Credit: CreativeCommons / Recuerdos de Pandora.
Polite, studious, just a bit mischievous, Henry was every mother’s vision of a nice Jewish boy. His well-assimilated family had lived in Germany as long as anyone could remember. But Henry had a problem: It was 1935. He and his classmates were in for a special treat: classes canceled to see a new movie—Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of The Will.
Now Nazis rarely held women in high regard, let alone those stepping out of the kitchen or nursery. And yet, Riefenstahl produced Triumph of the Will by order of the führer. Hitler praised her portrayal of his 1934 Nuremberg rally as an “incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement.” Many regard Riefenstahl’s work as the incomparable propaganda film.
Form trumps content. Forgettable, guttural harangues sound like scenes from Chaplin’s parody The Great Dictator. Image is everything. Unforgettable pageantry puts any NFL halftime to shame. Lamentations about German humiliation dissolve as Hitler’s aircraft appears out of the clouds: the savior of all true Germans deigns to touch the earth—salvation for his suffering people. Torchlight parades conjure up Nordic mysticism, and rallies are orchestrated with the precision of Leica cameras. In an iconic scene, Hitler, accompanied by two henchmen, appears at the back of a stadium. They solemnly stride to the high altar before 160,000 adoring countrymen, seated in perfect symmetry and screaming “Sieg Heil”—a collective Tourette syndrome.
I showed the film to a long-ago class and invited Henry to comment. He felt terrible after he first saw the film. Of course! He’s Jewish. But I didn’t get it. He felt awful because his Jewish ancestry excluded him from a glorious movement, a movement that atoned for national humiliation. A great wave was sweeping the nation, cleansing Germany of Weimar decadence. Finally, Germans had something to believe in with all their hearts and souls. He couldn’t be part of it. Jews just weren’t worthy of a “life of obedience, order, and destiny.” The future belonged to Aryans.
Henry made quite an impression; perhaps that’s why I saved class notes filed under “Nazism’s Fatal Attraction.” Suspecting parallels, I googled “Fatal Attraction of ISIS”—déjà vu. Of course, facile historical analogies deceive. Nevertheless, striking parallels are undeniable.
Relying upon media mastery, both movements promise much. For the adventurous there’s escape from the dull monotony of everyday life. And for the troubled there’s what Fromm called “an escape from freedom”—an end to the anxiety of personal responsibility through immersion in a higher cause.
Nazis and ISIS fanatics promise a new millennium, a religious order ushering in honor, power, and glory for the elect. In a taste of the paradise to come, these movements celebrate the expression of what Freud regarded as the most intense pleasure: acting out long-repressed vile fantasies.
In the Manichean world of the fanatic there is but one obstacle to a glorious destiny: the evil ones, be they non-Aryans or infidels. (In both cases, Jews become the chosen people.) Borders, of course, mean nothing in the planetary struggle for life space for the elect and the fulfillment of their ultimate destiny. Perpetual war awaits. No compromise with intractable evil; ethnic cleansing means extermination.
A paraphrase of dialogue from Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo offers a gloss on the fatal attraction of Nazis and ISIS fanatics: Woe to the land that has no heroes. No! Woe to the land that needs heroes!
Ron Hirschbein holds a Social Science Ph.D. from Syracuse. After devising curriculum in war & peace studies, he founded the California State University, Chico’s Peace Institute. He writes for various philosophy & popular culture series, and authored five academic studies taking creative, humanistic approaches to international relations. He also served as President of Concerned Philosophers for Peace – the largest national organization of philosophers concerned with the reasons for war and prospects for peace.