Nazi Sentimentality

At the end of Albert Speer’s book on the Nazi economy there is an interesting vignette. Adolf Hitler is explaining to his top circle: “When I realize that the species is in danger, then ice-cold reason takes the place of feeling: I see only the sacrifices demanded by the future if a sacrifice is not made today…. We will absorb or drive away a ridiculous hundred million Slavs. If anyone speaks of taking care of them, he’ll have to be put in a concentration camp right away.” The Nazi plan was to resettle 20 million Germans in the eastern territories, which meant exterminating or enslaving the indigenous inhabitants.

Hitler felt driven to this eugenic “necessity” for much the same reason that people today urge eliminating the unborn, the unfit or the elderly. They speak in Nazi-like terms of making “hard decisions.” The irony is that these are actually easy decisions for the ethically weak. The truly hard decision is enduring the difficulties, sacrifices and uncertainties of human imperfection. In that respect, traditional morality is wise to recognize how variable our moods are, by insisting we do what is objectively right.

You cannot turn agreeable feelings into a good ethical system, like vegetarianism or being kind to animals. If that were the case then Hitler would have been a “nice guy.” According to Speer, the Fuhrer was undoubtedly capable of much superficial benevolence. “I love people so much!” he would say. “I wouldn’t want to see anyone suffering or to hurt anyone…. Beauty should have power over people…. I never enjoyed maltreating others, even though I realize that it is impossible to assert oneself without violence….”

Another charming example from Speer’s book is Otto Ohlendorf, an SS general and Nazi economic official. He frequently inveighed against Speer’s dependence on private industry and the evils of capitalism, while extolling the bucolic virtues of small business, artisanship and local identity. As Speer points out, before he took up his job as ideological adviser in the realm of economics, Ohlendorf commanded the infamous Einsatzgruppen that murdered 90,000 people. Clearly this is the same sort of Rousseauian sentimentality that fueled the butchery of the French Revolution.

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