Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Spiritual Battleground

It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
 A big thanks to David Foster for bringing back to my attention Sebastian Haffner's book, Defying Hitler. David Foster gives a good review of the book here. Re-reading it a second time has given me a greater appreciation of it, most importantly for Haffner's understanding of the psychology of evil.

Haffner's book is interesting because it was written before the Second World War, before Germany had committed the bulk of its atrocities, and is remarkably prescient in understanding what Germany would become with the adoption of Nazism. His concern, however, was only obliquely with fate of his nation, rather, he tried to understand why Nazism was able to rise up in a country where the majority of its inhabitants found the ideology intolerable. Remember, only 36% of Germans actually voted for Hitler directly, the rest simply went along. In that regard, the book really shouldn't be called Defying Hitler, a more appropriate title would be Getting in Step or Toeing the Line.

Haffner recognises that the problem lay in the personal failure of Germans throughout the whole of social structure, especially in the upper echelons in society.

He illustrates this with the fate of the Kammergericht, the Prussian Supreme Court;
[Ed: After the Nazi's physically took over]It was strange to sit in the Kammergericht again, the same courtroom, the same seats, acting as if nothing had happened. The same ushers stood at the doors and ensured, as ever, that the dignity of the court was not disturbed. Even the judges were for the most part the same people. Of course, the Jewish judge was no longer there. He had not even been dismissed. He was an old gentleman and had served under the Kaiser, so he had been moved to an administrative position in some Amtsgerichtsrat (lower court). His position on the senate was taken by an open-faced, blond young Amtsgerichtsrat, with glowing cheeks, who did not seem to belong among the grave Kamniergerichtsrats. A Kammergerichtsrat is a general, an Amtsgerichtsrat a lieutenant colonel. It was whispered that in private the newcomer was something high up in the SS. He saluted with outstretched arm and a resounding "Heil Hitler!" The president of the senate and the other old gentlemen thereupon made a vague gestures with their right arms and murmured something inaudible. Previously they had chatted quietly and knowledgeably during the breakfast break in the deliberating room, discussing the events of the day, or professional gossip, the way old gentlemen do. That no longer happened. There was a deep, embarrassed silence while they ate their sandwiches.
The deliberations themselves were also often strange. The new member of the senate produced unheard-of points of law in a fresh, confident voice. We Referendars, who had just passed our exams, exchanged looks while he expounded. At last the president of the senate remarked with perfect politeness, "Colleague, could it be that you have overlooked paragraph 816 of the Civil Code?" At which the new high court judge looked embarrassed, like a candidate who has just slipped up in a viva, leafed through his copy of the Code, and then admitted lightly, "Oh yes. yes. Well, then it's just the other way around." Those were the triumphs of the older law.
There were, however, other cases--cases in which the newcomer did not back down but gave eloquent speeches, in a somewhat overloud voice, stating that here the paragraphs of the law must yield precedence; he would then instruct his co-judges that the meaning was mere important than the letter of the law. He would quote Hitler. Then, with the gesture of a romantic stage hero, he would insist on some untenable decision. It was piteous to observe the faces of the old Kanimergerichtsrats as this went on. They looked at their notes with an expression of indescribable dejection, while their fingers nervously twisted paper clip or a piece of blotting paper. They were used to failing candidates for the Assessor examination for spouting the kind of nonsense that was now being presented as the pinnacle of wisdom; but now this nonsense was backed by the full power of the state, by the threat of dismissal for lack of national reliability, loss of livelihood, the concentration camp . . . They coughed; they said, "Of course we agree with your opinion, but you will understand . . ." They begged for a little understanding for the Civil Code and tried to save what could be saved.
That was the Kammergericht in Berlin in April 1933. It was the same Kammergericht whose judges had stood up to Frederick the Great 150 years earlier and, faced with a cabinet decree, had preferred jail to changing a judgment they considered correct in the king's favor. [Ed]In Prussia every schoolchild knows the story of the miller of Potsdam, which, whether it is true or not, gives an indication of the court's reputation. The king wanted a windmill removed because it disturbed the view from his new palace of Sans Souci He offered to buy the mill. The miller refused, he wanted to keep his mill. The king threatened to dispossess the miller, whereupon the miller said, "Just so, Your Majesty, but there's still the Kammergericht in Berlin." To this day the mill can be seen next to the palace.
In 1933 the Kamrnergericht toed the line. No Frederick the Great was needed, not even Hitler himself had to intervene. All that was required was a few Amtsgerichtsrats [Ed: Nazi court appointees]with a deficient knowledge of the law.
Haffner here recognises that the Nazi's ascent was preceded by a change in Germany's "best and brightest." Whereas in the time of Frederick the Great the Judges of the Kammergericht were quite prepared to disobey the King, even with the real risk of imprisonment, death and torture, modern Germans were not prepared to go as far in upholding the good. Haffner describes the corruption of own father, a man who was educated in the best traditions of European civilisation. 
As I said, my father himself had retired long ago. He had no official powers anymore and could have done nothing to harm the Nazis, even if he had wanted to. It seemed as though he was out of the line of fire. But one day he, tool received an official letter. It contained a detailed questionnaire. "Under Clause X of the Law for the Re-establishment of the Civil Service, you are required to answer the following questions truthfully and in full . . . Under Clause Y, refusal to answer will entail loss of pension . . ."

There were a lot of questions. My father had to state which political parties, organizations, and associations he had ever belonged to in his life, he had to list his services to the nation, explain this and excuse that, and finally to sign a printed declaration that he "stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations In short, having served the state for forty-five years, he was required to humble himself again in order to continue to receive his well-earned pension.

My father stared silently at the questionnaire for a long time.

Next day I saw him seated at his desk, the form in front of him. He was staring past it.

"Are you going to fill it in?" I asked.

My father looked at the questionnaire, grimaced, and said nothing for a time. Then he asked, "Do you think I should?"


"I wonder what you and your mother would live on?" he said at last.

"I really don't know," he repeated after a while. "I don't even know," and he tried to smile, "how you will be able to go to Paris to write your thesis.

There was an uneasy silence. Then my father pushed the questionnaire aside, but he did not put it away.

It lay on his desk for several days. Then one afternoon as I entered the room I saw my father filling it in, slowly and laboriously, like a child writing a school essay. Half an hour later he out himself and took it to the mailbox before he could change his mind. He showed no outward change in his manner and spoke no more excitedly than usual, but it had nonetheless been too much for him. With people who are used to restraint in word and gesture, some part of the body is invariably affected by severe mental stress. Some have heart attacks in such cases. My father's weakness was his stomach. He had hardly sat down at his desk again when he jumped up and began to vomit convulsively. For two or three days he was unable to eat or keep down any food. It was the beginning of a hunger strike by his body which killed him cruelly and painfully two years later.
He sold his soul for a pension.

But it would be a mistake to think that this moral failure was German. The point about Haffner's work is that he illustrates that the failure was human, in that, in similar circumstances we could all see ourselves doing the same thing. And yet we mustn't. It's because it's the little "appeasements" and "compromises" that open the door to Hell.
We were pursued into the farthest corners of our private lives; in all areas of life there was rout, panic, and flight. No one could tell where it would end. At the same time we were called upon, not to surrender, but to renege. just a little pact with the devil-and you were no longer one of the captured quarry. Instead you were one of the victorious hunters.

That was the simplest and crudest temptation. Many succumbed to it. Later they often found that the price to be paid was higher than they had thought and that they were no match for the real Nazis. There are many thousands of them today in Germany, Nazis with a bad conscience. People who wear their Nazi badges like Macbeth wore his royal robes, who, in for a penny, in for a pound, now find their consciences shouldering one burden after another, who search in vain for a way out, drink and take sleeping pills, no longer dare to think, and do not know whether they should rather pray for the end of the Nazi era-their own era!-or dread it. When that end comes they will certainly not admit to having been the culprits. In the meantime, however, they are the nightmare of the world. It is impossible to assess what these people might still be capable of in their moral and psychological derangement. Their history has yet to be written.
[Ed: This was written in 1938, we all know how it ended and what these people were capable of doing in the end]

Our predicament in 1933 held many other temptations apart from this, the crudest; each was a source of madness and mental sickness for those who yielded. The devil has many nets, crude ones for crude souls, finer ones for finer souls.
Some men are seduced by power and yet others by the pension, either way, the seduction is ultimately poisonous. The important point is to resist. Haffner also recognised the societal importance of this failure to resist.
If you read ordinary history books…you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people have are involved…According to this view, the history of the present decade is a kind of chess game between Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-Shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody’s lips. We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game…It may seem a paradox, but it is none the less a simple truth, to say that on the contrary, the decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large…Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals. [ED]
Conservative thinkers often put forward restitutive proposals for Western Civilisation based upon legislative changes. But as Haffner has shown us, no matter how illustrious or well designed the institutions, unless the men that give life to institution are good, the institution will fail. It's not a question about rationality. Haffner's father, like the judges of the Kammergericht, were some of the best educated men ever, educating them more would not have changed their course of action because what they lacked was not education but courage, or more specifically, fortitude*; a moral virtue.

That's why nothing gets fixed until morals begin to change. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God........

You know the rest.

*Fortitude is different from courage. Courage aims to overcome fear, but fortitude pushes through all obstacles such as sloth, indifference, boredom, despair and fear. It's a virtue which flows from the possession of caritas(charity). Both the Nazi's and Communists had courage in abundance, but they lacked the virtue of fortitude.


Anonymous said...

Of course the Nazis and Communists had fortitude! Heydrich himself had many issues but sloth, indifference, boredom, despair and fear were not among them. He most certainly could not be stopped by anything short of a bullet. Same goes for Hitler and Stalin. These guys were *driven*, *focused*, and *purposeful* -- unstoppable by anything other than overwhelming force.

Anonymous said...

Overt resistance to state power is almost always ridiculous. Standing up and being martyred just makes the situation worse, since now the powers that be get to publicly make an example of you, thus intimidating others.

This is why public protesters in nearly all eras are little more than tools. Especially today, when such action gets you photographed, categorized, and targeted for later neutralization.

When resisting powerful evil, it pays to be smart. This means going through the motions, selling out good and hard, and then looking for hidden opportunities to strike from the inside. The Severus Snape Solution, if you will.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"Standing up and being martyred just makes the situation worse, since now the powers that be get to publicly make an example of you, thus intimidating others."

Politely demur. Stephen was the first Christian martyr (not counting Jesus). Most of the apostles were martyred.

From the post: "educating them more would not have changed their course of action because what they lacked was not education but courage, or more specifically, fortitude*; a moral virtue."

Martyrdom shows courage. And courage for Christ is an edifying example for the Body of Christ.

GK Chesterton said...

Indeed Anonymous' comments make no sense. While you shouldn't _seek_ martyrdom _actively_ the idea that it is fruitless is just wrong.

The Social Pathologist said...


I use the Catholic Church's definition of Fortitude. From the Catechism:

Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good[Ed]. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.

Standing up and being martyred just makes the situation worse

Correct. That's why a man has to be prudent as well. But the real problem is when you are compelled to do evil. Compromising with the Devil for the sake of survival usually result in one's own corruption. This was Haffner's point. Haffner recognised, quite correctly, that his sacrifice would have been pointless, so he escaped from Germany.

But the other important thing to acknowledge is that all of the Nazi rebels of the period recognised that had people acted earlier, and overcome their inertia, Hitler would never have risen to power. The courage is sometimes to fight the Devil, during the "good times" before he becomes entrenched.

The Social Pathologist said...


The Severus Snape Solution, if you will.

Works fine in theory, not in practice. I've always had the impression that Leventia Beria was trying to be a bit of Severius. Although he was Stalin's staunch henchman, he attempted to seize power after Stalin' death and liberalise the USSR. But he'd killed to many people, and was way too ruthless, and was percieved as a threat by his colleagues. He too, was taken down. Justly.

The Severius solution is a rationalisation we give to ourselves which permits us to do evil in good conscience. It's a very dangerous place to go and one which will most likely end badly.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Truth Unites and GK.

I agree Martyrdom isn't fruitless but I'm sick of Christians dying for their faith. Enough blood has been spilt.

A 22 year old girl lost her head for the honour of Germany.(as did her friends) She quite literally had more balls than Hitler's generals.

It's from these little seeds that nations are reborn.

Ingemar said...

but I'm sick of Christians dying for their faith. Enough blood has been spilt.

If it's choosing between living under the bondage of sin/the powers and principalities and dying for Christ, then the Christian will choose the latter. Or at least should.

He who seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for Christ's sake will keep it. It's biblical.

I don't know if "enough" good blood has been shed, but I do know that the enemy of our salvation will not stop at Christians being quiet about their faith. The Enemy counts on the Christian's sense of fair play. Even if a Christian can defend his faith with reason, the Enemy can simply use coercion (threats, Governmental or not) to silence him. At that point, those who pay only lip service to Christ will fold, and the few remaining will remain steadfast to the point of death.

Christian history seems to be rife with thousands joining eagerly to follow this new, hip thing, and only dozens (or one dozen) staying when the going got tough. Look at how feeble and atheistic the once-great bastions of Catholicism are now (France, Spain, Ireland).

Jason said...

Yeah, I’ve always liked that quote by Sol. a lot; there are few things truer than the reality that we all have the capacity for both good and evil, and that it is up to us to decide which way we will go (I remember the professor of my history of the gulag mentioning that quote, and then I later read it myself in Archipelago).
I wonder if Haffner is insufficiently critical of himself in the above passage – shouldn’t he have said to his dad to not sign the declaration, and then given him moral support (And his mother as well?) I think men need the moral support of their families, just as they need to exercise moral leadership themselves.
For anonymous above who talked about certain virtues of Hitler and others, I think this quote by la rochefoucauld is apposite: “There are bad people who would be less dangerous if they did not have some good in them.”

GK Chesterton said...

I agree in part SP. "Enough" I don't think will be ever spilt. But we don't have to "like" it either. We merely have to recognize that it will happen as long as the Great War continues. Soldiers die. Sometimes horribly.

The ancient Church was keen on making sure that people didn't actively seek martyrdom. There is much good to be said about that.

David Foster said...

Thanks for the link...something is screwed up, doesn't work, at least on my system...try this:

I was particularly struck by the following passage. Here, Haffner is describing a period when the political and economic situation briefly calmed down:

"A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk."


"To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis."

The Social Pathologist said...

@David Foster.

I for one have never been a big fan of Wiemar Germany. The economic ruin it wrought is well documented, but the cultural ruin that it fostered was perhaps far worse.

I've got a "best of" Simplicimuss. The insights it gives into the culture both pre and post WW1 is astounding. Northern Germany was profoundly culturally "sick" during this time. The cultural destruction of the old order and the economic impoverishment of the middle class left a vacuum which was filled by nouveau riche and culturally deficient shysters. I think that Hitler was a natural magnet for these types.

I wouldn't be too hard on the old man. What he did was wrong, but understandable. Haffner is a man of great empathy. He hated Hitler but also realised that an individual sacrifice against the machine would be pointless. He left for England as he though was the most prudent thing to do. (and I agree.)


As I've mentioned previously on this blog, perceptive writers in the late 19th Century were aware that there was a spiritual crisis going on in the West; Dostoyevsky comes to mind. In the "old days" I imagine that a lot of the faith was habitual, and not active.

Still, as GK Chesterton once said, the faith is rested upon weak men, through which God works his glory to make them strong. I'm optimistic about Christianity in the long run but I can imagine more blood being spilt.

@Commentator GKC.

I take the Patton approach to the subject of martyrdom. I want the other bastard to die for his faith. I want to live for mine.

Samson J. said...

The Severius solution is a rationalisation we give to ourselves which permits us to do evil in good conscience. It's a very dangerous place to go and one which will most likely end badly.

And Haffner's book (which I just finished, having been put onto it by this post) shows why: because when you try and adopt this solution, when you cooperate with evil that you may stealthily achieve some "good", you invariably lose part of your humanity. Some of your soul dies. And because you feel less human, you begin to stop really caring about the humanity of others.

Anyway, fascinating book; I couldn't put it down. Something I found interesting, that would be a topic for another time, is that I didn't actually like the narrator very much as a person - he struck me as someone who, if alive today, would be a snotty, sanctimonious liberal.

The Social Pathologist said...


that I didn't actually like the narrator very much as a person

I didn't warm to him either, though, I don't think he was as much of a liberal as you do. I really got the impression that he was more effete rather than liberal.

But if you really want to read a good book, then you've got to get Diary of a Man in Despair. It's a masterpiece. It really should be called Lament for a Dead Europe. Just get it. It so much better than Defying Hitler.

Why this book is not continuously in print is beyond me. But now, upon deeper reflection, I understand why. The man who would appreciate it is nearly extinct.

Samson J. said...

I didn't warm to him either, though, I don't think he was as much of a liberal as you do. I really got the impression that he was more effete rather than liberal.

Yeah, he does describe himself as "conservative" several times. I don't like the fact that I felt this way about him, by the way.

But if you really want to read a good book, then you've got to get Diary of a Man in Despair. It's a masterpiece. It really should be called Lament for a Dead Europe. Just get it. It so much better than Defying Hitler.

Ordered it.