Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
SOME people believed that Hitler could be induced by certain limited concessions, made dependent on his fulfillment of certain specified conditions, to change his methods of procedure and limit his aims. Germany would then cease to figure as a troublemaker in the world and would fit into a new international equilibrium. The view was based on a number of sound assumptions and was justified by the example of the movement for German unification between 1864 and 1870. Bismarck often expressed the idea. He said that once the unified Reich had been constituted, one of his main concerns would be to create general confidence in its pacific intentions. After rectifying the injuria temporum (the Bismarckian phrase), German policy would set itself the task of becoming a force for peace in Europe. Bismarck's national policy was based exclusively on force and was eminently "practical." But its objectives were always limited. At the given moment it saw the necessity of fixing its own limits, and never overstepped them.
Sharply in contrast with Bismarck's "art of the possible" stands the hazy, impulsive policy of William II. At a critical moment during the latter's reign, the Morocco crisis of 1905, Sir Arthur Nicolson remarked that the German Foreign Office did not itself know what it wanted; and he went on to say that the real danger in German policy was not so much its expansionist outlook as its vagueness. That was entirely true. It was impossible to work out a policy of harmonious collaboration with a person who did not know what he wanted. William II based his foreign policy on surprises and sudden impulses, and that fact, much more than Germany's striving for world power, led directly to the World War.
Hitler's policy at first differed strikingly from the policy of William II. It differed also from the policy of the Weimar Republic, which was also -- though for different reasons, chiefly the Republic's inherent weakness -- wavering and uncertain. Hitler's policy was outspoken and showed that it was clearly conscious of its goals. Frankly nationalistic, setting out to revise the Versailles Treaty and rectify an obvious injuria temporum, it moved along lines noticeably similar to Bismarck's. It began, then, as the continuation of a policy which, in the previous century, after achieving its aims, resulted in over forty years of peace for Europe.
In the beginning Hitler's policy was strictly and exclusively national. Its one aim seemed to be to transform the "little Germany" that Bismarck had founded into the "greater Germany" that still lived in the thoughts of all German patriots. This was to be achieved by revision of the territorial provisions in the peace treaty, which in the long run would have proved unendurable anyway. Germany possessed many friends among her sometime war opponents. These would probably have approved of such a reasonable policy if certain revolutionary features attending its application, along with its terroristic methods, had not chilled good will abroad and intensified foreign hesitations. Even so, however, one still could argue that the extravagant features of the new German policy were superficial and would automatically correct themselves in due course.
Objectively, however, the policy of the Third Reich could be considered constructive only so long as it had a definite and limited scope. In other words, only if National Socialist foreign policy aimed specifically at uniting actually German territories in an enlarged German state could it expect that other states would tolerate the gradual reorganization of Europe under German leadership.
During the early years of the National Socialist régime, therefore, foreign criticism took the form mainly of moralistic disapproval of certain of its domestic methods. There was little disapproval of its aims as such. Indeed, some authoritative interpreters abroad exerted themselves to put even the domestic procedures of National Socialism in a better light, thereby strengthening a natural inclination on the part of many persons to ignore certain repulsive revolutionary aspects of the movement as being strictly the private concern of the German people, explicable probably on the basis of the delight which they habitually take in discipline and "order." The austere forms which the German national regimentation adopted were calculated in many ways to beguile foreign criticism. The advantages of authoritarian methods became apparent in the ease with which Germany overcame many surface symptoms of her social and economic crisis. The country seemed to be on the road to order and recovery; hence (it was assumed), once a transitional period of unrest had passed, on the road to peace.
The domestic opponents of National Socialism among the former ruling classes of Germany reached a similar view. During a first short period they grossly underestimated the strength of the new régime. There followed a second short period when the dominant feeling was one of shock and resentment at its brutal methods. Then finally the educated and patriotic middle classes settled down in the persuasion that the various outrages of National Socialism were ephemeral revolutionary manifestations that must needs be borne with for the time being.
In non-Nazi circles in those days, among the army leaders, the bureaucracy and in business, the word was passed to allow the revolutionary outburst "to wear itself out." The movement, it was said, would "clean itself up." The wise course was felt to be to enter the Party so as gradually to reshape it from within. Many important holders of public office felt, of course, that it was impossible to reconcile the Party's unscrupulous conduct with their individual consciences and that it was their duty to resign. They were reminded that to do so would only strengthen the new movement and intensify its extremist character. They were told that rather it was their duty to hold their positions as long as possible, in order gradually to weed out the "catastrophe makers," or, at the worst, to serve as brakes on " the plunge into catastrophe." Reasoning of this sort had a certain semblance of soundness, and it appealed, among others, to men such as Baron von Neurath, in foreign affairs, to Count Schwerin-Krosigk, in finance, and to Eltz Rübenach, in commerce. They decided not to break with National Socialism, but to work with it, to retard and moderate it, and to prevent another lapse into bloody revolution.
These motives were intelligible enough, but they were none the less mistaken. The National Socialist movement could not be reformed. It was obeying an inner iron-bound law of its own being. It was following the relentless urge toward extremism to which every revolutionary movement is destined. The collaboration of conservative and competent officials and men of affairs strengthened the régime; but they could not change it. They wore themselves out, and the movement went on regardless. An adjustment of the nature of a civil war was avoided; but in the end the price was the total capitulation of the "restorative" elements in the ruling and educated classes and of the liberal and democratic elements in business and labor.
The question now arises whether, in following a sometimes temporizing and sometimes frankly pro-Nazi policy, the western democracies did not make the same mistake in the foreign field which inside the Reich led to the capitulation and enslavement of the German citizenry as a whole. The policy of domestic collaboration avoided civil war within Germany; the conduct of the democracies in compromising with Germany aimed to avoid a European war. To be sure, there would be solid grounds for reasoning the other way round -- that the disposition of the democracies to yield, without setting any clearly discernible limits on what they would yield, was what first made war a real danger. However that may be, there can be no doubt that pressure upon Germany from abroad might very well have led to the fall of the National Socialist régime. But would that have led to any lasting adjustment for Europe as a whole? Perhaps the overthrow of National Socialism would have set a genuinely revolutionary development in motion. A period of anarchy might then have ensued. Or a strictly Prussian and militaristic solution might have been found, compared with which even the National Socialist régime might have seemed the lesser evil.
How such a gross misreading of National Socialism could have held sway for so long in the world is hard indeed to comprehend. The lack of critical sense and foresight shown by German business leaders doubtless contributed. They merely noticed with satisfaction the temporary relief brought them through currency control and the new methods of dealing with labor problems, and they paid no attention to the disturbing revolutionary disintegration of all the elements composing what is called public order. They were simply obsessed by the idea that National Socialism's energetic methods offered the chance of at least temporarily escaping from the general world depression.
There was another reason in addition to the apparent cessation of the depression in Germany which contributed substantially to the foreign inclination to view the course of events there with a certain amount of optimism. German unemployment was closely interrelated with a number of problems which, generally speaking, could be solved only by the coöperation of all countries; but above all it was related to the problem of raw materials. Now Germany's difficulty in securing raw materials would probably not have arisen under conditions of peaceful international commerce. But international commerce had been upset by the depression. It seemed only natural, therefore, to seek economic remedies for the critical situation in Germany which was driving her to adopt a policy of political expansion. If certain territories were handed over to Germany to be exploited, and if her need for raw materials were met, would not her menacing revolutionary trend be eliminated or diverted? An economically satisfied Germany, it was argued, would dissipate its explosive energies in peaceful labor.
Plausible as these considerations are, they fail to explain why, in spite of progressive surrenders to National Socialist demands from year to year and in one area after another, the desired peaceful results were not achieved, but on the contrary German demands constantly grew.
The fact is, of course, that the whole form of reasoning outlined above rested on false assumptions. It grossly exaggerated the importance of economic considerations in the German situation and overlooked its irrational or non-rational motivations. Many observers were led astray by the patriotic impulses which the National Socialist movement satisfied and failed to notice its disintegrating revolutionary tendencies. What especially was overlooked was the movement's anti-moral background, which was what gave it its peculiar destructive power.
It is important to realize that Germany adopted the goal of economic autarchy not for economic or social reasons but for reasons having to do with national power -- or, more exactly, national defense. We find the germ of this policy as far back as the time of Bismarck, whose economic protectionism was closely related to military policy. Then came Germany's decisive experience during the World War. Germany's geographical situation always puts her in danger of being cut off from world markets, and this fact, given her inadequate raw material resources, forces her to plan either to enlarge those resources by technical devices or to obtain a supply of them through territorial expansion.
The dilemma is plain. But the full effect of it in National Socialist thought has by no means been realized abroad. The Nazi thesis runs as follows:
Numerically the German nation is next to Russia the largest in Europe. But her inadequate territory bars her from "full sovereignty" as a "world people." In peaceful times Germany of course could easily cover her raw material requirements. But in time of war her dependence on the world market makes her fatally weak. With the enormous development that has taken place in technical instruments of warfare, she no longer can prosecute a war on several fronts with any prospect of success. Her ability to employ her great technical and military capacities breaks down on the single circumstance that she is dependent economically on foreign nations. Attainment of her "full" status as a "world people" seems thus to be denied to Germany for all time, and she is condemned to play second fiddle to a numerically smaller nation like Great Britain and even to France, who has a colonial empire and free access to the open sea.
The distinctive trait of a "world people," continues the Nazi argument, is its complete freedom of political action. The United States has this freedom. So have the British Empire, Russia, and (though to a somewhat lesser extent) France. If Germany wants to keep company with those Powers and not rest satisfied in a secondary position, she has to adjust herself in terms of power to the present-day significance of "economic space." To describe her resulting effort as part of a contest between "haves" and "have-nots," between wealthy nations and proletarian nations, is to misrepresent it. That formulation of the situation is merely a psychological weapon in the war of opinion. The fact is that the largest and technically most advanced nation in Europe has been kept from playing more than a secondary rôle in the world. For Germany to accept the situation would have required either stern resignation or a resolve to seek a solution otherwise than through the assertion of power. Germany has felt herself too young and virile a nation to accept the former course; as for the latter, the World War left her without the requisite atmosphere of friendly collaboration.
Economic autarchy is an artificial instrument which must be used temporarily in the diplomatic and economic fields in order to achieve "natural independence." It is not a permanent solution, the Nazis grant, and has never been thought of as such. It runs against the nature of things and is therefore foredoomed to failure. But for the time being it has afforded Germany the brief period of independence required for her to obtain, by diplomatic or military means as the case may be, her real goal -- "full sovereignty" as a "world people."
"Lebensraum," the space required by a nation for living, is not, in Nazi terminology, the mere space sufficient for subsistence under a system of free exchange of goods. It means a domain sufficiently comprehensive to provide Germany with "absolute" freedom of action. The limits of that domain expands automatically as the requirements of modern warfare expand. What would have been adequate in the year 1880 to make Germany self-sufficient and "sovereign" had become wholly inadequate by the end of the World War. To become truly "sovereign" under postwar conditions Germany must now expand the domain under her control eastward as far as the Caucasus and including the Ukraine, and westward as far as the open sea. She must have the oil of the Caucasus, the minerals of the Ukraine, and the grain of Hungary and Rumania; also she must have the steel of northern France, control of the shore line of Belgium, Holland and northern France, and the colonial domains at present belonging to those countries. In this policy the law of the minimum controls; for the soundness of the policy varies with that factor, not with the maximum.
Such are the ideas of National Socialism. The fundamental thing which emerges is the impossibility that olive branches and concessions in this or that particular could ever serve any purpose. Either it is "full sovereignty" for Germany or it is nothing.
Hitler's foreign policy therefore allowed him no freedom of choice. His particular aims all stood in a fixed and necessary relation to his comprehensive aim: "full sovereignty" for Germany as a "world people." Germany will be satisfied only when she controls a completely self-sufficient territory. In the perspective of that policy, all projects for a return to a purely economic organization of the world necessarily remained uninteresting. The dependence of parts of the world on the whole, and the interdependence of all the parts, are the very things which must be rectified, abolished, and this not on doctrinaire grounds but because of the plain requirements of practical politics. Thus there were but two alternatives: Germany's complete surrender, her renunciation of all hope of becoming a "world people;" or an uncompromising struggle to attain the complete goal. The goal can be attained only by German control over all Europe. Only when European hegemony has been won can National Socialism accept a system of international exchange of commodities as not any longer disturbing to German sovereignty. In view of this, the effort to make National Socialist imperialism believe that it would do well to go back to a system of free international exchange, and to explain to National Socialist chieftains that other countries are only too anxious to help them satisfy Germany's economic needs, were perfectly fatuous.
Other facts fortified the National Socialist determination never to abandon their full aims in the foreign field. Of great importance, for instance, was the National Socialist conviction that Germany's eagerness for world dominion corresponded to a real change in the power relationships of the nations. In this view, German foreign policy merely recognized an actual state of fact hitherto obscured by the antiquated manner in which the world's territory was distributed. In Nazi eyes England is a paper Power, whose strategic position is in full disintegration. France is a dying nation, biologically unable any longer to play the part of a world Power, much less a "world people." The United States is no longer a young nation. It is, moreover, a hodgepodge of peoples and so can never attain a stable political form. It is not ambitious -- hence, by definition, not a "world people." The proper sort of touch from the outside at the right moment would send it reeling into revolution.
The complacency of National Socialists who thus interpreted the realities of the world scene was not very much upset by the changes of the last half year. Reorganization in France and rearmament in Great Britain were regarded as mere show, specious bustle. The National Socialists considered that the democracies lacked one thing which is basic and essential -- namely, the unshakable resolve to assert themselves in terms of power.
Hitler himself has commented on the sort of aggressive foreign policy described above. His opinion of the results of making concessions in diplomacy is particularly important. In a characteristic passage in "Mein Kampf" he writes:
The shrewd victor will, when possible, present his demands to the conquered piecemeal. He can be sure that a people without character -- and such will be any people that voluntarily submits -- will see no sufficient reason for again going to war over any one of his separate encroachments. The more extortions of this kind are docilely accepted, the more unjustified will it seem to people finally to go to war over a new act of oppression, ostensibly isolated, but really recurring; especially since they all in all have already put up with so much more and greater abuses in patient silence.
We come now to the central question as to the real nature of National Socialism. Is it actually a national movement? Here we shall do well to consider not so much its political theories as its tactics. In his tactics, Hitler carries over into the general field of politics, and especially into the fields of foreign policy and military strategy, certain modern doctrines of the coup d'état and of civil war. His policy is one of permanent conspiracy. It is warfare by psychological pressure in accordance with methods of conspiracy and revolutionary disintegration. His policy is one of world revolution. But world revolution is not conceived of as the ultimate goal (as Lenin conceived it), but as a permanent activity aiming at the progressive decomposition of all elements of order. Hitler has absorbed and set logically in his mind the theories of the coup d'état developed by Trotzky and Malaparte. From them he derived the characteristic resort of his policy, the crippling of the will of his antagonist by bewildering it and "splitting" it. Combining threats and promises, his strategy aims to procure the voluntary submission of his opponent. He hopes to make the surrender easier by parcelling out his demands and encroachments in small doses, so that no one of them will seem important enough by itself to fight over rather than to compromise. Hitler manœuvres his antagonist into the position held by the old régime in the typical revolution. He thinks the western democracies in the great world revolution now in full course are in the position of the old régimes and former élites which have capitulated and abdicated in the lesser revolutions of the past.
Actual experience convinced Hitler of the soundness of his judgment and of the practicability of his revolutionary system. And from that experience he drew the conclusion that his personal significance in history lies in his having perceived how hollow was the strength of the old states and that his personal mission was to liquidate them from their antiquated positions in the hierarchy of power. His confidence naturally was in no wise shaken by the fact that the risks which he supposedly had been running in his many foolhardy adventures proved in the result to have been no real risks at all. The seemingly impossible turned out unfailingly to be quite feasible. The old régimes, with all their enormously superior resources, time and again capitulated before the revolutionary squads of National Socialist Germany.
From this standpoint could concessions and offers of peace from an antagonist seem anything but symptoms of his readiness to capitulate? No, they merely sharpened the eagerness for attack! A mistaken psychology on the part of the Powers of Western Europe proved to be what brought on the very war which they had tried to prevent by being reasonable and conciliatory. In essence the war was being fought all along. It was stupid, then, to try to prevent its breaking out. The proper program would have been to try to put an end to it without a ruinous shedding of blood. This could have been done only by compelling Hitler to abandon his methods of conspiracy, and the only effective means to that end would have been prompt, continuous and unequivocal assertions of principle backed by evidence of an unflinching determination and ability to maintain the position taken.
But the diplomatic situation was far from requiring Hitler to do anything of that sort. Rather it supplied him with more and more opportunities for his psychological victories. To grasp the real significance of this fact it must be realized that according to Hitler's doctrine of strategy, war in the old-fashioned military sense is secondary. In his conception of war, the bloody military action in the field has merely the function that pursuit after a victory has in ordinary military strategy. The really decisive action is suppossed to take place before the outbreak of war. It consists in a demoralization of the enemy. In his plan, the resort to weapons merely completes, by a last extreme act of force, the defeat which has already been determined by the methods of diplomatic conspiracy.
In recent months Hitler found himself fighting the early and what he imagined would be the decisive phases of a war. Strategic retreats now and then seemed necessary. But the first stages, to his way of thinking, offered very bright prospects. Why should he, then, bring the war to a halt? He was convinced that the total mobilization of the German people could be indefinitely endured, for National Socialist discipline had deliberately trained them to withstand hardships; whereas the democracies would find a state of continuous mobilization for war utterly foreign and inevitably provocative of fatal social unrest. So, too, the liberal economic system, in spite of its incomparably stronger position in actual wealth, would collapse sooner than the planned war economy of National Socialism, despite its far smaller economic reserves. True, the Western Powers were making rapid progress in rearmament; but time, in Hitler's view, was none the less working in the long run for National Socialism.
How then, with Hitler viewing things in this way, could he have been induced to abandon his political objectives and voluntarily fall in with a new and far-reaching world adjustment on a basis of international collaboration and peace? One thing was certain. He would never be brought to do so by concessions. Hitler began with motives of patriotism. But whether forced by the inner logic of his policies, or perhaps guided from the start by his doctrine of the psychological war, he went on and on, until he had become the leader of a world revolution at the end of which loomed "a new partitioning of the earth."
This idea of a new division, an offspring of Marxian ideas, but with the class war within nations worked over into a class war among nations, was most attractive to the "dynamic Powers," since it allowed them to extend their fronts in their psychological war more and more widely, until finally the moment arrived to assert their leadership and control over the whole earth.
One last consideration. National Socialism was also compelled to go forward by conditions at home. Its one chance of keeping in power in Germany was to continue the revolutionary movement and to intensify it. It could not give up any of its instruments of control. It could not dismantle the economic structure which was one of its main sources of power. It could not go back to freer social and legal forms of organization without surrendering all along the line. It might for a time agree to limit its armaments, for what it needed, it had decided, was psychological superiority no less than military preponderance. In any case, though, there were specific things which clearly it could not do: It could not establish a state of law. It could not grant a constitution universally applicable to all individuals and classes. It could not relax its terroristic rule.
Under these conditions, any real political or economic coöperation with other countries was unthinkable, i.e., there was no possibility of a return to normal commercial intercourse, a normal credit policy or a free exchange. While all the elements of a system of law and even the barest outlines of a system of public audit were completely lacking, could anyone seriously imagine that new billions of credit would ever be made available for Germany?
Any régime that has limited aims can compromise, can dispense with the complete attainment of every one of its objectives. Not so National Socialism. Compromise, for National Socialism, is death. The alternatives facing it were and are total success or total capitulation. One or the other. Any retreat abroad would at once create difficulties at home that would lead to the régime's collapse. From it, then, one could and can expect nothing but an unwavering advance along the road on which it set out -- the road to hegemony over Europe and to world revolution.