Why did Germany become Nazi?

My final post on Nazism addresses the title question, which I treat as the question “Why was Germany overwhelmed by a secular religious movement?”

World War I demonstrated a couple of things to all nations .  First, war was now industrial.  The country that could build the most artillery shells and rifles would win.  To survive, every country had to industrialize.

Second, the state-nation form was over.  The states had called their citizens to war, and allowed them to be slaughtered to no perceivable gain.  The states had to form another contract with their citizens, based on providing for its citizens, that Bobbitt called the nation-state.

Two new state forms arose that promised to industrialize and enrich its people.  Both Fascism and Communism were totalitarian forms, but the people accepted their intense repression because they feared obliteration if they didn’t.  Both forms had strong national participation, with youth wings and large party memberships.  While Communists activated the urban proletariat, the Fascists activated the petit bourgeois.  Both forms continued to wage war, but with the tendencies within their own people; for example, Stalin allowed a Ukrainian famine that killed millions in order to root out the Ukrainian separatist elements.

The Western European countries continued to be democratic, initially including Germany, but the Eastern and Southern countries generally became authoritarian.  While Spain under Franco was totalitarian, it didn’t attempt to industrialize or to activate a portion of the population.  Portugal under the Estado Novo was also authoritarian, and didn’t industrialize or activate its people. Neither can be considered fascist.  Most of Eastern Europe was the same – authoritarian regimes that held the status quo.  Many of these countries had fascist parties, particularly ones that advocated a religion, but none of the fascist parties conquered the state without outside help.  Essentially, small European states chose to step outside the stream of history because they were too weak to risk wholesale transformation; as a holding pattern, they veered right.  The Great Powers would dominate the next decades of transformation.

Germany stood out in Europe.  It was industrialized, with a world-class chemical industry, but had no democratic tradition.  When other countries became state-nations in the Napoleonic era, Germany was still a collection of princely states.  Germany’s key weakness was its lack of unity; only a language unified it.  Kaiser Wilhelm held it together with a strong government.  The weak governments of the Weimar Republic made Germans wonder if Germany could hold itself together.

Nazism was the specific antidote to this fear.  It proclaimed Germans a race, a master race, different from all those around them.  It made Jews, a long-despised community, scapegoats that had betrayed the German people.  It destroyed another long-despised community, the Roma, without bothering to develop an ideology about them.  It declared Germany’s main geopolitical fear – Slavs to their east – to be a slave race.  It was led by a hypnotic speaker and a party that had learned quickly how to create ritual, perhaps because the party’s roots were in esoteric religions.  It has a prophet, a holy book, a political purpose, a set of rituals.  It was led by an astonishingly bright collection of people who were ceaselessly innovative.  It deeply engaged its citizens, to the point of religious ecstasy.  To kill an enemy was to become a modern-day berserker, a Wotan follower.  It was the utter opposite of the authoritarian regimes around it, though it shared their right-wing values.  The Germans stayed faithful to the Nazis to the end, to Gotterdammerung, while the Italians, who were not in a religious fervor, deposed Mussolini in 1943 when the Allies invaded Sicily.  Mussolini had industrialized them, and they didn’t need him anymore.

Jung held his theory – that Nazism was a new avatar of Wotan – because it was a brilliant proof of his theory of the collective unconscious.  That he predicted Nazism in 1918 was icing on the cake.  I think Jung’s theory has correct elements, but that Nazism arose from specific historical factors.  The point at which his and my theories agree is that Nazism was a religious movement.

Nazism accomplished its purpose.  The German people now feel unified.  Though they still have local dialects, the dialects are dying out.  Their need satisfied, I cannot see the Germans becoming a warlike people in the foreseeable future.

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Humanism is a cult that denies it’s a cult

A very common childhood story these days is of a child in the middle grades lying on their back at night, staring at the stars, realizing that each star is a sun like their own sun.  They realize how vast the universe is and how small and insignificant they are.  They tell their story to a parent, perhaps hoping to find out that they are wrong.  The parent sadly affirms that world is vast and that each one of us is insignificant.  The better parents then say, “But what matters is that you are here, you matter and we love you.”

Most children survive this encounter with the infinite and prosper, while others become convinced that they do not matter, that life is meaningless; these children often do not prosper.

Let’s look closer at what the better parents say.  They say that a person’s smallness, their lack of power, doesn’t matter, because the proper measure of a person is other people, not the infinite universe.  What matters is the human community, and its ability to care for each other.  Even though an individual person has little power, the human community has great power.

This homily works because it’s demonstrably true.  Humans have abilities far beyond other animals, as children of the middle grades can clearly see.  Dogs can’t drive cars and could never create a car.  Dogs fight with other dogs, while human children have scores of friends.  Humans have unique capabilities because they are an intelligent social species.

This is a modern story.  Copernicus in the 16th Century first told us that the Sun was a star like all the others.  Realizing that the Sun wasn’t the center of the universe took until the 18th Century.  For all this to filter down to every child took until the 19th and 20th Centuries.  The modern world challenges our natural egotism, which protected us from feeling helpless. 

Our solution of is also a modern solution.  A hunter-gatherer is very much a part of their natural world, competing with other animals for food.  In their religions, hunter-gatherers tried to capture the power of the animals, plants and places around them by turning them into sacred emblems, deifying their world.  People of the medieval world were tied closely to the natural cycles of planting and harvesting.  Humans in the modern world are very separated from the natural world, ensconced deeply into their own human-made world.  Naturally, humans should be the measure of that world; little else has any power in our modern world.

Karen Anderson says that religion gives people meaning through stories that help them endure the difficulties in their lives.  By this standard, humanism is a religion; it explains why humans have conquered the world and what to do about it – to participate in the community and keep it from fracturing.  Anderson says that religions have myths and rituals for embodying the myths.  Humanism’s rituals are its arts, particularly the story-telling arts; the movie theaters spin new myths with every superhero movie they show.

As noted in a previous post, Yuval Harari argues that humanism is a religion using a different criterion for language that focuses on norms and beliefs.  I find Anderson’s argument more persuasive, but together they form a strong argument for a religion not based in the idea of a god.

The odd thing is that humanism denies that it’s a religion.  It defines religion as believe in a god or gods, and notes that humans aren’t gods.  Anderson and Harari define religion by its function rather than its form.  As Anderson notes in another book, the deepest sages of religion didn’t care much about eschatology; it didn’t matter to them if there were many gods or one, because no one could ever know. Instead, humanism believes that it is the natural, logical result of the world we know.  But Nazism believed the same thing.  It also denied that it was a religion, as it suppressed every other religion it could.  This tendency of atheistic religions to deny that they are religions is very dangerous.

Nazism as a Fundamentalist Religion

Karen Anderson’s magnificent The Battle for God describes the common process for forming fundamentalist religions in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  She starts with a simple distinction, between myth and logic.  Pre-modern agricultural religions valued both myth and logic, but kept them in separate areas.  Logic was for everyday life – how and when to plant crops, how to run an empire – while myth was for how to make meaning out of life.  Part of Judaism’s and Christianity’s myths was that they were God’s chosen people, and their difficulties and suffering were part of God’s plan to test them and their fidelity.  Islam’s myth was of the perfect God-inspired state that would be just to all.

Myth was recreated in ritual; the Eucharist was God’s body and blood and by consuming it you became part of God.  By participating in Ramadan with all the other Muslims, you suffered together and were relieved of your hunger together.  Agricultural societies had technological limits that prevented them from growing quickly or without bound; the Roman and the Ming Chinese Empires represented the most that mankind could do with their technology.  Myth helped men and women accept the limitations of their lives.

Western technology, particularly the harness of new energy sources such as wind and fossil fuels, blew through those limitations creating a modern world where change not stasis is the predominant orientation.  Logic has proved to be so powerful and beneficent that myth seems backward.  What’s the point of religious mumbo-jumbo, people like Karl Marx asked.

Religious people responded by starting to develop religious strains that offered more logic and less myth.  The Protestant fundamentalist innovation was to treat the Bible as a collection of facts, rather than myths.  Called “Biblical inerrancy,” every word of the Bible was considered as fact, as literally true, and as actionable.  So the apocalyptic ravings of John of Patmos were considered the actual plan for the end of the world, a promise from God about how he would bring all of his followers to him at the end of the world.   Protestant fundamentalism focused on common sense; it made no sense that we were descended from apes; where was God’s plan in that?  The Jewish fundamentalists also want the end of the world to come, and killed Yitzhak Rabin for trying to run Israel in a logical manner.   By treating myth as logic, the fundamentalists often made both bad logic and bad myth.

A common process in all of the fundamentalist strains is to simplify a religion until it had become an ideology – a set of ideas that logically led to a single conclusion.  That’s the process we see Hitler going through in the last post.  He decides to jettison Ariosophic ideas because he wants to create a mass movement.  He admires the orthodoxy of Catholicism and wonders if he can create that too.  He thinks the Bible is too Jewish, and considers creating an Aryan Bible from parts of the Bible.   He conflates Nature and God, thinking that the survival of the fittest means that Aryans can enslave others.  His ideology goes back to the Christian source, but selects only the elements he wants; he uses science, but only the elements he wants.  He forges all of these elements into a hammer, a moral system that give him absolute control.

Similarly, the current Islamic fundamentalist practice of takfir – calling another Muslim an apostate, giving sanction to kill them – forges elements of Islam into the same kind of hammer. Hitler was always intent on creating his own religion of racial superiority, but it was a secular religion, composed entirely of logic.  Any mythic elements were part of a logical design.   They performed myth’s function – of giving meaning to life – in a deeply cruel way that didn’t just denied meaning to non-Aryan lives but took them.

Another View

I wish I could say that the idea of Nazism as a secular religion is original.  Unfortunately, I am mimicking my betters.  I found an interesting article on the subject written by a historian and philosopher at the University of Melbourne who specializes on the intersection of Nazism and religion. https://www.abc.net.au/religion/hitlers-faith-the-debate-over-nazism-and-religion/10100614.

In a 2014 Q&A between Cardinal George Pell and Richard Dawkins, Pell said that Nazism and Stalinism were “two great atheistic movements of the last century.”

The author, Samuel Koehne, says “The three main schools of thought are that the Nazis adhered to neo-paganism, that their ideology itself formed a ‘political religion’ or that they advocated a particular form of Christianity.”

For the pagan origin, Koehne notes that when the Nazis first celebrated Christmas in Munich in 1920, it was a winter solstice celebration.  Possibly the first issue of the Volkischer Observer said that Germany’s dire situation was “prophesied in the Edda and in the teachings of the Armanen in ancient times.”  The Poetic Edda describes Ragnorok, the twilight of the gods.  “Aramen” was an esoteric idea of the Ariasophist Guido von List, a ancient priesthood of Wotan, that von List investigated through runes.

In a speech from 1920, Hitler “made direct references to some of List’s concepts and argued that all Aryans built ‘cults of light’ wherever they had founded civilisations in the world.”  Showing his poor anthropology, Hitler cited any use of the swastika as a “cult of light.”  Hitler also said that the Bible was too Jewish.

Hitler quickly drew away from Ariasophists because he wanted to create a mass movement, not a secret society.  In Mein Kampf, he supported Catholic traditions of authority and dogma, seeing them as ideal for an ideological faith that would dominate Germany.

For the Christian argument, “Hitler often did argue in favour of the notion of a creator, a deity whose work was nature and natural laws, conflating God and nature to the extent that they became one and the same thing.”  This strikes me as pantheistic rather than Christian, but some argue that Hitler was a Deist, like Thomas Jefferson.

Hitler combined all these ideas in a 1938 speech that “stated the Nazi ‘cult’ was solely one which respected nature, and so that which was ‘divinely ordained.’”  Because Nature was God, and because Darwinian Nature was the survival of the fittest in which the Germans had won, Nazism was ordained by God/Nature.  Quite a syllogism, but not Christian.

Hitler’s logic reminds me of the logic of fundamentalist religions, which I’ll cover in the next blog.

Esoteric Roots of Nazism

In this series on Nazism, I’ve tried to show that it was a secular religion that overtook Germany in a religious ecstasy.  In this post, I’d like to address specifically pagan elements on Nazism.

The German Völkisch movement of the late 1800s was a romantic, anti-modernist, conservative and nationalist back-to-the-land movement with a mystical connection of the earth and the German people (der Völk.)  Over time, the movement turned to a focus on racial purity and anti-Semitism.

Most societies have an underground of esoteric thinkers, working with unusual religious ideas and wild theories.  One set of esoteric ideas was the Ariosophy movement (meaning “wisdom of the Arians”) combined Völkisch ideas with Freemasonry, Kabbalism and Rosicrucianism.  Its thrust was to “prove the modern world was based on false and evil principles.”

The Ariosophic idea most closely linked to the Nazi Party is of Ultima Thule, the farthest north location in Europe and the mystical origin of the Aryan race.  Many Nazi leaders belonged to the Thule Society, founded in Munich after WW I, including Rudolph Hess and ideologue Alfred Rosenberg.  Two Thule Society members founded the German Workers Party in January, 1919; Hitler joined it in September, 1919.  The Thule Society’s weekly newspaper, the Munich Observer, eventually became the Völkisch Observer, the Nazi newspaper. Hitler severed the link between the Nazi Party and the Thule Society in 1920 and the Society disbanded in 1925.

Himmler remained interested in esoteric ideas.  One recorded interest is a forgery called the Oera Linda book was translated into German in 1933.  Written in Old Frisian, the book is about an ancient matriarchy and Atlantis, typical esoteric obsessions.

Himmler incorporated numerous pagan elements into the paramilitary Schutzstaffel, the infamous SS.  All SS members had to renounce their Christian beliefs.  Christmas was replaced with a winter solstice celebration and Christian marriages were replaced by a neo-pagan ritual, the Ehewein, invented by Himmler.  There were many esoteric rituals, with insignia and ceremonies for the advancement of an SS member through its ranks.

Christian morality, with its emphasis on kindness, was very inconvenient for Himmler, because it kept his SS soldiers from being as brutal as he wanted them to be.  Himmler’s use of paganism is clearly instrumental: he used it separate his soldiers from their Christian upbringing.  He seemed to have like the pomp and ceremony as well.

Hitler attempted to control Christianity too.  He tried to create a Protestant Reich Church combining the existing 28 Protestant denominations, but that created a resistance – the Confessing Church – that kept the Bible as the church authority.  By 1939 the Confessing Church was banned and its leader arrested.  Seminaries were closed and church officials were arrested.

Hitler was even harder on the Catholic Church.  He immediately banned all Catholic political parties, and though he signed an agreement with the Pope that guaranteed the rights of the Church but required all bishops to swear an oath of allegiance to the Reich.  The Nazis continued to harass Catholics, closing all institutions that weren’t strictly religious.  In 1937, Pius XI issued an encyclical that denounced aspects of Nazi ideology and told bishops that year that this was the gravest persecution the Church has seen in many years.

During the war itself, clergy were drafted and arrested; a Clergy Barracks was established at Dachau.  Publications were censored and banned; services were restricted.  It motivated some of the plotters in the failed 1944 coup against Hitler; Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other clergy were executed in the aftermath.

Many smaller denominations were banned, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Salvation Army, Seventh-Day Adventists and Baha’i.  Esoteric groups were persecuted; between 80,000 and 200,000 Freemasons were killed. The repression swept up many other esoteric groups too, including the German Order of the Druids.  Astrologers, healers and fortune tellers were banned.

Hitler fired a Thüringen Nazi leader in 1927 who made too much of a religion out of Arian purity.  The only religion Hitler tolerated was the neo-pagan, racist German Faith Movement, with 200,000 followers, but it was never supported.  Jung praised it, saying it had “decent and well-meaning people who honestly admit their possessionand try to come to terms with this new and undeniable fact.” 

Hitler eradicated every religion he could, including Nazism distant roots in esoteric thought.  He tried to control every other religion.  Historians consider this part of Nazi totalitarianism, saying it was like the Communist suppression of religion, but I see a different pattern.

First, the other fascist movements incorporated religion: Catholicism in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Croatia; Eastern Orthodox in Rumania.  Nazism was the only fascist party to suppress all religions.

Second, the Soviets took over religious properties but didn’t repress religions.  Believers were generally free to worship in private and in their religious buildings but public displays of religion were prohibited.  The Soviet approach was to destroy religion as a power center, but not as belief system.  This is all the totalitarianism thesis requires, but Hitler went much further.

Hitler attacked other religions because he understood he was leading a religious revival.  If Nazism had survived, it may eventually have taken a neo-pagan form, because that seems to be the natural direction of secular religions.  Even the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair celebrated winter solstice, according to a UPI report (https://www.upi.com/Archives/1984/12/19/Atheists-celebrate-winter-solstice/8368472280400/).

Nazism Was a Secular Religion

In my last two posts, I looked at religious and historical explanations for Nazism.  Historically, in fascism the people granted power to an authoritarian state which promised to industrialize them.  In communism, the people made a similar grant.  Yet Germany was already an industrially advanced nation, so a different explanation is needed.

The explanation is that Nazism was a millennial secular religion, and Hitler was its prophet.  It swept through Germany and caused it to act in extraordinary ways, which is a hallmark of millenarian movements.  It wasn’t a reversion to Wotan, as Jung says, but a secular movement shadowed by Germany’s pagan past.

It will take several steps to prove this idea.  First, the idea of a secular religion has to be defined and defended.  In his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari defines religion as “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.”  He says that Nazism, Marxism and secular humanism are all religions, with respective foundational values of racial superiority, class equality and humanity.

Nazism always claimed to be scientific, as did Communism.  It based itself of measurements of skeletons and brains, and did supposedly scientific experiments in the camps.  It invoked Darwin’s principal of natural selection in the racial realm, saying that Germans, and Westerners in general, were the end product of evolution and naturally superior to other races.  It condemned Jews as parasites, and demanded a medical cure to the illness.  Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists and the handicapped were parasites too.  It believed in race, science and natural selection, and had values that not only tolerated but encouraged violent dominance.

Karen Armstrong also defines religion, but not in Harari’s hyper-rational way.  In The Battle for God, she says that religion gives a people a reason for going on in the face of suffering and discouragement.

Armstrong validates Jung’s insight, saying, “Mythology was an attempt to organize experiences of the unconscious into imagery which enabled man and women to relate to these fundamental regions of their own being.”  “The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal.” “Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair.”

Rituals and ceremonies are the mechanisms for bringing the mythos deep into the heart.  For example, the Shia celebrate the death of Hussein as an understanding that the state is oppressive and that only fidelity to a Hidden Imam can keep the hope of justice alive.

Nazism had elaborate rituals designed to show the unity of the German people, at Nuremburg and other rallies.  It had temples in Speer’s building.  The key value expressed was a will to power.  As Jung points out, Hitler could never marry because he was a holy man who was the intermediary to the divine.  He was Germany, not a man.

Other questions are why Germany fell into a millenarian religious revival and the Nazis relationship to Norse and German paganism.  I’ll address these in further posts.

Germany’s Constitutional History

My last post was about Nazism as a religious phenomenon.  Jung’s image of Germany being seized by Odin and turned into berserkers is a poetic image – a way of showing a whole truth that can’t be analyzed – that is deeply uncomfortable to many.  We prefer rationality these days.

So before I dig deeper into Nazism’s religious threads, let me look at its historical foundation.  The best big picture history I know is Phillip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles.  Bobbitt traces how constitutional foundations – the relationship between the government and its people – have evolved in Europe since the Enlightenment.

Bobbitt proposes a six stage evolution, from princely states to kingly states, to territorial states formed by contiguous territory and a common language like England, to state-nations where the state is no longer owned by the aristocracy but calls on the efforts of all of the citizens, to the nation-states that fought World War II, to the present market-state.

Most Europe countries at the beginning of World War I were state-nations, where all people had basic rights and peasantry has been eliminated.  Armies were large, and represented the people in arms.  Virtually all were constitutional monarchies, with king or queen sharing power with an elected legislature; in England the Parliament held most of the power while in Germany and Russia the Kaiser and czar held significant power.

Yet they weren’t all equal; Germany and Italy had been unified only in the last fifty years.  bIn Bobbitt’s terms, both were a collection of princely states.  Then the largest German state, Prussia under Bismarck, conquered the others to create a territorial state.   After wars with Austria and France, their only war demand was to be allowed to annex the German principalities, who were ecstatic to be annexed.  Germany became the most populous state in Europe.

Italian reunification was longer and more torturous but lead to the House of Savoy in northwestern Italy conquering the rest of Italy by 1875.  At the same time in 1866 that Austria fought Prussia, Austria also fought Italy for Venice and lost.  Italy became a constitutional monarchy under Victor Emmanuel.

Although these unifications made Germany and Italy into territorial states, their rivals were already state-nations so both Germany and Italy hurried into all reform necessary to compete.  But they were fundamentally behind the other state-nations.  One way to see this is through language.  When Napoleon formed the first state-nation, France had many different regions with different languages, from Celtic Breton to the family of northern langue-d’oil languages to the southern family of langue-d’oc.  The intense pressure of the state-nation made all French citizens speak Parisian French.  Some French dialects still exist but the French government refuses to recognize them.

Germany had the same collection of dialects that France had, and when Prussia took control of them, the Prussian dialect became the standard language, Hochdeutsche.  I recently met a middle-aged German couple who speak the Hessisch dialect to each other, but said their sons would probably only speak Hochdeutsche.  The language standardization is a state-nation process that is only now completing in Germany.  Italy has an even wider dialect spread; Sicilian and Sardinian are reckoned separate languages, not dialects.

The First World War destroyed the system of state-nations, because the state had proved to be a poor guardian, leading the people (the nation) into a slaughterhouse.  The state then changed its constitutional foundation, promising to provide for the people.

This nation-state promise took three forms.  The Communist promise was to destroy the disgraced ruling class and create a society where everyone shared wealth equally.  The Fascist promise was to create a strong state that incorporated the people and made them strong.  The democratic promise was the old promise of individual liberties and freedom.  During the critical years of the 1920s and 1930s, all three forms had their adherents.  Bobbitt calls the period from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to the end of the USSR in 1991 as the Long War, an epochal war that determined which nation-state form would become dominant.

In the 1930s, Europe had several fascist parties beyond the cores one in Germany, Italy and Spain.  Portugal has the New State that survived until 1974.  The Nazi Party in Austria failed at a coup in 1934 but the authoritarian Austrian state became a client of Germany.  Hungary had the Catholic, anti-Semitic Arrow Cross; Croatia had the Catholic, anti-Serb, anti-Semitic Ustashe; Romania had the Orthodox, anti-Hungarian, anti-Semitic Iron Guards, who were suppressed with Nazi help.  In addition, virtually all of Eastern and Southern Europe was under control of authoritarian states, whose ideas often blended with fascist ideas.  In 1938, fascism seemed like the future.

Mussolini used his dictatorial powers to industrialize Italy in much the same way Stalin industrialized Russia.  There are stories of Stalin and the central committee planning train schedules; the effective promise of both Communists and Fascists was rapid industrialization, and both fulfilled their promises.  Poland laid new railroad tracks so that the rail network centered on Warsaw, not Moscow, Vienna and Berlin.  The democratic nations were already industrialized so they just kept going on.

Yet Germany was different from the others in this way too.  It had a world-leading chemical industry and was already industrialized enough to fight the First World War and to build a navy to rival Britain’s.  Its agriculture needed to be modernized, but that was so in the democratic countries as well; the U.S. was struggling with dust bowls and rural electrification.

Germany’s rightward course seems due to its limited experience with democracy, and as powerfully, its limited history as a unified territorial state.  Italy had the most similar constitutional history, and it originated the ideas of fascism.  That Germany chose fascism or a similar authoritarian form shouldn’t be surprising.  At the same time, Germany didn’t have Italy’s or Russia’s need to industrialize, so its choice of such a radical form is surprising.

So our rational analysis tells us why fascism was strong, and it tells us that Germany the exception.