An Anarchism for Hitler

May 7, 2009

I’m currently reading (is “reading” the right word for a book that I probably won’t finish?) Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

The main problem, in dealing with the Nazis, is that Hitler and the people he put in high positions did things that most people would never even think of. Shirer writes, about the Nazi plans for invasion of Britain, “Brauchitsch, the Commander in Chief of the Army, signed a directive providing that

the able-bodied male population between the ages of seventeen and forty-five [in Britain] will, unless the local situation calls for an exceptional ruiling, be interned and dispatched to the Continent.” (p. 782)

When I argue that it would be difficult to invade the United States, I’m thinking of our difficulty occupying Iraq. It had never occurred to me to ask “What if the invading forces were willing to kill, indiscriminately, every single person who might pose a threat to their rule?” Most occupying forces wouldn’t do that. But Hitler would have.

And unfortunately, the usual reactions to reading an order like the one above, that the person who wrote this must have been exaggerating, or even that if he intended to get this done, he wouldn’t have been able to, don’t really work when you’re talking about Hitler’s army in the 1940s. These are the same people who ordered Warsaw to be destroyed, and then saw that it was actually accomplished. Whether by Hitler’s own doing or for some other reason, the Nazis had a system in place that allowed their leaders to get anything accomplished, no matter how heinous.

Also apparent from what I’ve been reading is that Hitler had no concept of costs and benefits if they did not affect him directly. Shirer describes the Battle of Stalingrad. Here’s the result: From a German army that numbered 285,000 in December, 91,000 soldiers were taken prisoner and forced to go to Siberia. Of these, only 5,000 would ever return to Germany. How in the world could that have happened? In the last days of this battle, with the German army surrounded and completely cut off from supplies or reinforcements, General Paulus sent a message to Hitler, basically begging to surrender to the Russians in order to save as many German lives as he could. Hitler’s reply:

Surrender is forbidden. Sixth Army will hold their positions to the last man and the last round and by their heroic endurance will make an unforgettable contribution toward the establishment of a defensive front and the salvation of the Western world. (p. 930)

In general, I try to avoid saying that leaders are “nuts,” because that doesn’t do justice to the fact that they were rational enough to achieve and maintain power. I will say this, though: Hitler had extreme preferences.

The prima facie evidence from history indicates that any attack on the status of national defense as a genuine “public good” will have a hard time dealing with truly ruthless national leaders.

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