Rarely had Europe's nose been more out of joint in peacetime. Capitalism was bankrupt, Hitler was on the rise, war loomed. It was, in the words of W. H. Auden, "a low dishonest decade."
The charged ideological climate of the thirties made it difficult to stay on the political sidelines, intellectuals not excluded. Intellectuals, that is to say, men and women who write and think — writing commanding thought (Walter Benjamin) — did not have an easy time of it. "The impulse of every writer is to keep out of politics," asserted George Orwell in An Age Like This 1920–1940. "What he wants is to be left alone so that he can go on writing books in peace. But unfortunately it is becoming obvious that this ideal is no more practical than that of the petty shop–keeper who hopes to preserve his independence in the teeth of the chain–stores...It is not possible for any thinking person to live in such a society as our own without wanting to change it."This was not a time for wool gathering or self–referential scribbling. This was a time for mobilizing pens.
The previous decade, the writer Julien Benda achieved a measure of fame with a treatise entitled La trahison des Clercs. In this work, the onetime Dreyfusard argued, with Cartesian precision, that intellectuals had betrayed their calling by shilling for one political cult or another, be it nation, class, party or race. In the Frenchman's view, intellectuals weren't brought into the world to strap on a helmet and mount the political barricades. To Benda, a "clerk," in the medieval sense, was someone who pursued learning for its own sake, for the pure joy of it, without expectation of material reward. That lofty perch had been abandoned for the " game of political passions." "Our age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds," declared Benda, giving the phenomenon its classic formulation (emphasis in the original). The only cult intellectuals were bound to serve, the Frenchman proclaimed, was the cult of truth and justice, the empire of the spirit, the "kingdom that is not of this world." A thinker, he asserted, who lends his "moral prestige" to causes "brings them the tremendous influence of his sensibility...." Benda evidently thought intellectuals had a great deal of clout.
Benda notwithstanding, the thirties was a time for choosing colors. The overwhelming majority of intellectuals, united by a hatred of fascism, boned up on Marxist dialectics and opted for red as the only hope for beating "the enemy of civilization." Others crossed over to fascism or proto–fascist movements. Ezra Pound, introducing René Crevel's novel Les pieds dans le plat (1933), referred to the interwar years as an "an epoch of unspeakable intellectual squalor and degradation," pilloried the western democracies that hadn't "the sphincter strength for revolution," and kept his eyes peeled on "the new hope" to the east and south of France. T. S. Eliot mused that "[w]riters should leave war and peace to practical people," yet found much that was practical in the activities of Charles Maurras and his monarchist Action Française. La trahison des Clercs came out in 1927. Benda's abstentionist manifesto attracted the attention of British poet, painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis. "He accuses them [intellectuals]," wrote Lewis,
of going over, with all their apparatus of learning and literary magic, to the side of the political power–addict — the man–eater, the fire–brand: further of as good as accepting the standards of the philistine.... With all the energy at their disposal, a majority of the modern intellectuals have striven to excite to passionate action — not to exhort to reflection or moderation, not applied to the reason, but always to the emotions: they have pointed passionately to the battlefield, the barricade, the place of execution, not to the life of reason, to what is harmonious and beautifully ordered.
Wyndham Lewis was a perfect example of the kind of intellectual Benda had in mind: a "clerk" who had jumped the fence and entered the political arena. In two weighty tomes of political, social and cultural criticism, The Art of Being Ruled and Time and Western Man — both published around the time of La trahison –– the Canadian–born writer and painter rambled across time and space to clarify his own Weltanschauung, carrying muddled thinking to new heights. What with communism and fascism at each other's throats and between them squeezing what life there was left out of the western democracies, Lewis saw no other option but to deposit his pens and brushes with Italy's "ice–cream agitator" Mussolini. "Complete standardization with the suppression of the last vestiges of the party system," wrote the author in praise of il duce's Italy, "will rescue masses of energy otherwise wasted in politics for more productive ends.... All the humbug of a democratic suffrage, all the imbecility that is so wastefully manufactured, will henceforth be spared this people."
The promise of happiness found Lewis in an unlikely venue: a sports stadium. Lewis happened to be in Germany when Hitler's National Socialist Workers' Party racked up 107 Reichstag seats in the fall of 1930, putting it within hailing distance of power. With the Nazis riding high, the founder of vorticist painting was swept up in a style of politics that Thomas Mann, addressing a heckling crowd in the German capital on the eighteenth of October, derided as "orgiastic." Not so Lewis. In Germany, the author of Tarr attended a "monster meeting" in Berlin's Sportpalast and thrilled at the "stormy platform voices" of Goebbels and Goering as they tore into the enemies of Germany and exhorted the German masses "to recapture their freedom at whatever cost." "In this gigantic assembly of twenty thousand people," Lewis raved, "there was something like the physical pressure of one immense, indignant thought — it was impossible to be present and not to be amazed at the passion engendered in all these men and women, and the millions of others of whom these were only a fraction...."
Lewis became an enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler. As much as he admired Mussolini, he admired Hitler more, for the German Fuhrer got it right. Unlike the "ice–cream agitator," "the Austrian house–painter" put the racial issue where it belonged, squarely in the cross hairs of politics. The Hitler–led "national–religious upheaval" had fueled a revival of his own slumbering political instinct, Lewis confessed, a piece of good fortune he was convert–eager to broadcast to the world. In Hitler, published in 1931, Lewis set out to reassure the folks back home that there was nothing to worry about: contrary to the "lurid accounts" that had appeared in the British press, Germany's emerging leader was a decent fellow who was only trying to do what was best for Germany. "[I]t is as an exponent — not yet as a critic nor yet as an advocate of German National Socialism, or Hitlerism," Lewis asserted, "that I come forward. It seems to me very important that an unprejudiced and fairly detailed account of this great and novel factor in world affairs should be at the disposal of the intelligent Anglo–Saxon."
Surely, Lewis proceeded, the intelligent Anglo–Saxon would agree that the white race lacked the ability "to combine and consolidate itself" and couldn't be trusted to defend its own interests. Evidently this racial blind spot had had not served politics well. "The western democratic principle has always been too anarchic to be sensible," proclaimed Lewis in an essay comparing liberal democracy and authoritarianism. "It sees things in pieces. It even sees life in pieces: its personality is unstable and easy to isolate. Such are some of the capital causes for the rapid eclipse of european power."
The year the Fuhrer came to power, 1933, Lewis published a book of poems titled One–Way Song. "The political tendency of these poems," wrote Stephen Spender in a review essay, "is Fascist. I do not see any other interpretation of these lines":
If so the man you are, your leaders gone,
Can you survive into an age of iron?
In this political cockpit who can you face?
Yours must become a very lowly place.
Against the grain, we henceforth must discount
This sleepy people petted and "all found."
Unless, unless, a class of leaders comes,
To move it from its latter–day doldrums.
Spender held that the poet who resorts to propaganda destroys the very idea of poetry. "Of human activities," he asserted in a discursive memoir, The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People, 1930's — 1970's, "writing poetry is one of the least revolutionary." Yet here was a poem by the "Enemy" (i.e., Lewis; Spender was a leftist and briefly joined the communist party) Spender could admire: " One–Way Song is full of dislike for democracy and democratic ideas. But it is difficult to label Mr. Lewis, because his scorn for the whole caravan of popular ideas and popular philosophy, for creative evolution, progress, relativity, the expanding universe, and racial equality includes the Greater Britain." While intolerant of fascists, Spender nevertheless was willing to make an exception for Lewis because the poet wore his "passionate egotism" on his sleeve and was not "ultimately flippant." Hitler didn't wear his "passionate egotism" on his sleeve, either, while flippant would not be the first adjective to come to mind apropos the Nazi leader.
Hitler. Here, at last, in Lewis' view, was a white man who had overcome the curse of biology — inertia for lack of Blutsgefühl, "bloodfeeling" — to grasp the possibilities of that "one large mud–ball" that was the world. The Nazi leader, asserted Lewis in Hitler, was committed to creating individuals who were conscious of " the identity of interest between themselves and their race" (emphasis in the original), the better to defend the white man's civilization "in the midst of a disintegrating world." Too bad if somnambulant England and melting–pot America didn't see it that way.
If ever there was a mud–ball crying out for reclamation it was Berlin's West End. Here, in the "Haupstadt of Vice," Lewis witnessed the sorry spectacle of the white race bottom–wagging its way to extinction, the "flight from the Self" emblazoned in heartless neon. Babylon on the Spree was the cult of jazz and "nigger–hubbub," "rough–chinned debutantes," "super–sex and pink champagne," "the Perverts' Paradise," the "Mecca of both Les and So." But not to worry: the Hitlerite was no "sex–moralist," Lewis reassured, sex–moralists being such bores. "Pink–clothed back–sides are not their political quarry." Even so, if one of those SA stalwarts bursting with "pagan health" decided "to roll his nigger–dance luxury spot up like a verminous carpet, and drop it into the Spree," he would get no argument from Lewis. The same held for the stock exchange, that "misbegotten paradise" of financial speculators and profiteers: "'Juda verrecke!' he would no doubt mutter, or shout, if he got into one."
Juda verrecke! — Die, Jew! This was it, the great stumbling block that kept "the intelligent Anglo–Saxon" from appreciating Hitler as "a sort of inspired and eloquent Everyman." As Lewis saw it, "the drastic proposals directed against the Jews" amounted to "a racial red herring." In the chapter titled "Hitlerism and the Judenfrage," Lewis attributed Nazi antisemitism to a "peasant–doctrine of fierce exclusiveness," calculated to keep the supposed alien from claiming its rightful patrimony. Lewis further argued that "there is also the deep animal antipathy to be reckoned with, causing the essential German who is born provincial to stand upon his guard against a glib metropolitan product, whose ancient and dissimilar culture seems to threaten the integrity of his own traditional ideals." (Never mind that there had been Jews in Germany before there had been Germans and more ardent champions of Deutschtum it would have been impossible to find.) The German simply "identifies the Jew with everything that is inimical to the society to which he belongs — the political and cultural systems of the Aryan World."
Lewis knew his Mein Kampf. It's all there, the whole Jew–bashing litany of the Aryan Übermensch. But Lewis was a clever satirist and skilled writer, and Hitler, in the words of his English champion, was a simple "german Bauarbeiter" — laborer, that is.
So it goes on, a battle of ideas, with people of jewish origin always identified with the tendencies that are destructive of the european or "aryan," ethos. And it is perhaps only fair to the National socialist to say that the Jew has often lent colour to these accusations. But the Jew no doubt would retort that, coming as he generally does from Tartary, he cannot be expected to be much attracted by carol–singing, protestant hymn music, or the teutonic Royal–Academicism of official painting, and that in any case he buys and sells — being a man of affairs – novelties that are good business propositions.
Besides, Lewis conceded, "Some one has to govern England," so it might as well be the Jews, the Normans and the Irish having checked out. He acknowledged, however, that in England the Jew, "the brilliant and bossy Hausfrau" of a "stolid English hubby," had to some degree been assimilated, "disinfected and anglicized," just as in "the States he has been transformed (that Yankee Abraham or "Abie") into a true Western product....For better or for worse, in the words of the English marriage service, there is the Jew! Feminine, and in many ways unpleasant — all people have their bad side yet some modus vivendi has to be found; and as a "middleman" of uncanny, penetration may he not even have an important civilizing function?"
Lewis offered these musings from across the Channel in order to induce his continental racial cousins to lighten up some on the Jew, not to take him "too seriously." As for the British, the effort to incline them toward a more favorable view of the German messiah terminated with a special plea. Don't let the Judenfrage, the Jewish Question, "sway you too much," Lewis cautioned. It was important, he said, to "allow a little Blutsgefühl to have its way...in favour of this brave and very unhappy impoverished kinsman. Do not allow a mere bagatelle of a Judenfrage [Jewish Question] stand in the way of that!" (Half a century later, Jean–Marie Le Pen of France's far right Front National was to dismiss the Holocaust as a mere "bagatelle" of the Second World War, touching off a universal outcry.)
Lewis' Hitler appeared in 1931. Two decades later its author trotted out these very same passages, minus the more unpleasant turns of phrase, as proof that he had actually meant well by the Jews. In two fragmentary chapters on the Hitler writings of the thirties published in Rude Assignment: An Intellectual Autobiography Hitler's onetime acolyte complained that of the two books he had written about the German leader, one "in a vein sympathetic to Hitler," the other, The Hitler Cult, published in 1938, '"the reverse of sympathetic," the critics invariably only mentioned the first. The Hitler Cult, however, was not nearly as critical of his shattered idol as the seemingly chastened author wanted his postwar readers to believe. "Why has nature provided us with no psychical insight," Lewis despaired,
so that when we encounter a mass–murderer we are apprised of the fact by an instantaneous repulsion?...[W]hat a flair a man must have to detect a Tamerlane beneath that platitudinous exterior –—the plebeian protégé of the Junker Papen, with the humble cut of whose German sportsjacket, and with whose disarming toothbrush moustache, we are all now so familiar. Still I confess that in one respect I was badly taken in, in 1930. What more than anything else caused my judgment to trip was that unusual trinity of celibacy, teetotalism, and anti–nicotine.
Nature had let him down. Nature had allowed him to be taken in by the "foolish third–rate mind of [a] little soapboxer" and the "hefty young street–fighting warriors" of the SA. The Führer was not the "Man of Peace," nor the brownshirts the "young pillars of the law" he had thought them to be. Nobody had told him that the Nazi watchword 'nur legal! ' — only legal — was but a clever ruse to smooth the road to power. Now it appeared the Nazi hatred of the Jews was the most "idiotic" thing about them and no longer a "mere bagatelle."
Having fully acknowledged Hitler's criminality, Lewis couldn't understand why he was being viewed as a greater villain than those who had given Stalin their unqualified support even though the Georgian had killed more people than the Teuton. Lewis was confused. "We cannot afford just now to be philosophers, nor yet humanitarians," sighed Lewis at last, washing his hands.
Whether Stalin killed more people than Hitler is beside the point. The fact remains that Lewis backed a celebrant of race war, death and destruction. As mentioned, intellectuals had little wiggle room; there was the red and the brown and Pound's sphincter–enfeebled western countries. "A distressing feature of this time," Spender observed, "was that what Hitler stood for was so black that those who opposed him seemed at least gray by comparison." This was a postwar assessment, although for Spender, as for scores of other intellectuals, the retreat from Moscow, prompted by Stalin's crimes, had begun years before and was not completed until the onset of the Cold War — a collective case of buyer's remorse that found its iconic expression in The God That Failed, a compendium of mea culpas with show trial overtones featuring contributions by Spender, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright and Louis Fischer.
Lewis, too, had been groping his way back to the center, commencing, like Spender, in the second half of the thirties. From a mid–century vantage point, Lewis could see that Benda had been right to urge intellectuals to keep their noses out of politics. But whether the "lesson" had sunk in is another matter, for in the course of time his thinking had only become slightly less muddled. To be sure, the Lewis had come to his senses about the vanquished dictator — "popping into the gas–ovens not thousands but millions of human victims." But if Lewis had sacrificed Hitler, he stopped short of making the final, umbilical, cut. It was as though instead of pulping Mein Kampf he had moved the saga of the Fuhrer's political coming of age to the lowest shelf in his bookcase, like cheap booze. For the Jew was still there, "the millions of human victims" notwithstanding. Hitler claimed that the Jews had caused the war; Lewis that the war had been fought on their account. "The future historian will marvel," Lewis prophesied, "at our immediately afterwards engaging in a little war in Palestine with the very people we had ruined ourselves to emancipate...."
Jacob Boas holds a Ph.D. in Modern European History. He is the author of Boulevard des Miseres: The Story of Transit Camp Westerbork (Archon Books 1985); We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust (Holt 1995; Scholastic; MacMillan/Square Fish); Mr. Holocaust (I Presume), Nijgh & Van Ditmar, Amsterdam, 2005 (Dutch only). He is currently writing a book on writers and politics between the wars and lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, the artist Pat Boas.