Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Godwin alert

The title of the small volume - Hitler by A.N. Wilson, with a photo of his glaring mug (no, not Wilson's) on the cover - caught my attention. What would the famous gadfly (no, not Hitler) make of this topic?

In eleven short chapters of biography, followed by one of assessment, Wilson's principal theme is that Hitler was a lazy, shiftless sod who never had a proper job in his life, and who only achieved success when he discovered his talent for ranting - first in dictation, of Mein Kampf (which Wilson insists on calling My Struggle, though that's an anemic translation), then in speeches and in bullying other politicians, domestic and foreign.

Wilson accurately points out that Hitler's domestic political rise and success was due, not to a wave of anti-Semitism, but to economic crises. Voters wanted currency stability and rising employment, and were willing to overlook anything else until the beginning of the war brought a sinking feeling, and the turn of the tide a couple years later confirmed it.

But otherwise the book has Wilson's typically odd and unbalanced approach. He finds space in his unpacked 190 pages of text to tell us three times that Hitler was flatulent, and he only ever brings up Churchill to describe him making a misjudgment. But the true oddity of Wilson's approach only comes up in his conclusion, on Hitler's legacy in mainstream Western culture. He describes an unspecified "us" as having decided that virtue lies in "being [Hitler's] opposite in all things," and then implicitly accuses us of hypocrisy for not being consistent about it.

For, of course, nobody actually did set out to be the opposite of Hitler in all things, and, even in the things we did set out to be the opposite of Hitler in, Hitler was hardly the only, or sometimes even any, of the reason for it. I particularly question Wilson's logic in saying, "Hitler made homosexuals wear pink triangles, so we shall have gay marriages." There's plenty of domestic prejudice against homosexuals to overcome; rhetoric on the subject rarely particularly invokes Hitler. Nor is gay marriage, a recent crusade, a direct response to events 70 years past.

On the other side of the equation, things we do that are the same as Hitler, Wilson feebly argues that Hitler was a puritan modernist reformer, who "embraced science" and technology, vegetarianism and anti-smoking. This is stupid stuff. A leader who drives most of his country's leading scientists into exile, and proclaims their science ideas tainted because they had them, is hardly embracing science. More could be made of the Nazi penchants for public health measures and consumer conveniences (mostly unrealized, due to the war), but Wilson doesn't even mention the most glaring example of post-war Western embrace of a Nazi idea, the people's car or Volkswagen, particularly popular with hippies and Sixties liberals; and it would be silly to call an idea bad just because Hitler had it.

Some of Wilson's implications of Hitler's motives are even wrong. Hitler was (mostly) a vegetarian, yes, but not for moral reasons; his was a practical search for a diet that wouldn't aggravate his sensitive stomach. Wilson makes a big deal out of Hitler's abolition of the time-honored black-letter typeface from German printing and its replacement with modern typefaces like everybody else. That's not the way I've heard the story. Black-letter had already been fading out from German usage for decades; the Nazis initially revived it as part of their campaign for distinctive German nationalism, along with their evocation of German pagan gods (which Wilson mentions). And they did so in a particularly illegible form, called Sütterlin, which may have been part of the reason they abruptly banned it after the war began, supposedly because they'd found that the official notices they'd been posting in occupied countries not even the German-speakers among the natives could read.

Anyway, "modern" typefaces are directly descended from Roman ones, which are a lot older than black-letter anyway. So the whole topic is all wet. So is Wilson's claim that "The Olympic torch was a Nazi invention." No, the Olympic torch relay was. (Again, he could make a better case with the Volkswagen.) Using examples like these to argue that the Hitler virus has seeped deep into our culture only suggests that the infection is actually shallow and superficial. He'd do better to mention the BNP, the French Front national, and (if he wrote quite recently) the Greek Golden Dawn, but I suspect he finds these less alarming.

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