For obvious reasons, I have been re-reading William L. Shirer’s book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Summarily, Hitler is a national joke in 1930. Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Hitler starts WWII in 1939. Hitler begins murdering 6,000,000 men, women, and children in 1940 because of their religious beliefs. Hitler kills himself in a Berlin basement in 1945. A sad story with a happy ending.
As a companion piece, I have been re-reading Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, which argues that doing things is more important than thinking about things. Largely forgotten now, Heidegger was probably the world’s most famous and influential philosopher living in the first half of the 20th century. He was a big fan of der Fuhrer and certainly the headiest goose stepper of his time. Although Heidegger never recanted his support of Hitler, he said, shortly before his death in 1976, “it was the biggest stupidity of my life.”
Reading Heidegger necessarily brings you up close and personal with two of his students, Hannah Arendt and Edith Stein. Each deeply loved Heidegger in their early days with him, but ultimately came to loathe him. “Martin said that a hammer isn’t a hammer unless it is in your hand efficiently driving a nail,” Stein remarked. “It didn’t matter to him if the nail is driven into a heart, or a coffin lid, as long as the hammer was used efficiently.”
Heidegger is certainly the man of the hour today. Never before has communication been so efficient, or thoughtless, or banal. We are a tweet away from a holocaust, an algorithm-driven hedge fund or three from bankruptcy. Our consumption is so greedily and efficiently conspicuous that God, who can forgive anything, may not be able to forgive the shamelessness of our apparently unquenchable appetites. Arendt, who subtitled her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: “A Report on the Banality of Evil,” was thinking no doubt of Heidegger when she wrote, “Eichmann was not a fanatic or a sociopath, but an ordinary person who relied on clichés… who hoped only for promotion…” and who probably never regretted the biggest stupidity of his life.