The Long View 2002-12-21: The Two Towers

I find it refreshing to look back to 2002 and remember Peter Jackson's accomplishment in the Two Towers. That movie was just about right, long, but the source material was long and beloved. The temptation of Boromir is masterfully done, and Helm's Deep was even better than I imagined it. Unfortunately, this massive success at turning at 1,000 page book into three long movies has meant that Jackson has moved on to turning a 300 page book into three long movies. Like George Lucas, Tom Clancy, and George R. R. Martin, Jackson has gotten big enough to have it exactly the way he wants it, which isn't necessarily good for his art.

If you want to see how it can be done differently, look at the career of Jerry Pournelle. Pournelle has had multiple New York Times best-sellers, but he still takes seriously the advice he got from Robert Heinlein on his first best-seller: be your own harshest editor. This usually means cutting and cutting and cutting. To be fair, Clancy [100 million] and Martin [60 million] have sold approximately an order of magnitude more books than Pournelle [10 million]. On the other hand, Richard Adams, who wrote Watership Down, sold 50 million copies, and his books aren't doorstops.

The Two Towers
 
I saw the second Tolkien movie this afternoon. Feeling is just beginning to return to the lower part of my body. Here are a few impressions:
The movie begins very abruptly, so much so that it took a while before I came out of the stupor induced by the half hour of coming attractions. The Two Towers makes just one concession to recapping the story, by having Frodo dream about Gandalf's fall into the crevasse in Moria. Unfortunately, one of the coming attractions was for a film that is apparently yet another remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth. I was briefly bewildered. I expected Frodo to say: “It was terrible, Sam. I saw Gandalf fall into a summer movie.”
The scriptwriters for all three Lord of the Rings films had an impossible task. Their principal audience consists of people who have already thought about the plot too much. Like me, they can recite dialogue from the books from memory. The screenplay therefore dare not depart arbitrarily from the books. On the other hand, the writers really do have to nip and tuck the story to make the films short enough to watch. And let's face it: key parts of the books are as chatty and actionless as a play by George Bernard Shaw.
Some of their compromises are better than others. For instance, Gandalf says, “The courtesy of your hall has lessened of late, Theoden King,” as soon as he enters the Golden Hall. That's a good line, but no one has yet had an opportunity to be rude to him. It no longer fits into the scene, which has become an exorcism. On the other hand, the writers spared us the trial of Smeagol before Faramir. Instead, they created an entirely new episode involving Faramir and Frodo, one that provides real suspense. It also gives the film a far edgier conclusion than the book has, despite the lack of a cliffhanger ending. (There is a total lack of giant spiders in this movie.) The film version of The Two Towers persuades us that Frodo is desperate, not just because of the external dangers he faces, but because he knows that he himself is unreliable. To the extent The Lord of the Rings is the memoir of a very junior officer of the First World War, that is what the story is all about.
The special effects are so good that you don't notice them. This film's battle sequences are wonders on two counts: they are visually interesting for reasons in addition to gore, and they make it possible to tell what is going on. As for other animations, there are super elephants that are as persuasive as any of the behemoths from Jurassic Park. I found the ents particularly interesting, because they are the only Tolkien creatures I could never visualize. Even the makers of The Two Towers could not make them biologically plausible. Nonetheless, they function excellently as characters, which is all you can expect.
And then there is Smeagol. As other reviews have noted, it's hard to call him “Gollum” after seeing this film. He is more animated in every sense of the word than any of the human actors. The film makers hit on precisely the right way to show which side of his dual personality is on top at any given time.
There are elements of the films which will no doubt endear them to Tolkien buffs for all time to come, but which may grate on the unconverted. Gimli the Dwarf is the designated comic relief, for instance, and it's a heavy burden to bear. Despite all the work that went into the sets for Edoras and Helms Deep, the computer-generated architecture remains the most believable. Also, although that New Zealand landscape remains spectacular even after six hours of film, it's starting to look, well, generic. Except for one green patch in the Shire, all Middle Earth seems to be covered with scrub grass and surrounded by alps.
None of this is a criticism, however. We can have every confidence that the War of the Ring will be brought to a satisfactory conclusion in 2003.
 
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Here is my review of The Fellowship of the Ring. Here is my review of The Return of the King.

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The Long View: The Fellowship of the Ring

I cannot remember the first time I read the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. I know I was very young, and I remember getting worn paperback copies from the local library's children's section. In that library, I remember a mural on the wall of Frodo and Sam's descent into Mordor from the tower of Cirith Ungol. I also remember my 4th, 5th, and 6th grade teacher, Dale Shewalter, would read to his class from the Lord of the Rings during our after-lunch storytime, although by this time I was already familiar with the story. I was of course immediately engrossed from the very first, and I have been ever since. The impact of these books on me is similar to the effect they had on John Reilly, but at a younger age.

I still maintain that Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings is the best book of the twentieth century. Even accounting for the many who found their way to Wicca instead of Tolkien's beloved Catholicism. These books are gifts that keep on giving, and will repay the reader no matter how many times you return to them.

Peter Jackson's Film of J.R.R. Tolkien's
The Lord of the Rings
Part One: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
 
 
Reviewed by John J. Reilly
 
 
Full Disclosure: Regular visitors to this site will know that I rarely review films, and in fact I rarely go to the cinema. This film, though, had to be an exception. "The Lord of the Rings" is one of the two books that influenced me most profoundly. I first read it thirty years ago in high school, entirely by accident and with no idea what I was letting myself in for. The trilogy dissolved my positivist intolerance for fantasy, but it also had the paradoxical effect of opening history and languages to me. I have memorized the details of the book. I often cite it like scripture. People like me want to see the trilogy set out fair and square, with no contradictions. Nonetheless, I can be reasonable on the subject. Really I can.
Now for the review.
I saw "The Fellowship of the Rings" on the Saturday afternoon after it premiered here in New Jersey. That meant the whole afternoon: three hours worth. It's one of those movies that you walk out of wondering who is president now.
In a way, the film is like David Lynch's adaptation of "Dune." Neither film is so much a freestanding story as an illustration of a book. The difference is that Jackson succeeded where Lynch failed. The "Fellowship" sets are perfect. That is exactly what Hobbiton looked like. Jackson got Isengard down to the last bitter spire. I had always known that elvish civilization favored Bavarian Art Nouveau. Now the Platonic ideal has been put on film.
The casting is fine, too. Elijah Wood perhaps looks a bit too much like an anime figure even without makeup, but his Frodo makes the movie. I don't know how they did it, but they made the hobbits look believably 3'6" in the same frames as the normal-sized characters. Special mention much be made of how they turned that great Welsh windbag, John Rhys-Davies, into a plausible five-foot-nothing Gimli the Dwarf. When Boromir (Sean Bean) offers to help Gimli cross a chasm by tossing him, Gimli fixes him with a ferocious stare and says: "Nobody tosses a dwarf!" Except for the occasional remarks about the effects of the hobbits' pipeweed, that is one of the few deliberately funny lines. This is probably just as well: a lesser director could have turned the film into "Time Bandits."
The morning of the day I saw the film, I heard Ian McKellen on National Public Radio express the earnest hope that he will not become "Gandalf" for the rest of his career. Be that as it may, he did Gandalf as I had always thought of the character, down to the accent. Christopher Lee, who plays the turncoat wizard Saruman, is 79, and might reasonably be expected not to have many more parts remaining to him. However, if he is remembered for his turn as Saruman, he will have little to complain of. He could become a bedtime children's boogey to rival Mad Baggins himself.
The burden the film bears is the vast amount of exposition the story requires. The film starts with a brief history of the Ring. "Brief" here means that it is no longer than an episode of the "Simpsons" without the commercials. Episodes from the book are necessarily excised. I, for one, particularly missed the adventure in the Old Forest. Further exposition is inserted at odd points in the story. To this end, Elrond gets one of Saruman's speeches. (Hugo Weaving's Elrond, incidentally, is almost as scary as Saruman. All elves look like they take cosmetic belladonna.) Some characters are missing, too, even when the incidents in which they appeared remain. Frankly, I do not regret the substitution of Arwen Elvenstar, played by Liv Tyler, for Glorfindel in the incident at the Rivendell Ford.
Still it is not enough. There is a discernible plot once the Hobbits get to Rivendell, but anyone who has not read the books is going to be confused about who these people are and why they are doing these alarming things. There is conversation in Elvish (Sindarin, presumably) interpreted by subtitles, but the film does nothing to excite the interest in history and language that Tolkien is famous for. The film has no way to convey the scale of Middle Earth. For all we can tell, Minas Tirith and Isengard are a few days' ride from Hobbiton. Still, we should remember that the work of establishing the context of the trilogy has been completed. The next two films can be almost pure action and still be perfectly faithful to the trilogy.
There is one essential way in which the movie fails the trilogy. People unfamiliar with the books have been asking, "What does a fantasy written fifty years ago have to say to the 21st century?" To that there are two answers.
The first is that, despite Tolkien's attempts to distance himself from an autobiographical interpretation of the trilogy, the fact is that the books are clearly informed by the experience of the world wars, particularly that of a British junior officer in the First World War. Like Tolkien as a young man, Frodo takes part in a nightmare crisis that he cannot escape and that neither he nor his world seems likely to survive. The first half of the 20th century will not be the last time people face such a crisis. The film captures Frodo's desperation constrained by duty very well.
The second answer is the trilogy's implicit model of history. In every age, evil takes another form. It can be defeated, and history allows some generations a holiday. However, we should not be surprised when the Shadow grows menacing again. It is hard to imagine a message more relevant to 2001. Nevertheless, I do not think that Jackson quite delivers it. The books make plain that the Quest of the Ring is just one chapter in the long struggle against the Shadow. That sense of historical depth may be beyond the ability of any film to communicate.
The flipside to this criticism is that the movie does things the books can't. You may not have given much thought to the ways that orcs can enter a dwarvish hall, but Jackson has. The cinematography of the green New Zealand landscape looks like the Celtic collective unconscious. (There is dreamy Celtic music throughout.) Most of the monsters may be derivative from other films, but if so, the selection is commendable. The balrog seems to be related to the amplified Id in "Forbidden Planet," to take one example. The ordinary orcs look rather like Evil's dimwitted legions in "Time Bandits," for another. The extraordinary orcs, the Uruk Hai, look to me like the deeply intimidating alien hunter in, I believe, "Predator." There are original horrors, of course, not least of which is Sauron's Eye.
"The Fellowship of the Ring" is not "Harry Potter." The fight scenes are not cartoonish. Rather the opposite: they seem to have been set up by someone who had paid close attention to "Saving Private Ryan." Parents with very small children should think twice about taking them to a film with so many realistic decapitations and dismemberments. Everyone else, though, should go to see this film instantly. It will make you a better person.
And what was the other book I mentioned at the beginning of this review that influenced me so profoundly? That book was "The Decline of the West," by Oswald Spengler, which I also read in high school. I have not heard that anyone is thinking about turning it into a movie. If you are, please contact me. I have some ideas about the exposition.
 
 
 
End
Here is a review of The Two Towers.
Here is a review of The Return of the King.
For an explanation of why "The Lord of the Rings" has a lot in common with the "Left Behind" novels, click here.

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The Long View: Hitler's Thirty Days to Power

More Nazi Germany alternative history from John. The occasion for his speculations this time is a sober historical analysis of the political fecklessness that brought Hitler to the Chancellorship of Germany in 1933. In short, the responsible adults in Germany felt that a dictatorship was a good idea, and they picked Hitler to keep the chair warm while they dickered about who it should be.

A moment of clarity on the part of any of the senior political figures involved gives us an excellent departure point for alternative history. The twentieth century was going to be a bad one in almost any conceivable history, but there were at least some better alternatives that might have been possible.

Hitler's Thirty Days to Power: January 1933
by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr.
Addison-Wesley, 1996
272 pages, $25.00
ISBN: 0-201-40714-0

 

 

There are any number of theories explaining why the Nazi regime was inevitable. Cultural or economic determinism seem to serve about as well for this purpose. Some historians have detected a peculiar flaw in German culture that made the country peculiarly susceptible to antisemitic fascism. (Daniel Goldhagen argued for a form of this interpretation in his "Hitler's Willing Executioners.") A widely-accepted view is that Hitler was a creature of German big business who just got a little out of hand once he got into office, though in fact support for this thesis is thin in the record. What these explanations have in common is the search for a cause worthy of the effect. Nazi Germany was, of course, a Big Thing, and so it seems reasonable that it should have a big cause.

This book by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., a Stille' professor of history at Yale most noted for his study of the role of big business in the advent of the Nazi regime, takes a wholly different approach. This is a day-by-day, indeed sometimes an hour-by-hour, account of the actions of the leaders of Germany during the weeks leading up to Hitler's appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933. By examining the negotiations that led to the fateful swearing-in ceremony in President Paul von Hindenburg's office, Turner purports to show that the advent of the Nazis to power was in fact largely a matter of dumb luck.

Turner does not deny the role of large, impersonal forces in the establishment of the Nazi regime. Certainly the economic depression of the 1930s and German cultural predilections made Nazi Germany possible. Turner's point is that they did not make it inevitable, or even particularly likely. Unusually for a serious historian, but with more than enough justification in this case, he gives us a long speculation on what in fact was the most probable outcome at the time. We are thus treated to an examination of ten or twenty years of German history that never happened, but that would have happened had it not been for the folly and incompetence of three or four German politicians. As Turner points out, the twentieth century without Hitler would have been a very different time. Still, one may wonder whether it would have been quite as different as he suggests.

Since the beginning of the Depression three years before November, 1932, the Nazis had seemed like the wave of the future. They were a negligible sect at the time of Hitler's release from Landsberg prison in 1925, where he had been sentenced after attempting a farcical coup. When the brief prosperity of the Weimar period ended, however, the Nazi party changed the political map of Germany. They absorbed many of the adherents of the smaller right-wing parties, making themselves the chief vehicle for protest votes. The established parties, the Communists, the Social Democrats and the Catholic Center, seemed helpless to cope, or even to match the Nazis in innovative campaign technique.

The acme of Nazi voting success came in the July parliamentary elections, when their percentage of the vote reached the high thirty percent range. This made them the largest party in the federal Reichstag, though far short of a majority. The chancellor at that time, Heinrich Bruening, was a respected, fatally stubborn member of the minority Catholic Center. He was also a presidential appointee, since he could not count on majority legislative support. Under the Weimar constitution, it was possible for a chancellor to conduct a government with just the backing of the president's emergency powers, provided the Reichstag did not actually return a vote of no-confidence against him. Eventually, however, his policies of fiscal austerity caused his fall from office. After Bruening, no chancellor was able to count even on the toleration of a parliamentary majority. Thus, by the summer of 1932, Germany had already ceased to be a functioning parliamentary democracy. Law was increasingly made by President Hindenberg's emergency decrees. A more explicit form of dictatorship seemed not just reasonable, but inevitable.

Then there was a pause. Nazi electoral success in early '30s did not depend, as many people charged at the time, on subsidies by bankers and industrialists eager to set up a dictatorship friendly to capitalism. The Nazis did have some wealthy sympathizers, notably the great industrialist, Fritz Thyssen. Still, to a surprising degree they were a shoestring operation, supported by generous membership contributions and the time and labor of their members (many of whom, after all, were not otherwise employed at the time). The problem with this kind of organization, of course, is that it is a kind of pyramid scheme. As long as the membership keeps growing, more money comes in to fund the drive for new members. When growth falters, however, the whole structure is in danger of collapse. That is very much what happened to the Nazi party when its share of the popular vote dropped by over 10% in the next round of elections in November.

Why did this happen? The simplest answer may be that their natural share of the electorate was about a third. There have been many profiles of the "Nazi voter." This creature was more likely to be Protestant than Catholic, more likely rural than urban, more likely to run a farm or small business than to work in a factory. The Nazi electorate was even disproportionately female. In any event, the percentage of the population likely to find Hitler and his organization attractive was large but limited. Their ability to attract protest votes outside their natural constituencies diminished after they became the largest parliamentary party. The Nazis then, as far as the public was concerned, had become part of the establishment, and so had to take part of the blame for the continuing dysfunction of the government and the economy.

Though still the largest party in the Reichstag, they no longer looked like the inevitable party of the future, and members who had already devoted a great deal of time and money to the Nazi cause began to drift away. Nazi stormtroopers took to the streets, not to intimidate their opponents, but to beg donations from passersby. Farsighted observers began to surmise that the window of opportunity for the Nazis had closed, since by the end of 1932 the German economy was plainly beginning to recover. All that the leaders of Germany had to do was exercise a little prudence and common sense for another six months. By then the political crisis occasioned by the Depression would have been solved.

Unfortunately, neither prudence nor common sense were conspicuous features of Franz von Papen, President Hindenberg's next appointee after the dismissal of Bruening. Whatever else the November elections may have proven, they left the Reichstag more fractured than ever. Papen was another member of the Center Party, but unlike Bruening could not count on their support, since he had accepted the chancellorship without the party's permission. He did little to any purpose during his few weeks in office, though he did succeed in alienating labor by various decrees. He toyed with schemes for a temporary dictatorship. Since these would probably not have worked but would have required the cooperation the president, their chief effect would have been to deprive the Weimar Republic of what little legitimacy it still possessed. His chief accomplishment, one that would prove fatal for Germany and the world, was in gaining the lasting trust and affection of President Hindenberg and his son, Oskar. Without a functioning Reichstag, Hindenberg was in effect the government of Germany. That fact, and the fact that the old man was likely to take any advice that Papen gave him, were the decisive elements in the events of January, 1933.

The chancellor during this period was Kurt von Schleicher, a career officer and longtime minister of defense who retained that portfolio even while chancellor. For years, he had been regarded as the power behind the throne of German politics. He had arranged for the appointment and dismissal of both Bruening and Papen. He was largely responsible for long-term foreign policy and strategic planning, areas where he met with some success. Despite the ministerial instability of the Weimar era, the Republic had succeeded in freeing itself from most of the onerous conditions imposed by the Allies at the end of the First World War. These things were achieved in no small measure because of the continuity in policy engineered by Schleicher and his colleagues. However, as Turner remarks, Schleicher seems to have "risen to the level of his incompetence" by actually becoming chancellor himself.

Schleicher lacked the sycophantic skills of Papen, so necessary to staying on the right side of Hindenberg. He deluded himself into believing that he did not need them, since he had an elaborate scheme for gaining the acquiescence, if not quite the active support, of a majority of the Reichstag. His plan had too many moving parts. It involved splitting off the moderate wing of the Nazi Party under Gregor Strasser and getting at least some labor support from the Catholic trade unions. When these things failed to materialize, all he could suggest to the displeased Hindenberg was that Reichstag should be dissolved and no new elections scheduled, despite the constitutional requirement for elections within 60 days. As Turner also remarks, a better general would have prepared a more plausible line of retreat.

This explains why Schleicher was kicked out, but how did Hitler get in? Turner's answer is that the proximate cause of the advent of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship was the spite of Franz von Papen. Papen was humiliated by the way his old friend Schleicher had engineered his removal from office. Papen, and Hindenberg, would have preferred another Papen chancellorship when it became clear that Schleicher could not muster the parliamentary support he had promised. However, even Papen had to acknowledge that such a step would simply have returned the political state of the country to what it had been in November, when Papen's attempts to rule in opposition to the Reichstag had provoked threats of civil war. Very well then, Papen made it his business to find someone else to replace Schleicher, someone Papen could be sure of controlling. He hit upon what seemed the obvious solution, the hapless ideologue Hitler.

Probably no one else could have prevailed on Hindenberg to appoint Hitler chancellor. As leader of the largest parliamentary party since July, he had of course been the obvious candidate to be asked to form a conventional majority government. Despite the notorious dislike that Hindenberg had taken to Hitler, the president had in fact offered him just this opportunity in the fall of 1932. Hitler declined. Part of the reason was practical. The Nazis were, was we have seen, far from having a majority themselves, and the closest thing to a parliamentary ally they could claim was the absurd Alfred Hugenberg's German-National Party, which tended to get smaller in each election as the Nazis ate them alive. The deeper reason, however, was that Hitler did not want to be beholden to any parliamentary coalition. Perhaps he would not really have been happy even with a majority Nazi Reichstag. What he wanted was to be a presidential chancellor, like Bruening and Papen and Schleicher. This would permit him to act quickly and radically, without reference even to what his own party thought. Though it seemed irrational, he held out for these terms from the disastrous parliamentary elections of November through the disintegration of the Schleicher government in January. Papen saw to it that Hitler got just those terms. In return, Papen got the meaningless post of deputy chancellor in the new cabinet and the appointment of various make-weight aristocrats to other ministerial posts. Hitler's cabinet, of course, never actually functioned.

Turner spends several pages assigning praise and blame to the non-Nazis who contrived to bring Hitler to power. The most guilty, in his estimation, was President von Hindenberg himself. Turner finds no basis for the widespread belief that the mind of the octogenarian president was fading in early 1933. Rather, Turner asserts that Hindenberg had as much vanity as integrity. He favored ministers who would flatter him and shield him from all criticism. He routinely dispensed with his presidential chancellors when they needed his authority to take unpopular measures. Maybe his job was too much for a man of his age, but he had sought and won reelection in 1932. It was no one's fault he was president but his own.

Papen's guilt, and that of the other people around the president, is perhaps mitigated by the fact that the chancellorship of the Weimar Republic had long since ceased to be an altogether serious job. Parliamentary and, later, presidential chancellors routinely replaced each other after a few months. There seemed little reason to believe that a Hitler government would prove to be any more durable. Papen hoped to replace Hitler in short order. (For that matter, the Communists looked forward to a Nazi regime as "capitalism's last throw," which might be followed by a revolutionary situation.) Turner reviews the scant media attention given to Hitler's appointment at the time. Hardly anyone seemed to realize that Hitler was not a normal politician, and that his government would not be a normal government.

Nevertheless, informed people knew that the Weimar constitutional system could no longer be made to work. Some kind of authoritarian regime was widely expected, one that might retain the form of the Republic but that would in fact be a modified dictatorship. To some extent, this was just what Hitler did. He ruled on the strength of an "enabling act," passed in March by a Reichstag denuded of its recalcitrant members. There never was such a thing as a "Nazi Constitution." Hitler was not the person that the German establishment wanted to take these steps: people like Papen simply wanted him to keep the chancellor's seat warm for the real dictator, once they had selected him. Folly of this magnitude is rare in any land or age.

This brings us to the might-have-beens. Turner sometimes seems to suggest that it was the world's tragedy that Schleicher did not aspire to become military dictator himself. Turner is sure that Schleicher or someone like him could have done this, parlaying an initial appointment as presidential chancellor into a durable post-democratic regime. According to Turner, nothing like the Second World War would then have occurred, either in Europe or the Pacific. (Turner takes care to point out that Japanese expansionism in the '30s and '40s was predicated on the preoccupation of the European colonial powers with their own security troubles, the chief of which was Nazi Germany.) Had there been no Nazis, Turner believes, a revanchist Germany would have fought a war to recover the corridor to East Prussia from Poland, perhaps with the cooperation of the Soviet Union. Aside from that, however, he does not think that the other elements of the Nazi agenda would have occurred. The annexation of Austria, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and above all the extermination of the Jews were Nazi preoccupations. No other German government would have conceived of such things, much less attempted them.

Eventually, of course, the military regime would have ended, perhaps as the Franco regime did in Spain, without much fuss. With eastern Europe unconquered by the Soviet Union, there would have been no occasion for the Cold War. For that matter, atomic weapons would have gone uninvented, since the Manhattan Project was specifically conceived to stop Hitler. All in all, Turner suggests, we have been living in far from the best of all possible worlds, since what actually happened was far from what was most likely to have happened.

Maybe, but if we are speculating on this level, then let us speculate further. Perhaps the total sum of human misery in the world could have been greatly reduced if a few meetings in January of 1933 had gone less well, or if certain politicians had achieved their adolescent dream and gotten into art school. On the other hand, perhaps there is a law of the conservation of catastrophe in human history. Perhaps if there had been no Nazi regime, the Communist assessment of Germany's future might have been correct. A Soviet Germany would proven just as disruptive for Europe as the Nazi one was. Even the war against Russia might have occurred in such a case, since the USSR and Red Germany would have been in immediate competition for leadership of the world communist movement.

More plausible than a Communist revolution in Germany, however, would have been the civil war that many had come to fear by the end of 1932. In addition to the Nazis, the Communists and the Social Democrats all had substantial fighting forces, more than enough to give Germany's small post-Versailles army something to worry about. (For that matter, the army would have found a formidable foe even in the Prussian police.) Despite an improving economy, the Weimar party system still might not have been salvageable. Schleicher was not anxious to become military dictator, perhaps, because he knew that establishing such a regime would have been more easily said than done. Hitler could do it because he had a substantial party behind him. Schleicher, in contrast, could have relied on nothing but the state's institutional authority. It is easy to imagine Germany unraveling rather like Spain did a few years later. The Nazis might then have succeeded in fighting their way to power, as Nazis like Ernst Roehm had intended all along.

For that matter, one wonders whether a rightist dictatorship in Germany would have been as prudent as Turner suggests. The historian Fritz Fischer, remember, started a famous "battle of the historians" in the 1960s by arguing, plausibly, that Imperial Germany had entertained hegemonic ambitions comparable to those of the Nazi regime. Even without a Blitzkrieg into France, a German invasion of Poland could still have set off a general European war in stages, in something like the scenario H.G. Wells describes in his 1933 novel, "Things to Come." There were many landmines strewn across Europe in those years. Maybe not only Hitler could have set them off.

All of this is simply to suggest that some kind of Second World War was fairly likely even without the Nazis. The First World War had ended in a truce, a pause for a breath that could not be held forever. Nevertheless, one does not doubt that Turner's basic intuition is correct. The Nazis were not a normal political phenomenon, and the war they waged did not have normal goals. The Holocaust did not have to happen, and even the conventional features of a second round of world war need not have been so widespread or so devastating as what happened in fact. Taken in this way, Turner's excursion into alternate history holds a valuable insight for statesmen. Even if you can't be blamed for preventing the bad from happening, you can be blamed for failing to prevent he worst.

 

 



Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View: Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clarivoyant

This is exactly the kind of story everyone loves. Nazis. Magic. Glimpses of an alternative future that might have been. But there are hints of something more. A secret Jew who was prominent in Nazi Germany. A stage magician and entertainer who seemed to make uncannily accurate predictions, at least some of the time. An finally, the character behind all of these things was first murdered, and then surreptitiously dropped from history. Makes you go "hmm..."

Erik Jan Hanussen:
Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant
By Mel Gordon
Feral House, 2001
273 Pages, $24.95
ISBN: 0-922915-68-7

 

The subject of this biography is scarcely obscure. He was a major figure in the European magic-show circuit in the 1920s, and the subject of sensational accounts in the American pulp magazines of the 1930s. Tales of his mysterious relationship to Hitler, capped by his brutal assassination in March of 1933, reached a more respectable audience as war approached. Articles about him appeared in the better magazines, and he figured in several novels. A contract was actually signed to do a major Hollywood biopic about him. Then silence about Erik Jan Hanussen descended quite suddenly, in September of 1942. There were no more major treatments in print, and the plans for a movie were shelved. Much later, interest in Hanussen revived in Europe. Some minor films were even made about him. Nonetheless, he dropped out of the popular memory of the English-speaking world.

This biography may help to end that anomaly. The author is Mel Gordon, a professor of theater at the University of California at Berkeley. He has written on the culture of the Weimar period before, in "Voluptuous Panic." Readers who have fond memories of Otto Friedrich's "Before the Deluge" are in for too much fun.

"Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant" is sprinkled with small, apt photos and graphics from the Weimar era, as well as from the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Hanussen was born and raised. There are also short articles by Hanussen and his contemporaries, in translation, about stage-show magic and psychic phenomena. Most of all, though, there is the improbable tale of Hanussen himself, the secret Jew whose life is a cautionary tale about what happens to boys who run away to join the circus.

The subject of all this mystification was born Herschmann-Chaim Steinschneider on June 2, 1889, less than two months after Hitler and not so far away, in the cell of a police precinct in Vienna. (Why there? It's a long story.) His parents were marginal theater-people. Herschmann (usually "Hermann" or, later, "Harry") left home at an early age, to seek his own career in small-town theaters and circuses. The term for such a person is "Jenischmann," the Middle European equivalent of "carney."

Harry's talents extended beyond the carnival. As a young man, he worked in Vienna as a songwriter and tabloid journalist; the latter activity seems to have involved some polite extortion of prominent people who did not want their private lives exposed. Still, he was essentially an entertainer, a function he continued to perform in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War.

It was because of the more upscale audiences that he encountered during the war that he adopted the stage-name "Erik Jan Hanussen." He took that identity with varying levels of seriousness, sometimes billing himself as "Hanussen-Steinschneider." On the other hand, there was a time when he claimed to be a Danish aristocrat. Usually he was content to be thought of as an ordinary Dane, though he spoke no Danish. He managed to diddle his Nazi admirers for a while with the story that he was a Danish orphan who had been raised by Bohemian Jews. In any case, the Hanussen name is how history knows him.

Even before the war, Hanussen had begun to specialize in mind reading, hypnotism and fortune telling. He was good at these things, in the several ways of it. One of the merits of this book is the explanations it gives, some of them provided by Hanussen himself, about how mind-reading acts work. This involved such things as information discretely gathered from the audience before the performance, or verbal and body-language codes used between the psychic and his aides. Some of the art is no more than the skilful playing of the game of "20 Questions." However, especially when the psychic was using an audience member to lead him to a hidden object, it also involved "muscle reading." This is essentially a hands-on form of the anxiety-detection that polygraphs do. Supposedly, it can be done without physical contact, simply by closely observing the subject. The effect would look like telepathy. If the technique works as described, it would be rather like the wiles of the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert's "Dune."

On the other hand, though Hanussen was, for the most part, clearly just a stage magician doing stage-magician tricks, there were times when he himself thought there was more to it. There are gray areas in the work of a magician that require intuition, and at these he was unusually convincing. He described strangers and their history with an accuracy that was hard to account for. He was also good with the future, at least if you look at his prophecies selectively. His accurate predictions of public things, like the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the timing of World War II, might have been no more than keen political insight. On the other hand, there is a great treasury of anecdotes about correct forecasts of events in the lives of private persons, from auto accidents to murders, that he should not have been able to foresee and that he, probably, could not have caused himself.

Hanussen's career was not confined to the stage. Among his other pursuits, he had a lively and well-publicized practice as a "psychic detective." He seems to have been no worse than the police at finding lost people and things, even those that he had not stolen himself. In one famous case, he nabbed the culprit at the Austrian central bank who had been stealing freshly printed money. This secured him the public gratitude of respectable officials, who ever after attested to his uncanny gifts. Hanussen, in fact, managed to collect a long list of testimonials from businessmen, politicians and psychologists. The last group tested his psychic abilities repeatedly. Their conclusions were often along the lines of yes, he does cheat, but maybe not all the time.

All of this stood him in good stead during his prolonged trial in the Czechoslovakian town of Leitmeritz, were local officials charged him with fraud in such a way that they would have had to disprove the reality of psychic phenomena in order to win a conviction. Hanussen gained so much credit from his acquittal in what was called "the last witchcraft trial in Europe" that one wonders just why the prosecutor chose to pursue the case.

Other adventures include his work as a film producer, usually with himself playing Dr. Caligari-like roles. One long diversion, however, was a stint as an impresario. In that capacity, he was the long-time nemesis of the Zionist strongman, Sigmund Breitbart. Determined to show that anyone could do the feats of strength and invulnerability that Breitbart displayed on stage, Hanussen designed and promoted a Strong Woman act. The performer, "Marta Fara," bit through chains, lay down on a bed of nails and survived being run over by a wagon. The act played well in Europe, and even in America, though unscrupulous Yankees fleeced Hanussen there. The problem was that the premise of the act was wrong; "Marta Fara" suffered broken ribs and lost teeth. Three women played the role at various times, all departing to nurse their injuries and accuse Hanussen of tyranny and abuse.

Though he had had some experience of Berlin as young performer, it was only in the late Weimar period that Hanussen made the city the focus of his work. He appeared on stage, he did psychic consulting, he mixed with the wealthy and gullible. From about 1930, he became a fixture of Berlin life. Hanussen ran a considerable publishing business, specializing in newspapers and magazines that dealt with scandals and astrology. These were not partisan publications. Hanussen himself seems to have had no politics. However, in 1932, he began predicting that Hitler would soon become chancellor and that a rightwing dictatorship would ensue.

The amount of contact that Hanussen had with Hitler is a matter of dispute, as is the timing of any meetings they may have had. Hanussen, typically, bragged about his Nazi contacts; he almost certainly exaggerated them. Gordon cautiously says that we can be fairly sure that Hanussen and Hitler met more than once in 1932. This would be quite enough to make Hanussen an interesting figure, but I should point out that other accounts are willing to credit a very strong connection. According to John Toland in his biography, "Adolf Hitler," Hitler and Hanussen first met as early as 1926, at the home of a wealthy socialite:

 

"…Hanussen's first words were: 'If you are serious about entering politics, Herr Hitler, why don't you learn how to speak?' A master of body language, Hanussen explained that Hitler was not taking advantage of movement to emphasize his words. In the next few years, so Müllern-Schönhausen claimed, they continued to meet briefly and Hanussen not only taught him the tricks of elocution but also advised him on the selection of his associates."

As with so much about Hanussen, that's a good story that would be even better if we knew it were true. There are better stories yet, however. Consider this poem, which Toland says that Hanussen presented to Hitler on New Year's day, 1933, and which he assures us was "publicized and ridiculed":

The way to the goal is still blocked,
The right helpers have not yet gathered,
But in three days—from three countries,
Through the bank everything will change!
And then on the day before the end of the month,
You stand at your goal and a turning point!
No eagle could carry you on your path,
The termites had to gnaw your way!
To the ground falls what was rotten and withered.
It already creaks in the beams!

This poem correctly forecasts Hitler's accession to the chancellorship on January 30. The phrase "through the bank" is a literal translation of "Durch die Bank," but the phrase also means "completely, across the board." In any case, Hitler had already received an invitation for negotiations at the home of a prominent banker about the possibility of forming a government. It is not at all unlikely that Hanussen knew that. The interesting thing is that the Hitler chancellorship was not a done deal until late January. As Henry Ashby Turner emphasizes in Hitler's Thirty Days to Power, there was no sentiment in the German establishment for a Nazi government. Even on the Right, the consensus was that the influence of the Nazis had already peaked. However, at the beginning of 1933, there was a particularly intractable cabinet crisis. All the serious candidates cancelled each other out. Hitler was chosen by President Hindenburg's advisor, Franz von Papen, as part of a petty scheme that was supposed to bring Papen himself to power. (Actually back to power: Papen had led a brief and unsuccessful government in 1932.) All of this was purely hypothetical at the beginning of 1933, however, so Hanussen surely deserves credit for foresight, if not necessarily clairvoyance.

This brings us to an incident that could not have been foreseen by ordinary political analysis. On the evening of February 26, the day before the Reichstag Fire, Hanussen held a memorable séance at his Palace of the Occult. Gordon gives this account:

 

"Hanussen asked her what she saw. Maria closed her eyes. She saw red. The master Clairvoyant wanted to know more. Could the red be flames? Maria straightened up. Yes, the red shapes could be flames. Flames from a great house…The Dane filled in the girl's prophetic image. 'There are fires. I see a Great House is being consumed by flames."

Noting that Hanussen's papers had for months been forecasting "the destruction" of the Reichstag in connection with parliamentary elections, Gordon waxes incredulous. While not dismissing the possibility that Hanussen may have really foreseen the fire, he prefers two other possibilities: either Hanussen had learned from his Nazi contacts that arson was planned, or he set the fire himself. We are told that there was some evidence linking Hanussen to the fire, but it has been destroyed. At least one of those who might have been in the know committed murder-suicide in public. This happened under a chandelier, as Hanussen had predicted many years before. That was a conspiracy with style.

The Reichstag Fire was certainly convenient for the new Nazi government. It permitted the declaration of a state of emergency from which the country never really emerged until 1945. Still, Gordon ought to have pointed out that most historians today are persuaded that the fire really was set by a single arsonist, the young Dutchman and former Communist, Maurinus van der Lubbe. The story that the Nazis set the fire themselves was the Communist Party line all over the world; it was being promulgated before the details of the incident were known.

Taking note of old accounts of Lubbe's distracted demeanor at trial, Gordon plays with the hypothesis that Lubbe may have been suffering from post-hypnotic suggestion. Maybe Hanussen, in collaboration with the Nazis, had hypnotized the young man, either to set the fire, or to take the blame for it. Again, that's a good story. It's probably too good a story, even for Hanussen-Steinschneider.

Hanussen's assassination was "over determined," as historians say of an event that has so many sufficient causes that it is hard to pick just one. He had no lack of professional and personal enemies. He eventually made peace with Breitbart, but Berlin was also full of jealous husbands. In later years, he had acquired political enemies on the Left. At first they disliked him because they believed that magic was reactionary; his later association with the Nazis outraged them. They were chief among the ill wishers who made sure that information about Hanussen's Jewish background found its way into Nazi dossiers. Hanussen's lethal error, however, seems to have been lending money to senior members of the SA.

Here is the version of Hanussen's end that Gordon tells. A squad of SA picked up Hanussen from his apartment on the evening of March 24. They demanded all documentation related to the debts owed by important Nazis. Then he was taken away, interrogated for several hours, and released. Returning home, he made panicked calls to friends and family. He was arrested again early the next morning.

Hanussen's body was found two weeks later, beaten and shot and partially eaten by vermin. His enterprises quickly evaporated, including the astrology sheets. Indeed, the next year the government banned fortune telling and most aspects of the commercial occult. It is reasonably certain that the Nazis did this, not because they did not take such things seriously, but because they took them very seriously indeed. The horoscope for Hitler that had appeared in Hanussen's publications was banned; later astrologers during the Nazi era fudged the hour of birth in order to suggest a less catastrophic end.

Then, of course, there is the wizard's final prophecy. Gordon supplies the text of a note that Hanussen is supposed to have written on that final evening, to an alienated show-business partner. It appeared in the May 1942 issue of "Redbook Magazine":

"Let's be friends again at the end…I always thought that business about the Jews was just an election trick of theirs. It wasn't. Read carefully what my colleague Daniel has to say on the subject, in Chapters 11 and 12. Count the days, but only after they have destroyed a hundred temples in a single day—that's the time to start counting. The first date you get will mark the fall of the man who wants to become ruler of the world by brute force. And the second date will mark the day on which will occur the triumphal entry of the victors. This is my farewell to you."

The passage he was probably thinking of has been the hope of the persecuted for over 2000 years:

"From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the horrible abomination is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred and ninety days. Blessed is the man who has patience and perseverance until one thousand three hundred and thirty-five days."

Daniel 12: 11, 12.

The date that leaps to mind from the letter is November 9, 1938, known to history as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Since the date of publication of the letter is fairly late, 1942, it may well be that Hanussen did not write it, and that the real author was thinking of Kristallnacht, too. In 1942, that meant a comforting prophecy of a fairly short war. On the other hand, maybe Hanussen did write the letter, and, not altogether unreasonably, applied to Hitler the familiar prophecy of the downfall of the Man of Sin. Readers may entertain themselves by working out their own interpretation. Hanussen's shade can still keep people guessing, even after all these years.


Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View: Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: Law and the Inner Self Book Review

The Long LifetimeAnd for the final member of the trimumvirate of the American century, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The short-hand John used for Holmes and the times he lived through was "The Long Lifetime". Holmes was born just before the American Civil War, and lived to see the Great War. Most of the decisive events in modernity occurred during his lifetime, and he caused at least a couple of them personally.

Holmes is known best for his oracular opinions from the bench, but he is also one of the foremost scholars of American law. Holmes set Constitutional Law on the course it still follows, although in practice that course has come to subvert what Holmes was trying to do.

The common law and the natural law had become an abomination in Holmes' time. They were used to justify the exploitation of workers and the destruction of the environment in the name of contract and property rights with which the legislature could not interfere. Holmes great mission in life was to find a rational and defensible legal philosophy that could correct these abuses.

He did precisely that, formulating a doctrine of legal pragmatism that holds great influence. The law is the embodiment of the will of the sovereign, which in the United States of his time was the People through the mechanism of the Legislature. There is no eternal truth to be found in the law, only the felt need of the moment.  However, it was also a doctrine of legal positivism, that held that that anything not specifically forbidden by the Constitution was permissible to the Legislature. The "discovery" of a right was wholly alien to the law as Holmes saw it. The text of the Constitution mattered very much to him. In a sense, both the current Left and Right in American law are descendants of Holmes.

With Teddy Roosevelt, who nominated him to the bench, and with Woodrow Wilson, whose policies he helped implement, Justice Holmes fixed us on the path upon which we find ourselves. Everything since has been the working out of the implications of what those men wrought.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: Law and the Inner Self
by G. Edward White
Oxford University Press, 1993
$18.95, 628 pp.
ISBN: 0-19-510128-6

Justice Faustus

 

Future historians may well decide that the decisive years in the life of Western civilization were the period from around 1860 to 1945. In retrospect, for instance, the string of great wars from the American Civil War through the end of World War II seems almost like a logical progression, one that may have settled permanently the geopolitical structure of the West. Perhaps more important, those were the years when the dreams of the Enlightenment achieved tangible form. Democracy became a universally accepted principle, as did wholly secular models of human history and of the natural world. ("The Origin of Species" was published in 1859.) Some of these concrete forms were a little disconcerting, of course. Socialism, a logical development of Rousseau's General Will, in practice came to mean the sort of command economy created by Germany and Great Britain to fight World War I, and which Lenin simply made permanent. The year 1945 was no more the end of history than was 1989. However, far more than the latter date, that year marks the point by which certain choices had been made. The molten possibilities of the Enlightenment had become frozen in forms that would be definitive of the future. Everything that has happened since, perhaps, has been just the working out of the implications of those forms.

The decisive choices thus were made during what amounts to a single, long lifetime. Oliver Wendell Holmes's long adult life almost matched it. In the field of American jurisprudence, many of the final forms are his. He, perhaps more than anyone else, broke American legal thinking of its natural law habits and enshrined positivism as the only respectable philosophy of law. He quite literally wrote the book on legal pragmatism. He provided the theoretical framework that made it possible for the federal government to create the kind of "soft" command economy typical of twentieth century states. He made it possible for labor unions to carry out class war in the courts rather than in the streets. He turned the First Amendment's freedom of the press clause from a dead letter to a premise of American culture. Also, he was never what he seemed.

I picked up this book with some trepidation because the subtitle, "Law and the Inner Self," suggested that I might be in for another long, tendentious psychobiography. The fear was misplaced. This is a lawyer's book, written by a legal historian at the University of Virginia. (Among other accolades, it won the America Bar Association's "Silver Gavel Award.") The biography is primarily concerned with the subject's ideas, not his supposed mental problems. With the one exception we will get to in a moment, the biographical material is well integrated into this story. Particularly enlightening is the discussion of the probable effect which the young, admiring Progressives associated with the magazine, "The New Republic," had on Holmes's views regarding freedom of speech issues. Malicious persons have sometimes suggested that the mark of a legal mind is the ability to see distinctions that aren't there, and sometimes it seemed to this reviewer that White was finding contradictions in Holmes's court opinions that could have been resolved by a slightly less suspicious reading. Well, these are the '90s, after all, so a bit of deconstruction is only to be expected. Still, the book provides a panoramic window into one of the great transformations in the history of jurisprudence.

Born in 1841, Holmes was the contemporary and friend of Henry Adams, William and Henry James, and other post-Transcendental New England luminaries he was destined to outlive by a decade or more. He was the son of a famous Boston Brahmin, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who abandoned medical practice for a successful career as a lecturer and essayist. (Among other accomplishments, he coined the term, "anaesthesia.") Holmes the younger served with distinction in the Civil War. There may have been other junior Union officers who fought in the Seven Days Peninsular Campaign, at Antietam, and (in a skirmish) near Chancellorsville and lived to tell about it. Still, this particular long-boned Yankee seems to have been singularly indestructible. After his third wound, he took the hint and applied for a staff job. This did not get him wholly out of harm's way; the narrative in this book suggests that the only time he was brave to any purpose in the course of the war was when he outrode a Confederate patrol while carrying a staff message. However, the transfer did at least preserve him from leading an infantry platoon during the Battle of the Wilderness. This, and the fact that he did not reenlist when his three year enlistment ended in the summer of 1864, leads White to speculate at length that Holmes suffered from "survivor guilt" for the rest of life. Maybe he did. However, if so, it was one of those insidious syndromes whose chief symptom was the total suppression of any direct evidence for it in the subject's later life.

In any event, Holmes survived to become a prominent member of the Massachusetts bar and, on his numerous vacation trips to Europe, a notable ornament of London society. (Predictably, the young Henry Adams at the American legation helped to orchestrate the introductions). White is cautiously agnostic about Holmes's private life, though we are treated to quite a lot of flirtatious correspondence, particularly with one Lady Castledown, a member of the Irish "Ascendancy." Homes married Fanny Bowditch Dixwell in 1872, apparently happily for both parties. She was a somewhat reclusive woman who declined to accompany Holmes on all but one or two of his European excursions. They never had children, a fact that probably requires no explanation beyond the fact they married in their early thirties and Fanny suffered from bouts of scarlet fever. Holmes was, as we will see, a great believer in eugenics and family planning, but he was unlikely to have been of the opinion that his were among the bloodlines that needed to be discontinued.

There are two traditional ways for an ambitious legal practitioner to make a name for himself: politics and scholarship. Holmes, who was very ambitious indeed, embraced the latter with fierce determination. In 1881 Holmes published "The Common Law," based on the Lowell Lectures he had delivered the year before. Though more praised than read, the book is unique in being simultaneously a history of the common law of England and America, a theory of why it had evolved as it had, and a philosophy of what law is. The next year he joined the Harvard law faculty, a special endowment having been created to support his professorship. To the delight of Harvard-haters for all time, he decided in the course of an afternoon in late 1882 to abandon Harvard in order to accept the unexpected offer of an appointment as an associate justice to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. His Harvard colleagues found out about his decision from the newspapers. He served on that court for 20 years, rising eventually to be Chief Justice. He turned out short, compelling, but sometimes rather Delphic opinions on the nut-and-bolts questions that take up most of any court's time.

President Theodore Roosevelt, apparently mislead by the militaristic rhetoric of Holmes's extra-judicial statements into believing Holmes to be a congenial jingo, appointed him to be an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court in 1902. Always hardworking and never a difficult colleague, he was a respected but slightly obscure figure until the 1920s, when he became the darling of Progressives, civil libertarians and the labor movement. In his 80s, he became a national figure for the first time. Then and for decades afterward, he was the "Yankee from Olympus," the "great dissenter," even "..the greatest legal intellect in the history of the English-speaking world," in the opinion of his Supreme Court successor, Benjamin Cardozo. With his brilliant epigrammatic prose style and fearsome moustaches, he joined Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin as an archetypical American.

Though he looked like God and seemed nearly old enough for the job, he was not actually immortal. His work on the court began to fall off in his last judicial term or two, perhaps because of a slight stroke. He was prevailed upon to retire early in 1932, though he remained perfectly lucid for most purposes until his death in 1935 after a brief illness. Fanny, his wife of 57 years, had died in 1929. He often seemed lonely in the final years, though throughout the period he was continually attended by a parade of the Great and the Good from Harvard and Washington, including FDR himself. He was also attended by a law clerk, a young Harvard law graduate, even after he had ceased to serve on the court. The hiring of Supreme Court law clerks, usually law school graduates eager for this most prestigious of post-graduate work, was another of his innovations.

If the legal systems of Europe based on Roman law are like the French language, all codified by some Academy and with, in principle, a right answer to every stylistic question, the common law of England grew up rather like the English language. Some authorities were more prestigious than others and there were general points on which everyone could agree, but the common law, like the language of the people who lived under it, allowed for numerous decision-makers and incremental innovations, which might survive in practice or be rejected. Judges made the common law, basing their opinions on the opinions of other judges, citing principles so ancient that the memory of man ran not to the contrary. Even today, when most important areas of law have been summarized in civil and criminal codes, still the codes usually just adopt one or another set of common law rules. And when judges in common law countries interpret those statutes, they look first to the opinions of other judges rather than at the text itself.

For judges in England and the United States before the middle of the last century, the idea that the same "common law" still somehow applied in both countries, and indeed in every state of the American union individually, did not pose a conceptual problem. When the American colonies removed themselves from the jurisdiction of the British Parliament, it never occurred to them that they might be removing themselves from the sway of the common law. Parliament had not made the common law, though of course it had influenced the common law's development throughout history. The common law was never thought to be coincident with the natural law, but the English jurists tended to assume that it had been informed by the natural law. Judges, guided by right reason, could develop existing common law rules to better conform to the natural law. This was how the judge Lord Mansfield finally abolished slavery in England in the late eighteenth century (in the 1830s parliament got around to outlawing it in the colonies). The judges who did this sort of thing said they were not making law, but discovering it. The common law was complicated and often obscure, it rules sometimes manifestly unjust. However, lawyers trained in the common law tradition seemed to always have at the back of their minds the assumption that the common law was the real law. What parliaments and legislatures might decree from time to time would of course be obeyed, but the statutory law that tried to change common law was strictly and suspiciously construed.

When Holmes was a young man, there was no lack of philosophers of jurisprudence, such as Austin and Bentham, who dedicated their careers to fighting the concept of natural law. They looked on law as simply the command of the sovereign, or of judges representing the sovereign, or of the judges themselves. This approach to the law is known as legal positivism. It arose because the very idea of natural law was becoming incomprehensible to men who lived after Hume and Kant. Natural law, after all, is supposed to be "deontological," that is, somehow derivable from the nature of things. Those philosophers, however, had proven to their own satisfaction that you could not know about the "nature," the essence, of anything. All you could know was how things acted. There are two ways to take this proposition. You could, like the early German Idealists and like the New England Transcendentalists, draw the lesson that, since your knowledge of "how things acted" was simply a matter of sense perception, then all that really existed (as far as you can tell) is the perceptions in your own mind. Alternatively, you might forget about the mind entirely and just concentrate on how things (including people) act. The result is behaviorism.

Holmes himself is an example of a man who started as an Emersonian Idealist and followed the natural trajectory of this school into behaviorism. The halfway house on the journey is the philosophy of pragmatism, and Holmes was there at the creation. After the Civil War, he was a member of the Metaphysical Club, which included both William James and Charles Peirce, the latter usually regarded as the father of pragmatism. In essence, pragmatism is just another form of idealism. A "problem," in the pragmatist scheme of things, is simply the perception of some incongruity. If you arrange matters so that you no longer have this perception, then the problem is solved. If the new arrangement does not conform to your rules of logic, then there is something wrong with your rules. The direct effect of Peirce on Holmes has been much debated, and some writers have probably exaggerated it. Still, the philosophy of "The Common Law" is pragmatic in the strict sense.

In the first few lines of the book, Holmes lays down the principle that "[t]he life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience." The common law is not a fixed body of doctrines and the syllogisms derived from them, but an organic structure that has grown up in response to "the felt necessities of the time." The way to evaluate a law, in other words, is to measure the degree of subjective satisfaction it gives the community. By the time of his essay "The Path of the Law," published in 1885, he had completed the evolution to a behaviorist theory of law. Whatever you may think of Holmes's jurisprudence, "The Path of the Law" is an unambiguously great exercise in legal philosophy; certainly it withstands the test of time much better than "The Common Law." Laws should be written, we learn, from the standpoint of "the bad man," he who will do the absolute minimum necessary to avoid the sanctions of his neighbors. In other words, it must create objective standards, that do not depend on the personal virtue or goodwill of the citizens. When the law seeks to determine the "intent" of someone who committed an act for which he is on trial, it is not seeking to determine whether he meant to do good or harm. The law seeks to know only whether he knew what the results of his action would be. The inquiry can be made only by considering the defendant's observable behavior.

Holmes had a flare for dramatic expression, but his even his most extravagant pronouncements usually had a deal of common sense behind them. In the area of contract law, for instance, behaviorist jurisprudence meant that you did not have to guess whether there had been a "meeting of minds" between the parties to a contract: all you needed to do was determine what they said they had agreed to. If they never said the same thing, then there was no contract. Holmes sought not just to make the law predictable, but its burden light. In the law of torts, he used every opportunity to limit the liability of defendants. To some extent, this was because he believed limited liability was one of the "felt necessities of the time." Businesses could not grow if their every action threatened to incur a law suit. More important, perhaps, was the fact that his legal philosophy left no possible source of duty from one person to another except rules of behavior enunciated by the state. Thus, if the state did not create a cause of civil action, then normally the courts should not supply one.

In 1917, Holmes gave memorable expression to modern legal positivism in his Supreme Court dissent to the majority opinion in Southern Pacific v. Jensen, which held that a seaman injured in port should not receive the benefit of New York State's workman's compensation law. The general principles of maritime law did not allow for a seaman to receive compensation under the circumstances, and the majority believed that this principle should govern, rather than the statute. Holmes thought otherwise: "The common law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky, but the articulate voice of some sovereign or quasi-sovereign that can be identified." Derision for that "brooding omnipresence" has proven irresistible to American law professors ever since, but like most forms of skepticism, this thesis turns out to be incoherent if you look at it closely. To say that law is "the command of the sovereign" is tautological, since a sovereign is a legal entity. Moreover, it is an extremely awkward way to look at legal systems, such as those of the United States, where the actual sovereign tells you to go ask a judge or somebody if you want to know what the law is. On the other hand, the idea of an autonomous system of rules that can create order spontaneously, which is what the common law is supposed to be, is actually quite reminiscent of most schools of the philosophy of mathematics in the twentieth century. Many mathematicians, indeed almost all the great ones, believe that they "discover" mathematical entities, not that they make them up. No woolly-pated judge at a shire assize could have quarreled with the principle.

It is wrong to think of legal positivism as growing from a desire to cut off the law from the transcendent, or for that matter as part of a plot to make the world safe for industrial capitalism. The common law jurisprudence in the America of Holmes's early career had arguably become a force of darkness that all right-thing people were holden to combat. Many people at the time hoped to turn law into a "science," in the sense of a coherent system of statements. However, such people, notably Christopher Langdell of Harvard Law School, seemed to think that the common law was wholly self-referential. The "formalist" period of American law that resulted from this philosophy was not pretty. Judicial decision-making became more and more a mechanical process of finding precedents and applying them, whether or not the result made sense in the context of modern industrial conditions. "Natural law" made its appearance most conspicuously in the discovery by the courts of wide-ranging "rights" to contract and to property. Under this logic, legislatures were found to lack the power to interfere with the right of employers and laborers to bargain for what wages and hours they chose, or for municipalities to interfere with the right of manufacturers to perform whatever industrial processes on their land that the manufacturers saw fit. This view was eventually adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court, by way of the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This constitutional doctrine became known as "substantive due process." As many commentators have noted, it bears more than a little resemblance to the philosophy of "reproductive rights" that the court began to discover in the Constitution beginning in the 1960s, beginning with Griswold v. Connecticut. Holmes fought against this approach throughout his career. It was only after his retirement, when the court was threatened with the effective loss of the power of judicial review if it kept blocking FDR's New Deal legislation, that his point of view prevailed.

Holmes was an honest Social Darwinist. He believed that class war was a fact of life, just as was war between nations. He also thought that unions and labor legislation did nothing to improve the common good. As he remarked in his dissent in Plant v. Wood while he was still a Massachusetts judge: "The annual product, subject to an infinitesimal deduction for the luxuries of the few, is directed to consumption by the multitude, always. Organization and strikes may get a larger share for the member of the organization, but if they do, they get it at the expense of the less organized and less powerful portion of the laboring mass." One will find few purer expressions of Malthusian economics in American law. However, he dissented in that case because he found no reason the union in question should not organize a boycott, which the plaintiff was trying to stop. No statute forbade a boycott, and the common law was ambiguous. In such a situation, the role of the courts was simply to guarantee a fair fight. When the state itself sought to intervene in labor relations, of course, he heard his sovereign's voice and hurried to obey.

One of Holmes's most famous opinions is his dissent in Lockner v. New York, decided in 1905, in which the Supreme Court struck down a maximum hours law for bakers. The court based its decision on a "liberty of contract" of their own manufacture. There is, of course, a provision in the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 10, forbidding the states to pass laws that "impair contracts," but any fair reading of the history of that provision will show that the Founders were mostly concerned about states cancelling the debts of farmers during bad years. (Even that provision has been loosely interpreted to allow for debt moratoria.) In any event, Holmes was having none of it: "...the Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics," he harrumpfed magisterially. (Holmes's Mathusianism, incidentally, came by way of Spencer; he got around to reading Malthus himself about ten years after Lockner.) In Holmes's scheme of things, if there was no constitutional provision forbidding the government to do something, then the people, through their elected representatives, could do pretty much any damn fool thing they pleased.

Thus, if the people pleased to require the sterilization of unsatisfactory persons, Holmes saw no reason to object. Certainly the Constitution had nothing to say about it. Indeed, eugenics was the only one of the Progressive Era reforms that positively engaged his enthusiasm. He does not seem to have had any more than usual of the racial prejudices common to his place and time; probably he had rather less. It may be, as White suggests, that his interest in eugenics did not arise from a fear of drowning in the rising tide of the colored races. Rather, he had a lively sense that human nature itself was flawed. Under the circumstances, the best that the law could do was referee a fair Darwinian fight. If the fight were ever to end, it would have to be because the nature of the combatants had improved.

Be this as it may, it is at least clear that Holmes's views on the powers of government in this area require no special explanation; they are perfectly consistent with his views on the powers of government in the economic sphere. His opinion in the 1927 case, Buck v. Bell, upheld a Virginia statute that was being used to sterilize a woman who may or may not have been retarded, after a hearing process that looked exemplary on paper but which in practice was apparently rather summary. The opinion is classic Holmes. He uses the argument that "the greater power includes the lesser," always one of his favorites. Since the woman could have been drafted and sent into combat, he reasons, surely the state may require the lesser sacrifice of sterility. The epigrams are memorable. "Three generations of imbeciles are enough," he says about the plaintiff's inaccurately recounted family history. "The Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact," he affirms, to the plaudits of all progressive people everywhere. The truly infuriating thing about the opinion is that it is probably right. The Constitution does not guarantee reproductive rights, it does not forbid either sterilization or abortion. The Founding Fathers did not feel it necessary to address such matters. They thought better of their descendants than to suppose it might be necessary.

The only area in which Holmes was at all inclined to limit the power of the state was in questions of freedom of speech and the press. This willingness earned him his reputation as a civil libertarian. He would not always have merited the label. In the rare instances when he had to address the matter as a state judge, he held to the conventional view that the only real free speech rights were those provided under common law. This meant that the courts could not exercise "prior restraint," that is, to forbid someone from speaking or publishing. However, once you had your say, you could be fined or imprisoned for saying things that were inconvenient or unpopular, even if they were true. The venerable offense of "criminal libel" excited no animus in the middle-aged Holmes. Once on the U.S. Supreme Court, he at first saw little reason to change his mind. For one thing, the Court did not quite make up its mind until the end of his second decade as a justice whether the First Amendment, which by its terms applies only to the federal government, had been "incorporated" by the Fourteenth Amendment so as to apply to the states. Even when it was thought to apply, it was assumed to be simply declaratory of the very limited protections afforded by the common law.

Professor White, as I noted, lays out the history of Holmes's friendships with Felix Frankfurter and Harold Laski and the rest of The New Republic crowd to show how their ideas influenced Holmes around the time of the First World War and after. Certainly Holmes was disturbed by broad new laws forbidding speech that tended to "interfere with recruiting" or that advocated the overthrow of the government at some indefinite point in the future, or that otherwise hinted you might be up to no good. He began to grope for a principle that would be consistent with the rest of his ideas about the power of government. His first solution was the "clear and present danger" test. He tried, without much luck, to get the Supreme Court to agree that you could say or print pretty much anything you wanted that did not seem likely to start a riot. This, of course, is really just a rule about evidence, it is not a definition of a personal right that an individual could assert against a hostile government. What he picked up from his young friends was the notion of "the marketplace of ideas" as something necessary for the conduct of a democracy. The courts had to make sure that even bad ideas got a hearing, because otherwise there was no way to be sure good ideas might not be suppressed by accident. The First Amendment was thus not a dead letter after all, but a clear textual restriction on the power of government.

Professor White finds that this defense of freedom of speech was contradictory, an anomaly in Holmes's positivistic universe. He points out that Holmes's theory of government was that the majority in society will always work its will eventually, yet here was Holmes creating a "fundamental principle of democracy" that was rigidly anti-majoritarian. This assessment, I think, fails to appreciate the true underlying unity of Holmes's thought throughout his career. The justice's late championship of unfettered expression was not a break with his ancient pragmatism. Rather, it was its final flower, the highest good to which the intersubjective mind can attain. Fundamentally the marketplace argument is not new: a version of it was Milton's thesis in favor of free speech in the "Areopagitica." However, for Holmes, who lived in a post-metaphysical intellectual environment, the notion could take on a whole new significance. The marketplace of ideas was as close as Holmes's philosophy would let him come to the idea of truth. As a pragmatist, he had rejected the idea of absolute truth, but he also venerated the search for it. The best he could hope for was a free exchange of ideas, what Richard Rorty would later call "conversation." The transcendent was inaccessible, perhaps, but it could be approximated in this world by a perpetual dynamic stability.

Readers of Goethe's "Faust" will recognize that these were the very terms on which Faust was damned. The devil had agreed that he would not carry Faust to Hell until Faust found something in which his heart could rest, some moment to which he could say, "stay, you are so fair." At the end of his restless career of ever-growing power and knowledge, Faust finally conceives of a world he could love. It is world of perpetual struggle, in which mankind and nature achieve a kind of stability through their unceasing efforts to overcome each other. It is an eternal conversation of antagonistic forces, a marketplace of will that never closes. When Faust embraced this vision, the devil's bill came due. He had no reason to complain. The clarity of their contract was all that any judge might have wished.

 



This article originally appeared in the January 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View: Fascism: A History

Calling one's political opponent a fascist is still a popular political slur, but the actual occurrence of fascist ideas on the Right remains somewhat unclear. John was undubitably correct to note that the rise of popular parties on the right in Europe has mostly been tied to immigration, and also that anti-semitic ideas and Holocaust denial do have genuinely popular appeal nearly everywhere [not only on the Right].

John also notes that the world has in some ways only just returned to the conditions that prevailed before the Great War. International finance, and the relations between nations are beginning to relax again after the extended crisis that started in 1914, and only truly ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The interesting question for us is: how will it be different this time around?

Fascism: A History
By Roger Eatwell
Penguin Books, 1996
$14.95, 404 pages
ISBN: 0-14-025700-4

One More Time?

"Fascism is on the march again. Its style may at times be very different, but the ideological core remains the same -- the attempt to create a HOLISTIC NATIONAL THIRD WAY [Italics in original]...[A]n ideology that places so little emphasis on constitutions and rights, and so much on elite-inspired manipulation, must always be mistrusted. Beware of men -- and women -- wearing smart Italian suits...the aim is still power, and the fantasy of the creation of a radical new culture."

 

----"Fascism," page 361

 

This is the very alarming conclusion of this general history of fascist ideology by Roger Eatwell, a Reader in history at the University of Bath. It is all the more alarming because this is not a very alarmed book. Certainly it is free of "anti-fascism," which in this context often means the sort of Marxist analysis that assumes the whole political spectrum beyond the radical left is fascist in some imprecise but irredeemable way. What we do get is a brief description of the common intellectual heritage of fascism from the late nineteenth century, plus short histories of the fascist movements in Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain. The sections dealing with fascism in these countries after World War II, and especially the more recent New Right, are the most interesting in the book.

Since we are not dealing with a partisan tirade here, it is genuinely disturbing when Eatwell ends the book by suggesting that, though fascism died in a sense in 1945, it may well be about to experience a resurrection in time for a bright future in the 21st century. Whether this hypothesis proves correct or not, still this analysis does illustrate yet another way in which Western civilization at the end of the twentieth century has returned to many of the problems that faced it at the century's beginning.

The ideological component of fascism has often been neglected in favor of psychohistories of fascist leaders and morbid prose poems about national character. This is understandable, since one of the defining features of fascism is ideological syncretism. Usually, this has meant combining "socialism" with some form of nationalism, but even this minimum requires qualification. The study of fascist ideology is made even more difficult by the fact it was most systematically expressed where it had the least influence, in France and Britain. (Eatwell is not an admirer of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, but he does give him credit for producing the best thought-out fascist party-platform. The best platform so far, that is.) In any case, at the local level, fascism often had little theoretical content, beyond the privilege of beating people up with impunity. Nevertheless, fascism does have an intellectual history, and the phenomenon as a whole is not so diffuse as to defy definition.

Fascism would not have been possible without Friedrich Nietzsche. There has been no lack of anti-theistic philosophers both before and after Nietzsche, but he is almost alone in honestly facing the consequences of living in a world in which everything is permitted. Most thinkers have sought to preserve some fragment of the intellectual structure that depended from the hypothesis of the Christian God, and so they appeal to reason or history or science. Nietzsche would have none of it. If the skies are really empty, then there are no imperatives. There is, however, life, which in the case of human beings expresses itself not just as biology but as the will. Now Nietzsche, unlike Schopenhauer and unlike many of his own followers, recognized the will is itself a composite entity. It is not a primary physical force, and it is not a god. It does, however, actually exist, and its exercise is all the meaning that life can ever have.

The proposition that the meaning of life is the exercise of the will leads to two kinds of conclusions. The most obvious, and the most popular, is the cult of cruelty. Naturally, the street-fighters who normally figure in the public activities of successful fascist parties are rarely well-read in the literature of philosophical nihilism. Nevertheless, even the nihilist violence of the German SA and the Italian "squadristi" chimes with high theory. Fascism promotes ruthlessness for the same reason that it promotes conspiracy theories: for a fascist, nothing is going to happen unless some will makes it happen. One suspects this consideration is also a factor in the usual fascist suspicion of free markets.

The other conclusion to which an ontology of the will leads is the transformation of politics into art. Whole societies become instruments for the expression of the will of elites, or often of a single great individual. In fascist theory, this is all that politics ever was, no matter what purportedly disinterested purposes the ruling elites of the past believed they served. The difference that Nietzsche made was that this reality could become conscious.

Fascism is not quite coincident with the great man theory of history. Since human beings are social animals, the will is to some extent a social phenomenon. Thus, reality is an intersubjective construct, a fable that people make up amongst themselves. The construct is not entirely arbitrary. Most fascists have also posited a strong racial or biological element conditioning the way that leaders and their peoples behave. Still, even in highly racialized forms of fascism, the leader stands to the people as the will stands to the individual. Politics, then, is not an arbitrary art, but an art whereby the leader makes the unconscious will of the people explicit.

In addition to Nietzsche, the other seminal influence on fascism whom Eatwell discusses at length is Georges Sorel. Now Sorel is remembered as the chief theorist of socialist syndicalism, and like Nietzsche his thought has influenced people who are not fascist by any definition. Nevertheless, he seems to have been a primary source of the nuts-and-bolts of practical fascism, which was chiefly concerned with integrating restive populations of industrial workers into fragile national communities. (The widespread use of the word "community" to refer to classes of people who could not possibly know each other is mostly Max Weber's fault, though to me it has long carried fascist undertones. Well, that is another story.)

Sorel's socialism was of the sort that combined plans for the betterment of the masses with considerable contempt for their intelligence, indeed contempt for almost everything about them as they actually existed. Sorel believed that the masses could be integrated into a social force only through slogans and myths. Sorel's favorite myth was that of the "general strike." Actual general strikes, in which the whole of a country's organized labor force walked off the job at the same time, have been tried a few times, with mixed success. The myth of the general strike, however, is like the vision of Judgment Day. It is the goal in whose name organizers organize, it is the reason to pay union dues. It is an ultimate threat, like the strategic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, that creates a world by defining its limits. It is not entirely dishonest; the leaders may believe it in a heuristic sense. Such subtleties, however, are not for the people they lead.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the political systems of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy was precisely their use of myth and symbol. (As Salvador Dali once remarked, Nazism was essentially surrealism come to power.) The widely-bought if sparsely-read "Myth of the Twentieth Century," by the Nazi Party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, seems to have used "myth" in a Sorelian sense, the myth in this case being the origin of the Aryan race in Atlantis and its leading role in later history. More generally, both the Nazi and the Italian Fascist regimes seemed to be exercises in government by grand opera. (Götterdämmerung and Don Giovanni, no doubt.)

The myths used to organize the elites were not necessarily those provided for the masses. The Nazi leadership in particular cultivated a sort of occultism (though if figures like Julius Evola are any indication, this enthusiasm was not absent from Italy, either). The people, however, were pushed with more conventional forms of nationalist xenophobia and pulled with quite prosaic promises of economic improvement and social welfare (promises on which both regimes could in large measure deliver). This difference of integrative principles was consistent with the fascist notion of society as an organic entity. Organism implies differentiation, so it was only proper that elites and masses be organized through different means.

Was antisemitism an integrating myth for the people? Certainly this was not the case in Italy, where fascism made much of cultural chauvinism but tended to mock biological racism. It was only in the late 1930s that Mussolini promulgated anti-Jewish legislation in order to please Hitler. The legislation was never as harsh as that in Germany, and was in any case ignored by the people and the government with some enthusiasm. (This changed after the Allied invasion of southern Italy in 1943, when Mussolini became a puppet ruling a rump-state under German control.) As for Germany, there is little evidence that antisemitism ever added to the Nazis' popularity. Certainly the Nazis downplayed the Jewish theme when electoral victory became a real possibility after 1929. While it is true that surveys taken after World War II showed high levels of antisemitic feeling in Germany, this is as likely to have been an effect of the Nazi regime as one of its causes. The truth of the matter seems to be that, if antisemitism was a Sorelian myth, it a myth embraced by the elites rather than the masses.

England and France both had proto-fascist and self-consciously fascist movements between the wars. Eatwell notes the many writers with fascist leanings in France during this period, some of whom, such as Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, commanded large popular followings in the 1930s. (Charles Maurras and his Action Française were too traditionally conservative to quite qualify as fascist.) As a serious political movement, French fascism needed the Popular Front politics of the Left to fight against, and so it pretty much collapsed along with the Popular Front government in the mid-'30s. English fascism started off just after the First World War on a disarmingly dotty note, with a tiny party that advocated, among other things, lowering taxes on gentlefolk so they could reduce unemployment by hiring servants. However, the movement was dominated in the 1930s and after the war by Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Mosley, not unlike Churchill, was a black-sheep establishment figure, an institutional outsider but not quite a mere eccentric. He maintained a measure of credibility quite late into the decade; he was even briefly touted by the press-lord Rothermere. Still, in neither France nor England did any fascist party come within shouting distance of playing a major role in national government, much less of inaugurating a fascist revolution. Eatwell emphasizes two key reasons why they did not go the way of Germany and Italy.

The first major difference was that Britain and France had respectable national right-wing parties during the 1920s and '30s, while Germany and Italy did not. In Italy, a proper conservative establishment never got a chance to form. To a large extent, the Kingdom of Italy had always been something that northern Italians did to southern Italians (and this without the blessing of the Church, which was still annoyed at the way the Papal States had been annexed in 1870). Therefore, the local notables who might have formed the backbone of a conservative party were alienated from the national government. In Germany, of course, the old establishment had been discredited by the war. The lack of responsible right wings meant that irresponsible persons in these countries had a chance to fill the political space such parties normally occupy. The opportunity came when the narrowly-based political establishments appeared to be incapable of dealing with a national crisis.

For France and Britain the interwar years were for the most part dreary decades, but in neither country were they attended by a general sense of social crisis. France, despite the proliferation of socialist theorists of all descriptions and the growing strength of the Communist Party, seems to have been singularly immune to Red Scares. Unemployment was muted even during the Depression, partly because the country was still so rural that unemployed industrial workers simply went back to the land. For England, the '20s was in many ways the more troubled of the two decades, with intractably high unemployment even during good times and the General Strike of 1925. In the '30s, on the other hand, the effect of the worldwide depression was not nearly as severe as in other countries, and for much of the decade the economy was conspicuously innovative and dynamic.

Italy's crisis came early. In the years between the end of the war and Mussolini's March on Rome in 1922, revolution was in the air, particularly in the rural areas of the north. As in Spain during the prelude to that country's civil war in the '30s, local socialist governments were often uninterested in protecting private property from seizure by workers. Right-wing terror squads, usually led by strong-men without any particular ideology, also enjoyed official indulgence in some regions (as well as a measure of popular support). Mussolini, a sophisticated socialist with anti-clerical leanings, came to power by organizing the strong-men and convincing at least a section of the establishment that he could bring social peace. When he first met the king to demand the primiership, Mussolini wore a fascist uniform. For the second meeting, he wore proper morning clothes.

Hitler wore morning clothes, too, when he went to see President Hindenburg to be sworn in as chancellor 11 years later. Germany's crisis was far more a matter of economics than Italy's had been, though exasperated by the fact the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic was even more fragile than that of the Kingdom of Italy. Eatwell takes us through a quick review of the "Who Was To Blame" literature regarding Hitler's final ascension to the chancellorship. He finds little merit in the theory that Hitler (or Mussolini, for that matter) was essentially a tool of big business. What he does suggest is that the acquiescence of a weak establishment was a necessary precondition for such an improbable figure to be appointed head of a government.

Since the early 1930s, there has never been another coincidence of a weak establishment, a crisis, and a group of men with the proper ideological predispositions necessary for the formation of a fascist state. Franco's Spain was not fascist because Franco was not an artist, but a cop (or, as they used to say in my old high school, a "Prefect of Discipline"). The rulers of Vichy France, for all their authoritarian tendencies, were hardly in a position to view themselves as bold supermen. After the war, fascism was an enthusiasm only of cranks everywhere in Europe except in Italy, where the former regime never lacked for a small party of defenders. (Mussolini's widow got a regular ministerial survivor's pension.) Until the end of the Cold War, this looked like it would be the state of things for the foreseeable future. The problem with the end of the Cold War, of course, was that it made the future much less foreseeable.

In the 1990s we have seen a historically fascist party, led by Gianfranco Fini, achieve junior-partner status in an Italian government. (The party he leads changes names. Not long ago it was "The Italian Social Movement." Latterly it has been "The National Alliance." The Communist Party of Italy has undergone similar mutations in nomenclature, and also claims to have mellowed ideologically. Maybe they have.) Jean-Marie Le Pen's "Front National" in France seems to have a lock on from 15% to 20% of the vote. In Germany, in contrast, the party system has rebuffed the attempts to organize New Right sentiment. (This is not the case in Austria, where Jörg Haider's "Austrian Freedom Party" has polled up to 28% of the vote.) Throughout Europe, just as after the First World War, small groups of violent youths with proto-fascist leanings became conspicuous. Perhaps the most alarming thing we have discovered about the German Democratic Republic is that it did not so much extirpate Nazi ideas among the people as preserve them in ice, like dinosaurs in a science fiction movie that wreak havoc when defrosted.

One may, of course, quarrel about whether the European New Right as a whole should be consider proto-fascist, or crypto-fascist, or even fascist at all. Still, the deeper you look into any of these organizations and their leaders, the less comforted you are likely to be.

On a popular level, the issue which has the most resonance for the New Right is immigration. Everywhere in Western Europe (and in much of the United States), ordinary people are spooked by changing demographics. They are also alienated by the tendency of establishment opinion to dismiss this concern as mere reflexive racism. Persistent levels of high unemployment, often seen as a function of the presence of too many foreigners, similarly undermines the credibility of the governments of the major European states. Issues like this, however, are not the stuff of which revolutions are made, fascist or otherwise. Additionally, while right-wing leaders are at pains to keep themselves free of the least taint of racism in general or antisemitism in particular, the fact is that at ground level their organizations are, for the most part, virulently antisemitic. There is a significant public for Holocaust-denial theories. However, in no country are such things electorally useful.

The distinctive thing about fascism, however, is that it has always been a doctrine for masters rather than followers. Eatwell has some very alarming things to say about the growth of "up-scale" fascism, of ideological resources for people who either belong to existing elites or would very much like to start one. This has been made immensely easier, at least in my own view, by the spread of relativist philosophies in the Nietzschean tradition in the last quarter of the 20th century, particularly at the elite schools. No matter the intent of the instructors, it always seemed singularly ill-advised to me to tell young people, who by virtue of native intelligence and social position were going to wind up running a fair slice of the world anyway, that life was really just about power. There is always some danger they might believe it.

A sentiment that seems to find increasing currency is what might be called "Euro-fascism." While fascist parties between the wars built their followings on nationalistic platforms, still from the very beginning fascism has always had a universalizing streak. Nietzsche pronounced himself a "good European." In these days when political theorists speak in terms of the clash of civilizations, New Right theory seems to be moving in the direction, not of renewed hypernationalism, but of an integrating theory for the European Union. Eatwell notes that the EU as it stands is a disedifying entity, run by bland bureaucrats who are most concerned with setting standards for bottled jam. Current plans for future integration will go no further toward turning Europe into a true political community (that word again). Eatwell asks whether anyone is ever going to be willing to die for the Bundesbank. Maybe what Europe needs is a Sorelian myth to hold it together. Work is in progress.

So, are we really just back where we started at the beginning of the 20th century, waiting for some crisis that will delegitimize the existing establishments and start the ball rolling again? One way to look at the 20th century is as one long recoil from the process of globalization. It was only in the 1990s, for instance, that international capital flows again reached the levels relative to the economies of the major countries that they had reached before the First World War. Similarly, it is only recently that international trade in general became as important as it was around 1900. What happened thereafter was that the governments of the leading nations sought to gain unprecedented control of their countries' destinies. Partly this was accomplished by war, partly it was accomplished through the creation of command economies. Stalinism was simply Lloyd George's "War Socialism" made permanent, something that happened in greater or lesser degree throughout the West. In every case, the goal was to replace the power of capital with the power of the will, whether the will was that of an electorate or of a would-be Nietzschean superman. When, starting in the 1980s, the military and economic systems of command began to be relaxed, the world economic system began to look again something like the way it had looked before these measures were implemented. The process of globalization began again. So did the attempts to stop it.

It would be wrong to say that all attempts to stop globalization of economics and communications and culture are fascist. Most resistance to universalism comes from a positive desire to preserve local identities and traditions. Such things may or may not be worth preserving. The balance between the local and the universal is not something that can be dictated categorically. Fascist nationalism, in contrast, was perhaps just an improvisation, made necessary by the fact that nations states were the largest units that fascist elites could hope to control. At a deeper level of fascism is the ideal of the universal empire, of the whole world subject to a single will. The goal is repeatedly deferred only because it is obviously so much harder to achieve.

Fascist statecraft is by its nature manipulative, a game that elites play with deluded masses. The fascists in the '20s and '30s did not come to power by promising to create a society beyond good and evil. They did it by promising people things that really were good, such as safe streets and private property and a country with a culture they could recognize. The opponents to fascism too often fell into the trap of opposing these things simply because the fascists endorsed them. This is an important point for the world's liberals (or progressives, or whatever they call themselves locally) to keep in mind. As for the conservatives, they must beware of the company they keep.



This article originally appeared in the November 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View: The Pity of War

Niall Ferguson's book on the Great War was written 16 years ago, but his style fits in well today. There is a constellation of quant bloggers that center around Steve Sailer who use a similar style of analysis to Ferguson, heavy on economics and demographics, and looking for direct causal mechanisms that drive behavior. Ferguson used this method to analyze what might have been in 1914 if key decision makers had chosen otherwise in the run-up to war.

While John was also interested in alternative history, his take was that not every possibility can be actualized in history. Not all things are possible at all times. Especially not at certain times.

The Pity of War
by Niall Ferguson
Basic Books, 1998
562 Pages, $30.00 (US)
ISBN: 0-465-05711-X

 

Niall Ferguson ends this book with the assessment that the First World War was "nothing less than the greatest *error* of modern history." This is not the emotional flourish that it might have been had it come from another historian. Ferguson is an Oxford don whose specialty is financial history, but who has also given considerable thought to the use of alternative historical scenarios as tools of analysis. (He is the author of "Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals.") When Ferguson says the Great War was an error, he means it literally. Certain men made identifiable decisions that resulted in outcomes that were less than optimal. Those decisions were mistakes, because they produced a history that was identifiably worse than other, speculative histories that did not happen.

Rather than provide a narrative of the war, Ferguson attempts to answer 10 questions, including such items as: Was the war inevitable? Why did Britain's leaders decide to intervene when war broke out on the Continent? Why did the military superiority of the German Army fail to deliver victory on the Western Front? Why did men keep fighting? Why did they stop fighting? The gist of Ferguson's conclusions, if I understand them correctly, is that, while some major European war was likely in the first two decades of the 20th century, the war that actually occurred was neither inevitable nor particularly likely. Additionally, Ferguson suggests the best outcome for that period of history would have been the establishment of German hegemony in Europe. While this could not have been done without some disruption and perhaps bloodshed, the result would not have been so different from the European Union of today. I found myself wondering how Ferguson failed to cite the witticism that the constitution of the EU is essentially that of the German Empire without the Kaiser.

Whatever you may think of Ferguson's analysis (and some of it, as we will see, is problematical at best), nonetheless "The Pity of War" contains several fascinating special studies. These try to give about equal weight to English and German sources. (Ferguson reminds us more than once that he himself is a Scot: the first illustration in the book is of his grandfather in the uniform of the Seaforth Highlanders.) There is a long section on the large body of fiction and nonfiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that dealt with the "coming war." This literature includes the famous "invasion novels" that described a war between England and Germany, though in fact scenarios like this were a fairly late addition to the genre: earlier works assumed a war between England and France or Russia. Regarding the literature of the postwar period, Ferguson concludes, correctly, that there was much less "disenchantment" and alienation among the literary veterans than is commonly thought. When he tackles the issue of why men continued to fight even in the dismal conditions of the trenches, he feels forced to the conclusion that, at some level, they continued to fight because they enjoyed it. While this topic occasions some Freudian blather about the "death instinct," it seems to me that a more fruitful line of speculation might begin from the fact the memoirs he cites make the war sound like an extreme team-sport.

 

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It is true that an amazing amount of grief would have been avoided if, by 1920 say, Europe had become a jellyfish-polity like today's European Union. It would have been even better if Europe had done so when Kant was writing of a Universal Republic in the eighteenth century. The fact is, though, that not every goal is possible to a civilization in every period, even when the goal can be clearly imagined. This very good book shows, despite itself, what I take to be the real value of counterfactuals: there is much less contingency in history than we imagine.