On this dreary, drizzly, day in San Francisco, as I contemplate not meeting my rent, my thoughts turn to Hitler. Hitler spent about ten years as a homeless, or nearly homeless young man, in the slums of Vienna. While I do not identify with Hitler, I have nevertheless been fascinated by this horrible man. I am not alone. Sixty seven years after his suicide, he can be seen in movies, on tv, in books and magazines, and on youTube ranting about any topic you desire. Like Elvis, Hitler is everywhere, and in everything. He cast a horrible spell over mankind which has yet to dissipate, hard times attract his vengeful ghost, for he was shaped by harsh circumstances. He was able to place his mark upon the world, by sheer force of will. Unlike Hitler, I do not blame anyone for my circumstances, except perhaps myself. Historians have speculated that Hitler’s years as a tramp gave rise to his anti-Semitism. Is it true that extreme conditions can lead to extreme thinking? Yet I feel that historians have yet to get a grasp on Adolf Hitler. Even though there have been an enormous library of books about Hitler, the Nazis, or the Third Reich. In many respects, Hitler remains an enigma.
Hitler played the German people like a violin. He understood the yearning for a perfect state, with a perfect people. No more immorality, no more sickness, no more ugliness. A nation superior to all others, destined to rule over all others. Germany had descended into an ugly hellhole. Almost everyone was destitute, sick, and doing whatever they could to survive. Criminal behavior ran rampant in the urban areas. Hitler stood for a spiritual cleansing of society. He would create a sparkling clean, strong, vibrant Germany. Whereas the Nazis celebrated a supreme intolerance, the Jews had a more accepting, forgiving, tolerant attitude. The Jews understood human nature. Hitler despised human nature, and wished to create a new human. This human would be cruel, unforgiving, and the master of the universe. We are still mesmerized by that vision. It is appealing at times, to be uncaring. It is so much simpler, tidier, cleaner, than the messy business of loving each other and accepting our flawed humanity.
Yet Hitler stands apart from the nightmare he created. It is puzzling and disturbing that he characterized his role in history as that of a sleepwalker. He went about his horrific destiny with a strange detachment, claiming he only wanted to be a painter. Of course, I wonder how much of that is propaganda. He did not agree with the Nordic fantasies of Heinrich Himmler and the SS. He purposely modeled the Nazi party after the Catholic Church and the Masons. The Nazis tried to put an end to smoking, at least among their own ranks, to no avail. They championed a holistic lifestyle, filled with wholesome exercise and herbs. They gave us the Volkswagen. And the Holocaust. It is impossible to really get my head around what happened. I can react in revulsion to the meaningless death of an innocent Jew, but when it becomes millions, it becomes statistical. I suspect the same may have been true for Hitler as well. When a female admirer, visiting Berchtesgaden mentioned the treatment of the Jews to Hitler, he stormed out of the room, refusing to speak about it. He undoubtedly dealt with it in the abstract. But it is impossible to know. He declared in a speech in 1939, that he would eliminate the Jews if Germany went to war again. He referred back to that speech several times in meetings. So it is clear that he approved. The extent of his involvement beyond that approval is unclear.
In any case, the swastika still flies, in every bookstore, video store, comic book stand, and on the internet. It seems larger than history. We need to free ourselves of this dark enchantment, in order to become fully compassionate, and fully human. Ironically, the constant reminder of what happened, also keeps that dark dream alive. While we must not forget, we must also refuse to be tantalized and enchanted.