A few months after the outbreak of war, in January 1940, Nazi leaders held a merry meeting. They had plenty to be cheerful about. Poland had been crushed in a few weeks, and the new Soviet alliance had been “sealed in blood,” as Stalin put it. By a secret agreement in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, the Baltic states as well as eastern Poland would be handed over to Stalin, and German officers were already visiting the Soviet Union to promote trade and military cooperation. This was the honeymoon period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and the Soviets were sending Hitler supplies he would shortly use to crush Denmark and Norway, Benelux and France. The West, it was clear, had blundered; the British Foreign Office, which had greeted the pact with secret delight, had got it wrong. The foreign office had believed that an alliance of rival dictators could not prosper or prove more than a brief marriage of convenience. Now, on the contrary, the dictators were finding to their joy that they had a lot in common.
The story of that meeting in the first winter of the war was reported in the diary of Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s chief ideologue. A Nazi officer had just returned from Odessa, so Rudolf Hess told Hitler, and had noted with approval that there seemed to be no Jewish officials left in the Ukraine. An ideological convergence between the two states, in fact, looked imminent; the Nazification of the Soviet Union loomed as a happy prospect. This, said Hess, is “the sort of thing that a lot of people are thinking about nowadays.” Stalin might heed the call for racial purity. “Is Russia really preparing to change?” If it were indeed moving toward such a policy, he said, “it will end with a tremendous Jewish pogrom.”
Hitler was amused at the thought. “In that ease,” he said, “Europe in its agony will ask me to take up the cause of humanity in eastern Europe.” The joke went down well, and Hitler turned with a grin to Rosenberg. “And then Rosenberg would have to write a report of the meeting I would chair on the humane treatment of the Jews.”
After the war, Rosenberg was hanged by the Allies as a war criminal at Nuremberg. By then he was the author of a large pile of books, some of them written before Hitler took power in January 1933, notably The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), which, by 1942, is said to have sold a million copies. An author well protected by the tedium of his style, he was never widely read, it seems, even in his lifetime, and another top Nazi, Von Schirach, once said that nobody ever sold more unread copies. There is even evidence that few Nazi leaders bothered with them. Hitler appointed Rosenberg to significant posts but admitted to neglecting his books. His career, in fact, vividly illustrates the role of the unread and unreadable in intellectual history, the triumph of tedium.
Rosenberg’s career, almost inevitably, was more interesting than his writings. Like Hitler, he was born outside Germany, his father being a cobbler in Estonia, which in 1893, the year of Rosenberg’s birth, was part of the Tsarist empire. He studied engineering in Riga and architecture at the University of Moscow, where in 1917 he took a diploma and witnessed the Russian Revolution. On returning to his native Estonia, he tried to join the imperial German army, but he was refused on grounds that he was a Russian. He then moved to Munich, probably at the end of 1918, where he met Hitler, a soldier four years older than himself who was preparing to build the National Socialist German Workers Party out of the ashes of Germany’s defeat in World War I. The hour, Rosenberg felt, had produced the man, and in 1923 he became a German citizen, ten years before his leader.
Though Rosenberg was a prolific author in his early years, Hitler seems to have thought little of his assistant’s administrative competence—so little that on being sentenced to prison for his part in the failed putsch of 1923, he made Rosenberg the provisional leader of the party, confident of being able to resume the leadership without difficulty when he emerged. Meanwhile Rosenberg wrote on, and his writings from the years 1917-23 alone, when collected in Munich at the height of the war in 1943, made two fat volumes. This was a pen that never stopped.
His public appearances, however, were unsuccessful, and he had no reputation either as a private personality or as a public orator. No striking remarks are attributed to him. In May 1933, he visited London to gather support for a regime that had taken power in Germany only a few months before. The visit was a fiasco. There were hostile demonstrations outside his hotel, and a swastika-decked wreath he laid in memory of the war dead at the Cenotaph was contemptuously thrown into the river, so he cut short his visit after a few days and returned to Germany. After the fall of France he helped to loot works of art for German collections, and after the invasion of the Soviet Union he was put in charge of the new eastern territories of the Reich.
His political skills remained unremarkable. In February 1939, as part of a crude peace offensive mounted by the Nazis a few weeks before they seized Prague, he delivered an address to foreign diplomats in Berlin entitled “Must ideological differences lead to war?” He assured them that the German government had no designs on its neighbors and respected the views of other states. A pact with Stalin was already one of the secret options being considered by Hitler, and the speech was no doubt meant to lull Moscow as well as Paris and London into a false sense of security. But it was an unimpressive performance, as published, at once verbose and implausible. Meanwhile, his books about Nordic purity and Wotan-worship continued to appear and, highly unreadable though they were, to sell. They argued at length that the German people were descended from a vanished race of subarctic supermen worshipping Norse gods and fortified by a cold climate and an innate sense of heroic virtues, their primitive force unsullied by Slavs, Latins, Jews, Freemasons, and Roman Catholics. Some of his books, like one on the immorality of the Talmud, add Hastiness to silliness, and it is doubtful if as many as a dozen people now living have ever read them. Three years after he was hanged in 1949, his Memoirs appeared in English, apparently based on his testimony at the Nuremberg trials, where he had represented Nazism as a great idea tragically mishandled; and in 1970 there was an anthology of his works called Selected Writings. Neither book includes the political diary from which my anecdote about Soviet pogroms against the Jews was taken. Used as evidence against him at Nuremberg and published in the original German in 1956, or as much of it as had survived, the diary does not appear to have been translated at all.
The oblivion into which the name and works of Alfred Rosenberg have fallen is not surprising. He contrived to be boring as well as evil and history rightly demands that its villains be interesting. On the other hand, he offers a striking instance of a phenomenon of intellectual life peculiar to the 20th century and to the ideas of totalitarianism that once threatened to overwhelm it. I mean the phenomenon of the unread sage: the ideologue who is revered or hated, or both, though his writings remain unread and even untested. Marx, Lenin, Hitler, and Mao are classic instances. Who reads them now? Who ever read them through? There is a story about Goering and other Nazi leaders being asked if they had ever read Mein Kampf. They laughed in embarrassment and changed the subject. It is a fair bet that the thoughts of Mao, in its best-selling days, outnumbered its readers by a comfortable margin. There is no evidence that Rosenberg’s books converted anyone of note to Nazism, just as hardly any Marxists in our own day, one may reasonably suspect, have been converted by reading Marx. The late Raymond Williams once confessed, in Politics and Letters (1979), that it was “a deficiency of mv own generation that the amount of classical Marxism it actually knew was very small” (he, for example, had joined the Communist Party in 1939 as a Cambridge freshman without having read Marx and Engels). Hitler once told Otto Wagener—the story is reported in Wagener’s Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant (1985)—that most intellectuals who appealed to historical traditions “have never even read Marx,” as he had done, and did not even understand that the October Revolution was not just an event in Russian history but fulfilled the Marxian prophecy of the end of an epoch for all mankind, the end of the age of individualism. Hitler was proud, in his prix-ate conversation, of his debt to the writings to Marx; but he was probably right in thinking himself unusual in reading them through.
We still need an explanation, however, for the phenomenon—wholly characteristic of the present century—of the ignorant intellectual: the worshiper of grand ideas propounded in works he has not read. It is the mark of the times. We have just emerged from an era in which allegedly exciting ideas—exciting enough, apparently, to live and die for—have been purveyed in prose so dingy and so drab that even the faithful do not read it. The world, in the early to mid-20th century, was suddenly excited by gray men. Hannah Arendt, wondering at Eichmann’s ordinariness as he stood in the dock in Jerusalem admitting to mass murder, coined a famous phrase about the Banality of Evil. Theorists and ideologues, too, can be deeply banal. Bad as Rosenberg’s books are, only a man of deeply ordinary talents, at most, could have written them. But their neglect, and the neglect of other authors of the totalitarian school, have revived a great myth.
The myth is that even in the ideological age that followed the French Revolution, ideas do not matter in human affairs, or matter much: that the Nazis, for example, or the Bolsheviks before them, were less a band of ideologues than a bunch of thugs; that it is chance happenings and not ideas that make great events. For three centuries this has been known as the doctrine of Cleopatra’s nose (a phrase coined by Pascal), since it was the beauty of a queen of Egypt that is supposed to have toppled Mark Antony and led to the long reign of the Caesars. We are now back, in historical studies, with Cleopatra’s nose, if indeed it ever went away; and the notion has now become popular among professional historians and analysts who have outlived a youthful idealism and entered a middle-aged cynicism governed by the simple conviction that principles are forgotten at the door of the cabinet room and that nice guys finish last. Cleopatra’s nose is particularly tempting to an age like the present, when famous doctrines like fascism and communism have foundered in unexpected and spectacular ways. Such grand notions, in retrospect, look silly as well as wicked. How, it is natural to wonder, can people ever have believed in global conspiracies of race or in the idea that you could abolish capitalism by making the state, the biggest capitalist there is, bigger still?
But perhaps, it is now tempting to say, people never realU did. Perhaps the Bolshevik Revolution, like the Nazi revolution that followed it, was impelled less by ideas than by a hunger for power and an inability, on achieving power, to think of anything else to say or do. It is a view argued lucidly by Edoardo da Fonseca, an ex-Marxist Brazilian economist, in Beliefs in Action (1991), where ideology is reduced to the role of a mere chorus in the violent drama of history and where general ideas count for little more than the mental strategies by which men of action like Lenin and Hitler justify themselves, or cheer themselves up. What rules history, in this view, and always rules it, is human oddity and the irresistible force of circumstance. Ideas do not make history, as we were once told. They are a sideshow.
All that, if it were believed, would be unlikely to turn anyone back to the dull task of reading the classics of totalitarianism. But the story about ideological convergence that Rosenberg tells in his diary in January 1940 is interesting, and it would be a pity if it went unremarked. What it suggests is that the Nazis expected their Soviet allies to start a holocaust of their own, to be brothers in ideology as well as comrades in arms. That needs to be put into a wider context. It is now widely forgotten that for an entire century there was an active theoretical tradition of socialist genocide m Europe, starting with an article by Engels in Marx’s journal, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (January-February 1849)—an article that has nothing to do with eugenics but much to do with Marx’s theory of history—and involving Proudhon, Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Stalin. As I documented in Politics & Literature in Modern Britain (1977), socialism in its first century readily embraced theories of racial purity, and National Socialism is unlikely to have sounded like a paradox to Germans in the years when it was first propounded, at least on the grounds of its racial policies. No German socialist of the 1920’s ever publicly said that Hitler had no right to call himself a socialist because he advocated genocide. The claim, in those days, would have seemed absurd.
The point can be made explicit. In the European century that began in the 184()’s, everyone who publicly supported genocide, if he belonged to a political party or group at all, called himself a socialist. Genocide was not just a fact of socialism in that age, but a characteristic fact. It distinguished socialism from all other party traditions.
If that is a surprising conclusion, then it is surprising that it should surprise. All these documents, beginning with Engels’s 1849 article, are published and even reprinted. But they are simply unread. Tedium has triumphed. Who now reads Marx’s Neue Rheinische Zeitung, for 1849 or any other year; who, for that matter, reads his books all the way through? Who would willingly read H.G. Wells’s Anticipations (1902), where his skills as a novelist are abandoned in favor of a dreary diagram of a socialist utopia created by genocide where the whole world would be clean, efficient, and white? Who would willingly read Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism (1924), which openly applauds Engels’s call for genocide and proposes to inflict it, as Stalin later did, on the Soviet Union? It is not the death of communism that has made such writings boring. They were always boring. They were largely unread even when communism ruled a third of mankind.
The case, on reflection, looks unique. This is a century that has published like no century before it, and amassed books in libraries like no century before it. One is forced to conclude that in the field of political theory, many texts are simply unread. The lost literature of socialism is not lost in the sense that librarians cannot find it, but in the sense that readers do not ask for it. It is a literature protected by a well-earned reputation for being uninteresting.
The most startling case is very recent, or only recently revealed. In 1992, the intellectual left in France was shaken out of whatever remained of its certitudes by a posthumously published autobiography. In L’Avenir dure longtemps, Louis Althusser, one of the most influential academic Marxists in postwar Paris, revealed that he had not only plagiarized the essays of other students but that, even as a professor, he had hardly read any of the philosophical works he had confidently expounded to students for decades: not a word of Aristotle or Kant, and nothing of Karl Marx except his early writings. The autobiography was a sensation. Althusser is best remembered now, apart from killing of his wife in a delirium, as the author of Lire le Capital (1968); but it now appears that he never read it himself. Converted to communism in his youth by meeting and marrying a member of the French Communist Party, he presumably (like Raymond Williams) thought the talk of party comrades enough.
There may be a further reason, however, why the works of Marx and Engels, Hitler and Rosenberg, are seldom read, a reason that has nothing to do with their tedium. I mean that there is a suspicion that they might say something inconvenient to the easy assumptions of our times. One such assumption, in the Western world, is that the right is competent and the left virtuous, and it is only very recently that it has come to be doubted—due, no doubt, to events like the sterling crisis of September 1992 or President Bush’s handling of the American economy, on the one hand, and the proven corruption of socialist parties in France, Italy, and Spain on the other. The assumption made for a long incuriosity, even among historians and political theorists. For so long as socialism was thought of as virtuous, genocide could not be socialist. After all, genocide is wicked. Everyone, or nearly everyone, knows that. It followed that though Hitler called himself a socialist, he cannot have been one.
It may be hard now to set the historical record straight without offense—an offense based, often enough, on simple misunderstandings. The first is that to speak of socialist genocide is to imply that all or most socialists have believed in it, which I am far from suggesting. A second misunderstanding, and more interesting, concerns the nature of virtue. Socialism has always been a claim to virtue, much as conservatism has traditionally been a claim to competence. But racial theories, it may be alarming to recall, can be claims to virtue too. Purity is an ideal, after all, and idealism can be brutal. In a world content to accept that socialism was always thought of as left-wing, that is a mood hard to recapture. “Racism” has long been a term of abuse; and the charge of genocide, as in Bosnia, is nowadays known only as a term of reprobation. But the world has not always been like that. The terms “racist” and “racialist” are both 20th-century coinages, unknown to the language in the 19th century and earlier; and their exclusive association with racial oppression, which is now taken for granted, is even more recent. Enlightened and progressive thinkers like Shaw and Wells were proud of their racial theories, and advocated them publicly as socialists. A year after Hitler took power, H.G. Wells, in Experiment in Autobiography (1934), candidly remarked that his Anticipations belonged to “the Hitlerite stage of my development, when I was a sentimentalist, a moralist, a patriot, a racist.” So racism, in his view, could be moral and sentimental, and Hitler could be seen as a sentimental moralist. Shaw, in the preface to On the Rocks (1933), applauded the new regime in Germany for having put extermination at the head of its program, though on severely practical grounds he disagreed with the Nazi emphasis on Jews and preferred the Soviet emphasis on the unfit and the lazy. These were conscientious left-wing views based, as it was thought, on scientific evidence, and Shaw and Wells were no more ashamed of their belief in extermination than Hitler himself. In fact, they were eager to be seen as courageous enough to grasp a problem that the liberal mind, in an excess of delicacy, had long pretended was not there.
Racism, in a word, was once a part of advanced radical thought, and nice people could be publicly racist. That has been true for a long time. The most amiable of 19th-century socialist revolutionaries, Alexander Herzen, who wrote his memoirs in exile in London in 1852-67, remarked that it was high time the world came to realize how important race was. “The time has come to understand, once and for all, that the different breeds of mankind, like different breeds of animals. have their different natures and are not to be blamed for this. No one is angry with the bull for not having the beauty of the horse or the swiftness of the stag,” and the most we can hope, Herzen concluded, is that the different races of mankind should “graze peaceably in the same field without kicking or goring each other.” That is a racist view, though one well short of genocide: an instance of virtuous racism in a virtuous man, and Herzen was not to know where it would some day lead or what others would do with it.
Perhaps, then, the classics of totalitarianism are protected by more than their tedium. They are protected by the fear that to read them might be to uncover something subversive: evidence irreconcilable with assumptions seldom doubted and claims long considered too cogent to need defense. The good dictator—good, that is, in his own self-image and the estimation of his disciples—has ceased to be part of the moral universe in which we live, and Rosenberg’s hopes, and Hitler’s, of a Nazi-Soviet Empire united in racial purity mean nothing now to mankind. That is not to be regretted. The world has grown skeptical of the power of the wise ruler and the single idea, of doctrines like the purity of race. We doubt the idealism even of idealists. No doubt that is right. But it makes the past we have so narrowly survived difficult, even impossible, at times, to comprehend.