Preparing the way for Hitler (part III of a series)

In my previous post in this series, I said I would discuss why Germany was so ready for Hitler and why they supported him so enthusiastically.

To understand this, you must understand that Hitler came to power in a Germany that had been preparing for him for a long time. An evil on the scale of Nazism, or Communism for that matter, does not come about without a long gestation. It requires enormous technological power, ideas about reality and human nature, a certain national spirit, political systems and assumptions, and probably a good dose of demonic involvement.

The same is true of a good on the scale of our constitution and liberties.

Life is the interchange of ideas and applications. It is not possible to determine which comes first for the simple reason that neither exists apart from the other. An idea  not embodied is an idea not thought.

Practically, therefore, our lives are a dialectic between our ideas and our circumstances. We dream big and try to make it happen. We find that we can’t perfect it, so we have to make a choice.

We can love the dream enough to accomplish as muc of it as possible. Or we can replace the dream with a fantasy and chase the hobgoblin of our dream. Or we can abandon the dream altogether.

We do this with our schools. A private school comes to be when a person or a few people share a vision for what education can accomplish. Then it gets hard. What will the leadership do?

Whatever they decide at this point will determine the actual life of the school.

We do it with our marriages and love affairs too. In this hyper-Romantic age people put the weight of the cosmos on their love-affairs. When you listen to the love songs of the 50’s and 60’s, it’s cute how they commit themselves to dying for each other to sappy music, how they look to their partners to be their soul-satisfying gods and goddesses. In the late 70’s, that childish impulse remains in the uber-pop music that people find so embarrassing after they turn 20 (or at least should), but disco, heavy metal, and punk inject a cynicism into popular music that has pretty much taken over.

It might seem quite a reach to write about popular love songs in the context of the rise of the Nazi’s, but I think you’ll see the point as we go on.

Music embodies ideas, sometimes in lyrics, sometimes in melodies, harmonies, and rhythms – and in the relation of these elements. Music is the metrical and sonic imitation of the movements of the soul.

Everything we do, think, and feel, is the embodiment of an idea.

Therefore, if we are going to understand how Germany was prepared for Hitler (and Russia for Lenin and China for Mao etc.), we have to understand the ideas that Hitler embodied in his rule of Germany.

We can study that question directly by asking, “What were the ideas that dominated German thought?” And we can study it indirectly by asking, “What forms did those ideas take?” In other words, what changes took place leading up to Hitler? What remained the same but was used by Hitler for his purposes?

Examples of the less direct approach would include, for example, the rise of Bismarck and his establishment of a “United Germany.” Bismarck had prepared the political/industrial soil.

No study of Nazism would be complete that did not take a close look at Bismarck’s effect on the German character, social structure, political activities, etc.

But as much as I love history, I find it easier to look at the world through the eyes of philosophy. A study of philosophy reveals a few things to us. For one, philosophy never arises in a vacuum. So what Randall called “the career of philosophy” will reveal something of the character of the people among whom a philosophy develops.

Second, philosophers (I use the term loosely here to include everybody who claims to be a philosopher and is studied in some philsophy class somewhere  – even though most contempory philsophers are sophists and anti-philosophers) have, historically, been the Dutch Uncles or the Uncle Tom’s of a culture.

What I mean by that is that philosophers come up with complicated rationalizations for all sorts of behaviors.  The reason for this is that ethics are rooted in a view of reality and philsophers at least pretend to try to explain reality. We’ll see shortly that they have, by and large, given up on that quest, but the point remains important.

College professors and government officials tend to look to philosophers to tell them what is right and wrong.  Then they tell their students. Then their students go home and inflict their new morality on their families. And if their students are studying in the teacher’s college, then they go into the classroom and teach it to the nation’s children.

This has happened over and over again over the past 800 years, so by now it should not need much defense. It is happening again in our country, and it happened in Hitler’s Germany.

So the study of philosophy as a human activity (as opposed to the study of Philosophy itself – i.e. the quest for wisdom) embodied in philosophical writings and societies can tell us a great deal about the society in which it grows and it will show us why a people thinks they ought to do some things and not do others.

In my next post, I will describe as simply as I possibly can the primary philosopher who prepared Germany for Hitler (and whose influence in 20th century American education has been infernally profound).

Let me end with a somewhat lengthy quotation from Owen Barfield’s unbearably brilliant book Poetic Diction that will highlight the war I am describing and underscore at least one of the main battlegrounds of that war. Everything that follows in this discussion, everything that happens in your life, is influenced in some way by what Barfield says:

The conflicting theories of knowledge of which the following pages take cognizance show every sign of diverging more and more widely, leaving a deeper and deeper gulf of incomprehension between them. Between those for whom ‘knowledge’ means ignorant but effective power [ed. note: please remember this phrase], and those for whom the individual imagination is the medium of all knowledge from perception upward, a truce will not readily be struck. Nor can we safely assume that the conflict will be confined to the intellectual arena. In the nineteenth century, belief in imagination proved itself to be clearly allied with belief in individual freedom; necessarily so, because the act of imagination is the indivdual mind exercising its sovereign unity. [ed. note, please remember that phrase as well]  In the twentieth century we are gradually learning that the converse is equally true. There is a curiously aggressive note, often degenerating into a sneer, in the style of those who expound the principles of linguistic analysis. Before he even begins to write, the Logical Positivist has taken the step from ‘I prefer not to interest myself  in propositions which cannot be empirically verified’ to ‘all propositions which cannot be empirically verified are meaningless’. The next step to ‘I shall legislate to prevent anyone else wasting his time on meaningless propositions’ is unlikely to appear either illogical or negative to his successor in title. Those who mistake efficiency for meaning inevitably end by loving compulsion, even if it takes them, like Bernard Shaw, the best part of a lifetime to get there.

Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction, 1973, Page 22 (emphasis added)

If that quotation or any of the foregoing is incomprehensible to you, don’t worry. It was to me too at first. I’ve had to read it a few times, reflect on it, now write it, and read other things that helped me grasp it. There is no shame in not understanding a difficult passage. I will try to explain why I included it in the following posts.

By the way, these posts have arisen from my reflections for the summer conference on liberty. I hope you’ll be able to come as we are, as our government told us over 25 years ago, a nation at risk, and they rightly located that risk in our school system. I do not know how much longer we will be a free country. I do know that we cannot remain free without educated citizens.

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One Response

  1. I confess a hit-and-run post as I get on to duties of the day without reading this fully, but I am reminded of Corrie ten Boom’s description of the decades before Hitler as her family was connected to them–scholarship in anti-Semitism, etc. It is detailed in her book *In My Father’s House,* a beautiful story of the background of *The Hiding Place.*

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