It is right to focus on Hitler as the core and essence of the Nazi movement. He was the individual who defined Nazi ideology, and was the one most deeply plugged in to it. Yet what occurred in Germany happened only because millions of people embraced Nazism.
The defining event of this era, perhaps, was the mass-rallies at Nuremberg, where hundreds of thousands of Germans came together to worship Hitler and to applaud his every word…in what can only be described as a religious ritual.
Many historians focus on “obedience” or “obedience to authority” as concepts central to understanding Nazism. However, Robert Pois observes that Hitler was the most popular political leader of the 20th century—perhaps of all time. I sometimes chuckle responding to people who raise the issue of obedience at lectures. I say, “You mean like obedience to Elvis Presley, or obedience to the Beatles, or obedience to Michael Jackson?”
Joachim Fest (1973) observes that if it were not for the confluence between the personal and social pathological situation, Hitler could never have “wielded such hypnotic power over his fellow citizens.” He could not have “bewitched the masses” if he had not shared their secret emotions and “incorporated all their psychoses into his own psyche.”
Which is why the best way to understand Nazism is to view the movement as resting on—grounded in—a shared fantasy. The key to the kingdom is to study the precise words and phrases uttered by Hitler at his mass-rallies and speeches. What was he saying that so turned people on? Hitler said that Nazism was the most democratic political movement—because Germans agreed with everything he said. As Fest put it, when Hitler spoke, the masses “hailed and idolized themselves.” An “exchange of pathologies took place.”
Ronald Aronson notes that what was remarkable about Nazism was that it became enough of a mass outlook for a “movement, and then a society as a whole to be reorganized around it.” In power, the Nazis reshaped reality until it “conformed to the distorted fantasy.” Wasn’t Hitler “giving voice to the malignancy, the irrationality of the social forces that brought them to power?”
Perhaps the most powerful evocation of the Final Solution appears in Raoul Hilberg’s classic, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961/1985). Hilberg describes the killing of the Jews as an “undertaking for its own sake;” an event “lived and lived through by its participants.”
As the destructive profess unfolded, Hilberg notes, its “requirements became more complex”—and its fulfillment involved an “ever-larger number of agencies, party offices, business enterprises, and military commands.” The destruction of the Jews was a “total process,” comparable in its diversity to “a modern war, a mobilization, or a national reconstruction.”
The German bureaucracy, Hilberg says, could sense the enormity of the operation and displayed a fundamental comprehension of the task “even when there were no explicit communications.” The destruction process was described as “cleansing of Jews actions.”
One need think only of the railroads, Hilberg explains, which served as the principal means for transporting troops, munitions, supplies and raw materials.” Every day, available rolling stock had to be allocated, and congested routes assigned—for trains urgently requested by military and industrial users. Notwithstanding the priorities, Hilberg says, “no jew was left alive for lack of transport to a killing center.”
People are astonished to learn that trains carrying soldiers—heading to fight on the Eastern Front—were often commandeered and used to transport Jews to the death camps. Such astonishment is misplaced. The fundamental purpose of the Nazi movement was to kill Jews.
It “offends the intellect” to imagine that millions of people were killed “for no good reason;” that the Nazi movement revolved around the “production of corpses;” that mass-murder occurred for its own sake—with no ulterior purpose.
When millions of people are killed in war, somehow this makes sense. We imagine that nations are trying to “win;” or to “defend their territory;” or to engage in acts of “conquest” to gain resources or expand the amount of territory under control.
But for Hitler, killing Jews was more significant than any of these conventional military objectives.
So the Final Solution—a perfect case study—allows us to bring psychology to bear upon events occurring in the political arena. Perhaps killing Jews had no “rational” purpose. But obviously it had a purpose. Eliminating the Jewish race was Hitler’s primary goal.
Why did Hitler wish to remove Jews from the face of the Earth? What was the meaning of the Final Solution? What desires and fantasies gave rise to this bizarre project?