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: 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.

 

...

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.

The Long View: If Germany Had Won World I.....

The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919   By William Orpen - Imperial War Museum Collections: Website Webpage, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2212540

The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919

By William Orpen - Imperial War Museum Collections: Website Webpage, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2212540

Given John's penchant for cyclical models of history, you shouldn't be surprised to hear that if Germany had won World War I, not much would have changed. We like to think of battles and wars as momentous things, and sometimes they are, but the outcome of the twentieth century was overdetermined, at least according to Spengler and Toynbee.

By way of proof, consider this: Spengler started writing the Decline of the West in 1911, and finished it in 1914. Weimar culture, famed for its decadence and defeatism, started before the war too. Its analogues started in England, France, and the United States about the same time.

Here is John's boldest claim:

I would go so far as to say this: something very like the Nazi Party would still have come to power in Germany, even if that country had won the First World War. I realize that this assertion runs counter to the historiography of most of this century, but the conclusion is inescapable. Politics is a part of culture, and the Nazis represented a kind of politics which was integral with Weimar culture. Salvador Dali once said, perhaps ironically, that he approved of the Nazi Party because they represented the surrealists come to power. The connection is deep, as with the Nazi affinity for the modernist post-rationalism of the philosopher Heidigger, and also superficial, in the styles the party promoted. The Nuremberg Rallies, for instance, were masterpieces of Art Deco stagecraft, particularly Albert Speer's "cathedral of ice" effect, created with the use of searchlights. As a young hopeful in Vienna, Hitler once passed up the chance to work as a theatrical set designer because he was too shy to go to the interview. But whether he knew it or not, that is what he became. People with no fascist inclinations at all love to watch film footage produced by the Nazis, for the simple reason that it is very good cinema: it comes from the same artistic culture which gave us METROPOLIS and THE BLUE ANGEL. The Weimar Republic and the Third Reich formed a historical unit, one whose advent was not dependent on the accident of who won the First World War.

Leni Riefenstahl deserves mention here too. A Triumph of the Will was a masterpiece of a movie, and continues to be influential today, although no one would be so foolish as to admit it influenced them. The Nazis were stylish and popular, a reflection of the spirit of the times.

John gets even more contrary towards the end. He suggests that despite the colossal waste and horror of the Great War, the way it turned out may have been better than some of the likely alternatives. This is worth considering.


If Germany Had Won World War I.....

In a way, this is a more interesting hypothesis than the more commonly asked question about what the world would be like if the Germans had won World War II. Several historians have noted that both world wars should really be considered a single conflict with a long armistice in the middle. If this viewpoint is valid, then the official outcome of the first phase of this conflict may have been important for reasons other than those usually cited.

As a preliminary matter, we should note that the actual outcome of the First World War was a near thing, a far nearer thing than was the outcome of World War II after 1941. While it is true that the United States entered the war on the allied side in 1917, thus providing vast new potential sources of men and material, it is also true that Germany had knocked Russia out of the war at about the same time. This gave the Germans access to the resources of Eastern Europe and freed their troops for deployment to the West. The German Spring Offensive of 1918 actually succeeded in rupturing the Allied line at a point where the Allies had no significant reserves. (At about this time, British Prime Minister Lloyd George was heard to remark, "We are going to lose this war." He began to create a record which would shift the blame to others.) The British Summer Offensive of the same year similarly breached the German lines, but did a much better job of exploiting the breakthrough than the Germans had done a few months earlier. General Ludendorff panicked and demanded that the government seek an armistice. The German army did succeed in containing the Allied breakthrough, but meanwhile the German diplomats had opened tentative armistice discussions with the United States. Given U.S. President Wilson's penchant for diplomacy by press-release, the discussions could not be broken off even though the German military situation was no longer critical. While the Germans were not militarily defeated, or even economically desperate, the government and general public saw no prospect of winning. Presented with the possibility of negotiating a settlement, their willingness to continue the conflict simply dissolved.

The Germans were defeated by exhaustion. This could as easily have happened to the Allies. When you read the diaries and reports of the French and British on the Western Front from early 1918, the writers seem to be perfectly lucid and in full command of their faculties. What the Americans noted when they started to arrive at about that time was that everyone at the front was not only dirty and malnourished, but half asleep. In addition to their other deleterious effects, the terrible trench warfare battles of that conflict were remarkably exhausting, and the capacity of the Allies to rotate out survivors diminished with the passage of time. Even with American assistance, France and Britain were societies that were slowly falling apart from lack of ordinary maintenance. Both faced food shortages from the diversion of farmers into the army and from attacks on oceanborne supplies. Had the Germans been able to exploit their breakthrough in the spring, or if the German Empire had held together long enough for Ludendorff's planned autumn offensive to take place, its quite likely that either the French or British would have sued for peace. Had one or the other even raised the question of an armistice, the same process of internal political collapse which destroyed Germany would have overtaken both of them.

Although today it is reasonably clear that Germany fought the war with the general aim of transforming itself from a merely continental power to a true world power, the fact is that at no point did the German government know just what its peace terms would be if it won. It might have annexed Belgium and part of the industrial regions of northern France, though bringing hostile, non-German populations into the Empire might not have seemed such a good idea if the occasion actually arose. More likely, or more rationally, the Germans would have contented themselves with demilitarizing these areas. From the British, they would probably have demanded nothing but more African colonies and the unrestricted right to expand the German High Seas Fleet. In Eastern Europe, they would be more likely to have established friendly satellite countries in areas formerly belonging to the defunct empires than to have directly annexed much territory. It seems to me that the Austrian and Ottoman Empires were just as likely to have fallen apart even if the Central Powers had won. The Hungarians were practically independent before the war, after all, and the chaos caused by the eclipse of Russia would have created opportunities for them which they could exploit only without the restraint of Vienna. As for the Ottoman Empire, most of it had already fallen to British invasion or native revolt. No one would have seen much benefit in putting it back together again, not even the Turks.

Communist agitation was an important factor in the dissolution of Imperial Germany, and it would probably have been important to the collapse of France and Britain, too. One can imagine Soviets being established in Glasglow and the north of England, a new Commune in Paris. This could even have happened in New York, dominated as it was by immigrant groups who were either highly radicalized or anti-British. It is unlikely that any of these rebellions would have succeeded in establishing durable Communist regimes in the West, however. The Soviets established in Germany and Eastern Europe after the war did not last, even though the central government had dissolved. In putting down such uprisings, France might have experienced a bout of military dictatorship, not unlike the Franco era in Spain, and Britain might have become a republic. Still, although the public life of these countries would have been polarized and degraded, they would probably have remained capitalist democracies. The U.S., one suspects, would have reacted to the surrender or forced withdrawal of its European expeditionary force by beginning to adopt the attitude toward German-dominated Europe which it did later in the century toward the victorious Soviet Union. Britain, possibly with its empire in premature dissolution, would have been forced to seek a strong Atlantic alliance. As for the Soviet Union in this scenario, it is hard to imagine the Germans putting up with its existence after it had served its purpose. Doubtless some surviving Romanov could have been put on the throne of a much- diminished Russia. If no Romanov was available, Germany has never lacked for princelings willing to be sent abroad to govern improvised countries.

This leaves us with the most interesting question: what would have happened to Germany itself? Before the war, the German constitution was working less and less well. Reich chancellors were not responsible to parliament but to the Kaiser. The system could work only when the Kaiser was himself a competent executive, or when he had the sense to appoint and support a chancellor who was. The reign of Wilhelm II showed that neither of these conditions need be the case. In the twenty years preceding the war, national policy was made more and more by the army and the bureaucracy. It is unlikely that this degree of drift could have continued after a victorious war. Two things would have happened which in fact happened in the real world: the monarchy would have lost prestige to the military, and electoral politics would have fallen more and more under the influence of populist veterans groups.

We should remember that to win a great war can be almost as disruptive for a combatant country as to lose it. There was a prolonged political crisis, indeed the whiff of revolution, in victorious Britain in the 1920s. Something similar seems to be happening in the United States today after the Cold War. While it is, of course, unlikely that the Kaiser would have been overthrown, it is highly probable that there would have been some constitutional crisis which would have drastically altered the relationship between the branches of government. It would have been in the military's interest to push for more democracy in the Reich government, since the people would have been conspicuously pro-military. The social and political roles of the old aristocracy would have declined, since the war would have brought forward so many men of humble origin. Again, this is very much what happened in real history. If Germany had won and the Allies lost, the emphasis in these developments would certainly have been different, but not the fundamental trends.

All the bad and strange things which happened in Germany in the 1920s are conventionally blamed on the harsh terms of the Versailles treaty. We forget, however, that the practical effect of these terms was really very limited. The diplomatic disabilities on Germany were eliminated by the Locarno Pact of 1925. The great Weimar inflation, which was engineered by the government to defeat French attempts to extract reparations, was ended in 1923. The reparations themselves, of course, were a humiliating drain on the German budget, but a system of financing with international loans was arranged which worked satisfactorily until the world financial system broke down in the early 1930s. Even arms development was continued through clandestine projects with the Soviet Union. It is also false to assert that German culture was driven to insanity by a pervasive sense of defeat. The 1920s were the age of the Lost Generation in America and the Bright Young Things in Britain. A reader ignorant of the history of the 20th century who was given samples from this literature that did not contain actual references to the war could reasonably conclude that he was reading the literature of defeated peoples. There was indeed insanity in culture in the 1920s, but the insanity pervaded the whole West.

Weimar culture would have happened even if there had been no Weimar Republic. We know this, since all the major themes of the Weimar period, the new art and revolutionary politics and sexual liberation, all began before the war. This was a major argument of the remarkable book, RITES OF SPRING, by the Canadian scholar, Modris Ekstein. There would still have been Bauhaus architecture and surrealist cinema and depressing war novels if the Kaiser had issued a victory proclamation in late 1918 rather than an instrument of abdication. There would even have been a DECLINE OF THE WEST by Oswald Spengler in 1918. He began working on it years before the war. The book was, in fact, written in part to explain the significance of a German victory. These things were simply extensions of the trends that had dominated German culture for a generation. They grew logically out of Nietzsche and Wagner and Freud. A different outcome in the First World War would probably have made the political right less suspicious of modernity, for the simple reason that left wing politics would not have been anywhere nearly as fashionable among artists as such politics were in defeat.

I would go so far as to say this: something very like the Nazi Party would still have come to power in Germany, even if that country had won the First World War. I realize that this assertion runs counter to the historiography of most of this century, but the conclusion is inescapable. Politics is a part of culture, and the Nazis represented a kind of politics which was integral with Weimar culture. Salvador Dali once said, perhaps ironically, that he approved of the Nazi Party because they represented the surrealists come to power. The connection is deep, as with the Nazi affinity for the modernist post-rationalism of the philosopher Heidigger, and also superficial, in the styles the party promoted. The Nuremberg Rallies, for instance, were masterpieces of Art Deco stagecraft, particularly Albert Speer's "cathedral of ice" effect, created with the use of searchlights. As a young hopeful in Vienna, Hitler once passed up the chance to work as a theatrical set designer because he was too shy to go to the interview. But whether he knew it or not, that is what he became. People with no fascist inclinations at all love to watch film footage produced by the Nazis, for the simple reason that it is very good cinema: it comes from the same artistic culture which gave us METROPOLIS and THE BLUE ANGEL. The Weimar Republic and the Third Reich formed a historical unit, one whose advent was not dependent on the accident of who won the First World War.

The Nazi Party was other things besides a right wing populist group with a penchant for snazzy uniforms. It was a millenarian movement. The term "Third Reich," "Drittes Reich," is an old term for the Millennium. The Party's core began as a sort of occult lodge, like the Thule Society of Munich to which so many of its important early members belonged. It promoted a racist theory of history not unlike that of the Theosophist, H.P. Blavatsky, whose movement also used the swastika as an emblem. The little-read ideological guidebook of the party, Alfred Rosenberg's MYTH OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, begins its study of history in Atlantis. Like the Theosophists, they looked for a new "root race" of men to appear in the future, perhaps with some artificial help. When Hitler spoke of the Master Race, it is not entirely clear that he was thinking of contemporary Germans.

This is not to say that the Nazi Party was a conspiracy of evil magicians. A good, non- conspiratorial account of this disconcerting matter may be found in James Webb's THE OCCULT ESTABLISHMENT. I have two simple points to make here. The first is that the leadership had some very odd notions that, at least to some degree, explain the unique things they said and did. The other is that these ideas were not unique to them, that they were spreading among the German elites. General Von Moltke, the chief of the General Staff at the beginning of the war, was an Anthroposophist. (This group drew the peculiar ire of the SS, since Himmler believed that its leader, Rudolf Steiner, hypnotized the general so as to make him mismanage the invasion of France.) The Nazi Party was immensely popular on university campuses. The intellectual climate of early 20th century Germany was extraordinarily friendly to mysticism of all types, including in politics. The Nazi leadership were just particularly nasty people whose worldview bore a family resemblance to that of Herman Hesse and C.G. Jung. The same would probably have been true of anyone who ruled Germany in the 1930s.

Am I saying then that German defeat in the First World War made no difference? Hardly. If the war had not been lost, the establishment would have been much less discredited, and there would have been less room for the ignorant eccentrics who led the Nazi Party. Certainly people with no qualifications for higher command, such as Goering, would not have been put in charge of the Luftwaffe, nor would the Foreign Ministry have been given over to so empty-headed a man as Von Ribbentrop. As for the fate of Hitler himself, who can say?

The big difference would have been that Germany would been immensely stronger and more competent by the late 1930s than it was in the history we know. That another war would have been brewed by then we may be sure. Hitler was only secondarily interested in revenge for the First World War; his primary goal had always been geopolitical expansion into Eastern Europe and western Asia. This would have given Germany the Lebensraum to become a world power. His ideas on the subject were perfectly coherent, and not original with him: they were almost truisms. There is no reason to think that the heirs of a German victory in 1918 (or 1919, or 1920) would have been less likely to pursue these objectives.

These alternative German leaders would doubtless have been reacting in part to some new coalition aligned against them. Its obvious constituents would have been Britain, the United States and Russia, assuming Britain and Russia had a sufficient degree of independence to pursue such a policy. One suspects that if the Germans pursued a policy of aggressive colonial expansion in the 1920s and 30s, they might have succeeded in alienating the Japanese, who could have provided a fourth to the coalition. Germany for its part would begun the war with complete control of continental Europe and probably effective control of north Africa and the Near East. It would also have started with a real navy, so that Britain's position could have quickly become untenable. The coalition's chances in such a war would not have been hopeless, but they would been desperate.

It is commonly said of the First World War that it was pure waste, that it was an accident, that it accomplished nothing. The analysis I have just presented, on the contrary, suggests that the "war to end all war" may have been the most important war of the modern era after all.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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