The experimental findings of the Nazi “laboratories” can be reduced to a single statement: total domination over man requires philosophical disarmament—after which, nothing much, and little human, is left of the victim.
In the ultimate stage of the lust for power, domination must really be total, i.e., it must seem to be metaphysical. No entity or law of any kind can be allowed to stand in the way of any of the ruler’s whims, however casual or contradictory. The prisoner’s absolute obedience is used to satisfy this wider demand, also. The victim’s fawning compliance with orders which defy every conceivable fact of nature is taken as the defeat not only of human independence, but also of nature as such. The victim’s submission to utter senselessness becomes the defeat of sense. His obeisance to absurdity becomes the refutation of logic. His acceptance of lies becomes the overthrow of truth. His surrender of all his values, including his life, becomes the smashing of values and of life itself.
“The Third Reich has not inscribed happiness on its banners, but virtue.” (Kurt Gauger)
“Education to the heroic life is education to the fulfillment of duty”—which is what makes “the difference between this [Nazi] world of heroic self-sacrifice and the liberalistic world of barter.” (Friedrich Beck)
“[I]n the chase after their own happiness men fall from heaven into a real hell. Yes, even posterity forgets the men who have only served their own advantage and praises the heroes who have renounced their own happiness. . . . Our own German language possesses a word which magnificently designates this kind of activity: Pflichterfüllung (fulfillment of duty); it means not to be self-sufficient but to serve the community.” (Hitler in Mein Kampf )
Moral laws, according to Kant, are a set of orders issued to man by a nonheavenly, nonearthly entity (which I shall discuss shortly), a set of unconditional commandments or “categorical imperatives”—to be sharply contrasted with mere “counsels of prudence.” The latter are rules advising one how best to achieve one’s own welfare; such rules have for Kant no moral significance. By contrast, a categorical imperative pronounces an action “as good in itself,” no matter what the result, and thus “commands absolutely and without any incentives. . . .”
Unconditional obedience to such imperatives, “the submission of my will to a law without the intervention of other influences on my mind,” is man’s noblest virtue, the “far more worthy purpose of [men’s] existence, . . . the supreme condition to which the private purposes of men must for the most part defer.”
The name for such obedience is duty. “[T]he necessity of my actions from pure respect for the practical [i.e., moral] law constitutes duty. To duty every other motive must give place. . . .”
Kant draws a fundamental distinction between actions motivated by incentive or desire, actions which a man personally wants to perform to attain some end—these he calls actions from “inclination”—and actions motivated by reverence for duty. The former, he holds, are by their nature devoid of moral worth, which belongs exclusively to the latter. It is not enough that a man do the right thing, that his acts be “in accord with” duty; the moral man must act from duty; he must do his duty simply because it is his duty.
The Nazis preached a certain philosophy—and they carried it out in action. They preached authority above rights, the group above the individual, sacrifice above happiness, nihilism above morality, feelings above facts, pliability above absolutes, obedience above logic, the Führer above the self—and they applied it.
The camp rulers no longer needed to batter men with denials of the physical world. The rulers made reality unintelligible, and thereby annulled the concept as a guiding factor in human life. They no longer derogated human intelligence in words. They made it helpless in fact and thereby choked it off. They did not condemn self-concern or self-esteem as a moral betrayal. They degraded the prisoner so profoundly that in the end any vestige of either was to become impossible to him. The specific element in man which the camps attacked was the conditions of the mind’s ability to function. The target was not primarily the physical conditions, but the root of man’s capacity of independence, i.e., the mind’s essential inner conditions: its grasp of existence, its confidence in reason, its commitment to values and to its own value.
The base of human knowledge is the evidence provided by the senses, which are man’s primary means of contact with reality. The camps did not restrict their concern to the higher reaches of cognition and evaluation; they went all the way, down to the root.
The concomitant of the conditions declaring: “Who are you to understand?” and “Who are you to judge?” was the brazen campaign declaring: “Who are you to perceive?”
“Don’t dare to notice”—the prisoners were ordered— don’t look at what is going on around you, avert your eyes and ears, don’t be conscious. To violate this rule, Bettelheim states, was dangerous. “For example, if an SS man was killing off a prisoner and other prisoners dared to look at what was going on in front of their eyes he would instantly go after them, too.” (Bruno Bettelheim)
To avoid such reprisals the prisoner had to learn to suppress any outward signs of perceptiveness (as he had to suppress any signs of individuality); or else he had really to comply with the rule, to train himself in the art and practice of nonperception. Sometimes (if he could not help knowing a forbidden fact) “this passive compliance—not to see or not to know—was not enough; in order to survive one had to actively pretend not to observe, not to know what the SS required one not to know.”
Some prisoners concluded that the safest course was to become mentally inert, to deliberately suspend their own consciousness and allow their power of observation to atrophy. The greater a prisoner’s intelligence, they felt, the more he grasped or knew, the greater was the threat to his survival. To these men the inversion was complete: in the outside world, perception was a necessity of life; in the camps the two were antonyms. But nonperception did not work, either: to the extent that prisoners succeeded in stifling their power of awareness, they were helpless to protect themselves even from avoidable danger, and they did not last long.
Professor L. G. Tirala, a philosophically trained Nazi ideologist, sees beyond the obvious romanticist sources of this attitude. He traces the Nazi activism to the two-world philosophy of Kant (which in turn he ascribes to Kant’s “Aryan” nature). Kant’s view, he writes, is:
“The essence of the world is richer and deeper than the world of appearance.” The world of activity and action is subject to different laws from the world of appearance. . . . [T]his primacy of action, of the world of action—in the case of Kant, especially the world of ethical action—arises from a primary predisposition of the Aryan race which does not derive from the quibbling, hairsplitting intellect [“klüglerischen Verstand”]. All Teutonic men of science have acknowledged this truth more or less consciously in a primacy of action over pure thinking. The deed is all, the thought nothing!
Unreservedly accepting such a viewpoint, Nazis and Fascists alike frequently state that it is a matter of indifference whether the doctrines fed to the masses are true or false, right or wrong, sane or absurd.