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At the last congress of the GDR writers' association in 1987, J��rgen Kucyzinski, the perennial tolerated troublemaker of the GDR, wished for a socialist equivalent of prayer: "I have looked in vain for a substitute for prayer that could remind us, despite all the troubles we have and the barriers we encounter each day, or at least each week, of the greatness of socialism.... How do we remind ourselves once or twice a day of what is really important, of the things that influence our lives every day?" In 1940 Joseph Goebbels asked a related question in his diary: "What can one teach the children, when one still has no new religion? The present substitute is only a substitute." Both were searching for ways of secular worship.
In this book I will consider totalitarian propaganda as a quasi-religious phenomenon. This idea encounters two immediate objections. First, the definition, even existence, of totalitarianism is disputed. Second, although viewing totalitarianism as a religious phenomenon has roots going back to Erich Voegelin and recently has been revived in work by Hans Maier, Michael Burleigh, Claus-Ekkehard B��rsch, and others, it remains an unorthodox way to get at the issues.
The arguments against the concept of "totalitarianism" range from charges that it is itself a term of Cold War propaganda to the claim that since no society can in practice be totally totalitarian, the term has little value. I agree that "total totalitarianism" is impossible but find the term "totalitarian" useful since it reflects the goal of the dictatorships of the twentieth century, even if their practice fell short. History has a record of many impossible goals earnestly pursued, and totalitarianism is that kind of goal.
I shall use the term "totalitarian" in its classic sense. A totalitarian state is dedicated to an ideal vision of history and sees its mission as getting the world there. It has a party willing to do everything necessary to reach its goals, a leader chosen either by Providence or the laws of history, a worldview that lays claim to all aspects of life, a confident reliance on mass propaganda, and central control of at least most institutions. This definition does not require that a totalitarian state succeed in being completely totalitarian or that totalitarian states be equally reprehensible.
The idea of totalitarianism as a form of religious expression is also problematic. Although Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, a prophecy of the century that followed, broke ground for the idea and although people of faith recognized that both National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism were competing for the soul as much as the body, religion has not been central to most analyses of totalitarianism. Although there are numerous analogies to religion, they are usually made in passing. I shall develop the analogy at length.
Religions make claims that ordinary political parties do not, and the claims in a sense are "totalitarian." Christianity and other major religions are worldviews. The Christian assertion is that, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. No part of creation is outside of the reach of its creator. Most Christians expect their faith to have something to say about personal behavior, social policy, the arts, the past, and the future. One may not forget the Ten Commandments upon walking out of church. Christian traditions interpret the faith in differing ways, but Christians generally agree, in principle at least, that Christianity applies to all of life, not only its edges.
Western political parties typically have more modest goals. One would not expect an American political party's platform to determine daily activities. A Republican is not obliged to see a Democrat as someone so misguided as to merit imprisonment, torture, or death. Being a Democrat does not compel one to hold a particular opinion of art or to adopt a Democratic marriage ritual. Party members are not expected to share the same dogmatic view on the nature of language or agree on how the Girl Scouts should conduct their activities. Standard political parties, in short, are groups of people with overlapping but not identical attitudes and interests who do not expect their parties to resolve all of life's questions.
In contrast, the assertion of the totalitarian parties was explicitly total. Both Nazism and Marxism-Leninism claimed to have truth. Lacking a god to stand behind, their truths could triumph only if their adherents fought for them. Christians may assume they have done their duty by acting as their faith commands and that God will act should he wish. Nazis or Marxist-Leninists depended on their own efforts or on those of the party to realize truth. As I noted in the introduction, Nazism and Marxism-Leninism resembled state religions, an intermingling of the secular and the sacred. They made claims not only on party members, but on everyone. No corner of culture or society was in theory exempt. For Christianity, everything is subject to the will of God. For totalitarianism, everything is subject to the human will (that is, all is political). The totalitarian party knows that to permit islands of the nonpolitical is to allow breeding grounds of heresy or apathy.
Totalitarians were therefore explicit in their claim on every aspect of human life. A speaker at a 1938 Hitler Youth leadership gathering made the totalitarian claim forthrightly: "The worldview of National Socialism, having conquered the entire nation, now begins to place its stamp on every area of life.... [The goal is] the transformation of every aspect of our life, down to the smallest detail." Many similar statements were made by Nazi leaders.
They meant it. In 1939 the Nazi party's confidential magazine for political leaders carried an article on home decoration. It claimed that it was "the unspoken duty of political leaders, as it is of all National Socialists, to live their personal lives according to the National Socialist idea.... A major part of this is our environment, which we ourselves create: in our families, our homes, our ceremonies." The article goes on to explain how one should, as a National Socialist, decorate one's home. If interior decoration falls under the purview of the party, what does not? Totalitarian worldviews suffuse private life within public ideology, leaving few avenues for political apostasy to develop.
The GDR was equally sweeping in its claims. The GDR's approved definition of a worldview is enlightening: "A systematic and complete explanation of nature, society, the role of people in the world, and the formation of rules for the social behavior of human beings.... The role of a worldview is to give a person a full orientation for all of his thought, behavior and practical activity." As the book presented to fourteen-year-olds in the Jugendweihe ceremony (the socialist equivalent of the Christian rite of confirmation) in the mid-1970s put it: "To keep you from going astray in the world so that the happiness you dream of will largely become reality, you need a compass for your life, an ever-present way of knowing which direction to go, an intellectual framework. In the world-wide battle of our day between the new and the old, between what is coming and what is perishing, between a changing world and one holding stubbornly to the past, between peace and aggression, between truth and lies-in our day of the battle between socialism and imperialism there is only one correct intellectual framework: the worldview of Marxism-Leninism." Consequently, the GDR's worldview provided ways to see education, the family, leisure, and sports from an approved political angle. The front-page editorial in a 1980 issue of Trommel, a weekly for children, responded to complaints that it had too much political content: "Nothing against pleasant trivialities, but only he has the right to enjoy them who also is concerned with the main issues of life. That includes politics. That is important. There cannot be too much about politics. It guides all our lives." Everything was political.
Just as Christians maintain that personal salvation is necessary to transform the human soul, Marxism-Leninism insisted on a kind of intellectual salvation, sometimes termed "clarity." A 1958 report from Berlin noted the view that some citizens could become politically active only when difficulties in production and distribution were resolved. Instead, the report argued: "The mistakes and errors can only be remedied when people are clear in their heads." Clarity, in its GDR definition, meant that people had to accept Marxism-Leninism before they could see reality correctly and eventually resolve their problems.
Both National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism, in short, defined themselves as worldviews that claimed every aspect of life. Who determined what that gospel was? What was its content? I shall begin by looking at the "deities" and "scriptures" of the systems, then consider their methods of "worship," and conclude with a summary of their respective "theologies."
"The F��hrer Is Always Right"
National Socialism resembled a religious cult whose founder still walked among the faithful. There was an aura of the superhuman in the way Nazis presented Hitler. Hermann G��ring used the language of papal infallibility in 1941: "We National Socialists declare with complete conviction that for us, the F��hrer is infallible in all political and other matters that affect the people's national and social interests." Germans believe "deeply and unshakably" in Hitler's divinely ordained mission, he continued. German soldiers and members of the Hitler Youth swore a personal oath to Hitler, pledging absolute obedience, as if professing and confirming their faith before their god and their fellow believers. A common poster during the Nazi years had a towering image of Hitler with the caption: "One people, one Reich, one F��hrer." A small 1941 book published by the Nazi Party's publishing house can only be called devotional literature. People were asked what the F��hrer meant to them. In the words of a soldier: "Our F��hrer is the most unique man in history. I believe unreservedly in him and in his movement. He is my religion." These examples could be multiplied.
An interesting manifestation of the Hitler cult is the thousands of poetic hymns to the F��hrer. A slim volume titled The Song of the Faithful appeared in 1938. It contained twenty-nine short poems by anonymous members of the Hitler Youth organization in Austria before the 1938 Anschlu��. A typical poem was titled "Our F��hrer":
There are so many people who bless you, Even if their blessing is a silent one- There are so many who have never met you, And yet you are their Savior. When you speak to your German people, The words go across the land And sink into countless hearts, Hearts in which your image long has stood. Sometimes the vision of you brings life To those in the midst of hard labor and heavy obligation ... So many are devoted to you And seek in your spirit a clear light.
The language is unmistakably religious, with words like bless, Savior, life, devoted, spirit, and light. It makes sense only if one sees Hitler as a Christ figure, a union of the divine and the human. The Song of the Faithful received the German national book award (which Goebbels used to favor books with the correct content). In the dust jacket copy, Goebbels wrote: "We had almost decided to split the award or draw lots for it when a thin little book of poetry appeared on the market. It made all further consideration pointless. This book fulfills the goals of the our book prize better than any other."
Such poetry would have been ludicrous if written about Roosevelt or Churchill, but Nazis did not see Hitler as an ordinary mortal. Although they had to recognize Hitler's mortality, as did he himself (he sometimes noted his uniqueness and the importance of accomplishing his goals before his death), Hitler was presented as the person in whom Germans could place absolute trust.
Goebbels gave annual speeches on the occasion of Hitler's birthday, 20 April. They are remarkable reading. Even in 1945, Goebbels drew on religious language: "We feel him [Hitler] in us and around us." Earlier speeches in the series made similar claims. Hitler's spirit was palpable, omnipresent.
The quintessential Hitler is presented visually in Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1934 Nuremberg rally. Hitler is seen in ways that emphasize his extraordinary nature. His plane drifts silently through the clouds, accompanied by ethereal music. The shadow of his plane, in the shape of a cross, falls on marching columns of his faithful followers. He enters Nuremberg in a triumphal procession. The camera views him close up or from below, magnifying his stature. Radiance emanates from him, as, for example, in the motorcade into Nuremberg, when Hitler's cupped hand catches the light. Hitler, holding the Blood Banner (Blutfahne, the flag carried during the 1923 putsch), consecrates new party standards. Rudolf Hess announces that Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler. These are not images of an ordinary human being.
Hitler's remarkable status is evident from iconographic images. Photographs, paintings, and sculptures were carefully controlled, requiring Hitler's personal approval. At least 2,450,000 copies of a 1936 album titled Adolf Hitler: Pictures of the Life of the F��hrer, with tributes to Hitler written by Nazi leaders, were printed. People bought the album and pasted in pictures received as premiums for buying cigarettes. Heinrich Hoffmann published over a dozen books of Hitler photographs, and they sold in large numbers. The Hitler No One Knows, a collection of "private" photographs, for example, sold at least 400,000 copies. Rudolf Herz comments that Hitler's "photographic omnipresence" during the Third Reich "was an integral means of presenting the charismatic image of the leadership."
The Nazis did not have time to develop a television system, but if they had, Hitler's image would have filled it as well. As Eugen Hadamovsky, the Nazi director of broadcasting, said when experimental transmissions began in 1935: "Now, in this hour, broadcasting is called upon to fulfill its biggest and most sacred mission: to plant the image of the Fuehrer indelibly in all German hearts."
As the superhuman figure in the religion of Nazism, Hitler knew the importance of defining the Nazi worldview. Even Hitler's own speeches could be printed only with his approval, according to a 1937 party directive. In 1939 Hitler ordered the texts of speeches that dealt with the Nazi worldview be approved in advance by Rudolf Hess. After Hess flew to England, Hitler personally approved such speeches.
Worldviews have texts of varying degrees of importance. Mein Kampf was the bible of National Socialism. George L. Mosse doubts that Hitler's book was a bible in the same sense that the works of Marx and Lenin were to the Communists, since "the ideas of Mein Kampf had been translated into liturgical forms and left the printed page to become mass rites of national, Aryan worship." It is true that the ideas of Mein Kampf were realized in a variety of ways, but the book remained central to Nazism. It was published in enormous editions (over ten million copies by 1945). City mayors presented elegant editions to newlyweds. The goal was to have a copy in every home and library. Like a family Bible, it was often unread, but its mere presence testified to its importance.
Hitler's speeches had equal canonical authority. They were events of major significance. Just after the war began the party propaganda office in Linz published advice on studying and using Hitler's speeches. It is a remarkable document:
The F��hrer's words are seeds in the people's hearts. The party member must care for this seed and see that it bears fruit. He will therefore study the F��hrer's speech word for word over and over again in order to master the arguments that he will need in face-to-face propaganda. If he is able to rely on the words of the F��hrer in all his conversations, he will be able to draw on the F��hrer's powerful authority to reach and silence even the most stubborn complainer....
The task of each propagandist, therefore, is to guard the national experience of each F��hrer speech, to nourish the flame of enthusiasm, ever to encourage it. He will be able to do this if he gives his full devotion and earnestness to studying each word, letting them work on him each day anew. Then his conversations with citizens will be imbued with a glimmer of the rousing and unifying power that dwells in all the F��hrer's words.
Excerpted from BENDING SPINESby Randall L. Bytwerk Copyright © 2004 by Randall L. Bytwerk. Excerpted by permission.
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