SODOM & GOMORRAH: In this section, I examine the Nazi myth in order to see what qualities are common to ideologies that retain allegiance to supernatural or other forces that do not fit within the scope of human reason.
The Nazi movement was a mythical movement in that its members saw themselves as a chosen few destined to fight primordial forces of evil in a conflict to end all conflicts, the completion of which would usher in a golden age. James Rhodes provides excellent analysis of the nature of National Socialist myths. He proposes, along the same lines of Eric Voegelin, that the Nazis were a millenarian movement. This is to say that the Nazis believed that they lived at a crucial point in history at which the end of the world was at hand and that something drastic must be done before the forces of evil gained the final victory. Rhodes lays out six characteristic beliefs of millenarian movements; we can follow them in our analysis. (Rhodes 1980, 29-30) A demonstration that the Nazis meet Rhodes’ criteria would show that the Nazis meet our definition of mythical politics. Some analysis from other sources is provided to further demonstrate the appeal of mythical politics.
According to Rhodes, major figures in the National Socialist Party experienced feelings of incredible disorientation. (Rhodes 1980, 30) He documents how Hitler described the state of Germany after World War I as being in a “time of bewilderment.” Rosenberg felt that the entirety of society was “confused to the point of insanity.” (Rhodes 1980, 31) Hitler and others spoke continually of the “perishing” and “annihilation” of German society. The Versailles Treaty and the growth of Marxism were all signs that the German people faced an imminent and permanent enslavement.
This peculiar disaster syndrome was not unique to major party figures. Even mid-level bureaucrats experienced a kind of senselessness before joining the party. The effect of this feeling was isolation; once individuals joined the party, they were subject to the logic and rules of the party. Outside of the movement was chaos, but within it was a new morality and science. This is why Victor Klemperer could write with such horror about the modification in language that occurred in the Third Reich.
His report shows how words such as “fanatic” were redefined by Nazi propagandists and how the German language was given new articles and prefixes. (Klemperer 1947) We see here something more than just totalitarian redefinition, but the introduction of a new logic. Amos Elon can write in his introduction to Arendt’s work, “The Nazis [made] the wrong and the malevolent the foundation of a new righteousness” because the Nazis were successful in establishing a group morality that differed so completely with the rest of the world. Once an individual found themselves completely disoriented by society, they were susceptible to moralities that the rest of society would condemn, and as a result, actions that they would not have done in their previous states.
Once an individual suffers from the disaster syndrome, Rhodes contends that they are at risk to experience sudden revelations about their condition. (Rhodes 1980, 29) These revelations will explain their suffering and point toward a path of salvation. Rhodes shows us that Nazi members felt driven by a spirit that called to members through blood. (Rhodes 1980, 40) Goering, Hitler, and others were driven by what Gregor Strasser called the “one ‘correct’ spirit; that is the spirit that is from man, from the image of God, from Nature eternally endowed with soul.” (Rhodes 1980, 40) This stood in opposition to reason, which is to say solely human attempts at knowledge about the world. As the Nazi leader Strasser claimed, “rational thought corrodes the foundations of life itself.” (Rhodes 1980, 41)
Some have argued that the Nazis were simply peddling these mystical beliefs in order to recruit popular support. This is the particular argument advanced by Hermann Rauschning, a former Nazi. He contended that Nazi rulers did not believe in anything at all and that it is this quality that made them so dangerous since theirs was a program of destruction only. At least the communists, in Rauschning’s view, were trying to create some sort of society. Rauschning writes that the Nazi movement was revolutionary in scope in that it sought a complete change in the way politics was carried out, and that:
“The revolutionary dictatorship is a new type, in its cynical, unprincipled policy of violence. The outsider overlooks above all the essential distinction between the mass and the élite in the new revolutions. This distinction is vital in every field. That which is intended for the mass is not applicable to the élite. Program and official philosophy, allegiance and faith, are for the mass. Nothing commits the élite – no philosophy, no ethical standard.” (Rauschning 1939, 20)
According to Rauschning, the recognition that the Nazi leaders were cynically exploiting people’s ability to believe mystical ideas is key for understanding developments within Germany at the time. There are two flaws, however, with Rauschning’s thesis.
First, if we are to assume that the leaders were pure nihilists then we are still left with a population that believes what these nihilists produce. In a word, the myths that they believe or their tendency to believe in myths mean that this paper is of political relevance and its overall point might be true since in order for a lie to work, someone has to believe it. The assumption that Nazi leaders were cool-headedly exploiting the ignorant masses assumes that they viewed their ideology in the way that most social scientists do, which gives the Nazis unrealistic qualities (such as lacking any emotion and being social geniuses) and perhaps paints a disturbing picture of social scientists. The thesis still leaves room for the proposition that liberalism cannot survive a conflict with mythical politics.
Second, Rauschning’s thesis ignores the behavior of the movement itself. Nazism, as Rhodes shows us, really attempted to create a racially pure state that would carry out a final conflict with what it viewed to be the forces of evil. Nazi leaders devoted resources to killing Jews that would have been better served fighting the war. This fact implies that the Nazis were in fact concerned about ideology, since the cool-headed view would focus on winning the war first so that more Jews could be killed later. Nothing except ideology can account for mid-war trade-offs between genocide and troop transport. (Neiman 2009, 264) When the Nazis started losing the war, they increased the rate of killing in the camps instead of allowing the train tracks and soldiers to be utilized on the eastern front.
Liberalism, however, does not rely on sudden revelation to win over supporters. Instead, liberalism is accepted as a part of maturity in societies that is usually aided through education. (Kant) People learn to be free through a discussion of ideas that allows the truth to be heard. The assumption here is that people will come to the truth if they hear it because everybody has equal access to the faculties of reason. Under the Nazi paradigm, only the chosen could come to the truth, and they came to it through intuition and not reason.
The First Principles of Evil
The revelations experienced by Nazis pointed to the first principles of evil. This first principle of evil was the Jew. Average Nazis declared Jews to be “the originators of all the evils.” (Rhodes 1980, 45) Goebbels called them “incarnate devils” while the socialist wing of the party complained that “Jewish capitalists” were responsible for economic misery. It is perhaps too easy to quote instances of Nazi anti-Semitism, but it is important to note that Nazis viewed Jews as instinctually driven to destroy Germany specifically and humanity generally. Hitler himself believed that Jews were biologically demonic and took on the form of humans only over the course of centuries.
Rhodes points to an analogy in the Book of Revelation. He states, “Whereas Satan had raised up ‘beasts’ to kill and oppress the Christians, the Jew had created ‘the system’ to crush the Germans. This monster was an elaborate network of institutions and movements which secretly helped ‘the great destroyer of peoples’ do his work.” (Rhodes 1980, 46) All of these movements were directed by a fiendish “Jewish international finance capitalist.” This one individual, who was nameless and in the shadows, organized the suffering of others to benefit his own greed. Elite and average Nazis believed in the existence of this mastermind. Jews ran the media, the banks, Marxist groups, department stores, and the stock exchanges. All of the tentacles of evil had their roots in Judaism which explained the drive to destroy it. The introduction of the concept of evil infused Jews with a quality that was beyond the scope of traditional politics; there was a mythical, eschatological quality to the struggle with Judaism.
Some would argue that this was only the face the Nazis showed the public. The SS was certainly less enthusiastic about the myth. Arendt reports that “By its ‘objectivity’ (Sachlichkeit), the S.S. dissociated itself from such ’emotional’ types as Streicher, that ‘unrealistic fool,’ and also from certain ‘Teutonic-Germanic Party bigwigs who behaved as though they were clad in horns and pelts.'” (Arendt 1963, 69) She does go on to say that Himmler, who was head of the SS, allowed himself to be “influenced by it” for a long time.
Arendt’s study is brilliant in demonstrating how the bureaucrats of the Third Reich rationalized and economized the genocide. She shows how, “talking about concentration camps in terms of ‘administration’ and about extermination camps in terms of ‘economy’ – was typical of the S.S. mentality” and how Nazi bureaucrats working in the departments responsible for these activities were proud of their “objectivity.” (Arendt 1963, 69) The study of how such things could be done without emotion or malice is necessary and beneficial in understanding the nature of bureaucracy. Arendt contributes to our understanding about how genocide can be carried out, but we are also interested in why the orders were given in the first place. It may be that the average bureaucrat looked down on those who “behaved as though they were clad in horns and pelt” but they also were “influenced by it” and that influence is important. Mass murder may be rationalized, but in order for it to happen there must be a reason for the order. The reason for the order in this case is that the Jews were viewed as the first principles of evil.
The Chosen Few
Those who received the “call of the blood” thought that they were a chosen few. Only a select portion of the population had been given the truth about the human condition. It was these few that were charged with the sacred task to fight the forces of Jewry both at home and abroad. The German Volk, which is to say common people, were those chosen. Hitler claimed that “the Volk […] is the seed of life from which a new tree some day will strike secure roots.” (Rhodes 1980, 58) Much like St. John in the Book of Revelation, Rhodes contends that the Nazis felt that the Volk would rise to victory in the midst of the worst oppression and distress. In the writings of numerous Nazi leaders, the prediction that the miserable state of Germany would transform into joy was repeated.
Rhodes tells us, “The Nazis were certain of their eschatological views, their teleological ideas, and their election. The human myth-making faculty had taught the Hitlerites that they could survive by magically annihilating demons. To be credible, the myth-making capacity also had to tell them why they were in a situation that demanded sorcery. It had to guarantee that if they performed the required rituals, they would not only live but be rewarded.” (Rhodes 1980, 61) Under a liberal paradigm, there were no demons to slay; superstition and the irrational were continually critiqued by thinkers committed to the use of reason. If individuals would rationally think through their political arrangements, they would see that demonic forces were simply misunderstood and that a compromise could be reached between them. What gave the Nazis such momentum was the fact that the average person was likely to side with the political ideology that offered a firm view of the world; when it comes down to a choice between understanding that each of us are human beings with individual and valid claims to rights versus a political view that allows one to participate in a crusade to rid the world of evil, people choose the crusade.
Even the “objective” SS was infected with a belief in its election. Adolf Eichmann joined the movement because it gave his life meaning. Arendt informs us of his perspective. “From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving and in which someone like him – already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well – could start from scratch and still make a career.” (Arendt 1969, 33) Eichmann broke with Christianity during the Nazi period because “‘a higher Bearer of Meaning,’ an entity somehow identical with the ‘movement of the universe,’ to which human life, in itself devoid of ‘higher meaning,’ is subject” caught his attention (Arendt 1963, 27) Arendt writes that “To call God a Höheren Sinnesträger [Higher Bearer of Meaning] meant linguistically to give him some place in the military hierarchy, since the Nazis had changed the military ‘recipient of order,’ the Befehlsempfänger, into a ‘bearer of orders,’ a Befehlsträger.” (Arendt 1963, 27) Eichmann may not have worn any pelts or horns but he worked as an SS officer for a reason. He felt called, in his own way, to serve the Higher Bearer of Meaning in a destiny larger than himself.
The victory of the German Volk was not inevitable. Nazi leaders felt themselves called to participate in an eschatological war, which is to say a conflict to end all conflicts, a final war. This war was against the forces of Jewry. “In this […] powerful, great contest, there are only two possibilities: Either the victory of the Aryan side or its annihilation and the victory of the Jew.” (Rhodes 1980, 64)
As a result, Hitler called for a messianic struggle against Judaism. Through the Treaty of Versailles and other measures, Judaism was amassing for a final assault against the German people. Hitler and the Nazis felt that it was necessary for a strike against Judaism before the situation collapsed. In doing so, “Nazi leaders usurped the functions and identity of the warrior Jesus, replacing the divinely begotten Savior with the naturally gifted Leader.” (Rhodes 1980, 68) Hermann Rauschning, despite his belief that Nazi elites were cynical nihilists, discusses Hitler’s messianic mission. “The Messiah-figure of the leader is the indispensable center of their propaganda, as carefully devised as the whole of the apparatus of power.” (Rauschning 1939, 35)
The Nazi regime portrayed Hitler as a messiah in order to cynically exploit the population’s tendency to believe myth because “Our age […] readily indulges from time to time in the awe of adventurers and visionaries.” (Rauschning 1939, 36) With “perfect sincerity and conviction” a Nazi colleague told Rauschning that “Only when Hitler had really become a mythical figure would the whole depth of his magical influence reveal itself.” (Rauschning 1939, 36) The main vessel for the revelation of this mysticism was the Nazi Party. Through the Edda Society, the Thule Society, and other secretive orders that drew their symbolism from ancient Teutonic culture, party members could fellowship with other chosen people. (Goodrick-Clarke 1985) We can say in short that Nazis believed themselves to be called to serve Hitler, their messiah, in a final struggle against Jewish devils.
On the Brink of Collapse
Rhodes’ fifth criteria is the belief that the side of the chosen is on the brink of collapse. As alluded to previously, Germans felt themselves driven to participate in an eschatological war against Judaism. This final conflict was necessary because the forces of Judaism were amassing for a final strike against the Aryan race. In 1930, Rhodes tells us that Hitler and the Nazis massed for an eleventh hour counter-attack on Jewry. He says that the myth of the immanence of the final struggle was perpetuated throughout the entire regime. Each battle was fought against demonic elements and German leaders were constantly trying to waken a “sleeping Germany” to stand against its enemies. (Rhodes 1980, 68-69)
The Golden Age
Rhodes presents six criteria for a movement to be considered millenarian. As we stated above, proving that the Nazis were also millenarian proves that they were an example of mythical politics. We can tentatively say that millenarian movements are at least a subset of mythical politics; the Nazis may hold relation to communist movements that view themselves as the representatives of a final class conflict, to Islamic fundamentalists who see themselves entrenched in a crusade against infidel invaders, and to Christian groups preparing for an end-times battle with Satan, in that all groups claim allegiance to a larger than life order with world-historical implications. As such, the Nazis can provide a case study for examining if liberalism can survive a conflict with mythical politics. In Weimar Germany, it was a showdown between Hitler and the Republic and Hitler won. In this analysis, we seek to understand if Hitler’s victory was due to the strength of his myth. We have shown that Nazism meets five of Rhodes’ criteria. The final criterion is the belief that the efforts of the chosen will result in the culmination of a golden age.
Rhodes again points us to the Book of Revelation where St. John discusses the advent of a New Jerusalem, which is to say the eternity in which God rules on earth over immortal beings. Rhodes posits that the Nazis believe that their efforts will result in a golden age. He says that, “For their part, the Nazis looked forward to ‘a new better Third Reich,’ ‘the thousand-year Reich,’ ‘the new Reich,’ ‘the new Germany,’ ‘the Germany of the future,’ ‘a new creation,’ ‘the other time.'” (Rhodes 1980, 71-72)
Nazi efforts at eugenics have been well-researched (Eugenics Archive 2010). Nazi eugenics were intended to breed a pure Aryan race that could rule in the future, a “higher humanity” of sorts. Nazi rulers felt that the golden age would be populated with this higher humanity once the Nazis did the dirty work of fighting the eschatological conflict. As Rhodes tells us, “The NSDAP itself would mold the saints who were to populate its paradise.” (Rhodes 1980, 79) The Nazi movement was called by the Higher Bearer of Being in order to create a new race to populate a golden age free of evil. This is a succinct statement of the Nazi myth.