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Saturday, March 26, 2005


berlin diary

among the many books i've recently read (and will hopefully get a chance to muse upon here) is the hypnotic "berlin diary" of european affairs correspondent william shirer, covering the years 1934-1940 (but in most detail, 1938 on). it's a fascinating insight onto many aspects of interwar europe, but none so much as the evolution of the state of mind of the german people -- a group which shirer came to despise irrationally (by his own admission) for its gullibility, stupidity, ethical duplicity and inertia in the face of the lies and propaganda of their government as it conditioned them for total war.

there are a hundred magnetic passages to cite. this from january 24, 1940:

I think Pervical W., a retired American businessman of German parentage who has spent most of his life in this country, sees something I've been trying to get straight. I had never met him before, but he dropped up to my room this morning for a chat. We discussed the German conception of ethics, honour, conduct. Said he: "For Germans, a thing is right, ethical, honourable, if it squares with the tradition of what a German thinks a German should do; or if it advances the interests of Germanism or Germany. But the Germans have no abstract idea of ethics, or honour, or right conduct." He gave a pretty illustration. A German friend said to him: "Isn't it terrible what the Finns are doing, taking on Russia? It's utterly wrong." When Mr. W. remonstrated that, after all, the Finns were only doing what you would expect all decent Germans to do if they got into the same fix -- namely, defending their liberty and independence against wanton aggression -- his friend retorted, "But Russia is Germany's friend."

In other words, for a German to defend his country's liberty and independence is right. For a Finn to do the same is wrong, because it disturbs Germany's relations with Russia. The abstract idea there is missing in the German mentality.

That probably explains the Germans' complete lack of regard or sympathy for the plight of the Poles or Czechs. What the Germans are doing to these people -- murdering them, for one thing -- is right because the Germans are doing it, and the victims, in the German view, are an inferior race who must think right whatever the Germans please to do to them. As Dr. Ley puts it: "Right is what the Fuhrer does." All this confirms an idea I got years ago: that the German conception of "honour", about which Germans never cease to talk, is nonsense.
and this one, from september 3, 1939, observes the duped proletariat at the moment of shock:

I was standing in the Wilhelmplatz about noon when the loudspeakers suddenly announced the England had declared herself at war with Germany. Some 250 people were standing there in the sun. They listened attentively to the announcement. When it was finished, there was not a murmur. They just stood there as they were before. Stunned. The people cannot realize yet that Hitler has led them into a world war. No issue has been created for them yet, though as the day wears on, it is plain that "Albion's perfidy" will become the issue as it did in 1914. In Mein Kampf Hitler says the greatest mistake the Kaiser made was to fight England, and Germany must never repeat that mistake.

It has been a lovely September day, the sun shining, the air balmy, the sort of day the Berliner loves to spend in the woods or on the lakes near by. I walked in the streets. On the faces of the people astonishment, depression. Until today they have been going about their business pretty much as usual. There were food cards and soap cards and you couldn't get any gasoline and at night it was difficult stumbling around in the blackout. But the war in the east has seemed a bit far away to them -- two moonlight nights and not a single Polish plane over Berlin to bring destruction -- and the papers saying that German troops have been advancing all along the line, that the Polish air force has been destroyed. Last night I heard Germans talking of the "Polish thing" lasting but a few weeks, or months at most. Few believed that Britain and France would move. Ribbentrop was sure they wouldn't and had told the Fuhrer, who believed him. The British and French had been accommodating before. Another Munich, why not? Yesterday, when it seemed that London and Paris were hesitating, everyone, including those in the Wilhelmstrasse, was optimistic. Why not?

In 1914, I believe, the excitement in Berlin on the first day of the World War was tremendous. Today, no excitement, no hurrahs, no cheering, no throwing of flowers, no war fever, no war hysteria. There is not even any hate for the French and British -- despite Hitler's various proclamations to the people, the party, the East Army, the West Army, accusing the "English warmongers and capitalistic Jews" of starting this war. When I passed the French and British embassies this afternoon, the sidewalk in front of each of them was deserted. A lone
Schupo paced up and down before each.
throughout shirer's book, i was repeatedly jolted by similarities to the society i live in -- its willingness to believe convenient lies, its refusal to work up the ambition to demand truth, the duplicity of ethics and the frail vacuity of hallowed concepts.

but i also couldn't helped but feel pity for them, the german people. a stupid mass of animals, after all. are they to be blamed as they run off the cliff behind their leader? both yes and no, i think -- i've no idea how a crowd of mere men can withstand the assault of ideas that lure them to their destruction, and yet they must. odysseus tied himself to the mast, and yet our ropes are the mere rule of law and in our age seem increasingly unable to withstand the siren's song.

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