Yes, there are too many Nazi comparisons. The Democrats are Hitler, the Republicans are Hitler, the EU Nazi-like mindset. Feminists aren't just mistaken, they're “feminazis.” All this displays a poverty of imagination. But it also shows that we need some shared ethical language. People may disagree about everything else, but at least everyone thinks the Nazis were bad. If we could not invoke the Nazis, it would be harder to ask two important questions: How does evil manifest itself, and how should we resist it?
Two books, Dietrich von Hildebrand’s My Battle Against Hitler and Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler, help answer those questions. Both men left Germany in the 1930s, and despite their temperamental differences, the two authors clearly describe the same reality.
Haffner’s memoir evokes the all-pervasive nature of Nazism. “It seeped through the walls like poison gas,” he writes. Work, leisure, family, and friendship offered no refuge. When Hitler becomes chancellor, life seems to carry on as normal: The shops are still open, the cinemas and dance halls are still full. And yet, Haffner writes, private conversations are soon infected by “a new intolerance and heated readiness to hate.” People are carried away, first by intimidation, then by the intoxication of being part of a movement, until normal, daily events seem charged with ideological meaning. There was an “unrelenting pressure to think about politics all the time.” A conversation between friends becomes an argument, then a tense row, then an open threat of being reported to the Gestapo.
Haffner hopes that the structure of the law (his own profession) would remain in place: Nothing, surely, could move the judges of Berlin’s legendary Kammergericht. But then an SS man is appointed to the bench. When he pronounces, the old jurists are a wretched sight: “They looked at their notes with an expression of indescribable dejection, while their fingers nervously twisted a paper-clip or a piece of blotting-paper.” Legal reasoning which the judges know to be utter nonsense is now backed with the threat of the concentration camp. Even the judges roll over.
Von Hildebrand’s account reveals what this poison gas demanded of individuals. His tale—usefullyby John H. Crosby and John F. Crosby—includes dozens of vignettes of men (especially von Hildebrand’s fellow Catholics) choosing to jump one way or another. One describes a Franciscan theologian trying to reconcile Nazism with his religion: “Under the intoxicating influence of the Zeitgeist,” von Hildebrand recalls, “he was completely blinded.” Another portrays a Hitler-sympathizing journalist who converts to Catholicism and becomes a staunch anti-Nazi.
Von Hildebrand frequently reflects on the psychology of resistance and surrender. “There is a moment,” he writes, “when intimidation and paralysis set in to such a degree that one becomes passive in the face of something harmful, no longer actively resisting, even though the possibility of resistance still exists.” People start to believe that history unfolds inevitably, that one may as well make the best of a bad situation. Or they are simply worn down. In 1935, von Hildebrand wrote in an article that a government can gradually accustom citizens to brutality: “Their initial indignation will subside…they will imperceptibly lower their own ethical criteria.”
Von Hildebrand writes of “the terrible temptation of being drawn into compromises.” Those compromises are sometimes linguistic ones. Catholic leaders, especially, can be fooled by a language that sounds vaguely Christian. (“He keeps speaking about God,” the head of the Dominican Order enthuses when the Führer comes up in conversation.) In a public letter, the bishops approve of the Nazis’ respect for “authority” and “the nation.” Von Hildebrand is disgusted, not simply by the content but by the warm tone, which implies agreement. And the bishops avoid conflict by using ambiguous words:
Terms such as “authority,” “nation,” and the like were used equivocally, when it was clear to everyone that what the National Socialists understood by these terms was something the bishops could never affirm. Besides, the fact that the affirmation of many points was in the foreground created the impression of a primarily affirmative stance…the bishops in an appendix stated that they could not approve racism in certain forms, yet the impression remained that the overall tenor was one of joyous affirmation.
It was not just what the bishops said, but also what they implied, and what they failed to say.
Von Hildebrand told his friends that, even inwardly, one must beware of adopting a neutral stance: Opposition must be “unconditional.” But that carries a risk, he adds, of sinking into bitterness and dejection.
Here again Haffner’s account complements von Hildebrand’s. Haffner points out that, even among those who hated the Nazis, there were false “remedies.” Some, he says, especially the older generation, retreated into “superiority”: They mocked the childishness and stupidity of the regime. When the Nazis consolidated their power, and produced statistics about their success, many of these people collapsed.
Another temptation is “embitterment”—becoming addicted to gloom and rage. For the embittered, “The dreadful things that are happening have become essential to their spiritual wellbeing. Their only remaining pleasure is to luxuriate on the description of gruesome deeds, and it is impossible to have a conversation with them on any other topic.” This can drive people to madness—or to a despairing surrender.
A third temptation, which Haffner says was his own, is the opposite: to flee from embitterment into illusion. According to Haffner, German literature of the mid-to-late 1930s was dominated by nature writing, childhood memoirs, and family novels. “A whole literature of cow bells and daisies, full of children’s summer-holiday happiness, first love and fairy tales” accompanied the rallies, the violence, and the blare of propaganda. For most of these escapist writers, Haffner relates, it ended in mental breakdown.
Such are the psychological trials of resistance. Such trials may be the reason neither author finished his memoir: Both manuscripts were left unfinished and only published thanks to their families. That should be a warning to us not to make any thoughtless Nazi comparisons. And von Hildebrand and Haffner were the lucky ones.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.