Discover more from Kvetch
Hitler Story Hour
Not a book review of Ian Kershaw’s "Hitler", Jojo Rabbit and Trump, Jane Street and Sapir-Whorf, Martin Gurri on elite impotence, technological stagnation
In this Kvetch:
Hitler Story Hour: the challenge in writing about Hitler
The seductiveness of the Will to Power
The New Yorker on JoJo Rabbit and brainworms
Jane Street and programming languages
Martin Gurri on the impotence of modernity and the rise of zealots
Has Technological Progress Stalled?
1. Hitler Story Hour: the challenge in writing about Hitler
One small stylistic tic that bothered me a bit in Ian Kershaw’s excellent biography Hitler: an excess of adjectives for Hitler and his cronies. We’re regularly reminded how wretched and evil and maniacal they were. It’s certainly not that they weren’t all those things. It just shouldn’t be necessary. Res ipsa loquitur - the thing speaks for itself.
Well maybe it is necessary.
I did not expect to be dazzled by parts of Hitler’s story nor to crack up laughing at others. Yet here we are.
The striking thing when reading of Hitler’s early years is how sympathetic he appears.
Awkward, bookish young man, devoted to his mother. Ambitious, patriotic, brave soldier, wounded in WWI. Free of the typical vices of men and soldiers - no boozing and whoring for him. In fact, extra points in today’s zeitgeist - no lasciviousness at all. Awarded the Iron Cross.1 Lived as a poor vagabond in Vienna for years. Struggling aspiring artist, resisting wage work, rebelling against his civil service father. Resentful of academics, aristocrats. Discovers in himself a powerful, charismatic oration. Fails putsch, ends up in jail, writes a well selling book, never gives up and proceeds to gain political power via election amidst national turmoil. Oh and he avoids taxes by deducting all sorts of living expenses in his occupation as a "writer". Wrangles with the tax office, they chase him for years, then wipes his own tax debt when he becomes Chancellor.2 What could more relatable than that?
It reads as a classic bildungsroman.
Certainly before 1919, when his epiphany about the Great Demonic Jewish Bolshevik Conspiracy was revealed to him and Jews forever thereafter held a special place in his vitriol, to great consequence, he would have appeared as really nothing more than a weird, rather earnest young man. And even after 1919… sure he was a virulent anti-Semite, but who wasn’t?
There are no films of his youth for a reason.
There aren’t really any films of him at all. Ok there’s Downfall - where his last days are portrayed in grim manic depressive grey. But in large part all we get are endless day-time TV documentaries with scary titles.
Or we must swivel our gaze entirely to laugh at him in comedy: in grotesque fantasy in Inglourious Basterds (even then, only in passing) or absurdly in Jojo Rabbit (love this scene), or in satire like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Mel Brooks’ Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden (the latter also in passing).
We cannot under any circumstances… just watch him.
The seductiveness of The Will to Power
Parts of Hitler’s story are dazzling (more on that below). Don’t believe me? Not only did Hitler mesmerise a nation. Not only did he find an endless supply of sycophants, many truly devoted. But he was something of a sex symbol in the Third Reich. Women literally killed themselves out of love for their beloved Fuhrer.
You might chuckle at that - awkward, odd looking Hitler. But you’re also probably unsurprised. It may be the purest example of power as aphrodisiac. Power has its own charisma. If status gets the girls, then the absolute numero uno totalitarian dictator whose Will infuses every private and public act becomes indistinguishable from pure libido.
This is precisely why it’s so difficult to portray power on its own terms. You cannot stare into this power without getting stuck in its viscous honey trap. You cannot look at the Eye of Sauron directly. It must be approached obliquely.
We see this everywhere. The challenge with portraying Walter White and Tony Soprano (and Michael Corleone and Tony Montana et al) is constraining their natural appeal. The showrunners keep needing to force them to do something horrendous just to break their spells over the audience.
Even then, there is a meaningful stub of fans who will follow their anti-heroes into hell. Walt, Tony - they’re in the empire business. Hitler was literally in the empire business.
The challenge for a showrunner is that stared into directly it’s impossible to look away. Empire building is charismatic. Winners are charismatic.
You cannot under any circumstances do to Hitler what they did to Walter White. You do not want to portray Hitler seductively. If you do, people will think there is something sinister about you. Because there probably is something sinister about you.
Hence the problem of storytelling Hitler.
That said, let’s stare into it for a moment.
It’s not just earnest young pre-1919 war hero Hitler who had his sympathetic parts.
Let’s fast forward to his final years. Beset by assassination plots, besotted by his conception of Mussolini, holed up in his bunker with his loyal coterie and his beloved dog Blondie. A last minute wedding. Loyal subjects renewing pledges of loyalty and deep, genuine affection for their leader. Constantly bombed and reports of mass rapes and atrocities on the eastern front as the Soviets close in. Sick and shaking and drugged and insomoniac.
I mean, if you didn’t know about him launching the bloodiest war in history, the mass murder, gruesome regime of torture and repression and genocides in between, if you were just simply shown these scenes on a screen, with no knowledge of these people, it would be nothing short of operatic.
The dramatic nature of their moment was far from lost on the dwindling members of Hitler’s inner circle in the finals weeks of the Third Reich. In fact, they expanded to cosmic levels of delusion.
Martin Bormann’s wife Gerda, holed up in the bunker, wrote in her diary:
‘this reminds me of the “Twilight of the Gods” in the Edda. The monsters are storming the bridge of the Gods … the citadel of the Gods crumbles, and all seems lost; and then, suddenly a new citadel rises, more beautiful than ever before … We are not the first to engage in mortal combat with the powers of the underworld, and that we feel impelled, and are also able, to do so should give us a conviction of ultimate victory.’
The against-all-odds (anti-)heroism was not even all imaginary:
A fresh moment of excitement gripped the inmates of the bunker during the early evening: the unexpected arrival of the wounded Colonel-General of the Luftwaffe Robert Ritter von Greim, and his glamorous female companion, twenty years his junior, the flying-ace and test pilot Hanna Reitsch. Both were fervent, longstanding admirers of Hitler. Greim had been summoned two days earlier to Berlin. He and Reitsch had had to risk an extremely hazardous flight from Munich. Greim’s foot had been injured when their Fieseler Storch had been hit by artillery fire on approach to the centre of Berlin, and Reitsch had grabbed the controls and brought the plane down safely on the East-West Axis. They had then requisitioned a car to bring them to the Reich Chancellery. Propped up by Reitsch, the wounded Greim now limped painfully into the bunker.
I mean, wow. The glamour. The devotion. The pizzaz!
Let’s go a bit earlier, and bit darker: the Night of the Long Knives, where Hitler purges his SA brown shirt loyalists (and settles other scores). We don’t even like the victims here! They’re also (generally) unsavoury Nazis. This plays out like Michael Corleone’s synchronised murder of his rivals mafia heads (the analogy even extends to some rival mafia heads and brown shirts being killed in bed with their lovers), or Cersei Lannister’s destruction of the Temple. Neither Cersei nor Corleone are heroes: both are villains. Yet we 100% root for them. Aside from the cinematic complicity in revving up the audience in both cases, we admire their cunning, their ruthlessness, their drive. And it’s an easier moment to succumb to because the victims are so unsympathetic themselves.
For a personal perspective, in a kind of honour amongst thieves, look at Hitler’s relationship with Mussolini.
Ahead of the German Anchluss of Austria, Hitler was worried that Mussolini would oppose it. When he got Mussolini’s go ahead, he was giddy:
Just before 10.30 p.m. Hitler heard the news he had been impatiently awaiting: Mussolini was prepared to accept German intervention. ‘Please tell Mussolini I will never forget him for it, never, never, never, come what may,’ a hugely relieved Hitler gushed over the telephone to Philipp of Hesse. ‘If he should ever need any help or be in any danger, he can be sure that do or die I shall stick by him, come what may, even if the whole world rises against him,’ he added, carried away by his elation.
Hitler kept his promise to his friend and one-time idol. In Mussolini’s darkest hour (well, maybe second darkest), Hitler came for him.
In a daring raid, an SS troop in gliders rescued Mussolini from his mountain peak prison, overwhelming some 200 Italian soldiers without firing a shot and getting him back to Germany.
Now, you definitely and under no circumstances “gotta hand it to Hitler,” but this raid was pretty awesome. If it were an Allied raid we’d have had Steve McQueen playing the raid captain and prime time reruns. But - very understandably - we don’t. Because the raid wasn’t Allied, it was Nazi.3
Mussolini and Hitler met for the last time right after the assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. The one-eyed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, played by Tom Cruise in Valkyrie, successfully detonated a bomb inside Hitler’s Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair!) during a meeting of senior Nazis. Remarkably, despite the carnage around him, Hitler escaped with only minor injuries.
Outwardly composed, there was little to denote that Hitler had just escaped an attempt on his life. He greeted Mussolini with his left hand, since he had difficulty in raising his injured right arm. He told the shocked Duce what had happened, then led him to the ruined wooden hut where the explosion had taken place. In a macabre scene, amid the devastation, accompanied only by the interpreter, Paul Schmidt, Hitler described to his fellow-dictator where he had stood, right arm leaning on the table as he studied the map, when the bomb went off. He showed him the singed hair at the back of his head. Hitler sat down on an upturned box. Schmidt found a still usable stool amid the debris for Mussolini. For a few moments, neither dictator said a word. Then Hitler, in a quiet voice, said: ‘When I go through it all again I conclude from my wondrous salvation, while others present in the room received serious injuries that nothing is going to happen to me.’
I want a cigarette just reading that.
(Can you imagine what Mussolini would have been thinking presented with this? Mussolini, a thoroughly broken man who had already given up, been deposed, been locked up, been rescued by German eagles and brought back to Mordor to confront Sauron himself: to only have Sauron present himself singed, quietly spoken, escaping death by the skin of a knat. By God, he’d be absolutely sh#tting himself!)
On its own terms, it’s hard to see how you could depict the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini as anything other than sympathetic.
Well, there is one other way: comedic.
I guess everything above could be portrayed as operatic. But honestly, isn’t it all just endlessly…. hilarious?
The sycophancy, the grotesque physiognomies of leading Nazis, hollow-faced Goebbels with his womanising, Hitler with his sexlessness, boarish Göring in his red velvet robe and slippers. Daytime indolence and late night films in the Eagle’s Nest, politely handing out cakes to secretaries. The delusion, the schitzophrenic flip flop between historic self-importance and teary-eyed sentimentality about the Volksgemeinschaft. It’s all so camp and ridiculous.
If the miraculous defeat of France by a numerically and technologically inferior Wermarcht was pizzaz, Hitler’s defeat in the Soviet Union could be tragedy as farce.
Hitler’s enormous invasion of the Soviet Union, the largest in history, over 3 million men across a 1,000 km front, quickly reduced to a single meme:
Hitler’s infatuation with Mussolini to the point of plucking him out of captivity to speak to him still smouldering from a bomb attempt on his life. Hitler heartbroken at the defeated man he found before him, where a preening all-masculine Italian peacock once stood.
Everything from Hitler’s outfits to his mannerisms and insecurities as well as his dorkiness contrast hilariously beside the machismo Mussolini:
For relaxation, he preferred to wear traditional Bavarian lederhosen. But even when he was in prison, he hated to be seen without a tie. During the heat of the summer, he would never be seen in a bathing costume. Whereas Mussolini revelled in virile images of himself as a sportsman or athlete, Hitler had a deep aversion to being seen other than fully clothed.
(Of course, Churchill’s opposite tendency to fob around half-naked in his nightgowns and have his secretaries scribe from outside the bathroom as he dictated is its own farce.)
If Hitler’s bromance with Mussolini was for the ages, then finding Spain’s Caudillo, Franco, utterly tedious has its own laugh track:
Hitler told Mussolini that he ‘would prefer to have three or four teeth taken out’ than go through another nine hours’ discussion with Franco.
There is also nothing not funny about Hitler’s indolent lifestyle:
He was incapable of systematic work and took no interest in it. He was as chaotic and dilettante as ever. He had found the role where he could fully indulge the unordered, indisciplined, and indolent lifestyle that had never altered since his pampered youth in Linz and drop-out years in Vienna.
Then there’s the story of Hitler sacking some general and the general suing him and… winning?
The case of Colonel-General Erich Hoepner still rankled deeply. Hitler had sacked Hoepner in January and dismissed him from the army in disgrace for retreating in disobedience to his ‘Halt Order’. Hoepner had then instituted a law-suit against the Reich over the loss of his pension rights – and won.
And whilst the dramatic scenes unfolding in Hitler’s bunker above are thrilling and maybe even touching if you squint hard enough - they’re also totally hilarious in their sheer derangement.
While Bormann’s wife wrote herself into mortal combat, the Finance Minister completed his tax reform plans - for a now largely occupied Germany. Better yet, Goebbels criticised the plans for being too focused on consumption over income taxes. Could be a version of the I Need The Eggs joke from Annie Hall.
Meanwhile, Martin Bormann worked feverishly to restructure the party:
And as the Reich shrank, lines of communication disintegrated, and directives became increasingly overtaken by events, he sent more circulars, decrees, and promulgations than ever.
Bormann has made a paper chancellery out of the Party Chancellery.
Goebbels wrote his own jokes for posterity.
The private bitching by Goebbels to himself as part of the endless internecine rivalries between Hitler’s henchmen. Göring and Himmler eventually deserting their Fuhrer to try and make separate peaces with the Allies to save their own skins. It’s all very The Death of Stalin.
Some of the jokes seem to write themselves, punchline and all:
Cvetkovic had signed Yugoslavia’s adherence to the Tripartite Pact, finally – following much pressure – committing his country to the side of the Axis…. [Hitler was] visibly relieved, ‘happy that no more unpleasant surprises were to be expected in the Balkans’.
[Pregnant pause before the punchline…]
It took less than forty-eight hours to shatter this optimism. The fabric of the Balkan strategy, carefully knitted together over several months, had been torn apart.
I honestly cracked up when I listened to that (audiobooks FTW).
I wouldn’t call it funny, but there there is a deep absurdity in even the darkest parts of the story: the bureaucratisation of slaughter.
Bureaucratic uncertainty arises as Germany belatedly begins exporting its own Jews for slaughter in the east. 1,000 German Jews sent to Riga were simply taken to a forest and shot, along with 14,000 Latvian Jews. But
“[i]n Minsk, where 12,000 Jews from the local ghetto had been shot by the Security Police to make way for an influx of German Jews, [General Commissar for Belorussia] Kube protested that ‘people coming from our own cultural sphere’ should be treated differently from the ‘native brutish hordes’.”
Should skilled Jews also be shot, they asked, given the needs of war economy? What about decorated German Jewish war veterans? This culminated in Himmler himself telephoning to call off the killing of a new train load of German Jews - alas too late.
This is perhaps the most absurdist kind of bureaucratic haze and ideological punctiliousness that was characteristic of the Nazi regime. A comedy of errors from hell. Yes, Minister in the Third Reich.
Maybe it’s the urgent need for mass murderers to find sense and rules and decorum amongst depravity. Maybe there is a need for internal consistency in even hellish systems of moral logic.
It’s an echo of the response Primo Levi got from asking an Auschwitz guard, Why?
Here there is no why (Hier ist kein warum).
2. The New Yorker on Jojo Rabbit
Speaking of Hitlerian comedy, Richard Brody of the New Yorker, my #1 favourite self-parody of hyper-intellectual critique, really hated JoJo Rabbit.
Well, Trump of course.
The present-day didacticism of “Jojo Rabbit,” by encouraging viewers to look with benign empathy at Nazis, the cinema’s iconic worst of the worst, is also encouraging a similar sympathy for the Trump supporter next door, and even for the self-caricaturing Trump himself.
That’s right: you must treat Trump voting neighbours as if they were Third Reich supporters.
I stopped reading The New Yorker about a decade ago, despite much excellent content, because the political brainworms infected so much of it.
I will read anything by Richard Brody though. He’s always entertaining, if not always intelligible.
3. Jane Street
Byrne Hobart, who at this point has been quoted so often in these Kvetches I should be asking for affiliate royalties, has a great write up on Jane Street.
The meta questions around jobs are almost always more interesting than the jobs themselves:
If a firm asks employees to constantly think about edge cases, novel risks, and whether or not their behavior makes sense from first principles, it's only a matter of time before they go meta and start worrying that the big risk is that they're wasting their lives.
Maybe this is why so many of them retire in their 30s: the utility of money is roughly log(wealth), but the disutility of guilt seems more like a linear relationship. And if one of your hiring screens focuses on introspection, you may accidentally filter out the sociopathic personality traits that minimize guilt.
What’s the best way to approach programming languages as an anthropological study? I would read that book, like Steve Pinker’s The Language Instinct for corporate / programming languages.
[Jane Street’s] original system was, in fact, written in Excel (with lots of VBA and C#). Today, their systems are written in Ocaml, a language that would be fairly obscure if it weren't for Jane Street itself.
One thing one sees in software acquisitions is a patchwork of different programming languages that then need to be integrated - to speak to one another. So the platform (acquiring) software might be built in say PHP, and the acquistions in Ruby, Java, .NET, and so on. The corporate cultures of the acquired firms are also different, independent of the underlying software languages. But what if that’s not quite right? What if some form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis exists for programming languages, and that the languages shape the culture?
I feel like this might be an obvious or dumb question to someone who knows about programming languages more than me. If so, enlighten me!
4. Impotence of modernity and the rise of zealots
Martin Gurri has an excellent piece out on the impotence of modernity and the rise of zealots, over at Wesley Yang’s Substack:
For two decades, our political and cultural elites have resembled glamorous actors on stage before a vast audience, who have irretrievably forgotten their lines. They posture and improvise, but know themselves to be the sterile heirs to the great achievers of the 20th century. Listen to Barack Obama grumbling: “Well, we’ve lost our ambition, our imagination, our willingness to do the things that built the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam…” But who is the “we” in that complaint? Decadence, digitally amplified, has become a crushing burden on the backs of our diminished leaders.
a child prophet like Greta Thunberg could be invited to the United Nations for the ritual flogging of the assembled heads of state: “How dare you! …People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing… How dare you!” Impossible to picture Ronald Reagan or Charles de Gaulle, Nikita Khruschev or Fidel Castro, sitting through such a sermon without bursting into Homeric laughter.
5. Has technological progress stalled?
Over at Scholar’s Stage, an excellent overview of some of the debates around the state of technological advancement:
This post is about technology, innovation, and scientific advance. My main criticism of Thiel’s view is that he is not pessimistic enough in his account of scientific achievement. Part two of this series will comment on Thiel’s second and third claims, and offer some observations on the changing place of science in American culture.
The post centres around several of Vaclav Smil’s books. I haven’t read them (yet). But I did recently read Energy and Civilisation which I hope to kvetch about at some point.
Unironically, Hitler’s experience in WWI is a good example of how good war is for some portion of men.
The story of Hitler’s taxes is expounded at length in William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I note this because it is absent entirely from Kershaw’s biography, and given I noticed some now obviously false parts in Shirer’s book (Hitler literally chewing on carpet in a manic fit is one example), I suppose a caveat is in order.
Steve McQueen might be a bit too short and slender for the role of Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny undertook other daring missions including kidnapping Hungary’s Head of State to force him to resign. After the war he escaped imprisonment, ran a business in Madrid, went on to advise the Egyptian military government and train Arab commandos including Yasser Arafat. He may have subsequently been recruited by the Mossad to bomb Egyptian scientists. He was declared de-Nazified in absentia by the West German government, before founding a neo-Nazi group in Spain. Former Nazis do seem to get very nostalgic.