Oct 2010: Hitler, the German psyche, and modern architecture

You created the Red Scare paranoia of McCarthyism. You created the Ku Klux Klan, of which your 28th President Woodrow Wilson was a member. You elected leaders who promoted policies that have killed up to 100,000 people in Iraq, 1.5 million in Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands in Japan.

And a government-funded national museum is telling you this.

Can you imagine it? I can’t, even though it’s all true. Americans lack this sort of honest introspection of our faults and mistakes and of the fallouts from our decisions.

Not Germans. There’s a sort of state-sanctioned collective guilt over World War II atrocities that’s led to a lot of soul-searching, with the latest example at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. An exhibit opened last week that chronicles how Chancellor Adolf Hitler was embraced by contemporary society.

It’s the first time ever in Germany that a public exhibit focuses exclusively on the Führer. The 65-year delay isn’t because Germans didn’t want to look at him. It’s because it was illegal. Domestic law outlaws public displays of some Nazi symbols.

“Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime” provides the type of soul-searching you wouldn’t get from Americans. The New York Times describes the exhibit:

The museum placed the display downstairs, below street level, so it was dark and silent. Three images of Hitler projected on a mesh screen opened the show; behind them were pictures of cheering crowds, marching soldiers and other demonstrations of popular support. Around the corner were details of how Hitler was embraced early on, by the elite in Munich. “The wives of entrepreneurs, such as Elsa Bruckhmann, vied to be the first to drag Hitler” to a social event, one display said.

… But over and over, the point was spelled out clearly in the exhibit’s plaques like one, near letters written by children who were sent off to concentration camps, that said: “Hitler was able to implement his military and extermination objectives because the military and economic elites were willing to carry out his war.”

BUT ALSO NOTE the location of the exhibit. If you ever visit Berlin, you’ll notice that the city has not tried to hide its place in Nazism. A city-center Holocaust Memorial and still-standing bombed-out buildings are reminders of Berlin’s role in Hitler’s empire. As George Packer highlighted in an article last February in The New Yorker, the mindset of Berlin is much different than of a city such as Dresden, which, as he puts it, has turned into “the German Hiroshima – an outrage that reversed the roles of aggressors and victims.” There, the Holocaust is hardly noted and the city has been much restored to its pre-WWII appearance.

The Hitler exhibit comes at a time of growing nationalism in the West, amid the Tea Party in America and right-wing movements in Europe. In a potential signal that Dresden’s mindset are spreading, a new survey in Germany shows that 13 percent of its citizens would welcome a “Führer” – a word for leader that is explicitly associated with Hitler, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last week.

It’s worth noting that the intolerant (get rid of the Mexicans!), conspiratorial (Obama is Muslim!), paranoid (Every mosque is a terrorist training camp!) style that put Hitler in power runs strong in America today, too. It always has, as American historian Richard J. Hofstadter noted in his 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

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