Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Past as Prologue to a Potential Future

Have you ever read anything that scared you into immediate action? I hadn’t intended to post anything today, that is, until I read a review in Wednesday’s New York Times of the first of a two-part biography by Volker Ullrich of Adolph Hitler (http://nyti.ms/2cAUH9m).

I do not know if the reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, intended readers to assimilate her analysis of Ullrich’s work to our present presidential options. I can only relate I was chilled by the comparison to one of our current choices. Consider, if you will, the following extensive citation:

“Mr. Ullrich, like other biographers, provides vivid insight into some factors that helped turn a ‘Munich rabble-rouser’ — regarded by many as a self-obsessed ‘clown’ with a strangely ‘scattershot, impulsive style’ — into ‘the lord and master of the German Reich.’

“• Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who ‘only loved himself’ — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a ‘characteristic fondness for superlatives.’ His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity. But Mr. Ullrich underscores Hitler’s shrewdness as a politician — with a ‘keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of other people’ and an ability to ‘instantaneously analyze and exploit situations.’

“• Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a ‘bottomless mendacity’ that would later be magnified by a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology (radio, gramophone records, film) to spread his message. A former finance minister wrote that Hitler ‘was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth’ and editors of one edition of ‘Mein Kampf’ described it as a ‘swamp of lies, distortions, innuendoes, half-truths and real facts.’

“• Hitler was an effective orator and actor, Mr. Ullrich reminds readers, adept at assuming various masks and feeding off the energy of his audiences. Although he concealed his anti-Semitism beneath a ‘mask of moderation’ when trying to win the support of the socially liberal middle classes, he specialized in big, theatrical rallies staged with spectacular elements borrowed from the circus. Here, ‘Hitler adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle-class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic listeners,’ Mr. Ullrich writes. He peppered his speeches with coarse phrases and put-downs of hecklers. Even as he fomented chaos by playing to crowds’ fears and resentments, he offered himself as the visionary leader who could restore law and order.

“• Hitler increasingly presented himself in messianic terms, promising ‘to lead Germany to a new era of national greatness,’ though he was typically vague about his actual plans. He often harked back to a golden age for the country, Mr. Ullrich says, the better ‘to paint the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay.’”  

How devastatingly familiar all these points are. Want some more? 

“• Hitler’s repertoire of topics, Mr. Ullrich notes, was limited, and reading his speeches in retrospect, ‘it seems amazing that he attracted larger and larger audiences’ with ‘repeated mantralike phrases’ consisting largely of ‘accusations, vows of revenge and promises for the future.’ But Hitler virtually wrote the modern playbook on demagoguery, arguing in ‘Mein Kampf’ that propaganda must appeal to the emotions — not the reasoning powers — of the crowd.

“• Hitler’s rise was not inevitable, in Mr. Ullrich’s opinion. … He benefited from a ‘constellation of crises that he was able to exploit cleverly and unscrupulously’ — in addition to economic woes and unemployment, there was an ‘erosion of the political center’ and a growing resentment of the elites. The unwillingness of Germany’s political parties to compromise had contributed to a perception of government dysfunction, Mr. Ullrich suggests, and the belief of Hitler supporters that the country needed ‘a man of iron’ who could shake things up. ‘Why not give the National Socialists a chance?’ a prominent banker said of the Nazis. ‘They seem pretty gutsy to me.’

“• Hitler’s ascension was aided and abetted by the naïveté of domestic adversaries who failed to appreciate his ruthlessness and tenacity, and by foreign statesmen who believed they could control his aggression. Early on, revulsion at Hitler’s style and appearance, Mr. Ullrich writes, led some critics to underestimate the man and his popularity, while others dismissed him as a celebrity, a repellent but fascinating ‘evening’s entertainment.’”

The eminent philosopher George Santayana wrote in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 


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