Hitler, or Exposing an Era (Hitler oder die Demaskierung einer Epoche)


This text was written in 1943 in New York. My friend, the theologian Paul Tillich, gave it to Mrs. Roosevelt, the wife of the American president, whom he occasionally visited, as a contribution to the vigorous debate at the time about “What to do with Germany after the war?”  Hans Sahl

The author of this text left Germany in 1933. He has lived in France since then, and came from there to New York in April 1941. The thoughts which he develops here are the result of experience, insight and their combination. It is not the fault of the author if the prospect which he reveals does not always correspond with our wishes and expectations. Only when we free ourselves of all illusions will we be able to draw the necessary consequences for ourselves, and influence the world in the direction we would like.

In conversation with Rauschning, Hitler once said, “Even if we are not victorious, we will drag half the world down with us. Nobody will enjoy victory over Germany.”

The terrible truth of these words is becoming clearer every day. Hitler has not won, and he will not win, but the crime which he planned, and which we, his enemies, wanted to prevent, has not been prevented. Hitler ‘only’ conquered Europe, not the whole world. He destroyed in Europe what he wanted to destroy. He has laid cities waste and wiped peoples from the map. He has ‘liquidated’ the Jewish question. He has exterminated the best elements of all classes and professions. He has reconstructed brains and rendered the thinkers unable to think. He has abolished the 19th century, which was a century of humanism, the labour movement and belief in human progress, and he has proclaimed in its place a century of violence, inhumanity and cruelty. He has played off groups, parties, races and religions, and minorities and nationalities, against each other. He has shown that the bad are bad, and that the corrupt are corrupt, and he has slain the good and just. He has proclaimed the religion of evil, just as Christ proclaimed the religion of good. He has revealed the dark side of human nature and made it into his own image. His enemies have not been able to prevent this, and much more. They were above all unable to prevent one thing, the World War. Even if Hitler loses, and he will lose, the world that comes after him will be a lot different from how we imagine it. These last ten years can no longer be erased from European reality. They have thrown a continent into turmoil and posed questions whose answers cannot be postponed. That which was before no longer applies, neither the Weimar Republic nor the Third Republic of Blum and Daladier, nor the League of Nations. The people have lost faith in the men and the institutions which handed them over to fascism. Hitler exposed them. He exposed masked an age which carried its death within itself. Whatever succeeds it will have to be aware of that. It must know why Hitler came, and what he stood for. It must find out the truth that was hidden behind the lies. And it must know with whom it has to deal, and what the people are like who have been through the age of barbarism.

Let me say something about these people.


The idea of Europeans that one currently has in this country[1] is in need of revision. It still corresponds to the romantic idea of an epoch which grew up believing in the race, the people and freedom, and was therefore not able to deal with modern methods of mass control and influence. The European, as one likes to imagine him today, is someone who is only waiting, with his fist clenched in his pocket, for the day on which the Bastille is to be stormed for the second time. One talks about the growing resistance of the masses (which?), of heroic acts of sabotage, of ever more symptoms of an irresistible revolutionary feeling and bitterness. There may be a lot of truth in this, perhaps it is even all true, but we are not talking about large, organized resistance cells or groups. European observers who have recently been able to flee from the occupied areas, unanimously report three separate phases of reaction of the oppressed peoples to their oppressors. The first phase, which immediately follows occupation, is characterized by open hate, resistance, indignation, sabotage, etc. Then the terror of the occupiers and their Quislings sets in. Reprisals are carried out (the murder of hostages, starvation, deportation, etc.) This leads to the second phase, a sort of passive resistance of the population, also psychologically. One tries to fit in, to cooperate, because the pressure on the individual is too great, but one still hopes silently for liberation, and justifies every concession which one has to make, with this hope. The third phase is characterized by general apathy and indifference. The liberation which was expected t arrive from outside, has not done so yet, or not yet completely. The example of others who resisted, and failed with terrible consequences, has its effect. One believes in nothing any more. The fascist propaganda, accompanied by terror, hunger, promises and coercion, paralyzes any remaining strength of will. It encounters minds which have already been sterilized and made unable to think. Fascist propaganda uses half-lies, not complete ones, so they are also half-truths, and something of that which it is said always remains. Not everything, not nearly everything, but so much that even the world-view of the opposition becomes confused, particularly as little is done from outside to confirm or preserve its political concept intact. It must even acknowledge, and this is exploited skilfully by its oppressors, that even its political allies are influenced by methods which had so far been the exclusive preserve of its fascist enemies. This contributes to the faint-heartedness which can become cynicism, and even active support for the ruling fascist power. One comes to the conclusion that the fight is only about nuances of the one principle, not about different principles themselves. One does not want to be deluded again. One has had enough.

So much for the psychological situation in Europe which an expected American invasion would encounter. Whether these people would be able to significantly support the invasion depends upon how the war is waged politically. Experience so far indicates that the Allies have not yet thought about a decisive ideological mobilization of the available forces in Europe. The action will initially, and probably continue to be, purely military, so it is important to point out the necessity of the mental mobilization of the oppressed peoples. The people in Europe have been waiting for ten years for the liberating formula which can banish the magic of fascism. If this formula does not arrive, if only the flags are swapped, not the ideas, they will descend irretrievably into the condition which makes them nothing but objects of history. Under the slogan “Anyone is better than Hitler”, they will join the first bayonets to arrive. This is particularly true of the Germans, who occupy the key position in the European theatre, in their double role as oppressors and oppressed.

The Germans

The Germans experienced the mechanism of oppression themselves, long before Hitler conquered Europe. Hitler tried out what he undertook abroad, at home first. The war against Europe was preceded by the war against the German people. The violent, putsch-like character of this first conquest (SA, Reichstag fire, occupation of trade union offices, etc.) is not any the less because certain German characteristics played into his hands. Nation Socialism is now so well established in Germany that it is already almost passé. It may seem paradoxical, but Hitler was already overcome, in the moment in which he came to power. He was exactly what the Germans needed to become aware of their own historical errors, mistakes and confusion. Hitler exposed them. He collected the worst, most stupid and dangerous attributes which have accompanied German history for centuries, and made them aggressive. And he led them ad absurdum by showing them to the whole world. He showed to what the pan-German ideology leads: to the destruction of Germany. He showed what expansive German nationalism provokes: the revenge of the others. He created a memorial to German arrogance, love of assertive military comportment, blind obedience, cult of the leader, and political ambiguity: the Third Reich. When Hitler is long gone, the Germans will know what only the best among them used to know. Hitler was the great enlightener who taught them to know their own nature. He was the greatest exorcist that any people ever had. Through him, the Germans recognized the Hitler in themselves, for all time, and rejected him.

In his book, “The Last Train from Berlin”, Howard K. Smith, the American correspondent, characterizes the current situation of the Germans as follows, “They are attached to the Nazis like the man who unexpectedly found himself holding on to a lion’s tail, and kept holding on, not because he enjoyed the lion’s proximity, but because he was scared speechless at what might happen if he let go…”

The speechless horror of which Howard K. Smith talks, is going to go on for some time. You only shout when you think you will be heard. The cry of a new-born child is the first, spontaneous manifestation of its will to live. It wants to be heard. And it knows that it will be heard. The Germans know that they are cast out of the world of the living. They know that they are to expect no mercy. Hitler committed his crimes in their name. He brought disgrace on humanity in their name. The soldiers who killed millions of innocent people in Europe were German soldiers. The bombs which fell on Guernica, Rotterdam, Warsaw, London and Belgrade, were German bombs. The brutality with which Lidice was razed to the ground was German brutality. How can one explain to the world that the Germans were the first people to be conquered by the Nazis? That there was also a Lidice in Germany? That the conquered were trained to be murderers, and had to keep on murdering to avoid being murdered themselves? How can one explain, now, when one is wading in blood up to the knees, how it came to pass? That one was also a victim, and also deceived? Is it not better to carry on to the end of the road, and pay for the shame which has come over Germany with one’s own life? Is a world possible which could seem to be worth living in for us, the Germans, after the war? When the other nations celebrate the day of their liberation, we, who have been freed from the Nazis, will have to carry the miserable inheritance which they left us. Nobody will believe that it was Germans who were fighting against Hitler when the rest of the world was still doing business with him. They won’t believe us when we say that Hitler’s strength was the weakness of the others, inside and outside the borders of Germany. They will hold on to us, and make the followers responsible for the crimes of their leader.

In such a moments the phrase “conservative revolution” may crop up again in Germany. Those circles who ideologically paved the way for National Socialism, but were disappointed, and rejected by Hitler, may now feel that their hour has come. They have the army, industry and the Junkers on their side, and great and powerful friends abroad. They did not want the war with Russia. They hated the Nazis and their narrow-minded, inappropriate brutality. They think that one can do all that much more politely, civilized and socially acceptably. Without racism, bull-whips and concentration camps. Above all, without Hitler. What these circles want is the old, authoritarian German state under Prussian leadership, a militarized economy and a strong, authoritarian central power which prevents the threatening chaos, and governs Germany militaristically. They know that they can count on the sympathy of those who fear nothing more after the end of National Socialism than that Germany should become the scene of new, bloody civil wars.

The dangers that such a solution would raise have been discussed often enough, and although perfectly prepared to exploit the contradictions and splits in the enemy camp, Allied policy has so far desisted from playing the Prussian militarism card. This could change tomorrow, but it is clear that any propaganda addressed to the German people needs to propose other concepts than the rebirth of the spirit of Potsdam. But which ones? Can the principles of American democracy be applied to Germany? Are not all powers involved in this war subject to changes whose scope is not yet foreseeable? The world is in motion. Conflicts which do not follow national boundaries are to be decided. Battles can be decided by ideas, ideas by battles. You can’t anticipate history, you can only prepare the ammunition which will be shot.

External propaganda

External propaganda aimed at the Germans must not demand the impossible. It makes no sense to call upon them to bring Hitler down, or turn their guns on them, as long as there is a Gestapo man behind every German. People who listen to the radio at the risk of their lives already know that Hitler is an evil man. There is no need to tell them over short-wave. What they want to hear is news and facts. They also want to know what they should do in the actual circumstances. There could be calls to acts of sabotage or passive resistance, the revelation of Nazi lies, news about the armament and military successes of the Allies and defeats of the Axis powers. On the other hand, it seems to be too early to expect to be able to influence the system itself, i.e. official and military instances which listen to foreign transmissions as part of their normal duties. The effect of this propaganda will only be apparent in the moment in which those who now profit from the system are convinced that it is no longer of any use to them. We are still some distance from this point. Those who are responsible for propaganda to Germany should be aware that their listeners are immune to any rhetoric which contradicts reality. They should also realize that it makes no sense to evoke a past whose passing is regretted by few in Germany. It makes no sense to emphasize how good things used to be, and how bad they are today. The Weimar Republic is dead and it will not come back to life. It demonstrated that it was not able to fulfil its obligations. If the Germans know anything, it is this. They know that Hitler did not fall from the sky. He was the expression of the absence of social alternatives, and their fear of themselves. Hitler was the German hunger. We need to tell the Germans that there are better ways of stilling your hunger. National or international solutions, that depends on what the world is like after the war. One thing is certain: the best propaganda is always the example that one gives. The best propaganda is not made at desks or transmitters, it is made on battlefields. The best propaganda is that which shows the oppressed peoples, by deeds, what one intends to do with them. Every error, every deviation from the policy which called people to fight Hitler, is propaganda for the enemy, and he will make use of it immediately. The oppressed people have achieved a level of sensitivity which detects false tones and false promises with seismographical accuracy. They don’t want to be let down again. And they must not be let down again. Half-hearted solutions like those attempted in North Africa, must have demoralized a lot of Germans. Is that the freedom which one promised us, they will ask? When Hitler has been defeated, will one let us be ruled by Keitel and Brauchitsch? Such fears could lead a lot of Germans to prefer to die with Hitler than live under Brauchitsch. In such moments it could happen that a victorious Russian army would be welcomed with a sympathy which could be dangerous to the Allies. We won’t pursue such thoughts further here. The Europe of tomorrow will comprise many components. It will be the result of movements across the entire earth.

Internal propaganda

Foreign experts are surprised that since Stalingrad the Nazis no longer attempt to make a secret of their defeats, in fact they acknowledge them solemnly, almost masochistically. Even the foolish hypothesis that Hitler is already dead, and the army has taken control, is making the rounds. Such observers misunderstand the totalitarian nature of this propaganda.They have not always understood whom they were dealing with. Hitler’s entire strategy was aimed at dissolving the difference between Nazis and Germans. He wants Germany and Hitler to be the same. After keeping the German people from bringing him down for ten years with the hope of victory, he is now trying a new coercion: fear of defeat. He used to refer mostly to his supporters, now he is addressing those who were never really behind him, or who threaten to abandon him. He says to them, “It’s no longer about me, it’s about Germany. I have made mistakes, I acknowledge my defeats, but now even my opponents must recognize that their fate and mine are inseparably entwined. We will win together or we will lose together, etc.”

We should not underestimate the suggestive force of this propaganda. It does not just appeal to patriotism, it appeals to the human decency which does not abandon its country in the moment of danger. This gives Hitler new, previously unexploited, moral reserves. He will make great capital out of the coming defeats, and that is just the beginning.

The last great ceremony has not yet been celebrated, and Hitler will not release his people from the mass hypnosis which has made him the master of the German soul, in victory and defeat.


Future liberty

Europe has suffered a misfortune. The word which should banish the magic of Fascism has not yet been spoken, and now the guns are speaking. But when the guns fall silent, will the people still know what they had been waiting for? They were promised freedom, but which freedom? Did not Fascism overwhelm them in the name of freedom? Which freedom will one offer them tomorrow?

What we are experiencing today is nothing other than the birth of a new century, in which the elements Fascism, Communism and Democracy are fused into a new entity. We have so far only observed and dealt with the individual phases of this process. But much more is at stake. It is about loosening and regrouping society on a new technological basis. These thoughts are not new, only the contribution which reality itself has made to it is new. The war has shattered European society. It has made it ready, as long as it survives, to be a useful member of this new, 20th century. It really is a new type of person which is being created. This new person has had its neck broken. It has been through all illusions, all suffering and all disappointments, until there was nothing left but the piece of bread for which it begged, the milk for which it sold itself, the packet of cigarettes which made it useful to the ruling power. These people without attributes smile today, understandably, about ethical postulates such as character, personality, firmness of belief, which are brought to bear on them from outside. They know better than that. These people without attributes are the building blocks with which one has to construct this twentieth century. What will it be like?

It may be an authoritarian century. It will bring some social reforms and relative social justice. The people will generally have it better. A minimum of social and economic security will be guaranteed. Nobody will need to starve, if they accept the basis of the currently ruling order. The society will be organized as a planned economy, with a strong, central, state, which has the right to manipulate individuals in the general interest, and manipulate society in the interests of the powers who establish (finance?) the state. Individual liberty, from the times of classical liberalism, will disappear. And with it, the ideals of 1848, for which our grandfathers took to the barricades, with apparent lack of success, will be abandoned. There will probably be no more need for heroic mass sacrifice, once the executive has taken control. One will be satisfied with what one gets, and certainly consider it to be an improvement compared to what used to be. One would even wear the Bourbon fleur-de-lis on one’s hat if it provides free entry to the pantries of the world. State terror organizations such as the SA or Gestapo will of course have been abolished. The police and the military will be responsible for the maintenance of public peace. One will again be able to obtain the services of a lawyer if one gets arrested. All in all, the person of the 20th century will regard this form of society as being the appropriate one for him. He has nothing to complain about. The only ones with something to complain about will be those who had expected something else. The people of this century will stand behind their machines and perform the work assigned to them. They will be neither good nor bad, not human and not inhuman. They will read books and go to the cinema, and those who write books and make films for them will have to make allowance for those for whom they do so. Intellectual goods which cannot be converted into sales will be declared worthless. The consumer dictates to the producer the books, plays and films which he needs to be able to carry out his work behind the machine. The colour blindness to values“ of which Ernst Jünger once spoke, will be the dominant aesthetic of a world in which art is judged by its use value. Outsiders and brilliant individuals will end up in the museums or the asylum. The history of our generation and its struggle will be turned into comedies, tragedies and radio transmissions, and give legions of well-paid authors the opportunity to offer them to their readers as the deterrent mystery thriller of “an age which destroyed itself.” One will play a lot of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and even more Wagner, above all at noon, when the housewives are cooking their soup. Painting will be born again in the huge adverts on skyscrapers, and plastic does not need to worry about its future either: there will be enough Woolworth’s in Europe.

But still: This is a new world, and it will not be worse than the one which it was our fate to leave. People will live, brains will work, blood will be pumped through veins, and couples will mate according to the eternal laws, behind these illuminated windows. When the crisis, which is a crisis of adjustment, is over, the apostles will talk from their pulpits of steel to the termite hills of the future about the eternal things which will never end, as long as even one person lives on this unhappy earth.

[1] The USA

Published in: SahlDoch Sahl: Essays and Criticism


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