In the first two parts of this series we saw first of all how Germany after the Second World War needed a reconstruction myth to sweep away the horrors of the Nazi past and yet, at the same time, avoid completely the reason for the Nazi’s rise to power. We saw how in order to do this two intellectual groups – the Western Marxists and the ordoliberals – came up with the idea that the true problem of Nazism had to with it being a state ideology. We then showed that this was not, in actual fact, the case at all and that Nazism was, if not an anti-state ideology, at the very least one which aimed at a weak subordinated state. Now let us turn to look at the reality of how Nazi society actually functioned – and how it was actually a reversion to a more primitive form of social organisation amplified to fit a modern mass society.
Nazism as Church or Army
In 1922 Sigmund Freud published Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, one of his most fascinating books. One gets the hint that there must have been something in the air of the Austria of the day because Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego not only stands out as the best text on group psychology and group formation ever written but it is also, if read correctly, provides a chilling glance into Germany and Austria a decade into the future. Was Freud writing with Austrian anti-Semites in mind? I will leave that to literary scholars to discern but it strikes me as not unlikely.
In a chapter entitled “Two Artificial Groups: The Church and the Army” Freud lays out how these institutions form into cohesive and highly organised groups. What is so fascinating in reading this chapter is that Nazi society was essentially identical in its structure to the structure of the church and army that Freud describes. Quite simply, to understand the immediate hierarchical relationships under Nazism and how they transact is to understand the essence of the ideology in both theory and practice. The state under Nazism, on the other hand, is about as relevant to understanding it as the bureaucracies of the church and the army are to understanding those institutions. Certainly they could not function without these bureaucracies but to try to derive their essential structure from them would be pure silliness – like trying to figure out the taste of a piece of food by looking at its ingredients. Let us look then at Freud’s characterisation of the church and the army to better understand the essential structure of Nazi society.
Freud starts by pointing out that the church and the army are largely involuntary organisations. The following may appear slightly dated today (he was writing after the First World War), but let us take Freud at his word as in his own time much of what he is saying is true. He writes:
A church and an army are artificial groups, that is, a certain external force is employed to prevent them from disintegrating and to check alterations in their structure. As a rule a person is not consulted or is given no choice, as to whether he wants to enter such a group; any attempt at leaving it is usually met with persecution or with severe punishment, or has quite definite conditions attached to it.
This is, of course, identical to the social structures under Nazism. Provided that you are lucky enough to be a member of the Volksgemeinschaft – and not a “degenerate” – you would be well-advised not to opt-out of this supposedly privileged position. This squares somewhat with the mainstream narrative regarding Nazism: that it was a relationship of force between totalitarian super-state and an un-free subject. However, for Freud a relationship of force was not sufficient to bind together such institutions as a church or an army. A relationship of force did not constitute their essential structure. He writes:
In a church (and we may with advantage take the Catholic Church as a type) as well as in an army, however different the two may be in other respects, the same illusion holds good of there being a head – in the Catholic Church Christ, in an army its Commander-in-Chief – who loves all the individuals in the group with an equal love. Everything depends upon this illusion; if it were to be dropped, then both Church and army would dissolve, so far as the external force permitted them to.
This is absolutely true, of course. Armies and churches that relied wholly on external force would not last very long at all. Nor can a democratic society turn to National Socialism because the state is exercising too much force over its people. Force is simply not enough to explain such social structures. Something more is needed and that something more is a leader. In Catholicism: Christ (and the Pope); in the army: the Commander-in-Chief; in Nazism: the Führer.
The Descent into Primitivism
As we will recall from the first part of this series, the Führer is the direct manifestation of the will of Volk – the people. And the Nazis are quite clear that this relationship – which is a strange quasi-fatherly love relationship – is necessary for the Volk to form into the Volksgemeinschaft – the peoples’ community; the Volksgemeinschaft being the Nazi equivalent to the church of the army itself. Again we must stress: the Volksgemeinschaft here is the end, the goal. Even the Führer is in some perverse way subject to this idea – even though, by definition, it is his will that constitutes it. The state is completely in the background here, it is merely the cogs that are worked in order to produce what the Volksgemeinschaft requires.
While Freud never wrote it explicitly in his Group Psychology those familiar with his work from the first decade of the 20th century know that he saw in groups like the church and the army the schema of a very primitive form of social organisation. He saw in it a sort of pack mentality – with a strong beloved leader at the front and everyone else following suit. In fact we see such structures across society throughout history. The patriarchal family of the 19th and early to mid-20th century exhibited these features; the pack leader being, of course, the father. So the family too could be seen as a sort of an arena of Freud’s church and army dynamics. This is not, of course, to equate any of these structures with the horror that was Nazism, just to point out that the structure was the same.
What then was so different about Nazism? Again, it was not that Nazism had tried to extend the reach of the state but that it had rendered it subordinate. In all the other examples above – the army, the patriarchal family – the institutions are still subordinate to the state. Even in the time when the medieval church wielded significant influence over politics prior to the separation between church and state, the state did largely exist independently of the church. Although nominally it may have been subordinate to God and thus in theory the church in practice such was not the case (a similar case could probably be made about Islamic state-forms today). However, in Nazism the state truly was subordinated at once to the will of the Führer and the will of the Volk – which, need we stress again, were one and the same thing.
Nazism was thus an attempt to realise a highly primitive form of social organisation at the level of mass society. Society itself would come to resemble a pack of hunter-gatherers with the most charismatic at the helm deciding what should be done next. This was the true evil of Nazism and it also explains its irrationalism and its brutality. It certainly required that an advanced state be possible – how else could you rally millions? – but its primary feature was the reduction in significance of the state-form and the rise of a pack-mentality that was vicious, brutal and filled with a terrifying love for aggression and violence that is characteristic of humans that have not been properly civilised.
This is why the myth spread by the ordoliberals and the Austrians that Nazism was an outgrowth of a state given room to extend its reach to infinity is so absurd. In actual fact Nazism was the strongest check or limit placed on the state in any advanced industrial economy in history. The state, although it grew in size, like an overhydrated jelly it became watery and weak. It was not the state that saturated society; it was the Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft. A person watching television today sees a black and white image of a Swastika draped outside of a building is conditioned to think “Aha, it is the power of the state”, but this is just more conditioning and propaganda. Although the person who hung the flag may have been a state employee – just as he may have been any other member of the Volk – the flag did not represent the state, it represented the Volksgemeinschaft; the idealised Aryan community that Hitler and his followers almost succeeded in bringing into existed.
Statehood and Autonomy
The real lesson of the Nazis is that a society without the limits placed upon it by the state, a society without a strong autonomous state-form that can maintain stability, is a society that quite literally descends into overt barbarism. There is very little chance that this lesson will ever be taken from this period in history. Partly this is due to propagandising by those who seek to capitalise on the Nazi atrocities by generating fear so that they can spread their political agenda. But partly it is due to an innate tendency in civilised man to avoid just how people can and do behave when the somewhat arbitrary authority of the state is removed.
If people can barely come to terms with how those in, say, the army – maybe in Vietnam or Iraq – behave towards civilians, treating them as if they were less than animals and so on, then they are nowhere near ready to come to terms with the reasons behind this; reasons which have explicitly to do with the form that social organisation takes in these circumstances. In our mass societies it is the state, and only the state, that contains these tendencies and when the state breaks down all the barbarism comes to the fore remarkably fast. But it is so much easier, despite all evidence being to the contrary, to blame the state for such barbarism. Why so? Because it is appealing, at some level, to these barbarous instincts in people themselves – it is giving a wink and a nod and saying “oh, none of us like authority, none of us like taxes and obligations; we’ll let you away with it, but the other guy won’t”.
Today ordoliberalism in Europe has led to a desperate situation. These people, who convinced themselves that all they had to do was ensure that the state was subordinate to the market and Nazism could be avoided, are now pushing austerity measures in countries like Greece. As the state recedes – for this is primarily what austerity measures do – the Nazis rise again and very few people even seem to notice. Myths, apparently, are immune not only from historical but also contemporary fact. One can picture the dim-witted neoliberal or libertarian sitting down watching streaming news on their flat screen television. As they reach for the remote control that sits next to a copy of The Road to Serfdom permanently bookmarked on page twelve, they see a Nazi rally in the streets of Athens and think to themselves “must be something to do with the state being too big, austerity should fix it”.