Nazis, Mythology, and Totalitarian Minds in Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night

By McInnis, Gilbert | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Nazis, Mythology, and Totalitarian Minds in Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night


McInnis, Gilbert, Mythlore


THERE WERE MANY Darwinian eugenicists in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century and one, Fritz Lenz, justified his race eugenics by calling on Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, and his science, to formulate Nazi race policy. This same policy is explored by Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night (1961) in the context of totalitarianism, and his notion of the "totalitarian mind," a mind, as we discover, manufactured by a Nazi mythology based on the ideology of social Darwinism. In Racial Hygiene, Robert Proctor argues that Lenz's ideas were influenced by Galton's science, quoting Lenz thusly:

   To those in Germany who find any mention of the word "race"
   unpleasant, and who wish to construct an opposition between racial
   hygiene and eugenics, it should be pointed out that the term "race"
   is important even in Galton's original [1883] definition of
   eugenics. Galton did not want to have the analysis of racial
   differences excluded from the science of eugenics. (29)

Proctor investigates two other Germans who advocated Darwinian eugenics: Edwin Baur and Eugen Fischer. They contributed to the Nazi eugenics program as well, but of the three, Lenz was the one most closely associated with Nazi race policy and whose works Hitler had read. Proctor claims that:

   In 1933 [Lenz's] paper "The Renewal of Ethics" was republished with
   the title more in keeping with the times: "Race as a Principle of
   Value." In the preface, republished on the eve of the Nazi seizure
   of power, Lenz claimed that his article, first published in 1917,
   contained "all of the important features of National Socialist
   policy." Baur-Fischer-Lenz also continued to enjoy success. Lenz
   probably derived satisfaction from learning that Hitler himself had
   read the book while in Landsberg prison, serving time for his role
   in the misfired Munich Beer-Hall Putsch of 1923. (60)

Moreover, in Hitler's Table Talk, Hitler alludes to Darwin's theory when he attempts to justify his new type of war. Darwin's ideas are the basis for the Nazi mythology of "Racial Hygiene," and this mythology is known to have provided Hitler with a scientific rationale for his decision to exterminate millions of Jews. On October 10, 1941, Hitler made his Darwinian views clear in a discussion about war. He said:

   War has returned to its primitive form. [...] Originally war was
   nothing but a struggle for pasture-grounds. To-day war is nothing
   but a struggle for the riches of nature. By virtue of an inherent
   law, these riches belong to him who conquers them. [...] By means
   of the struggle, the elites are continually renewed. The law of
   selection justifies the incessant struggle, by allowing the
   survival of the fittest. (51)

The references "inherent law" and "By means of the struggle" are obviously an indication that Hitler knew of Darwin's theory. In addition, his mention of the "law of selection" is evidence that Hitler knew specifically about Darwin's idea of natural selection. Also, Hitler's interest in social Darwinism is evident when he justifies his "Racial Hygiene" with the term survival of the fittest. (1)

From the foregoing, then, we observe that the Nazi race policy had its scientific justifications. Nowadays, however, scholars like Clyde Kluckhohn assert that it was mere mythmaking. He states, "the case of Nazi Germany is an excellent illustration of the ideal patterns ('the myth') being provided from above almost whole cloth and of the state, through various organizations, exerting all its force to make the behavioral patterns conform to the standards of conduct laid down in the Nazi mythology" (37).

The Nazi mythology that Kluckhohn examines is portrayed in detail in Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night. Mother Night is about Howard Campbell, a Nazi propagandist and double agent, who writes his "Confessions" while waiting in a Jerusalem prison to be judged for his Nazi war crimes. …

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