Petty Tyrants

The man who threatens the world is always ridiculous; for the world can easily go on without him, and in a short while will cease to miss him. – Samuel Johnson, “Life of Pope”

In The Face of the Third Reich Joachim C. Fest convincingly relates the vanity and pettiness of Nazi functionaries like Alfred Rosenberg, Martin Bormann, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Hans Frank. They imagined they would leave a lasting mark on history, yet most were were doomed to a deserved obscurity. Naturally people like to think of Nazis and their collaborators as being remarkably different from themselves. However, Fest’s view is not so complacent.

What stands out in the lives of Nazi officials how they masked their ethical equivocation and self-seeking by pretentious moralizing. As individual decency is cast aside, the world becomes an open playing field for dreamers and scoundrels who feel unencumbered by personal responsibility. Yet such is human psychology that even the most murderous rulers need some “sanction” for their deeds. Religion is not something you just get rid of—another “faith” must replace it. As Fest explains:

All modern systems of order based on totalitarian ideology contain a pseudo-religious claim. The end or at least the erosion of the authority of Christianity helped to prepare the way for states themselves to appear with growing emphasis as the bearers of a compulsory secular ethic…. The liquidation and capture of heaven, as practised by the rival secular religions with zealous seriousness and growing support from the masses, was certainly in line with modern man’s lack of religious orientation and his consequent search for fresh metaphysical attachments inside or outside the traditional content of faith.

The Face of the Third Reich reveals the “pre-Nazi” roots of Nazism. Beneath the surface differences, Germans across the political spectrum held similar preconceptions about humanity and the role of the state. While conformist bodies, like the military and technical professions, come in for their fair share of criticism, Fest does not spare the intellectuals either. A surprising number of artists, teachers and scholars backed Hitler in the early stages of his dictatorship. Though outwardly individualistic, the educated classes quietly aided totalitarianism through decades of moral nihilism and vehement social criticism which eroded traditional structures in favor an irrational romanticism. Even the growing disillusionment that some intellectuals experienced was noticeably myopic. As Fest notes with irony, the Nazi mob that had taken power “was not the mob, the barbarism, the chaos which they had once called down upon civilisation” in their literary posturing.

Conflicting aspirations were successfully exploited by Hitler since each of his followers saw in him the realization of their own fantasies of personal salvation. In this respect the intellectuals were no different than the army officers in seeking status under the new regime or using ideology to advance their own egos. Fascism, as a major phenomenon, is dead, but the forces that gave rise to it will always be with us.

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