Saturday, July 20, 2013

Orwell on Hitler

A great writer will surprise you.

For the last few months, I have been intermittently dipping into George Orwell's collected Essays. A few pieces have seemed rather dated, most have been interesting and enlightening, and not a few (like his extended musings on Dickens) are extraordinary.

The other night, I was reading in bed, finishing his review of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (which is less a review than an examination of the role of literature now that World War II had come), and I turned the page to find that the next piece was titled "Review of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, unabridged translation" from March 1940.

"Well," I thought, "THIS should be interesting." I decided I could stay up reading just a little longer.

The first half deals mostly with how Hitler's image in Britain had changed over the last year. Then Orwell writes something that stopped me dead in my tracks:
"I should like to put it on record that I have never been able to dislike Hitler."
I reread the sentence, certain that I had missed something, but I hadn't. How could Orwell, with his unremitting hatred of totalitarianism, not hate Hitler? Orwell spends the second half of the essay persuasively explaining himself, but the brief answer is this: simply hating Hitler is easy, lazy, and self-defeating.

Precisely because he despises totalitarianism, Orwell is interested in the reason that Germans have accepted Hitler's leadership. He starts by recognizing that Hitler's political success was due in part to the "attraction of his own personality." Orwell writes that while he has thought that, given the chance, "I would certainly kill him," he would "feel no personal animosity" because "there is something deeply appealing about him." That is, really, the horrible truth. Hitler otherwise never would have become so powerful.

Orwell argues that it is Hitler's portrayal of himself as a kind of underdog that is so affecting:
He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds.... The attraction of such a pose is of course enormous; half the films that one sees turn upon some such theme.
What makes Orwell's analysis so powerful is not simply that he identifies the source of Hitler's appeal, but that he admits that he himself is susceptible to it. He does not separate himself from (and thereby elevate himself above) the Germans who support Hitler. He identifies with and understands them.

Even more, he gives the devil his due. It is not merely that Hitler's personality can be attractive, Orwell argues. Hitler's appeal is also due to his ideology, which has at its foundation an important insight:
Also he has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude toward life.... Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don't only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.
It goes without saying that Orwell finds Hitler's ideology repugnant; why then say that "Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life"? It is precisely because he finds it so horrific that he must recognize its power. Few people of his time knew better than Orwell the awful places that totalitarianism would soon lead humanity. He was able to see where it would lead because he understood its psychological power. He did not unthinkingly dismiss it as evil, he did not live in denial. He grappled with it.

In a passage I suspect will resonate with most of my friends who are parents, Orwell writes:
The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won't do.
His point is not that the parent need approve or encourage that part of the child's make-up, but rather that it is foolish and unproductive to ignore or deny its reality.

Orwell knew that merely demonizing the enemy is in fact doing the enemy a favor. Understanding the appeal of your enemy and your enemy's ideas does not mean abandoning one's own views, or excusing those of the enemy. It is, instead, key to defeating the enemy.

Orwell believed that Hitler's way was bound to produce "years of slaughter and starvation" for Germany. At that point, he writes, "Greatest happiness of the greatest number" would once again be "a good slogan." But, he says,
at this moment, "Better an end with horror than a horror without end" is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
That's a lesson we all can take from Orwell's surprising take on Hitler.