“Cat Got His Tongue?”

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The War Against the Jews

An incomparable description of Hitler’s mental world:

“The Jews inhabited Hitler’s mind. He believed that they were the source of all evil, misfortune and tragedy, the single factor that, like some inexorable law of nature, explained the workings of the universe. The irregularities of war and famine, financial distress and sudden death, defeat and sinfulness – all could be explained by the presence of that single factor in the universe, a miscreation that disturbed the world’s steady ascent towards well-being, affluence, success, victory. A savior was needed to come forth and slay the loathsome monster. In Hitler’s obsessed mind, as in the delusive imaginings of the medieval millenarian sectarians, the Jews were the demonic hosts whom he had been given a divine mission to destroy.”

(Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews p. 21)

I find this passage utterly chilling.

Pius XII and his crystal ball

If I told you that Pius XII spent the war years peeking into a crystal ball or shuffling tarot cards in order to divine the future, you might say something like, “What a nutcase!” And you’d be right, I suspect. So what’s the difference when John Cornwell tells us – citing beatification testimony of Pius’ own nephew – that:

…the Pope was in the habit during the war of conducting a form of exorcism to cast out the devil that he assumed inhabited the soul of Hitler – which he did in the dead of night in his private chapel in the papal apartments.

That’s not nuts? Ooga-booga, the Pope communing with the spirits in a private seance (true, one wonders how his nephew knew this) in his most private of Holy Holies? The valiant Pius wrestling with angels for the soul of the world, while Satan stalks the heart of Europe in the form of the Third Reich. Apparently, a papal encyclical would have been wasted on mortal eyes; ditto a radio broadcast in condemnation of Hitler. Pius XII produced nothing of the kind for the duration of the war.

But he wrestled with the Children of Darkness in his private chapel at midnight. How spiritually elevated of him.

Favorite film stills: Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane is the movie I’ve probably watched more than any other except Star Wars, and that’s only because when I was young we had cable television and it was on two or three times a week. But Citizen Kane is the movie that, as an adult, repays constant viewing. I always see some subtly-placed detail I’d never noticed before, from that murky opening scene with the spooky camera work around Xanadu to the balcony shot with Hitler.

"first support, then denounce"

That’s some proto-Zelig kind of stuff, too, because it really looks like Hitler. I don’t know much about the technical end of movie-making, or how things were done back in 1942, but almost seventy years on it’s still pretty convincing. And did I mention it was 1942? With all the knowledge we have of who Hitler was, what his actual aims were and how indescribably awful the Nazis turned out to be – stuff nobody knew back then except those caught up in its whirlwind, and for whom there was little hope at that point – the still is quite ominous. I’m not going to get schmaltzy and say the film sounds a “prophetic” note, but it sends a chill up my spine every time I watch it.

Adolf Hitler Was Not an Atheist

…but even if he were, what difference would it make? This is a ridiculous syllogism: Hitler was an atheist, therefore atheism = Hitlerism. One might as well point out that Hitler was a heterosexual, or a homo- or bisexual and come to a similar conclusion. On the other hand, it is just as unwarranted to point to all these pious Hitler quotes about God and the Saviour in order to construct another syllogism: Hitler was a believing Christian (or at least able to fake it passingly well), therefore Christianity = Hitlerism.

Atheism is not a theology or even a worldview. Atheism cannot bring society to its knees because it is not a totalitarian system. There is no danger that society will be taken over by reasonable people who test their ideas to see whether they stand up on their own or fall down flat on their face. We should be so lucky.

I just wanted to get that black on white because it is a recurring piece of nonsense when watching debates on YouTube such as this. Surprisingly,the Conservapedia (it is what it says) entry “atheism and mass murder” makes no mention of Hitler or Nazism. So go figure, even these people can’t keep it straight.

For those who persist in the unhappy illusion that people of no faith are some kind of evil muck clinging to the otherwise pristine bumper of believers on their long ride toward heaven, only to be chiseled off on the Day of Reckoning while the faithful march happily through the pearly gates to the great Cocktail Party in the Sky, I post the following video for your enjoyment.

Moral Blindness and the Perfect Weapon

A quote from Paul Berman:

“The anti-war Socialists wanted to understand their enemies and not just dismiss them–wanted to seek out whatever was comprehensible, the points on which everyone could agree. And so, listening to the Nazis make their wildest speeches, the anti-war Socialists, in a thoughtful mood, asked themselves: what is anti-Semitism, anyway? Does every single criticism of the Jews reflect the superstition of the Middle Ages? Surely it ought to be possible to criticize the Jews without being vilified as anti-Semites.” (Terror and Liberalism)

Of course, this meant underestimating Hitler and Nazism by assuming they clung to the same bedrock faith in human reason as the French Socialists. They wanted to give the Nazis a chance to be evaluated on equal footing, but the Nazis didn’t much care for an enlightened forum in which to test the strength of their ideas. They rest is history.

Not long after Berman published his book, which attempted to explain the roots of the Sept. 11, 2001 terroist attacks (and our general inability to comprehend their meaning), Sam Harris published a book called The End of Faith. In many ways, Harris built upon Berman’s thesis–and added a by-now-famous critique of religious faith that has made him as lionized by some as he is despised by others. Nestled in the pages of Harris’s book is a chapter called “Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of ‘Collateral Damage'”, which hasn’t received as much attention as it perhaps deserves. The crux of the argument is as follows:

“We need only imagine how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons–weapons that allowed us to either temporarily impair or kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property. What would we do with such technology?”

Of course, the temptation is to map out a mental chalkboard of conflicts, applying Harris’s perfect weapon hypothesis: how would the current war in Iraq look? The Iraq-Iran conflict? The recent IDF incursion in Gaza? The Second Intifada? Iran’s overtures to genocide and overarching support for suicide terrorism?

It’s a fun mental exercise. As Harris puts it, “A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics.”

This could go on for a long while, so I’ll get to the point. Operation Cast Lead is long over. Recontruction in Gaza, including smuggling of weapons and construction of tunnels to Egypt, goes on unabated, except when Israel sends a few missiles in retaliation for the continuing rocket attacks. Caryl Churchill has written her Sophoclean dirge for the (Palestinian) victims that some have accused of the worst anti-Jewish stereotyping. Others call it a masterpiece. The victims are being counted, most of which (surprise, surprise) are Hamas men. But the world can’t wait to blame Israel for every single death in the recent conflict. After all, it was Israel that chose to retaliate with such force, unleashing the umpteenth episode of brutality against a starved, helpless population reduced to launching inexact, homemade rockets as their only recourse to dignity (now that suicide bombing has been more or less stalled, at least temporarily).

So, in this moment of relative calm and reflection, maybe we should be asking ourselves just what the IDF would have done in Gaza had it had perfect weapons. And Hamas? We should hold them both up to the same moral standard, or none at all.

Lanzmann vs. Rosenbaum vs. Hitler

I’m almost at the end of  Ron Rosenbaum’s massive search for Hitler–or, more precisely, for what made Hitler Hitler? The book, entitled Explaining Hitler, is less an attempt to explain Hitler than to come to grips with various threads of Hitler explainers who have spent much of their lives grappling with the Hitler enigma. It’s well-nigh impossible to contemplate the Shoah without some attempt at explanation: it was the product of German anti-Semitism (Daniel Goldhagen), Christian anti-Semitism (Hyam Maccoby), Adolf Hitler’s personal passion for Jew-hatred (Lucy S. Dawidowicz)…then there are those who downplay Hitler’s role, blaming the Inevitable Forces of History for the murder of six million Jews, or those who add that many Catholics, Romany and homosexuals were killed as well, in an attempt to steal back their greatest tragedy from the Jews and “universalize” it (or de-Judaize it).

One of the most peculiar of Rosenbaum’s subjects is Claude Lanzmann, director of the 9 1/2 hour film Shoah. Lanzmann finds all attempts at explanation obscene, and Rosenbaum aptly titles his chapter on Lanzmann “The War Agianst the Question Why.” But why declare war on those like Rosenbaum (and most of us nerds) who ask the forbidden question, why? Lanzmann’s metaphor is itself lifted from Primo Levi, a man who knew first-hand from Auschwitz (unlike Lanzmann): “Here there is no why,” a German guard maliciously quips to the young Levi, who was only asking why the guard wouldn’t let him have the icicle he’d noticed hanging from the roof of his barracks. Lanzmann turns this into a kind of “eleventh commandment”–thou shalt not ask why. I find Lanzmann’s logic (if there is any) puzzling, to say the least, and tend to shy away from mystic auras, in any case.

I’ll come back to this book in future posts. It’s worth reading. Meanwhile, here is an excellent review of the book.