There’s a peculiar moral deadness in the use of Nazi Germany as a standard of evil. It is as if, before the Nazis murdered six million Jews, a million gypsies, twenty million Russians, etc., etc., we didn’t know that mass murder was bad. As if the destruction of the American Indians and deaths of millions of Africans in the slave trade and the rubber business had happened in pre-lapsarian times, where every murder was blessed by the tooth fairy. This is why I generally try not to compare what is happening here or there with the Nazis.

Which is an intro to doing exactly that…

Lately, I’ve been watching Heimat, the German movie series made in the late seventies, I believe. Heimat covers a German village, and particularly the large Simon family (who sometimes threaten to enlarge to the point of incomprehensibility, particularly after the WWII episodes). It is a reminder of how a morally disgusting regime, one looking for excuses to wage pre-emptive war, one spending a monstrous amount on the military and so pumping up the economy, one that came down harshly on dissent, sending people to isolated prisons – can be accepted and even embraced. Sated by the boom in consumer goods, having the “best Christmas ever” – the Nazis were very big on celebrating the “true German holiday” of Christmas, and none of this pc happy holidays crap for them – the villagers in Heimat have little problem with the regime.

Heimat was supposedly made in response to the American tv series, Holocaust. It bears the mark of the era, the late seventies, early eighties, in which the smell of revisionism was in the air. Joachim Fest, the editor of the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, published his bio of Hitler at this time, in which he made the statement that if Hitler had died in 1938, he would have gone down as one of the greatest German leaders. I always think of this in tandem with the distinction being made at the same time between totalitarian and authoritarian governments by Jean Kirkpatrick, and eagerly adopted by the Reaganites, eager to find a justification for shoveling money to death squads in Central and Latin America.

Hitler’s pre-Kristallnacht policy (and by the way, isn’t it odd how Heimat simply skips Kristallnacht?) was to imprison en masse socialists, pacifists, communists, union leaders and trouble makers, while making laws that made being a Jew in Germany extremely hard, but not life threatening. At the same time, Hitler’s economic advisors had designed a reflationary policy that took Germany out of the depression. Japan did the same thing. There is a conservative critique of Roosevelt that his policies prolonged the Great Depression, and in some ways this is correct – but only because the U.S. had by far the most conservative response to the Depression. Roosevelt was hemmed in by a conservative bloc in the States. Even the UK, at that time still an independent entity and not an American surrogate, got out of the depression earlier – and they did it by trashing free trade and forming a trading block with the Commonwealth.

You can see how the prosperity lulled the critical sense – lulled it to zero. And so a massive military buildup justified massive Government spending by systematically exaggerating threats (and the machinery of exaggeration then searched out threats to exaggerate), all of which came tumbling down in 1941, with Operation Barbarossa.

It is funny to see how the consumer society, which we associate with the 50s in the States, is creeping into German society in the 30s in Heimat. It is funny and creepy. It is still hard to see that history – the way militarism, nationalism, the social welfare state and the consumer society form a sort of interdependent matrix. My hope is that you can extract the social welfare state and the consumer society from this matrix, and form something better – some hedonistic, unbigoted society. Something like the form of Europe that haunts the rightwing mind – not the real Europe, but the lazy, cowardly fantasy one, trading its sense of Western supremacy for more vacations. A continent without a mission. Hurray for that! I’m all for privatizing mission.

From one angle, I think that is eminently reasonable. From another angle – watching Heimat, for example – I think it is impossible. It demands that civilization sacrifice its most prized obsessions, including the obsession with sacrifice. Perhaps that is to tug, in vain, at the way the culture is made.


Patrick J. Mullins said…
That's very fine thinking, but probably wishful in a way I've found attractive till relatively recently. Hasn't Europe truly traded its sense of Western supremacy for more vacations, but without acknowledging that it has done this? Doesn't Europe still display many signs that can briefly convince itself and others that it is still powerful? It can appear sound to want the U.S. to do this, but then China would be expected to, too; and these surprising new rich old nations like China and India would be the tall poppies, and the U.S. would be compensated by getting over its imperialistic guilt the way Britain and France have so notoriously done; and how big a benefit is indignation of the bigger powers, I have lately begun to wonder? I don't know whether this addresses anything very accurately about what you were talking about or about 'how culture works,' but it might hit upon some of why precisely equal nations is not really yet any more appealing than Communism. Boredom and inertia are intolerable, and justice, among other things, is always sacrificed if necessary to prevent the all-pervasiveness of boredom--at least thus far.
Patrick J. Mullins said…
'indignation of' should be 'indignation toward' or something along those lines..
roger said…
Patrick, you may be right to find the European vacationing fantasy flawed. I, too, don't like the aura of enervation I feel when I read, say, Liberation or the current crop of less than stellar French intellectuals - with a few honorable exceptions.

And on the other hand, to give the devil its due, the U.S.A. is still a gift to a writer. It is still a Bellows-y place. I think one of the things that is changing in Europe and will drive away the tedious homogeneity is the presence of millions of immigrants, mostly from the South, the invasion of the for real Tropic of Cancer. American culture, beneath the white establishment face, is wholly mulatto, just as Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray spent all that time saying. It is a bloody thing, but it is also a living thing, a charged thing.

This is why I am not wholly happy with the anesthetic touch of liberal politics. Soothing, yes, rational, yes, but where's the sex and the fats?