Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Resisting the Nazis

From First Things:
Yes, there are too many Nazi comparisons. The Democrats are Hitler, the Republicans are Hitler, the EU is Hitler. Climate-change skepticism isn't just reckless, it's a Nazi-like mindset. Feminists aren't just mistaken, they're “feminazis.” All this displays a poverty of imagination. But it also shows that we need some shared ethical language. People may disagree about everything else, but at least everyone thinks the Nazis were bad. If we could not invoke the Nazis, it would be harder to ask two important questions: How does evil manifest itself, and how should we resist it?

Two books, Dietrich von Hildebrand’s My Battle Against Hitler and Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler, help answer those questions. Both men left Germany in the 1930s, and despite their temperamental differences, the two authors clearly describe the same reality.

Haffner’s memoir evokes the all-pervasive nature of Nazism. “It seeped through the walls like poison gas,” he writes. Work, leisure, family, and friendship offered no refuge. When Hitler becomes chancellor, life seems to carry on as normal: The shops are still open, the cinemas and dance halls are still full. And yet, Haffner writes, private conversations are soon infected by “a new intolerance and heated readiness to hate.” People are carried away, first by intimidation, then by the intoxication of being part of a movement, until normal, daily events seem charged with ideological meaning. There was an “unrelenting pressure to think about politics all the time.” A conversation between friends becomes an argument, then a tense row, then an open threat of being reported to the Gestapo. 

Haffner hopes that the structure of the law (his own profession) would remain in place: Nothing, surely, could move the judges of Berlin’s legendary Kammergericht. But then an SS man is appointed to the bench. When he pronounces, the old jurists are a wretched sight: “They looked at their notes with an expression of indescribable dejection, while their fingers nervously twisted a paper-clip or a piece of blotting-paper.” Legal reasoning which the judges know to be utter nonsense is now backed with the threat of the concentration camp. Even the judges roll over.

Von Hildebrand’s account reveals what this poison gas demanded of individuals. His tale—usefully edited by John H. Crosby and John F. Crosby—includes dozens of vignettes of men (especially von Hildebrand’s fellow Catholics) choosing to jump one way or another. One describes a Franciscan theologian trying to reconcile Nazism with his religion: “Under the intoxicating influence of the Zeitgeist,” von Hildebrand recalls, “he was completely blinded.” Another portrays a Hitler-sympathizing journalist who converts to Catholicism and becomes a staunch anti-Nazi. (Read more.)

No comments: