Hitler as Philosophe: Remnants of the Enlightenment in National-Socialism
by Lawrence Birken
Praeger, 1995. 128 pages. $45
The topic of Hitler, even beyond National Socialism itself, is perhaps only on par to what the Devil and Witches used to be during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. Few are able to approach the subject with a clear mind that can supersede preconceptions injected from the outside and the influence of authority. One of the few writers who has been able to delve deeply into the nature of National Socialism as the brainchild of Adolf Hitler was Lawrence Birken, an eclectic intellectual known to take on particularly difficult discussions. This book, Hitler as Philosophe was published in limited numbers in 1995, and the author died still relatively young four years later.
While he was neither sympathetic to the National Socialist cause, nor did he align with revisionists of any kind, Birken thought that there was much light to be shed on the issue despite the voluminous literature already written. The author was of the opinion that “intellectual historians have an implicit bias toward the notion that a powerful thinker must also be an ethical one.” We can also add to this that said historians also think that the only ethical scale that matters is the one they uphold as part of a system that gives them power on account of them sharing or at least publicly expressing a particular set of ideals. Birken accuses intellectual historians of pursuing exclusively ad hominem attacks against Hitler in an attempt to “excise Hitler’s thought from its Western context.” The sources towards which one must look in order to gain an impression of this thought, he tells us, are Hitler’s speeches, Mein Kampf, his Secret Book and the conversational content in Table Talk. We are told that it is clear that towards the end, Hitler “had achieved a clear understanding of world politics that might be passed down to future generations,” and that the man “seems to have believed that his main accomplishments were intellectual.”
There is a clarification Birken makes as the book starts in earnest (on page 24), which defeats simplistic accusations by those on both the Left and the Right who clearly have not explored or understood the core of National Socialism. Hitler advocated what was termed a “masculine” egalitarian realm in which ability implies race, reflecting how Hitler understood hierarchy and the führer prinzip would be upheld. One can glimpse this from John Toland’s narrations of how Hitler found the NSDAP a mere tea-table discussion group and built it up by will and tenacity, attracting those around him of all kinds despite their misgivings, to a momentous force of history. Birken defines a concept opposed to this also found in the ideas of National Socialists and Traditionalists termed as a “feminine” hierarchical realm in which race implies ability. This last concept embodies what has come to be all Neo-Nazism, the seeds of which already existed in The Third Reich, and which Hitler deplored and looked above again and again in opinions expressed in writing and orally, in private and in public.
Lawrence Birken refers to Hitler’s thought as a “hypertrophy of Enlightenment characteristics.” The Enlightenment, he tells us, was a combination of traditionalism and modernism pervaded by tension. These ideologies, he tells us, upheld individualism, but a kind of individualism different as we understand it today. Whereas we understand our individualism as one of deconstruction, the Enlightenment suffused objects and ideas with holism. The individual of today is disconnected, encouraged toward a disjunct existence in which an abstract ideology, and not his own nature, serves to bring him together with his fellow humans. The individualism of the Enlightenment, on the contrary, had a sense of belonging, of identity, and upon this base versus an other, against what one is not, was being delineated. The Enlightenment, Birken tells us, was a mixture of sentimentality and rationality. Note that he does not ascribe madness or irrationality to National-Socialism, but rather paints Hitler as a conservative who conserved “the idea of revolutionary progress,” and who fought “a two-front war against a reactionary past and a revolutionary future.”
Volkish Nationalism, another important component of Hitler’s thought, is described by Birken as an intensification of Enlightenment values, which in turn, correctly understood, is the core of Western, Faustian values. Among these values, both at the core of the Enlightenment and National Socialism, fraternity takes precedence and is stressed over liberty and equality. The latter two are the whipping boys of the Old Right and the Furthest Right, and a correct understanding of what role these play in Hitler’s thought may go a long way in understanding why National Socialism was not “leftist,” just as it was not “rightist.” Rather, influenced by one and paralleled by the other, it was neither Communist nor Fascist, but an Enlightenment-infused amalgamation of both that at once rose above them. The notion of the parasite, which would take an important role in the distinction between over/superior and under/inferior humanity, is said by Birken to have been “rooted in the Enlightenment distinction between productive and unproductive.”
The author goes on to affirm that in this context “it is Wagner, more than either Bismarck or Nietzsche, who was the real heir to the Enlightenment.” Bismarck upheld pre-Enlightenment dynasticism and dressed it in Nationalism. Nietzsche expressed an elitist post-Enlightenemnt philosophy that moved towards deconstruction, to see pure and wholly distinct individuals rise above the masses. But Wagner, we are told by the author, upheld both Prussian traditionalism and existentialist relativism. Wagnerism attempted to exist in a space in between, where neither God nor the individual were idealized, and instead placed at the center of all things the collective mystique of the Volk.
Giving Hitlerism a historical context, Birken explains how “Little Germany” at the beginning of the twentieth century attracted attention to itself by becoming the single most powerful state in the continent, a Germany “strong enough to attract enemies but not strong enough to intimidate them.” Against what Hitler believed, however, the Great War that came as a consequence of its growing strength to Germany was not brought to an end by a foreign stab in the back. In 1918, it was the leaders of the German army, the Old Guard, who wanted to save their own class privileges, who tried to maneuver to save their own skins and possessions. It was the soldier in the trenches who was betrayed.
National Socialism, as a kind of volkish fascism, arises from this context trying to heal wounds, scapegoating the Jews. Hitler’s unique role and ability here was being able to appeal both to the elites and to the masses, though never belonging to either. In a sense, he was a true Nietzschean individual, despite all that one might observe. This reconciling of the aristocracy and the workers was the living example of the National Socialist ideal. In a world collapsing in on itself, Hitlerism was a defense against nihilism. Again, we may observe a parallel with Nietzsche’s philosophy, if different in method and against what Birken thought. Whoever, writes Miguel Serrano, understands National Socialism as something merely political has understood nothing.
On the economic side of things, National Socialism fused a “libertarian” definition of inventiveness with a “sombre” collectivism. Hitler criticized both Capitalism and Communism, affirming that the first permitted social endowments, while the latter denied biological ones. By way of parenthesis, we may add that in places like this is where Savitri Devi’s National Socialist return to Aryan Vedic ideals was perfectly in synchronicity with this. The Vedas speak about liquid castes, in which individuals may rise or fall by their individual merit: it is not birth that determines caste, but the manifest individual, negating hereditary accession but also communistic repartitioning. Note also how Plato’s description of his ideal society has movable castes, not rigid ones, a fact too often and conveniently overlooked by both detractors of Plato and those who would use The Republic as a wayward argument for birthright.
Hitler’s conception of work, then, is understood as the synthesis of individual effort and social need. The right type of economics, believed Hitler, could enhance racial value (where race is understood as being defined by ability). Racial value, in turn, affected the relationship between land and labor. The way in which an individual attains his highest expression is by transforming race values into personality values. Consequently, by upholding those with higher capacity as having a higher race value, and extinguishing all inferior peoples at the individual level, human life as a whole could attain a higher level. Lastly, a people must possess its own productive forces within a specific territory, first of all, in order to not be subject to others.
We are urged by Birken to keep in mind that like Classical thought (i.e. Ancient Greeks and Romans), Hitler’s ideas were more dynamic than static. His conceptions were, furthermore, closer to those of Ricardo and Marx, than to Machiavelli or Keynes. It was the alien nature, the opposition to simple deist traditionalism or nihilistic modernism which made Hitler “incomprehensible” to his opponents then and now. What he set forth at every point and through different prismatic reflections were not mere propaganda points, but rather fundamental axioms. In this space between traditionalism and modernism, past deism but refraining from nihilism, Hitler saw both extreme individualism and extreme universalism as indefinite and abstract. Birken says that “Hitler subordinated the state itself to a dynamic of aggressive technological and cultural expansion.”
The author tells us that “Hitler’s racism was carefully constructed to correspond to his economic ideas.” The tricky part in understanding Hitlerism comes coupling the former with the fact, as Birken tells us, that Race was upheld as metaphysics and “anti-Semitism as religion.” A more detailed and intelligent exploration of the subject is entertained by Miguel Serrano who, like Hitler, did not hate the individual Jew and indeed held acquaintances and friendships among them (furthermore half, quarter, etc. Jews fought in Hitler’s army), but rather saw the matter in terms of archetypes. A white person who by their actions defiled his honor and displayed wanting character, was as much an inferior type as the Jews who dominated the slave trade of white girls for prostitution in Argentina in the early twentieth century. On the other hand, an honored Jew, such as the doctor who attended Hitler’s family, was put under special protection, accepted the universal proposal and facilitation of emigration that the Third Reich afforded all Jews in Germany before the outbreak of World War Two.
Moving on, Birken tells us that Hitlerism in particular was a kind of deism: the center of the cult was a secular Germanic Christ. However, something like God was needed to give the concept legitimacy. The God that Adolf Hitler evoked was Natural Law and, conversely, atheism was a denial of it. Among things unnatural were Capitalism and Communism. Birken elaborates on Marx’s theories as accusing capitalists of a vampiric exploitation of proletarian labor, and Freud’s theory of perversion breeding perversion (neurosis breeding neurosis) as an evil vampiric entity in its own right (the bestial instinct working in spite of a civilized conscious) which lived off the libido, transferring itself not only between individual but also across generations. Hitler can be seen as absorbing such ideas one way or another and embodying them in the Jew as scapegoat.
Hitler’s Aryan, writes Birken, embodied the ideal of creative work in a fusion of the economic and the aesthetic. The Jew, by way of contrast, represented the incarnation of radical individualism, which taken to its logical conclusion would end human existence. Admitting to the error of living wholly upon archetypes projected onto peoples and particular ethnic groups, we follow the author of the book in asking the question: was Antisemitism simply unconsciously projected German self-hatred? A hatred for the darker side of the self, the Jungian Shadow of humanity?
Hitler seems to have engendered a narrow-minded pseudo-solution after a well formulated identification of the problem, through what Birken describes as an “Enlightenment physiocracy,” which was both “Post-Christian and pre-Darwinian.” The latter descriptions are in conjunction some of the most precise and accurate descriptions of the philosophy of Adolf Hitler. Such an understanding defies both dreamy-eyed Traditionalist Christians who uphold Hitler as a symbol of racist Catholicism, and his modern-minded detractors who accuse him of “social darwinism” or of distorting the philosophy of Nietzsche. In truth, neither is true, because National Socialism stood apart from either, creating a unique space requiring whoever truly wants to understand it to displace themselves into that vantage point.