Dissolving Fascism with Humanity: A reflection on a new way of living seventy years after the fall of Nazi Germany
“The fascist madman cannot be made innocuous if […] he is not tracked down in oneself; if we are not conversant with the social institutions that hatch him daily.” (1)
— Wilhelm Reich
Seventy years ago on May 8th 1945, with the conquest of Berlin, the Third Reich and the Second World War ended in Europe. The massacres that happened under Hitler break all the categories of conventional thinking – the horror of it has been almost too difficult to grasp, and so the trauma of National Socialism remains unresolved to this day in the suppressed psychological underground of German society.
For the sake of rebuilding civil society after the devastation of war, many German citizens have had to suppress the horror. But a significant number of activists have been so deeply shaken they have kept the knowledge of the horror alive – sacredly vowing to ensure that there would be ‘never again fascism; never again war’. With the establishment of the United Nations and the Declaration of Human Rights, it was hoped that a renewal of humility and peaceful civility throughout Europe would be sustained once and for all.
How much of this hope remains to this day? Seventy years after Hitler’s death there still is gross inhumanity throughout the world. A global slave trade, mass starvation, and millions of refugees displaced by war and poverty are just some of the extreme injustices of our time.
More than one million civilians have died in the Middle East in the wars following September 11th 2001. Entire countries were bombed to ash, accompanied by torture, rape, and sadistic excess. Obama continues this insanity with his drone crusades, a mechanized assassination campaign on a colossal scale. Europe currently lives under imminent threat of once again becoming the scene of war. In the confrontation between the West and Russia there is a return to an even more potent cold war, with the danger of nuclear war in Europe emerging once more.
The impoverishment of ever larger sectors of the population is unravelling social cohesion in both Europe and North America – all while a powerful cohort of capitalist elites accumulate wealth on an unprecedented scale. Many people no longer have any prospect for meeting even their most basic needs. There is now a latent seething anger toward a ‘corrupt ruling class’ in a social climate which can be compared to the situation at the end of the Weimar Republic.
Extreme economic injustice paves the way for a return to fascism. We are now seeing the rise of right-wing neo-fascist parties in Greece, France, Hungary. How can we be so certain that there won’t be another fascist eruption to mirror 1933? Already some years back, Noam Chomsky warned:
“The mood of the country is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. (…) If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble (…). What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force.”(2)
During the global economic crisis of the 1920’s-30’s, communists held a firm conviction that the obvious failure of capitalism and the worsening social misery of the working class would logically need to result in a Socialist revolution. Instead, history proved otherwise – the German masses were swept up in the extreme fascist counter-revolution of Hitler’s Nazism.
The latent structure of violence: the basis of fascism in the human character
The novel ‘The Wave’ by Todd Strasser is based on a true story from a California high school in 1967. Ron Jones, a young history teacher, conducted a mocked-up experiment with his students on the dynamics of the Third Reich. He imposed a strict system of rules, harsh punishment, and even a pretend secret police. His class was transformed into a movement following the motto “Strength through discipline! strength through community! strength through action! strength through pride!” (3) Incredible enthusiasm spread and more and more students from other classes joined in. The introverted students, the ones who had never before had a say – the nobodies – suddenly become somebody and so ‘the wave’ rose up and gave new meaning to their lives. Violence continued to spread and it did not take long for the situation to spin out of control. Participants of the group began to beat up fellow students who did not want to join in. Overnight average kids were transformed into a raging crowd.
During the days of the Third Reich, normally polite family fathers were transformed into concentration camp killers. Where does the fascination for such a collective destructive force originate? Who of us that honestly searches inwardly and asks, ‘what would I have done in such a situation,’ could be certain we would not do the same?
I joined the anti-fascist movement in Dresden after a neo-Nazi party (the NPD) was elected into state parliament with nearly ten percent of the vote. I wanted to rise up against the spreading fascist scene. In demonstrations against Nazism we too experienced the potential for violence hidden within ourselves – the exhilaration to fight against the opponent, whether they were fascists or policemen, to surround them, to attack them and to finish them off.
I began to understand that while fighting fascists I became fascist. I realised I needed to leave this scene fast or lose my ethical integrity. Others in our group felt the same. So what is it within the human being that allows us to break all barriers of wisdom and reason? What is it that transforms us into violent monsters in such extraordinary situations?
In my search for an explanation, amongst the important contributions like those of peace researcher Dieter Duhm (4), I came across a book published in 1933 – “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” by Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian psychoanalyst and communist who was influenced by Sigmund Freud. In it Reich writes:
“With respect to man’s character, ‘fascism’ is the basic emotional attitude of a suppressed man in an authoritarian machine civilization.”(5)
When human beings are denied expression of our elementary emotional needs from early childhood; when we are harshly rejected in the places we seek protection or trust; when we are punished with violence for expressing our natural drives; when our societal institutions including our education system and the military do not honour us as human beings; when we are reduced to a role of unquestioned obedience – an indescribable pain and anger grows in the psyche.
We find this dark shadow in countless biographies such as the work Alice Miller, a Swiss psychologist and expert in childhood abuse. The dark shadow exists in sexual perpetrators and dictators – it may even exist within the supposed normalcy of domestic family life. When this latent violence is collectively experienced by an entire nation a murderous potential of hatred and blocked aggression arises in a society. Like an erupting volcano, mass rage is vented against a perceived enemy.
Political channelling of blocked life energies
The elites in an imperialistic fascist system know that this psychological ‘underground’ exists in the populace, and they use it to build power. National Socialism used similar mechanisms that the United States now does in the so called ‘war on terror’ propaganda. The apparatus of violence could not be maintained without this subconscious resonance in humanity.
What would Hitler have been without the projections of millions of enraged Germans? What transformed the impoverished postcard painter from Austria into the ‘Fuhrer’ of the ‘Aryan race’? Did the demonic power of blocked life energy in the entire population become manifest in the expression of Nazi ideology? Hitler and his elite did not care about democratic debate in the least – they took advantage of this emotionally charged agitation in the populace, exposing human vulnerability for their own interest.
What happened between 1933 and 1945 in Germany was the cruel culmination of an epochal madness embodied in a 6,000 year-long history of patriarchal war in the region. After millennia where the experiences of escape, genocide, rape and war have time and time again been impregnated into the human soul, present day society still lives under a genetic program of fear, defensiveness, mistrust, and violence.
This historical legacy – the morphogenetic field of war – dominates humanity to this very day, passed on from generation to generation. The perpetrators today are the victims of yesterday; the victims of today are the perpetrators of tomorrow – until we recognize this insanity and break the cycle.
The authoritarian character
In all patriarchal societies Wilhelm Reich discovered more or less the same structures of authoritarian character. On the surface such an authoritarian human being is ’reserved, polite, compassionate, responsible and conscientious in manner’ (6). There would be no societal problem if this superficial layer were connected with the authentic centre of the human being, a ‘biological core,’ from which our true drives and impulses originate. If this were the case, the human species would be ever faithful to truth, sexually free, loving, and creative without double standards and a hidden potential of violence. Authenticity and a natural moral concern would emerge without the need for a moral codex; ethical behaviour would emerge from life itself. However, between this biological centre and the facade of social norms of behaviour, there is a suppressed, subconscious layer in between which is “cruel, sadistic, lascivious, rapacious and envious” (7).
The nuclear family was in Wilhelm Reich’s time the key societal institution perpetuating this double-edged sword of a clean outward appearance concealing a darker sexual inhibition within. Children in particular are strongly influenced by environments that force conformity and inhibit their elementary life energy, so they develop ‘body armour’ to protect themselves. Their life energy comes from a biological core – the impulse of movement, learning, sexuality and creativity. In an inhibited environment this energy becomes distorted and misaligned with an authentic human expression.
One has to imagine how this affects the soul of a child. They are punished by parental authority to which they have surrendered. The child innately loves this same authority figure in the parent with the expression of a pure joy of life, and so they are incredibly vulnerable. The child cannot understand this dynamic yet, and so there is inner confusion which cannot be easily resolved. The sexual life force that had been joyful and fascinating becomes associated with rejection. Parental authority has transformed it into something threatening, frightening, disgusting – to the point where it triggers a fear of death. In order to survive this fear, the child lives in an inner contradiction between internal drives, inner longing and life energy on the one side, and a judgemental voice of internalized parental authority on the other.
And so the structural lie begins. Continuing into adulthood, we suppress and feel ashamed that which triggers joy and authenticity within us. This rigid inner social order needs to end. It is the core from which violence arises.
Though the twentieth century legacy of authoritarian German rule is over, an underlying repressive force is still present – it is just much more subtle and pervasive. While many no longer grow up in a traditional nuclear family, instead living in more diversified arrangements like single-parent homes, even then repression emerges. The well-meaning parent can becomes stressed and overworked by the continual pressure of an enforced work ethic, unable to create a loving environment for the child. Simultaneously, children are bombarded by a mass-marketing machine flooded with stimuli designed to indoctrinate the child into a life of obedient consumerism. Today in the twenty first century, the ideology of economic progressivism above all has become the dominant exploiter of the vulnerable.
Psychological archetypes of fascism
National Socialism operated within a set of psychological archetypes that radiated an almost irresistible attraction for people with an authoritarian inclination. These archetypes originated from the neurotic internal realm in which they had grown up. In an almost mystical ecstasy people submitted themselves to the ‘Fuhrer’ and found in him the strong father that would love them in a way that their own parents had not. They found a home in the ‘Aryan national family.’ In the Nazis’ mystical symbolism the nation was synonymous with the nurturing mother they never truly had.
Once the ‘Nazi community’ was embodied in the nation, a race to purify it was under way. In a classic underlying potential for sadistic violence, the ‘blood poisoning’ of the Aryan people was the direct reflection of a subconscious panic to be absolved of sexual impurity and perversion. Paradoxically, attempts to purify society of these vices led not to an introspective re-evaluation of social norms, but instead it looked to find blame outside of the community – and so minority racial groups were targeted. The polite, moralistic surface of bourgeois society was merely the pseudo-moralistic undercurrent of a perverted substratum of German society.
So long as society is full of broken souls, of people who cannot not find an authentic self-expression within their society, totalitarian ideologies find fertile ground. Does the development of the Islamic State in the Middle East display the hallmark of a similar urgency? What does it tell us about the inner constitution of our own society that thousands of young men from Europe voluntarily join the Islamic State, a military force that is transforming large parts of the Middle East into a terror regime through brutality, crucifixion, and mass rape? We find the same structures in a much more subtle manner in our own society of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ where the true concepts are vapourised and the words become a facade for global capitalist expansion.
So long as people live in social systems that co-opt their authenticity there is potential for fascist eruption. So long as the cohesion of a society, community, or movement requires the exclusion of minorities as chosen scapegoats it is still structurally fascist. The same applies wherever an authority exercises violence against unprotected people – when the masses are passive spectators.
We experience this lack of engagement in our direct surrounding, yet we also witness it on a much larger scale as a general lack of compassion for the destiny of humankind, other livings creatures, and even our planet. How many people drown monthly in the Mediterranean Sea at the contrived borders of the European Union while our security forces do nothing? Hans de Boer, who served in the resistance against Hitler in his youth later reported on the cruel structures of dominance inherent in globalized capitalism, stating that “indifference is the fascism of our time.” (8)
A more subtle totalitarian system can operate to this day when the citizens become indifferent to active participation in genuine political, democratic and social life. Embedded indifference makes it easier for the elites who hold power to destabilize and exploit nations in resource-rich regions of the world. So a fictitious societal norm is presented as being ‘open and tolerant’ with the use of euphemisms like ‘sustainable development’. It is based on an unspoken agreement as to what is acceptable and what is not.
If one dares to go even an inch beyond this convention and ask questions that threaten the ideological foundation of society, challenging its official narratives, one’s public reputation can be instantly ruined.
What can be done about the rise of neo-Fascism?
Neither political appeals nor moral indignation can structurally overcome fascism. We do not need preaching words. We need a new direction for the high voltage powers of the human soul, a perspective for transforming the latent violence within ourselves. Die Ärzte, a German punk band struck at the core when they sang “Your violence is only a silent cry for love. Your military boots long for tenderness. Because you are afraid of cuddling – you are a fascist.” (9)
Would these young men really join the Islamic State? And in the Germany of seventy years ago, would millions have become Nazis had they a true perspective for love? If we want to live without cruelty, we need to make a space where people don’t have to justify a boundless longing for love, sexuality, acceptance, adventure, and community – with violence.
It is not our human nature that is brutal, but the suppression of our human nature. When a concrete flood channel breaks its banks causing devastation, the question is: what is violent? Is it the water, or is it the narrow channel which the water was forced to move through? Both the water in a channel and human energy in a mechanised system are similar in that eventually they must be liberated. When water is allowed to flow freely across the land it restores the fertility of the soil. Once the flood is over, a river brings new life. At times it may expand and at others contract, but the river does not destroy the surrounding land – it nurtures and fertilizes it. The same is true for a young child. Given freedom of expression in an environment of trust and authenticity the child can orient his or her true nature with clarity and let the power within flow outwards to express humanity and compassion. Such a child will grow into adulthood and be intolerant of a totalitarian regime.
By and large, a person will not intentionally hurt another when from an early age they have known what true trust and acceptance is.
More and more people around the world recognize the absence of a solution within the existing systems and are searching for a new way. As Wilhelm Reich would have said, by reconnecting to our true nature we can finally overcome our historic trauma. Overcoming the structure of fear in our society is an existential issue for our collective survival. The very political and economic mechanisms we live under are destroying the basis for life and even the planet itself. We need a planetary movement that is able to unite human energy in the unity of social justice – one that sets the foundation for non-violence and sustainable living on our planet.
We need a convincing methodology that can be practically realised in order to change the way we relate to each other in a more trusting and cooperative way to once and for all free ourselves from our mechanised prison. Ultimately, however, the shift from a pattern of structural violence to a pattern of compassion and trust means redesigning our society from the ground up.
In Dieter Duhm’s latest book “Terra Nova: Globale Revolution und Heilung der Liebe” (translated as “Terra Nova: Global Revolution and the Healing of Love”), he outlines a global peace strategy: ‘the Healing Biotopes Plan’. Duhm writes (translated), “Society will shift to cooperation and solidarity through processes of trust and community building that are innate within our evolutionary core.” (10) So an inner transformation simultaneously takes place alongside an outer transformation.
We need new economic, ecological, technological systems that have a nonviolent relationship toward the biosphere that can sustainably supply our basic needs and the needs of other living things on our planet. It will involve a space where fear vanishes – and with it hostility and violence. Instead of the adversarial, competitive, mechanised system we live under today, our new system expresses our elemental cooperative core. And so a new chapter of our evolution begins – the era of the engaged, spiritual human being.
I would like to conclude with a translated passage by Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish Dutch woman, which was written in her diary shortly before her execution in Auschwitz 1943. Her words are a legacy and an assignment for us all. Never again fascism; never again war!
“The misery is enormous, but nevertheless, I often walk late in the evening when the day behind me has sunken away into profundity. I walk with whipping steps along the barbed wire and then it wells up out of my heart again and again – I cannot help it, it is the way it is, it is of an elementary power: life is something wonderful and big, later we have to build up a whole new world – and each further crime and each further cruelty we have to contrast with a further piece of love and goodness which we have to conquer within ourselves.” (11)
- Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970. (15)-(16). Print.
- Hedges, Chris. “Noam Chomsky Has ‘Never Seen Anything Like This’.” TruthDig. N.p., 19 Apr. 2010. Web. 1 May 2015.
- Strasser, Todd. The Wave. New York: Dell, 2005. Print.
- Duhm, Dieter. “Nonviolence: Attempt at an Answer.” Terra Nova Voice. N.p., 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 02 May 2015.
- Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970. (8) Print.
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- De Boer, Hans. International Summer University. Aula, Tamera, Portugal. Aug. 2002. Speech.
- Die Ärzte – Schrei Nach Liebe Lyrics.” http://www.lyricsmania.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2015.
- Duhm, Dieter. Terra Nova: Globale Revolution und Heilung der Liebe [Terra Nova: Global Revolution and the Healing of Love]. Belzig: Verlag Meiga, 2014. Print.
- Hillesum, Etty. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943. Trans. Arnold Pomerans. New York: Pantheon, 1983. Print.