Junkers, Hitler, Efficiency, and Leisure

In my research into Hitler’s rise to power, I came across this in Shirer’s locus classicus on the matter, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

For centuries [Prussia] had lain outside the main stream of German historical development and culture. It seemed almost as if it were a freak of history….

By [1701] Prussia had pulled itself up by its own bootstraps to be one of the ranking military powers of Europe. It had none of the resources of the others…. Even the nobility was poor, and the landless peasants lived like cattle. Yet by a supreme act of will and a genius for organizaton the Hohenzollerns managed to create a Spartan military state whose well-drilled Army won one victory after another and whose Machiavellian diplomacy of temporary alliances with whatever power seemed the strongest brought constant additions to its territory.

There thus arose quite artifically a state born of no popular force nor even of an idea except that of conquest, and held together by the absolute power of the ruler, by a narrow-minded bureaucracy which did his bidding and by a ruthlessly disciplined army…. “Prussia,” remarked Mirabeau, “is not a state with an army, but an army with a state.” And the state, which was run with the efficiency and soullessness of a factory, became all; the people were little more than cogs in the machinery. Individuals were tuaght not only by the kings and the drill sergeants but by the philosophers that their role in life was one of obedience, work, sacrifice and duty. Even Kant preached that duty demands the suppression of human feeling, and the Prussian poet Willibald Alexis gloried in the enslavement of the people under the Hohnzollerns. To Lessing, who did not like it, “Prussia was the most slavish country of Europe.”

All of that is pregnant with signficance, but allow me to draw your attention especially to this next paragraph sequence, which compares the agrarian system of Prussia with that of Western Germany. Something vital is hiding on the surface:

The Junkers, who were to play such a vital role in modern Germany, were also a unique product of Prussia. They were, as they said, a master race. It was they who occupied the land conquered by the Slavs and who farmed it on large estates worked by these Slavs, who became landless serfs quite different from those in the West. There was an essential difference between the agrarian system in Prussia and that of Western Germany and Western Europe. In the latter, the nobles, who owned most of the land, received rents or feudal dues from the peasants, who though often kept in a state of serfdom had certain rights and privileges and could, and did, gradually acquire their own land and civic freedom. In the West, the peasants formed a solid part of the community; the landlords for all their drawbacks, developed in their leisure a cultivation which led to, among other things, a civilized quality of life that could be seen in the refinement of manners, of thought and of the arts.

The Prussian Junker was not a man of leisure. He worked hard at managing his large estate, much as a factory manager does today. His landless laborers were treated as virtual slaves. On his large properties, he was the absolute lord. There were no large towns nor any substantial middle class, as there were in the West, whose civilizing influence might rub against him. In contrast to the cultivated grand seigneur in the West, the Junker developed into a rude, domineering, arrogant type of man, without cultivation or culture, aggressive, conceited, ruthless, narrow-minded and given to a petty profit-seeking that some German historians noted in the private life of Otto von Bismarck, the most successful of the Junkers.

William Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 137, 138 (emphasis mine)

The United States are certainly not Spartan and we do not seem much inclined toward that vice, but two or three other disturbing trends can be found here that will enslave us if we are not vigilant. Here let me simply highlight the necessity for leisure for a people who wishes to remain free. The civilizing influence of leisure leads to the spread of civilization (please not that civlization is not a matter of power but of form – it is not technology that makes us civilized but, at least, a love of beauty).

The efficiency of the Prussian Junkers stood as a barrier between them and civilization. As a result, they worshipped power and thought of themselves as a “master race.”

The slavs were their opposites. They seem to have had a passivity and an emotionalism that better reflects American society. Even that, however, raises a too simplistic question: do we run the risk of finding a vast portion of our population seduced by the promise of security and pleasure into a state of serfdom to those who are diligent and arrogant?

I have no idea. I cannot see the future. The past only gives clues, not knowledge.

  

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.

Germany, Austria, and the Beginnings of Hitler (Part II of a series)

I mentioned in my previous post that my great-grandfather came from southeastern Austria (actually, as my brother Nate reminded me, the Austro-Hungarian empire) in 1910, 100 years ago this year, and that my mother came from Germany a couple generations later.

Austria and Germany are both Germanic people’s, but their history and their characters are very different indeed. I was born in Germany in 1963 and we lived in a very small town in the foothills of Austria until 1966 or 67. I remember nothing of it except perhaps a sound from an air conditioning unit over some nearby building, but I’ve never been clear on that.

In the summer of 2005 I finally went back to that little town, called Hague am Ausruck. It was the epitome of quaint. One street runs up the hill on which the town is located, and on that street are all the shops that fed the town and, I suspect, the hill dwellers nearby. Each was painted a clean pastel, giving the street the characteristically Austrian cleanliness and harmony. Everything about the country seemed musical to me.

Running to and from that main street are three or four tributaries that take you to the houses, none of which were particularly large, but as I recall they were all affectionately tended.

This was 2006. In 1964 it was not so. In 1964 Austria was still recovering from the dual catastrophes of WWI and the ensuing Anschluss and WWII. The once great Empire of Charlemagne had ended in 1918. The rump endured the primal insult of Nazi aggression in the 1930’s.

This National Socialist Germany was the cradle of my mother’s childhood. She lived in Pottsdam, near Berlin, almost an epicenter for the Nazi juggernaut.

For all these reasons, I can’t help but take the story of Hitler’s rise to power personally. I confess that I still love the movie A Sound of Music, if only for the scene in which Max says to Captain Von Trapp that they should be grateful that the Anschluss happened peacefully. Von Trapp jumps at Max with a searing  accusation: “Grateful! Max, I don’t believe I know you.”

Clearly it gave him no sense of gratitude at all that his people made no effort to defend themselves against the invasion. He would rather have died himself.

When Max tells Maria that she should talk to the Captain, Maria’s answer is priceless: “I can’t ask him to be less than he is.”

How Von Trapp would have scoffed at the empty sentiment of a “global citizen!” What do we do, he would have asked, when the Globe determines to oppress us? What do we do when it won’t let us worship at our family altar and won’t let us sing Edelweiss?

The great question of the 20th century has to be, “How did regimes as cruel as the Nazi’s in Germany, the Fascists in Italy, the Communists in Russia and China, find acceptance among the people’s they ruled?”

To be honest, though, the Nazi question is more important for two reasons. First, the Chinese and Russians came to power through a ruthless cruelty that involved a great deal less acceptance by the people they dominated. Second, we are much closer to the mindset of pre-Nazi Germany than we are to the mindset of pre-Bolshevik Russia or pre-Maoist China.

The disturbing thing about Nazi Germany is that Hitler was not only elected democractically (in a parliamentary system), but that he was elected under circumstances that allowed plenty of time for reflection.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how it came about that Hitler was able to lead the German people with so little opposition.