Saturday, April 16, 2011

When God wore a swastika

Review of: "A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika", by Alfons Heck

Another week, another memoir of war, full of interesting lessons. Alfons Heck writes a rueful, dramatic, and deeply moving account of his fervent career as a member and officer of the Hitler Youth. This book has some personal significance, as my father was only a year younger than Heck, likewise a devoted member of HJ, and, one would have to frankly say, perhaps never completely deprogrammed. Heck notes that his quotes and dialog derive from his own much later memory, not from any notes he preserved. Nevertheless, he produces a gripping and detailed memoir that has also been made into two documentaries.

Where to begin? The atmosphere of the book brought back innumerable echos that faintly rang through my own childhood. For instance, I had forgotten the discourse of insult and beratement that characterized parent-child relations in this culture. Children were/are routinely called dumb idiots, pigs, etc. Schoolmasters were expected to regularly beat their charges. Perhaps this was a step up in intimacy from the rigid formality and absolute obedience that characterized the German family of the nineteenth century ... I don't know. What effect would this have on a culture? Surely some temperaments thrive- which worship power and happily dish out what they have taken in- but others are dulled, even crushed, and never heard from in the larger culture. Tiger mother's methods are not novel.

A conversation with his aunt, as the Americans draw near to his hometown of Wittlich near the Rhine, is emblematic. Heck is 16 at the moment, and Führer of his county-sized HJ organization:
Aunt: "God, I can't wait for the Amis to put an end to this."
"You mean you are actually waiting for them to conquer us?"
"Well, what do you think? The handwriting was on the wall a year ago. You crazy fanatics didn't have to ruin our beautiful country, don't you know that, Du verdammter Idiot?"
"I had no idea you were that scared, Aunt Tilly. Why didn't you tell me?"
"What for? Has any German hero ever given a handful of Scheisse for what we women think? You are afraid to be scared, isn't that so?"

Heck is extremely well-suited to this culture and these times. He does consistently well in school, and has a talent for languages. He lusts after status, and revels in power. The highest status in the HJ is the air arm, which flies gliders for training- extremely exciting for youths of this age. So he quietly discards the plans he and his grandmother shared for him to become a priest
"I didn't mention it to my grandmother, of course, but I was determined to volunteer for the Luftwaffe as a professional soldier. Since I had to serve anyway as long as the war lasted, there was no need to tell her until afterwards. The priesthood was out forever. My love for flying and my lust for girls overpowered my fondness for the church."

Later on, as the war turned sour, the nation's attention switched from training pilots to constructing defensive barriers. At age 15 in 1944, Heck commands a couple hundred boys digging an anti-tank ditch on the frontier within Luxemburg.
"I soon became used to the fact that I alone was responsible for my Gefolgschaft. The feeling of power was sweet. Villagers doffed their caps when I passed them (although some crossed to the other side of the street when they saw me.)
It was astonishing how fast young boys matured under the pressure and unrelenting duty. Most of them acted like hardened men. Many had already lost a father or brother in battle and they were inured to the possibility of death. I had lost any apprehension about my ability to command effectively. Secretly, I enjoyed the power I wielded."

If I could strike off an a tangent, an interesting aspect of the German educational system is/was its much stronger class basis than we see in the US. Students are tracked from an early age. They take the critical test at about age ten, for entry into the Gymnasium.
"That was the essential step on the ladder to higher education, and only about six percent of elementary school children made it, often because the rest could not pay tuition.
The majority of German school children went to the Volksschule, the elementary school, for eight years, and then entered an apprenticeship in their desired trade. During the three year apprenticeship they were required to attend the Berufschule, the trade school, two days a week to learn the theoretic aspects of their trade. It was and remains an excellent system."

On the one hand, this dispenses with the egalitarian aspects of the US secondary educational system, reserving the college preparatory track to only elite students, some of whom are filtered by ability to pay, enforcing a life-long, even hereditary, class structure. On the other hand, Germany takes its trade education very seriously, turning out machinists, carpenters, wine-makers, brewers, ... the full spectrum of craftspeople ... of the highest quality, who are in turn respected, well paid, and the foundation of Germany's export prowess. This aspect is one we might do well to emulate by treating our trade schools as important institutions, and treating students who don't go to college with higher respect.

If I may indulge in yet another tangent, while Heck is busy running the HJ camp that builds defensive tank ditches in Luxemburg, a couple of SS soldiers come to the village with three partisans in tow, freshly caught. While Heck is having a cigarette, the three are shot against a garden wall, making Heck feel rather ill. Such summary execution was common on both sides, and apparently consistent with the Geneva conventions, which apply only to non-combatants and uniformed combatants. Spies, insurgents, and sabateurs were dealt with summarily.

I am no expert in the Geneva conventions and the laws of war. But it seems, in our current situation in Afghanistan, somewhat misguided and ineffective to be capturing non-uniformed insurgents with the intention of processing them through some kind of civilian legal procedure, or imprisoning them as prisoners of an endless insurgency. As a practical matter, these prisoners are routinely released by the Karzai administration, making a mockery of our military efforts that are so extremely strenuous.

And as a legal matter, they seem to deserve nothing other than to be executed immediately. They do not wear uniforms, they are not part of regular militaries, and their sponsors are not Geneva convention signatories. All this depends, of course, on having the intelligence to know who is who, which is certainly difficult. But as far as I am aware, we very rarely learn more by extended incarceration, (nor by torture), so rapid battlefield justice seems to be both a justified and practical approach to insurgents who routinely take cover under burkhas, in medical ambulances, and as civilian villagers. If this policy encourages them to wear uniforms, that would be progress.

Incidentally, what does the Koran / sharia law say about the crime of haribah ... making war against the people? Mohammed didn't seem to pussyfoot around the issue.
"The punishments of those who wage war against Allah and His Prophet and strive to spread disorder in the land are to execute them in an exemplary way or to crucify them or to amputate their hands and feet from opposite sides or to banish them from the land."

Obviously, such a policy carries enormous risks, both in Afghan civilian relations and to military discipline on our side. Who wants to run firing squads? Who is fully confident about separating civilian villagers from Taliban fighters? Such a policy would be very difficult to implement cleanly and without descending into ethical catastrophe. Is martyrdom even a disincentive to the Taliban? Do Afghan civilians recognize the seriousness which the insurgency poses and the consequent right that their armed forces and ISAF partners have to root it out with prejudice, as it were? It is difficult to say, especially when their own president seems to put Pashtun solidarity with his Taliban brothers over government effectiveness and sovereignty.

Getting back to our story, of course the heart of the book is the electric hold that Hitler had on these youth, and on much of the nation. At the tender age of ten, Heck was able to attend one of the famed Nuremberg rallies. They were held in Nuremberg for its architectural setting, which preserved the Teutonic / gothic glories of the middle ages, and for its many historical associations- as a seat of the Holy Roman empire and former commercial hub. The theme was power- a celebration of nationalism, a social display of mutual devotion, a drunkenness on the liquor of e pluribus unum.
"Its fervor can be compared fairly to that of a gigantic revival meeting but without the repentence for one's sins. Quite the contrary: it was a jubilant Teutonic renaissance with the unmistakable message that Germany had regained her rightful place among the great powers of the world.
'You, my youth', he screamed hoarsely, 'never forget that one day you will rule the world!' ... We erupted into a frenzy of nationalistic pride that borderd on hysteria. For minutes on end, we shouted at the top of our lungs, with tears streaming down our faces: 'Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil!' From that moment on, I belonged to Adolf Hitler body and soul."

There is no other way to describe this psychological process than religious. The Nazis used every lever in the communal and spiritual playbook- mystical symbols, frequent processions and festivities, invocations of sacred mantras "Volk, Blut, Boden", carefully calibrated carrots and sticks, a murky theology of nationalism, racism and Wagnerian romanticism, and mortal enemies to be vanquished (Jews and Communists). It was a new religion, though Heck happily served at the same time as a Catholic alterboy, and considered himself a good Catholic throughout. Certainly his priests didn't have problems with the HJ or other issues with Naziism. They seemed more concerned, in the confessional, about masturbation.

To my eyes, the essential problem here is not the object of the religious fervor, whether a political leader, a nation, a prosperity gospel preacher, a fetishized book of holy myth, or a carefully super-naturalized god-figure. The problem is human susceptibilty to these psychological manipulations in any form. That humans yearn for transcendence, yearn for a duty and significance "beyond themselves", and are willing to subjugate themselves to such fervent depths/heights ... it is all, simply, horrifying.

It is these emotions and methods that lead to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and modern Islamic fundamentalism. They lead countless otherwise sane people all across the world to think that they have some special truth about reality that others must share or they are going to hell. And even need to be nudged in that direction prematurely. They led to the Thirty year's war and countless others. They lead our current political system into a wilderness at the ignorant piping of Glenn Beck and the rest of the FOX "news team" that spouts cheap religiosity and self-righteousness. It can just as well lead to McCarthyite or Communist hells as to Christian or Nazi ones.

While still working on his anti-tank ditch, Heck is summoned to a meeting where Albert Speer and Hitler himself appear, to give special pep talks. The war is, of course, already lost, but Heck remains completely faithful.
"He spoke no longer than five minutes, and what he said was meant for us, the Hitler Youth. We, after all, were his purest creation, unencumbered by the ballast of a non-Nazi past, only beholden to him. His voice, low and hoarse at the beginning, increased in volume when he mentioned the coming battles. 'Never since the Napoleonic wars has an enemy devastated our country,' he shouted, 'and we shall decimate this enemy also at the very gates to the Fatherland. This is where we are going to turn the tide and split the American-British alliance once and for all.
'You are from the Moselland, my boy. I know I can depend on you.'
'Jawohl, mein Führer,' I whispered. I wiped my eyes when I walked down the steps. Nothing, I knew, would ever equal this day."

The object of these methods can be bad or good, but how can we tell if they reduce us to unthinking acolytes? It is what Orwell was so appalled by ... the loss of our critical faculties.

A sophisticated Catholic might say in reply "... but of course ... we had this figured out many centuries ago. Do you intend to rewrite human nature? Your boy Alfons Heck would rather have two gods than none. Since people must have their religions and must behave like sheep, why not give them something harmless to believe in, like a non-existent god? Otherwise, who knows who or what can take up their allegiance, like that evil Martin Luther!" There is, sadly, some truth in this, and we who agitate against belief in god do carry the burden of unintended psychological consequences, expressed in those who, for all their sanity and good intentions, still yearn to give themselves up to something inexpressably greater.

"Whenever I have raised this point in conversations with economists, they invariably think that I am joking. When I convince them that I am serious, they think the idea of holding economists responsible for the quality of their work to the point of actually jeopardising their careers is outrageously cruel and unfair.
The reality is that tens of millions of people across the globe have seen their lives wrecked because these economists did not know what they were doing – or worse, had doubts but chose the safer route of groupthink. It is outrageous that ordinary workers who were doing their jobs can end up unemployed, while the economists whose mistakes led to their unemployment can count on job security."

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