Carl Jung once made the tragically accurate statement that Hitler was akin to the mouthpiece of the collective unconscious for the German people.
It is more common to think — as well as nicer to think — that Hitler was simply a madman run amok on Germany and that his influence alone spoke for all of Nazism in its crazed, manic, ruthless aspects. “He was evil,” people say, their eyes widened, their heads shaking in disbelief, and they leave it at that.
And while certainly true that Hitler was an evil man, this cannot account for the whole of the frenzy that swept Germany at the time. It conveniently goes unmentioned that Hitler came to power in a perfectly constitutional manner. A sizable portion of the nation had rallied behind him completely by their own accord. It is not sufficient to pile all explanations for the rise of Nazism on a single, deceased man and to bemoan that such a tragedy is a shameful pocket of history that simply “cannot be comprehended”.
I don’t think that’s true at all; I think most of us don’t want to understand it because in doing so, we might have to face some uncomfortable truths about the dark parts of ourselves and humanity at large. (But more on this later.)
Crippled by the aftermath of WWI, the Germans were weak and apathetic, societally a bit disbanded. They were robbed of the intense fervor of war almost overnight and what arrived in its place was humiliation; a crushing defeat. They were a proud people and this sort of merciless crumpling of their honor bred resentment, resentment that festered in the individual souls of the nation’s people.
The economic ruin and chaos only exacerbated the hopelessness. It is important to remember that Hitler did not organically produce all this resentment that led to the Nazis gaining power and plowing over Europe in the coming decade(s). It is, if you put yourself in their shoes, quite easy to imagine how the German people could have become bitter and vengeful when the rest of Europe after WWI had gutted the entire country of their savings, their well-being and their sense of national honor.
Hitler merely channeled those emotions that had been brewing under the surface of the mass psyche in an extremely exploitative manner that, as we know, led to wretched calamity. If anything, Hitler was a collaborator with the sentiment of the masses rather than an authoritarian figure that used brute force to get people to subscribe to his vision. He shrewdly served as a placeholder for national resentment and positioned himself as the national voice accordingly — amplifying, coalescing, and clarifying this resentment and channeling it into a veritable, formidable movement.
There were two things the Germans really wanted at this crucial juncture in history: They wanted revenge, but they also lusted after order. Broadly speaking, order has always been a particular hunger for the Germans who historically valued structure and rigidity and efficiency. Post-war Germany lacked order and was too disillusioned to practically, successfully, collect their revenge and channel it into something without the help of a fervent, charismatic leader.
That such an extremist movement arrived on the frontlines of the German political scene and was allowed to completely restructure the nation is very telling in that the Germans were so eager for a new, robust identity that the overwhelming majority of them essentially sacrificed themselves to the Nazi ideal.
They laid down their individual identities at the feet of Hitler, sacrificing themselves for the collective identity of the Third Reich. Their moral consciences in many cases proved hardly resilient to the repugnant aspects of Nazism and thus, were effortlessly overrun. (And that should be a warning to us all.)
Such is the inherent danger of strongly identitarian ideologies, particularly when the people in question do not have a durable, self-aware identity themselves and a certain moral culpability to match.
Strong undercurrents of obedience, duty and conformity ran in German culture, plus a kind of Prussian puritanism as well. There existed the superior ideals of hardening oneself to the world and carrying out duty above all else. The strict and rigid culture that Nazism intensified engendered paranoia among the people. Paranoia, it should be noted, is an aspect of every totalitarian society because it is a check for conformity, a subtle means of control. And thus, in Nazi Germany, individual identity was often obliterated both horizontally (via conformity) as well as vertically (via the authoritarian call to national duty above all else).
What is so chillingly remarkable about Nazism’s success was that the conventional political script was flipped. Instead of espousing promises, like all other political figures and movements attempt to do, Hitler promulgated demands.
He did not address the public from the podium lavishing them with lofty promises of this or that, so much as he called upon the German people to throw themselves into the Nazi effort for the sake of their homeland. And they did! It was unprecedented, a profound psychological feat. The response he gained from the people was fevered and enthusiastic. He spoke to them with religious-style charisma and they gave him their souls!
There’s something to say, I think, for the kind of collective demands made of the German community in this era as being very psychologically satiating. Indeed, all indications suggest that many Germans welcomed this grafting of purpose onto their lives with open arms. Imbued with a revolutionary and transcendent sense of purpose, the public were blind to the hijacking of their minds.
Hitler did not so much have to “win people over” with politician schmooze and intellectual persuasion. No, he was the collective unconscious of the German people writ large. Subsequently, Germany transformed into a veritable Nazi war machine and all of daily life became inundated with Nazi politics. Society was absolutely stricken by the power of politics and anything else — moral concerns, original thinking, opposing opinions — had been almost voluntarily hushed, intimidated into hiding.
What strikes me as a bit haunting about Nazism in particular is that so much of the nation willingly identified with this extremist system that carried out ethically contemptuous deeds and they believed in it exuberantly and by their own volition! (Which is to say, not purely out of state coercion, as in many other authoritarian systems.)
What then, does that tell us about the human condition? Perhaps that we are more easily overcome by a vigorous ideology that gifts us with purpose than we’d like to think. There’s ways to prevent this and grounding yourself strongly in your own moral identity is a significant part of this.
In applying these revelations to the present, if so many of us feel purposeless in our daily lives, are we not more susceptible to this sort of thing? Even more so if we’re ineffectual and lackadaisical and don’t have strong personal belief systems. (I have a suspicion that a lot of people don’t have strong personal belief systems and instead rely entirely on an ethos of “anything goes”, moral relativity, and radical tolerance which can be just as dangerous, but that’s another topic.) A society is in profound danger if the people that constitute that society do not have a healthy individuality coupled with a moral identity and a vigilant self-awareness.
And so here’s my somewhat-challenging final thoughts: Why do you think Nazism happened? How could an entire nation be caught up in such a collective frenzy and how could they do such evil things in good conscience? How do they go along with it? The answers lie in confronting the dark recesses of the human condition.
Decades removed from this catastrophe, people automatically feel inclined, with a weary sigh and a confused shake of their heads to lament — “I just don’t understand,” as if they really are some exemplar of unsullied human morality that fundamentally can’t comprehend the dark, destructive impulses that threaded through Nazism in those days. What does that really mean — not understanding?
There’s reason to be skeptical of people that trot out this line too frequently; it’s very telling if they do. ‘I don’t understand’ is not a satisfying answer at all to these quandaries. And it’s not even an answer at all; it’s a non-answer. It’s a refusal to engage with anything even mildly distressing about the catastrophic and evil impulses in humanity.
Nobody wants to believe that if they lived in 1930s Germany that they would have been swept into the Nazi movement themselves. Nobody wants to entertain that notion! They step away from it, they’re taken aback and suddenly their reasoning abilities are fuzzy and they cannot coexist with this question without throwing it out the window as oh-so-conveniently indecipherable. (Granted not all of those in Germany at the time did fall under the spell but the majority did and many eventually joined the cause when they at first were adamantly against it.) But, really, who’s to say that you would not have been? And for that matter, who’s to say that you wouldn’t have been complicit in any manner of horrifying regimes over the course of humanity?
If you can’t recognize the monstrous part hidden inside of you and then subsequently tame it, then who’s to say you won’t become a monster yourself? It’s a perfectly absurd thing, if you think about, to hypothetically insinuate that you have no capacity to comprehend the evil things that mankind has done. Who are you to think you’re immune from that? You’re human, so you’re guaranteed to have some fiber of evil inside of you and if you can’t accept that, then who are you, God himself? If you sit still long enough and honestly, carefully truthfully think — think, that is, not judge — I believe most people would understand. There’s a capacity for evil in everyone and frankly, an appetite as well if not tamed, if the timeline of history itself isn’t already flagrant evidence of this.
It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that famously said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”. Though we may not want to face this haunting truth, it is reality. And we will do ourselves more damage if we avoid awareness of this notion and neglect to recognize this part of ourselves in our private, individual minds. Humans have the frightening capability to be very dangerous creatures indeed but better for us to tame that nature individually than to be led into someone or something exploiting this in us, wrecking havoc on history’s stage.