Reflections Of Nazism: An Essay On Kitsch & Death – Saul Friedlander

Ultimately only the nothingness remains. – Saul Friedlander, Reflections Of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch And Death, trans. Thomas Weyr, p.70

The Reichstag an empty shell, Berlin burns as the Red Army seizes the city, 1945

In 1932, at the behest of a Committee of The League Of Nations, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud engaged in an exchange on the questions both of the nature of war and its possible solutions.* Of interest here is Freud’s discussion of the so-called “death instinct”, which he related to an inversion of our instinct for self-preservation, which usually involves aggression.. . . .

I would like to dwell a little longer on this destructive instinct which is seldom given the attention that its importance warrants. With the least of speculative efforts we are led to concluded that this instinct functions in every living being, striving to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter. Indeed, it might well be called the “death instinct”; whereas the erotic instincts vouch for the struggle to live on. The death instinct becomes an impulse to destruction when, with the aid of certain organs, it directs its action outward against external objects. . . .But, in one of its activities, the death instinct is operative within the living being and we have sought to trace back a number of normal and pathological phenomena to this introversion of the destructive instinct.

Often thought to be at the very least optimistic regarding the efficacy of psychoanalysis to help individuals heal their hidden pains and those deeper illnesses that often cripple them, in fact Freud was far less sanguine about the possibility of improving either the individual or human society. The pervasiveness of this “death instinct”, for Freud, set limits upon any balance that psychoanalysis could achieve, either in the individual or in society. Even at our best, a part of us pursues our self-destruction with more or less strength and purpose.

I offer this by way of Introduction as one possible explanation for the piece missing from Saul Friedlander’s essay on the state of Nazi historiography in the late-70’s and early-80’s in Europe. While fastening upon the incongruous ideas of “kitsch” and “death” as ways to understand what he calls “the unease” that comes from encountering a new wave of artistic explorations of Nazi Germany. For all these concepts can account not only for that frisson, but also the unease that comes from a vague fear that, by attempting to explain the years from 1933-1945 in Germany, we come perilously close to mimicking (thus the preposition “of” not “on” in the title) the very attraction that resulted in Germany pulling the Western World down around it in its death throes.

Of kitsch, Friedlander quotes Abraham Moles, who wrote that it is

pinnacle of good taste in the absence of taste, of art in ugliness – a branch of mistletoe under the lamp in a railway waiting room, nickeled plate glass in a public place, artificial flowers gone astray in Whitechapel, a lunch box decorated with Vosges fir – everyday Gemutlichkeit, art adapted to life where the function of the adaptation exceeds that of innovation. (p. 25)

Of death, Friedlander means nothing more or less than both the event itself as well as our mixed feelings of horror and fascination regarding it. Mixed together, Friedlander contends, we experience a “frisson” that thrilling chill up the back of encountering the unexpected, something that brings with it both fascination and unease. While Friedlander concedes the need for a new discourse on Nazism, this essay concerns itself with how this discourse, encountered in literature and film, leads terrifyingly close to that which it seeks to illumine – the attraction of the person of Adolf Hitler and the ideology and practice of Nazism. His is an essay less of explanation and more of caution.

The work is short, yet filled with references to films as different as The Night Porter and Hitler, a Flim from Germany; books as different as Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. and The Ogre. Friedlander sets to one side Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum as being part of an earlier discourse regarding Nazism, while Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is far too problematic for inclusion. Through it all, Friedlander is exercised to demonstrate the marriage of kitsch and death that is at the heart of the new discourse’s attempt to portray the reality of the times, all the while more-than-flirting with the very same attraction that left much of the world desolate. He writes on p. 26, “Beneath today’s reflection, one catches a glimpse of certain fundamental components of yesterday’s Nazi hold on the imagination.”

Friedlander, however, cannot escape a central reality of the Third Reich: “One couldn’t insist too much on the primordial aspect of the theme of death in Nazism itself”. (p, 41)

Beyond economic or political objectives, what formed the basis of the Nazi world view, what drove Hitler and his acolytes, “was the fascination that destruction and the love of death exercised on them.”

He brushes up against the truth in his chapter on the man Hitler (as well as the persona as portrayed in biography and fiction):

The fact is under Nazism Hitler was indeed the object of desire, not necessarily the actual person , , , but the idealized image of the chief expressing both a universal sentimentality and the attraction to nothingness that sometimes seizes contemporary crowds. (p.76)

It is impossible to overstate the erotic imaginary regarding Adolf Hitler. Usually sentimentalized, these expressions only made all the more clear the real passion Hitler and his movement aroused not just in this or that person but in the whole German nation. Friedlander, however, isn’t willing to take this insight too far as a tool for satisfactory discourse on the Reich or its Fuehrer A dedicated historian, Friedlander sees in this so much irrationality, a jury from which there is no appeal.

Yet he concedes that understanding, even with the aid of the new discourse, the marriage of kitsch and death, the original appeal of Hitler and his movement seems to defy explanation:

The emotional hold Hitler and his movement maintained on many Germans to the bitter end, and well beyond the frontiers of the Reich, the spell it wove for so many people, the actual mutation of behavior it set off, defies all customary interpretation . . .(p, 120)

Because he’s an honest historian, Friedlander understands the centrality of anti-Semitism to Nazism itself as well as to its historical and political practice and policies. At the heart of this movement lies something beyond traditional political or economic historiography. This inability to comprehend the horror is the result, in part, from what Friedlander sees as the mutilations of language used both by the bureaucrats of mass death as well as historians in describing the events of the Final Solution. Both operate not least to protect those for whom linguistic and literary clarity would offer only madness. In the slaughter of the Jews of Europe, we have to do with those extra-dimensional beings of which H. P. Lovecraft wrote that seeing them fully would destroy the human mind. Thus it is our language is sanitized in order to keep us from too close a brush with the unimaginable. Comprehending this confounding reality leaves not only what was then a new discourse, but Friedlander himself, with an unease, precisely because, as Friedlander writes at the end of his essay, “Submission nourishes fury, fury clears is conscience in the submission To the opposing needs, Nazism – in the constant duality of its representations – offers an outlet; in fact, Nazism found itself to be the expression of these opposing needs. Today these aspirations are still there, and their reflections in the imaginary as well.” (p. 135)

As we Americans live through our own precarious moment – a moment during which the end is not yet clearly in sight; shall we recover from the collective madness of a plurality of our fellows or plunge into an abyss that will bring about destruction on a scale not even imaginable? – it is important to keep in mind that the piece missing from Friedlander’s study of a new form of discourse disregarded, on some kind of principle, the very thing the Third Reich demonstrated so clearly: We human beings can, through a variety of historical and social processes, end up not just proposing but actively seeking not just our own destruction but the destruction of all that is. It took six years, much the rest of the world, and tens of millions of dead finally to  bring down these angels of death. We might yet halt our fall, should we only recognize the sometimes erotic desire for our own collective destruction that can lie deep within the human heart. We ignore this not only to our own peril, but that of much of the rest of the world.

*I’ll be referencing the exchange included in Einstein On Peace, although the exchange is also included in Basic Book’s International Psycho-Analysis Library edition, Vol. 5 of Freud’s Collected Papers under the title “Why War?”

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