A marvelous feature of the digital age is that we have opportunities to see films that were nearly impossible to view even decades ago. In some cases, the films were banned.
The cult of leadership becomes the cult of the state which becomes the cult of death.This was the case with the 1935 Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” Despite its palpable evil, it was one of the great cinematic achievements of its time. Its director, Leni Riefenstahl, earned her reputation as one of the most brilliant filmmakers of the century.
This film, the making of which haunted Riefenstahl’s career until her death in 2003, was censored for decades in Germany and large parts of Europe. It was very hard to find in the United States. No theater would show it. Blockbuster would not carry it.
It is deeply tragic that this film was ever censored because it provides an unforgettable, unprecedented, and deeply engaging look at the truth about the genocidal blood cult of the Nazi Party and the pathological megalomania of the cult’s high priest Adolf Hitler, along with his minions and supplicants.
Today you can watch this remarkable film on Amazon for a few bucks, and a lesser-quality version is free on Youtube. And you should watch it. If you have ever been confused about why Nazism happened to the world, how it is that Hitler came to power and drove a great nation into total ruin, how the Nazis came to preside over one of history’s most efficient and maniacal killing machines ever constructed, this film provides an answer.
Hitler was the savior of a nation, the physical embodiment of the soul of a whole people.The film chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, a four-day mystical political revival that included 700,000 people. It featured many of Hitler’s speeches, if you can call them that. The film was made for wide distribution, and designed to rally the masses of German people who were not necessarily interested in politics. It’s very difficult for any viewer today to understand how and why it would achieve that aim. What it actually reveals is the fullness of evil that politics and personality cults can create in the world.
And keep in mind while you watch that this entire film was made before the war, before the annexation of Austria, before the invasion of Poland, before there was any policy of Lebensraum, and even before the exclusionary and discriminatory laws against Jews. At this stage of its descent into barbarism, it was just a political movement, without overtly warlike ambitions. Germany was being Nazified based on ideology alone. This allows us to have a close look at the composite parts of its praxis and belief structure, stripped of its later imperialism, genocidal policies, and eventual death.
The Personality Cult
At the center of the film is Hitler himself, who is shown arriving in a small aircraft and being driven through throngs of adoring fans lining the streets. How they love him and how he loves them back! He was the savior of a nation, the physical embodiment of the soul of a whole people. The viewer is repeatedly shown how his personal genius, his virtues of courage and devotion to the cause, would somehow carry Germany from its humiliated condition toward a new greatness that would last 1,000 years and beyond unto immortality.
Speaker after speaker proclaims undying loyalty to the leader, as if this proclamation alone constitutes the fullness of human ambition. He is presented not just as god-like but as an actual god himself, the master of the universe whose will alone would bend history to his desires.
And what does Hitler say in his speeches? There’s an amazing amount of shouting, bluster, and drama. The cadence is Wagnerian. But if you actually take apart the content, what you find is...nothing. Every speech is just a weird churning of words and clipped phrases: Germany, sacrifice, nation, race, youth, blood, flesh, greatness, heart, soul, party, state, obedience, work, masculinity, and so on. It’s all surprisingly vague in detail.
There would be no fact-checking his speeches because there are no facts at all. It’s just mystical blatherings, speech after speech. Still, it is supposed to stir the imagination, and, judging by the reaction of the crowd, it does. And why? Perhaps the vagueness served a purpose. Whatever your own dream for your life, whatever your ambitions for your nation, whatever your personal philosophy, you are invited to believe that this one wonderful, perfect, heroic man would carry your vision into the future. There was no disagreeing with him, because there was no substance with which to disagree. What could one do but yell “Sieg Heil!”
The Party Cult
The Party and the State were one and they all represented the perfection of democracy: people are ruling themselves through the Party.The Nazi Party itself is proclaimed to be the perfection of the cult, the living manifestation of the will of the people. It is governed by obedience, discipline, and sacrifice, and it is deserving of adoration and privilege. The Party is not the same thing as the State. In Nazi lore, the party itself was once oppressed by the State, but it overcame through bravery and determination. It is no longer commanded by the State. It has merited the status of commanding the State. And because the Party represents the people, the people too are in command of the State – a voluntary community of sorts.
This circuitous trick conveys the impression that the resulting totalitarian society is not based on force at all but on the willing commitment on the part of the collective to act as a single unit. And where have we heard that before? That’s right: Soviet socialism. The Party and the State were one and they all represented the perfection of democracy: people are ruling themselves through the Party. This aspect of Nazism serves as a reminder of just how close an ideological cousin Nazism is to Communism. They are both types of what was once called “collectivism.”
And here again it’s all mystical blather. The Nazi state was based on a comprehensive plan rooted in mass violence. Whereas the violence of communism was directed against class enemies and property owners, Nazi violence was directed toward racial uplift and eventual expulsion and extermination of non-Aryans, and especially the hated Jew. For all its ghastly dreams of heaven on earth, at least Marxism was a universalist creed that anyone could join. Nazism stripped that feature away and replaced it with malevolent blood lust as the central principle of state violence.
The Blood Cult
Nazi teachings on race were drawn from pseudo-science that had been popular in academic circles for decades in the US and the UK. When you watch these rallies in “Triumph of the Will,” and you see all the frenzy, the shouting, the multitudes lining up, people swearing fealty to this ridiculous man and cause, you do wonder what all the fuss is about. What great cause is all this serving anyway? What could possibly be the point of all this mania? It only makes sense once you realize that it’s all about blood identity and the celebration of a superior race, a race untainted by the blood-poison of the non-Aryan, and the ambition to make this principle central to life itself.
It’s a powerful message because biology is so fundamental to who we are; a more physical, undeniable, and recognizable human trait than any of the ideas we might hold, and certainly more powerful than other forms of informal commercial relationships we have. Nazism sought to replace every other concern of the human mind – religion, commercial well-being, individual virtue – with a focus on racial identity. Hitler was shameless in even appropriating Christian imagery, as when he referred to the people as being of one flesh and one blood with himself.
Where did this whole notion come from? Nazi teachings on race were drawn from pseudo-science that had been popular in academic circles for decades in the US and the UK. The American author Madison Grant had sent Hitler his best-selling 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race, and Hitler declared it to be his “bible.” The book interprets the whole of human history in racial terms, with white people as supreme and everyone else on the planet an inferior mongrels, some less dangerous than others but with Jewry as the single most poisonous stock on the planet Earth. Grant’s book was on every coffee table of every fashionable home throughout the 1920s. His ideas were widely shared, informed many US eugenic policies, and were considered core doctrine until the rise of the Nazi cult took cocktail conversation and exclusionary regulations to their logical end of genocide.
Once you see the volcanic rise of racial hate embodied by the Nazis, you can see that there is an element of tragedy in how the term “racism” has been dumbed down to mean mere prejudice or preference or caricature. Racism is in fact a wicked ideology, a worldview that sees racial identity as the critical determinative factor in the unfolding of history and the overriding factor in dictating every aspect of our engagement with society. Racism is necessarily violent because it must impose an exclusionary mode of behavior in opposition to market forces that naturally impel people toward multiracial association and trade. This is also why racism is necessarily against capitalism and against freedom itself: it must use compulsion to override the multiracial and multicultural features of a market-driven and undirected social order.
The State Cult
These displays of grotesque statism were all designed to show that no reality on this earth is more powerful than the force of a collective will.The final feature of this film that strikes the viewer is the absolutely awesome display of pageantry, banners, staging, and sets of the Nazi rallies. They were more elaborate, gigantic, vivid, and dramatic than anything that had ever been seen. I’m not sure that they have been equaled anywhere on Earth even to this day.
And what was the point of it all? The people are there to see Hitler and Hitler was there to speak to the people. They marched, yelled, saluted, swooned, emoted, swelled with pride and high ambition, and then went home. Why? What was all of this accomplishing in any case? Nothing was being produced. No one went away richer or even necessarily happier. The purpose was the molding of the German mind, certainly, but to what end?
The answer is in the title of the film itself: The Triumph of the Will. These displays of grotesque statism were all designed to show that no reality on this earth is more powerful than the force of a collective will, embodied in the state, that is determined to drive history in a particular direction – without impediment, without distraction, without limit. In this sense, the Nazis were at war with reality and they fought this war using every ounce of human determination they could muster.
To the Nazis, the State could accomplish what would otherwise be impossible to achieve if people acted on their own in association with others. With a centrally-directed will – provided it boldly extinguished all the randomness of life including the anarchy of human reproduction itself – the usual limits of human society could be overcome. Reality would relent and bow before the mightiness of the god-state. Here we see the apotheosis of the deadly blend of ideological fanaticism, the power of the State, and mental insanity.
Why You Must Watch
For generations, this film was not available. Now it is. It is important that we face it, not necessarily because Nazism looms large – though it is making an impressive comeback – but because the component parts that led to it are features of the human personality. In a word, what the film shows us is the face of evil.
What is good and what is evil? These questions have been asked since the beginning of time. And yet, we don’t live at the beginning of time. This generation, yours, has the benefit of living after vast human experience. Hence we know. Because of the experience of what came before, we know what leads to peace, dignity, universal human cooperation and flourishing. We also know what leads to gulags, gas chambers, and mass slaughter.
What is the point of experience unless we learn from it? How finely honed are our instincts for what is evil? We too often decline to see. We don’t have time. We are not interested. We are too squeamish. The whole subject is too dreary, and, in any case, terrible things cannot and will not happen now or in the future. Certainly it is not in our midst and none of us are participating in its creation.
Or are we? We need to know. We cannot know unless we are willing to see what was done within the lifetimes of many people still alive, in a country that was among the most civilized on earth, the country that gave us Goethe, Beethoven, and Brahms, and also one of the most demonic cases of mass state violence seen in human history.
Five years following the making of this film, a far cruder piece of propaganda appeared: The Eternal Jew (1940). It is an hour long. I made it seven minutes in before I had to shut it down, and then I wept deeply for 10 minutes. The relationship between the two films is direct: the cult of leadership becomes the cult of the state which becomes the cult of death.