Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen's Diary of a Man in Despair on Hitler: "Is There a Nation Today So Lacking in Perspective As to Deny the Possibility That Such a Mass Psychosis Could at Some Time in Its History Occur?"

Reading Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen's Diary of a Man in Despair, trans. Paul Rubens (NY: Macmillan, 1970), as Donald Trump campaigns for the American presidency is a minatory, instructive experience. Reck-Malleczewen was a conservative writer from an East Prussian family of high social standing. He kept a journal from May 1936 to October 1944 chronicling Germany's descent into hell under Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. The diary ends with his account of being arrested by Nazi officials. Though he was acquitted in October 1944 of charges of undermining the morale of German troops, he was arrested again in December and sent to Dachau, where he died the following February.

The diary was first published in 1947 (in its original German), and then again in 1970 in English translation. A key question with which Reck-Malleczewen grapples repeatedly in his journal is how his fellow Germans, a people highly regarded for their intelligence and high culture, could have chosen Hitler as their leader. Reck-Malleczewen's proposal: Hitler's rise to power was the end result of a process of mass psychosis that gripped the German nation as he and others who saw what was taking place looked on in horror, unable to stop the process:

Yet when I voice a long-held theory of mine, that behind all this horror and this unprecedented denial by a basically well-meaning people of all decency – that behind it, there lies concealed a cosmic process, a gigantic psychosis and the unleashing of a horde of demons, I am laughed at (p. 124).

Reck-Malleczewen recounts an incident in which the wife of one of his tenants came to see him in a state of terror following a series of propaganda articles Goebbels had placed in the newspapers. She pled with him to advise her about how she could protect her children from the demons in England, America, and Russia – though she herself had spent a number of years in Boston and spoke warmly of her time there. 

Despite her happy sojourn in the United States and the friends she made during those years, when Goebbels cranked up his propaganda machine and published articles about the atrocities that the enemies of the German people would visit on the nation if they won the war, she was willing to believe the propaganda about the foreign devils and became filled with alarm — hence her consultation with Reck-Malleczewen (p. 161). His insightful observation about this incident:

Really, this people, only yesterday so intelligent and discriminating, seems to have been overcome by a disease of the mind. They now believe everything they are told, provided it is done with sufficient aplomb (p. 162).

Reck-Malleczewen's conservative worldview (which often issues in irtitating misogynistic and homophobic aperçus throughout the diary) leads him to lay blame for the psychosis gripping his nation at the feet of "mass man": democracy coupled with the capability to spread disinformation provided by modern tools of technology allowed increasing numbers of people to be duped by propagandists who needed to keep people frightened and misinformed in order to achieve their goals:

Ah, gigantic psychosis, drunkenness on a mass scale beyond measuring, which will be followed by the most horrible morning-after the world has ever known! Here, here is the product of your radio manipulation – stupefied mass man, and the conversion of human societies into heaps of termites! And with this have gone the discouragement and final silencing of the real intelligentsia, a factor not to be overlooked, and, following, the creation of a mob which I, who have seen the United States and know something about Soviet Russia also – although the latter is hardly to be mentioned in this connection – declare to be the most infernal human dregs in the world today (p. 192).  

It should be noted that here and elsewhere in his diary, Reck-Malleczewen specifies that the people about whom he's speaking when he speaks of a mob seized by a mass psychosis are not the working-class citizens of Germany. In his view, it was the middle and ruling classes of the country who were largely responsible for bringing Hitler to power. The proletariat resisted Hitler and the Nazis; their social betters willingly succumbed to the lure of National Socialism, he thinks.

They did so in part because the Nazis were adroit about working up their fear of demonized others — other nations whose goal was, they were told, to keep the energetic, powerful German people down; infectious others (notably, the Jews) within Germany itself who were spreading toxins through the whole society, weakening it from the inside. Reck-Malleczewen writes, 

In Germany, the lies have a blond character. Nationalism: a state of mind in which you do not love your own country as much as you hate somebody else's (p. 149).


They [i.e., the German people] weep [i.e., at what Hitler was doing to their nation], but they do not beat their own breasts (p. 153).

As this lapidary and somewhat enigmatic statement suggests, Reck-Mallecczewen wanted to place responsibility for Hitler squarely on the shoulders of the German people — and especially the nation's bourgeoisie and ruling elites. Hitler mirrored something in the German soul, the German psyche, from which Nazism emerged. Hitler was a mirror, and Germans would be well-advised, Reck-Malleczewen proposes, to look into that mirror and catch a glimpse of their own faces. Hitler did not come to power independently of the nation itself. It was the nation that chose him, and that must now not seek to disavow responsibility for what it had wrought, Reck-Malleczewen insists: 

I believe that Germans generally are trying to appease their own bad consciences by shifting the blame to a single man. It was Germany itself which overnight tore itself loose from all its old ties, its ideals and its gods . . . (pp. 132-3).

But not only Germany: as Reck-Malleczewen points out, as Hitler rose to power, other nations with the ability to check this rise to power, which had full reason to know the danger that the mass psychosis gripping the German nation posed to the world, did nothing. In Reck-Malleczewen's view, it would be foolish for other countries to imagine that they, too, could not succumb to a process of "gigantic psychosis" driven by adroit demonization of targeted, demonized others:

But is there a nation today so lacking in perspective as to deny the possibility that such a mass psychosis could at some time in its history occur within its own boundaries? (p. 187).

Questions: what could possibly make a nation's social, political, and economic elites along with its solid middle classes, choose a crude, hate-mongering narcissist to lead their nation? What kind of fear-manufacturing and scapegoating of imaginary enemies causes people to succumb to such self-destructive national psychosis? Is Reck-Malleczewen correct when he maintains that this kind of thing can happen in nations other than Germany of the first half of the 20th century?

And finally: are these questions we Americans should be asking ourselves right now?

The photo of the cover of Reck-Malleczewen's book is from its Amazon page. The painting featured on the book cover is Hugo Simberg's "Wounded Angel."

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