Monday, May 28, 2007

Riveting History of Ideas

Tibor R. Machan

Last weekend I had the good fortune to watch a fascinating, informative, and very disturbing DVD, produced and written by Professor of Philosophy Stephen Hicks of Rockford College in Illinois, titled Nietzsche and the Nazis. ( I am an avid fan of the history channel and other forums where the theme that ideas have consequences can be encountered but this piece of work was better than nearly everything else along these lines I have seen.

The Nazis, who murdered roughly 12 million people—among them the 6 million plus or minus Jews we have all heard of—were a really vicious bunch. But what is more interesting and important is that they were not barbarians but came from Europe’s most educated population, the Germans. Their main theme was that idealization of Das Volk, “The People,” not severally but collectively, as a noble tribe for the welfare and advancement of which everything could be sacrificed, especially individual liberty and independence.

Here was a group of fanatics who wholeheartedly believed in the righteousness of their own zealotry and urged it upon all their followers, of whom there were millions—the Nazi party was voted into power several times and by the end some 90% of Germans voted for it. Hitler came to power democratically, by “the will of the people” (a phrase we have recently heard in these United States as well). Nazism was openly in favor of irrationalism, championing instinct over reason, order over liberty, and self-sacrifice over the pursuit of happiness.

Nazis hated the classical liberal ideals represented by the United States of America; they despised free enterprise and imposed a version of socialism—national socialism, to be precise—wherever they could. The main difference between their version of socialism and that of the Soviet Union was that they advocated socialism for the nation, unlike the Soviets who wanted it spread internationally.

A persistent question that has bothered historians, psychologists, sociologists, and nearly anyone who has given the matter any thought is how could this horrid regime arise in the midst of a relatively civilized place like Western Europe and its crown jewel of a culture, Germany. Among the many hypothesis that have been advanced one has always been both intriguing and controversial. This is that certain ideas that have come to dominate German culture had a great deal to do with the rise to power of Nazism. And the central figure who has been proposed as responsible for these ideas is the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

I will not give away the story Professor Hicks tells with such clarity and subtlety but I do wish to mention that as far as I can tell—and I have studied some of these matters over my career as a philosophy teacher—he gives a very well balanced presentation of just why Nietzsche did in fact encourage the Nazis and in what way his views different from theirs quite significantly. On first inspection, for example, it is not easy to believe that the Nazi’s demand for subservience and unselfishness fit well with Nietzsche’s ideal of “the will to power.” But if one looks deep enough one will realize that the will to power was not to be put in the service of the individual person but of the tribe or culture. Individual flourishing didn’t interest Nietzsche; collective triumph did. And on this the Nazis fully agreed with him. No wonder they invoked his legacy over and over again in their literature.

On the other hand, Nietzsche would not likely have favored the sort of politicization of the ideal of the superman that the Nazis promulgated. He would have left politics aside concerning how the future of humanity was to unfold so long as it involved a revolution in our moral values. (He deemed conventional—especially Judeo-Christian morality—perverse, an enemy of a fully flourishing, instinct-driven human life!)

Professor Hicks’ presentation is immensely rich with facts, quotations, analysis, and insight. Especially fascinating is the list of very erudite Europeans—Noble Laureates and the like—who eagerly supported the Nazis, as well as the slogans Nazis loved which are often exactly what our own politicians urge us to internalize—for example, about the superiority of the public versus the private interest.

Anyone with just an ounce of interest in recent intellectual and political history will find watching this DVD a disturbing as well as riveting experience.

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