As I have mentioned before on this blog, my life feels like one big synchronicity lately. It seems like no sooner do I write a blog post than the universe answers it. Last week’s post was answered by none other than Kanye West who went viral the day after I hit publish. If you’d told somebody a year ago that “Kanye West will go on Alex Jones wearing a full face mask and say he loves Nazis” they would have thought you were crazy. But, in case you haven’t noticed, everything’s been crazy lately and it shows no signs of slowing down.
The use of the word crazy here is not mere hyperbole. Western society and the United States in particular is having a collective psychological meltdown at the moment. What Kanye did was to go right to the centre of it and push the Hitler button. Like any artist of worth, he knows where the crux of the issue is and that’s exactly how I viewed his Alex Jones appearance. It was performance art.
We can usefully call the mass collective irrationality of our society towards the erstwhile leader of the Nazis the Hitler Complex. Jung and Freud pioneered our understanding of psychological complexes. A complex is cluster of psychic properties that threaten the stability of the self when challenged. When I say that the West has a Hitler Complex, I am saying that Hitler functions as an archetype that triggers irrational responses from the collective culture but I’m also suggesting that those irrational responses reveal something of our collective identity. Something, perhaps, we would rather not have revealed.
(Note: psychological complexes have an origin in something that actually happened. Freud and Jung almost always found that a complex was based in some trauma that happened in childhood. It is self evident that Hitler committed some of the worst atrocities in history so it’s not in the least bit surprising that the horrors of WW2 would have given rise to psychological complexes. Part of the reason to try and disentangle a complex is to allow a proper evaluation of its root causes).
Kanye triggered the Hitler Complex last Friday and, like clockwork, everybody lost their minds. Imagine, for comparison, that Kanye had gone on Alex Jones and said that he loved Stalin and that he thought communism had done some good things for the world. People would have thought it was weird. We would have heard the usual lectures from Republicans about the evils of communism and how so many millions had died under its rule etc etc. In other words, it would have been a mostly rational response.
What we saw instead was a completely irrational response and the number one accusation levelled was that Kanye had gone “crazy”. That’s what’s known as projection. It was not Kanye who had gone crazy. Kanye was putting on a show. That’s what he does. The show involved him committing the number one heresy of western culture by denying that Hitler and the Nazis were 100% evil, spawn of Satan, completely responsible for all the evils of the word.
This is not just an American problem. Here in Victoria, our wonderful Premier, Dan Andrews, accused his opponents of supporting Nazis in the recent election campaign. Meanwhile, in Canada, the enquiry into Trudeau’s invocation of the Emergencies Act suggested that a lone person waving a Nazi flag, who was duly used by the media and politicians to smear all the other peace-loving people at the rally, was a government plant. Can it be a coincidence that Trudeau and Andrews both authorised state violence against unarmed citizens during the last two years?
To unravel the Hitler Complex, we must do what Jung and Freud did and investigate the history of it. That’s what we’ll be doing in this and in following posts.
So, with a tip of the hat to Kanye West for the inspiration, let’s do a bit of military history.
We begin back in antiquity with the infamous Siege of Melos as related by the great historian, Thucydides.
Melos was a small and inconsequential island with a population of about three thousand people. The Athenians were almost at the peak of their power when in 416 BC, during a time of peace, they showed up one day and demanded an Unconditional Surrender from the Melians. What an Unconditional Surrender means is that there will be no negotiation of peace terms. The winning party gets to do whatever it likes and the losers have to suck it up.
Even in the violent world of Ancient Greece, just showing up and demanding an Unconditional Surrender from a peaceful country was against the rules. The Melians tell the Athenians exactly that and use a number of other arguments to try and shame them out of their unjust actions. But the Athenians reject all pretence of civility. They tell the Melians that might is right. They are more powerful and that is all there is to it. They give the Melians an ultimatum: surrender or die.
The Melians refused to surrender and the Athenians laid siege to the island and forced a surrender through starvation. That would have been bad enough. But it’s what happened next that offended even the ancient world. After the surrender, the Athenians executed all the Melian men in cold blood and sold the women and children into slavery. They then populated the island with settlers. This was a genocide right in the middle of what is considered to be the golden age of Athens, one of the greatest civilisations ever to exist.
Demands for Unconditional Surrender are rare in the history of war. The normal outcome of war is a peace treaty which comes after an armistice (an agreement to stop fighting). Because the fighting ends by agreement, the losing side is not completely defeated and this gives them some leverage in the peace treaty. The winning side accepts the armistice so that they don’t lose any more soldiers, weapons and money. This all follows from the idea that war is an extension of politics. Peace is achieved when the winning side has achieved enough of their (political) war aims to call it a day and the losing side is willing to accept its loses.
In January 1943, US President Roosevelt announced that the US would only accept Unconditional Surrender from the Germans and Japanese. In other words, he declared that the war aim of the United States was to arrogate the right to re-structure German and Japanese society and politics as it saw fit. This was part of a broader plan to set the terms of global order in the post-war years. In practice, this led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people because it gave Germany and Japan no incentive to surrender early and negotiate a peace treaty.
Was the behaviour of the US towards Germany and Japan a replay of what the Athenians did to Melos? Was this simply a might is right play where the Americans used their superior force to destroy an enemy? That was a big moral question at the time but it’s been completely forgotten about now. Or, we could use more proper psychological terminology and say it’s been sublimated; made unconscious.
Everybody thinks of Hitler as a megalomaniac. But didn’t the US also behave as a megalomaniac by demanding Unconditional Surrender? Hitler is rightly condemned for killing civilians. But the US and its allies also killed civilians in the war. Doesn’t that make us as bad as him?
These complex moral issues were not the result of simple arrogance or megalomania (at least, not entirely). They arose due to a change in the nature of warfare with the arrival of what came to be known as Total War.
Total War is all about scale. Napoleon’s Grand Armee was arguably the first army that conducted Total War. At its peak, it numbered a million men and the number of troops sent to fight in Russia was said to be 600,000. Such a huge number of soldiers needs an equally enormous support apparatus. The soldiers need to be clothed, fed and have their injuries attended to. Another way to think about it is that the army could not function without the support apparatus.
With the advent of Total War, there came a plausible way to defeat the enemy by destroying their military support apparatus, but that involves potentially killing civilians. The Geneva Convention written in the post war years would set out to address this problem but by then millions of civilians had been killed as war turned into Total War.
It’s noteworthy here that the US Civil War was also an early example of Total War. Coincidentally, one of the main generals in the war, Ulysses S. Grant, was nicknamed Unconditional Surrender Grant, a foreshadowing of the later US policy of Unconditional Surrender in WW2. The Civil War also had notable numbers of civilian casualties and was a war not over land as much as ideology. It was, in large part, a war to determine what sort of country the US was going to be.
This ideological aspect of Total War was also present in Napoleon who attracted a lot of support from many different countries by providing a new vision for what Europe could be. A century or so later, Hitler had a different vision but it was also ideological in nature and an attempt to unify Europe. Thus, Total War really does concern itself with the whole of society including politics, economy and even culture. Hitler did not invent those things. He was following a pattern that had started long before his time.
But things had evolved even further by Hitler’s time. The question of what sort of society to live in had grown beyond just individual nation states and even continents. It now encompassed the whole globe. We can frame that as a moral issue but in reality it was the natural outcome of the industrial revolution and the advent of fossil fuels which meant that military power could now be projected practically anywhere on the globe. Any country with an industrial economy was now a potential player in a new battle for power.
The ramifications of the change to Total War are enormous but there is one aspect that is important for our story as it deals with a specific problem that Roosevelt was grappling with as WW2 came to an end. That problem is the fact that, because Total War is at least as much about ideology as about military capability, when military defeat comes there is still the lingering problem of ideology. This was no academic matter. It was central to the rise of Hitler.
Hitler was just one of many German soldiers who fought in WW1 who thought they were betrayed. The betrayal was assumed mostly to have come from the political leadership but it also tapped into latent anti-Semitism and the Jews were sometimes accused of subverting the war effort from the front lines. Was this just the crazy delusions of an evil, racist madman? Well, anti-Semitism nd racism were rife everywhere at the time, including in the US. As for the betrayal by the German leadership, there were a lot of very good reasons why Hitler and others drew this conclusion. It was not just paranoid delusions.
The problem with Total War is primarily a problem of scale and one of the main problems that comes with scale is communication. Anybody who’s had to deal with a huge, incompetent bureaucracy knows what that’s like. You can’t get a straight answer to anything. Nobody seems to know what is going on. Well, the same thing happens when you’re a soldier in an enormous army fighting along a massive front such as happened in WW1. An enormous bureaucracy is required to make such a war possible and that bureaucracy suffers from all the usual problems of bureaucracy.
Put yourself in the shoes of Hitler or any of the other soldiers on the front line in WW1. One day, a bureaucratic order is issued which says the war is over. As an enthusiastic soldier in the trenches, does this order make sense to you? Not really. You have your guns. You have your ammunition. The enemy is still there across the way. As far as you’re concerned, you can continue fighting and nobody can give you a straight answer why you should not continue fighting. You just have to follow orders. For Hitler and many like him, that was a betrayal and they spent the years after the war looking for scapegoats to explain that betrayal.
To understand this better, we need to take a quick dip into the psychology that existed in the pre-war years and then we can finally join the dots and start to see why the concepts of betrayal, humiliation and shame became a defining feature of Total War and were crucial to decisions taken at the end of WW2.
The Warrior Archetype
We can usefully summarise the psychology of pre-war European culture by using the archetype of The Warrior. If The Warrior were a cheesy TV show character, his catchphrase would be Death Before Dishonour. That is actually what the Melians chose when they refused to capitulate to the Athenians. They chose to die rather than live in what they considered to be disgrace.
Cultures that are heavily influenced by the Warrior archetype have strong honour codes and slights to someone’s reputation are taken very seriously. If you’ve ever read a European novel from the 19th century, chances are there will be at least one scene involving a duel. Some young man’s honour has been called into question and he responds by telling the perpetrator to meet on the stroke of midnight in the olive grove.
The advent of Total War actually caused a diminution of the Warrior’s honour code. Part of the reason was because war became no longer honourable. It was no longer a test of valour as soldiers pitted themselves against each other. By the time of WW1, it had become little more than a meat grinder (although some, such as Ernst Jünger, still managed to find valour there). This change happened gradually in Europe so that nobody really noticed. But history has provided us with a perfect example of what happens when the old Warrior honour code came into contact with the new industrial warfare.
Many people would have seen the Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai. The movie is based on the real history of US-Japanese relations in the 19th century. The Japanese leadership had been shaken by the episode in 1852 where American warships sailed in and held the country to ransom demanding a trade treaty. They realised that they were no match for the US military and had to cave in to US demands.
Japan had been a closed society but it was forced open at the barrel of a gun. The humiliation and resentment this caused led directly to the fighting in WW2 because it turns out that people really hate having decisions dictated to them by foreigners (the Melians had shown that a couple of thousand years earlier).
The problem with Total War is that it inevitably creates humiliation and resentment and those emotions can drive the losing country to respond in ways that become a problem in future. The Japanese responded to the American aggression by modernising and preparing for war. In a very short period of time, the Japanese set up an industrial economy and the associated military that came with it. They did this initially in order to be able to defend themselves from the US but it also led to possibilities for conquest in Asia which led to some horrific run-ins with the Chinese that are still the cause of hatred of the Japanese in China.
The Japanese changed their society massively and very quickly by historical standards. One of the changes was to disband the samurai. That’s the part of the story told by the movie The Last Samurai. The final battle scene in that movie is based on a real event called the Satsuma Rebellion. It really was the samurai’s last stand.
500 samurai rode into battle against 30,000 troops armed with western rifles and cannons. The reason why that scene resonates so strongly is because it shows very clearly the cultural clash between the old-fashioned Warrior mentality with its honour code and the new war mentality of conscripted, unskilled soldiery.
So this is not just Hollywood nonsense. Warriors down through history have chosen death before dishonour and that would have been the attitude of the soldiers on the battlefields of WW1. The sense of betrayal they felt was the betrayal of the Warrior at the hands of the bureaucrats and financiers – aka the elites.
This sense of betrayal and shame was not just a German problem. The French felt it after the Franco-Prussian War and it is still a live issue even in the United States whenever the confederate flag is flown. With the onset of Total War, any peace treaty amounted to letting the ideology of the “enemy” remain in place. Thus, Napoleon was able to return to France from exile and raise an army immediately. The people who believed in him were still ready to fight even after numerous losses.
The demand for Unconditional Surrender was a way to try and solve this problem by enforcing what we might as well call Total Defeat on the enemy. It wasn’t enough to beat them militarily, they must be beaten ideologically, economically, culturally and, dare I say it, psychologically.
This explains the sense of betrayal felt on the ground by German soldiers at the of WW1. But, there were actual grounds for the charge of betrayal at the highest levels and the story of how that came about is another aspect of the problem of scale as it relates to Total War.
The Treaty of Versailles
Remember that it was humiliation and resentment that drove the Japanese to modernise their society and which arguably fuelled Japanese imperialism up until the end of WW2. The same humiliation and resentment was a problem leading into the end of WW1. The French still had a chip on their shoulder after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. This led to them insist on inserting provisions into the Treaty of Versailles that were explicitly designed to humiliate the Germans as payback. Let’s do a lightning history of how it went down.
The then US President Woodrow Wilson took the initiative to formulate the peace negotiations of WW1 by outlining his 14 Points. Most of these were territorial issues about who would end up with what land. The first five points, however, related quite clearly to US political and economic interests such as freedom of navigation and trade policy. This was fine as any peace treaty is supposed to represent the interests of the parties involved and the 14 Points aimed to do that.
The 14 Points were presented to Germany its allies and this led the Germans to believe they would be the basis of the subsequent peace treaty. The Armistice was called but the Germans were explicitly excluded from taking part in the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Versailles. Truth be told, most countries were excluded. Three nations drew up most of the Treaty: the US, Britain and France. Other victor nations were given some room to input their wishes but in a far less involved way.
The French used their prime position to insist on what became the two most controversial points: reparations and the assignment of blame to Germany. Reparations were not unknown in peace treaties. For example, after the final defeat of Napoleon, France was levied with a hefty bill in the peace negotiations.
Apportioning blame is rarer. Amusingly, in the very first peace treaty we know of, that between the Egyptians and the Hittites in 1274 BC, two versions of the treaty were written, one in the language of each people. The treaties are identical except that the Egyptian version has a clause blaming the Hittites for starting the war while the Hittite version has a clause which blames the Egyptians.
Most modern peace treaties are usually less childish. Consider The Treaty of Paris which was the peace treaty between Britain and the nascent United States of America following the War of Independence. In its preamble, King George III and the US agree “to forget all past Misunderstandings and Differences that have unhappily interrupted the good Correspondence and Friendship which they mutually wish to restore;” a noble sentiment that focuses on what should be the primary purpose of a peace treaty: to try and ensure a lasting peace between the nations.
Sadly, such noble ideas were absent at Versailles. The French delegation demanded not just extensive reparations but that there be a clause stating that the Germans were solely responsible for the war and that high-ranking officials could be charged afterwards with war crimes. This was an absurd claim and the British and the Americans argued against it. There was even dissent within the French ranks. French Marshal Ferdinand Foch summed it up perfectly by saying it was not a peace treaty at all but a 20 year armistice. He couldn’t have been more right but the French negotiators were adamant and the clauses were inserted into the Treaty.
Because the treaty was written behind closed doors without German involvement, the first the Germans saw of it was when the treaty was presented to them for signing. They immediately asked for the clauses to be removed. The problem for the allies was that they had spent so long negotiating amongst themselves to ensure every country got something that it wanted that any attempt at re-negotiation threatened to drag on indefinitely. Plus, the debate had already been lost against the implacable French. Therefore, instead of considering the perfectly reasonable objections of the Germans, they gave them an ultimatum: sign or we’ll invade within 24 hours.
This amounted to a demand of Unconditional Surrender but the Germans had only agreed to the Armistice on the assumption that they would be engaging in peace negotiations based on Wilson’s 14 Points. Thus, the Treaty of Versailles amounted to a violation of the terms of the Armistice. It seems to me that this violation was not intentional. It was yet another outcome of Total War where the scale and complexity of the peace treaty negotiations becomes too much to manage.
The Germans were rightly infuriated. The newly elected head of government, Philipp Sheidemann, resigned rather than sign the Treaty. His successor asked the head of the armed forces, von Hindenburg, whether the military was in a position to recommence fighting. Von Hindenburg answered in the negative. The Germans had been forced into the equivalent of an Unconditional Surrender with all the humiliation and shame that comes with that. The Treaty was universally despised in Germany, including by a guy named Adolf. The rest, as they say, is history.
It was partly the desire to avoid a repeat of this clusterf**k that Roosevelt demanded Unconditional Surrender in WW2. This made some sense because any peace treaty at that time would likely have been even more complicated than it had been at the end of WW1. However, this policy led the US into a moral transgression of arguably even greater magnitude than the Athenians committed at Melos.
In the next post, we’ll investigate that more and see how this led to the psychic sublimation that created the Unconscious Empire.
All posts in this series:-
Philosopher Kings vs Networks
The Unconscious Empire
The Unconscious Empire Pt 2: The Hitler Complex
The Unconscious Empire Pt 3: A Prison for your Mind
The Unconscious Empire Pt 4: Becoming the Other
The Unconscious Empire Final: Benevolent Totalitarianism