Karl Owe Knausgaard's monumental autobiographical novel is called My Struggle, "Min Kamf" in Norwegian. The final volume makes it clear that this was no thoughtless act, and that Knausgaard is obsessed with Hitler and Nazism. Half of this volume is a digression in which Knausgaard uses the diaries of ardent Nazis and other sources to reconstruct why people were drawn to Nazism and what that ought to mean to those of us living after the Nazi catastrophe. Knausgaard is especially interested in Fascist art, and as Jon Baskin explains in the New York Review of Books:, he twice brings up Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will.
The first comes during a discussion of the conversion of Martin Heidegger and other German intellectuals to Nazism. Quoting a German journalist on how Nazism provided a “widespread feeling of deliverance, of liberation from democracy,” Knausgaard indicates the sense we can get of “this aspect of the Third Reich—the popular demonstrations, the torchlit parades, the songs, the sense of community, all of which were unconditional joys to anyone who participated—by watching Riefenstahl’s films of the Nuremberg Rally… where all these elements are present.” Precisely because Riefenstahl’s film was so meticulously staged, Knausgaard alleges, it is striking how its “content far eclipses the fact, because emotions are stronger than all analyses, and here the emotions are set free. This is not politics, but something beyond. And it is something good.”
Knausgaard does not mean “good” in the moral sense. He refers to the feelings of the people involved in the marches and parades. As he does throughout the four-hundred page section, Knausgaard attempts to reconstruct the thoughts and emotions of those who were attracted to National Socialism, under the principle that it is impossible to understand the emergence of Nazism—“the last major utopian movement in the west”—without understanding what moved the people of Germany, and later of other European countries, to embrace it. And what moved them, in Knausgaard’s view, was not the Nazis’ promise to redistribute income, or Hitler’s analysis of world affairs, or even, initially, their hatred of the Jews. What moved them was, rather, the joyful feeling of togetherness and community, of being able to transcend not only the fragmented democracy of the Weimar period but politics altogether.
To some people, belonging is the most important thing, and division the most intolerable. Those who will not go along with the great project of togetherness must be attacked – which also reinforces the togetherness of the insiders – and if possible eliminated. Knausgaard:
In National Socialism, philosophy and politics come together at a point outside the language, and beyond the rational, where all complexity ceases, though not all depth. . . .
Watching Riefenstahl’s film of the rallies in Nuremberg, its depiction of people almost paradisiac in its unambiguousness, converged upon the same thing, immersed in the symbols, the callings from the deepest pith of human life, that which has to do with birth and death, and with homeland and belonging, one finds it splendid and unbearable at the same time, though increasingly unbearable the more one watches, at least this was how I felt when I watched it one night this spring, and I wondered for a long time where that sense of the unbearable came from, the unease that accompanied these images of the German paradise, with its torches in the darkness, the intactness of its medieval city, its cheering crowds, its sun, and its banners… [and] I came to the conclusion… that it came… from something in the images themselves, the sense being that the world they displayed was an unbearable world.
What is unbearable, to Knausgaard, is paradise itself, the place of strong emotions and powerful unity, the abolition of uncertainty and dissent. The crime of Nazism is in this view that it sought perfection.
I do not think this is a complete picture of Nazism's sins or its appeal; I would put more emphasis on the Will to Power, on the desire to make the world (including our enemies) conform to our own will in every particular. But I share this sense that ecstatic togetherness is intensely, profoundly dangerous, and that our only safety in the long run comes from the celebration of difference and dissent.
Whenever any mob of people denounces some individual for thought crimes, I am immediately sympathetic to the person denounced; it does not matter how right-thinking the mob and how obnoxious the dissenter, my emotional sympathies are always with the outsider.
When any politician fantasizes about complete victory, about utterly vanquishing the opposition, I cringe. Hatred of the opposition makes me queasy, even when the opposition is neo-Confederate Trumpists, because we NEED opposition. Or at least I do.
When anyone talks about revolution or really any radical political change, I shudder; I see mass executions, re-education camps, secret police. Anarchists especially make me nervous, because they think that after the revolution we're all going to magically agree. What, I want to ask, are you going to do with the people who won't go along? But I don't really want to know the answer.
I recognize this as a possible weakness in myself. Demonstrations horrify me because I hate the sight of people marching and chanting, but I have from time to time overcome my horror sufficiently to participate. In a mass world, we need mass politics to get anything done, and we need to harness emotional energies to make any change. But there is a part of me that regards all political enthusiasm as a bargain with the devil and fears where it might lead.