True Believers, Blinded by Ideology

(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, File)

One of the most fascinating questions about WW2 concerns when the Nazis realized they had lost the war. Some say the generals knew early as December 1941, when Operation Barbarossa was stopped before Moscow, that the great throw of the dice had failed. Others say civilian leaders came to it in 1942 when Case Blue failed to secure the oil they needed to fight on in the East. But most certainly the public moment had come by February 1943, when Joseph Goebbels delivered his famous “Total War” speech admitting that, far from attaining victory, the Reich would be very lucky to survive without a mobilization on a Communist scale.

The crisis we now face on the Eastern Front was at its height. In the midst of the hard misfortunes the nation faced in the battle on the Volga … It was a moving experience for me, and probably also for all of you, to be bound by radio with the last heroic fighters in Stalingrad …

Now is not the time to ask how it all happened. … The time is short!  … It is understandable that, as a result of broad concealment and misleading actions by the Bolshevist government, we did not properly evaluate the Soviet Union’s war potential. Only now do we see its true scale.

My firm conviction is that we cannot overcome the Bolshevist danger unless we use equivalent, though not identical, methods.

It is characteristic of ideologies that no error is ever admitted. Goebbels’ solution was to flog the population to a superhuman effort, to double down under the same Fuhrer. Yet despite his cinematic reputation as an evil genius, Hitler was actually a dupe of his own wishful thinking. During a brief visit to Carl Mannerheim, commander-in-chief of the Finnish Defense Forces in the summer of 1942, Hitler admitted that he had completely underestimated the scale of the USSR.

They have the most monstrous armament that is humanly conceivable …so…if anybody had told me that one state can line up with 35.000 tanks, I had said ‘you have gone mad’…

if one general of mine had declared, that a state here had 35.000 tanks, I had said, Mister (‘Mein Herr’), you are seeing everything double… or tenfold, this is crazy, you are seeing ghosts…I had not thought this possible…If somebody had told me that…I have told this just before, we have found industrial plants…and we had no idea…and today there is a tank production facility that…that…in the first shift a bit over 30.000 and in full development should have employed more than 60.000 workers…one single tank production facility…we have occupied it…a gargantuan facility…lots of workers who nevertheless live like animals

Hitler was lousy at sizing up opponents, declaring war on the United States on December 11, 1941, with only a vague and uninformed idea of its capacity and strength. John Kenneth Galbraith recalled:

When Pearl Harbor happened, we [Roosevelt’s advisors] were desperate. … We were all in agony. The mood of the American people was obvious – they were determined that the Japanese had to be punished. We could have been forced to concentrate all our efforts on the Pacific, unable from then on to give more than purely peripheral help to Britain. It was truly astounding when Hitler declared war on us three days later. I cannot tell you our feelings of triumph. It was a totally irrational thing for him to do, and I think it saved Europe.

He guaranteed defeat. The sheer scale of Hitler’s miscalculation was dramatically depicted in the TV mini-series Band of Brothers, when David Webster of the 101st Airborne, riding in a truck past trudging, surrendering German soldiers, realizes the grotesqueness of the situation.

David Webster : [at a passing column of German prisoners] Hey, you! That’s right, you stupid Kraut bastards! That’s right! Say hello to Ford, and General fuckin’ Motors! You stupid fascist pigs! Look at you! You have horses! What were you thinking? Dragging our asses half way around the world, interrupting our lives… For what, you ignorant, servile scum! What the fuck are we doing here?

The answer was they were living out some crazy ideological fantasy. In the Nazi mind the juggernauts bearing down on them from East and West were controlled by the Jews, so even when they had run out of gas for Luftwaffe aircraft, ammo for rifles, and trains to move equipment they still used whatever they had left to implement the Final Solution. Goebbels again:

Behind the oncoming Soviet divisions we see the Jewish liquidation commandos, and behind them terror, the specter of mass starvation and complete anarchy. International Jewry is the devilish ferment of decomposition that finds cynical satisfaction in plunging the world into the deepest chaos and destroying ancient cultures that it played no role in building.

Ideology so blinded the Nazis that they completely missed the gigantic military potential of the Soviets and the USA yet were transfixed by imaginary Jewish liquidation commandos bearing down on them in untold numbers. By April 1945, Goebbels was enlisting anyone who would still listen into the ranks of Fighters for the Eternal Reich.

Under the fury of the enemy offensives that have been pressing down on our fronts to the west, east, and south for months, as well as the almost unceasing bombing of our German cities and provinces, some hearts are beginning to shake and tremble. Rarely in history has a brave people struggling for its life faced such terrible tests as the German people have in this war. The misery that results for us all, the never-ending chain of sorrows, fears, and spiritual torture does not need to be described in detail. We know them all too well, and we are too proud to appeal to the world’s pity. We are bearing a heavy fate because we are fighting for a good cause, and are called to bravely endure the battle to achieve greatness. This faith is the sure foundation that remains to us in the midst of this inferno of self destruction under which all humanity moans and weeps. That is why we cling so strongly to it, for if we lost it we ourselves would also be lost.

It’s the voice of man clinging desperately to what he imagines is sanity, yet suspecting deep in his heart what he dreads to accept: that his most cherished, irrefutable convictions were a lie. They had tried harder, become more ruthless, and hardened their hearts to an unimaginable degree — and still failed. Perhaps, like every true believer, the last thing to go through Goebbels’ head was the unanswerable puzzle: “How did I go wrong when I can’t be wrong?”

Books: Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom. If machine brains one day come to surpass human brains in general intelligence, then this new superintelligence could become very powerful. As the fate of the gorillas now depends more on us humans than on the gorillas themselves, so the fate of our species then would come to depend on the actions of the machine superintelligence. But we have one advantage: We get to make the first move.