Bunker Mentality

German historian Joachim Fest (1926 – 2006) was undoubtedly the Hitler expert par excellence. One of his final books on the subject was, appropriately, a look at the last days of the Third Reich, Inside Hitler’ Bunker. It is a concise and readable volume. Along with fascinating anecdotes about the doomed Nazi leader and his retinue, and the increasingly surreal atmosphere of the underground Berlin headquarters, Fest offers thoughtful commentary on the nature of Hitler’s aims and motivations.

Referring to Hitler’s infamous plans for scorched-earth tactics in the face of advancing enemy armies, which would have merely added to the misery of the civilian population, Fest concludes: “It would be a mistake to interpret these orders as a last, desperate, defensive measure against the approach of a superior foe. The intent to demolish had always been Hitler’s first and preferred course of action, an expression of his true voice….” The point being that he was consumed by a nihilism which Fest traces back to the earliest days of the Nazi seizure of power. It is not surprising that Hitler could be so callous toward Jews and foreigners when he said of the German people that if they could not win the war then they must “perish and be annihilated,” nor would he “shed a single tear for them.”

I would modify Fest’s judgment somewhat by saying that this “will to destroy” was merely the flip side of an extreme narcissism. No doubt the Führer would have preferred victory, but like a petulant child in the playroom who is mad that others won’t do what he wants, he throws tantrums and wrecks all the toys. In this respect there are clear parallels between the dictator in the bunker and the murderous antics of modern terrorists and psychopaths for whom mass destruction is a way of asserting their importance in a purely negative manner, albeit with the difference that Hitler had many more resources at his disposal.

Speaking of which, Fest frequently comments on the uncanny ability of the Führer to command servile loyalty even in the final weeks of the war. Another expert on the topic, Hannah Arendt, summarizes it in this way:

It is in the nature of the [totalitarian] movement that once the Leader has assumed his office, the whole organization is so absolutely identified with him that any admission of a mistake or removal from office would break the spell of infallibility which surrounds the office of the Leader and spell doom to all those connected with the movement (The Origins of Totalitarianism).

This would explain why, when the end came, so many party officials killed themselves, including Joseph and Magda Goebbels who not only ended their own lives in the Berlin bunker, but in a particularly pathetic and horrible manner, poisoned their young children. For them life after Hitler was unthinkable.

For related commentary, see my reviews of Fest’s The Face of the Third Reich and Speer: The Final Verdict.

Posted in History, Politics

Lord Greystoke of the Jungle

Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes (1912) is certainly one of the best page-turners I’ve encountered in awhile. Like many people I knew, or thought I knew, the Tarzan story through the old Johnny Weissmuller films that I grew up with on pre-cable television. But there was much more to the original story than just a big shirtless guy shouting “umgawa” at animals.

On the one hand, Lord Greystoke is presented as an impossibly perfect Nietzschean specimen, both physically and mentally, much like the heroes of Jack London’s novels. But the book is redeemed by the inventiveness of the plot, far less formulaic than others of its ilk, and extensive character development. Having been raised by semi-intelligent apes—who even speak a rudimentary language—there are interesting and often humorous exchanges (and misunderstandings) between Tarzan and the first civilized Europeans whom he encounters.

The way in which Tarzan acquires a masterful understanding of written English through pictorial primers (and later on, more advanced texts) found in the abandoned hut of his human parents pushes the limits of credulity. But it is clever how Burroughs has him learning French as his first spoken language, through the instruction of Paul D’Arnot, a sympathetic naval officer stranded on the coast of western Africa. Even the ending of the novel is not a classically “happy one,” though the author intimates that there is “more to come” in the next story in the series.

Burrough’s character is very much a post-Christian hero and the epitome of “self-reliance.” His ethos is one of survivalism, albeit tinged with a growing sense of chivalry, especially in his dealings with his European friends and love interest Jane Porter. The ape man’s attitudes towards animals, often valuing them more than humans, would sit well with current sensibilities. On the other hand the highly unflattering physical and cultural depictions of black Africans would not.

That said, in the latter half of the story a more thoughtful ethical discussion takes place between Lord Greystoke and a group of Europeans who are seated at dinner in a French colonial town:

Opinion was divided as to the bravery of the king of beasts—some maintaining that he was an arrant coward, but all agreeing that it was with a feeling of greater security that they gripped their express rifles when the monarch of the jungle roared about a camp at night….

“Monsieur Tarzan has not expressed himself,” said one of the party. “A man of his prowess who has spent some time in Africa, as I understand Monsieur Tarzan has, must have had experiences with lions–yes?”

“Some,” replied Tarzan, dryly. “Enough to know that each of you are right in your judgment of the characteristics of the lions–you have met. But one might as well judge all blacks by the fellow who ran amuck last week, or decide that all whites are cowards because one has met a cowardly white.”

Posted in Fiction

Goethe and the Conservatism of Experience

The adage, often apocryphally attributed to Churchill, about age and political disposition may actually have originated with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The German poet once said to a friend that “everybody is a democrat in youth, when they have nothing to lose, and aristocrat in later life, when they hope to pass something on to their children.” Such interesting and neglected details are brought to light in Daniel Johnson’s review of a recent Goethe biography by Rüdiger Safranski (The New Criterion, Sept. 2017).

Johnson laments the fact that Goethe is no longer required material for German students. Apparently he has suffered the same fate at the hands of post-modern sensibilities that Shakespeare or Chaucer have in English-speaking universities. There is added irony in that Goethe began his intellectual life as a romanticist and freethinker (who never entirely accommodated himself to Christian orthodoxy); nevertheless, his increasingly conservative political opinions were shaped by the fact that he had witnessed the excesses of the French Revolution, the imperialism of Napoleon and the subsequent emergence of intolerant ideological movements.

There was plenty of gray area in the moral realm. He lived with a woman, Christiane Vulpius, for 18 years before finally marrying her, and conducted numerous intimate liaisons with other women. Some of his writings were overtly erotic for their time. Yet this is the same man who proclaimed “There is nothing worse than imagination without taste,” and who (according to Johnson) criticized extramarital sex in some of his writings. At any rate, one is clearly on solid ground in citing Goethe’s weariness with utopian political schemes. According to the German sage:

Legislators and revolutionaries who promise equality and liberty at the same time are either psychopaths or mountebanks.

You never hear so much talk about freedom as when one party wants to subjugate another and aims at nothing less than shifting power, influence, and treasure from one hand to another.

Writing about socialism, he said

That doctrine seems to me quite impracticable and would never work. It contradicts all nature, all experience, and the course of things for thousands of years.

Johnson sums up his outlook as a Central European version of Burkean philosophy: “Goethe was always a conservative, never a reactionary. He believed neither in revolution nor restoration, but in reform.”

Posted in Art and Culture, History, Literature, Politics

Primal Things Which Move Us

Hilaire Belloc’s book The Old Road (1904), which traces the ancient Roman road from Winchester to Canterbury, is unlike most of his other travel writings in that it is primarily a “technical study” and thus of limited interest to the average reader. Nevertheless, his preface (of which excerpts are provided below) is surely one of his most remarkable pieces of prose, both for its cultural interest and its lyrical evocation of the things he is describing.

There are primal things which move us. Fire has the character of a free companion that has travelled with us from the first exile; only to see a fire, whether he need it or no, comforts every man. Again, to hear two voices outside at night after a silence, even in crowded cities, transforms the mind. A Roof also, large and mothering, satisfies us here in the north much more than modern necessity can explain; so we built in the beginning: the only way to carry off our rains and to bear the weight of our winter snows. A Tower far off arrests a man’s eye always: it is more than a break in the sky-line; it is an enemy’s watch or the rallying of a defence to whose aid we are summoned. Nor are these emotions a memory or a reversion only as one crude theory might pretend; we craved these things—the camp, the refuge, the sentinels in the dark, the hearth—before we made them; they are part of our human manner, and when this civilisation has perished they will reappear.

More than rivers and more than mountains, roads have moulded the political groups of men…. And with religions all that is built on them: letters, customs, community of language and idea, have followed the Road, because humanity, which is the matter of religion, must also follow the road it has made. Architecture follows it, commerce of course, all information: it is even so with the poor thin philosophies, each in its little day drifts, for choice, down a road.

To study something of great age until one grows familiar with it and almost to live in its time, is not merely to satisfy a curiousity or to establish aimless truths: it is rather to fulfil a function whose appetite has always rendered History a necessity. By the recovery of the Past, stuff and being are added to us; our lives which, lived in the present only, are a film or surface, take on body—are lifted into one dimension more. The soul is fed. Reverence and knowledge and security and the love of a good land—all these are increased or given by the pursuit of this kind of learning. Visions or intimations are confirmed…. One may say that historical learning grants men glimpses of life completed and a whole; and such a vision should be the chief solace of whatever is mortal and cut off imperfectly from fulfilment.

For more on these themes in Belloc’s writings, see Esto Perpetua and Permanency in Human Affairs.

Posted in Hilaire Belloc, History

A Weekend Meditation

“Remember how long you have delayed, how often the gods have appointed the day of your redemption and you have let it pass. Now, if ever, you must realize of what kind of ordered universe you are a part, of what kind of governor of that universe you are an emanation, that a time limit has now been set for you and that if you do not use it to come out into the light, it will be lost, and you will be lost, and there will be no further opportunity.”—Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, II. 4

The Stoic emperor speaks of a spiritually transformative experience. Our word “conversion” comes from the Latin conversio, which means to “turn around.” But this implies a bit more than a transient, if intense, epiphany. It is something that lastingly affects one’s behavior. As for the nature of this change, we often get the impression that it is due to external influences: a book, a conversation, an event. In addressing the nature of belief, Samuel Johnson argues that few people actually alter their convictions on the basis of  “argument and reflection.” Rather “their actions are not generally the result of their reasonings, but their reasonings of their actions” (Sermon No. 5).

We have only to see how two people can undergo the same experience, even a miraculous one, and respond in very different ways. Jesus cured ten lepers. Only the Samaritan returned to give thanks (Lk 17:11-19). Certain incidents may act as the proximate occasion for conversion, but—whether the change occurs rapidly (as in the case of St. Paul on the road to Damascus) or slowly over the course of many years—it seems to be more the culmination or confirmation of an existing spiritual habit than its cause.

Additional commentary: Our First and Earlier Vision and The Motives Behind Our Actions

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, Samuel Johnson, Stoicism

Modern Insensibilities

“When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.”—Samuel Johnson

Recent years have seen the complete removal of filters on public discourse. Expletives grace the covers of best-selling volumes. Prominent celebrities — presumably not deprived of some semblance of education — regularly indulge in trashy rants with little or no repercussion.

What is worse than coarse humor or a limited vocabulary is the viciousness of petulant outbursts in print and electronic media. Name calling takes the place of substantive criticism. But along with the cultural shift in sports and entertainment, public expression even among the intelligentsia frequently wallows in tedious brutality. There was a time when political humor was funny and a joke could elicit bi-partisan laughter; now it is merely a stream of outrage and abuse.

It has of course long been fashionable to insist on candor while denouncing the supposed hypocrisy of good manners. No doubt there are times when, as Samuel Johnson admitted, “Courtesy and good humour are often found [in people] with little real worth.” But a decline in etiquette is not likely to improve matters. Elsewhere the English moralist describes propriety as a “fictitious benevolence,” while the lack of it “never fails to produce something disagreeable.” If we are forced to behave nicely even when we don’t want to, we are at less disposed to act badly when we shouldn’t.

Johnson also wrote, “Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.” At the present time, however, shame is not much in evidence.

Related comments: Hypocrisy Reconsidered, Josef Pieper and the Return to Dialogue and Politics of Easy Virtue

Posted in Art and Culture, Politics, Samuel Johnson

What Were They Fighting For?

Critics of the Confederacy say that slavery was the critical factor in secession. Some states, like Missouri, made it clear in their declarations to leave the Union that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” By contrast, defenders will argue that it was not the only, nor even the most decisive, justification for independence; rather, the issue was states’ rights.

Putting aside contemporary debates on the subject, I want to focus on the insights provided by Philip Dillard’s new book, Jefferson Davis’s Final Campaign: Confederate Nationalism and the Fight to Arm Slaves. The volume’s extensive documentation, based on period correspondence and newspapers, allows one to read what southerners of the time were actually saying about wartime aims. According to the author

From November 1864 to April 1865, Jefferson Davis…. hoped to gain significant popular support for revolutionary steps intended to make independence, rather than the preservation of slavery, the central tenet of the Confederate cause.

There can be no doubt that the federal government’s attempt to restrict forced labor was the major bone of contention in late 1860 and early 1861. However, as the war dragged on and northern victories accumulated some people were open to alternatives. One editorial in a South Carolina paper opined that there “is a deep substratum of public sentiment… that gradual emancipation may become the policy of the Confederacy.” This was not uncommon among those favoring Davis’ measure, which was finally passed by the Confederate Congress in March of 1865.

Needless to say the proposal was controversial. For many it meant forfeiting the defining cultural and economic characteristic of the South. Paternalist pro-slavery ideologues assumed that servitude was the best thing for blacks. Others might consider the option in theory but optimistically convinced themselves that the situation would never justify such radical steps. In the end it was a matter of too little, too late.

One can only wonder how the history of the war and of American race relations in general may (or may not) have been different had black and white southerners united in a common cause. Undoubtedly the measure could be seen as pragmatic and exploitative. Yet at least a few were sincere in their desire to have men of both color serve in Confederate gray. “We want them for soldiers,” declared a proponent in a Houston newspaper. Unfortunately Dillard does not detail the attempts to implement the new recruitment policy. Other sources tell us that at least two Georgia regiments were prepared to integrate newly freed blacks into their ranks on the eve of the Confederate surrender. Ironically these measures would have come decades before the U.S Army finally desegregated its own combat units.

A discussion such as this may seem academic. Ultimately it was Union policy and force of arms which brought about the end of a detestable institution. That said, Dillard’s book reminds us that there are always important nuances which are apt to be glossed over by simplistic partisan explanations of the past.

Posted in History, Politics

Medieval Advice on Simplicity

The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous work of the fourteenth century, contains a great deal of practical insight scattered throughout its austere and esoteric counsels on mysticism. For example, while discussing questions of self-discipline, the author says

You will ask me, perhaps, how you are to control yourself with due care in the matter of food and drink and sleep and so on. My answer is brief: “Take what comes!” Do this thing without ceasing and without care day by day, and you will know well enough, with a real discretion, when to begin and when to stop in everything else (Ch. 42).

Unlike many ascetics, he argues that it is best not to become fixated on scrupulously precise regimens which leave one preoccupied with the very distractions one seeks to avoid. In psychological terms, such preoccupation takes on the form of neuroses. Nor are mood swings, which give way to short-lived enthusiasms, as likely to succeed as the slow and deliberate reformation.

So for the love of God control your body and soul alike with great care, and keep as fit as you can. Should illness come in spite of everything, have patience and wait humbly for God’s mercy. That is all that is asked (Ch. 41).

Don’t embrace afflictions of one’s own choosing. No hair shirts or debilitating fasts. Rather, it requires much more patience to endure what happens by chance, taking the bad equally with the good. In like manner, our medieval sage implies that we are free to enjoy the innocent pleasures of life, but we should not be overly zealous in seeking them nor constantly disappointed when they elude our grasp. We enjoy things more when we treat them as something special and not something we’re entitled to, looking instead for opportunities to appreciate what is often unsought and unplanned.

A note to readers: I recommend the original Penguin translation of The Cloud of Unknowing by Clifton Wolters (now out of print, but available in used copies) over other editions for its accurate and sympathetic treatment of the subject.

Posted in Religion

Religion, Politics and Mysticism

 “Just as it is possible to conceive of a religion which will satisfy man’s religious needs without being applicable to the social situation of modern Europe—as, for example, in Buddhism—so we can construct, at least in theory, a religion which would be adapted to the social needs of modern civilization, but which would be incapable of satisfying the purely religious demands of the human spirit.”—Christopher Dawson

The English Catholic historian gives us an example of “faith” as social construct: the experiment of Communism which “threatens to be even more sterile and inimical to man’s spiritual personality” than the worldly philosophies of Rousseau or Comte. As for the reason for their repeated failures

It is useless to judge a religion from the point of view of the politician or the social reformer. We shall never create a living religion merely as a means to an end, as a way out of our practical difficulties. For the religious view of life is the opposite to the utilitarian.

It is a post-Enlightenment prejudice that says religion is inherently irrational. Higher civilizations, for example, develop highly complex and intellectual metaphysical explanations. On the other hand, a purely rational worldview—the sort espoused by the Stoics or Mr. Spock—satisfies very few. Looking at repeated historical testimony, Dawson believes that people seek not merely abstract knowledge of the divine but also a direct experience of it. This is mysticism.

Ironically, even the most ardent atheist can indulge in mystical longings. We see this quite strikingly in the millenarian beliefs of Marxism. While socialists like to advance their theories as empirical, a system that continually trades present for future goods is really a form of ersatz theology, not science. At least in the traditional religious context a saying like that from The Imitation of Christ makes sense: “Set aside the things of time, and seek those of eternity.” It pertains to a transcendent reality, not some fairy-tale notion of free goods and services handed out by a government operating in a truly miraculous fashion, not bound by the normal laws of the universe.

I leave readers with a final consideration from Dawson: “A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.” In pondering this statement it is worth remembering that root of the word “culture” is “cult”—which originally meant not a dysfunctional spiritual sect but referred to a society’s widespread sacred rituals. As seen from Dawson’s analysis, the kind of belief that nurtures the human spirit cannot be fabricated. The noblest and most enduring creed comes to us from on high. It demands humility. By contrast, arrogant convictions serve us ill and soon lead to tragedy.

This is my third and final segment discussing The Dynamics of World History. For previous comments, see Christopher Dawson on Religion and Civilization and A Genealogy of Morals.

Posted in History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

A Genealogy of Morals

Continuing my reading of The Dynamics of World History, author Christopher Dawson explains that just as all pre-modern societies can be shown to have a religious basis, so every culture has also possessed a moral code. Beginning with the Enlightenment, however, many thinkers questioned the need for a sacred order. They argued that it should be possible to find a pre-religious basis for human conduct. Of such a code, Dawson says, “there is not much evidence [but]… there is no doubt about the existence of a post-religious [morality].” More advanced societies typically attain a level of heightened criticism during which the ethical and metaphysical initiative passes from traditional religion to philosophy. While the European Enlightenment did not produce an overnight shift in worldviews; nevertheless, it did witness the greatest polarization of thought since antiquity.

Orthodox belief ceased to predominate. Secularism and skepticism emerged as a small but increasingly influential segment of society. Of the many people in the middle, who espoused a purely “practical” ethos, Dawson describes their tenuous situation in this way: “The very conception of morality involves a duality or opposition between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be.’” To say that things should be a done a certain way implies some yardstick that is more than just a matter of efficiency or custom. Pragmatism may be widespread, but it is not intellectually decisive in the long run.

As for the newer systems of thought, philosophers who sought to derive ethical norms from purely empirical findings were faced with a conundrum. To base moral choices on factors of biology and environment is to make human activity deterministic. To deny the transcendent is to say that people are no different from other animals. Yet other animals, unlike humans, are not faced with crises of conscience; they never have to justify their actions. Presented with this paradox some atheistic thinkers, like Sartre or Bertrand Russell, felt that we must try to impose meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe. The problem with this assertion is that if the universe is truly aimless, we would never know it.

Ever since the Renaissance our society has turned its attention to the control of nature. This makes it superior to earlier epochs in knowledge and power while at the same time becoming “far less unified and less morally sure of itself.” The fact is that the recurring dualism between spirit and matter remains just as insolvable now as it was two or three millennia ago when the great sages arose in India, Greece and Judea, in protest against the ethical complacency of their age. Humanity in the mass still requires some faith to uphold it, whether it be traditional religion or the salvific promises of progressivist creeds. As for the outcome of this contest, Dawson does not offer predictions; however, he does offer insights, which will be considered in a future installment.

Posted in History, Philosophy, Religion