‘The Nazis knew what they stood for; do we?’ is how the 165 minute long documentary, Nietzsche And The Nazis: A Personal View, by Stephen Hicks, PhD., ends queryingly. Yet, one might be loath to even label the 2006 film a documentary, as it is more an illustrated lecture. But, oh, what a lecture! I have famously railed against most philosophy. Not because I lack opinions but because so much philosophy is so mediocre and so poorly written. Friedrich Nietzsche, however, was an engaging, if not great, writer, and his ideas- good, bad, or indifferent, are always a challenge. These ideas, a near flawless dissection of Nazi theory and power, a historical weighing of their influence from Nietzsche, and the erudite yet sonorous tones of professor Hicks make this film one of the most intriguing yet innovative, yet also GREAT, documentaries I have watched. The film is almost pure soliloquy, and formed the basis for a later book by Hicks of the same title. In it, Hicks is seen against a variety of backgrounds- sets, real world locales, and rear screen projections, and simply discourses. In looks, he reminds me of General Hospital soap opera actor Jason Thompson; in demeanor he reminds me of cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, and in presence he reminds me of philosophy’s answer to astronomer Carl Sagan, of Cosmos fame. By whatever standards, this is a good combination.
In general, the film introduces the subject matter, then spends over an hour detailing the belief systems of the nazis, and how they rose to power in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Then, the second hour or so details the ideas of the philosopher, at first stressing major differences between Nietzsche and the Nazis, especially in content, then stressing similarities in execution. Of course, the philosopher never had the opportunity to put his ideas into place, so this part remains speculative. Nonetheless, the film mesmerizes and never lets one from its thrall. It is the documentary equivalent of Louis Malle’s great film, My Dinner With Andre. The film’s final movement puts it all in to perspective, before ending with the warning I start this review with. And it’s a cogent one, for much of modern life sees a society of philosophic zombies; slack-jawed consumers with no will to improve their lot.
The film starts with a querying of why some societies fail and others succeed, and what sets of values underpin them, and to what extent those values lead to the success or failure of a society. Hicks then disposes of many commonly held beliefs of why the Nazis rose: losing World War One, the bad Weimar Republic economy, the treaty of Versailles, Nazi leaders’ deviancy, etc., and shows that many German intellectuals supported the Nazis. Then, after reaching a certain critical mass, and by cleverly using democracy to bring about its downfall, the Nazis were given power and never let it go. Hitler then cleaned house within the Nazi Party, within Germany, then turned to his Final Solution, as well as his plans to vanquish Marxist socialism and the liberal democracies of the West. Far from being deviants, the Nazis were noble crusaders to their cause, and by having teachers and middle class workers as their base, they were in a position to swiftly indoctrinate many young people.
In one of Hicks’ weakest moments, he seems to dismiss eugenics as being bad, simply because the Nazis, like racists before them, used it for nefarious ends. But eugenics is the basis for almost all modern medicine and its preponderance can only grow with genomic based cures for disease.
The Nietzsche part of the film is even more detailed and brilliant, considering how often and easily he is misread. In the Nazi part, Hicks detailed their original 1920 party platform’s 25 points, and similarly dissects the philosopher’s ideas. A minor negative is that Hicks acknowledges instances of Nazi short term pragmatism for long term ends, but never seems to recognize that many Nazi ideals strayed from their original platform as Hitler’s influence grew and he purged rivals. This taps in to the timeless argument over whether Hitler was a dedicated racist and/or psychotic, or a brilliant political opportunist. He was likely both, in degrees, but this matters because Hicks constantly associates the Nazis with the ‘Socialist’ aspect of their party’s name, whereas, once in power, the party was anything but Socialist. They were certainly authoritarian, dictatorial, and autocratic, but this is not Socialist but Fascist. In that sense, the Bolsheviks and Marxist movements were far less Communistic than Fascistic. Fascism is the application of ideas, not the ideas themselves.
Most devastating in his critique is when Hicks lists 5 reasons why and why not Nietzsche can be seen as a proto-Nazi. In the negative:
1) the ubermensch could come in any race
2) German culture was degenerate and infecting the world
3) Anti-Semitism was a moral ill
4) praised Jews as tough, intelligent, and being survivors
5) believed Judaism and Christianity to be similar, with Christianity being worse and more dangerous
On the pro side:
1) strongly collectivist, somewhat anti-individualist (I would claim he was both collectivist and individualist!)
2) zero-sum conflict as endemic to human nature
3) glorified instinct over reason
4) saw war as healthy and beneficial for mankind
5) was anti-democratic, anti-capitalistic, and anti-liberal
Hicks then pits Nazi ideals- collectivism, instinct, passion, war and zero-sum conflict, authoritarianism and socialism against what he claims are their opposites: individualism, reason, production and win/win trade, liberalism and capitalism. Of course, these are not always opposites, and the Allies certainly did not represent all these ideal, and, frankly, not all these ideals are that good, as history has shown. But Hicks’ strength is not as a historian, practically speaking, but as a philosopher willing to take Nazi ideas seriously, lest they ‘sneak up’ on us again.
Hicks is also scrupulously fair, by ending ambiguously. Nietzsche is not exculpated, nor is he damned with slander. Unfortunately, one cannot say the same for Hicks, who is damned near slandered by a fellow PhD. named Kelley Ross, in this review of Hicks’ ideas, book, and film, accusing Hicks of Randism, dishonesty, stupidity, and flat out lying, even as Ross’s own claims of Nietzsche’s writings and intent actually support Hicks’ view. The piece ends with this bizarre statement:
Nevertheless, despite these tendentious weaknesses, and the peculiarity of its structure, Nietzsche and the Nazis is a valuable and, on the whole, impressive work. That Nietzsche was not an individualist and that the Nazis were socialists are points that seriously need arguing against other admirers of Nietzsche, on the former point, and against those who, on the latter point, promote the leftist interpretation of fascism as a form of capitalism.
Really? In 2011 (or 2007, when Ross’s piece was crafted), there are still folks who do not get that Fascism is Rightist mentality in its purest state? Yes, both the Far Right ideologies and Far left ones meet on the dark side of the globe. Political thinking is not a straight line, but a circle that stretches from Centrism. Nazism was the result of Rightism gone totalitarian. Communism was Leftism’s plunge into same.
Hicks’ film makes other valuable points in detailing Nietzsche’s slave vs. master moralities and a brief dip into the Great Man vs. Tidal views of History, but he does stumble a bit when he claims, early on, that it is intellectuals that shape culture. Really? rock music, jazz, rap, modern art, television, film. These are all the biggest purveyors of culture over the last century and none have been in the hands of intellectuals, who are more famously out of touch with common culture. Also, for such a historically scrupulous film, it’s odd to see Hicks take Jesus Christ face value as a historic figure, despite not a shred of evidence in that camp, as well as buying in to the unsupported claims of mass Jewish enslavement in ancient Egypt. Granted, Nietzsche and others use this as the basis for the ‘understandings’ of the Jewish mind, etc., but such nonsense should be dismissed as easily nowadays as phrenology. Another issue I take exception with is Hicks’ claim that the Holocaust, or Nazi genocide, was unique in scale. It clearly was not, as King Leopold equaled or surpassed the Nazis, as did the Japanese during the same era, and Stalin killed two to four times as many people, while Mao Zedong killed up to ten times as many. Even Genghis Khan, eight centuries earlier, piled up a higher body count than Hitler and company.
As someone who has always viewed human history as a string of placeholders between the really Great Men of history, I find much truck with Hicks’ sober view of this life. He is thorough, detailed, provocative, and not willing to back down when he is definitively correct. A thing I think the film misses is the obvious fallacy of extremist thought- be it Nazi, Communist, Biblical, religious, Capitalistic, Zionistic, etc. The middle ground is clearly the best province for rational and productive societies, for only extreme times demand extreme measures, and 99.99% of life is interminably non-extreme. Nietzsche And The Nazis: A Personal View is a great documentary film, and a great piece of dialectic, art, and philosophy. There’s little more I can say save, watch it.