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Essay/Commentary on Meghan O’Donnell’s Paper
“Dangerous Undercurrent: Death, Sacrifice and Ruin in Third Reich Germany”
Alexander Chirila
To read Meghan O'Donnell's Paper, click here.

Alexander C. Chirila PhD
, teaches English and Literature at Webster University, Thailand.
His book True Immortality is available from Amazon.

For information on how to order, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

The decaying tombstones of ancient civilizations loom over the bustle of modern humanity. We labor in the shadows of our ancestors, catch impressions of their ghosts in the somber magnificence of the monuments they leave behind. Our towering memento mori remind us of time and the futility of challenging the inevitable.

Yet they also plant in our collective imagination the fantasy of eternal return, the rising anew of a mighty people and the reprisal of a mythic struggle for the glory of an immortality paid for in blood on the battlefield. This mythos pervaded the aesthetic of the Third Reich—alongside the gruesome splendor of glorious death and the irrational psychopathology that fueled the Nazi Totenkult.

Hitler’s cult of the dead, volkish ideational influences, and the apocalyptic Wagnerian mythology that characterized Nazi Germany is the subject of Meghan O’Donnell’s insightful article, “Dangerous Undercurrent: Death, Sacrifice and Ruin in Third Reich Germany.” From the Totenkult to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and Albert Speer’s “theory of ‘ruin value,’” O’Donnell reveals a potent substratum underlying the violent pageantry of German nationalism prior to WWII.

O’Donnell focuses on the often overlooked figure of Hitler as an “artist-dictator” who “dreamed of creating a new German culture fostered by racial superiority and Teutonic pride,” and who “promoted hero-worship, glorified struggle, operatic suicide and artful destruction…” This Hitler was more than a charismatic orator or malevolent demagogue: he was the figurehead of an artistic movement powerful enough to drive an entire nation into a doom painted in “blood red and Stygian black.”

The wedding of art and warfare is not unique to Nazi symbolism, but the Third Reich remains a compelling example of how disparate patterns of collective ideation, social conditions, and human psychology may be commandeered at the right time, and under the right auspices—to create what has become the epitomic example of evil in Western history.

The explicit and popular ultra-nationalism encouraged by the Third Reich was mirrored in an equally idealized inversion that valued sacrifice as much as, if not more than, victory. The archetypal martyr embodies the idea of a testament provided with a single, definitive act of self-sacrifice that reifies belief and represents the power of faith.

The figure of the martyr is not absent from Nazi rhetoric, but the religiosity of the archetype is tempered by a Bacchanalian submission to the fatherland and Führer. The riotous frenzy of self-sacrifice on a national scale is balanced by an entirely modern stoicism haunted by the machineries of a new age. O’Donnell writes that “instead of turning away from modernity, as many early Romantics had done, this new form assimilated its philosophy with Nazism’s modern propaganda, modern technology, and modern war.”

The idealization of the modern soldier, willing to march into machine gun fire and artillery bombardment in blatant spite of the futility of such a strategy, became the centerpiece of a new dispensation of warfare. Hitler clothed this novel horror in a peculiarly potent artistry that was pompous and melodramatic, fanatical and unrepentantly brutal, epic, Faustian, and mythic—and it worked alchemically on the collective psyche of a vulnerable populace.

Many have asked how an entire country could have followed such a man, such a government, such policies; and the answer cannot be an entirely rational one. It must include an element of the irrational, and not in the form of madness, but rather in the form of art—something capable of representing the logical and fantastical alike and in combination.

As O’Donnell’s article suggests, Hitler’s vision was not merely political and ideological, but artistic also. It needed to be neither entirely original nor even sensible by the early standards of modern statehood. It needed rather to capitalize on the conflicts and tensions felt by the German people. “The philosophy’s connection to nature,” O’Donnell writes, “folk traditions, and man’s rootedness to his ancestral homeland, were essential in creating an alternative to urbanism and industrialization.”

Infused with the volkish ideology that recreated and mythologized collective history, nationalism elevated the German country to the status of a promised land. Its people become the beleaguered focal point of a conflict that demanded nothing less than total submission and willingness to sacrifice. “This kind of sacrificial ideology,” O’Donnell points out, “became increasingly more radicalized through the course of Hitler’s reign. By the end of WWII, a mythology steeped in heroic death and the volkish neo-romantic dogma of National Socialism reached its zenith through the final acts of suicide by Hitler and his followers in the Berlin bunker.”

Hitler’s “civil religion” effectually distorted “elements intrinsic to the earlier forms of Romanticism, including the allure of darkness, organic ruin, dramatic death, and the powerful importance of art to life” and allowed them to be “co-opted and consumed by neo-Romanticism and the irrational and emotional volkish ideology.”

This confluence of numinous and psychologically potent ideological threads found powerful expression the Totenkult as well as fertile soil in post-WWI Germany. O’Donnell pinpoints a sense of fatalism in all this, enshrined in miles of mausoleums constructed at Hitler’s behest, expressed in his fixation with Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, and collectively embodied in the German idealization of the soldier and national martyr.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud famously wrote: “The goal of all life is death,’ a reference to a paradoxical human instinct to return to an original inanimate state: ‘The inanimate was there before the animate’ (1920).We are resolved to die in our own way, Freud goes on to say, to follow our own circuitous routes “to return to the peace of the inorganic world.”

Inasmuch as all organisms arguably share in this “death-instinct,” we can presume the existence of myriad collective human fantasies that express and enact this primordial drive. The death-instinct would also be paired with any number of symbols and ideations that modify, channel, sublimate, and consummate it. This death-instinct was decorated and embellished in the feverish pomp and grim splendor of Nazi rallies as well as Hitler’s own obsession with “the idea of ruins and monumentality.” O’Donnell cites Hitler’s own words: “‘In the midst of a hallowed grove of ancient oak trees will the people then marvel in reverent awe at this first colossus among the buildings of the German Reich.’”

Hitler’s own suicide enacted the willing sacrifice that he expected every German citizen to kill and die for, a glorified masochism matched by the unprecedented sadism of his Final Solution. He invested his pronouncements with a pathos that fetishized bloodshed and death as the means to restoration, immortality, and national revival. This was an appeal to the irrational, but more importantly, it was an appeal to an ingrained aesthetic that could mesmerize an entire nation. O’Donnell writes that Hitler’s “use of blood, both symbolically and literally, from flags, to costumes, to the prose of his impassioned and operatic speeches, became the fundamental element in the death cult imagery of the Third Reich.”

O’Donnell effectively tracks Freud’s thanatos through the appeal of death cult imagery in Nazi Germany. An aggregate that was part volkish ideology, flawed self-destructive heroism, and the blind excess of frenzied devotion found dangerous expression in an aesthetic that became an emergent force in Third Reich Germany. This was more than a symbol or group of symbols; O’Donnell’s article suggests that Hitler, those closest to him, and the artists, poets, architects and musicians who believed in him—were able to give form and substance to a vision born of a distorted interpretation of heroism, nationhood, and history. Bound to the unprecedented machinery of modern warfare, this vision became enacted on the battlefield, an epic and apocalyptic saga given life.