When the year 1999 was winding down, many people were asking such questions as "who was the most important person of (a) this passing millennium, and (b) the 20th century?" I had no hesitation in answering both questions: (a) was Johannes Gutenberg, whose invention of movable type was one of the four major contributions to the "information revolution" through which mankind has long been engaged (the other three being the creation of language, mathematical analysis, and computerized technology), while (b) was Adolf Hitler. Gutenberg's invention was most beneficial to mankind, having facilitated the decentralization of information and, with it, helping to produce the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. Hitler's contributions were of a destructive and dehumanizing nature but, in terms of social impact, defined not only the last two-thirds of the 20th century, but are serving as a model for the 21st as well.
Let me not be misunderstood on this point: that I consider Hitler to have had the most significant influence on the twentieth century is not to praise the man, but only to acknowledge that he, above all other human beings, did more to make the twentieth century world what it was: a century of seemingly endless wars, collective mindsets, vicious tyrannies, and genocidal butcheries, all of which combined to produce the deaths of some 200 million persons, and make of human society a continuing war of all against all.
Consider, if you will, these consequences of Adolf Hitler's practices. Research into the development of nuclear weaponry was undertaken principally as a response to the fear that Hitler would try to "take over" the rest of the world. The development of rocketry as an intercontinental weapons system came about as a desperate effort by Hitler to overcome the insufficiency of his more conventional weapons. We can now thank this man for introducing into our world ICBMs and the threat of nuclear annihilation!
Because of his barbaric treatment of Jews, the state of Israel came into existence, the consequence of which continues to find violent expression throughout the Middle East, and is related to the current "war against terrorism." Had Hitler's regime refrained from persecuting Jews, there would probably have been less of a felt need for a Jewish homeland.
The unanticipated results of Nazism reach even more deeply into the fabric of our present world. The Nuremburg principles, along with an increased demand for some kind of "world government" to prosecute "war criminals," have their origins in Hitler's practices. Another result of Nazi oppression is found, I believe, in the post-World War II "civil rights" movement. Because people had seen, in Hitler's policies, what can happen when state power confronts racial/ethnic/religious/sexual orientation groupings, civil rights groups found a willingness on the part of many people to forcibly exorcise from society any tendencies to discriminate on such grounds. Even such modern phenomena as "political correctness," "affirmative action" programs, "racial quotas," "hate crimes" legislation, as well as the fragmentation of modern society into politicized group identities, all trace their origins to Hitler. Because of our proper hostility to Hitler's bigotry, we now find ourselves in a culture obsessed with the racial/ethnic/religious/sexual orientation characteristics of people.
Other social and political issues can be traced back to der Fuhrer. A dedicated nonsmoker and public health advocate, he supported government eugenics and cancer research (although opposing the use of animals in such research); restrictions on the use of asbestos, pesticides, radiation, and tobacco; government established occupational health and safety standards; environmental and conservationist programs, as well as the promotion of whole-grain foods and soybeans. He also put into effect one of the most pervasive gun-control programs.
Does this mean that one who favors any programs such as these is a Nazi, an apologist for the horrors for which this man was responsible? Of course not. What it does mean, however, is that his programs emerged from a mindset quite similar to one that has been prevalent in modern society for many decades: a desire to cleanse the world of any and all imperfections and undesirable elements. In modern obsessions with health wherein any condition or practice that renders the world less than one hundred percent hygienic must be forcefully eradicated we find the same mania for sterilization that drove Hitler. Such an attitude was well-expressed by the late Alan Watts who spoke of people who want "to scrub the universe."
We are told that if we can just get rid of tobacco, and guns, and people who "hate," and red meat, and research on animals, and pornography, and polluters, and lumber companies, and feminists, and nuclear power plants, and people with religious convictions, and drug use, and homosexuality, and (the list is endless), all of our social problems will be resolved. If we can just purify our world, to make it perfectly safe, healthy, moral, and clean, we can then get on with living.
What we fail to see in all of this just as the German people failed to see in Hitler's programs was that making the world "healthy" invariably came down to ridding it of "disease," and that undesirable people were all too easily defined as diseases to be quarantined (such as in concentration camps) for the protection of others. Such "undesirables" can take the form of homosexuals in Hitler's Germany, or the modern-day drug users whose bodies have contributed to making the United States the world's leader in the percentage of its population in prisons! Nor should we overlook the parallels between 1930s eugenicists trying to isolate hereditary factors that would impede the development of a "master race" and modern scientists who, through DNA research, work to identify and eradicate "defective genes," to the end that humanity may be improved.
What Adolf Hitler provided, if only we had taken the opportunity of observing it closely, was a playing out of the "dark side" of the "collective unconscious" that we share with all our fellow humans. Each of us has the capacity, should we fail to keep our conscious minds sufficiently energized, to slip into the kinds of "mass-minded" practices so well elucidated by Carl Jung, in his insightful book, The Undiscovered Self, and to begin projecting onto "scapegoats" those darker qualities we fear within ourselves. While Hitler did not invent scapegoating, nor monopolize the practice during the last century, he certainly demonstrated (a) how easily the "dark side" could be mobilized into mass-thinking, and (b) the vicious and dehumanizing consequences to which such practices could lead.
How does any of this relate to the immediate events of the "war on terrorism?" If you have been paying close attention these past weeks, the comparisons to the metastasizing of state power in Germany are quite chilling.
For the benefit of those whose sense of history begins with the Beatles or the Vietnam War, let me briefly inform you of how, in 1933, Hitler took advantage of the burning of the Reichstag an act that would have been equivalent to the burning of the U.S. Capitol building to impose upon the German people the kinds of Draconian restrictions on individual liberty that have since come to define a "police state." Police enjoyed the exercise of unrestrained powers that were accompanied by expectations of unquestioning obedience on the part of the German people. Intrusions into the home, the beating and torturing of suspects, and the omnipresence of state authority over virtually every detail of daily life, became the norm. The idea that there was a realm of privacy that was immune from the whims of gestapo agents was looked upon as utopian. People were expected to display their "identity cards" upon demand by government officials, and it was implicitly understood that there were no transcendent principles to which one could have recourse against the most arbitrary of state brutalities.
Through it all, most of the German people maintained the illusion that they were "free." (In this connection, one should read Milton Mayer's book, They Thought They Were Free. Mayer lived with a number of ordinary Germans, immediately after World War II, to find out their responses to having lived under Hitler. The book's title tells you what he learned.) The phrase "work shall make you free" that hung above the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, illustrates the depravity of a system that tried to persuade its victims that obedience to the will of their rulers was the essence of being "free!"
Does any of this begin to have a ring of familiarity to you as you listen to government officials, the military leaders who now seem to be running the country, and the media lickspittles (whose jobs, like those of the German propagandists, was to translate the will of political leaders to the public)? In the suppression of dissent, the suggestion that criticism of the war be punished as treason, the public castigation of anyone who dares to voice even a shadow of concern over some detail of President Bush's course of action, and the FBI proposal that torture be available for use against "suspects," one begins to get a feel for the ease with which otherwise civil and decent men and women can become ardent supporters of the most inhumane and oppressive practices.
It is not my purpose to impugn the motives or purposes of any of the people who are involving themselves in any of these statist programs. I suspect that most of the men and women who are pouring their energies into these vicious and oppressive programs have truly convinced themselves that they are doing "good" things for their country. I further suspect that their inner sense of being would be offended by the suggestion that their efforts are taking America in the same dehumanizing direction that Hitler took Germany. But, then, I would also imagine that Hitler looked upon himself as someone trying to do "good" things for his country.
The older I get, the more I realize that motives are less of a contributor to the problems of the world than is the failure to understand what is implicit in our actions. Anatole France observed that "those who have given themselves the most concern about the happiness of peoples have made their neighbours very miserable," an insight that should remind us of the disruptive nature of unintended consequences.
At a time when the warmongers and power-brokers are busily whooping the public into frenzied demands for military attacks against anyone who might be made a plausible enemy, it is necessary that we heed the warnings of Jung. We might begin by viewing some of Adolf Hitler's incendiary speeches to realize how easily demagogues can mobilize our "dark side." In doing so, we may become aware of how deeply involved our nation has been in projecting onto others the disquieting characteristics and purposes of our own behavior. The continual finger-pointing at the Hitlers, Stalins, Husseins, and Khadafis, as people who want to "take over the world," has clouded our view of the world-dominating ambitions of those who seek to impose their New World Order. Nor can we fail to see the parallels between the kinds of terror inflicted upon innocent victims by American bombers, and those inflicted by those who hijack airliners and crash them into buildings. We need to plumb the depths of our humanity, to call upon the life-force within each of us, and withdraw our energies from the mass-mindedness that produces such horrors.
Can we effect such a change in our thinking in time to save not only ours and our children's' lives, but civilization itself? In the short-term there is little reason for optimism, as we continue to see played out the Orwellian processes through which tyranny is extruded from the twisting of words into their opposite meanings. Nazi allusions to freedom in concentration camps find their counterpart in the words of modern politicians who tell us that both war and the increasing presence of police in our lives will become "permanent"; measures that are an integral part of a program packaged as "enduring freedom!"
Adolf Hitler dominated the 20th century. It looks as though he is staking his claim to the 21st century as well.
October 31, 2001