The Nazi's and letters from the devil
What I'm Reading #2
They Thought They Were Free, by Milton Mayer
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which takes place in the periods surrounding the Russian expedition of the Napoleonic Wars, is essentially three books in one, each interspersed throughout. One is the fictional story of life during this time period, the second is the history (both real and fictionalized) of the wars, and the third, which encompasses both the middle section of the novel and the last one hundred pages, is Tolstoy’s philosophy of man and history. In these sections, Tolstoy undertakes to cut down the “Great Man of History” theory, which, according to Wikipedia, is:
…a 19th-century approach to the study of history according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of great men, or heroes: highly influential and unique individuals who, due to their natural attributes, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, extraordinary leadership abilities or divine inspiration, have a decisive historical effect
Tolstoy utterly dismisses this concept in War and Peace because, in summary, all significant events ascribed to the “Great Men” are the culmination of thousands or millions of smaller events that had nothing to do with the “Great Men.”
There is perhaps no more fertile ground to debate the pro- “Great Man” and Con- “Great Man” theory than within the context of Nazi Germany, and Milton Meyer’s book is fascinating to discuss within this context.
In the early 1950s, journalist Milton Meyer spent a year in Kronenberg, Germany, a small town in the west-central part of the country, conducting an ethnographic study of the townspeople who had lived there throughout the Nazi regime. He selected ten men who invited him into their homes and were willing to discuss how their lives and philosophies on the world evolved during the years surrounding World War 2. The work is separated into two parts, the first being the ethnography of his ten subjects. The second is Meyer’s attempt to roll up the study into sweeping narratives about Germany and its place in the world. I will focus exclusively on the first part, as that makes the book worthy of discussion (I didn’t find the second part compelling).
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the book’s first page. Upon opening it, you are smacked in the face with this:
I believe the term “friends” is used here provocatively because, while Meyer is certainly appreciative that the subjects opened their homes and minds to him, it’s clear he does not respect many of them, much less consider all of them “friends.”
Here is a passage that represents a great summation of Meyer’s findings:
Only one of my ten Nazi friends saw Nazism as we- you and I- saw it in any respect…The other nine, decent, hardworking, ordinarily intelligent and honest men, did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that is was evil. And they do not know it now. None of them ever knew, or knows now, Nazism as we knew and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it.
Meyer describes how none of the ten ever felt any fear of his fellow citizens, which starkly contrasts with what we know about other totalitarian regimes like Stalinist Soviet Union, Maoist China, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. There, the suspicion of each other was one of the many devious ways the authorities held on to power and prevented people from organizing against them. You never knew who was a willing informant of the state or who would be randomly swept up only to surrender your name under torture.
According to Meyer, approximately one million Germans (out of a population of seventy million) made the killing machine operate. This is not surprising because, as with most authoritarian regimes, a tiny percentage of the people make the machine work. At the same time, the rest just had to stay out of the way and continue to fulfill their civic duties.
How could they have been so blind you might ask? Because life was better for the average German during Hitler’s reign than it had been prior. Klingelhofer, the cabinetmaker, gives this perspective (for a more in-depth look at how awful life was, read The Downfall of Money by Frederick Taylor):
After the first war, German families began to have only two children. That was bad, bad for the family, the marriages, the home, the nation. There is where Germany was dying, and that was the kind of strength we believed Hitler was talking about. After ‘33 we had more children. A man saw a future. The difference between rich and poor grew smaller, one saw it everywhere. A man had a chance. [emphasis added]
And there it is…take a hopeless person, give him a morsel of hope, and he will take it. Meyer does not debate the fact that many of his “friends” were anti-Semitic and saw Nazism as a counter to Communism. But those weren’t the driving forces for their support of Nazism (or at least not being overtly anti-Nazi). In my mind, giving the German people hope, the basest of emotions, was the impetus.
Here’s a hypothetical- If you were starving on the street and someone walked up to you with a sleeve of saltines, would you ask questions about their acquisition? If they beat their spouse? What the person’s perspective on abortion is? Let’s take the analogy a step further; what if you finished the crackers, were starving again, and several days later, the same person returns but instead of giving you crackers, they give you access to a buffet? Then several days later, they return a third time and invite you to move into their house and offer you a job. That person has provided you with the lifeline to a better life. Would you ask questions about the person or their motive? I bet not.
It’s straightforward to look back at history and say we would have been the ones to stand up and fight back, and indeed some Germans did (you can read about the July 20 plot or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as examples), but they are known because they are the exceptions which prove the rule. Most of the German “friends” ask Meyer that exact question, “what would you have done?” Did many Americans stand up against the internment of the Japanese when the Supreme Court, in the Korematsu decision, ruled it was within the President’s wartime powers? The answer, generally, is no. Admittedly, the fact we were in the midst of fighting World War 2 had something to do with that but, as with Meyer”s German “friends”, there is always a reason to explain why you didn’t push back against a clear moral wrong.
For example, Robert George, a professor at James Madison and formally of Princeton, asked his student if they would have been abolitionists had lived in the South pre-Civil War. Predictably, they all claim they would have been, but that is simple lie we can tell ourselves, sitting in a classroom, with nothing at risk, and 20/20 hindsight.
In the second part of the inquiry, Professor George asks them to provide examples of times they have stood up for people suffering injustice, knowing it would make them unpopular with their peers (if not outright abandoned by them), ridiculed by powerful interests, and place limitations on their future life & career prospects. Needless to say, many fewer hands go up now.
This is an important rant because, in today’s age, we conflate agreeing with someone’s opinions and understanding them. I am not asking anyone to agree with the Germans in Meyer’s book (I certainly don’t). Still, we need to understand their perspective, if for no other reason than it gives us insights into how to prevent something like that from occurring again.
I’ll conclude with a passage from Meyer that I reflected on for some time afterward:
The mortal choice which every German had to make- whether or not he knew he was making it- is a choice we Americans have never had to confront. But personal and professional life confronts us with the same kind of choice, less mortally, to be sure, everyday. And the fact that it is a platitude does not keep it from being true that we find it easier, on the whole, to admire Socrates than to envy him; to adore the Cross, especially on Sundays, than to carry it. [emphasis added]
So does the “Great Man of History” theory hold up in this case? As with most of these questions, the answer is yes and no; however, I would point to Nazi Germany as a strong case for it. It unquestionably took the kind of leader like Hitler to tap into the deepest insecurities of the German population and make many, if not most of them, at least willing to accept the Nazi program; take the good, ignore the bad. He didn’t need all the German people to support him; as with most revolutionary movements, he only needed a small percentage of highly dedicated zealots (the one million noted above) and the rest to stay out of the way. Meyer demonstrates in this work that, if that was Hitler’s plan, it worked so perfectly that it endured years after he was gone and the voluminous volumes of Nazi crimes were exposed.
As this is a 100% free substack, the only thing I ask in return is that, if you enjoy what you’ve read, please give it a share.
The Screwtape Letters, by CS Lewis
Before jumping into this novel, I have to make a few admissions.
First, I admit I am intimidated writing about this book. I am not a theologian in any conceivable sense of the word.
Second, I am Jewish.
Third, people who are the former and not the latter have comprehensively reviewed this book with ampler knowledge of Christianity than I could claim.
Finally, even though I am not extremely religious, I firmly believe in the existence of God (I’ve read enough to compare and contrast Aristotle and Aquinas with the atheist writers to come to that conclusion). So, if you all will indulge me, I will discuss this book strictly from the perspective of someone interested in philosophical writing and what a lay person can get out of it.
With that preface, let’s start.
The striking feature of this book is that it is not written in a traditional narrative but rather as a series of one-way letters sent from a higher-level demon, Screwtape, to his lower-level demon and nephew, Wormword. Wormword is assigned a man of whom he is responsible for taking over his soul, and is inquiring of his more knowledgeable uncle on techniques to achieve the goal. The letters are Screwtape’s response to Wormword. Think of it as a series of Dear Abby letters, but you don’t see the letter Abby received, and rather than seeking advice on what dinner to make on a second date, how to devour a man and his soul in the afterlife.
Though there are many themes we could discuss here, I will stick to three: war, death, and the future. While I try to cover each as a distinct entity, there is significant overlap, so bear with me.
The perspective devour-ee is a young man, likely in his early to mid-twenties, who is looking for marriage, starting to build a life for himself, and living in a country at war. The ongoing war is a critical element of the story and likely one that sits closely to Lewis’s heart.
Lewis became an atheist at 15 years old (around 1913), only to convert back to Christianity at 33 (due in large part to his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien). As an aside, it is interesting that after World War 1, numerous famous atheist/agnostic authors re-found religion around this time along with Lewis, such as T.S. Eliott and Evelyn Waugh.
Between those years, Lewis served in the Somme Valley in World War 1 and was nearly killed in his trench, along with two of his compatriots. So indeed, Lewis is someone with a clear understanding of the effects war can have on a man’s soul and the urgency it manifests.
Superficially, it seems that war would be a good playground for demons to dement people; however, Wormwood provides an interesting perspective on how this may not be so (important editorial note here - when Wormwood writes about the “enemy,” he is referring to God; it took me a while to orient myself to that fact). I will quote a section at length here, with some omissions for the sake of brevity:
Let us therefore think rather how to use, than to enjoy, this European war. For it has certain tendancies inherent in it which are, in themselves, by no means in our favor. We may hope for a good deal of curelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self…How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who life, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belif that sickness excuses every indulgence…and how disasterous for us is the conintual rememberance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that is going to live forever. [emphasis added]
So while the war on its face is beneficial to the demons, it exposes the straightforward truth that we must live in the moment and connect with the world, not with the hope for an unknown future that may never come.
Further, most people inherently know what is right and wrong in the world, but often we get caught up in a bunch of other bullshit in our lives that lead us to say, “I’ll do the right thing next time,” without knowing if there will ever be a next time. Or as Al Pacino says in Scent of a Woman, “I always knew what the right path was; without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard.”
Later, Lewis reinforces this belief, “for humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy not to inform men, but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them. We make sophists: He raises up a Socrates to answer them.”
Tied strongly to the theme of war is, of course, death. However, Screwtape explains how people have a warped view of what death means for the survival of their souls. Demons have convinced people to fear death and to do everything they can to avoid it. There are several reasons for this strategy.
The first is that the longer we live, the more stuff we acquire, and “he feels that he is finding his place in it [the world], while really it is findings its place in him.” Does this remind anyone of Tyer Durden from Fight Club?
The second reason the demons want people to stave off death as long as possible is that they can fool people into believing that, “at some future date by politics or eugenics, or ‘science’ or ‘psychology’” heaven can be created on earth.
The final theme to address is the importance of the present vs. the future, which strongly parallels the war and death themes. As Screwtape writes:
He does not want men to give the future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do…We want a whole race prepetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the present.
And why is the future the demons’ playhouse? Because:
it dimishes pleasure while increasing desire. The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns. And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both.
To get people to care more about the future than the present, demons have:
trained them [people] to think of the future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain- not something whoch everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is
Got that? The demons want to ensure that people never appreciate what they have because a better future (more money, a bigger house, a faster car, a hotter partner) is somewhere over there, just slightly (and perpetually) beyond their reach. In convincing us of this lie, we will never appreciate what God has given to us, now.
This reminded me of a Carl Jung quote, which upon further research, actually comes from the King James Version of the Bible, where in 1 Kings 19:11-13, it reads:
11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: 12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. 13 And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah
Put in other words, to find God, we need to look low enough.
So, how can this lust for the future be combated? Screwtape answers here as well:
The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for it’s own sake, and without caring two-pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact forearmed against some of our subtlest modes of attack.
And finally, I will leave you all with what was for me, the most poignant passage of the book:
He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of himself- creatures whose life, on its minature scale, will be qualitiatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; he wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drown all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of being united to Him but still distinct. [emphasis added]
Whether you are Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Agnostic, or Athiest, I can not recommend this book enough.
Until next time…