YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 7, 2014

Michael Burleigh’s History of the Third Reich

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 8:39 pm
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the-third-reich-978033048757306A famous conservative historian recommended Michael Burleigh’s 2001 popular best-seller of 812 pages, The History of The Third Reich (Macmillan, 2001). Burleigh is now a prominent figure on the British Right, associated with a conservative periodical Standpoint, which is commonly compared to Bill Buckley’s National Review. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Burleigh.)

This blog is about my reservations regarding his mammoth popular history, which in my reading leans toward social democracy (that took the “hard edges” off of capitalism). He has curried favor with The Guardian, for instance in an article that recognizes a closet liberal: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2008/mar/11/academicexperts.highereducationprofile)

For instance, though few doubt that the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School are writing from the Left, Burleigh is outraged by “massification” and the ruins wreaked by popular mass media, just as Adorno et al were. MB, however, explicitly misses the old aristocratic elites who were more focused on their “obligations” (as contrasted with the chorus of ordinary people demanding “rights”). Burleigh was formerly a medievalist and I suspect him of missing the Good Kings who have been glorified by some historians. Curiously, MB sees the Third Reich pretty much as the psychological warfare figures of the New Deal: “guttersnipe” Nazis appealed to common men and women, who “fell for him,” [Jung, 1946] causing the German catastrophe.

Second, Burleigh continuing along this elitist line, complains that Nazis fancied that they were heroic figures that would be vindicated by history: “For history’s most enduring B-movie villains were self-consciously assigning themselves parts within an A-movie which runs and runs, increasingly in the debased form of documentaries, made-for-TV soaps, and lurid magazines and books which have scraped the barrel of sensation until it is almost worn away. The Nazis cynically manipulated posterity as they had manipulated their contemporaries; by way of continuity, they are cynically manipulated in their turn by a ‘Hitler industry’ for which there seems to be an insatiable market. A regime which had lived by image perished by it, in a final triumph of style over substance, as the greatest stage villains of all departed what they called the stage of history, leaving a lingering trail of evil beyond the curtains.” (p.788)*

But Burleigh had written a luridly detailed lengthy section on Operation Barbarossa, replete with images of cannibalism and maimed bodies and corpses that rivals any Nazi propaganda production, and exceeds in vividness all academic writing, which generally eschews adjectives and outrage. Perhaps his unleashed imagination was unacceptable to those academic minds from whom he proudly walked away, preferring religion, not materialist history, as the framework of major events such as world wars and social movements. I suspect that for Burleigh, the devil is back, along with Manichaeism. Seeing all conflict as warfare between good and evil (detached from specific institutions) marks the self-righteous moralist, which MB unabashedly is.

Moralcombat

Second, though Burleigh is attentive to the horrors of the racial state as wreaked on homosexuals, the mentally ill, gypsies, Poles and other Slavs, etc. he tends to minimize the importance of European anti-Semitism, though he also claims (as do critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, including Saul Friedländer) that “the Holocaust” tests the boundaries of historical representation and is hence unfathomable (?) and unrepresentable. “After Auschwitz, there can be no poetry.”  (See http://mindfulpleasures.blogspot.com/2011/03/poetry-after-auschwitz-what-adorno.html for “what Adorno really said.”

Finally, Burleigh, no less than the crypto-Leninist Hannah Arendt, uses the liberal term “totalitarianism” though he contradicts himself when he complains that common soldiers followed orders. Either there is total control or there is a degree of choice. In my own view, communism and Nazism were polar opposites in their orientation to the [materialist] Enlightenment, as I argued here: https://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics/.

But to end on a positive note, Burleigh emphasizes throughout Nazism’s obliviousness to the rule of law. Perhaps American exceptionalism should be defined as equality before the law for poor and rich alike. That would be a true Enlightenment innovation.

*Burleigh deceptively footnotes this passage with Robert Harris’s journalistic account of “the selling of the Hitler diaries”, a book that “documented” (through interviews) how confidence men, publishers, and renowned academics tried to foist Hitler memorabilia on a gullible public addicted to revelations regarding Hitler’s private life. But Harris quotes David Irving, reflecting on another famous forgery, Howard Hughes’ autobiography, swallowed by McGraw Hill: “…Corporate profit justifies any form of lunacy. There’s been no other hoax like it in modern times.” (p.198). I.e., Burleigh’s target may be the profit motive and his footnote apparently has no relation to his text that indicts working class soldiers, collated as Hitler’s base. When I read the title “Selling Hitler” I had assumed that MB referred to Hitler’s appeal among the masses, not the Hitler diary hoax, a subtitle that was left out of MB’s footnote.

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