Party Time the Temporal Revolution of the Third Reich

By Griffin, Roger | History Today, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Party Time the Temporal Revolution of the Third Reich


Griffin, Roger, History Today


Roger Griffin offers some fresh insights into Hitler's attempt to found a thousand year Reich.

   `There awakens within him a doubly strong yearning for a Leader to take him
   tenderly and lightly by the hand, to set things in order and show him the
   way; ... the Leader who will build the house anew that the dead may come to
   life again, and who himself has risen again from the multitude of the dead;
   the Healer who by his own actions will give meaning to the incomprehensible
   events of the age, so that Time can begin anew.

Thus Hermann Broch described the contemporary German in his novel The Sleepwalkers, published in 1932, as a figure who had lost his bearings in the midst of loneliness and despair. Broch gives a vivid account of the psychological distress and disorientation of interwar Germany to which Nazism offered itself as a panacea. He situated the immediate crisis of Weimar within a protracted decay of values which had set in since the Renaissance, smashing the unified world view of medieval Christianity into a myriad conflicting ways of seeing the world.

There is a tendency among historians to treat Nazi claims to be establishing a new order as the euphemistic rhetoric of a regime bent only on manipulation, destruction and conquest. In a similar way the mass rallies, the exhibitions of German art, the creation of monumental architecture, the displays of athleticism and the Hitler cult itself have often been dismissed as a grotesque political pageant. Their sole function, it seems, was to provide a beguilingly aesthetic cover for sinister forces, whether these are treated as barbarism, Hitler's megalomania; the collective neurosis of German society, the counter-revolution of capitalism, or just plain evil.

Yet social anthropology, with its emphasis on how entire societies act like supra-individual organisms genetically programmed to maintain their cohesion and vitality, can suggest another perspective. Beyond what Nazi leaders were doing consciously in organising their vast schemes of public display, they can also be seen as the catalysts and orchestrators of a collective strategy of self-defence and renewal (palingenesis) resorted to by a society which felt itself in danger of extinction, quite literally `running out of time'.

In other words, the NSDAP, a marginal force throughout the 1920s, was able to come to power in the following decade because it seemed to several million `ordinary' citizens to provide a solution to the increasing bankruptcy and paralysis of the Weimar Republic triggered -- if not caused by -- the Depression. The dramatic rise of Nazism can be restated in temporal terms as the direct response to a diffuse longing among Germans for a new age -- a reprieve from the collapse of their world. Nazism became identified with the prospect of a new lease of life for the German people because its obsessive chauvinism and racism rationalised widespread feelings of paranoia about the threat to national identity posed by the state crisis. But equally importantly, its highly liturgical, cultic style of politics by-passed the rationality of the unwary or unaware and addressed their mythic imagination, inspiring in them the faith that Nazism was not just another political party, but a dynamic movement of national reawakening. Membership meant belonging, salvation, the heady sensation of being airlifted from a doomed historical era into a new one full of hope.

The sense of collective redemption experienced by the Party faithful was no coincidence. It could be construed as a sinister example of synchronicity working over a vast time-scale that the name given to Hitler's regime, the Third Reich, was not just numerically correct in that it followed the Holy Roman Empire (Reich) and the Bismarckian `Second Reich'. It also resonated with the esoteric connotations of an `earthly Jerusalem' first given it by the twelfth-century Italian abbot Joachim of Fiore, whose speculations about the unfolding of the divine plan `triadically' within history in the three ages of the Law, the Church and the Spirit, had a major impact on the sporadic epidemics of millenarianism which broke out in Europe in later centuries. …

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