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.

Advertisements

“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

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

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.

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:

Conversations with Stalin

Some might argue that history constrains us.  Certainly many teenagers keenly feel the question, “Why does it have to be this way?  Why must the world work as it does?”  The dynamism of youth and their imaginations certainly can do wonders for any society.

We may suppose that a world without historical awareness will create a glorious whole new world of possibilities.  But . . . history rather pedantically suggests that the opposite of the case.  Recall the French Revolution, for example.  They remade everything, even their sense of time.  But this confusion and disruption led to terrible tyranny and mass incarceration.  The communist regimes of the 20th century show this same tendency.   Only the most bold would call Soviet-era culture stimulating and full of possibilities.  Their narrowness of vision–a narrowness made possible and even likely by their disrespect to history–created a terrible tyranny.

Many comedians have commented that they no longer wish to perform at many college campuses.  Students in today’s climate seemingly cannot operate with dual levels of reality.  They cannot make distinctions between jokes and real life, assuming a 1-1 correlation of all aspects of reality, a flat world.  Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic wrote that,

Two of the most respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have discussed the unique problems that comics face on college campuses. In November, Rock told Frank Rich in an interview for New York magazine that he no longer plays colleges, because they’re “too conservative.” He didn’t necessarily mean that the students were Republican; he meant that they were far too eager “not to offend anybody.” In college gigs, he said, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Then, in June, Seinfeld reopened the debate—and set off a frenzied round of op-eds—when he said in a radio interview that comics warn him not to “go near colleges—they’re so PC.”

When I attended the convention [The National Association for Campus Activities] in Minneapolis in February, I saw ample evidence of the repressive atmosphere that Rock and Seinfeld described, as well as another, not unrelated factor: the infantilization of the American undergraduate, and this character’s evolving status in the world of higher learning—less a student than a consumer, someone whose whims and affectations (political, sexual, pseudo-intellectual) must be constantly supported and championed. To understand this change, it helps to think of college not as an institution of scholarly pursuit but as the all-inclusive resort that it has in recent years become—and then to think of the undergraduate who drops out or transfers as an early checkout. Keeping hold of that kid for all four years has become a central obsession of the higher-ed-industrial complex. How do you do it? In part, by importing enough jesters and bards to keep him from wandering away to someplace more entertaining, taking his Pell grant and his 529 plan and his student loans with him.

But which jesters, which bards? Ones who can handle the challenge. Because when you put all of these forces together—political correctness, coddling, and the need to keep kids at once amused and unoffended (not to mention the absence of a two-drink minimum and its crowd-lubricating effect)—the black-box theater of an obscure liberal-arts college deep in flyover territory may just be the toughest comedy room in the country.

In the same vein, Alex Tabborok recently commented that,

It has been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past.

I thought of this issue reading transcipt trials of two Soviet authors in the late 1960’s, Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky. The authors were not in trouble for any direct attacks against the state or against communist doctrine per se.  Obviously no writer who valued his safety would write in this way.  The problems with their work lay elsewhere.  Among the issues raised:

  • There are no clear good and bad characters in your stories.  How then can the people understand the story (i.e., the story alienates the masses, which is de-facto anti-communist)?
  • Which characters in the story definitively represent the author’s point of view?  In other words, which character speaks for the author, and which characters serve as foils?

This particular attack assumes that 1) The relationship between characters in the story and the author is always strictly linear and 1-1, and 2) This relationship is necessary for clarity in the story, and 3) Without this clarity, how can we judge if you are a threat to the state or not?

Both authors seemed terribly confused by attacks made against them, pleading “not guilty,” an unusual move in trials of this sort.  They tried to explain basic literary theory of story and character, but to no avail.  Their judges simply couldn’t accept this mental construct.  By definition character’s must express a direct relationship to the author.  Character’s who criticize the state must reflect the author’s mind.  The author’s tried to point out that some of these characters fare badly in the story, but the prosecutors shot back that not all who criticized the state “got their just desserts.”   Here is a brief excerpt from Yuli Daniel’s trial, which begins with the prosecutor reading an excerpt from one of Daniel’s stories:

Prosecutor (reading): “I hate them [referring to those in power] so much I have spasms, I scream, I tremble.”   Well, Daniel, what are we to make of this?

Daniel: That is an epigraph to the character’s thoughts (laughter in the courtroom, Daniel looks around nervously).

Prosecutor: Who is that you hate so?  Who do you want to destroy?

Daniel: To whom are you talking?  To me, or to my character, or to someone else?

Prosecutor: Who is your positive hero?  Who expresses your point of view in the story?

Daniel: I have told you, the story has no entirely positive hero and there doesn’t have to be one.

Prosecutor: Who expresses the author’s credo?

Daniel: The characters do express the author’s thoughts, but only in part.  No single character represents the author.  Maybe [my story is] bad literature, but it is literature, and it doesn’t divide everything into black and white.  . . . The indictment states that I express my ideas “through the mouths of my characters.”  That is a naive accusation, to put it mildly.

Neither author had success discussing the nuance of how stories work.  Both received labor camp sentences of 5-7 years.

In his Conversations with Stalin Milovan Djilas tells of his initial fascination with Stalin and the Soviet Union and his subsequent disenchantment in a few short years.  Many other works give many more details about the horror and oppression in Stalinist Russia.  What made Djilas’ account interesting was that he framed his account not so much in terms of how it all went wrong, but how it managed to work at all.  That is, we know Stalin was bad, but if he was so bad, why did Soviet Russia prosper and gain power, at least in certain ways?

He explores this in different ways.  For example, no one questions that the purges in the military during the 1930’s sacrificed thousands to Stalin’s paranoia, but Djilas had met many of the commanders put in place after the purges, and admitted that they were almost all quite adept, fearless, and devoted.  Naturally, Stalin had his entourage that rarely, if ever, challenged him.  As you would expect, one always had to constantly avoid saying the wrong thing by following keenly the bouncing ball of “official” opinion. But unlike most other autocrats throughout history, Stalin did actual work and remained very well informed.  He could incisively size up personalities in the room and control it with ease.

What struck me most of all, however, was this comment of Djilas:

“The world in which the Soviet leaders lived–and that was my world too–was slowly taking on a new appearance: horrible, unceasing struggle on all sides. Everything was stripped bare and reduced to strife which only changed in form and in which only the stronger and more adroit survived.  Full of admiration for Soviet leaders before this, I now succumbed to a heady enthusiasm for the inexhaustible will and awareness that never left them for a moment.  That was a world in which there was no other choice other than victory or death.”

Perhaps unconsciously, Djilas reveals that Maxism has its roots not in economics, politics, or a new conception of proletarian culture, but in a new religious understanding of the world–a naked struggle for will and power.  It is this elemental understanding of things that can give regimes who build on this faith a concentrated vitality, akin to the power of art in certain barbarian civilizations.*  Perhaps Stalin understood this as well, to great and terrible effect.

Today most of us immediately understand the danger’s of the far-right, perhaps because the far-right has a crystal-clear idea of what they want and express it forcefully.  Many on the far-left, on the other hand–quite prevalent on many campuses today–seem to think that their ideas will lead to a bright, sunlit land where everyone loves everyone else (the far-right has no such plan and no such delusion).  But if you can’t take a joke, you will dramatically narrow your world, after which, you will have nothing to fall-back on other than the paganism of power and will.

Dave

*Though I would love to claim this insight about “barbarian art,” it belongs entirely to the inimitable Kenneth Clark.  He argued that the concentrated narrowness of barbarian civilizations can give their art a certain vitality.