Deep Reads #1: Smiles from the Heart of a Family Man

Occasionally, I’d like to share somewhat longer excerpts from things I’ve read and been impressed by than my usual slender quote-of-the-day offerings. Here’s the first, from Hannah Arendt’s Essays in Understanding 1930-1954:

“In trying to understand what were the real motives which caused people to act as cogs in the mass-murder machine, we shall not be aided by speculations about German history and the so-called German national character, of whose potentialities those who knew Germany most intimately had not the slightest idea fifteen years ago.  There is more to be learned from the characteristic personality of the man who can boast that he was the organizing spirit of the murder.  Heinrich Himmler is not one of those intellectuals stemming from the dim No Man’s Land between the Bohemian and the Pimp, whose significance in the composition on the Nazi elite has been repeatedly stressed of late.  He is neither a Bohemian like Goebbels, nor a sex criminal like Streicher, nor a perverted fanatic like Hitler, nor an adventurer like Goering.  He is a bourgeois with all the outer aspect of respectability, all the habits of a good paterfamilias who does not betray his wife and anxiously seeks to secure a decent future for his children; and he has consciously built up his newest terror organization, covering the whole country, on the assumption that most people are not bohemians nor fanatics, nor adventurers, nor sex maniacs, nor sadists, but first and foremost jobholders, and good family men.

It was Péguy, I believe, who called the family man the ‘grand adventurer of the 20th century’.  He died too soon to learn that he was also the great criminal of the century.  We had been so accustomed to admire or gently ridicule the family man’s kind concern and earnest concentration on the welfare of his family, his solemn determination to make life easy for his wife and children, that we hardly noticed how the devoted paterfamilias, worried about nothing so much as his security, was transformed under the pressure of the chaotic economic conditions of our time into an involuntary adventurer, who for all his industry and care could never be certain what the next day would bring.  The docility of this type was already manifest in the very early period of Nazi Gleichshaltung (synthesizing).  It became clear that for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children, such a man was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his human dignity.  It needed only the Satanic genius of Himmler to discover that after such degradation he was entirely prepared to do anything when the ante was raised and the bare existence of his family was threatened.  The only condition he put was that he should be fully exempted from responsibility for his acts.  Thus that very person, the average German, whom the Nazis notwithstanding years of the most furious propaganda could not induce to kill a Jew on his own account (not even when they made it quite clear that such a murder would go unpunished), now serves the machine of destruction without opposition.  In contrast to the earlier unites of the SS men and Gestapo, Himmler’s overall organization relies not on fanatics, nor on congenital murderers, nor on sadists; it relies entirely on the normality of jobholders and family men.

We need not specially mention the sorry reports about Latvians, Lithuanians, or even Jews who have participated in Himmler’s murder organization in order to show that it requires no particular national character in order to supply this new type of functionary.  They are not even all natural murderers or traitors out of perversity.  It is not even certain that they would do the work if it were only their own lives and future that were at stake.  They felt (after they no longer needed to fear God, their conscience cleared through the bureaucratic organization of their acts) only the responsibility toward their own families.  The transformation of the family man from a responsible member of society, interested in all public affairs, to a bourgeois concerned only with his private existence and knowing no civic virtue, is an international modern phenomenon. The exigencies of our time – ‘Think of the hunger and the great cold in this valley that rings with lamentation’ (Brecht) – can at any moment transform him into the mob man and make him the instrument of whatsoever madness and horror.  Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect, it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of the hangman.  A Jew released from Buchenwald once discovered among the SS men who gave him the certificates of release a former schoolmate, whom he did not address but yet stared at.  Spontaneously the man stared at remarked:  ‘You must understand, I have five years of unemployment behind me.  They can do anything they want with me.’“


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