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Meditation on "-Keit," "-Ness."

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Separate the Nazi from the German?

in the Dissolution.

It's Merely a Question of Identity.

from the Planet X Think Tank
at Bald Mountain near Rachel, Nevada

Might you suppose — with some expectation of credibility — that the Germans are a subjective people? One of us supposes not, another supposes so: Having stepped into a self-conscious realm of speculation, we can merely juxtapose and cite, synthesize and suggest. We mine the canon for texts to illuminate a concept called "Germanness," but what appears concrete in one epoch becomes suspiciously illusory in another, and we are left with a set of presumptions based as much on our putative National-ness (American, Vietnamese, Hungarian) as our scattered findings about Germany.

Who among the non-Germans can really know the Germans? Who among the Germans can speak for them all? But the question here at the beginning concerns the subjective. The German people are inwardly seeking idealists, are they not? Hiking and bicycling from place to place, they pursue the joys of the Wanderwege,1 not so much because of their love for nature, but more so because of their innate fascination with introspection and physical development. The German is ruthless in his self-interest, but content to let the state take care of his objective reality.2

Historian Gordon A. Craig contends that German emphasis on "the inner development of the individual and of the German nation as a unique cultural expression" during the Weimar era placed the struggling nation at odds with Western ideals of personal liberty and the right of the people to control their leaders. "[I]nward-directedness had induced them to leave the practical realities of existence and the decisions affecting the life and well-being of ordinary people in the control of the State and its agents,"3 he wrote.

The Indelible Brand of N A Z I.

Many of us remember what happened to that State, how it grew into a totalitarian demon, which destroyed itself in a fiery holocaust and seared the German identity with the indelible brand of N A Z INo wonder that today's explorer of Germanness finds it difficult to peer beneath the scar and uncover an identity untainted by the Nazi past. "How is one to label those Germans who continued to work under National Socialism, in the field of scholarship, science and, of course, everyday life?" asks historian Emma Bramwell in her controversial intellectual biography of Nazi ideologue Walter Darré, who popularized the concept of "blood and soil" as justification for expansionist Lebensraum. "Are all their products, their achievements, their errors, too, to be considered as archetypal National Socialism? Might they have developed that way in any case? How can one distinguish what was German in 1933-45 and what was Nazi?"4

Hitler, Nazism, World War II, Auschwitz.... "How could this have happened?" the professor asked on November 29, 2003, reminding his two dozen United States of American students of the overriding question in a dialectic of destruction and creation, shame and accomplishment, guilt and achievement. (We note for clarity that one of our legion flew away from Planet X for a season. She sat at the feet of the university professor. Part of our meditation is based on her report.)

"The Essence of a Thing...."

Now we can say we've got our feet wet. The meditation is fully engaged. Already the contradictions abound. "The essence of a thing is not anything that is arbitrarily made by subjective thought, is not a distilled unity of characteristics," the Frankfurt philosopher Adorno wrote in The Jargon of Authenticity, a quirky extended essay about subjectivity and the ideology of German existentialism.5 From Adorno we borrow the phrase embedded in the title of the meditation. " '-Keit,' '-ness,' is the general concept for that which a thing is," Adorno wrote. "It is always the substantivization of a characteristic."6

So, we enter an historical meditation on the meaning of the one word, Germanness, in which the thesis is raw, ambiguous, self-sustaining — and which can be best expressed through questions and related suppositions.... Raw because the story of the Volk is cruel, unfair, and not yet finished.... Ambiguous because the meaning is obscured by prejudice, preconception, blood feud, and racial memory by survivors of the vanquished six-million.... Self-sustaining because the very process of historical inquiry is raised on generational rediscovery, constructed of revisionist timber, and inhabited by restless minds. Can we state a thesis? Germanness can be engaged along multiple lines of inquiry and discussed in volumes, but it cannot be contained or adequately identified.

On her person our colleague Le Ti carries an identity card, a driver's license issued by the State of Nevada. Traveling abroad, she carries her United States of America passport. In today's easy parlance, both documents pass muster as "a photo id." Le Ti admits that seldom has she paused to consider what the card or passport might mean, how it might inform the question, "Who am I?" Philosophers of ontology contend it is the most fundamental of questions. To an historian, "Who am I?" becomes "Who Were They?" The individual is absorbed into the group. The group is identified and defined. Eventually, a set of groups is gathered and sorted into a larger body, acceptable as a fit object for the study of history. What terms do the historians enlist?

To approach the question of identity means that defeat must be admitted from the get-go. However, the allusion to defeat invites artful metaphor, vain and oracular. How consoling is the hyperbolic realization that by participating in the narrative with our feet stained and bloodied by the ashes and rubble of defeat, we might mirror a part of the German experience?

A Necessary Frame of Reference.

What can be pored on the meditation to allow us, were we so inclined, to paint glib conclusions on the surface of the concept? Here's a standard set of identifiers of Germanness, wrought from local knowledge: disciplined, obedient to authority, angst-ridden, romantic, conformist, ritualistic, well-ordered, punctual, stubborn, polite, determined, introspective, minutiae-driven. Here's a list of Germanic peoples: Bavarians, Prussians, Saxons, Swabians, Hessians, and Austrians. Facts and lists, dates and players, events and movements: these (among others) are elements7 of convention and style to inform the study of history. They impose a necessary frame of reference, but we kick against the frame like the Sadducee Saul kicking against the pricks8 of his spiritual rebellion. An artful retreat to the genre of intellectual history offers some relief from the requirements of scholarly historiography, allowing the procurement of ideas from an old well, ideas which move through eras, across boundaries, and into mental spaces not so tightly constricted. They are the infinite in the finite, transcendent and safe.

The advance party, a trusted source, traced the message in thick strokes:
     — You won't be able to define Germanness much deeper than the standard surface of things.

A muse delivered the compensation for our loss, whispering:
     — You must, instead, craft a written record of the meditation. Base it firmly on history, but inform it with philosophy, and elevate the narrative with flights into lyricism.

Might we dare to dance along the borderline of art? Does not art walk hand-in-hand with history? The great Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke thought so. "History is distinguished from all other sciences in that it is also an art," von Ranke told his students at the University of Berlin during the winter semester of 1831-32.9 "History," he continued, "is a science in collecting, finding, penetrating; it is an art because it recreates and portrays that which it has found and recognized. Other sciences are satisfied simply with recording what has been found; history requires the ability to recreate.

"As a science, history is related to philosophy, as an art, to poetry," the Prussian master said. "The difference is that, in keeping with their nature, philosophy and poetry move within the realm of the ideal while history has to rely on reality. If one assigned philosophy the task of penetrating the image which has appeared in time, it would be involved in discovering causality and conceptualizing the core of existence: and is philosophy of history not also history? If philosophy of history would assign to poetry the task of reproducing past life, then it would be history."10

A passion for history, and excellence in the writing of it, are very surely a part of Germanness.

An Elusive, Puzzling Latecomer.

In the last hours of the undergraduate summer, someone asked, "Which way to go?" Name your thesis, the professor said. We have none, a knot of undergraduates replied. You must, the professor said, floating a concept, "postmodern," to define one's obstinate refusal to claim a defensible point-of-view. In retrospect, we contend, he overestimated our knowledge of the contents of the historian's tool chest. We'd not thought of channeling the narrative into one known course or another. Frankly, we lacked formal training, didn't know the forms, didn't know how to read the charts. History had been our hobby, not our profession. We relied on it to inform our reportage, polemic, philosophy, and lyricism. We had not written in one of the formal voices of historical inquiry — and even now we wonder if any one of us here in the Planet X compound is capable of going there. More puzzling, however, is the elusive character of postmodernism, a latecomer whose traits we can't identify with reliable clarity or confident surety. Our only defense was the fact that we were not historians, but merely passionate students of history — and undergraduates at that! We begged the professor to grant some allowance if our passions got in the way of historical method.

Among the many lines of inquiry opened by the professor, his focus on "Germany Since 1918," was the elusive one leading by indirection and underlying suggestion to the ideas of enlightenment, romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism as they pertain to Germany. We can't say the line was intentionally strung, but we stumbled upon it like some lost riband along an unexpected path back toward the Garden. If modernism11 develops "the aesthetic concept of anti-art" to enable man to "comprehend what is,"12 then a modernist's viewpoint of historical inquiry might conceive in its narrative the presence of an underlying, eternal moment of anti-history. What is conventional in history must be dissolved before a new truth can be reconstituted and made whole.

The Age of Dissolution.

Some few among us have thought for some time now that the institutions, social structures, and cultures of the West have become snared in a new and dangerous phase of history, (a) devolution into a seminal struggle, where the aim of a beleaguered status quo is to hold fast to traditional values and long-cherished beliefs about community and unity, coherence and confidence, identity and integrity. We identify it as The Age of Dissolution, the anti-revolution of fragmentary intent. It is linked to the death of modernism, which perished at the hands of the twin assassins of mid-twentieth century dissolution: Nazism in Germany and militarism in the United States of America.

One assassin sprang from conservative romanticism and the myth of racial purity. It spawned Hitler, his necrophilic love affair with death, and his ascendance to the role of destroyer of the German state.13 The other assassin sprang from the militarization of liberty in service to mechanistic capitalism, giving rise to a system hell-bent on imperial dominance of a rebellious planet. In the early hours of its strange birth in the U.S.A., the second assassin detonated atomic bombs over two cities in Japan.14

That the West has not been able to galvanize the creative powers of its collective intellect and spirit so that it might find a way to replace modernism becomes a stark symbol of the psychic wasteland entered into by an exhausted Europe and an overbearing America.

Echo of a Failed Revival.

Yes, there was a feeble attempt to recast a replacement — we call it postmodernism — but it was merely an echo of a failed revival, the postscript to a story long since written and put away. The Third Reich's implosion into desperate battle and the U.S.A.'s atom bomb, which introduced the fear of global destruction and extinction of the human race into planetary consciousness, destroyed the Twentieth Century's aesthetic antidote to the societal ills of the Industrial Revolution and its spawn, corporate capitalism. The twin assassins also mortally wounded modernism's progenitor, the wizened old crane Enlightenment. Is she fully dead as the neoconservatives and anarchists claim? We would ask Mr. Habermas, but he is otherwise occupied. We refuse to slip away from The Dissolution into other forms of distraction.

If the Enlightenment was anti-absolutist and democratic, anti-romantic and enamored of liberty, then National Socialist fascism was anti-modern and romantic, anti-democratic and absolutist.

[ "They bemoan short paragraphs, the pedants and their formalist allies do," interjects Oksob de Opposite, rising from the Opposite Loft to cast an aside from his perch on the rafter of paired illusions. "They contend that excess white space crashes upon the smooth surface of historicism like so many million points of anti-rationalism, splashin' from the pointillist's brushes onto the unity of the narrative. We know better, do we not? We contend the narrative is meant to be read." ]

A Smoldering Evil,
Expressing Itself.

"The authority of the absolute is overthrown by absolutized authority," Mr. Adorno wrote. "Fascism was not simply a conspiracy — although it was that — but is was something that came to life in the course of a powerful social development. Language provides it with a refuge. Within this refuge a smoldering evil expresses itself as though it were salvation."15 By inference, modernism can be viewed (through the lens of revisionist hindsight) as more than a movement in the arts and sciences. Its revolutionary tendencies filtered into emerging ideologies, cryptically providing the surface gloss, perhaps even a few bitter seeds of justification for totalitarianism — but this is an exceedingly difficult concept to analyze, much less prove.

According to the conventional storyline, modernism was limited to the galleries and theaters, laboratories and drawing boards, university classrooms and printing presses. The Austrian modernist composer Schoenberg stated quite bluntly that individual works of art were meaningless to affairs of state. "There are further reasons why one cannot seriously believe that the arts influence political happenings," Mr. Schoenberg wrote in 1928. "Artistically speaking, it is all the same whether someone paints, writes or composes; his style is anchored in his time. But by what chord would one diagnose the Marxist confession in a piece of music, and by what colour the Fascist one in a picture?"16 Paintings, sculpture, literature, theater, music, and architecture were merely expressions of culture, secondary and subservient to government, foreign affairs, economic systems, wars, and dictatorships. They were divided and sundered from the greater realm of politics and nation building. But were they? Some ideological underpinnings of Hitler's National Socialism were sunk like pikes into an overt reactionary loathing of modernism in art and culture, but how could mere revulsion to a style of music or architecture turn the tide of nations? It couldn't, unless it informed through negation the unconscious development of the fascist dictatorship. Let's go back and agree with Mr. Schoenberg that a work of art — his Erwartung, Brecht's Die Dreigroschenoper, Schad's Self-Portrait With Model — stands apart from the core of politics, agree that relics of a narrowing culture are divorced from expanding society, even if the work of art is created and delivered on the National Socialist landscape in a style infused with modernism. We contend that these top-bobbing characteristics of style and intent do not dilute modernism's potential relationship to political theory. It did not lessen its value as foil to Nazi ideologues and bureaucrats, who were dedicated to modernism's destruction. The foil is the tip, a mere symbol of the more formidable rival, a fracture riven deeply in the body of society. What if the revolutionary principles of artistic creation and scientific discovery inherent in modernism found their negation in the political expressions of National Socialism? The positive cannot exist without its negative opposite. All that we are negates all that we become. We rise in opposition to fragmentation. We fall in opposition to actualization.

We think of Hitler's exhibitions of works of Degenerate Art ("Entartete Kunst"), "the hated modern art" of Cubism, Dadaism, and avant-garde Expressionism, which were confiscated by the Nazi state and displayed throughout Germany as examples of the monstrous countenance and spiritual lunacy of the anti-Germans.17  A Nazi spokesman at one degenerate exhibition tied the concept of anti-art directly to the concept of Germanness, saying: "The German people will judge them. We are not scared. The people trust, as in all things, the judgment of one man, our Führer. He knows which way German art must go in order to fulfill its task as the expression of German character. What you see here are the crippled products of madness, impertinence, and lack of talent."18 It wasn't enough for the Germans to develop alternative forms of painting, sculpture, and architecture (which they did) to express their pure Aryan nature; they had to destroy the creations of the non-Germans in their midst. "The jargon, a waste product of the modern that it attacks, seeks to protect itself — along with literally destructive institutions — against the suspicion of being destructive: by simultaneously accusing other, mostly anticonservative, groups of sinful intellectuality, of that sin which lies deep in the jargon's own unnaïve, reflective principle of existence," Mr. Adorno wrote.19

An Illusion, Suspect and Tentative.

If our approach here is postmodern (for want of a better term), as the professor suggested, then it must be so because of our belief in the fundamental illusion. One cannot adequately perceive reality in the grip of subjective idealism, or in the sway of relative absolutism, or under the guiding spell of existentialism. Any system purporting to express fundamental truths about The Others is suspect and tentative. We have trouble enough agreeing on the terms; how much more difficult it becomes when we put those terms into action and attempt to tell something. Here on this web, for instance, the illusion assumes a form of plastic reality, existing, at this very moment, only because the eye of the reader scans the screen and follows the lines, processing and interpreting symbols in quest of a type of communication that is the shadow of speech. We create now to become, instantly, an artifact of our participation. The study of history is a subjective artifact and an aesthetic experience. This thing we agree to call Germanness may be real in the flesh and glass, blood and soil, humans and concrete of Berlin or Heidelberg or Munich — were we there now, walking among them, the Germans, in their great cities and tamed countryside — but at this already lost instant of the act of writing, which becomes another's swiftly receeding moment of reading, The German is an idea, a memory, an expectation.

The study, analysis, and contemplation of the events, personages, and ideas raised by the professor from his first lecture in midsummer, 2003, to the moment at hand — now — reveal by their very existence a valid and current methodology for the exposition of of history as an academic discipline at the university level. In contrast to the traditional style of academic lecture prevalent in today's German university,20 the United States of Americans entered into a blended flow of professorial commentary, traditional historical text, film, case studies, television documentary, novels, and student discussion. What came of it? The undergraduates managed to break through an old barrier in a quiet way, moving without fanfare onto new ground and in good accord with the measured manner of the scientist. The professor's calm, deliberate, and understated approach stood in stark contrast to the frenetic, unbound, and manic nature of the German people, whose recent history provided the subject matter. A few of us, too, wanted to rush with intensity toward the vortex, the cauldron. The professor's approach provided ballast and balance. We did manage, however, to add the stout spice of philosophy to the blend of history and art, but it was philosophy from the most unexpected source: the Marxist Adorno from the Frankfurt School. Who among the desert-bound thinkers would ever have expected it?

A Flawed Nothingness.

At the end we are left with the ruling conundrum, the master mystery: How did it happen? How might we separate the Nazi from the German, the German from the Nazi? How might we place the concept of Germanness into a perspective not inextricably fouled by association with Hitler and Auschwitz? Shall the years between 1933 and 1945 remain for all time the defining episode of the German people? Our dialectic becomes flawed, conceding nothing where there is nothing to refute.

The Germans?

They are torn.

They are renewed.

They are divided.

They are unified.

Theirs is a chronic state of change and continuity, fluid and amoebic; they live within a moveable Reich, expanding and contracting in time and space.

The form of their yoke and the clamor of their destiny are mysterious, protean.

They remain deeply burrowed in the nurturing space of "das Land der Mitte."

Face it. The Germans are obedient to themselves.

Their essence is problematical.

They are an exceedingly difficult people.


Adam, Peter. Art of the Third Reich. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1995.

Adorno, Theodor W. The Jargon of Authenticity. Trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

Bramwell, Anna. Blood and Soil: Richard Walther Darré and Hitler's 'Green Party'. Buckinghamshire: The Kensal Press, 1985.

Craig, Gordon A. The Germans. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982.

Dews, Peter. "Adorno, Post-Structuralism, and the Critique of Identity." In The Problems of Modernity: Adorno and Benjamin. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. London: Routledge, 1989.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The American Scholar." In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Third Ed. Vol. 1, eds. Baym et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Fromm, Erich. "Malignant Aggression: Adolf Hitler, A Clinical Case of Necrophilia." In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Greenwich: Fawcett Publications, 1973.

Ranke, Leopold von. "On the Character of Historical Science." In The Theory and Practice of History. Ed. Georg G. Iggers and Konrad von Moltke, trans. Iggers. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1973.

Schoenberg, Arnold. Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. Ed. Leonard Stein, trans. Leo Black. New York: St Martins Press.

Viereck, Peter. Meta-Politics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind. New York: Capricorn Books, 1965.


1. [Wanderwege: a system of hiking trails, which connects villages and parks throughout Germany; symbolic of the individual's subjective responsibility to maintaining a healthy body.]
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2. Peter Viereck, Meta-Politics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind (New York: Capricorn Books, 1965), 196-199. The author ties German subjectivity to the concept of the "German Volk," which gives rise to "the self-interest of a collective organic mystical entity which is greater than the sum of its individuals." German self-interest is rooted in the "subjective idealism" of German romantic philosophers. It aided the rise of Nazism by justifying "a relative view of ethical restraints.... which treats morality not as relative and national but as absolute and universal."
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3. Gordon A. Craig, The Germans (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982), 32-33.
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4. Anna Bramwell, Blood and Soil: Richard Walther Darré and Hitler's 'Green Party' (Buckinghamshire: The Kensal Press, 1985), 3.
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5. Theodor W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 124.
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6. Ibid.
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7. Let's cross the great ocean for a moment (assuming we are on one side or another) and borrow from the American Emerson, who placed convention and creation on opposite sides of the balance 'tween wit and learning, then asked the scholar-artist to maintain the equilibrium: "Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, - to teach elements. But they can only serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create...." Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar," The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Third Ed. Vol. 1, eds. Baym et al. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), 936.
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8. The Bible (King James Version), Acts 9, 4-5: "And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice, saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks."
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9. Leopold von Ranke, "On the Character of Historical Science," The Theory and Practice of History, ed. Georg G. Iggers and Konrad von Moltke, trans. Iggers (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1973), 33.
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10. Ibid., 33-34.
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11. It is not within the purview of our meditation to delve too deeply into the amorphous Twentieth Century movement known as modernism, but we will note that Germans played a major role in its development. Lothar Schäfer, "New Developments in Twentieth Century Thought," a course in the humanities taught in the spring semester, 1975, at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (from private notes of a lecture presented on January 13): "Between 1900 and 1910 the foundations of modernism were defined by these developments in science and art: Planck and the Quantum Theory, Freud and Dream Analysis, Fauvism, Einstein and the Theory of Special Relativity, Cubism, Minkowski and the Space-Time Continuum, Marinetti and Futurism, Schoenberg and Music, and Abstract Painting."
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12. Peter Dews, "Adorno, Post-Structuralism, and the Critique of Identity," The Problems of Modernity: Adorno and Benjamin, ed. Andrew Benjamin (London: Routledge, 1989), 24.
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13. Erich Fromm, "Malignant Aggression: Adolf Hitler, A Clinical Case of Necrophilia," The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (Greenwich: Fawcett Publications, 1973), 445. "The more he sensed that victory was doubtful, the more Hitler the destroyer came fully into his own.... Eventually it became time for the Germans themselves to be destroyed. Already on January 27, 1942, over a year before Stalingrad, Hitler said: 'If the German people are not ready to fight for their survival (Selbstbehauptung), well, then they have to disappear (dann soll es verschwinden).'" Fromm, a Frankfurt-born psychoanalyst and social philosopher, asks the question, "How could the Germans and the world not have seen the real destroyer behind the mask of the builder?" 449. His answer exonerates the Germans in particular, allowing them to share the blame with all of humankind: "[A]s long as one believes that the evil man wears horns, one will not discover an evil man."
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14. We cannot cite a source for this observation; it is informed by direct experience and cold-eyed study of the American system of economic, cultural, and military imperialism.
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15. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, 5.
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16. Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stein, trans. Leo Black (New York: St Martins Press, 1975), 500.
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17. Peter Adam, Art of the Third Reich (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1995), 121-123. "Spiritual lunacy" is a Hitlerian phrase from Mein Kampf.
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18. Ibid., 123. The official was Adolf Ziegler, president of the Reich Chamber for the Visual Arts.
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19. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, 45.
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20. One of our spiritual acolytes, Jens of Peine in the north, was a long-time student in German university. He is the source of the observation about Germany's present style of higher education.
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