Has the mass murder of Europe’s Jews eclipsed the other significant horrors of Hitler’s Germany? Does it matter? And is it possible to address this without being accused by the thought police of belittling the Holocaust? Let me try.
These questions are raised in the greatest film released in the past year, Never Look Away. Made by the aristocrat Florian von Donnersmarck, the director who created the masterpiece The Lives of Others, it has yet to attract the cult following rightly achieved by his first major work. I think it ought to. It is beautiful, immensely powerful, and packed with thoughts about goodness, the temptations of power and evil, and the nature of art. The film’s depictions of the morally complicated yet triumphant birth of a baby amid misery and ruin, and of the cynical use of abortion in a father’s evil attempt to end his daughter’s love affair, are firmly on the side of humanity, and should be treasured in their own right.
At the heart of the story is a Dickensian mystery of unrevealed guilt, quite unbelievable but based upon a true story. The original evil act destroys a beautiful young woman, suffering from some unknown mental illness, who is caught by Hitler’s eugenics program. Even if you think you know about this sordid corner of National Socialism, which begins with steely pseudo-rationalism and ends in rank murder, the relatively gentle portrayal of this crime and the others happening alongside it will greatly shock and distress you. But it, and other elements of this film, ought also to waken the consciences of many on the self-described progressive left.
For these progressives, the Nazi era has been both a sort of moral scripture and a source of certainties. With increasing force since the 1970s, the left has managed to associate the Hitler period with the political and moral right. Here, they insist, is every aspect of conservatism in full power. Behold, they say, the evils which follow from conservative thought, from love of country and martial strength. See here how the ideas behind immigration controls or sexual conservatism also lead inescapably to the Yellow Star and the Pink Triangle, the death camp, the gas chamber, and the crematorium.
Above all, when it studies the mass murder of Europe’s Jews it can assert with relief that nothing of this kind stains our hygienic and enlightened society, which put an end to everything of this sort nearly eighty years ago. Indeed, we all can assert this—which is interesting given that many conservative European societies, whatever their faults, never engaged in racial mass murder and in many cases bravely resisted and frustrated it when it was imposed on them by occupying invaders.
This fact complicates the simple logic which has permitted so many liberals, for so long, to cry “Fascist!” at conservatives, and so silence and marginalize them. It might cause the more intelligent progressives to consider, with a little more care, what National Socialism actually was. If it was what they say it was, why was it so hostile to the Christian church, a body which modern liberals tend to see as a force for conservatism? And why did Nazis and Communists cooperate, most spectacularly in that great ignored spasm of cynicism, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939—the most astonishing political event of the twentieth century and the least known?
We are told that Stalin did it out of bitter necessity, to buy time, and that there was no true friendship or alliance in it. The awkward truth is that it was far warmer than that. There was a joint Nazi-Soviet victory parade in Brest Litovsk. Everyone in the pictures of this event looks happy (the unhappy people had already been shot or locked up). And the Soviet NKVD secret police, the essence of Communism, the sword and shield of the Communist Party, then staged a prisoner exchange with Hitler’s Gestapo, likewise the very core of National Socialist fervor. If you admit these things, then you are in historical trouble, and it is trouble which the film Never Look Away helps to foment.
For some background it is worth turning to Julia Boyd’s fascinating Travellers in the Third Reich. This work is unusual in that it discusses just how similar Communism and National Socialism were, in some respects. She quotes Denis de Rougemont, a Christian Swiss writer and cultural theorist. De Rougemont began by thinking that Hitler’s state was a regime of the right. But during a lengthy stay in Frankfurt as a visiting professor, he found himself involuntarily questioning this. “What unsettled him,” writes Boyd, “was the fact that those who stood most naturally on the right—lawyers, doctors, industrialists and so on—were the very ones who most bitterly denounced National Socialism. Far from being a bulwark against Communism, they complained, it was itself communism in disguise” [my emphasis].
De Rougemont recounted: “They pointed out that only workers and peasants benefited from Nazi reforms, while their own values were being systematically destroyed by devious methods. They were taxed disproportionately, their family life had been irreparably harmed, parental authority sapped, religion stripped and education eliminated.”
A lawyer’s wife complained to him, “Every evening my two children are taken over by the Party.” This experience was not all that different from what was happening at the same time to the children of Soviet parents. The Nazis, being utopian fanatics more concerned with the future than the present, were prepared to pay quite a high price for taking over the minds of the young. As Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika pointed out in her excoriating book on the subject, School for Barbarians, the quality of education was gravely damaged under the Hitler regime, which (as left-wing regimes also often do) promoted or protected bad but politically acceptable teachers, and polluted the teaching of all arts and historical subjects. It believed it was more urgent to teach the young what to think than to show them how to think.
Hitler himself taunted his opponents for their powerlessness against him. They might rage at him as much as they liked, but “When an opponent declares ‘I will not come over to your side’ I say calmly ‘Your child belongs to us already . . . What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing but this new community.’” He was so nearly right.
As for the defeated left, a startling number of them came over to the new camp almost immediately. De Rougemont spoke to a renegade Communist who had switched sides and joined the Hitlerites, who said,
Now that [Hitler] has won, he has only to implement his programme. It was almost the same as ours. But he has been more cunning, he reassured the bourgeois by not immediately [my emphasis] attacking religion . . . I will tell you one thing: if they abandon him, all these fat pigs who are around him . . . I will go and fight for him! He at least is a sincere man; he is the only one.
National Socialism was egalitarian and horribly modern. It sided with children against parents and (often) teachers. It built super-highways, gigantic holiday camps, space rockets, and jet engines. It planned to create mass car ownership—though tanks, in the end, came first. In military matters it was open to the newest ideas and encouraged innovation and initiative. It poured resources into the movie industry, developed television, and sponsored a type of Godless modern architecture which can still be seen in the Berlin Olympic Stadium and the remnants of the Nuremberg parade grounds. Its leaders embraced sexual freedom.
And then there were Hitler’s eugenics schemes, portrayed so heartbreakingly in Never Look Away. These were conducted in public at the beginning, and even endorsed by noisy propaganda campaigns in the media. And they were far from unique: Nazi Germany, in this case, was following the democracies. Hitler’s eugenics squads began in ways that the rest of the world (at the time) could not easily object to. Compulsory sterilization of the supposedly mentally unfit was introduced in Germany a few months after National Socialism came to power. But several free and enlightened countries—including Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.S.—had also permitted it in various forms, and would in some cases carry on doing so into our own era.
It was a progressive cause, embraced at the time by the progressives’ progressive, H. G. Wells. Marie Stopes, the great apostle of contraception in interwar Britain, was also—like many among the progressives of the time—a keen eugenicist. In 1935, she attended a Congress for Population Science in Nazi Berlin. In August 1939, she even sent Hitler a volume of her dreadful poems, accompanied by a treacly epistle about love. Yet all this has been forgotten amid continuing progressive admiration for Marie Stopes’s embrace of what are nowadays known as “reproductive rights.” Marie Stopes International, a powerful and flourishing modern organization, still bears her name as it campaigns for and defends those “reproductive rights.”
Am I saying (someone will accuse me of this) that modern abortion and contraception campaigners are Nazis, or inheritors of Nazis? Certainly not. I regard any such claim as ridiculous rubbish—as ridiculous as the claim that modern patriotic conservatives, skeptical about mass immigration, are Nazis or inheritors of Nazis.
My point is wholly different. It is that all ideas must be argued on their merits, and that all attempts to establish guilt by association should be regarded with suspicion. And that those who wish to use the Hitler era as a way of depriving others of legitimacy should understand that this period, precisely because it cast aside the restraints of Christian morality and duty, liberated many ideas from ancient, sometimes despised limits which turned out, in the end, to be wise and kind.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.