Or is the hypnotist merely the decoy, the puppet of even greater evil? The Weimar resemblance? Its nervous, alienated, and often brilliant culture can seem uncomfortably like our own. But, is the sickness that killed the German Republic of the same toxic strain that afflicts America today?…
Noam Chomsky has, more than any other American intellectual, charted the downward spiral of the American political and economic system, mainly by attacking vulnerable cultural and political assumptions, and in doing so, makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable:
“I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” Chomsky added. “I am old enough to remember the 1930s. My whole family was unemployed. There were far more desperate conditions than today. But it was hopeful. People had hope. The CIO was organizing. No one wants to say it anymore but the Communist Party was the spearhead for labor and civil rights organizing. Even things like giving my unemployed seamstress aunt a week in the country. It was a life. There is nothing like that now. The mood of the country is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. It is going off into self-destructive fantasies.”
… The year 1930 was pregnant with meaning and disaster. It was the year that Erich Maria Remarque’s best-selling anti-war novel “All Quiet on the Estern Front” – hardly great literature, but effective pacifist propaganda- was made into a movie that aroused a storm of opposition from right-wingers. Goebbels mobilized the dregs of Berlin to riot in the theatres, and finally the film was banned. And it was also the year that Thomas Mann published his prophetic story “Mario and the Magician”.
Mann was a belated but energetic convert to democracy and to the republic. In the First World War he had championed the values of the old “cultural aristocracy” and disdainfully dismissed those of the West- of france and England- as mere commercial “civilization” , infinitely inferior to the culture of the Germans. By the early 1920’s he had outgrown this view , and now, in 1930, he put his convictions, long since expressed in speeches and articles, into fiction. “Mario and the Magician” suggests the difference between early and late Weimar, and at the same time, the continuity of the dangers. …
“The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”…“I listen to talk radio,” Chomsky said. “I don’t want to hear Rush Limbaugh. I want to hear the people calling in. They are like [suicide pilot] Joe Stack. What is happening to me? I have done all the right things. I am a God-fearing Christian. I work hard for my family. I have a gun. I believe in the values of the country and my life is collapsing.”
… “Dr. Caligari” looked back to the authoritarianism of the past; “Mario and the Magician” looks ahead to the totalitarianism of the future. The story is a perfect companion piece for the film- both are hypnotists, both clothe warnings against the perils of unreason into fabulous garments, both are ridden with the uncanny, both are heavy with death.
Mann carefully sets the stage for trouble by placing the dramatic time of the story in the 1920’s; obviously it is the time of Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. Briefly, this is the story: a German couple vacationing in an Italian resort town, take their two young children to a well publicized evening performance of one Cipolla, announced as a magician, but actually a hypnotist. While many of the Italian hotel guests and proprietors are cordial to the German visitors, the couple and their childrave an unpleasant encounter with a hyper patriotic, supremely offensive Italian fascist.
The couple are ready to leave, but stay; they are unwilling to see the magician, but the children, who have never seen one , win out over the parent’s better judgement. The whole village is there, including Mario, a young waiter at one of the hotels, whom the German children know and like.
Cipolla turns out to be repulsive in every respect; he is misshapen, arrogant, quick to take offense, a fascist who lectures his audience on Italian greatness. But he is also enormously effective, guessing cards and numbers with phenomenal accuracy. Above all, he can compel members of the audience to do what he wants them to do; his hypnotic powers are incredible. Cipolla concentrates his demonic powers on the strapping young locals on whose supposed prowess with the girls he comments aciduously, with unappeased envy. As the evening goes on he brutally humilates some of these handsome , muscular young men.
He compels one of them to stick out his tongue at the audience and finally, as the climax of an exhausting and sinister evening, he makes young Mario see him, the hypnotist, as the young girl he loves, makes mario, in this delusion, kiss him; then he wakes up his victim.As he laughs at Mario, the young man whips out a pistol and kills the magician. “An end of horror, a fatal end” , the narrator concludes. “And yet a liberation-I could not, and cannot, but find it so!”
The moral of “Mario and the Magician” is evident; the narrator clearly speaks for Mann himself. There are evil hynotists in the modern world who make men think things that are false, see things that are not there, do things they would reject if they had their reason about them. But then, they do not have their reason about them; it is the main purpose of all great political hypnotists to keep people from using their reason. This, their seductive charm, is the basis of their power- a destruction, Mann tells us, that is true liberation- is to destroy the hypnotist himself.
This is not an extravagant reading of a harmless tale. In the elctions of September, 1930, the Nazi party, which was taking advantage of growing unemployment, got more than six million vote and a quarter of the available seats in the Reichstag. Perceptive and sympathetic observers thought that the end of the republic had come, or must soon come. Mann had published his story in April of that year- it was a prophetic tale. He told an acquaintance in June that the adventure with the magician was based on a real event- except that the fascist interlude early in the story and the death of Cipolla were both inventions. A vacation interlude had become an appeal to reason in an irrational age.
The appeal we know, was in vain;rational solutions receded into the background, unable to match the frustrations, anxieties and sense of emptiness that prevailed. And what economic and social dislocation failed to accomplish, political intrigue brought about: Hitler was named chancellor. A great war and many millions of deaths later, the greatest of all modern hypnotists, the most powerful and the most deadly, was finally brought to his doom.
Newsweek columnist Michael Hirsch says that Iraq is “the most powerful example of democracy’s drawbacks since the Weimar Republic.” Pat Buchanan thunders against an “affluent Weimar America” that celebrates sex and destroys Christian values. A Janet Jackson dance routine (no, not the wardrobe malfunction one) that evokes goose-stepping Storm Troopers becomes a metaphor for the decline of America. And the Secretary of State conjures up Weimar not for America, but for a Russia in dangerous disarray.
Crazy or sane, left or right, these analogies all picture Weimar as nothing more than a conflict-ridden, sex-crazed epoch moving inexorably toward totalitarian dictatorship. Somehow, in some undefined way, a quantum of crisis became a stress-load that the political system could no longer bear. Too much sex or too much unemployment or too many Jews, and bamm! — system collapse.
Slight problem here: that is not how the Weimar Republic ended and the Third Reich began. Weimar did not collapse. It was deliberately murdered by a coalition of establishment conservatives and the extreme right. High government officials, bankers and factory owners, pastors and priests, army officers, old-line aristocratic landowners, some well-placed intellectuals — those were the establishment conservatives. They were well-situated in powerful institutions like the state bureaucracy, the church hierarchies, big business, and universities, and they disposed of great resources. Yet they whined incessantly because the democracy had limited (though certainly not destroyed) their powers in the revolution that followed World War I and established the Republic. They were anti-democratic, anti-socialist, and anti-Semitic, if less rabidly so than Adolf Hitler and his cronies. ( Eric. D. Weitz )
Amid economic depression and political paralysis in a Republic that had been, in its best days, a beacon of social reform, the establishment types fostered an authoritarian counterrevolution. Ultimately, they got far more than they had bargained for, but for the most part, they stayed the course, all the way through war and genocide and even the utter destruction of Germany, because they, too, hated democracy, despised Weimar’s creative and emancipatory spirit, and disliked Jews.
German has a good word for all this: “Salonfähig,” meaning, colloquially, making someone acceptable in polite society. That’s what the establishment conservatives did with Hitler and the Nazis. And that is the real Weimar lesson: when establishment conservatives play with the extreme right, draw them into the political system, make their ideas acceptable, then democracy is truly in danger. ( Weitz )