I want to start this by showing you one of the most extraordinary photographs in the history of the world. No fiction writer could have written anything this perfect. Some people even dispute its veracity, but if it's true, and it seems that a majority of people think it is, the coincidence boggles the mind.
This is a photo taken in Linz, the fourth largest city in Austria, from what Germans call a Gymnasium - roughly equivalent to a high school. Nothing extraordinary about this photo seems apparent. But look at the right corner of this photo. Bottom row, three from the right, is the young Ludwig Wittgenstein, skipping a grade, and even today, regarded almost universally as the greatest philosopher of of the 20th century. Top row, held back a year, at the appropriately far right, is none other than the young Adolph Hitler. The twin polls of German fate, of everything that Germany was and is, the yin and yang, or perhaps more appropriately - the thesis and antithesis, were classmates for a year.
Wittgenstein, a Jew, coming from one of Europe's richest families, whose family owned at least 13 mansions in Vienna. Like everyone in his family, he was utterly brilliant, educated to a level past what most human beings could ever conceive, given every advantage in life and completely determined to make proper use of them, utterly difficult, and treated everyone around him with complete disdain. Like all his brothers, could have been or done anything, and his father did everything he could to force his sons to follow in their father's footsteps to be an industrialist. For Wittgenstein, Linz was the boonies. The other, a boy from a town called Braunau am Inn, literally a town whose name means it's near a hotel. As a boy he was a humble, devout Catholic who considered becoming a priest until his younger brother died of measles, and his personality forever changed. He wanted to become an artist, and his domineering father wanted him to follow in his footsteps to become a customs inspector.
Please understand, I'm not trying to explain Hitler or Wittgenstein. I'm trying to explain how their stories are so unbelievably typical of their time and place. They're almost archetypes of the two most pressing questions in Austro-German life of the period. Why are Jews so successful? And have they achieved success on our backs? It is so easy to imagine a shy lower-middle-class kid from rural Austria who knows he's much much brighter than anybody gives him credit for, looking at this incredibly arrogant boy king who knows the answer to every question and thinking thoughts like 'If I had his advantages, I would be just like him.' or 'All that money buys him time to learn all the knowledge, but all that knowledge doesn't stop him from being a complete scheißkopf.' or 'If all the knowledge of this scheißkopf can't stop him from acting like this, maybe it's something innate in him that both makes him so intelligent and so horrible.' It's just as easy to think of Wittgenstein seeing an article in a newspaper about this insane racist in Munich stirring up trouble in the early 20's and thinking 'Hey! I know that guy!', or just hearing the idiocies of any number of other Nationalist antisemites Wittgenstein no doubt came across long before Hitler made a name for himself, and thinking to himself - all this talk of blood and soil is lunacy, the only thing that obviously connects these people together is a language, and if other people don't speak the same language, or speak the language 'mit a heccent', they are bound to be misunderstood, and therefore mistrusted.
The point of this thought-experiment is not to psychologize either of them. We're not even going to talk about either of them all that much. The point is to psychologize all those normal Germans who either followed Hitler or disdained him. There's something about the speculation about how these two people so seminal in the life of the world might have helped form each other, that makes us more easily see the fundamental schism in life of German-speaking people that led directly to the most progressive place in the entire world tearing itself to shreds.
One side of the schism believes in roots, the other believes in wings. On one side of that schism, you have Germans who believe that their way of life as they believe it has been practiced since time immemorial is under threat. On the other side of the schism, you have people who believe in embracing the larger world. But a liberal society, a pluralist society, exists to find ways to make both ways of life and any other way of life that does no harm, able to be practiced. But liberalism is a very fragile thing that depends on so many factors going the correct way. From the moment of the Austro-Hungarian compromise in 1867 when the Empire declared all races equal before the law, the fate of the Empire was sealed, because it insisted upon remaining an Empire in which the Emperor appointed all ministers. Emperor Franz-Joseph, who ruled the Empire for roughly 70 years, is about as much evidence as the world has that a dictator can be benevolent. He may have thought that he could provide a freer, fairer, more equitable system of government than any messy democracy, but by not compromising on issues of sovereignty, he in effect caused World War I.
The only people in the Empire who truly loved being Austrian subjects were Jews. Jews believed in the dream of a far-reaching Empire of many nations in which an aristocratic sovereign cares about his people, even if he sees himself as superior to them. It was a dream of its time and place, no 20th century person would ever believe that a dictator can guarantee rights like that. Even if a dictator does, the very fact that he's a dictator makes his subjects bristle at his rule.
Jews believe that an aristocratic sovereign like Franz-Joseph I, who seemed to live forever, can guarantee them all the rights and opportunities denied them by monarchs and mobs everywhere else. All they have to do is be Austrian: convert to Catholicism, go to concerts and the theater, take jobs into the civil service and on the courts, go into businesses that would help this trans-national Empire that gave us everything stay prosperous.
The problem is that even most Austrians did not want to be Austrian, they wanted to be German. They did not want to be at the head of an Empire full of other dirty races. They wanted to be united with their true brethren in Germany. Germany had not been anything resembling a united country since the Thirty Years War, 300 years before that. Every nation has an adolescent trauma, and the Thirty Years War was Germany's. In the meantime, nothing but dozens of kingdoms and electorates and duchies and principalities and free cities whose leaders were always forming alliances that they tore up to make new alliances. France and England were bathed in achievements and raising the quality of life for its subjects (relatively speaking of course), and except for Prussia for under Frederick the Great, no advance in life ever seemed to come from Germany. When the situation wasn't desperate, it was humiliating. For the six hundred years before the twentieth century, it was almost a given of practical wisdom that a great country required the strongest possible sovereign. When Hitler came, some people greeted it as finally the moment, three-and-a-half centuries overdue, when a strong sovereign could do for Germany what Elizabeth I had done for England and Henry IV had done for France. Finally, a statesman like Otto von Bismarck united Germany, and Austrians were completely cut out of this moment which German-speaking peoples had longed for for more than two-hundred years.
But before an adolescent trauma must come a formative experience. The formative experience of the German people, not as tribes but as a collective people, was the Reformation; a, literally, multi-century event which ended in a thirty-year war between Catholics and Protestants claiming eight million martyrs. What was the founding idea of this Reformation for which so many people martyred themselves; no doubt mostly unwillingly?
(wait for someone to say Salvation by Faith...)
Salvation by Faith. The idea formed in response to the corruption and decadence of the Renaissance and Baroque Catholic Church, that no Christian pilgrim needs a priest to intercede for them. God is everywhere, including in your hearts and minds, He hears your prayers, He responds, and your relationship to Him needs no intermediary at all.
Whether or not that's at all true, that belief set all of Northern Europe course whose effects are felt to this day, particularly in Germany - a country whose "Protestant" work ethic is finally allowing them some liberal success after so many generations striving to do good amidst so much evil.
Look at a few quotes from Luther (call on reader):
What does this mean? (wait for answer...)
…the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks…all works are measured before God by faith alone.
At least in the traditional interpretation, it's intended to mean that all work is holy work, and the more you work, the more favor you find in God's eyes.
Second quote (call on reader):
Let the man who would hear God speak read Holy Scripture.What does this mean? (wait for answer)
The traditional interpretation of this is, 'teach them to read.'
There's no questioning the radicalism of this idea. No longer would clergy be the intercessors for people who had no way of following a paper trail to see if they were being duped. Whatever hidden, mystical truths exist in the Bible, every Protestant has the right, and indeed, the responsibility to find them. But every revolutionary idea is paid for in blood, and if we in the 21st century owe Martin Luther a huge debt of gratitude for the gifts he gave us, perhaps we should thank him over the centuries of dead bodies for which he's responsible.
So now, let's go to a third quote (call on reader):
You read this and you wonder how anyone could doubt where all this is eventually going. And just in case, let's read one more Luther quote:
They are our public enemies. They do not stop blaspheming our Lord Christ, calling the Virgin Mary a whore, Christ, a bastard, and us changelings or abortions (Mahlkälber: "meal calves"o). If they could kill us all, they would gladly do it. They do it often, especially those who pose as physicians—though sometimes they help—for the devil helps to finish it in the end. They can also practice medicine as in French Switzerland. They administer poison to someone from which he could die in an hour, a month, a year, ten or twenty years. They are able to practice this art
We want to deal with them in a Christian manner now. Offer them the Christian faith that they would accept the Messiah, who is even their cousin and has been born of their flesh and blood; and is rightly Abraham’s Seed, of which they boast. Even so, I am concerned [that] Jewish blood may no longer become watery and wild.
There it is, 300 years before the 'new', un-Christian antisemitism of 19th century Germany which holds that a Jew cannot help but remain a Jew, even after conversion. We are not a religion, we are a race, our blood is 'watery and wild', and it's only one step removed from saying that Jewish blood will pollute German blood.
So how then, did the German-speaking lands go from a place with a charismatic leader that hated Jews so mercilessly, to a country that celebrated Jews so vociferously, back to a country with a charismatic leader that hated Jews so mercilessly?
We're not going to talk much about Wittgenstein's writings. I don't have the competence or the particular kind of intelligence you need to have any meaningful insights about philosophy. I'm not an intellectual, I just play one in classrooms and on the internet. I am, however, what used to be called an aesthete, somebody who tries as best he can to appreciate art and culture, and in order to do that, you have to delve at least shallowly into intellectual matters. And in my pretentious opinion, Wittgenstein has the precision of poetry. That may seem like a contradiction, but if you've ever tried to read most academic writing, you'll understand exactly what that means. There are plenty of famous intellectuals who will claim that their works can't be understood unless you're indoctrinated into their lexicon, or jargon... The problem inevitably becomes that you have to be a true believer in what they're selling in order to sit down for long enough for the jargon to make any sense at all, rather like certain passages of commentary in a certain religion we know..., and even after you do, if you disagree, many people will simply say that you don't understand it. Wittgenstein is exactly the opposite, you look at his work, and you instantly realize that this is not just the opposite of sludge, but that you look at nearly every sentence and every sentence and at very least, three or four meanings occur to you instantly. Even if you don't understand everything, you can't come away from Tractatus, his most famous book, without looking at the world completely differently. The most famous line is the last one "Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent." It seems like obvious homespun wisdom, but go home and think about that line, you'll realize that can mean a hundred separate things about the limitations of what we can say to each other - whether by choice that it's too painful to say, or the limitations of our intelligence that can't truly convey the complexity of our thoughts, or those simple times when you think you've explained yourself perfectly only for the person listening to completely misinterpret everything you said. Or think of the quote: "It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists." Taking Kabbalistic texts out of the equation, can any sentiment be more Jewish than that?
Luther was a revolutionary, and whether revolutionaries are reactionary revolutionaries like Hitler, or progressive revolutionaries like Stalin, they always seem to have a big problem with us. As ever, we see the seeds of this problem in the US - not to a terrible extent, but there is neither any mistaking the antisemitism of the torch rallies who believe that weak cosmopolitan liberals like Jews are conspiring to harm us - all you have to do is remember that the tiki torch carriers in Charlottesville were chanting - 'The Goyim Know', 'Blood and soil', 'Jews will not replace us.' And then, you hear the chants of anti-zionist protestors who chant 'From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free', which is of course a reference to the Palestinian vow to toss all Israelis into the Sea. So let's be perfectly clear on this, this is a classroom where almost all manner of criticism on Israel is fair game, but just in case I have to say so, criticism of Israel's existence will get you politely asked to leave.
Every country, as the West Wing pointed out, has an original sin. The original sin of Germany was its Jews. And yet, it took 400 years from Luther's final sermons, which were warnings against Jews, to get to the Shoah. In the meantime, the relationship between Jews and Germans could not have been more fruitful, or more mutually beneficial. As happens so many places, a country on the make imports Jews for their intelligence and practicality, they become the toast of their host countries, and then when times get rough, the same people who celebrate Jews so highly turn on them just as vehemently.
Even in this era of ideological polarization, and let's say it, extremism, still appears to be just a tempest in a teacup compared to where the hatreds of a hundred years ago. Who knows? That may change very very quickly. And whether mass violence and war and democide comes again in the next few weeks, months, years, decades, or centuries, it will come again, and it will be barbaric.
But for the moment, 15% of each side of the country finds 50% of the country absolutely intolerable to live with. Yes, the two Americas clearly have different values, and yes, these differences are being masterfully exploited, as they always are. But think of Seinfeld talking about breakups (call on reader):
"Elaine, breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine. You can’t do it in one push; you gotta rock it back and forth a few times and then it goes over.”If history is any guide, we're probably not there yet. Europe had at least a misunderstanding every year for forty years before the one that began World War I. It had lots of Communist uprisings before the Soviet Union became a quasi-permanent fixture. The truth is that to anybody paying attention, peace time is not much less anxiety provoking than wartime.
Like 50% of the country, I panicked when Trump was first elected. But even if the worst about Trump is true and he wants to be like Mr. Shicklgruber, he is clearly much too stupid to be anything like the Austrian in that picture, he wouldn't know the first thing about how, and he has 100x too much ego to listen to the people who could make him that. But the fact that we have elected someone both this evil, and this stupid, who can still do this much no matter how ineffective he is, and can still says that when someone with both murderous intentions and the intelligence to enact them comes around, we seem like we would be rather powerless against him. For a person of my generation, the cusp between Generation X and Millenials, I am nearly positive that we will be dealing with crises like this every year for the rest of our lives. The great tragedy is that sanity will prevail in most of them, but all it takes is one chain reactions of misunderstanding and the life of the entire world is at stake. It's one thing to believe we can withstand Trump, it's entirely different to believe democracy can withstand fifty years of Trumps, all of whom will learn from the mistakes of the last.