Hitler and the Romanticism of Destruction

 

Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor, La Salle University

“It is futile to judge the viability of new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises.”

                                                                                                                         The True Believer

Eric Hoffer

Gripped by romantic imaginings, Hitler dreamed himself into a murderous buzz and millions paid the ultimate price. This essay investigates the key romantic fantasies dominating his thoughts and shaping his actions. First, though, let’s define what we mean by “romantic.”

What Does “Romantic” Mean?

Romantic(ism)can be defined in a startling number of ways. In fact, in his Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal (1948), F.L. Lucas identifies 11,396 different meanings. There is, for instance, the mid 18th Century English definition, “tender, sentimental, melancholy and gentle;” as well as the classic, “a reaction against neoclassicism.”

This monograph makes use of a different meaning. For it we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary — widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. Here is that usage:

romantic, adj. and n.

  • of an idea, plan, etc.: fantastic, extravagant, quixotic; going beyond what is customary or practical. Of a person, personality, etc.: given to or characterized by such ideas; responsive to the promptings of imagination or fancy regardless of practicality.
  • that gives free rein to the imagination; indulging in fancy or fantasy; fanciful; sentimental; idealistic.[1]

(The OED defines “romanticism” simply as “a romantic idea or conception.”)

Note there is no requirement that the fantastic idea or plan be positive. And so far as the “idealistic” aspect is concerned, one man’s ideals can be another man’s abominations. Hitler certainly had ideals. Mein Kampf is full of them. Consider his, “Life is struggle. And he who does not struggle, has no right to live.” This expresses an ideal. But not one most people want to frame and hang on their wall.

Romantic nationalism is the second romantic aspect involved. This conception of nationalism was a key element of romanticism and one of its most enduring legacies.[2] Here, the legitimacy of the state is a consequence of the degree of cultural unity.[3] Instead of focusing on royal families, territory acquired through aristocratic marriages and the like, the focus is on shared language, myths, and folklore, national identity, race, religion, and the spiritual value of local customs and traditions.

Romantic nationalism was a powerful movement, encouraging calls for self-determination of nationalities and ultimately reshaping the map of Europe. Hitler’s vision of a greater Germany — a Reich uniting all German-speaking people —was romantic nationalism in fullest flower. It emphasized common language and an inherited cultural patrimony including myths, which, Hitler claimed, were uniquely and authentically German. Common “blood,” or shared gene pool, was even more important.

Reification

Reification is a key ingredient of romantic nationalism and it was centrally involved in Hitler’s thinking. To reify means to regard an abstraction, say a nation state, as if it were a concrete, even living, thing. When Hitler calls on Germany to awake, for instance, it’s as if this highly diverse union of some seventy million individuals were a single person.

Hitler reified the Jews too. He viewed them as a single malevolent entity in which innocent children and aged grandmas were indistinguishable from bloody Bolsheviks and money grubbing pawn brokers. With this style of thinking, individual differences and shades of gray lose all significance. And Hitler did not limit his reifications to Aryans and Jews. He packed all of humanity into tidy reified clusters that included categories fatal to those so labeled. These included: “racially inferior,” “undesirable,” “sub-human,” “unworthy of life,” and “asocial.”

Hitler’s reifications were a deadly substitute for thought. And when combined with his predilection for dichotomous (black/white) thinking, romantic fables and romantic nationalism, the mixture proved utterly toxic.

Enter the Hero

Hitler’s fantasies include the same plot elements as a trashy romantic novel. There are selfless heroes, malevolent arch-villains and a world in mortal danger.[4] It is hard to believe that the death, destruction and misery Hitler caused derived from such nutty simplifications. One longs for more rational reasons for all that. But the fact is romantic nonsense informed the bulk of Hitler’s actions.[5]

For instance, a key romantic delusion of Hitler’s was that Germans were the lineal descendents of a tall, strong, blond, blue-eyed, ancient race of heroic Aryan supermen. These archetypal romantic heroes were noble, tough, far seeing, deeply spiritual, and selflessly devoted to the needs of the community. In sum, these god men were the personification of physical and moral perfection.

This fantasy was not original with Hitler. The Austrians Guido von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels invented the basic elements in the late 19th and early 20th Century during a period of general occult revival. Their so-called Ariosophy, (wisdom of the Aryans),[6] was greatly influenced by Germanic paganism, theosophy[7]and, most of all, German romantic nationalism.[8]

Casting about for evidence of the Aryans superiority, List and Liebenfels pointed to the Germanic tribesmen who overwhelmed Rome, Charlemagne’s warriors, the Teutonic knights and Siegfried who, when all other champions failed or fled, supposedly slew Fafnir, the supposedly invincible dragon.

Already enraptured by Richard Wagner’s romantic operas celebrating Germanic mythological figures such as Wotan, (ruler of the Gods), and Siegfried (a heroic knight), Hitler fanatically embraced racism in general and Aryanism in particular. [9] He fervently believed that the physical and spiritual heritage of this Aryan people, who were the “highest image of the Lord,”[10] was preserved in the body and soul of Germans in general and German peasants in particular.[11]

Hitler was certain that if “racial polluters” were dealt with, a guard mounted over “the Holy Grail of German blood” and selective breeding initiated, these supermen could be re-established. In fact, he believed that restoring these god men was his particular “truly high mission” supernaturally assigned by what he variously referred to as “Providence” the Almighty” and “the Creator.” [12]

Portentously, he also believed that his special mission was achievable “… only when . . . the international poisoners are exterminated.”[13] He was, of course, referring to the Jews.

A soon as he was in power, Hitler began his “restorative” mission. At first he forbade racially mixed marriages and imposed compulsory sterilization or euthanasia on those deemed “unworthy of living.” He resorted to industrialized killing after December 1941. Hitler regarded these measures as a form of racial hygiene that was necessary to avert the onrushing Jewish induced apocalypse and, instead, usher in the Aryan millennium. [14]

Hitler’s Aryanism was not limited to eugenic measures. It extended to practically every aspect of life in the Third Reich. Even German natural science, once world renowned, was warped to match Hitler’s extravagant “Volkish” fantasies.[15] Consider this assertion by the pro Nazi Nobel Laureate, Johannes Stark:

“The spirit of the German enables him to observe things outside himself exactly as they are, without the interpolation of his own ideas and wishes, and his body does not shrink from the effort which investigation of nature demands of him. The Germans love of nature and his aptitude for natural science are based on this endowment. Thus it is understandable that natural science is overwhelmingly a creation of the Aryan-Germanic blood component of the Aryan peoples.”[16]

The Necessity of the Devil

The longshoreman/philosopher Eric Hoffer observes: “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”[17] For Hitler, “the eternal Jew” was that devil — a precise metaphysical opposite of his imagined Aryan god men.

In Hitler’s view the Jew’s iniquity exceeds that of the most thoroughly malevolent villains of romantic fiction. He puts it this way in Mein Kampf:

To break decent souls, the Jew “… stops at nothing; and in his vileness he becomes so gigantic that no one need be surprised if … the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.[18]

Hitler’s romantic fantasy continues,

“In the political field he (the Jew) refuses the state the means for its self-preservation, destroys the foundations of all national self-maintenance and defense, destroys faith in the leadership, scoffs at its history and past, and drags everything that is truly great into the gutter. Culturally he contaminates art, literature, the theater, makes a mockery of natural feeling, overthrows all concepts of beauty and sublimity, of the noble and the good, and instead drags men down into the sphere of his own base nature. Religion is ridiculed, ethics and morality represented as outmoded, until the last props of a nation in its struggle for existence in this world have fallen. Now begins the great last revolution. In gaining political power the Jew casts of the few cloaks he still wears. The democratic people’s Jew becomes the blood-Jew, the tyrant over peoples.”[19]

Hitler’s image of “the Jew” embodies all of the elements of the romantic described in the OED. It is “fantastic, extravagant, beyond what is customary or practical and responsive to the promptings of imagination or fancy regardless of practicality.” It even involves sentimentality in the sense that, for Hitler, Jews aim to destroy everything worthy of sentiment.

Subhumans

Another of Hitler’s extravagant ideas involved the conquest and colonization of Slavic lands — particularly Ukraine and Russia. This would provide the necessary lebensraum (living space) for his millennial Reich; and, from Hitler’s perspective, those already living there were not even human beings, but an undifferentiated sub-human mass fit only for enslavement or liquidation. Consequently, it made sense to seize their land, exterminate their bloody “Judeo-Bolshevik” leadership, enslave or liquidate as many as necessary, then shove the remainder into the subarctic wastes of Siberia.

A pamphlet titled Der Untermensch, edited by SS Reichsfuhrer and Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler, reveals the specifics of this homicidal flight of imagination:

“Just as the night rises against the day, the light and dark are in eternal conflict. So too, is the subhuman the greatest enemy of the dominant species on earth, mankind. The subhuman is a biological creature, crafted by nature, which has hands, legs, eyes and mouth, even the semblance of a brain. Nevertheless, this terrible creature is only a partial human being.

Although it has features similar to a human, the subhuman is lower on the spiritual and psychological scale than any animal. Inside of this creature lies wild and unrestrained passions: an incessant need to destroy, filled with the most primitive desires, chaos and coldhearted villainy.

A subhuman and nothing more! Not all of those, who appear human, are in fact so. Woe to him who forgets it!“[20]

Nearly four million copies of this fifty-page pamphlet were printed.

Possessing Absolute Truth

Hitler was convinced that his racial fantasies were absolute truth; and Eric Hoffer observes, “To be in possession of absolute truth is to have a net of absolute familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without hesitation. … The true doctrine is a master key to all the world’s problems. With it the world can be taken apart and put together.”[21]

Hitler was, in fact, without hesitation and did set out to take the world apart. His romantic goal was to create a new man and a new type of society.[22] This prompted him to commit crimes and aggressions of monstrous proportions and, vitally, caused his biggest blunders. For instance, Hitler’s dreams of lebensraum for a greater Germany triggered his invasion of Poland. And he was genuinely surprised when his action triggered World War II.[23] Hitler imagined that Britain would tolerate German dominance of Europe so long as he did not interfere with their colonial empire. Both nations, after all, were Aryan.

When World War II began, blitzkrieg finished off all his antagonists save Britain. But the Brits ultimately won the air war. So Hitler, half reluctantly, had to cancel his planned invasion. Then, notwithstanding this unresolved situation with Britain, heedless of his general’s grave misgivings, and despite the crucial six-week delay required to rescue Mussolini’s army in Greece, Hitler launched his long-planned planned invasion of the Soviet Union — an action he clearly telegraphed in Mein Kampf way back in 1925.

Here again, Hitler’s romantic fantasies played a key role. He was certain that his thousand-year Reich required this living space. And he was equally certain that his racially superior forces could easily defeat a rabble of alleged sub-humans squirming under the thumb of Judeo-Communist Commissars. He prophesied, “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”[24] Blinded by his racist fantasies, Hitler fatally underestimated the vast distances involved, the severity of the Russian winter and the skill and tenacity of the “sub-humans” he scorned.

Initially, he won easy victories. The Germans were even welcomed in Ukraine and the Baltic states, thanks to the previous savagery of Joseph Stalin.[25] But Hitler heedlessly threw that advantage away, and perhaps the success of his invasion with it, when he spurned this welcome and heedlessly implemented his romantically inspired racial policies.

As the invasion progressed, victories over the Red Army became more and more difficult. Eventually the “master race,” (without winter uniforms because Hitler was certain the war would not last that long), bogged down in snow and bitter cold just outside Moscow. Then the Soviets launched a powerful counter-offensive that took Hitler completely by surprise.

The war was taking an ominous turn. Nonetheless, five days after the Soviets launched their devastating surprise offensive, and with the German army still in tumultuous retreat, Hitler declared war on the United States of America.

He issued this declaration four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course, the U.S. had subsequently declared war on Japan. But there was no follow-up declaration of war on Nazi Germany. Many Americans remained deeply opposed to joining the war in Europe.

President Roosevelt regarded Nazi Germany, not Japan, as the principle enemy. But he knew it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to get Congress to declare war on Germany. But Hitler solved the problem for him.

Why did he do this? Well, Japan was an ally; and if Hitler failed to honor the Axis pact it could destroy the alliance, neutralize the Japanese threat to the Soviet Union and free up Red Army troops.[26] On the other hand, Hitler’s relationship with Japan was distant and there never had been much cooperation. Plus, in Hitler’s view, Japan was racially inferior.

So Hitler had military reasons for declaring war on the U.S. But he probably had better reasons for not doing so. Namely, America was the world’s mightiest industrial nation, possessed vast natural resources and outnumbered an already over-extended Nazi Germany almost two to one.

In Hitler’s romantic, profoundly racist and virulently anti-Semitic view, however, the United States was a loathsome mongrel nation that was no match for Aryans. Plus, he thought that although the Jews might not rule the U.S. directly, they certainly controlled it. In fact, in Hitler’s mind, it was a key center for all the Jews world destroying machinations.

Hitler had already launched what he regarded as the world’s final battle — a struggle to the death between world-saving Aryans and world- destroying Jews. So war with the U.S. was necessary. How else could international Jewry finally be crushed?

The Limits of Credulity

The extravagant romantic thinking involved in Nazi racial fantasies is highlighted when we compare the character and physical appearance of Nazi Germany’s principle leaders with their imagined Aryan god men.

Consider Reich Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Joseph Goebbels. Described as having, “a high intellectual varnish covering the emotional world of an adolescent,”[27] Goebbels was the very antithesis of an Aryan god man. Standing just 5’4” tall and weighing a little over 100 lbs,[28] this supposed descendent of fair, blue-eyed, blonde, giant Teutonic conquerors was dark complexioned, brown eyed, had coal black hair and a disproportionately large head. (His enemies surreptitiously referred to him as the “shrunken Teuton who turned brown.”) [29] Childhood polio also left him with a shortened leg, disabled foot and pronounced limp. Plus his nasty, dishonest and manipulative nature, fell comically short of the knightly, honest, straightforward primal superman’s imagined character. Nonetheless, he was a fanatic Nazi and remarkably effective cheerleader for Adolf Hitler until the bitter end.

Conclusion

In the beginning Hitler’s tendency to dream himself into a romantic buzz actually worked to his advantage. It sparked an audacity that conveyed the element of surprise. But as the war progressed, his predisposition to ignore facts and embrace fantasy became more and more counter-productive. At the very end, trapped in his bunker in the ruins of Berlin with the Red Army just yards away, Hitler was issuing orders to non-existent armies, appointing “successors,” expressing no contrition and blaming the entire catastrophe on “… international Jewry and its helpers.”[30]

Considering all the pain and destruction this malignant dreamer caused, we might at least expect shrewd, self-serving motives. But when we lance this ideological boil, only make-believe gushes out.

 

[1] OED Oxford English Dictionary: The Definitive Record of the English Language, © 2013 Oxford University Press, http://global.oup.com/?cc=us

[2] Romantic Nationalism, Metapedia, http://en.metapedia.org/wiki/Romantic_Nationalism

[3] Romantic nationalism, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantic_nationalism

[4] Lisa Gardner, Secrets of Romantic Suspense: a series of eight lectures, http://lisagardner.com/wp-gardner/wp-content/themes/lisagardner/downloads/toolbox/romanticsuspense_pdfs/lecture4.pdf

[5] Exactly how and when Hitler’s basic fantasies formed is difficult to determine, but they are more or less complete by 1925 when he revealed them in Mein Kampf.

[6] Ariosophy was called “Armanism” by Von List.

[7] Theosophy, the late 19th Century creation of Helena Blavatsky, asserts that humanity has seven “Root Races,” the fifth of which are the Aryans who supposedly originated in the lost continent of Atlantis.

[8] Ariosophy, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariosophy

[9] Sigurd in Norse mythology.

[10] Hitler, Mein Kampf, (Houghton – Mifflin, Boston, c1927). pp. 383-84.

[11] Ibid., pp 138 and 234.

[12] Robert G.L. Waite, The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler, (Google Books, http://books.google.com). p. 94

[13] Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s Second Book: the unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf, translated by Krista Smith (Enigma Books, New York, 2003), p. 231

[14] Whether Hitler actually ordered the killing of the Jews is a subject of debate among some holocaust scholars.

[15] In an unpublished masters thesis titled Ahnenerbe and It’s Scholars: manufacturing evidence, Elgina Zakarova describes a research project, begun in 1935 by Heinrich Himmler that “investigated” the early origins of the Aryans. elgina zakirova@hotmail.com

[16] From Johannes Stark, National.sozialismus und Wissenschaft (Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP, Frz. Eher Nachf., 1934), pp 10-11.

[17] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: thoughts on the nature of mass movements, (Harper and Row Perennial Edition, New York, 1966), p. 91.

[18] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim, (Houghton Mifflin, Boston), p. 324

[19] Adolf Hitler, op cit, p 326.

[20] Der Untermensch (The Subhuman), Translated by the Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team, http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/holoprelude/deruntermensch.html

[21] Eric Hoffer, op cit, p. 82

[22] Stanley G. Payne, Facism: comparison and definition, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, c1980), pp. 12-13.

[23] From the beginning of the war until its end, Hitler maintained the Jews started it. Perhaps he actually believed this.

[24] Voices of Barbarossa, http://www.oocities.org/weiwen_sg/voices.htm

[25] Stalin’s ruthless actions motivated these joyful greetings. In Ukraine in order to crush nationalism, as well as peasant opposition to agricultural collectivization, Stalin ordered a merciless man-made famine that killed millions. Stalin had also invaded the Balkan nations, absorbed them into the USSR and liquidated their leadership, both military and civilian.

[26] Norman Rich, Hitler’s War Aims: Ideology, the Nazi state and the course of expansion, (W.W. Norton and Company, New York, c1973) p. 246.

[27] American Experience: People and Events, Joseph Goebbels, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/holocaust/peopleevents/pandeAMEX98.html

[27] Joseph Howard Tyson, The Surreal Reich (Bloomington Indiana, iUniverse, c2010),

[28] George Mosse, Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich (Madison WI, University of Wisconsin Press, c1966), p. 20.

 

[30] Adolf Hitler’s Last Will and Testament, http://www.auschwitz.dk/Will.htm