Monday, August 17, 2020

Knausgaard on Nazism

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.


David said...

What about when the person or minority being denounced are Nazis? Hitler himself was for a long time the failed leader of a bunch of despised cranks.

What about when Churchill and Roosevelt call for total victory over the Third Reich? Lincoln over the Confederacy?

There are certain dangerous belief systems in our country that could metastasize and do real harm, to human life and property, and to the fabric of our body politic. QAnon is possibly the premier example. I find them much more dangerous than any anarchists. Anarchism is an eccentric cult for a few kids in black and a couple of academics who are nearing retirement (the most prominent of whom, at his most polemic, could only summon up "Two Cheers for Anarchism"). QAnon seems to be developing a dangerous dynamism. And, if you want a group who think they're on a quest to purify the world of evil by fire and sword, it's QAnon, not the anarchists.

On the general point, I think at some point one needs to have the guts to assess the worth of certain things on their merits, rather than on the question of whether they are the weaker party, the despised outliers, or whatever. Standing up bravely for what one believes counts for little in my book if the things one believes in are, in the final analysis, terrible and dangerous.

How one judges that rightly is a difficult question. And what to do about it when one has judged, and how one assesses the urgency of a situation, are also difficult questions (though I see them as more tactical than moral). But the difficulty of these questions does not absolve us of the moral need to work at finding the right way to do it, and follow through.

And in some cases, I'll admit I think the answer is inarguable. Nazism and QAnon are two of them.

Mário R. Gonçalves said...

John, no one could put it finer words what I feel about mass demonstrations, mass meetings, mass credos and mass propaganda. From religious to political slogans and banners, History shows that mobs and crowds only achieve terror, loss, destruction.

I loved reading your post, I'm getting more and more addicted to what you publish here.

I always hated belonging to - I have no nation pride, no pride in my town, no football team, I never thought anything next to me was better that any other of the same kind. I confess I have a certain pride in being European, but that is not a nation, is a hundred nations, a hundred cultures. All my togetherness is about family and friends.

Collective revolutions have always end in disaster. So, I agree: marching and chanting to a New Day is certainly a bargain with the devil. I only participate in small group gatherings if I totally agree and my friends are there, AND if it is about some oppressed minority.