Understanding White Racists

Escape from Freedom

by Erich Fromm
Avon, 336 pp., $1.65 (paper)

Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics

by Erich Fromm
Fawcett, 256 pp., $.95 (paper)

The Authoritarian Personality

by Theodor Adorno et al.
Norton, 990 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Psychoanalytic Study of Society

edited by Warner Muensterberger, edited by Sidney Axelrad
International Universities Press, vol. 1 pp., $12.00

White Racism

by Joel Kovel
Random House, 300 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

by James Agee, by Walker Evans
Ballantine, 428 pp., $1.65 (paper)

The Road to Wigan Pier

by George Orwell
Berkley, 192 pp., $.75 (paper)

The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind

by Simone Weil, translated by Arthur Wills
Harper & Row, 320 pp., $2.25 (paper)

Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel

by C. Vann Woodward
Oxford University Press, 518 pp., $3.50 (paper)

As Hitler’s hysterically racist version of fascism year by year strengthened itself in Germany and then spread all over Europe, a generation of intellectuals, not to mention millions of ordinary men and women, had to confront some unsettling questions. Could “it” (Nazism) happen here or there or, indeed, anywhere? How did the nation of Beethoven and Brahms, Goethe and Schiller and Gropius turn itself over to a bunch of thugs, murderers, and confidence men? Was there something special about such a turn of events, something rooted in the German “national character,” in a particular people’s history and culture? And anyway, why did the Führer’s racial hate, directed at so many segments of the world’s population, strike so many responsive chords: enthusiastic applause; discreet approval; sympathy; the embarrassed silence of those who suddenly heard spoken on a grand scale what hitherto had to be whispered or joked about in private?

Once the Nazis were beaten, many of us were glad to forget those issues, or leave them to theologians, moral philosophers (sometimes masked as novelists or playwrights), and, not least, social scientists. Of the latter, some were traditional scholars: economists, political scientists, or historians, they had the task of sifting through the rubble of this century’s destroyed dreams and realized nightmares—in the hope of finding answers to all sorts of persisting questions. How deliberate was Hitler’s rise, how much the product of right-wing intrigue, left-wing myopia and ideological rigidity, popular indifference, rising unemployment, a long tradition of fear and hate that goes back, say, to Martin Luther’s later years? How did Versailles lead to National Socialism—and if Hitler’s particular leadership had not been available, might Germany never have embarked on the course that led to the Second World War? Indeed, could the Weimar Republic have survived and even flourished, given a reasonable measure of support from Germany’s one-time enemies (and constant competitors), the capitalist democracies of Britain, France, and the United States?

Meanwhile others belonging to relatively young fields like psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, and anthropology began to come up with a different way of looking at the appearance of the Nazis—as well as developments in Europe and the United States. In 1941, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom anticipated this new kind of inquiry; there and in Man for Himself (1947) the eternal struggle between good and evil obtained yet another kind of metaphorical expression. An exploitative and hoarding “character type” was contrasted with its opposite, a loving and gentle “character,” and an “authoritarian” conscience was compared with the “humanistic” kind. Fromm has never been a naïve, label-prone psychoanalyst or social psychologist. He repeatedly reminds his readers that he is not trying to look upon the rise of Hitler and his followers as a purely psychological problem: “Nazism is a psychological problem, but the psychological factors themselves have to be understood as molded by socio-economic factors.”

Still, the Nazis progressively claimed the obedience, loyalty, and passion of the German …

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Letters

Psychohistory March 9, 1972