From a reader:
I think the Year Zero stuff about Naziism is interesting, because it seems to contradict what I recall knowing about the Nazis and fascism in general. Can’t the Nazis be described as Romantics on steroids who are appealing to the mythical past of the nation as their justification for the totalitarian goals of the party? It seems like that was the whole point of the Third Reich language. It’s a restoration of past glory as imagined by German nationalists and Romantics. (Thus the role of poets like Goethe laying the foundation for this appeal among the aristocracy of Germany).
I think communism seems like more of a Year Zero type of ideology than fascism, but I would be interested in your thoughts if you have the time.
On a side note, here in Santa Barbara we have a Borders and a Barnes & Noble right across the street from one another. Your book is very hard to find in the Borders but is clearly displayed in the best-sellers section at B&N. Needless to say I bought my copy there.
Me: Well, this is just one more indication of why my first stab at the Mills/Year Zero stuff was tentative. I think this reader is right. I would certainly argue that the Nazis were Romantic. And the Nazis certainly talked a great deal about the Past. But it’s important to remember what kind of past they were talking about, and this reader has it right: A mythical past. The real past, i.e. the long record of accumulated wisdom derived from years of trial and error and encompassed in classical liberalism, tradition, and theology: this past was of no interest to the Nazis. There’s was a Rousseauian vision (albeit a highly twisted one) of an Aryan past-that-never-was. Nazi ideologues were convinced that the Catholic Church, the Jews and others had conspired to keep Aryan Man down. They believed that Jewish-Bolshevik materialism had despoiled the environment and ripped man from his place in the natural order. In a way they saw themselves as the European equivalent of Native Americans, screwed by outside powers and foreign doctrines that were alien and destructive. (Not surprisingly, many Germans, starting with Hitler, were fascinated with American Indians). Hitler was fundamentally a pagan. “Christianity,” writes Hitler in Mein Kampf, “was not content with erecting an altar of its own. It had first to destroy the pagan altars.” It was “the advent of Christianity” that first unleashed the “spiritual terror” upon “the much freer ancient world.”
I think one can find echoes of this sort of thinking on the New Age left today.
As for the Communists, I agree it’s more of a Year Zero ideology than Nazism was. But it was also fundamentally reactionary by my lights. I consider all of the totalitarian isms to be reactionary in the sense they are attempting to restore the ancient and instinctive yearning to live in a sacralized tribe. For understandable reasons we think of socialism as purely an economic doctrine, but that’s not quite right. Socialism arises out of the burning issue of “the social question,” as they used to call it. The social question was aimed at figuring out how all of society was to be properly organized so as to give the deracinated urban masses the sense of belonging and meaning that they’d once had when they were down on the farm (Yes, that’s a glib summary, but it’ll do for now). The Fascists wanted socialism in one state, or the tribe defined by Italianness. The Nazis wanted socialism for one race (an obvious form of tribalism). And the Communists desired socialism for one class (after all everyone else — the bourgeoisie, the rich et al – were to liquidated either materially or literally). All of these ideologies sought a “new” politics of meaning — hence to start over — but what their adherents really desired was to restore what they thought they’d lost.