Among the Nazis
11 October 2020
A lot of us are thinking more than we might’ve once been used to about fascism these days, and I’m no exception. I was already thinking about the subject a good deal — partly through my part in a modest, sort of oddly enduring project called Solidarity Hall, which has attracted a variety of voices of the more or less politically disaffected, third-way types and so on, for about ten years now, and necessarily concerned a degree of shifting and evolving internal argument about modernity and politics. If recent political upset has had a general effect in the way we of the Atlantic anglosphere tune in on questions of interpretation of the last century’s power struggles in Europe, I’ve felt it a bit more than the average so-&-so, if anything, probably.
This doesn’t appear to have produced much of a turn in what I do with the blog here. I expect it’s truer, though, to say that how it’s translated to what I do here has been in terms more negative than positive — made me more reticent, more aware of what I haven’t appreciated and can’t frankly speak well to about the culture and the history. One way that caution’s been expressed is in the login wall I put in place here a couple of years ago, making a space for conversation not exposed to the whole world. And that’s turned out to be of pretty limited use to me on this particular score, really; even behind a screen, my ability to say much of anything about what I’m thinking is no match for the scene’s complications and the general flow rate.
In fact, I don’t have a lot to say in this post. But I am going to mention a couple of items I’ve come across in the past year — one a number of months ago, the other just in the past maybe week and a half — that caught my eye on account of fascism-alertness and at which, I want to note, access to the Chicago Public Library system has given me a better look than I otherwise might easily have had.
The first is Leon Krier’s great big book of the architectural works of Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and eventual arms production chief. At CPL, you can’t check this one out; has to be read at the main branch, the Harold Washington, downtown. I’ve only done so once. I snapped pictures of a bunch of pages for later review — mostly of text rather than the reproductions of drawings and photos that make up the bulk of the thing — and I’ve found far less time to return to it this year than I’d hoped. I don’t hesitate to say that the book appalls me. But its publication — first in 1985, then with still more generous treatment again quite recently, 2013 — and its defense and defenders call for continuing discussion.
I’d been generally familiar with Krier for a long time, his stature among the New Urbanists, his work for the Prince of Wales on the Poundbury project and so on, and somehow or other managed not to know about this Speer monograph. (Have incidentally had for many years, now buried in a box a long way away and still unread, a copy of Eisenman/Krier: Two Ideologies, published by Monacelli, who also later put out the second edition of the Speer book.) It was in some of the Twitter chatter responding to the Trump admin’s proclamation of a new exclusive-classicism design regime to govern federal building projects early this year that I caught mention of it for (as far as I can recall) the first time.
In the text, Krier develops a version of a critical account of modern history we trace back to figures like John Ruskin and Pyotr Kropotkin — an account I’m in firm agreement with, broadly speaking — rejecting industrialization, the highly centralized state, &c. as manifestation of some necessary progress tending toward conditions of well-being and freedom (or at any rate ‘prosperity’) for most of humankind most of the time, and insisting instead on widespread small-scale ownership and production, localized economy, devolved political power — ‘Small is beautiful,’ in a phrase. These ideas, what we might call the Ruskin-Kropotkin ‘traditional’ socialism, were much in public contention in late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Europe — influential, for instance, on the shape of papal documents providing the basis of what’s known as Catholic Social Teaching. This is also the period of fascism’s first emergence, of course. Krier’s special-blend borrowing / revising of this critical (or anti-) modernity has Hitler caught perilously between the case for a German rescue of Ruskin’s society of smallholder producers and fine-grained civic culture and the case for industrial boom, and succumbing, tragically, to the latter’s overwhelming force. We get observations like, ‘Alongside his burning passion for advanced industrial technology, the Führer [Krier repeatedly uses the title to refer to Hitler] had cherished all things beautiful’ and ‘Unreflecting anti-Nazism can itself be a kind of racism, a destructive form of self-affirmation’ — just enough truth in the words to induce half a second’s doubt whether you’d indeed have to be a moral fool or a cold-blooded propagandist to put them in an essay.
Speer’s career, as I read Krier here, is to be understood as a kind of concentration of the national tragedy embodied in Hitler. The telling presents an architectural classicism corresponding exactly to the artisan-civic, an architectural modernism to the industrial, neatly contrasting: the white and the black. Sift it out from all the essay build-up, and it’s a pretty crude kernel of a notion you’re giving consideration to. Still, I need to spend more time with this. Not going to rule out that I’m giving Krier short shrift in some respects, writing as I am here. I do hope to come back to the question — possibly over on the ‘front’ of this site, in Notes (sadly neglected at present!), where I started poking at the larger question of design language and radical tradition in two posts a couple of years ago, here and here.
The other item I want to mention has hardly any apparent relation to the Speer book — apart from being likewise large-format, thick, and lavishly illustrated. This I encountered by way of an episode of Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg’s Cartoonist Kayfabe dedicated to the first issue of Raw, which led to a little reading up on Jacques Tardi. Tardi’s non-comics work, I learned, includes illustrated editions of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au Bout de la Nuit (1932) and Mort à Crédit (1936), enormously influential works of modern lit about which I knew nothing. If I’d heard of Céline before this look at Tardi, I have no recollection of it. The 1988 Tardi / Futuropolis Voyage is in CPL’s collection — borrowable, so I requested it and picked it up at my branch down the street this week. I don’t read French, but this has drawings distributed throughout the text, every page, in some places full double spreads with no text. So much to look at! Don’t know that I’ve seen anything quite like it before.
Well, Céline — as you may know, not being as altogether ignorant as I — was a middle-class fellow, a doctor by profession, thoroughly disposed to embrace the antisemitism of his day. He produced pro-Nazi propaganda as Germany’s power grew, became a collaborator, evacuated with the Vichy heads in 1944, and was in prison in Denmark for a while after the war, avoiding the harsher fate of some comparable collaborators under de Gaulle. He was amnestied after a few years and died, as Speer would much later, a free citizen. Unlike Speer, he seems not to have been eager to rebuild a reputation. But then, the ruin of Céline’s reputation was never perhaps as total as Speer’s.
I have Céline’s life and legacy only in broad strokes at this point, from a little glancing around online, so I won’t pretend to a really decent grasp of the state of his post-war public profile or the course of events leading to this extraordinary illustrated re-publication of early novels by Tardi.
Wikipedia tells us (without citation) that people who went to see Céline in Paris late in life include Burroughs and, perhaps most strikingly, Ginsberg. Vonnegut is one of the long list of artists attesting to his importance. Introducing a Penguin collection of Céline’s post-war books in the ’70s, he writes:
Since he is punished and dead, and since the Nazi nightmare is so long ago now, it may be possible to perceive a twisted sort of honor in his declining to speak of remorse or to offer excuses of any kind. Other collaborators with the Nazis, of whom there were tens of thousands in France and millions in all of Europe, had stories to tell of how they were forced to behave as badly as they did, and of daring acts of resistance and sabotage they committed, at the risk of their lives.
Céline found that sort of lying ludicrous in a very ugly way.
In his complaint against what he sees as unfairness toward Speer, Krier sets him against Wernher von Braun and similar figures whom the western powers rehabilitated with barely a blink, and we have to grant him the partial point. Would we plot the literary world’s case for a Céline somewhere on a graph between the loci Krier commends to us for reference, Speer’s post-war reception and von Braun’s?
These days, that phrase ‘so long ago now’ of Vonnegut’s leaps out at me. Three or four decades isn’t just in the plainest possible sense a great remove from the moment he, much more vividly than many American contemporaries, could speak there of recalling as nightmare. To regard the 1930s and ’40s as distant in an essay in the mid-1970s is to tell a certain story about past and present — one I’m not so ready to assume Vonnegut actually believed. The bit I quote above he follows immediately with: ‘I get a splitting headache every time I try to write about Céline. I have one now. I never have headaches at any other time.’ No way to know if that’s true self-reporting, but it’s again a kind of story, of course, and an easier one for me, at least, to accept from him as straight telling.
For my part, the 1930s and ‘40s seem closer every day. That’s in no narrow respect because of these clowns Donald and Boris, say, and the opportunity a lot of the nastier characters of our various forms of political right have found through them, notwithstanding all that these elements busily do now to keep us thinking about fascist history particularly. It’s really mostly about aging, I feel like. You get older, time changes. You’re farther away from past events numerically, but they’re bigger on the horizon. My grandparents (Vonnegut’s age roughly, just a little older) are somehow emerging from obscurity for me, increasingly, as they didn’t when they were alive and I could talk to them. The sheer oppressive rush and confusion of their America, though obviously I can’t experience all of it directly and though they and others of their generation I’ve known seemingly never spoke of it in such terms, sharpens for me in outline and in detail — in my recall of their faces as much as in any item of fact we might adduce about the following of this present America from that.
And a Céline, a Speer, Hitler himself — these are people I have to face, simply, I appreciate more clearly all the time. If that sounds like I’m suggesting that I might be led at some point to join Krier in shedding tears for the Reichsminister’s lost works, I’ll say: don’t bet on it. The more real those cultural accomplishments under fascism at its most self-consciously, obscenely elevated are to me — the larger they loom — the more satisfied I am in knowing they’re torn down, no matter who did the toppling. As for Céline, I’m not at ease with the idea of his apparent literary permanence. But that is its own reality today, with my approval or without, and to be confronted in terms I’m perhaps only beginning to learn.