The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
You have everything that I lack. You are forging the spiritual tools for the renewal of Germany. I am nothing but a drum and a master of ceremonies. Let's cooperate!
—Adolf Hitler at the Juni-Klub, spring 1922, as quoted in Jean Pierre Faye's Langages totalitaires.
Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) should need no introduction. Statistics suggest, however, that a large proportion of young people now emerging from the educational systems of the Western democracies either don't know who he was or have only a shaky idea of what he did. One of the drawbacks of liberal democracy is thus revealed: Included among its freedoms is the freedom to forget what once threatened its existence. Granted the uncontested opportunity to do so, Hitler would have devoted himself to eliminating every trace of free expression that came within his reach. The awkward question remains of whether, on his part, this propensity precluded any real interest in the humanities. The awkward answer must be that it didn't.
Though it is tempting to think of him as illiterate, Hitler could quote Schopenhauer from memory. His love of music was passionate, to the point where some believed that his admiration for Wagner was a sufficient reason in itself for dismissing that composer from musical history. Hitler the would-be painter never lost interest in the plastic arts. His projected art gallery in his home town of Linz was one of his most dearly cherished dreams for Nazi Europe after the inevitable victory. Above all, Hitler was moved by architecture, which brings us to the central point, because he wasn't just moved by it, he was mad about it. He had no sense of proportion in any of his ostensibly civilized enthusiasms. His interests lacked the human element, so they could never have amounted to a true humanism. But though his connection with the civilized traditions was parodic at best and neurotic always, there was still a connection: In that respect, he stands above Stalin and Mao and should therefore, by the scholar, be handled with even greater caution, because he is far more poisonous.
Many of his more cultivated victims used their learned resources to deny that Hitler had a mental existence. Some of the last aphorisms written by the great Robert Musil were devoted to summarizing the pathogenic nature of Hitler. Beautifully crafted statements, they had no effect on Hitler whatsoever. The finest minds in Europe devoted their best efforts to proving that their mortal enemy had no mind at all. But nothing they said was of any avail. Hitler could be defeated only by armed might: i.e., on his own terms. Whole libraries written to his detriment didn't add up to the effect of a single Russian artillery shell. This ugly fact should be kept in view when we catch ourselves nursing the comforting illusion that there is a natural order to which politics would revert if all contests of belief could be eliminated. There is such a natural order, but it is not benevolent.
Books about Hitler are without number, but after more than 60 years, the first one to read is still Alan Bullock's Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. Familiarity with the events that it recounts should be regarded as an essential prerequisite to the study not just of modern politics but of the whole history of the arts, since its hideously gifted subject first demonstrated that a sufficient concentration of violence could neutralize any amount of culture no matter how widely diffused. It is not possible to be serious about the humanities unless it is admitted that the pacifism widely favored among educated people before World War II very nearly handed a single man, himself something other than a simple Philistine, the means to bring civilization to an end.
Respectably situated in Berlin's Motzstrasse, to the south of the Tiergarten, the Juni-Klub, or June Club (the name breathed defiance at the Treaty of Versailles), was a '20s talking shop for right-wing intellectuals concerned with revolutionary conservatism. The consciously oxymoronic idea of revolutionary conservatism had almost as many forms as it had advocates, who found it easy to mistake their dialectical hubbub for the clanging forge of a new order. Of the 150 members, 30 were present on the afternoon Hitler dropped in. They thought he had come to hear what they had to say, and they found out that he had no intention of listening to any voice but his own. Their scholarly qualifications counted for nothing. Best qualified of all was Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. Before World War I, Moeller had been a translator of Baudelaire, Defoe, De Quincey, and the complete poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, and had written essays on Nietzsche, Strindberg, and others. He knew Paris well and spent time also in London, Sicily, Venice, the Baltic countries, and Russia. For cultivation he was up there with Ernst Jünger, one of Germany's most gifted modern prose writers and likewise a revolutionary conservative.
As a kind of back-to-the-future movement, revolutionary conservatism depended for its force on advocates who embodied established values. Moeller embodied learning the way Jünger embodied storm-of-steel militarism. Both had their rationale for a conservative revolution worked out in detail, with all the nuances duly noted. Possibly because of this meeting at the June Club, Moeller was the first to grasp that Hitler didn't care about any of it. Moeller's revolutionary conservatism was meant to safeguard the nation's Wesens-Urgestein (the original essential stone) from the corrosive encrustation of mixed blood. Nominally, the tainted blood he was most concerned about was the Latin blood of the German south. Some of Moeller's colleagues thought that Hitler might have picked up the dreaded southern infection from spending too long in Bavaria. But it hardly needs saying that Jewish blood was the real bother. If anyone is still looking for the linking factor between the resolutely thuggish Nazi movement and all those long-forgotten, highfalutin nationalist groups that superficially seem so much more refined, anti-Semitism is it.
When, during World War II, Jünger finally allowed himself to find out exactly what the Nazis were doing to the Jews in the east, he was suitably devastated. But during the '20s it never seemed to concern him much that all the various nationalist groups always seemed to have this one characteristic, anti-Semitism, in common. Not, of course, that it would have come to anything much if Jünger and the rest of the intellectuals had been left to themselves. It wasn't mass murder that they had in mind: just the purification and protection of the folk heritage, brought to the point of irreversible decay by the curse of liberalism. Moeller thought that Julius Stahl, the 19th-century theorist of Prussian conservatism, was not conservative enough. Stahl was baptized a Lutheran, but he was Jewish. So the objection was racial, although Moeller would have resisted being defined as a mere racist. He had bigger ideas than that. The biggest of them was that liberalism was the real enemy. To the June Club's collective testament, he contributed a fragment of his forthcoming book, which he called "Through Liberalism Peoples Go to Ruin." The book, published in 1923, carried a title that would gain in resonance beyond his death: The Third Reich.
I have a copy of The Third Reich in front of me as I write. An ugly little volume bound in paper, it was put out in 1931 by a Nazi publishing outfit based in Hamburg. This particular example was first purchased by someone signing himself Wm. Montgomery Watt—presumably a Scot, because I found the book in a dust pile in the back of an Edinburgh secondhand bookshop. Watt underlined the same point over and over. It was the point Moeller couldn't help making: He got around to it whatever the nominal subject. The point was that Germany had never lost the war, except politically. Militarily, it had triumphed, and all that was now needed was a revolution in order to put reality back in touch with the facts. It just never occurred to Moeller that to say "Germany had never lost the war except politically" was like saying that a cat run over by a car had never died except physically. It never occurred to hundreds of thousands of present and future Nazis, either, but Moeller was supposed to be an intellectual. So was Jünger, whose book DerArbeiter (also published by Nazi outfit) came with a resonant line of publicity material: "Jünger sees that bourgeois individualism, the cult of personality, the conceit of the ego all belong to the nineteenth century, and are now visibly melting before our eyes through the transformation of separate people into a collectivity." (Memo to a young student of cultural flux: When you buy old books, keep the wrappers if you can. Nothing gives you the temperature of the time like the puffs and quotations.)
All these finely articulated arguments were going strictly nowhere, because nobody in the Nazi hierarchy ever found much time to read them, and certainly Hitler never read a single line. What continues to matter, however, is not where the arguments were going but where they came from. They came from the same source that gave the chance of action to the thugs who used them as a warrant: the chaos, the dislocation, and the demoralization of a civil order. To that extent, and to that extent only, superior minds like Moeller and Jünger were right. They were like Groucho Marx turning up his nose at any club that might admit him as a member: A society that led them to write such stuff had no future.
At the end of the meeting in the June Club, before Hitler set off through the Tiergarten to doss with an old comrade, Moeller politely offered him a free subscription to the club's monthly magazine, Gewissen (Conscience), but was later heard to say that Hitler had understood nothing. If, as seems likely, Hitler had given nobody time to speak except himself, it is hard to see how there could have been anything to understand. Finally, however, Moeller understood Hitler in the only way that counted. The following year, the Munich putsch was a fiasco, but it caused enough uproar to show Moeller the difference between well-polished words in small-circulation magazines and raw charisma in the streets. Suddenly Moeller remembered Hitler's little farewell speech. Shouting feebly from the sidelines, Moeller made the classic obeisance of the man of letters to the man of action: "Beat the drum, drum of nature!"
With a brief pause for unsuccessful psychiatric treatment, Moeller committed suicide in 1925, so he never had to see what became of his subtle theories. What became of them was nothing. What mattered was the stuff he took for granted: anti-Semitism, and his certainty that the Weimar Republic had only one destiny—to be destroyed. It was the second of those two things that turned out to be crucial and the steady subversion from men like him that helped to make it happen. After Moeller's death, the June Club was succeeded by the Herrenklub, the gentlemanly conservative ambience of which provided a support group for von Papen, who in turn thought that he had found a suitable ruffian to clear the way for a return to the traditional ascendancy. Hitler, the suitable ruffian, could never have done it on his own. He could never have done it with all his party. He needed a climate of belief—the belief that Weimar was a problem requiring a solution. Having solved it, he was free to answer his version of the Jewish Question—the question that the intellectuals had fooled with on paper. Only the madmen among them had ever thought it needed to be answered with fire. But the sane ones had helped open the door for the avenger that the madmen had dreamed of.
It may seem unfair to condemn intellectuals who conspire to undermine vulgar democracy in favor of a refined dream for failing to foresee the subsequent nightmare. And Moeller was only one among many. But there were too many: That was the point. Too many well-read men combined to prepare the way for a pitiless hoodlum who despised them, and they even came to value him for being a hoodlum: for lacking their scruples, for being a drum of nature. Among the revolutionary conservative intellectuals, Jünger is the real tragic figure. Unlike Moeller, Jünger was condemned to live. He saw the light, but too late. In his notebooks he gradually de-emphasized his call for a conservative revolution led by men who had been "transformed in their being" by the experience of World War I. In 1943, in Paris, he was told the news about the extermination camps. He finally reached the conclusion that he had been staving off since the collapse of the Weimar Republic he had helped to undermine: One of the men whose being had been transformed by their experience of the Great War was Adolf Hitler. The quality Jünger valued most had turned out to be the only one he shared with the man he most despised.