The Problem Child of Europe

An article from Foreign Affairs Magazine

· history

This is an extract from a 1940 portrait of the fever of German Fascism and social psychopathy, which the editors today clearly think reflects an illness that is afoot in Russia. From Foreign Affairs Magazine... I have merely taken some of the most interesting extracts, from an article that is an altogether brilliant and humane portrait of mass social sickness.

Foreign Affairs Magazine

Vol. 18 APRIL 1940 No. 3


By Dorothy Thompson

WHEN a drastic revolution occurs in a society the change in atmosphere and behavior is so overwhelming that one cannot believe one's eyes and ears. This is not the society with which one was familiar, the place where one felt so much at home. The old society had a face which one knew and trusted. Suddenly it is gone. Another face is there ? a strange, foreign face. One thinks, "This is a nightmare." One closes one's eyes and pinches oneself, naively expecting that

with another look the distorted vision will have passed, and the old familiar face will be there again.

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The first impression which a revolution gives anyone not a part of it is that it will certainly pass, and almost immediately. One says to oneself, comfortingly, "These people are not like that! I have known them for years!"


This attitude greatly contributes to the success and expansion of the revolution. For even the classes and groups hostile to it lend it collaboration, in the optimistic certainty that it is not

really representative. This is inevitable, because all groups and individuals who have long enjoyed social power consider them selves, and themselves alone, as representative. They have a complacent conviction they can "handle" the situation. They need merely enter the revolutionary ranks, and in a short time the features of the revolution will conform to their own features.


For our face, they argue, is the "true" face of this society.

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The powers about to be dispossessed feel also that they enjoy an advantage in occupying a defensive position. They are fighting on home soil, against invaders. And actually, a drastic revolution does resemble a foreign invasion. I was in Germany when the 1933 Nazi revolution occurred. I remember standing with a fellow-journalist on the Grosse Stern in Berlin in April of 1933, watching a regiment of Storm Troopers march by. Their feet beat the ground rhythmically, their faces were grim, and in short, sharp barks they were repeating with a " horrible monotony, Judah Verrecke! Judah Verrecke!"? left, right?"Judah Verrecke!" ? the cry giving the tact to their march. The sight of several thousand grown-up Germans marching in broad day light to the words "Perish the Jews" seemed almost funny. One had, of course, seen these Storm Troopers marching before, but not in this manner of complete confidence. They had been mavericks, no more representative than the Christian Front in this country? merely more numerous.

"Crazy people," was the usual comment, "when times are hard some people get like that." Of course, what had happened was that a numerous but hith erto invisible class had risen to the surface. One thought, "Where, in heaven's name, did these people come from ?"

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Yet possibly that man there had waited on you in the restaurant the night before; perhaps that one was the concierge who had unlocked the door to usher you to the elevator in a friend's house; that boy may have delivered the groceries in the morning. Hitherto they had been anonymous, the anonymous and indistinguishable mass.

Suddenly they were very visible indeed. But still, one thought or more accurately, felt, they are not representative. "They can't last." By and by one begins to discern in the strange new mass-face of a revolutionized society certain familiar features. But they are distorted almost beyond recognition. One then has a feeling that society has gone insane. This realization is accompanied by a feeling of pity. A madman is a sad spectacle. Pity also assists the "madman."

One must not treat the revolution too roughly. A revolution is like an hysterical woman. The best thing is to give her her way until she snaps back into normalcy. Normalcy, of course, is the previous society, the society to which one belongs oneself. One still feels sovereign and superior.

The Nazi revolution was assisted by this attitude, and the person of Adolf Hitler helped to cultivate it. The psychopathy of Hitler is obvious, and the Nazi revolution was made in his image.

To the candid eye he is immediately inferior. Above all, of inferior race and breeding. His fulminations about the great superior Germanic, Nordic or Aryan race brought a smile to the humorous lips of any handsome, virile Jew. "Is this the face to launch a thousand ships in a race war?" one bantered.

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It would have been more pertinent to inquire why this person had acquired such power over the masses. Clearly, he was a frustrated and even sick individual. Even a layman's eye diagnosed some pituitary disturbance, some masculine deficiency. The Leader of Men is not at all a masculine type. Then, all his talk about the masses being like a Woman; his treatment of

audiences, brutalizing and seductive, and culminating in orgiastic outbursts that were distinctly uncomfortable and embarrassing to the detached spectator. What frustrations must be in this man, one thought, so sensitive, so cruel, so weak, and so aggressive! And those fantastic characters around him perverts and adventurers, frustrated intellectuals who could not hold

a job on any good newspaper or get their plays produced or their books published. And his own background?

"Lumpen proletariat"? not even a casualty of the economic depression; one of the permanent class of unemployables, caught up briefly into the common adventure of war, taking refuge the rest of the time in a dream-world; a man whom nobody "understood," full of envy, furtive hatred, frustrated creative power. One dismissed him, still clinging to the concept of "normal," not wondering what might happen if such a man, surrounded by others with a capacity for organization, should come to the surface in a society which shared his own symptoms, a society which was also frustrated and sick. "Can the blind lead the blind?" is an open question.

Do not societies make gods in their own images? The tendency of history to employ disreputable characters is lost sight of in "normal" times.

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A psychopath is a person unable to exercise conscious discipline over his unconscious urges. A drunkard achieves release from inhibitions by means of a stimulant. But all psychopaths and all drunkards do not behave in the same way. Nothing comes out of the released unconscious that is not there. Some men are aggressive when they are drunk, and some are amorous; some are

garrulous, and some morose. Many go crazy, but not everybody goes crazy in the same way.


Release from the inhibitions and disciplines imposed by habit, tradition, reason, and fear comes also in dreams. Freud says, "Tell me what you dream and I will tell you what you are." It would seem that not only individuals but whole societies have an unconscious life, a dream life, which differs from the unconscious and dream life of other societies. A revolution releases the unconscious; it destroys inhibitions. The result is a caricature of the society, as an individual in a psychopathic state is an aber ration of himself and no one else: as a drunk is a caricature of himself sober.

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And so, gradually, one comes to observe in the distorted Nazi face of Germany certain familiar German features. The face is more representative than we thought in the first shock of surprise. The patient will be quieter one of these days; this is certainly not his permanent condition; he will recover. But meanwhile he has revealed more of himself than he ever would have shown us, sober. It is worth watching this society released from its inhibitions. For we hope to live on good terms with it when it is well again, if we are well ourselves. And we shall understand it

better hereafter.

But we have also had an opportunity to watch revolutionary developments in an urbanized middle-class society in the twentieth century. In the distorted features of this case we can discern more than German features. The behavior is not German only; it is, in many ways, twentieth century. Let us try to separate two sets of symptoms: symptoms peculiar to Homo Germanicus, and symptoms somewhat characteristic of all decaying middle class society. We may learn something from both.

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Docile acceptance of the unquestioned authority of the state, traditional in Germany, may be broken when Germans have had a sufficiently long and intimate experience of what the state,

transformed into a militant messianic Movement, can become and do. Whatever may go on in the national mind, individual people remain individuals. They want to breathe and eat and

make love according to their own tastes, have children and keep them around them, and die, eventually, in their beds. The Gestapo, the terror, the strangling red tape, the unceasing and horribly boring propaganda, the profound psychological insecurity of a country without law, the thousand and one petty irritations which this kind of system requires of the individual, may pull Germany out of the maze of abstractions and back to some simple realities. Freedom in the Western democracies dominated by the middle-class has been institutionalized in bourgeois forms, and is so wholly taken for granted that it is tarnished.

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Quitepossibly it may find its rebirth in a socialist Germany in the form of something as real, intimate and necessary as daily bread, deeply personal, alive, and human, and founded not on middle-class economic ideas but on a profound and religious respect for the human soul. With the German transition into humanism the German prophesy may come true: "An Deutschem Wesen soll die Welt genesen" (The world will be redeemed by Germany).


If the state is to be transformed into the church, in Dostoevski's sense, then it must rest on moral foundations, and (since no one yet has invented anything approximately as aesthetically perfected and humanized) upon Christian founda tions. Dostoevski came to this conclusion before he died; and Nietzsche died mad, trying to avoid the same conclusion. Satanism is not a permanent religion. The life of love is the affirmative life, releasing every creative instinct. The ethical content of Communism and Naziism is beneath contempt, and certainly beneath that great moralist Hegel. It was the German poet Schiller who said, in the words of the Marquis Posa to Philip II, "Man is greater than you esteem him." Germany is greater than Hitler esteems her to be and Russia is greater than Stalin esteems her.


One cannot avoid recognizing that the West confronts the greatest danger in her whole history. But the recognition should lead us to the realization of what a renascence is demanded. If the West is to survive it must throw off, in its own way, the musty and outworn values of nineteenth century individualism. It was a great century, but it is over.

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If the West is to be true to its eternal spirit, it must transform these values, if need be under a changed economic and social system, into the humanist and personalist values which have always been the source of its greatest strength. I use the word "personalist" rather than "individualist" to indicate that a civilized society requires that the natural man, born an individual, develop into a person, a socially conscious and cooperative human being, whose "rights" are in direct ratio to his obligations. The West must find the way simultaneously to feed men and to liberate them, to adjust the social system to the reality of social interdependency without reestablishing slavery. When it has achieved this, the pull of the German soul will be Westward again. Or, if Germany finds the solution first, the pull of the West will be towards Germany.

Meanwhile, the West must save itself from destruction. Its awakening may accompany or follow the war. It has not yet come. But we who love the West, and yearn for a Germany integrated with the West, have faith that it will.