Laurence Rees has made two exceptional series about the Nazi period for television: The Nazis: a Warning from History in 1997; and, earlier this year, Auschwitz: the Nazis and the 'Final Solution'. Just lately UKTV's History Channel screened a series of extracts from Rees's interviews with former Nazis, interviews which he has conducted over several years. This article by Stephen Bates reports that the interviews were...
...an attempt to understand what persuaded them [former Nazis] to do what they did, why they allowed their country to be taken over by such a man and his cronies, and what they saw in a figure we have always viewed as slightly absurd as well as frightful.Bates goes on to quote Rees's conclusion:
"... With the Nazis it is not true at all that they were only doing it because they were under threat of being shot. They were doing it because they believed in it.In one of the programmes themselves (which I watched), Rees said something along the lines: 'they did what they did because they believed it was right'. The combination here of Bates's thought that we see Hitler as a 'slightly absurd', though also frightful, figure with Rees's conclusion that people followed Hitler because they believed in what he stood for reminded me of a passage from Primo Levi. Levi is explaining why the survivors of the Nazi camps must be listened to:
"I think there's something in people that wants to have faith in a great leader. Hitler wasn't a carpet-chewing madman, at least not until the end..."
Incredibly, it happened that an entire civilised people, just issued from the fervid cultural flowering of Weimar, followed a buffoon whose figure today inspires laughter, and yet Adolf Hitler was obeyed and his praises were sung right up to the catastrophe. It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.The counterpoint between the absurdity of the person followed and the fact of his having so many followers is what interests me.
It's possible there are political leaders of such manifest intelligence, dignity and other admirable qualities that they couldn't possibly appear as absurd - buffoons - within any framework of belief. I'm not sure. However, given what we know about how much systems of human belief have accommodated that is utterly preposterous (in light of available evidence, that sort of thing), there seems no great obstacle in the way of absorbing the fact that a figure of absurd appearance within one framework of belief should appear within another as someone to be followed, even worshipped. Belief systems that can clothe absurdities in the garb of unquestionable truth will surely have no more difficulty in presenting otherwise laughable figures as the representatives or incarnations of that truth.
One doesn't need to refer to the past, or to one of the most atrocious episodes in the historical record, to see this. Consider how many people there are worldwide right now looking towards a would-be religious leader who on any basis of testable knowledge appears grotesque - looking to him as a heroic, inspiring figure. And for all those who are his followers or supporters, there are others who are excusers, since between things of definite colour there will always be shades of accommodation and indulgence. On a lesser scale, we have today in this country a politician possessing many of the qualities of a buffoon - to speak only of those - and there were enough people willing to campaign and vote for this man at the last general election to secure him a seat in parliament at the expense of a better, non-buffoon, candidate. There were even, at the time, voices from the centre-left telling us that his victory was something to be celebrated. (Update: see now here.)
To my mind, the thing in need of explanation is not how buffoons can appear as leaders worthy of being followed, but what the conditions are (if these can be theorized in general terms) that encourage absurd belief on a wide scale.