“God is dead,” Nietzsche wrote in 1882. “Think of the implications,” Tom Wolfe wrote over a century later, having witnessed them played out throughout the 20th century:
Nietzsche said this was not a declaration of atheism, although he was in fact an atheist, but simply the news of an event. He called the death of God a “tremendous event,” the greatest event of modern history. The news was that educated people no longer believed in God, as a result of the rise of rationalism and scientific thought, including Darwinism, over the preceding 250 years. But before you atheists run up your flags of triumph, he said, think of the implications. “The story I have to tell,” wrote Nietzsche, “is the history of the next two centuries.” He predicted (in Ecce Homo) that the twentieth century would be a century of “wars such as have never happened on earth,” wars catastrophic beyond all imagining. And why? Because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt, since guilt is an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before the age of reason. As a result, people would loathe not only one another but themselves. The blind and reassuring faith they formerly poured into their belief in God, said Nietzsche, they would now pour into a belief in barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods: “If the doctrines…of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal, doctrines I consider true but deadly”—he says in an allusion to Darwinism in Untimely Meditations—”are hurled into the people for another generation…then nobody should be surprised when…brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of the non–brothers…will appear in the arena of the future.”
“The death-struggle between Hitler and Stalin exercises a lasting fascination because it represents a moral singularity,” Richard Fernandez wrote this past weekend at the Belmont Club. “It is a narrative of how men and great states act when they are completely unfettered by such considerations as humanity, morals or even sanity:”
The psychohistorical attraction of the Eastern Front is that it provides the only actual recent laboratory in which we can observe men who are like gods. On the Eastern Front one could order the death of millions; order the burning of entire nations; send however many people one liked into concentration camps. One could order ‘subhumans’ from the Soviet eastern republics to walk over minefields to clear the way for tank armies. The only constraints were resources.
But of morals, there was none. All other historical tableaus restrict the writer’s palette. Only on the Eastern Front, in the battle between Hitler and Stalin, were all colors completely unrestricted. It was where anything goes. Lincoln Steffens was wrong when he said, after visiting Soviet Russia that “I have seen the future and it works”. The real future of Communism, the portrait of its ideals carried to the ultimate limit, were the Eastern Front and the Downfall.
If I were to do the doctoral dissertation today, my premise would be different. It would not be to identify the specific operational decisions which if done differently would have resulted in the “victory” of Nazi Germany. That would be to miss the point. It would be to ambitiously claim that Hitler never knew what victory was. Could not have ever known what victory was. Although Hitler’s plans were operationally expressed in start and stop lines, I would argue that in a very real sense Hitler was grasping for a metaphysical goal. There would always be something else. My claim would be that deep down inside Hitler — and perhaps Stalin — were making war on God.
They did not want anything so tangible as x more grams of bread, or y more liters of fuel for Ivan or Hans. Those were goals not worth pursuing. Neither wanted to gain something as mundane as a 40 hour work week, or two weeks of vacation for the populations. They cared nothing for meals, clothes — Hitler was a teetotal vegetarian — or works of art. Nobody was interested in increasing the leisure time available for barbecues and bowling. That language had no place in the world of the Titans. Both Hitler and Stalin were after power, power so pure they could never really grasp it in the form they desired it most. And that therefore the tragic events on the Eastern Front, involving though it did the deaths of millions, were really about nothing at all that you could grasp upon this earth.
That is an astounding claim, but today, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I think the claim can be fairly made. Nothing permanent was achieved by that titanic struggle, that Downfall. It was strangely enough, a bad dream, as insubstantial as its goal. It left no permanent imprint upon the land after the barriers were down, when people went back to drinking beer and eating sausages and playing video games. People went back to the real and forgot about the nightmare.
Robert Harris’ brilliant 1992 novel Fatherland is as much an alternative history of the Cold War as it is an alternative history of World War II. The subtext of Harris’s novel is that Western Europe under the Nazis 20 years after the conclusion of World War II was the equivalent of the last two decades of the Soviet Union; Hitler is an old man, dissipation is rapidly setting into Germany, and a sort gray dreariness pervades the continent; bloated middle-aged men in suits and uniforms preside over a people going through the motions in an exhausted industrial economy. Meanwhile in America, most intellectuals have grown tired of the Cold War between the two super powers, and are eager to forget the Evil Empire, declare detente, and ask, “can’t we all just get along?”
Or as Harris himself told the New York Times, in 1987, when he first conceived of his book:
There were a lot of German tourists on the beach [in Sicily, where he was vacationing],” he said, “and if you closed your eyes, you could just imagine you were in the victorious German empire. Suddenly, everything came to me as a novel, the idea of a cover-up, a sequence of deaths, someone investigating them. I went splashing into the water, and by the time I came back onto the beach I had it written in my mind.”
Meanwhile, regarding the other side of the coin in World War II, Oceania has never been at war with the Eurasian Union…or has it?