IT’S INTERESTING to see how history is distorted in the act of grasping it: how it bends to fit the mind of the person who takes it in. You can investigate a historical epoch and watch as others, arriving at disparate conclusions, paint a portrait with a selection of colors chosen to fulfill their needs. A man is bound to feel that in the careless approach of others, he himself stands accused: is he not guilty of the same crime, of distorting history to his own ends, lacking merely the person with sufficient subtlety to call him to account?
Joachim Fest said that the political maturity of the German people came only after the loss of their inner, spiritually romantic “interior”– the relic of feudalism that had not yet given way. This world of glorious Heroes and Grand Gestures which Wagner seeked to portray in music, and which Hitler forged a connection to largely through Wagner’s operas, apparently watchingSiegfried 30 or more times. Ah, Heroic artwork.
One of the main differences between the lingering feudalistic mindset of Germany and the individualist mindset which was rising in the West, was the relationship to authority. In the West, it was gradually being understood that self-interest could be reliably deferred to when dealing with one’s superiors– and even the concept of a superior, of someone placed above oneself in the natural order, was becoming incomprehensible. In Germany, respect for authority still had it’s unquestioning, deferential, semi-religious quality. Hitler’s image was crafted to act as a catch-all for stray deference: an intellectual, a man of letters, a soldier, a man furiously dedicated to his country, pick which aspect of him you want to respect, but by all means pay respect.
Fest concludes his Opus with the observation that the Germans finally matured politically when they lost the belief in glorious past ages and future utopias. He said: “They ceased to believe in a past that did not exist.” That line stuck out at me: ceased to...