The Blind Swordsman

Some years ago I watched the movie The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi and enjoyed it, though it did not match my expectations.  I watch martial arts movies from time to time, but usually not for the plot or character development.  As a kid, I watched any movie I could with big explosions.  Now I am a sucker for the balletic action common in many great kung-fu movies from the east.

Certainly the movie has its share of sword fights, but the style of fighting surprised me, ignorant as I was (and am) of Japanese fighting styles.  I expected long, drawn out battles.  In fact, the fights lasted mere seconds as the combatants focused on short, intense stabs.  Towards the end of the movie the best swordsman of the bad guys and Zatoichi face off alone.  “Ah, here we go,” I thought.  No . . . this was the shortest fight of all, consisting of each man doing only one move.

I thought of this movie reading Japanese Destroyer Captain* by Captain Temeichi Hara of the Japanese Imperial navy.  During W.W. II his record made him Japan’s best captain of destroyers, if not one of their top captains in the whole navy.  Much of his memoir reads like I suppose an American or British naval man would recount the war.  I hoped also to glean something of the culture of Japan that would help illumine the war beyond the narrow confines Hara discusses.

Captain Hara avoids using too much military jargon.  At times I had to strain to understand the battles he describes, but usually not.  He writes openly without any obvious agenda.  He has criticism and praise alike for certain American actions, and even sharply criticizes certain member of Japanese high command (I believe he was the first to do so after the war).

I mentioned The Blind Swordsman because the whole atmosphere of Hara’s account has its roots in samurai lore.  Hara often references maxim’s from different literature and famous swordsmen, but he seems to do more than just quote them.  He gives evidence of living inside of them.  His grandfather actually was a samurai and he speaks at the beginning of the book of his deep connection with his grandfather.  He obviously sought to live out this connection in battle.  Often his thoughts on tactics and strategy come couched in aphorisms of the samurai, especially Mushashi Miyamoto.

But this applies to the whole Japanese naval effort.  Certainly Japan faced certain strategic limitations given their relatively small industrial capacity, but their tactics reminded me of the final sword battle of Zatoichi.  The best samurai win with one stroke.  The Japanese developed torpedoes that had longer range and ran without leaving a distinct trail in the water.  This gave them an advantage that they attempted to exploit in samurai like fashion.  They sought to fire first from long range, well before U.S. ships could fire.  If successful, the naval battle would over immediately.  But if not–and the long ranges from which they fired made this less than likely–the advantage would immediately swing to the Americans.  On the one hand, their concepts make sense apart from samurai lore.  If you have a smaller chance of winning a close-fought battle (Americans never had to worry about supplies of ammo) try and win it from long-range.  Even so, we still see the samurai connection.

We this seeking after a decisive final-blow in other aspects of Hara’s account.  He frequently criticized any effort of Japan that failed to use its forces en masse in decisive faction, citing the adage, “A lion uses all its strength when catching a rabbit.”  Even in April of 1945, with no chance of victory, Hara seems strangely at peace with their final naval assault.  Many eagerly sought death in samurai fashion in an entirely hopeless battle.  Hara, if I may venture  a guess, seems pleased in a more detached sense that the navy had marshaled all its remaining ships and at least would now use them all at once.  In this last moment for the Japanese navy we see the Zatoichi sword fight connection.  Rather than keep their ships back to defend Japan, they sought a grand offensive thrust at our beachhead in Okinawa (which also mirrors how they used their torpedos).**

When discussing Guadalcanal Hara shows a keen understanding of strategic and tactical success.  The Japanese at one point won a key battle by sinking several U.S. ships.  The Japanese celebrated.  Hara did not.  He noted that nothing about the situation in Guadalcanal had fundamentally changed.  The U.S. could still supply its men, and the Japanese still could not supply their own.  Soon after the Japanese evacuated their troops.

I thought of this earlier section of the book when reading the last paragraph.  Hara writes,

The powerful navy which had launched the Pacific war 40 months before with the attack on Pearl Harbor had at last been struck down.  On April 7, 1945, the Japanese Navy died.

That’s it?  After giving many opinions and demonstrating time and again the ability and courage to criticize and analyze situations, I found myself mystified that he offered no general conclusions.   Why?  Again, I am guessing . . . but in the midst of battle, Hara dedicated himself to victory at (almost) any cost.^  Part of this ‘cost’ came in the form of even criticizing high command.  But once the war ended, perhaps Hara thought of himself as a ronin, masterless and without purpose.  Reflection about some grand meaning after the fact might for him resemble one hand clapping in a void of space–what would be the point?  Perhaps . . . perhaps, Hara resembled Zatoichi in more than just a sense of samurai vocation.  Perhaps his field of psychological vision was likewise obscured.

Dave

*I assume this is a poor translation and the title in Japanese is not so wooden.

**Perhaps another connection . . . Hara laments that the Japanese could not build small torpedo boats akin to our PT class ships.  They had the requisite physical capability, of course, but not, it seems, the ability to match the mental will and physical capacity.  Hara offers no explanation for this so my guess will be exceedingly tentative . . . the PT boat offered nothing that would produce a decisive and grand blow.  No samurai wanted to inflict a death of 1000 cuts.

I mentioned one effect of the democratization of the samurai ethos in this post.  In a more mild vein, Hara mentions a samurai drinking ceremony related to battle.  Now, with all supposed to embody the samurai spirit, all would drink as the samurai did.  But, there are many more men in the navy than there were samurai.  Hara recounts several amusing instances when he “had” to drink many many toasts with his men, with almost any occasion an excuse to drink.

^Hara felt that too many in Japan’s military applied the bushido ethic too far and too liberally, merely seeking death as preferable to life.  Hara did not fundamentally object to suicide missions, but he did believe that they must serve some purpose beyond the merely symbolic.  He objected to the final sortie to Okinawa not because it would involve the destruction of the fleet, but because it would needlessly destroy the fleet.  Hara wanted instead to sell his life attacking supply and transport ships, to do at least some damage to the U.S.

“Our danger is that we win all the battles except the last one.”

Despite a mountain of documentary evidence that survived the war in Germany, the Nuremberg trial prosecutors had a difficult time establishing guilt.  Many of the top Nazi leaders had already died, and many of the accused found it quite convenient to blame things on those who could no longer answer.   What they knew and when they knew it, and where their responsibility lay was not always easy to ascertain.

Acclaimed military writer Basil Liddell Hart scored a great coup by getting several top German Unknowncommanders in W.W. II to talk to him about their war experience.  It proved all to easy for the generals to ascribe whatever success they had to themselves, and their failure to Hitler.  As Hart notes in his prologue, this means it’s hard to know how reliable Hart’s generals can be.

Still, Hart’s The German Generals Talk succeeds on many levels.  While exact particulars remain cloudy in some cases, a definite overall picture emerges. Among other things, the paradigm the generals created (and we also tend to create) in regard to Hitler and the military needs tweaking, at least in some instances.

For example, we think of Hitler as a megalomaniac bent on conquest at all costs.  But how to explain, then, Hitler’s attitude towards Britain?  Hart shows that at least in the minds of the generals, Hitler wanted to back off of Britain.  At Dunkirk the generals thought that Hitler wanted the British to get away.  With Operation Sea Lion, generals complained that Hitler barely involved himself in the planning and seemed to care little for the details. He seemed almost relieved to break it off in its infant stages.

In truth, Hitler had always admired the British.  He praised them in Mein Kampf, which fit his racial view of the world.  The British, after all, had largely German and Nordic stock and thus were not Germany’s “natural” enemies.  Apparently Hitler believed that in allowing the British to save their honor at Dunkirk, they would more prone to accept a peace settlement.  Like Kaiser Wilhelm II, he implicitly thought that Germany and England were friends deep down.  Hitler’s egocentrism led to him to believe that everyone thought as he did.  All of us share this characteristic to some extent, but in Hitler it grew far out of proportion.  In this rare instance, his race theories actually made him less aggressive, and in this case, this instinct proved disastrous for Germany, a double irony.

Hart shows how the army never really trusted or liked Hitler.  Every general interviewed sought to distance himself from Hitler in some way. But then this begs the question as to why very few military leaders stood up to Hitler, let alone actively tried to change the situation.  They explained their situation this way:

  • While many of the upper level officers might have gone against Hitler, their troops would not have.  Those from Major on down had been raised with the Nazi system and had much more loyalty to it.  Many officers doubted whether or not their troops would have followed them in rebellion.
  • The army had an ensconced officer corp with traditions that survived W.W. I.  But the Air Force and navies did not.  Many army officers believed these branches were comprised almost entirely of pro-Hitler sympathizers, as both owed their very existence to the Nazi regime.  Even if the army as a unit rebelled, the Air Force and Navy would not.

Hart offers little comment on this line of defense.  It has merit, and it touches on a larger question.  For democracy to thrive the army must be apolitical.  Is the Nazi army any different?  When do we want the army suddenly to get a conscience?  Commenting on on our military’s experience in Vietnam, one general stated that, “To argue that officers should be guided primarily by their conscience is to argue for military dictatorship.”  But of course we don’t want soldiers, or any human being, to reduce themselves to be a mere robotic arm of the state.

Interestingly the generals’ objections to Hitler had everything to do with Hitler’s military policies and nothing about the morality of the Nazi regime. Nowhere in this 300 page book is the Holocaust even mentioned, let alone the “killing groups” on the eastern front.  Maybe this has something to do with exactly who Hart interviewed, but I think it has more to do with the strict stratification of Nazi society, and the technocratic nature of their military education.  In the end, neither of these things can explain away their ultimate failure to act in any significant way.  None of them went nearly as far as Adolph Eichmann’s ridiculous assertion that, “I only transported people to the concentration camps.  I never actually killed anyone!” but they show the same tendency, albeit to a much lesser degree.

This point touches on how the generals conducted the war.  While Hart (a military man himself) often sympathizes with the military’s side of the story, he points out that the generals lacked strategic imagination.  At least at certain points and times, Hart shows how Hitler had greater grand strategic insight.  Hitler and his generals often clashed.  They had profound class differences.  The Prussian aristocracy surely resented the social mixing engendered by the Nazi regime.  But Hart shows that the differences between them also had roots in their personalities and training.  Hitler’s poetic mind gave him a potentially greater field of vision than his technocratic generals.

But this “greater field of vision” needs moral and “physical” roots.   Art has no merit for its own sake. Hitler often preferred the great and memorable deed to reality.  If he were to win the war, it would have to be on his aesthetic terms.  So he ordered what in his mind were “gallant last stands” that really condemned his troops to slaughter.  The “Battle of the Bulge” had no real possibility of success due to lack of air support and supplies, but it would be so much more heroic than waiting behind fortified positions behind the Rhine.   Hitler seemed to live more fully in the world of Wagner’s operas than reality.

Hitler may have had at times greater strategic insight than his generals.  But this distance from reality made it so that he could never bother with mundane details.  As far as children are concerned, meat comes from the grocery store, and water comes from the faucet.  Hitler never either could or would take logistics like supplies into account.  That is why Germany could fall prey so quickly to “imperial overstretch.”  General Halder warned Hitler that, “Our danger is that we win all the battles except the last one,” and this proved prophetic in Africa, Russia, and even Europe.  Like Hannibal and Napoleon before him, Hitler forgot the need for political as well as military conquests.

It would be more satisfying for us if Hitler had a moment of self-revelation at his end.  But like many other Nazi leaders who took their own life, no such moment came.  Hitler never wavered from playing his part.  As various Nazi functionaries urged Hitler to flee Berlin, apparently it was Albert Speer who countered their advice by telling Hitler, “You must be on stage when the curtain falls.”  Speer knew that the best way to motivate Hitler was to play to his sense of theater.  Perhaps he wanted Hitler’s demise as much as some of the generals did.

Dave

11th Grade: Victory and Defeat Rest on Culture

Greetings,

This week we continued with W.W. II, and put a special focus on the impact a culture has on its army, and how that impacts the fighting itself.

When we think of qualities that an army needs to succeed, we would probably list

  • Unity
  • Order
  • Obedience
  • Hierarchical control

All of these qualities dovetail nicely with totalitarian societies.  Examples abound of the extreme sacrifices of individual Japanese soldiers in W.W. II.  They rarely surrendered.  They threw themselves on top of barbed wire and let fellow soldiers climb on top of them.  Surely any commander would prize these qualities.  And yet, democracies have a very favorable historical record in war against totalitarian regimes.  In fact, democracies get in much more trouble when they fight each other, i.e. The Peloponnesian War, The Roman Social War, World War I, etc.

What values, then, do democracies give their armies, and how does this help them win?  We looked at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 to help us understand this.  Both Japanese and American armies had brave soldiers, but their actions were byproducts of their cultures, and the values of Japanese society put them at a relative disadvantage.

For example:

  • Intelligence

Historians of all stripes universally agree that American military intelligence far outstripped Japans.  Is this coincidence?  Code breaking requires an extreme level of mathematical and analytic ability, and many people who possess that ability would not easily fit into a military lifestyle.  The U.S. army let these code breakers work independently.  Sometimes they showed up in uniform, sometimes they showed up in a bathrobe and slippers.  Sometimes they worked 9-5, sometimes they worked 24 hrs. straight and then took the next day off.  The U.S. tolerated all of their individual eccentricities, and it paid off with sterling results.

By June of ’42 we had broken the Japanese naval code and knew that they had planned a major assault on Midway.

In contrast, Japanese code breakers worked within a much more rigid structure.  They could not work independently, but had to take specific direction from superiors at all times.  They never achieved any measurable result.

  • Battle Plan and Strategy

All armies have a hierarchy, with orders that require obedience.  But different armies allow for more independence from their soldiers than others.  As we might expect, Japanese leadership insisted on strict, uniform control of all aspects of the battle.  To help achieve this level of control they grouped their air craft carriers all together, ostensibly to prevent free-lancing.  But it went both ways, for Japanese soldiers, not having been trained to act independently, could not do so.  The Americans, by contrast, spread out their ships.

The turning point of the battle came when an American dive-bomber squadron located the carriers (grouped together) they just happened to all be refueling, leaving tons of fuel exposed to attack.  The Americans needed only a few direct hits to essentially sink three carriers in six minutes.

Again, whatever role you assign to “chance,” it was no coincidence, especially when we consider that dive-bombers found the carriers when the squadron leader made a “best guess” of his own, and did not act on any specific order.  The military culture of the American army had some distinct differences from that of the Japanese, and this difference emanated from the society at large.

  • The Fate of the Commanders

When the Japanese carriers were hit, all of the Japanese admirals and captains gathered below deck to commit ritual suicide.  This action emanated directly from their code of “Bushido,” which penalizes failure and dishonor with death.

We can contrast this with General MacArthur of the U.S., who, when he suffered defeat and humiliation in the Philippines in 1942, fled the scene.  In 1944 he came back to liberate it.

Most historians I have come across argue that Japanese Generals and Admirals were at least the equal, if not superior, to their Allied counterparts.  Japanese privates had just as much, if not more, fighting spirit as the Americans.  All agree that the real difference between the armies could be found in their respective sergeants, lieutenants, and captains.  Allied soldiers of this rank could lead and adapt to changing conditions on their own, and their Japanese counterparts could not.

Interestingly, Hitler also had an obsession with “honorable” suicide, though few of his generals took him up on the idea.  Rommel eventually ignored Hitler’s “Victory or Death” order at El Alamein, though he later regretted he did not disobey even earlier than he did, for Montgomery’s artillery inflicted so much damage the Nazi’s never recovered in Africa.

A common theme running through all these factors is the honor given to individual life, something that totalitarian societies do not value.  In the end, such values not only don’t help your society, they don’t help your military either.

Have a great weekend,

Dave Mathwin

9th Grade: Mark Twain and Renaissance Florence

Greetings,

This week we began looking at the Renaissance in Europe.  The Renaissance can be viewed as a either a reaction to, or an extension of, the feudal period that preceded it.  Whatever position one takes on that issue, no one doubts that that the Renaissance represents a new way of thinking about the world and our relationship to it.

Historians debate exactly when the Renaissance began, but most agree that the ‘Spirit of the Renaissance’ had its origin in Florence, a city in northern Italy.  Why this city, previously of no real importance, should suddenly be the epicenter of a whole new way of thinking poses a question we needed to explore.

If we look at the conditions under which cultural revolutions take place throughout history, a few general trends emerge.  For one, it appears that they generally arise in geographical and social frontiers, and not as we might expect, in the centers of power and influence.  Thus, in the Middle Ages, we see the Gothic style originate in northern France, which saw so much conflict with England and the Vikings.  On top of that, northern France had relatively less Roman influence than southern France near the Mediterranean, making them less “civilized” in the eyes of many.  But the tension between “Gallic” and “Roman” may have given them the freedom to think of things in new ways.

UnknownIn our own history Mark Twain invents American literature on what was for the time, the geographic and social frontier of America.  Today, the mythology and folklore of the “frontier” still do much to shape the American psyche. If we think of Twain’s vocabulary and compare it to say, Hawthorne’s, we see that Twain occupied a social frontier as well as a geographic one.

Notice also, for example the incredibly dynamic & spiritual  response of African-Americans to persecution from say, 1880-1964 or thereabouts.  Swing, jazz, blues, motown, soul, rock and roll — all of them basically their creations, and that hardly encompasses a final account of their contributions to American life and culture.  Perhaps their disadvantaged social position led them to think of creative ways to deal with that challenge, which helped them create such vibrant music.

Florence found itself on the geographic frontier of two more established civilizations, that of France and southern Italy.  Divided politically (as the map below indicates) northern Italy never quite had the chance to develop its own social identity.  It appears that culture arises not from comfort, but from a challenge, be that challenge physical or social.

 

 

Another common thread in cultural innovation seems to be water.  The great cultural explosions, be it in Athens, Amsterdam, London, New York, or New Orleans, all have water in common.  I don’t think this is a coincidence, something I take up much more fully in this post, which we discussed in class.  Here is a link to a post that formed part of the basis of our discussion about water and creativity.

As we delve into the Renaissance, we face many questions:

1. Inherent in the names “Middle Ages,” and “Renaissance” (which means “rebirth”) are a lot of assumptions, namely, that the Renaissance took major leaps forward for humanity after we treaded water in the “Middle Ages” after the fall of Rome.  Some historians, however, like Regine Pernoud, see the Renaissance as a step backward from what came before.  Who is right?

2. Will the new view of mankind in the Renaissance be consistent with Christianity?  Will it correct what some perceive to be a medieval over-spiritualization, or will it give humanity too much pride of place?

3. How will this new view of mankind spill over into the rest of Renaissance society?

The Renaissance emerged from the wreckage of the feudal system in the 14th century.  The old social structure did not hold, the Church was busy shooting itself in the foot, and so on.  Different ways of thinking had opportunity to emerge, and we looked at the financial innovations of the Renaissance, particularly in banking.

Many thanks,

Dave

Cultures are all Different, except when they’re the Same

It strikes me as a plausible proposition that anthropology developed primarily as a science out of democratic cultures. The openness fostered by democracy may contribute to curiosity and a desire for travel. Many consider the Athenian Herodotus the “Father of History,” but his work has many anthropological dimensions as well. I discussed in another post the archetypal Feminine within democracy, so it may be no surprise that the most famous anthropologists in the 20th century were two women, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

We can imagine the stereotypical male being almost a parody of an anthropologist–narrow, rigid, calling anything different “stupid,” or “dumb” (this could have been a marvelous Monty Python skit with John Cleese). So we can see how typical feminine traits of fluidity, appreciating context, nurture and acceptance, and so on, might fit women best–in general of course.

Many have written extensively on Ruth Benedict’s classic, Patterns of Culture, and I will not seek to say what has already been said. Briefly, however, Benedict seems to have two main goals:

  • To show that cultures are fundamentally different from one another, and are developed internally, not dependent on race or geography
  • Benedict of course makes many interesting observations about the societies she observes and her work has great merit. But, just as John Cleese might marvelously enact a parody of an anthropologist in the field, so too anthropologists can sometimes parody themselves. It is possible to be so open, so fluid, as to lose one’s moorings.

By this I mean that, of course cultures are different from one another, but this should not surprise us at all. People are different too. What I find more striking are the similarities across cultures that testify to the essential unity of human nature. For example, Benedict tackles how different cultures treat adolescent girls. In one place, young teens are primarily feared. The transformation they undergo has an element of sacredness about it, but, the sacred can also bring terror. So the young girls are sent away from the community to live in tents apart for months at a time. In another culture, they are celebrated and receive something akin to adoration, with men of the tribe literally bowing to them as potential and future mothers of the tribe. In Polynesian cultures, Benedict asserts that no one makes a big deal of adolescence at all. No ceremonies exist to mark the passing from youth to young adulthood, but . . . during this time teens are granted a great deal of sexual freedom, which they readily take advantage of until marriage.

Benedict’s strong accentuation of differences, however, have her miss the overall point. Each of these cultures treat the teen years as a distinct phase of development, each other them apply different standards of conduct for teens and others in the tribe treat them differently than either children or adults. To me, this seems more striking than their differences.

I find this emphasis on difference–not at all unique to Benedict among anthropologists–as a symptom of the democratic cultures from whence they arise which also stress individual differences and uniqueness. Paradoxically, I think this leads us towards a fascination with cultures that are tightly interlocked and cohesive, for democratic cultures can produce no such thing.

When a book gets reviewed positively by diverse thinkers such as Rod Dreher and Cornel West, one should take note. Patrick Deneeen’s Why Liberalism Failed partially indulges in too much romanticism for the past. His book is more of an essay or a thought-piece, and so it has holes. Still, I find his paradoxical analysis that Liberalism–by which he means the liberal democratic order that forms the foundation of both Republicans and Democrats–has failed because it has in fact done everything it set out to do, compelling, and an interesting companion to Benedict and other anthropologists.

Deneen argues that the Liberal order, which had its origins in with the work of Hobbes and Locke, set out to create a radically new society with a very different conception of how an individual relates to the state and one another. Traditional societies saw the state fundamentally as a community of persons pointed in the same direction with the same values.

Liberal society starts with the premise that recognizing and maximizing individuals, and the inherent competition that comes with it, will create a more prosperous and workable state. Liberalism seeks to free us from all group oriented authorities that are not consensual, be it tradition, community norms, etc. It achieved its goals in spectacular fashion and we all partake readily of what it has to offer. It has brought unprecedented prosperity, but left us adrift at sea in a mass of individuals. In turn, this has led to the rise of statism, and emotionally driven authoritarian politics. Gone is the world of George H.W. Bush. Welcome to the world of Trump and Ocasio-Cortez. The success of Liberalism has brought us to place that will naturally usher in its demise.*

Deneen explains himself well on any number of podcast interviews, and the book has various and detailed reviews. I will mention two of his main points that might help us understand the polarity of the self-loathing expressed by some in academia and the progressive left, and the chest-thumping of the more nationalistic right.

Deneen mentions that Liberalism is supposed to make men “free” and “liberal” in their disposition. But the whole tradition of the liberal arts expounds a very different meaning of freedom. The great thinkers and writers from the ancients down through Austen and Dickens all characterize freedom as living with limits, be it the limits of nature, tradition, or the law of God. But the Liberal order defines freedom as acting without any constraint, be it constraints on the market, on family, on biology, and so on. So, Wal-Mart should be free to eradicate mom-and-pop Main Street. And, if every civilization that ever existed defined marriage in a certain way, that stricture simply sets up another bowling pin for the Liberal order to knock down. The whole history of the human past has no authority over the now.

Our orientation towards living without limits has led to our striking crisis of inequality. Our solution to this, however, is not to champion the limitations taught by the liberal arts, rooted in God, natural law, or nature itself, but instead to blame liberal education for being “impractical.” For Deneen, an insistent STEM emphasis only continues to feed the beast, though he surmises that we will avoid violence. John Locke himself argued that, of course his proposed new order would bring about a new kind of inequality. But this new inequality will give us much more overall prosperity, and indeed he was correct. Even the poor may not mind inequality so much because we all have iphones.** Still, the benefits of a liberal economy do not feed the soul.

So too, Deneen argues that Liberalism destroys “culture” as part of its operating procedure. To develop, culture requires place, habit, tradition, and local difference, none of which have a role in the Liberal state. We have no place, and if we live in a particular place for long, it may not have any “place” about it (suburbs are wonderfully convenient and give many obvious benefits, but most are interchangeable with each other).

I think this might explain why many in the west have a fascination with other cultures. The Pueblo and the Dobu people profiled by Benedict have a tight culture in which roles and identity stand out with perfect clarity to all who live within them. We may not want to live among them but we long for their sense of solidity. Conversely, the Dobu do not send out anthropologists to find out about us. A man who is full need not scavenge for food.

This may help explain the progressive liberal drive to limit free speech. They seek not the liberal idea of freedom, but taboos that might give us identity. I completely object to their methods and their goals, though I understand the impulse. You can only celebrate diversity for so long, until you realize that everyone has the same need to define themselves as a people, and we cannot define ourselves without living within limits .

Deneen’s book has few solutions in mind, and this has frustrated some reviewers. But he does he offer the following from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution:

In this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, [and] that instead of throwing away our old prejudices, we cherish them . . . . W are are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock of each man is small, and the individuals do better to avail themselves of the general captital of nations and of ages. . . . Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes part of his nature.

Dave

*In an interesting aside, Deneen points out that James Madison specifically sought to develop a government where different political interests were inexorably pitted against one another. He eschewed the idea of community almost from the start. These different and intractable differences would preserve liberty for each group by each interest group canceling each other out. Alas, he probably envisioned several kinds of difference, and not just two.

Or . . . perhaps just two versions of the same impulse? Many criticize Trump for his relationship to facts. But Oscasio-Cortez recently derided those who are “more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

**Deneen said in a recent speech that he leads at Notre Dame a class on the idea of utopia, from ancient days until now. At the end, he polled the class to ask them which society of those he presented would they least want to live in, and which they would most want to live in. They all said 1984 is the one they wouldn’t want to live in. But which would they choose? A handful chose the world Wendell Berry presents in Hannah Coulter. But about half the class said Brave New World.

“It was stunning that they saw it as a utopia,” Deneen said. “That’s liberalism succeeding, and that’s liberalism failing.”

11th Grade: Blitzkrieg and The Worship of Death

Greetings,

This week we began the fighting in World War II, which in many ways simply continued World War I.  It had many of the same combatants on nearly identical sides, but the stakes had increased as weapons got more powerful, and the ability of governments to mobilize their populations got stronger.  We looked at the fall of France, and the idea of blitzkrieg in general.

I believe that many false assumptions exist as to why France collapsed catastrophically in May-June of 1940.  Among them:

  • That France was ‘defeatist’ throughout the 1930’s, so when war came, they laid down and died for Germany.

On the contrary, they spent the 1930’s building up their armed forces, believing a conflict with Germany inevitable.  They had more modern weapons than Germany did, in general.

  • That France wrested strategic control from England, who had more “backbone” than the French.

On the contrary, France throughout the 1930’s pandered to England at their own cost, and adjusted their tactics to protect Belgium, and hence, England itself.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, England had much more to do with the “appeasement” of Hitler than the French.

  • That France was purely defensive minded, and never fought.

Again, not so fast.  They did go on the offensive (mistakenly) in Belgium, and they did suffer some 200,000+ casualties in their six week conflict with Germany.

The Germans shocked them through their swift movement through the Ardennes Forest, a terrible miscalculation by France.  But when the Germans broke out of the Ardennes the English decided to ‘abandon ship.’  In English lore the Dunkirk evacuation was a heroic moment of pluck and glory.  For the French, the English cowardly abandoned them in their hour of greatest need.

Well if these are not the reasons, why then did they collapse so dramatically?  No one in Germany, not even Hitler, believed that they could accomplish what they did so quickly?  We have to dig deeper.

France had the  military tradition in the whole of Europe.  From Charlemagne, to Wiliam the Conqueror, to Joan of Arc and Napoleon, no one could match the French fighting reputation.  In W.W. I they lived up to this reputation.  About 10% of their country suffered untold physical devastation.  French soldiers suffered in greater percentages than any other main combatant, yet still they emerged victorious.

Victorious, yes, but also exhausted.  The idea of France suffering what it did before could not be comprehended.  It must never happen again.  This mindset led to the elevation of the army in the national consciousness.  It became their crown jewel, set apart from the rest of society. “The army will save us.”  One sees this in tangible ways, such as French military HQ’s not even having direct phone lines to government leaders.  “You want to talk, you come to us.”  It manifested itself more directly when the Nazi’s invaded.  After the British left at Dunkirk, Marshal Petain wanted to surrender, at least partly to make sure  he could “preserve the French army,” France’s “my precious” (to channel Tolkien’s Gollum).

Understandably, the French did not want to fight the Germans in France.  So they built the Maginot Line, a vast network of forts along the French-German border.  And, they planned an offensive into Belgium to meet what they assumed would be the focal point of the German assault, just like it was in W.W. I.

But the Germans did not plan their main assault there.  Instead they went through the Ardennes Forest, where France had their weakest troops.

This was not merely bad luck.  The French suffered from what many victors suffer from, a belief that the next war will be like the last.  Their key miscalculation was in the area of tanks. In W.W. I tanks served as support, and not as spearheads.  But thanks to Heinz Guderian, the Germans thought of how to use tanks differently, in mass formation, not spread out like field kitchen units.  The Germans thought differently in part because they had to.  Nothing prevented the French from coming to Guderian’s conclusions, except their own short-sightedness.

We must also consider the nature of blitzkrieg itself, which sought to hit quickly and without mercy or pause. The idea arose from the concept that the Germans knew that they would be outmanned and outgunned in the coming war.  Victory needed to be quick if it was to come at all.  They stunned the French and never let them get their bearings.

Blitzkrieg also seems to fit with the mindset of the Germans, and also the Japanese.  Both sides felt humiliated by other western powers.  Both sides dealt with pent up anger for at least several years before they actually attacked.  ‘Lightning War’ allows you to vent all that anger in one go, so to speak.

But one wonders if the dramatic and complete nature of Germany and Japan’s early conquests did not work against them eventually.  The amount of territory they gobbled up gave them the dilemma of occupation.  How should they pacify their holdings?  They could have made friends and tried to integrate with them (as the Romans or Persians might have done), but Nazi and Japanese racial theories made that a non-starter, with the embarrassing exception of Vichy France.  The only way then to secure peace is to ‘beat-down’ the opponent to such a degree that they could not resist.  But blitzkrieg meant quick pincer thrusts to stun the opponent.  It was not a tactic geared towards controlling territory, but to destroying armies.  But if you want to ‘beat-down’ the opposition, that requires more force, which requires more resources, which might also inspire more resistance in the end.

But I think another issue at stake is the relationship between totalitarian ideologies (present in both Germany and Japan) and its relationship to the individual, something I touch on in this post, if you have interest.  Totalitarian society’s absorb individual identities into something larger, more abstract.  Maybe it’s the “German Race,” or “Japanese Honor,” or “The World Wide Class Revolution,” in the case of communism.  Whatever the cause, the individual subsumes themselves to the group.  Totalitarian movements have real appeal in part because they offer us something outside of ourselves.  After all, what could be a greater form of pride than having oneself be the only reality?

The danger comes when you reach beyond yourself and attach to something that denies and robs you of your individual identity. You graft yourself onto a leech that seeks to erase your uniqueness, your spiritual identity.

Destruction of the spiritual identity of the person is a mere precursor to the destruction of the physical person itself.  In the case of the Nazi’s they certainly did this to Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped, etc.  But some Nazi’s did it to themselves in the end. One sees in Hitler, the S.S., and the Japanese Kamikaze’s (to name a few) a worship of death itself, a will towards destruction.  I don’t want to hang too much on my non-existent ability to play arm-chair psychologist, but I wonder if subconsciously they courted their eventual destruction with their military strategy.  For blitzkrieg was a strategy rooted in anger and desperation.  It could not have long-term success, but gave one the exaltation of a “last stand,” a glorious death.

And this brings us to what may be the real roots of Japanese and German strategy.  Both countries espoused ideologies that looked to a distant past for inspiration, and sought some form of purity.  In other words, both had a strongly romantic strain.  The romantic loves the grand gesture, and as an idealist, does not think about results.  The Japanese looked towards the bygone era of samurai’s, who lived for glory.  The best way to achieve glory was death in battle.  The Nazi, as we discussed a few years ago, had direct inspiration from Wagner, where someone is always dying or something is always burning in the end.  But from this death could come rebirth.

Many 19th century romantic poets had a fascination with death, as did their progeny (think Jim Morrison, for example).  Did the Germans and the Japanese plan a strategy that subconsciously they thought would fail?  Did they seek glorious death instead of victory?

I do not mean to imply that “Romanticism” is bad, any more than idealism is bad.  In literature one only needs to think of C.S. Lewis’ Reepicheep the mouse to see romanticism oriented in positive ways.  But we should consider the possibility that there may be a reason why military strategists shake their heads at German and Japanese strategy in the war.   It did not make much sense, and maybe they did not want it to.

These dilemmas would prove the undoing of both Germany and Japan, and we’ll see how after Easter break.

Finally, thanks to The Toynbee Convector, I stumbled upon this death oriented totalitarian movement, if you are interested.

Many thanks,

Dave

9th Grade: Maps as Worldview

Greetings,

This week we spent time with two maps, each respective of their time, each revealing much about the societies that created it.

First, the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Map of the World), from the late 13th century :

 

We noted that, among other things

  • The map has very little water
  • The map is filled with animals, real or fanciful
  • Jerusalem is at the map’s center
  • The map has no actual geographical accuracy to speak of, almost on purpose

Basically the Hereford Mappa Mundi does not attempt to a map in any modern sense of the world.  It tells you nothing about physical geography.  But it does mean to orient one spiritually.  Christ sits enthroned above, the word “MORS” (Latin for death) forms a ring around the sphere, reminding us that death encompasses the globe.  Jerusalem stands at the center to remind us of the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Did they know nothing of physical geography.  Well, they may not have known much, but they knew more than this map indicates.  I think they just did not particularly care about it, it had no real importance in their society, and other Mappa Mundi’s of the era reflect the same values.

About 150 years later, we see this map:

Obviously many differences exist between the two.

  • The geography approaches reasonably accuracy
  • If you look closely you might see that upon the water there are many ships, obviously reflecting the explosion of exploration.
  • The spiritual symbolism is nowhere to be seen

The map is intended to represent physical reality, to perhaps guide one (at least marginally) while physically traveling.

Of course the map could have had spiritual symbolism if it wanted to.  But it had other purposes and goals in mind, and reflected the different values of the period, and this brings us to one of the crucial differences between the feudal period and the Renaissance.

For the Medievals, what counted most was not the actual, physical person/place/thing as it existed in reality, but the meaning behind the physical, or the symbolism inherent in the object.  So when they want to make a map of the world they did not really make a map of the world, but a spiritual map, a gospel tract.  When Dante uses Beatrice in his Divine Comedy Beatrice as an actual woman has no real importance.  But for Dante she serves as a powerful symbol of how the feminine can help lead him to salvation.

During the Renaissance we begin to see a shift in the other direction.  The physical world in itself has value, and is worth investigating and depicting.  I think both perspectives have value, and neither one has much value apart from the other.  Neither a peanut-butter sandwich, or a jelly sandwich, satisfies, but combined it works beautifully.  The Renaissance began by offering a helpful balance or corrective to some weak spots of the medieval order.  Whether it finishes there or not, we shall see.

If you have interest, last week we watched a brief portion of a video on the development of perspective in art which I include below.   Medieval art did not use perspective, partly because they did not know of the technique.  But I think that part of the reason why they did not discover perspective is that they never looked to develop an artistic technique that would allow them to represent the physical world accurately.  It had no real importance for them.

Blessings,

Dave

 

The Imperial Draftee

Children often hear, “This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you,” before getting punished and of course they never believe it.  One day, they find out that it takes a lot of energy to come up with a punishment and enforce it.  In a similar vein, no one who wins the lottery believes that they will fall victim to the “curse” of great financial windfall actually making people more unhappy.

So too imperial states do not realize that extra conquests often presage a time of troubles,* and soon begin to work against them.  We usually think of the geo-political or financial burden of conquest, but it takes a psychological toll as well.

Here is a picture of a draftee into Japan’s army, with his family at a farewell gathering.

The Imperial Draftee

The picture should be blown up beyond screen size to get the full impact, and you can do that here.

We might guess that this picture was taken late in World War II, when all that seemed left for Japan was either surrender or “honorable” death.  But in fact, the picture is from 1939, when Japan’s fortunes seemed very much on the rise.  But this “rise” in fortunes may not have been all it seemed.  In 1939 Japan had reached a stalemate of sorts in China after quick and early victories.  To break the stalemate they began wanton and indiscriminate bombing of Chinese cities.  As David Derrick notes, Japanese tended to look somber in photographs, but here they appear beyond somber.  They are troubled , suffering from what Toynbee called a “schism of the soul.”

Whether your religion be Christianity, or in Japan’s case, Shintoism, people were not made to kill on such a scale.  Such actions take their toll.  It may hurt the conqueror more than the conquered.

*Readers of the linked post may note that while Japan technically was ruled by the Emperor, in fact they were controlled by a military oligarchy.

World War II, Japan’s Peloponnesian War

Any student of classical history must admire the incredible flourishing of 5th century Periclean Athens.   From the years 480-430 B.C. we see the birth/enormous growth of drama, architecture, sculpture, politics, etc., etc. Kenneth Clark called this period one of the four or five great eras in human history, and few would dispute this.

Historians also always point out how the unexpected victory of the Greeks in the Persian Wars between 490-479 B.C. propelled them into this golden age.  The victory gave them an unexpected burst of confidence and a validation of their identity.  I have not read anyone who has not made this connection, for it seems obvious.  More than this, we can see that golden ages in other civilizations have origins in similar bouts of resistance against an apparently stronger foe.  So, the Florentines resist the French in the early 15th century, and the English defeat Spain’s Armada in 1588 (not long after we get Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, etc.), and the Dutch defeat the Spanish in the early 17th century, after which we get Rembrandt.

The epilogue to this glory comes with the Peloponnesian War, where Athens flushes away this incredible storehouse of achievement in a messy and long conflict with its rival Sparta.  Athens loses and the golden age ends, but . . . all good things must end, the wheel of fortune spins, and no one doubts the salutary effect of their victory in the Persian Wars.

Recently I have read a slight amount of Japanese history and I wondered about certain possible parallels.  The Russo-Japanese War had all the makings of an equivalent to Greece’s triumph against Persia.  With Japan, we see a ‘rising star’ defeat a much larger power in Russia that everyone expected to win.  Like Greece, the Dutch, the English, etc. the Japanese also were a rising naval power.  Like the Greeks, the Japanese experienced a surge of confidence which led them into a disastrous conflict between 1937-45.  Yet I have yet to read anyone who makes this connection.

Add to this, certain historical conditions for the emergence of a golden age in Japan existed in addition to their underdog victory over Russia.

  • Their naval power gave them a chance to come in contact with other civilization to experience a cultural fusion, (like the Dutch and the English), and
  • A cultural fusion of sorts already existed in their country, with a revival of traditional Japanese culture combined with the western industrial influence.

In response to this at least partial connection, a few thoughts arise:

  1. Though the classic conditions for a golden age in Japan existed, they did not experience a golden age for various possible reasons (most seem to think that Japan’s golden age existed in the Edo Era (1605-1868).
  2. Maybe they did experience a golden age, or at least a silver age, of cultural achievement but we in the west don’t recognize it as easily.
  3. Perhaps neither the Japanese or the Greeks experienced a golden age after their unexpected victories! Perhaps the appearance of a golden age in Greece in the 5th century B.C. is simply a sham propagated by generations of uncritical historians!
  4. Perhaps unexpected military victories are in fact not the necessary spark that ignites a golden age.  Perhaps instead they serve as impediments.

Numbers 1-2 both could be possible, but both lie beyond my abilities to discern.  Alas, though I love the exhilarating death or glory dash of number 3, we must conclude that yes, at least Athens experienced a golden age in 5th century B.C.   We shall have no slaying of dragons today.

Sigh.

But I am intrigued by #4.

Let us revisit the “Golden Ages” I listed above with a fresh eye.

After Dutch independence from Spain we did get Rembrandt and certain pleasant, if unremarkable architectural style.  But the other byproducts of this victory appear more prosaic, such as the first corporation and the first stock exchange.  Of course Shakespeare has few if any equals, but might we see a more sustained English cultural flowering from the late 18th-mid 19th century with Turner, Dickens, etc.?*

Furthermore, we see that some of the greatest and most profound cultural landmarks have come in the midst of defeat or decline.  St. Augustine writes The City of God after the fall of Rome.  Plato and Aristotle pen their penetrating insights after the Peloponnesian War.  Homer’s tales come to us in the midst of the Greek Dark Ages.  The Byzantines may have done their best art just decades before their fall to the Turks.  The golden age of Russian literature came in the final years of the Romanov’s.**

We should also surmise, did civilizations experience a golden age without the assumed prerequisite of unexpected military victory?

Florence’s true golden age may have had nothing to do with the French in the 15th century and more to do with double-entry bookkeeping developed far earlier for medieval fairs.  This skill put them in demand throughout Europe.  The increased revenue and attention led to a burst of innovative construction way back in the 11th century.  This lacks the pizazz of defeating the Persians, but may have been more effective.

Northern Europe experienced one of the great golden ages in history during the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  Here we had a revival of individual scholarship but also the invention of Gothic architecture.  One could argue that this had something to do with the Crusades, but not necessarily a direct military victory that impacted local communities.  I agree with Kenneth Clark, who argues that this particular cultural boom had more to do with movement in general (even for double-entry bookkeeping) than the Crusades which took place so far away, and from which no news would be had for years at a time.

Maybe a military victory such as Athens and Japan experienced might serve as a dangerous stimulant.  Both victories did not contribute to golden ages, but both contributed certainly to overconfidence and expansion.  In the case of Athens they turned the Delian League and the Aegean Sea into an Empire, which certainly contributed to their demise as a result of the Peloponnesian War.  As for Japan, their triumph over Russia may have spurred on efforts to turn much of Asia into their backyard.^  Historian Niall Ferguson I believe argues that Japanese expansion had more to do with the origins of W.W. II than Germany’s expansion.

The Russo-Japanese War may have been akin for Japan to the Persian Wars for Greece.  But if so, perhaps World War II served as their own version of Greece’s disastrous Peloponnesian War.

Dave

*One could argue that this happened after England’s triumph in the Napoleonic Wars, however.

**A possible answer to this might be the civilizations do their best work amidst heady and confident days–things like great architectural works, whereas individuals have their most penetrating insights only in the midst of suffering.

^We think of W.W. II as a global war, but we can see Japan mainly trying to establish dominance over other Asians.  The Greek city-states had a relatively common religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage (with certain distinct differences), just as perhaps did Japan, Korea, China, Manchuria, etc.

 

“The (Optimistic) Spirit of Medieval Philosophy”

There exists an “old saw” approach to Christianity that runs something like this: A long time ago Christians devoted themselves to practical matters of personal morality.  The early Church lived as a community of love devoted to good works.  Then, along comes ________ (this “blank” takes many forms — St. Paul, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, etc.) and Christianity forever tainted itself with “theology” and a philosophical turn of mind completely at odds with the spirit of Christ and his early followers.”

I believe firmly in the idea that every organization gets the culture they deserve.  Perhaps the Church over time has contributed to the great error described above by focusing too much on morality as such and not on transformation.  Perhaps Christian education has concerned itself too much at various times with mere outward good results and good looks rather than giving a firm foundation in eternal principles.

But I also think that those that attack the “philosophical” elements of Christianity have a conscious or unconscious agenda to keep religion tucked away in its own small corner.  “You Christians please continue to be nice to each other and try and help others.  We’ll handle the big stuff.”

In his The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Etienne Gilson sets out to refute those who wish to keep Christian belief in a 1124081small corner.  Gilson was a pre-eminent scholar and philosopher in his day, and alas for me, some of his philosophical vocabulary went over my head.  But one of the great strengths of his work is its simplicity.  He asks the critic to please, just actually read the Bible and Christian theologians honestly, and the idea that Christian belief was never “philosophical” melts away.

For starters we have the book of Job as a deep philosophical statement on the nature of suffering.  Many Old Testament history books like the book of Judges show artful arrangement to make pointed statements about the nature of man.  We have Ecclesiastes and many Psalms.  Some would say Jesus said nothing “philosophical” but this can only possibly hold water if one discounts the Gospel of John entirely.  Then of course we have the “dreaded” St. Paul who “intruded” with his theological cast of mind, and so on, and so on.

Gilson’s main point, however, deals with the Middle Ages.  Here most critics (at least in his day) stated that whatever philosophy the medievals attempted strictly copied from the Greeks.  They had no originality.  Gilson’s quick retort to this deals with the nature of originality itself.  In one sense, “all philosophy is a footnote to Plato,” as Alfred North Whitehead stated.  Of course the medievals took some ideas from the Greeks.  What philosopher would not?

Others (like Edward Gibbon) charge the medievals with dimming the light of reason with the obscurantism of faith and revelation.  Gilson shows with many examples that the bulk of medieval thinkers saw reason enhanced, not diminished, by faith.  He writes,

By revealing to man what he could not actually know, revelation opens up the way for the work of reason.

God’s gift of rationality now has more to chew on, and thus gets more of a workout.  For the medievals revelation makes mankind more rational, not less.*

But the bulk of the book forms Gilson’s main point that the medievals creatively used and transmuted Greek philosophy rather than copied them rote.  They had a strong desire to save everything they could and use it for Christian purposes.  My favorite example of this comes from Boethius. Gilson writes,

Fate had weighed too heavily on men’s mind’s to be too summarily dismissed.  Boethius took the trouble to put up some rather complicated architecture in order to ensure it a niche in the Christian temple.  Providence is then the divine intelligence comprehending all things in the world; that is to say their natures and the laws of their development.  As reunited therefore in the divine ideas the universal order is one with Providence; as particularized, broken up, and so to speak, incorporated with the the things it rules, the providential order may be called Fate.  All that is subject to Fate is thus subject to Providence, since Fate depends on Providence as a consequence on its principle.

Boethius himself wrote,

For as the innermost of several circles revolving around the same center approaches the simplicity of the mid-most point . . . while the outermost, whirled in an ampler orbit takes in a wider sweep of space–even so whatever departs from the Primal mind is involved more deeply in the meshes of fate, and things are free from fate in proportion as they seek to approach the center; while if aught cleaves close to the supreme mind in absolute fixity, this too, being free from movement, rises above Necessity.  Therefore as is reasoning to pure intelligence, as that which is generated to that which is, time to eternity, a circle to its center, so is the shifting series of fate to the steadfastness and simplicity of providence.

I admit I don’t fully understand it, nor might I buy what he sells. Whatever the explanation, I think it best to avoid the word “Fate” altogether.  But who wouldn’t smile at Boethius’ boyish enthusiasm and deft mental gymnastics? Aquinas, to my mind a more mature and clearer thinker than Boethius, rejects this concept of Fate as well.  I’m sure that Aquinas understood him, and I’ll stick with his analysis.

Of particular interest to me was Gilson’s explanation of the medieval view of history.  Previous historians in the Greek and Roman tradition did brilliant work.  But even the best of the ancients, i.e. Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius, all show the tendency toward Fate and Inevitability.  For Herodotus, everyone eventually crosses the boundaries of natural law — even Cyrus — and gets crushed for it.  Thucydides sees civilization doomed by the passions and fears of man that lie just below the surface.  Even the more spiritually minded Polybius sees mighty Rome caught up in the grand cycle of growth, peak, and decay from which they cannot escape.

Medievals demonstrated originality in their historical vision.  They saw linear progression where others saw only vicious cycle.  With revelation illumining reason we can build on the past, move forward, and advance.  The medievals had humility in relation to the past.  They knew the Romans and Greeks had done better than they in most ways.  But they never felt imprisoned by that presumption.  Rather, they sought to press on and hopefully help carry mankind to a better place.  In comparison to what came before, Gilson rightly claims this as an original philosophical development.

This view of history has its roots of course in theology.  History is a poem, which makes sense only when we know the beginning and the end.  Thanks to revelation, we know both, and can now see Christ building His kingdom on Earth, one that grows as a mustard seed.  If God be true, we have the opportunity to progress in relation to the past, though of course we may reject that chance.  This explains Boethius’ desire to save Fate from the chopping block — we must save everything so we can build on everything — but it also explains Aquinas refusal to yield.  God binds no one by Fate.  Otherwise, how can God’s kingdom advance?

The medievals, often portrayed as dour and gloomy, strike me as a hopeful people.

Dave

*Perhaps one example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity, a reality beyond the realm of reason.  But after revelation announces the doctrine, reason and experience can then deepen our understanding, which seems to be the experience of the early Church.

11th Grade: The Nazi State and the Art of Purity

Greetings,

This week we looked at rise of the Nazi’s in Germany during the 1920’s and early 1930’s.

How can we make sense of the rise of the Nazi state?  While countries like Spain, Italy, the Soviet Union, Turkey, and Japan all experienced totalitarian regimes in varying degrees, none had quite the intensity and impact of Nazi Germany (though it would be fair to say that Stalin came close).  What distinguished the Nazi’s from other regimes?  How did a country with one of the richest cultural heritages in the world give themselves over to abject barbarism?

Naturally we think of the Nazi regime as one built on hatred and violence, and there is much truth to this.  But unless we see that the strongest appeal of the Nazi’s for people was their fervent hope, hope for better Germany and a better world, we will miss the fundamental basis of their appeal.

Germany, of course, had only recently been a nation (since 1871), but before that greater ‘Germany’ had often been the stomping grounds of Europe.  When the European powers wanted to fight they often came to the divided German principalities to do so, dating back to the 30 Years War in the early 1600’s.  As a political and national unit, “Germany” lacked the strength to prevent it. The Versailles Treaty made the incredibly foolish blunder of humiliating Germany with its war guilt clauses.  The Nazi’s vowed that they would erase the stain of humiliation the world had inflicted on Germany.   If we can remember what it feels like to be humiliated, we remember too the anger and desperation we felt, and the desire to do nearly anything to rid ourselves of that wretched feeling.  The Nazi’s claimed to be able to do just that.

Richard WagnerHitler was obviously a cruel man, but he also believed that he had ‘high’ taste in art.  Many in the Nazi party leadership, like Hitler himself, were either failed artists, minor poets, or small time authors of some sort or another.  We saw Friday how Hitler was a big fan of opera, especially Wagner.  Hitler himself said that one could not understand Nazism without understanding Wagner’s music.  He filled his operas with romantic visions, grandiose themes and sets, and an idealization of antiquity.  All this moved Hitler, but perhaps Wagner’s deepest appeal lie in his theme of purity and sacrifice, and escaping the bonds of this ‘sordid’ world to achieve perfection, a kind of worship of death.

In Wagner we see a link between fulfillment and extinction.  In his Tristan and Isolde the two take a love potion, which also causes their death.  Wagner’s mistress, Cosima von Bulow, styled their relationship as a “death-in-love.”  Wagner became enamored with King Ludwig of Bavaria, and Ludwig of him.  Ludwig promised Wagner, “Rest assured that I will do everything in my power to make up for what you have suffered.  . . .I will procure for you the peace you desire in order that you may be free to spread the mighty wings of your genius in the pure aether of rapturous art.”  Once again, we see in Wagner not only life imitating art, but the concept of art and purity.  Hitler’s own death recapitulates in some ways the finale of Wagner’s Reinzi, where the hero, betrayed by those he trusted, dies as the city is engulfed in flames.  So too did Hitler die, feeling ‘betrayed’ by his generals, in flames, as Berlin burned around him.

When we think of Nazi rallies, one can see links with Wagner.  Many have commented on the theatrical nature of the rallies, as well as their over-the-top production.  They are spectacles that seek to overwhelm and get people to ‘lose’ themselves in the experience.

For the Nazi’s a great culture needed great art to embody and inspire it.  They had this in the past, in the form of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller, and so on.  They believed so strongly in this idea of a “healthy” culture that when the Nazi’s seized power, state doctors and ministers of culture often wore military uniforms.  Both doctors and artists had the charge of bringing ‘health’ back to Germany, be that health racial, moral, or cultural.  Doctors did not serve the individual, they served the “people,” the nation, the “race” as a whole, and this of course had horrible consequences later on.

In their eyes a ‘high’ culture would create a ‘healthy’ people, and a ‘healthy’ people would create an unbeatable army.  This is why they banned ‘mongrelized’ and ‘decadent’ culture like jazz (whose biggest stars tended to be either African-American or Jewish).  The Nazi’s didn’t just dislike the music, they viewed it as a threat to their national well-being.   But the same horrible logic applies to the euthanization of the mentally unfit.  Eventually we know that the ‘protection’ of the German nation meant the ‘protection’ of German blood.  Eradicating that threat meant eradicating the Jews, who had done more than anyone else to ‘pollute’ German blood over the years.  They had ‘infiltrated’ German society to a greater degree, and intermarried more than any other non-German ethnic or religious group.

Hitler, therefore, did not just promise an economic recovery, or to put people back to work.  He promised a kind of spiritual redemption on a national scale, one that primarily would touch the soul of the people.  Not surprisingly, he rose to power at a time when attendance in both Catholic and Protestant church had been in decline.  Spiritual power has always been more potent (for good or ill) than mere political power, and this helps us understand Hitler’s hold on Germany.  We know how great art and music can move us.  But when we ascend to such heights of feeling the possibility of good and evil both increase.  Perhaps this is why a nation with such a rich cultural heritage could fall so far so quickly.

This has been a ‘heavy’ post so if you wish, join me and Looney Tunes in poking fun at Wagner, who certainly deserved it: