Who was responsible for the deaths of those who perished in the camps of the Third Reich?
Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question where I’ll end up claiming atheists caused Nazism. It stands as I wrote it. So let’s try and answer it. Was it Hitler? One would think so…to an extent. But one man could never have acted on such a scale alone. Surely there is some responsibility to be shared around. Other top Third Reich officials? Again, presumably. But many of those never personally killed a single individual. So…guards? Soldiers? The engineers who designed the camps to begin with? It’s a rather vexing question.
The problem is that everyone seems convinced that it’s not them. The answer given by the individuals who actually killed prisoners is well known: “I was only following orders.” And that’s chilling, but do we not expect the same of our own soldiers? After all, modern soldiers fighting for democracy find themselves killing innocent people too. One might expect, idealistically, that they refuse, but most will also admit that it’s not the place of the individual soldier to decide what orders to obey. One need only consider how most people would have reacted to a soldier fighting in WWII who refused to take up arms because he wasn’t so sure Hitler was such a bad guy. And oh, there were some. The same goes for Saddam in Iraq, and so on for every other war. Every rank in the military is obeying the higher ups. And in Germany, the military as a whole was just obeying its political Commander in Chief, as was the political apparatus of the NSDAP and the Reich. Yet the fact remains that without them Hitler would never been able to invade the next apartment building over in Vienna, much less most of Europe.
Let’s try another one. Who was responsible for those who perished in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Well, the fact is that we did prosecute the prison guards and engineers who manned the camps of the Reich, so it only seems logical that those who built Fat Man and Little Boy share the same responsibility. But here the problem becomes even murkier. What if the engineer has no idea what his little project is actually intended for?
Richard Weaver considers this question in his work Ideas Have Consequences, in chapter III: “Fragmentation and Obsession”:
“At Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a force of seventy thousand persons laboured at an undertaking whose nature they knew little or nothing about; in fact, wartime propaganda had been so effective that they took pride in their ignorance and boasted of it as a badge of honour or as a sign of cooperation – in what? It is just possible that a few, and I should be willing to say a very few, had they known that their efforts were being directed to the slaughter of noncombatants on a scale never before contemplated, or to a perfection of brutality…might have refused complicity.”
As with the Third Reich, had it not been for all those engineers the bombs would never have gone beyond a blueprint. But it seems terribly unfair to put the blood of the first Atomic bombs on their souls, ignorant as they were. Surely the main responsibility lies with those who organized the project and hired them to do their work. But again, they could not have gotten anywhere without the engineers, knowing or not. The thing about specialists, as most of these people were, is that their position as specialists demands that someone or other harmonize them into a productive (or destructive) whole.
Weaver compares the extreme trend of specialization to walking down an insane asylum. Each patient is characterized by exhibiting a single trait to an extreme degree, while being lacking in all others. Such a patient cannot be reasoned with “any more than any other psychotic.” However, Weaver also points out that one could imagine these extremes being harmonized together into a single person, an organic whole. Once upon a time, as Weaver goes on to explain, the specialist found his opposite in the gentleman. The gentleman was characterized by the study of the liberal arts. Indeed, many of the greatest figures of the British and European Empires and even the United States were students of the classics, history, and philosophy.
What state do we find the liberal arts in today? On the one hand it’s fashionable, especially among conservative types, to ridicule those who study the arts as deadbeats. Why don’t they get real degrees and actual jobs? On the other hand, the only use many of the liberal arts students themselves seem to make of their knowledge is deconstruction. Instead of pursuing truth, the liberal arts graduate today knows only that there is no such thing as truth. On a personal note, I find it amazing how many people I see studying philosophy in university and making comments along the lines of “oh well, at the end of the day none of it really matters anyway.” Weaver begs to differ. He even says so in his title.
What Western academia has to a large extent forgotten (or purged from memory) is that the gentleman himself was the result of the first stage of intellectual decline. Weaver notes that before the liberal arts became a gentlemanly end, they were a means. Specifically, they were the tools of the philosopher. While the gentleman used the liberal arts in order to better understand society, the philosopher used them to orient himself and the society around him to a higher order.
“[The philosopher] stood at the center of things because he had mastered principles. On a level far lower were those who had acquired only facts and skills…For the philosophic doctor was in charge of the general synthesis. The assertion that philosophy was the queen of studies meant more to him than a figure of speech; knowledge of ultimate matters conferred a right to decide ultimate questions.”
Both the gentleman and the philosopher stood at the center of their societies because it was ultimately they who carried out the “reconciling of all interests.” The gentleman sought to reconcile them toward the end of a stable and prosperous order, while the philosopher went further and sought Divine ends. If the opposite of the specialist who plays the role of cog in the machine is the philosopher who is meant to keep the whole thing running and on track, it seems obvious that it was the National Socialist German Workers Party itself which was intended to create the “general synthesis” for the whole German people.
Would it have been possible for every engineer, soldier, and prison guard to have undertaken an intellectual resistance (we have, after all, been speaking about the realm of ideas)? The officers of the NSDAP were well-schooled in their ideology and in service to their Fuehrer. The vast majority of the population was too busy working and fighting and trying to stay alive in the face of a horrifying war to take part in ideological warfare (though of course some did). Certainly, physical resistance to the Third Reich was possible. But in the same way that only a fraction of those living in the Reich formulated its foundational ideology, only a fraction of the resistance took part in ideological warfare. Following the war, this laid the groundwork for de-Nazification. The new government did not leave it to each individual to examine their conscience and come to a conclusion about the years of 1933-1945. Rather, censorship and re-education was deemed necessary by Western and Soviet sides alike. Implicit in this project was an understanding that the war of ideas was fought by a minority, educators and intellectuals tasked with educating the populace about what was good and instructing them to guard against what was evil. Not much has changed since the days of the gentleman and the philosopher, who played the role of uniting the specialist craftsmen, merchants, farmers, and families of their countries into an organic whole. If a specialist without a society is a psychotic, a society without a mind is a zombie.
How do the philosopher, the gentleman, the NSDAP officer, and the educator in Allied-occupied Berlin go about their synthesis? This is done through the creation of a narrative. This narrative may be spiritual, cultural, or political, but it always tells a story. Here is the way things should be, be it in the future or in the Golden Age (Christendom, Empire, Reich, Democracy). Here is why we aren’t there now (the Fall, ignorance and barbarism, the Jews, the Nazis). Here is what we can do (go to Mass, do your bit for His Majesty, support the Fuehrer, support democracy). Here is what deviation from this path looks like (the heathen, the savage, the liberal, the fascist). Here is how it can be combated (join the crusades, fight for King and Empire, serve in the Party or the Wehrmacht, vote in elections and report Nazis in your neighbourhoods).
The key is to create a narrative which communicates principles in ways people can understand. A successful narrative doesn’t so much tell people what to think as it does how to think. The only question we need to ask to discover the narrative we operate on is, what questions do we never ask? We don’t ask them because it would mean challenging the fundamental assumptions we are barely aware of. Basically, the point of this narrative is “the inculcation of correct facts and good morals“. Does that sound as religious to you as it does to me? Sure there aren’t necessarily gods, but they’re not essential to Confucianism, or all Buddhism either. It’s not always concerned with personal salvation, but neither were Shinto or the cult of the Emperors. A religion by any other name would be as holy.
Herein lies the necessity of the narrative. As we saw, it is impossible for the majority of society to take part in the lifelong work which synthesis requires. If you aren’t willing to become a monk, or study the arts, or guide the party, or deconstruct the authoritarian personality, then the life of the brahmin may not be the one you are called to. Fortunately, society does not live by brahmins alone. Nevertheless, society cannot live without them either. Each member of the social order, hearing the voice of the brahmins, lifts their eyes from their own work in order to gaze together in a single direction. The responsibility of the brahmins is to make sure it’s the right one, which is why religious and political heresies both tend to incur the wrath of established power. The narrative is not just a necessity in the prescriptive sense; it will necessarily be found in any society not in the midst of disintegration, unless humans either stop being concerned with ultimate matters or else become a race composed entirely of mystics. Neither seems to be on the horizon.
“Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists.”
– Joseph de Maistre