Back to the Fed and other matters next week. I’ve been away from a real keyboard and a bit busy lately. But had to share this bit.
I’ve been reading a phenomenal (both writing and content) book titled “Defying Hitler.” Key to its fascination is that it was written in 1939 (unpublished until 2000). The author goes about dissecting the Hitler phenomena – writing before the full horrors of WW2 and Nazism came to be. I’m about halfway through it and can’t put it down. It is brilliantly written – more a memoir than a polemic. The author is also so poignantly likable and obviously prescient. I highly recommend it.
He largely ignores Hitler the person to inquire into Hitler as a product of his times. The question he struggles with is “How did the tides of society and politics and economics conspire to push this manifestly horrible little man into power?” What phenomena of societal/economic/political conditions enabled Hitler’s rise? How did reasonable, respectable, establishment Germans (like himself) let something so unreasonable happen?
This quote rang chillingly true for me. Remind you of anyone?
“Hitler himself, his past, his character, and his speeches were still rather a handicap for the movement that gathered around him. In 1930o, he was still widely regarded as a somewhat embarrassing figure… And then there were the contents of those speeches: the delight in threats and in cruelty, the bloodthirsty execution fantasies. Most of those who began to acclaim Hitler at the Sportpalast* in 1930 would probably have avoided asking him for a light if they had met him in the street. That was the strange thing: their fascination with the boggy, dripping cesspool he represented, repulsiveness taken to extremes. No one would have been surprised if a policeman had taken him by the scruff of the neck in the middle of his first speech and removed him to some place from which he would never have emerged again, and where he doubtless belonged. As nothing of the sort happened and, on the contrary, the man surpassed himself, becoming ever more deranged and monstrous, and also per more notorious, more impossible to ignore, the effect was reversed. It was then that the real mystery of the Hitler phenomenon began to show itself: the strange befuddlement and numbness of his opponents, who could not cope with his behavior and found themselves transfixed by the gaze of the basilisk, unable to see that it was hell personified that challenged them.”
To be clear, I am not equating Trump with the real-world Hitler (see Godwin’s law below). I AM equating the Trump phenomena with the Hitler phenomena as the books’ author understands it (in 1939, before the full arc of Hitler’s monstrosity played out). A populist vulgarian whose transgressiveness is key to both his appeal and apparent invulnerability. Characteristic of an entire parade of horribles today – Boris Johnson? Viktor Orban? Le Pen? Nigel Farage? Etc…
The chilling part of the book is how the author narrates the inch-by-inch surrender of “reasonable people” to a madman’s unreasonable demands. “Everyone” comforts themselves that some higher authority – the law, social norms, big business, labor – will somehow rein in or temper the madness.
It rings uncomfortably true with Democrats denial before the election (people won’t actually vote for him, will they?) and Republican’s denial after the election (he’ll surround himself with competent people! sotto voice and we’ll still get that fat tax cut and my team is winning…).
It also echoes with the “well, the country might go to hell but my team will win the next election and that’s what matters” reasoning that seems to be motivating the UK’s conservatives as well as the Senate’s Mitch McConnell. Everyone bends a little bit – assuming someone else will step in before all is lost.
It hits dead on on the inchoate, hesitant, hypnotized impotence of reasonable people to come to grips with Trump. that “befuddlement and numbness of his opponents, who could not cope with his behavior and found themselves transfixed by the gaze of the basilisk.”
The quote above is a sad coda for Mueller’s non-performance at this week’s congressional hearings. We had an older, respected, Republican-voting man in the twilight of his career with 7 hours on the national stage. Put aside what his report said or didn’t say. Sometimes the facts matter less than the truth. As a patriot, Meuller should have lied through his teeth in the most colorful, sound-bite friendly language he could muster. Torching his reputation for careful establishment probity to ring the alarm. Shaking “reasonable people” out of their torpor in front of that “basilisk stare.” Sometimes the path of true patriotism lies with shading (or ignoring) the truth…
Anyway. I’m not despairing yet. I don’t think Trump is all that dangerous. Hitler was a madman. Trump is simply self-serving. Trump is (thankfully) proving to be a paper tiger in many matters. But that doesn’t excuse reasonable people from confronting the un-reasoning forces propelling him. The damage done by overt racism, jingoism, and devil-may-care spending will take a long time to repair. In many cases, things will simply remain broken. Especially as regards the USA’s overseas credibility, which matters more to me than maybe it should.
Anyway. Do read the book. You’ll better understand the chains that bind today’s reasonable people (which I assume is most readers here) in the face of the unreasonable. And it is brilliantly written.
A book summary and “Godwin’s law” below.
Godwin’s law (or Godwin’s rule of Hitler analogies) is an Internet adage asserting that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”; that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or his deeds, the point at which effectively the discussion or thread often ends.
Written in 1939 and unpublished until 2000, Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of the rise of Nazism in Germany offers a unique portrait of the lives of ordinary German citizens between the wars. Covering 1907 to 1933, his eyewitness account provides a portrait of a country in constant flux: from the rise of the First Corps, the right-wing voluntary military force set up in 1918 to suppress Communism and precursor to the Nazi storm troopers, to the Hitler Youth movement; from the apocalyptic year of 1923 when inflation crippled the country to Hitler’s rise to power. This fascinating personal history elucidates how the average German grappled with a rapidly changing society, while chronicling day-to-day changes in attitudes, beliefs, politics, and prejudices.