WEST HOLLYWOOD—What if Adolf Hitler had just been an actor?
In another rendition of history, he had all the makings for it. David Bowie, in his oft-forgotten national socialist phase, called Der Fuhrer “one of the first rock stars.” Bowie later said he was on a lot of cocaine. Pop historians would say as much of the high command. But it’s there: Hitler had “the look.” Not starting quarterback stuff (or whatever the non-Amerikaner equivalent), but a true aesthete’s presentation that was straight out of Hollywood. Was he even good-looking? It doesn’t matter, because we could not—still cannot—look away.
Euros don’t celebrate Labor Day, perhaps because every day is labor day in post-history. But historically speaking, early September in Europe is kind of a downer. September 1 forever marks the time Hitler and Josef Stalin split Poland like a brunch tab. It inaugurated what we of latter days know as the Second World War.
Or as W.H. Auden wrote in the October 1939 issue of the New Republic: “I sit in one of the dives / on Fifty-second Street / uncertain and afraid / as the clever hopes expire / of a low dishonest decade: / Waves of anger and fear / circulate over the bright / and darkened lands of the earth, / obsessing our private lives.” September 1, 1939. Memento mori.
It’s been 83 years. Danzig had been primed for the slaughter for years. In Orwellian fashion, before “Orwellian” was a term, the “free city” was condemned to capture. Joseph Goebbels, sort of the fascist John Lennon, had appeared to an enthralled pro-German crowd in the frontier city that June, in a clear premeditation of murder.
“Polish circles showed little concern today over the speeches of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in Danzig, though he was the first German Cabinet Minister to enunciate German intentions to include Danzig within the frontiers of the Reich,” the New York Times reported.
Indeed, the Polish authorities were briefing their own people that if the Nazis ever did the highly thinkable, it was they, the Poles, who would be in Berlin, in six weeks. Ashraf Ghani would like a word.
The Nazis' onslaught, aided by their great ideological enemy (the Muscovite communists) was commenced by a gang that ten years prior had been a bad joke in German politics. The crash of 1929 made Hitler, and the early victories of what was not-to-be the Thousand Year Reich endowed the man with a sheen of invincibility, whereas his earlier life had only been defined by merciless precarity. Both readings are unsound: Hitler the unstoppable; Hitler as “un-person.”
But the men who laid waste to Poland were also these sorts of men, as summarized by the excellent Misha Saul:
The sycophancy, the grotesque physiognomies of leading Nazis, hollow-faced Goebbels with his womanising, Hitler with his sexlessness, boarish Göring in his red velvet robe and slippers. Daytime indolence and late night films in the Eagle’s Nest, politely handing out cakes to secretaries. The delusion, the schitzophrenic [sic] flip flop between historic self-importance and teary-eyed sentimentality about the Volksgemeinschaft. It’s all so camp and ridiculous.
And Saul writes later of the reality they brought to bear:
My grandfather was in the Red Army.… When he was older he had constant nightmares. He joined the Red Army most likely because it was the closest thing to a guaranteed meal. He left his small Galician village when he was 18 with his younger brother, ahead of the Germans. Those they left behind, including his parents and 11yo brother, didn’t know they’d be rounded up and shot. Their names are commemorated in this tiny corner of the web.
As the hard-left writer Chris Hedges notes, “there is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature.”
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That is quite an aide-mémoire, one that should compel us all to take stock not just of the last 83 years, but of the last two-and-a-half. For it was a stretch of history where we caged the species on flimsy pretext, as well as allowing the mass deformation of our history in the public square.
We have seen, quite painfully, that very few of us would speak out against the sudden and terrible. Even if Hedges is right, we should endeavor to prove him wrong. An honest appraisal is a good start: talent can co-exist and indeed even thrive off strangeness and sordidness; blackheartedness can cohabitate with humor; mediocrity is so often paired with mendacity.
If not God, then human creativity is the font of good and evil. Or as the collaborationist—also the superlative twentieth century French novelist—Celine attested: “All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.… In the first place, anyone can do as much. You just have to close your eyes. It's on the other side of life.”