Historians have written about the rise of Nazi Germany and wondered how a civilized country could have become ruled by criminals trying to conquer Europe. How did well-intentioned educated people become so captivated by Hitler’s magnetism that they could accept secret police, concentration camps, slave labour, and nonsensical rhetoric of Aryan heroism and anti-Semitism? If history were to repeat itself would you sell your soul for this way of life and false ideals?
Sell your soul for the chance to design glorious buildings?
Hitler’s rise to dictatorial power in the 1930’s took place at a time when democracy seemed to be failing in Germany. A series of short-lived coalition governments had found no answers to the country’s economic depression, social unrest and military impotence. More Germans began to favour this new charismatic leader who understood the importance of law and order and who promised a huge blue-print for recovery.
For one young architect called Albert Speer, it was also an incredible chance to design glorious buildings for the regime. He allowed himself to be so dazed, by this wonderful opportunity and his appointment later as minister in charge of armament production, that he turned a blind eye to all that was wrong in Nazi views.
Sell your soul to a charismatic evil man?
After the war Speer was found guilty at the Nuremberg trial of co-operating with the SS to use concentration camp victims as slave labour. One of his friends had visited Auschwitz and suggested to him in the summer of 1944 what was going on there. But he preferred not to know; not to find out more but to get on with his own huge task of keeping the war effort going. Relatively few people knew about the extermination of the Jews. Many who had heard about it simply refused to believe. The mass killings were beyond imagination. Sell your soul to this social evil? Many war criminals gave it away hook, line and sinker.
When defeat was staring the Nazi’s in the face, Hitler ordered a scorched earth policy, trying to destroy his own side’s factories, bridges, etc to delay the advancing allied armies and buy a little time for the regime. Speer however was more concerned about saving all these resources for the sake of German reconstruction after the war and risked his life by going against Hitler’s orders.
In the last days of the war Speer travelled to the Fuhrer’s bunker in order to say goodby to a man to whom he still felt such deeply mixed emotions. Such was the spell that Hitler’s magnetic personality had cast over him, he was risking the dictator’s wrath and vengeance — as well as the firing of Russian planes and troops as they closed in on the centre of Berlin.
At his trial Speer felt despair at what had happened and his role in it. If we were to retry him now we might ask “Did you sell your soul in return for fame and power?” In the end he resolved to regard his own fate as insignificant, not to struggle for his own life, but to assume the responsibility in a general sense. When asked to comment on the indictment – unlike the partially evasive and disdainful remarks of his fellow defendants — he wrote
“The trial is necessary. There is a shared responsibility for such horrible crimes even in an authoritarian state.”
Speer had never agreed with Hitler regarding the goal of world domination. Nevertheless he accepted the collective guilt of the Nazi leadership including himself for the monstrous crimes that produced so many shattered lives.
If a basically and decent man like Speer could have so fallen for the temptation of pride, fame and power, I wonder how many of the rest of us would have responded had we been exposed to similar allures? Would you likewise be tempted to sell your soul for these allures?
Had we lived at that time how many of us would have bravely stood up to tyranny for the sake of humane and ethical considerations? How many of us would have fallen for a false ideal? Could we too have sold our souls for praise, popularity, fame or power?
And today how many of us allow ourselves to slide into mistakes, errors of judgement, and down right wrong-doing? — albeit not with the horrendous consequences that merited a prison term of twenty years which was Speer’s alloted time in Spandau prison, but nevertheless with personal consequences for those around and others affected by our actions. Excessive ambition and arrogance in one’s own rightness can sometimes result in personal ruin.
There are several theories of personal growth and decline. According to one way of thinking, we all have inclinations towards self-orientation and love of things of the world. These are hooks into which temptation can lead us astray.
How not to sell your soul
If this is correct then it perhaps follows that if people follow their higher principles and put the quality of relationships with others above self-serving actions then they will grow spiritually into mature, wise individuals. But if they sell their souls for self-interest and allow it to rule their lives then their natural goodness is corrupted and they will more and more adopt rejecting and disdainful attitudes; more and more decline into self-importance and self-indulgence.
In other words it is the difference between on the one hand developing quality relationships to enable good things to be achieved and on the other hand becoming isolated from others through neglecting their needs and becoming unproductive in one’s personal and working life.
To make such a choice requires honest self-assessment. I would suggest we need the courage of an Albert Speer to face our limitations and mistakes and to stop falling into self-deception and denial; and the humility to accept our decline and turn to follow a new path of growth and redemption.
Cruelty is seen at the cinema and on the television. We read about it in newspapers. There is probably an element of cruelty in your self which you have no wish to have
Although you may not always recognise this cruelty in yourself, you probably do notice many forms of the shadowy side of human behaviour in others: someone being heartless, spiteful, nasty, cruel, or even brutal. A task for personal growth is to learn to recognise the undesirable side of oneself. Hence the phrase most frequently employed by Jungian psychotherapists is `coming to terms with the shadow’. Jung was well aware of the reality of evil in human life.
Denial of cruelty and other evil
However, with a few other notable exceptions, psychologists and psychiatrists have, until recently, traditionally steered clear of speaking of evil per se. This despite the fact that virtually every culture has some word for evil.
“Most of us try hard to deny or avoid the reality of evil: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Or we attempt to neutralize it, dismissing evil as maya or illusion, as in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It is tempting to deny the reality of evil entirely, due to its inherent subjectivity and relativity: ‘For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,’ says Shakespeare’s Hamlet, presaging the cognitive therapies of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck.” (Stephen A. Diamond, clinical & forensic psychologist)
Some examples of cruelty in history
When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in October 1935 with fantasies of wealth and revenge for Italy’s defeat there forty years previously, he ordered poison gas to be sprayed indiscriminately from the air on military and civilian targets alike.
Stalin’s son Yakov shot himself because of Stalin’s harshness toward him. Stalin had several painters shot who did not depict him “right”.
Historians have estimated Stalin’s regime killed millions of people. Vadim Erlikman, for example, makes the following estimates: executions — 1.5 million; gulags — 5 million; deportations — 1.7 million out of 7.5 million deported; and POWs and German civilians — 1 million: thus a total of about 9 million victims of Stalin’s repression.
Is illness the cause of cruelty?
What is the cause of such appalling behaviour? Surely not just ignorant carelessness of the pain one can cause others? Those who take a benign view of human nature as basically good wonder if criminality of the worst kind must be due to illness?
Hitler was the author of the death of six million Jews, countless soldiers and civilians on both sides killed. These are the actions of a mass murderer. Serious medical biographers conclude that Hitler wasn’t mentally ill. Whether his beliefs were rational is an entirely different matter. Books by like those of Henrik Eberle Was Hitler Ill?and Fritz Redlick Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet conclude that he was sane according to any reasonable definition of the term, and fully responsible for his actions. I would say he had a passion for more greatness or power and no concern for anybody else than himself.
Swedenborg on the source of cruelty
In the West we are familiar with the notion of an afterlife of individual existence in a state of heaven or hell. Hell has traditionally been seen by Christians as a place of punishment as a result of God’s judgment. However a very different view is that a forgiving and loving deity would condemn no-one to a hellish state of existence as a result of any wrongdoing on earth. This approach suggests that although hell is not part of the divine plan nevertheless it is permitted as an inner state of heart and mind shared with others because it is actually preferred by some people, for then they can live within the same sphere as others who likewise want to be cruel and selfish and act in other inhuman ways.
This different view comes from Emanuel Swedenborg. He claimed that subjectively he was able to become conscious of an invisible realm in which his spirit existed and that as part of his journey within a spirit world he encountered some very unpleasant individuals. Many of these self-centred spirit people wanted to be obeyed and praised and were quick to feel slighted feeling various shades of contempt, vengefulness, nastiness and cruelty. The caring unselfish ones however had the opposite feelings.
But how does this account for inhuman actions in the world?
Swedenborg claimed that whilst the presence of these spirit people within his mind had become conscious, it usually remains unconscious with the rest of us. He says that spirit communicators had confirmed his experience that:
The spirits of self-centred people as well as that of caring ones are unconsciously present with every one of us as we live our lives in the material world.
Normally, these spirit people are totally unaware that they are with us as separate entities. Likewise we normally are unaware of them.
They therefore believe that what we remember and think is actually their own memories and thoughts. Likewise we identify their feelings as our own.
Because both sets of unconscious influences are balanced within our hearts and minds, we each have inner freedom to think and intend well or badly, honestly or dishonestly, fairly or unfairly. The source of our caring or nasty impulses arises outside of ourselves. We are responsible however for which way we face. We can open ourselves up to the negative or turn our face against it, taking instead on board the positive.
And so Swedenborg’s spiritual theory not only accounts for inhuman desires but also our freedom and responsibility to make the right personal choices.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems