Contemporary sources — who are bound to lies because in an egalitarian time, everything is a lie — seem baffled by the Holocaust. Was it mere racism, ideology or pathological cruelty? Perhaps some of the above, and also, “philosophy.”
It was clear to me early on that Adolf Hitler attempted to fight back against the root ideology of socialism, which is a tricky animal because it is both collectivist and individualist. Individualism — “me first” before nature, society or others — is its goal, but collectivism is its method. Already this concept is too complex for any but a few in modern society.
He also recognized, as did Schopenhauer and Plato, that a thriving civilization acts by choosing the idea it strives for first and method later, where dying civilizations choose a method and then rationalize the results as being the idea for which it was striving.
As Plato wrote, during the Golden Age of humanity, materiality was viewed as a means to an end. Good men had wealth so that they could do good things; bad men were deprived of wealth because with it, they would do bad things. Hitler wanted to refute materialism.
He — like many others — may have misinterpreted the crucifixion of Jesus in the Bible, or just given in to prevailing superstitions and analysis, which assigned to the Jews a role as materialists and to Christians, that of idealists. This is not entirely wrong but it is misinterpreted.
Jewish materialism is in my view a Buddhist-like attempt at rejecting dualism, or the idea of a perfect world with the true actual rules of reality in it, as opposed to this world which is just symbolic or otherwise irrelevant. Buddhists recognize dualism as early onset schizophrenia.
In addition, the point of the crucifixion scene in the Bible was not that Pontius Pilate was Roman and the crowd were Jews, but that a crowd demanded the death of Jesus, and they did so through democracy. A vote was taken and the herd opted to kill the prophet instead of an actual criminal.
History fans notice that this mirrors what happened to Socrates, the story from which the crucifixion story is almost certainly derived. (Fundamentalism regard the Bible, which is a metaphorical story compiling spiritual knowledge from a half-dozen traditions, will also make you schizoid).
But Hitler wanted a unifying concept, one that could motivate his people toward the right idea and away from what he hated, which was the shallow materialism that defines the modern time. Unlike Nietzsche, who associated this with Christianity, Hitler took another direction.
We have no records of Hitler reading Nietzsche, although he was certainly conversant with the ideas of that philosopher. We do know that he was fond of carrying a volume of Schopenhauer around, and that this philosopher argued that Christianity, like Hinduism, was an attempt for a heroic idealism, where Judaism had a materialistic basis:
While all other religions endeavor to explain to the people by symbols the metaphysical significance of life, the religion of the Jews is entirely immanent and furnishes nothing but a mere war-cry in the struggle with other nations. – “Fragments for the history of philosophy”, Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume I.
This may have been the source of the metaphor that Hitler used. He wanted the Germans to rise above mere individualism, and so he gave them a metaphor for individualism through Judaism. However, this proved too popular, and quickly caught on and the base anger overwhelmed the finer details of the idea.
At the point where he was most popular, Hitler could no more have backed down on his anti-Semitism than a fundamental campaign process. Germans knew something had gone wrong in their society, and they blamed the foreigners. How much of this was true is a question for another time, but clearly the method became wrong, but because scapegoats are always more popular than nuanced truths, this should have been expected.
However, Hitler was an artist, not a politician, and so he was swallowed up by the idea. At this point, his constituents expected him to act on it, and according to Albert Speer, he did so by first attempting to scare away Jews, then imprisoning them, and finally turning to more extreme methods.
This reflected an apocalyptic view of Judaism in the Nazi imagination:
According to Confino’s historical-cultural analysis, the Holocaust cannot be explained as just another one of the events of the horrible war, or as an outcome of its circumstances. The Nazi urgency to murder all the Jews but not the members of other persecuted groups, Confino writes, is explained by the Jews’ consistent apocalyptic role in the Nazi imagination. In other words, and Prof. Confino says it brilliantly numerous times, the annihilation of the entire Jewish people was the Nazis’ supreme goal in World War II. They came to save the world from the Jews and from Judaism, regardless of the price of this “salvation.” It was their mission in this world.
Providence, as Adolf Hitler told the Reichstag in December 1941, when he declared war on the United States, consigned to the German people the leadership of the battle which would shape the world’s image in the following 1,000 years—the uncompromising battle against the Jews and Judaism. This perception was not limited to the members of the Nazi party: Many Germans participated in the persecution of Jews, Confino states, while many others—basically, the entire German society—did not oppose the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish initiatives. Not a single group in the German society rejected the Nazi offensive on the Jews and on Judaism—for the information of Israelis and Jews in Berlin.
Hitler may have thought this treatment was relatively uncontroversial. The world has barely blinked during the Boer and Armenian genocides, and laughed off mass killings in the New World and India. To his mind, this may have been a standard method within the norm, not an aberration.
Imagine an American candidate running on the idea of eliminating “materialism” among us, and identifying a group of “materialists.” You cannot touch materialism, but you can wring the neck of a materialist, and so that is what the crowd will demand.
In a sad repetition of the acts of the French Revolution, the crowd swept Hitler up in a wave of popularity he could not control and demanded the return of the guillotine. This unfolded in events that to our great sadness were modern, all too modern.
If we are to survive into the future, our path lies elsewhere from modernity. We do not need more crowds chanting for the crucifixion of Jesus, beheading of nobles or gassing of Jews. We need a calm process of sorting out who should stay from those who must leave, and to do so as gently as possible, if nothing else for the conservation of beauty and clarity in our own souls.