By Any Other Name

I thought, at least until a few weeks ago, that I had Joseph Goebbels neatly pigeon-holed. The clerk’s son from the Rhineland was a cut above the house painter from Linz. He had a PhD, the fruit of dedicated labour on his own part, deprivation on the part of his family and generous donations from a local Catholic charity. He was the formidable head of the Nazi government’s propaganda department: the mouth that kept the show on the road.

The word ‘propaganda’ said it all. Borrowed from the title of a Vatican department – the Congregatio de Propaganda Fidei – it was redolent of the worst excesses of the later Middle Ages and the Counter Reformation. Supported by learned books making sweeping comparisons between the Inquisition, the Witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the Holocaust, I had drawn my own conclusions. Nazidom and Dr. Goebbels, I supposed, were a late manifestation of what Norman Cohn has called Europe’s Inner Demons: a primitive and pre-rational urge for the purity of the volk and the cleansing of Blut und Boden. That was what the medieval church had baptized, and then put to such devastating effect. Cathars, Witches, Gypsies and Jews were all one persecuted people, lying prone on the altar of an atavistic cultural conformity. You might add, depending on the degree of your political correctness, blacks, gays and women.

The very internal geography of Nazism, with its centres of early support among the Rhineland Catholics (from which the good Doctor sprang), and among the black Catholic Bavarians (with their Baroque excesses and suspicion of the more rational, Protestant North) seemed to enhance the hypothesis. In some strange way the religious, or rather the superstitious, strains of German society were reeking a terrible vengeance for Bismarck’s kulturkampf. It was an heroic struggle of the emotional and irrational against the reasonable and the civilized.

One fact – or rather a single word – has caused me to re-consider. I recently learned (or relearned if ever I knew it before) that Dr. Goebbels’s department was not, after all, called the Ministry of Propaganda. Its name was the Ministry of Aufklarung – the Department of the Enlightenment.

I should, of course, have known. In a single word the intellectual antecedents of Fascism lie exposed. Its every feature – its reliance on technology; its trust in progress; its obsession with physical well-being and its cult of nature, all proclaim its origins in the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Its ideas are Enlightenment ideas and its tools are Enlightenment tools. With the naive enthusiasm of the French Academy, Dr. Goebbels set about ‘cleansing’ the German language, so that thought might be purified just as the race was being simultaneously purged by another, more costly, final solution. At the heart of Nazism is the doctrine of Original Virtue and of the perfectibility of man. The idyll of a master race at one with the Teutonic wilderness is a sinister recreation of the idea of the Noble Savage; Eden without the Fall. And fallen man with no sense of his own sinfulness is a very horrid creature indeed.

Even the quasi-religious aspects of the movement, the emotional rallies and parades, the mystic pledges of loyalty and the brotherhoods of blood have their Enlightenment parallels: Robespierre on the Champs de Mars, revelling in the Feast of Reason, or defiling Notre Dame with the solemnities of the Etre Supreme. And the hollow craving for immortality, for a thousand year Reich and for monuments of such stupendous size that they would last forever, is an Enlightenment craving, too.

The Hitler who sought immortality through heroic deeds and in bricks and mortar is not very far from the sad utilitarian philosopher who sits stuffed in University College London, his pencils in his pocket, waiting, not for Halls of Sion, ‘conjubilant with song’, but for some ghostly gathering of encylopaedists: the Godless man condemned to an eternity of his own devising.

That single word Aufklarung has sent me back to the bookshelves in a rewarding search for evidence and for references.

Hitler was a formidable auto-didact. What aphorisms about Rousseau, Kant or Voltaire lie buried in Martin Borman’s record of his table talk? And what Enlightenment parallels might there be for that savage ending in the bunker, when Goebbels made his most characteristic gesture: the sacrifice of wife, children and self on the Altar of the Fatherland?

It should not surprise us, though it always seems to, that the language of ‘rights’ and ‘progress’ leads invariably to the displacement of compassion by ruthlessness. There is enough evidence in the French and Russian Revolutions and in National Socialist Germany to make any reasonable person wary of the very words. But how characteristic of our fallen nature to forget.

And above all, how characteristic of the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment to have off-loaded blame for this shadow side of their human improvement programme onto God and his Church!