Peter Fritzche’s Hitler’s First Hundred (Basic, 2020) begins with a brilliant scene. At 11:15 a.m. on Jan. 30, 1933, conservative aristocrat Franz von Papen meets with Adolf Hitler, who wants to be chancellor of Germany — the CEO. Another key person in the meeting, nationalist media magnate Alfred Hugenberg, is wary of Hitler. The three are late for their meeting with 84-year-old German president Paul von Hindenburg, who has the power of appointment.
That’s a lot of German names for a lead paragraph, but here’s what’s crucial: Von Papen thinks Hitler is not only nutty but dumb. He tells other conservatives, “In two months we’ll have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeal.” He tells business leaders who funded Hitler that “we’ve hired him” to break up a logjammed government and hold back the surging Communist Party.
Hitler, von Papen, and Hugenberg walk up one flight of stairs and say their verdict is unanimous: Hitler for chancellor. Von Hindenburg accepts their judgment. A Hugenberg editorial in all his newspapers says Germany needs a dictator who will defend the “Christian conservative way of life” against the forces of “atheism and liberalism, socialism and Marxism.” Hitler takes power and rapidly expands it.
Hitler’s murderous policies were, of course, neither Christian nor conservative, but fear of the left created blindness on the right. Philip Morgan’s Hitler’s Collaborators (Oxford U. Press, 2018) shows how from 1940 through 1944 some leaders in Germany’s conquered neighbors worked for Hitler out of self-protection but also hatred of Jews and others.
The United States in 2022 is far from Germany in 1933, and even our most raging leaders are far from Hitler — but Darwin’s doctrine of inferior races underlay German thinking and has influenced America as well. It also put a scientific gloss on South African racism, the result of which Eve Fairbanks brilliantly depicts in The Inheritors (Simon and Schuster, 2022).
With the U.S. still recovering from slavery and a century of Jim Crow laws, you can imagine the tension that remains in South Africa not quite three decades since the end of apartheid. Fear and guilt consume many whites, while feelings of insufficiency and insecurity undermine many blacks, even as some become wealthy “black diamonds” and find themselves acting like the overlords they grew up resenting.
Fairbanks brings her story down the ladder of abstraction by focusing on how three South Africans (two black and one white) adjust to shifting power relations. When the young black woman, Malaika, enrolls in a formerly all-white theater club and the teacher talks about actors having an “inner monologue,” Malaika recognizes that she has an inner “dialogue between her own voice and that of a white person saying, ‘You are savage.’”
Whites also hear voices. They like their pretty neighborhoods but recall the “inhumane laws that barred black people from entering these neighborhoods. They know any idyllic beach vacation that they took with their families was a thrill their government blocked their black countrymen from enjoying at the point of a gun.”
Last month I learned two new words about diseases. One is in the title of Adela Cortina’s book: Aporophobia: Why We Reject the Poor Instead of Helping Them (Princeton U. Press, 2022). She doesn’t go deep but is on to something important: We hear a lot about racism, xenophobia, and other prejudices, but they may be all subsets of aporophobia, fear of the poor.
The other word is anosognosia, the disease of not knowing that you have a disease (and therefore neglect to take medications that could help). I learned the word from E. Fuller Torrey’s American Psychosis (Oxford U. Press, 2014). Torrey: “We allow mentally ill individuals who are unaware of their illness to live on the streets or in jails rather than treating them, all in the name of protecting their civil rights.” Torrey shows little has changed since his 1996 book that’s also worth reading, Out of the Shadows: Confronting America’s Mental Illness Crisis (Wiley, 1996).
James Belich’s The World the Plague Made (Princeton U. Press, 2022) is a 600-page scholarly examination of how the Black Death — the 14th century bubonic plague — improved financially the lives of those who survived, and their descendants. Pandemic Politics by Shana Gadarian, Sara Goodman, and Thomas Pepinsky (Princeton U. Press, 2022) shows how COVID partisanship cost lives. Bad as the disease has been, we should be full of thanksgiving that the new strains are less deadly.
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