Socialist Worker

Madness is no defence

Issue No. 1704


Madness is no defence

By Alex Callinicos

THE DEBATE over David Copeland's mental condition has not ended with the failure of his defence team to get him off with manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility. The Panorama and Newsnight specials on Friday of last week documented Copeland's membership of the British National Party and the National Socialist Movement.

But they also engaged in psychological speculation-for example, about his anxieties about his sexuality. Behind this lies the idea that being a Nazi is a symptom of some kind of mental aberration.

When we remember that little over 50 years ago fascists ruled Germany and Italy and came very close to conquering the Eurasian continent, this suggests there were a lot of crazy people around then. However much we may want to dismiss Nazis as personally inadequate human beings, fascism is a political movement that is produced by social circumstances, not by mental abnormality.

It is a cliche to call Hitler mad, to take the case of the greatest-or worst-Nazi of them of all. But, as is often true of cliches, it isn't particularly helpful. In the struggle to take power, and in the series of diplomatic manoeuvres through which he gobbled up Austria and Czechoslovakia, Hitler showed great tactical skill.

His military judgements during the Second World War were often good. If he was crazy, it was often like a fox. Even the Holocaust can't be put down to Hitler's personal insanity. It depended on large scale bureaucratic organisation, and was driven by both the ambition and the fanatical racism of many Nazi officials.

In a brilliant essay, "What is National Socialism?", Leon Trotsky wrote of Hitler: "Another political figure would be hard to find that is in the same measure the focus of anonymous historical forces. Not every exasperated petty bourgeois could have become Hitler, but a particle of Hitler is lodged in every exasperated petty bourgeois."

So Hitler's political madness represented in concentrated form the madness into which the German lower middle classes were thrown after the First World War. Hitler's own experiences were partly typical, partly extreme. He was brought up in relatively comfortable lower middle class circumstances by a disciplinarian father and a mother who spoiled him. Too idle and untalented to fulfil his artistic ambitions, Hitler squandered his inheritance and ended up in miserable poverty in Vienna.

The outbreak of the First World War offered him salvation-a way to give meaning to his life as a front line fighter. So, like some of his comrades, Hitler experienced Germany's defeat in the autumn of 1918 as a personal betrayal, blaming it on the revolution that followed. Ian Kershaw in his recent biography argues that it was only then that he adopted the racist and anti-Semitic worldview commonplace on the German far right of the day.

But it was the succession of shocks suffered by the German middle classes in the 1920s and early 1930s that made Hitler more than a marginal demagogue. First there was defeat in the First World War and the collapse of the German Empire. Then came the great inflation of 1923, which wiped out their savings. And finally the Great Depression of the 1930s hit Germany especially hard.

The grievances caused by Hitler's own experiences fused with the collective sufferings of the middle classes, allowing him to bring their rage into focus. He provided a ready made scapegoat in the shape of Jewish finance capital, and evoked a barbarous utopia-a racially pure Germany in which workers and bosses were united as part of the same "national community".

Trotsky describes how Hitler's demagogy "supplied him with the possibility of uniting all types of dissatisfaction into the beggar's bowl of National Socialism, and of leading the mass in the direction in which it pushed him". Hitler liked to portray himself as a sleepwalker, driven by the blind power of historical destiny. There is a sense, then, in which this is true. Without certain collective experiences he would have been inconceivable.

Of course, there is a huge gap that separates Copeland's bombings, awful though their consequences were, from the unspeakable crimes of National Socialism. Today's Nazis are still largely movements of the political fringe. This is partly because we do not yet, in the West at any rate, face an economic and social crisis on the same scale as that of the early 1930s.

But it is also because of the constant vigilance maintained by the Anti Nazi League and its like. We need to remain vigilant, and to avoid making the Nazis' lives easier by dismissing them as nutters.

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Sat 8 Jul 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1704
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