Silver Bullets and Werewolves
Inside the Third Reich and the Inevitable Collapse of Fascism
A few weeks ago, during my 1600-mile journey across the American heartland, I had the opportunity to stay a few nights with a close friend. He’s someone I’ve known since grammar school: a veteran, husband, father of two, and recent college graduate who’s been feeling overwhelmed by the current state of our political system.
He’s also the son of a German immigrant and takes the rise of fascism seriously.
It was in this context that he recommended the book Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer. Somewhere in this book, he claimed, could be a silver bullet that could prevent our hurdling towards disaster
With a heavy dose of skepticism, I agreed to read Speer’s memoirs. Not only did I not believe in anything so wonderful as a silver bullet against fascism, but I had good reason to doubt the usefulness of such a book. It was written, after all, but a top member of the Third Reich. Albert Speer was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to 20 years in prison for his crimes against humanity.
I’d like to begin by stating that there is much of Speer’s thought that I find questionable. Like all of the Nazis officials, he was clever, manipulative and understood the value of propaganda. He claimed that he was ignorant of the full horrors of the Nazi regime and knew nothing of the holocaust. Even after reading his book I find it highly doubtful these claims are true.
Nevertheless, I believe much of Speer’s account, especially the parts pertaining to Hitler. After all, Speer paints the man as a monster incapable of human connections and hell-bent on world domination. If it was Speer’s intention to white-wash the Fuhrer, it’s hard to imagine doing a worse job.
And while Speer’s remorse is dubious, he does possess a highly analytic mind. Over the course of his prison sentence, he trained that mind inward towards his memories as an architect of the Nazi Regime and close associate of Hitler. We will never get a more intimate account of how the Nazi party operated.
The Fascist Mind
Speer is probably most famous for being Hitler’s friend, a point used against him during his trial. Speer’s fascination with the man was created over the course of years, becoming worshipful in nature.
Like all demagogues, fascists derive their power from their audience. Speer writes about the first Hitler rally he attended:
For a few short hours the personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. And Hitler and Goebbels threw them the victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying Jews they gave expression and direction to fierce, primal passions.
If this sounds familiar to you, it should. Fascism arrives as a popular movement, stoked to flame by ambitious tyrants who weaponize anger. It uses feelings of resentment to gain control of a group and then points them, like a sword, towards some vilified demographic.
But it doesn’t stop there. It cannot. Once in power, the fascist tyrant will only lust for more domination. Because fascism is an ideology built on conquest and the myth of personal superiority, it is not enough to become merely wealthy, famous, or powerful. The fascist leader will feel the siren call of history and desire to assert himself among its greatest leaders.
Hitler sat alone with me in the bay window of the dining room, while the twilight fell. For a long time he looked out of the window in silence. Then he said pensively: “There are two possibilities for me: To win through with all my plans, or to fail. If I win, I shall be one of the greatest men in history. If I fail, I shall be condemned, despised, and damned.”
Delusionary thinking is a hallmark of fascism for a reason. Speer provides an answer as to why:
In normal circumstances people who turn their backs on reality are soon set straight by the mockery and criticism of those around them, which makes them aware they have lost credibility. In the Third Reich there were no such correctives, especially for those who belonged to the upper stratum. On the contrary, every self-deception was multiplied as in a hall of distorting mirrors, becoming a repeatedly confirmed picture of a fantastical dream world which no longer bore any relationship to the grim outside world.
Speer uses this type of willful ignorance as a defense, claiming it as an explanation for how he, as a member of Hitler’s inner circle, didn’t know about what was happening at Auschwitz.
Speer’s weak defense is only further evidence of the self-delusion he and his associates succumbed to. Speer claims to accept responsibility for what happened at Auschwitz while simultaneously claiming to have no knowledge of the crimes. He goes to great lengths to defend this position and how it could be possible. And then, at the end of chapter 25, he admits to learning about Auschwitz through a friend who hinted at something terrifying happening there.
Willful ignorance like this is just another form of self-deception. It was proven that Speer was not involved in the running of Auschwitz, but it’s preposterous for him to claim he knew nothing about what they were doing there. Hitler gave speeches about his intentions!
Famed professor Yuval Noah Harari wrote recently that fascism is defined by a belief in the superiority of one’s own nation, which separates it from something like patriotism which is the love for one’s nation. I argue that fascism, at its core, is a love of superiority. Not for one’s country, but for one’s self. The nation is just the necessary vehicle tyranny needs to take.
In the Republic, Plato argues that tyranny is a natural offshoot of democracy. As he tells it, societies change as the peoples within them seek to maximize a certain, core value. Thus, oligarchies produce democracies when the oligarchs become too greedy.
Democracy, because it values personal freedom above all else, entropies the bonds between people and leaves them vulnerable when times get tough. The people turn on one another. This is fertile ground for dictators and demagogues.
When democracy “ripens” to this level, says Plato, the people will look for a strongman from the upper classes of society to save them from chaos.
Fascism plays upon the already latent attitudes, fears, and prejudices that exist in a culture. For example, a fascist doesn’t need to be anti-Semitic. They may have a different scapegoat or demonized target.
In this way, fascism shape-shifts to match the environment. Fascism in Italy is different from fascism in Germany and fascism in the United States is different still.
The Inevitable Downfall
Anyone interested in gaining insight into fascist thought should read Umberto Eco’s Ur Fascism. In it, Eco identifies fourteen essential elements of fascist ideology, including a reliance on myth, a demonization of scapegoats, and a culture of toxic masculinity and domination.
More importantly, Eco explains why he believes fascism is doomed to fail. He argues that the fascist will underestimate the ability of their enemies while simultaneously overestimating their own. I found, within Speer’s memories, conformation of this belief.
As the war waged on, the Nazi’s became ever more certain of their superiority and the inevitable defeat of their opponents. Without fail, every other nation was reduced to the station of an inferior being in their minds. Hitler even claimed that Roosevelt was mentally disabled and impotent as a commander. The Russians, he believed, were “sub-human” and doomed to lose.
In the last two years of the war, the Nazi forces suffered heavy losses while fighting on multiple fronts. A series of victories gave way to an onslaught of defeats that devastated Nazi morale. It became apparent that Germany could never win the war.
Amazingly, this looming disaster was rarely discussed among the Nazi officials. As Hitler grew more authoritarian, he took greater liberties with the Gestapo, arresting his own soldiers, officers, and sometimes their families for showing any signs of “defeatism.” Almost anyone could be sentenced to a concentration camp for doubting a Nazi victory.
But worse still, Speer and the other officers tried to have each other arrested, destroyed, or otherwise removed from the game. They became total sycophants, using Hitler’s approval as a metric for their own superiority. What fascist doesn’t want to be the second most powerful being in the universe?
This is why fascism will always fail. There are only two outcomes for it. The first is to be defeated, with their people annihilated, if not by the enemy then by their own government when the end becomes unavoidable.
When finally confronted with the reality of losing, Hitler told Speer about the fate of the German people should the Nazis fail:
If the war is lost, the people will be lost also…For the nation has proved to be the weaker, and the future belongs solely to the stronger eastern nation. In any case only those who are inferior will remain after the struggle, for the good have already been killed.
The other outcome is a win by the fascists. But fascism can never truly win. Peace is impossible in a universe defined by a deadly hierarchy. As soon as one enemy is vanquished, another much be found. The self-delusion and need for a scapegoat to explain away failures is essential.
In this way the fascist is in a never-ending struggle for domination on two fronts as they chase the domination of every ‘other’. The others within as well as the others without. They are a prisoner to power.
Plato speaks of this aspect of tyranny as well. He claims that in their search for greater freedom, people lose control of themselves. No one as much as the tyrant who is drunk on the absolute freedom of authoritarianism.
Fascism is a prison. It imprisons the individual’s mind to the domination of power. The only outcomes are death or actual, physical imprisonment.
Hitler died in the belly of his bunker in Berlin. He had sixteen feet of concrete above his head to separate himself from his enemies; to separate himself from reality. His obedient followers worshiped him for his enormous will. He used that will to gain power over them and then destroyed them and himself in the process.
This is the essence and outcome of fascism.
For various reasons, fascism is an extremely potent and difficult ideology to fight, made stronger by communication technologies that spread disinformation and conspiracies. Worse, it’s hard to image what Hitler could have done with the spying capabilities of the contemporary world and an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Speer addresses the relationship between technology and fascism while concluding his story, sending a warning to future generations:
Hitler’s dictatorship was the first dictatorship of an industrial state in this age of modern technology, a dictatorship which employed to perfection the instruments of technology to dominate its own people…By means of such instruments of technology as the radio and public-address systems, eighty million persons could be made subject to the will of one individual…Dictatorships of the past needed assistants of high quality in the lower ranks of the leadership also — men who could think and act independently. The authoritarian in the age of technology can do without such men. The means of communication alone enable it to mechanize the work of the lower leadership. Thus the type of uncritical receiver of orders is created.
Fascism is tyranny of the modern world. With today’s technology, the capacity for destruction alone would ensure the death of civilization.
Still, there is hope. Fascism is, in many ways, its own worst enemy. At the heart of fascist ideology is self-delusion. In this way, fascism will always be a Faustian bargain for its adherents. It is always a trade of power for life.
In the end, Hitler could barely work. At the age of 56, after being in power for over a decade, he shook physically and couldn’t sleep, barely ate, and suffered terrible stomach pains. He was so weak by 1945 that he could no longer sign his name to documents. He was, in Speer’s words, a “lifeless husk.”
Hitler traded his life for the dream of absolute power. Not only his own life, but the lives of millions of others. He convinced himself and the people of Germany that they could win a game of world domination that was always hopeless and always evil.
Near the collapse of the regime, Hitler and the other top officials had all bought into their own propaganda. They believed the lies that Nazi Germany had been telling itself. That it had secret weapons at its disposal that would turn the tide at the last minute.
Goebbels had spread lies about secret, highly-trained militias, dubbed “Werewolves,” that would fend off the advancing American Armies. Hitler himself was counting on these non-existent troops to win the war and save his empire.
There is no silver bullet against fascism. It’s an ideology of self-delusions that gains its power from mass psychosis. The willingness of its adherence to remove themselves from reality and drink their own kool-aid is a powerful cocktail for gaining and wielding power.
But while it’s true that there is no silver bullet to fight fascism, it’s important to remember that there are no werewolves either. Just men who’ve made the fatal mistake of deluding themselves into believing they’re gods.