Social & Political Philosophy 17 – Debord’s Society of the Spectacle
For this lecture, read Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Chapters 1 & 2.
In both Italy and Germany, first fascists started getting elected to office, then they began gaining seats but remained in the minority, and finally Mussolini and Hitler, who were made the heads of parliament, declared wartime emergency powers and dissolved parliament such that their minority became the totality. The population of both countries accepted the emergency dictatorial decrees in the name of protecting family, faith and nation.
Since everybody likes calling each other Hitler in America today, including the religious and the anti-religious (“Nazi’s were essentially religious” vs. “Nazi’s essentially anti-religious”) and the progressives and conservatives (“Bush is Hitler” vs. “Obama is Hitler”), let us be clear: Nazi Germany was art and artists, health and doctors, truth and philosophy, science and scientists, religion and religious, technology and engineers, poetry and poets, environment and volunteers, exercise and instructors, order and peacemakers, business and investors, pest control and exterminators, the group and helping your neighbor, life and the living, and, at the same time, death and the killers. Doctors opened the gas caps to euthanize the mentally ill to give it scientific legitimacy.
Athens, Sparta and Rome, the origin of the supposed West, were Hitler’s Mecca, the source and model of legitimate culture. Hitler wrote that the German forefathers were the Greeks and Romans, and if the Nazis could create a synthesis of these three cultures that the Nazi German state would never perish. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Nazis glorified the human body, nature, and warfare through art and literature. Other cultures were diseases, the Jews likened to microbes that had to be eradicated. The gas Zyklon B was first developed to kill insects and rodents before being used in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and elsewhere. Antisemitism, racism and murder were called hygiene, medical and scientific. The gas chambers were considered a humane alternative to firing squads, more effective and efficient.
In Germany during the Great Depression communists, many of the leaders Jewish, gained many members and for a brief period took over the city of Munich. This would be like taking over the city of Chicago in America. The right wing, including the military, corporate leaders of industry, and traditional authority leaders, organized the Freicorps as a paramilitary group for fighting communists, many to join the Nazis as they rose to power. Hitler and the Nazi party began mobilizing, marching, demonstrating, and street fighting against communists in this period. As in Italy, in the hard times communism and fascism were the radical options and sources of hope and renewal.
Adolf Hitler, a failed painter and architect, found that he had a talent for giving impassioned speeches, and he rose quickly to leadership of the group and attracted many new members. After he and other Nazis were given extremely light sentences after beating a communist, they attempted the Beer Hall Putsch (coup) in 1923. Marching into a traditional beer hall where many right-wing drinkers were socializing, Hitler announced that the revolution had come and they were taking the city. Hitler hoped that the police would join them or at least look the other way as the police did often for fascists in Italy and Germany, but in the ensuing fight 4 cops and 16 Nazis were killed. Hitler was given, by the same judge who sentenced him to one month in prison before, the lightest sentence possible, 9 months in prison, during which time he wrote Mein Kampf, or My Struggle, his political autobiography and polemic.
Disturbingly, Hitler writes that as a boy he saw nothing in antisemitism and that there was a Jewish boy in his class (who may or may not have been the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) who was strange but not frightening, and that it was only in the Depression and reading antisemitic works that Hitler began to see that the Jews controlled both capitalism and communism to control Germany and the world. In this work, he argues that Jews should be removed from German society, stripped of citizenship and public positions, and expelled from the country for the Treaty of Versailles and the communist takeover of Munich. Hitler argued for Darwinism, survival of the fittest and the law of nature. He believed that leaders, including those within the Nazi party, should take over by force and charisma, not by being appointed or elected.
While the Nazis were a fringe party in 1929 with 3% of the vote, the worsening depression brought them members and power. Banks were crashing, and the middle and upper class were beginning to suffer like the poor, who could be sufficiently ignored. The Nazi message stayed the same, but the audience began to grow, such that in 1930 they had 25% of the vote. The communists were also picking up voters and members as the people polarized. Hitler began making plane trips to various cities to make speeches that were enthusiastically embraced by many. In 1932, the Nazis had 37% of the vote, the largest party but still a minority.
Businessmen wrote to Hindenburg, the chancellor of Germany, arguing Hitler should be made chancellor to stop communism. By this time, the Nazis had received full corporate backing and had ceased to speak out against capitalism and support socialist policies that benefited workers such as union rights. The army was worried it would not be able to hold the borders if both clashed in a time of crisis. In 1933, Hindenburg resigned and Hitler went from vice-chancellor to chancellor. The communists waited, thinking Hitler would fail miserably and they would have a chance to take control.
After setting the Reichstag Fire and blaming the communists, Hitler declared a state of emergency and rounded up communists and other opposition leaders. A boycott of Jewish businesses and book-burnings were organized. Storm troopers, the brown shirts who followed the Freicorps and the Italian blackshirts of Mussolini, engaged in random beatings and killings. Concentration camps were established, but since the average German believed such things were inevitable under communists it was all seen as unfortunate but inevitable evil. At first, the concentration camps were temporary prisons where dissidents and communists would be sent for a year or two. It was only as Germany began to lose WWII in 1941 that the slave labor camps became extermination camps for the Jews, communists, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and counterculturals.
Hitler was terrible as a political leader, preferring to not interfere with the work and projects of his highly disorganized underlings. Hitler would have visions, often architectural monuments to Nazi power. If an officer had enough power, they would approach Hitler with an idea for a project and Hitler would either approve and the officer would gain favor and try to stay close to Hitler and the top brass or Hitler would ignore the suggestion. The decision to make the concentration camps death camps came in just this fashion. This is strangely similar to bottom-up yet top-down arrangements of capitalism communism, anarcho-syndicalism, and other systems and thinkers we have studied.
Under Hitler’s regime, many Germans did much better than they had during the depression, as did many French, Polish and others under Nazi occupation. Through military industrialization, slave labor and seizure of Jewish businesses, jobs were created, consumerism supported and property maintained. This created many job opportunities, as it did for Heidegger in universities cleansed of numerous Jewish professors including Heidegger’s old master Husserl. There were new opportunities for Germanic doctors, lawyers, scientists, and actors. If one was the wrong sort of person, one faced imprisonment and death, but because this was kept out of sight it was easy for those with money in their pockets to ignore. Synagogues were destroyed to make parking lots, marriage to Jews and foreigners outlawed, citizenship revoked and Jim Crow style laws imposed. Having Jewish or communist friends was enough to be sent to the camps.
Hitler was a great admirer of Britain and American power. He wrote in Mein Kampf, that Germany had lost WWI because they did not have the propaganda of Britain and America that demonized Germany such that the harsh Treaty of Versailles was imposed. Next time, he wrote, would be different. It was the British who invented the modern concentration camp fighting the Dutch. Hitler admired how Britain, a small island, maintained a worldwide empire, and believed that this was proof positive that the Aryan race, though a fraction of the world population, could truly become the master race. He wrote, “What India was for England, Russia will be for us”. Hitler hoped for an alliance with Britain and America that would dominate the globe, and many anti-communist authorities and corporations in the UK and US supported this.
Hitler, as he did in all areas, allowed economic experts and business leaders to do whatever they wanted as long as they were successful and supported his own visionary projects. Hitler liked radical ideas, and German and foreign economists were astonished at how well Nazi control was for business and industry. Authoritarianism and totalitarianism are vast freedom for the powerful and successful, all the while slavery and death for the oppressed. Looking at British success, Hitler believed that Germany needed colonies and expansion to create an empire. As the Nazis had victory after victory in war, and the UK and US said nothing, Hitler told his generals to “Germanize” the new regions and no questions would be asked. In Poland, one general used a campaign of horror to break the spirits of Polish slave labor, while another general simply declared 80% of the population to be German. When rival factions complained about eachother’s methods, Hitler often did nothing.
For a period of seven years, from 1931 to 1938, Martin Heidegger, one of the most celebrated German philosophers today, was a member and supporter of the fascist Nazi party as it rose to power and took authoritarian control. Though he eventually came to doubt the party, spoke critically of its development and was for this under surveillance by the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police), he enthusiastically embraced their rise and seizure of power, spoke at propaganda rallies in several cities, and openly spoke of the Nazis as a rebirth of Western civilization, a return to the revolutionary times of ancient Greece.
Heidegger wrote in his major work Sein und Zeit, Being and Time (1927), that authentic being is questioning, that categorical and absolute truth are ignorance of one’s own existence, and every revealing is a concealing. How is it that he believed the Nazis, a fascist regime enthusiastic about racism, censorship, and brutality were a magnificent chance for questioning, renewal and transformation? Just as Heidegger argues that being is authentic as questioning or inauthentic as a denial of questioning, this is a question that philosophers should ask rather than avoid, particularly as all varieties of philosophy joined the Nazi cause.
The Great Depression, the 1920s and 30s, was the time when Heidegger did his critical writing and gained fame and position, a time when many feared the fall of the West and the death of Christian European civilization. Heidegger, like Rousseau and Nietzsche, was an anti-modernist anti-technology romantic who spoke of Greece as a more glorious and meaningful time. These thinkers in turn influenced Marcuse, Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Later Adorno, Jewish like Marcuse, both having fled the Nazis for Switzerland and then New York, wrote a 1964 pamphlet, The Jargon of Authenticity, criticizing Heidegger for supporting the Nazis while calling for self-questioning, which is ironic given Adorno hated jazz and argued that music is over after Beethoven.
For Heidegger, we approach the world, each other, and objects either as closed and identified or as mysterious, uncanny and miraculous. Industrialization and technology have disenchanted the world, and so we must question the world and re-enchant it. Mystery and truth appear only in the cracks of our industrialized reality when things break or go missing. Consider a poster on a wall that we stop seeing after time, which then becomes new again and leaps out if we call attention to it again. Consider Nazis, and times of crisis.
How is it that he believed the Nazis, a fascist regime enthusiastic about racism, censorship, and brutality were a magnificent chance for questioning, renewal and transformation? Heidegger told the Allied Denazification committee that he had hoped the Nazis would drop the racism eventually. Heidegger had, in the early 30s, been having an affair with a Jewish student named Hannah Arendt, who went on to become a major political philosopher and supporter of Heidegger. Sadly, while Arendt stood up for Heidegger, arguing that his philosophy did not lead to fascism or antisemitism, the recent publication of the Black Notebooks, which contain antisemitic passages, have called all of this back into question. After writing Being and Time, Heidegger’s thinking grew progressively unhinged as he supported the Nazi movement.
Arendt became famous, for some infamous, for her idea of the banality of evil. Watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt argued that the terrible atrocities of modern times, such as the industrialized genocide at Auschwitz, was carried out not by demons or monsters, but bureaucrats and accountants. Ironically, the trial is an excellent example of what Heidegger stood against, being an unquestioning cog in a machine, while also being symbolic of the brutality of the Nazi regime Heidegger supported.