture, the individualized killings." But he does not apologize. Describing the material he's published here, he writes, "I almost said 'my memoirs,' but I am engaged in probing the memory, not writing memoirs."

Finally, his long, desultory sentences keep the reader from reacting emotionally, even to as sad a topic as his mother's death after fleeing a camp. It is, unquestionably, Kulka's privilege to handle his heartache as he chooses. Whether others have the same right in the face of the Holocaust, I'm not so sure. I can never forget the brutal-looking man who, as it happened, was on my only tour of Auschwitz.

He couldn't control himself as the guide unpacked a minihistory of the place. "The goddamn ... bastards," he kept swearing as he moved from barracks to ovens. "The bloody bastards." His face flushed—he wept. He was, it turned out, a U.N. blue helmet, a peacekeeper, someone who'd worked hot spots all over the world. He'd come all the way from Kosovo by bus, on a few days off, to see Auschwitz.

"It helps me understand why I do what I do," he told me.

We opened up a lot on the way back to Krakow. I told him I felt ashamed of my own undemonstrative behavior after watching him get so worked up at the camp, and how I'd first pegged him as tough-looking, scary, and unfeeling.

He laughed. "It's all right," he said. "I scared my girlfriend, too, the first time she saw me." He paused. "I would have liked to scare those ... bastards, too. What cowards! What total ... cowards!"

Reason? Emotion? He was exactly right. No books needed.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College and author of America the Philosophical (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).

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