The Rise of the Nazis, and Other Absurdities in Politics
Jerome Braun is an independent interdisciplinary scholar. He is co-editor of the anthology "Alienation and the Carnivalization of Society" (Routledge, 2011).
Sometimes the historical question comes up, why does America so often win the war and lose the peace? This is not to say that other countries don’t suffer from similar problems, but still, we can start with by asking why was Abraham Lincoln -- perhaps our greatest president, and a war president to boot -- followed by Andrew Johnson, our worst president who sabotaged the integration of the ex-slaves into society? Why was Woodrow Wilson, who led America successfully into World War I, not supported by his fellow Democrats let alone by Republicans in Congress into working for a lasting peace? As far as I know Woodrow Wilson didn’t even try --since he had no political backing for it -- to come up with his own Versailles Treaty and threaten to conclude a separate peace with Germany unless the Allies came up with treaty provisions less vindictive and ultimately less stupid.
Wilson had little support in Congress for a comprehensive peace at the end of World War I in order to support an orderly transition to democracy in Europe because so many legislators concerned themselves not with nation-building, but with greasing the schemes of ethnic lobbyists. Combine this with the schemes of the arms merchants after World War II to keep America on a permanent war footing, and it is no surprise that our Congress has flubbed many of the opportunities to maintain the peace after so many of our wars to end all wars.
For example, Wilson could have told his British and French allies that they should get ten-year mandates for their newly acquired territories in the Middle East, and then they should leave. That way they would have less of an opportunity to leave behind economic imperialism in place of political imperialism, and they would have less of an opportunity to create colonies in everything but name. But members of the Congress -- with a few exceptions -- would never have backed him up, and he knew it.
The end result, of course, of the Versailles Treaty was a vindictive Germany and eventually another war. For that matter, why were the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led us through both the Great Depression and World War II, not followed by a continuation of the same reform spirit after the war ended? Instead the U.S. got suckered into the arms race and the Cold War, to an extent that even our European allies who were on the front lines with the Soviet Union did not support to the extent we did, though they did not complain as long as we paid for it. Our European allies faced an expansionist Soviet Union who nevertheless did agree to remove Soviet troops from Finland and Austria, and who did accept a communist but neutral Yugoslavia. The U.S., in our Asian sphere of influence, hardly tried to reach a similar accomodation with the Soviet Union concerning the reunification of Korea and Vietnam, and so there was little opportunity there to try to achieve political solutions short of war.
Partly such situations arise because so often our greatest presidents are true statesmen, but a great deal of their party, and of course the opposition party, are hacks for whom their political service is not a calling but just a way to make a living. Even as legislators they are often mere conduits for the ideas of lobbyists because they don’t particularly investigate policy issues, but support whichever lobbyists will support them in their effort to feed at the public trough. The reality of our politics is that many of our greatest presidents, like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, were pushed into running for higher office by the leaders of their local party machines, because they added prestige to the party and this kept them out of the hair of the same local party leaders. After all, these presidents were less the true party leaders, than the patronage hacks who chose them to run for president. A classic book on this subject is E.E. Schattschneider, Party Government: American Government in Action (originally published in 1943).
But if you think that’s bad, think of a much more absurd scenario, the rise of the Nazis. There was increasing mendacity in politics for a period of time in Germany, starting with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who encouraged a politics of territorial expansion and ethnic chauvinism that nevertheless, by their later standards, was the height of rationality. Though he tended to emasculate the German parliament and ruled by decree when necessary through the support of the Kaiser, the wars he instigated were ones he knew that he could win. And especially in the Franco-Prussian War the war was rational in the sense that he made sure that France did not have any allies. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who thought he knew better, ended up emphasizing military expansion ultimately at the expense of economic growth, for he produced circumstances where Germany and its allies were surrounded by France and its allies, and Germany wound up in World War I with the two-front war that it dreaded. Of course Hitler, fool that he was, created an even stronger alliance against Germany, and World War II ended up being the two-front war to end all two-front wars.
This brings us to the rise of the Nazis. Their grab for power came with the enabling legislation passed by the Reichstag after the Dutch nitwit Marinus van der Lubbe set a fire on February 27, 1933 in the Reichstag building, which both caused major damage to the building itself and which became a rallying cry for Nazis with the made-up charge that the Communists were trying to overthrow the government. Hitler got the enabling legislation he wanted to override personal liberties, and eventually he got further enabling legislation that allowed him to rule by decree. The absurdity, of course, was that many nations deal with crises by resorting to martial law, but ordinarily no one there believes that pure dictatorship is a solution for anything.
In a sense the Nazis got away with this because they created a cultural climate of irrationality, where the entertainment value of their cause was in some ways their predominant appeal to large sectors of the population -- that, and ending unemployment by putting the nation on a war footing. Their entertainment value came from their appealing to paranoid tendencies in the German population, but also by a certain tolerance for brutality in that population (no doubt coarsened by their experiences in World War I) which had evolved, partly because of political spectacle, into tolerance for sadism against political enemies and social outcasts, and of course a pomp-and-circumstance approach to political spectacle taken to extremes of utter absurdity.
The rise of the Nazis in Germany reflected an irrational longing for hierarchy and military glory that had no hope for restoring “traditional” German virtues; rather, they reflected the fantasies of modern pseudo-intellectuals who got the support of a large portion of the population behind them partly because they offered through politics mass entertainment, admittedly of a rather sadistic sort, and by reinforcing social hierarchy rewards to the elite and to those who wished to enter the elite. These rewards of social status, and sometimes of reinforcing feelings that can only be described as being sadistic, were directly advantageous to this small elite, but also served their purpose in entertaining the mass of population who lived vicariously through identifying with this elite.
All these tendencies do not exist in pure form in modern America, but bits and pieces do. It is against our political tradition to live degraded personal lives while living vicariously through political elites, but nevertheless an increasingly bureaucratized society is developing in America where the mass of the working class do not enjoy their working lives -- which is increasingly unstable anyway -- but increasingly seek escapist relief through entertainment. Much of this entertainment, such as violent video games, seems to be increasingly sadistic, as if extreme sensuality in entertainment and extreme sadism in entertainment compete to fill the gap left by the weakening of the cultural value of the golden mean.
For now, sadism and racism as unifying forces seem more prevalent in street gangs and prisons than in society at large. The excesses of Germany’s Weimar Republic do not threaten America -- again, for now. And if the increasing bread-and-circuses quality to American popular culture will eventually have political ramifications, that, too, time will tell.
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