World in the Grip of an Idea: 14. World War II: The Bitter Fruit of Ideology

Revolutionary socialism involves drastic and forceful measurestotal war.

In this series, Dr. Carson examines the connection between Ideology and the revolutions of our time and traces the impact on several major countries and the spread of the Ideas and practices around the world.

The idea that has the world in its grip is at its roots a simple, even a simplistic, idea. It is the notion that what ails us is the pursuit of self-interest by individuals, a pursuit which leads to the dispersal of energies, diversity, and competition, even conflict. The cure for this, so the proponents of the idea claim, is to forge a social unity in which all efforts will be concerted toward the realization of common goals. Government is the means they employ toward this end, and the method is to remove the legal, social, and cultural props which enable the individual to act in his own interest; removal of those props makes it necessary for him to act for common goals. Revolutionaries propose to bring this about by drastic and forceful measures. This articulation of the idea is commonly called revolutionary socialism.

World War II was a titanic struggle between opposing varieties of revolutionary socialism, between Soviet Communism and Nazi Germany. It was a struggle for dominance over Europe, particularly central and eastern Europe (and on the Japanese side for the dominance of Asia and the Pacific). Hitler’s variety of socialism was the more virulent of the two. Soviet Communism is inclined toward subversion, conspiracy, and the plodding pace of a projected historical development. Nazism was the vision of a single man, something to be realized in his lifetime. Hitler was the apotheosis of National Socialism, its personification and deification. Communism is supposed to be victorious in the world by the process of historical determinism. National Socialism’s victory was supposed to be the destiny of a single man—and the German people.

No Time for Subtleties

Hitler grasped the rudiments of the idea that has the world in its grip; the subtleties eluded him, and he had no time for them. His socialism came to him by way of osmosis, something filtered into him from the intellectual climate of the time. He tacked his prejudices on the rudimentary idea, and the result was National Socialism. Whatever of intellectual gloss it had came from such fringe German thinkers as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Oswald Spengler, Alfred Rosenberg, Karl Haushofer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Richard Wagner. It should be noted that these were not socialist thinkers, as such, and most of those with a bent toward socialist ideology who entered the Nazi movement were either sloughed off or played minor roles in the government. Hitler’s socialism was not Marxian socialism or Revisionist socialism or any other of the generally accepted varieties. It was Hitlerian socialism, i.e., National Socialism—Nazism. It was revolutionary, militant, anti-communist, racist, nationalist, and martial.

Left to his own devices, it is doubtful that Stalin would have gone to war against Nazi Germany. During their sixty-year span, Soviet Communists have gone to war against a major power only once voluntarily, and that was against Japan when it was apparent that the days of the Japanese Empire were already numbered. Soviet leaders have preferred to let "you and them" fight rather than to become embroiled in a major war. Communism is bent toward warfare, but it is civil war, not foreign wars in the usual sense. In the first place, communists make a kind of war against the people over whom they rule. In the second place, they foment strife in other countries which can break out as civil wars. The indications are that the leaders of the Soviet Union like very long odds in their favor when they go to war. The odds, if any, were on the side of Gemany in 1941.

By contrast, Hitler sought war rather than avoided it, and major powers were the only ones really worthy of his steel, although he was quite willing to crush any small power standing in his path. Moreover, Hitler frequently flouted world opinion and flaunted his obnoxious racial ideas before the world. His contempt for other peoples was hardly held in check. Yet, there were times when Hitler apparently longed to be not just the conqueror but the hero of the people of the world. Perhaps, he longed to be loved, as most men do, but was led by what he conceived to be his mission to do unlovely things. There is a vast amount of evidence to the effect that he had great personal magnetism and unusual leadership abilities. Time and again generals came to his headquarters discouraged and depressed, ready to give up, only to go forth from their session with Hitler inspired with a new zeal to fight on. It was not just sycophancy that led those around him to speak of his powers.

To Gain the World

Anti-communism was his chosen route to world veneration. If the world would only see him as he wished to be seen it would see him as its savior from the menace of communism, or so he hoped. His assault upon Russia was to be a crusade against everything he hated: Bolshevism, international socialism, the Slays, and the seat of what he conceived to be the Jewish conspiracy. In this struggle, he believed the rest of the world would join him if it only once understood what he was doing. Much of the world saw all too clearly what Hitler was doing in Europe, however, to hear what he was saying about Bolshevism. In any case, all that Hitler offered was a Germanic socialism to replace the "international" variety of communism.

World War II was, according to most savants, a total war. It was war waged not only between military forces but against civilians. It was a war in which vast resources on all sides were mustered behind the war effort. It was waged by propaganda, in battle, on land, on sea, in the air, and, above all, against cities. It was a war of conquest by the Axis powers and one which could only be ended by unconditional surrender, the Allies proclaimed. It derived its character from totalitarian ideologies and entailed the clash of socialist titans. How socialism gave the war its character needs now to be made clear.

Socialism attacks the foundations of civility at many different levels. Socialist analysis, whether Marxian, Bernsteinian. Hitlerian, or whatever, deals with society, and hence the people who compose it, as it were a machine. It speaks of classes or races, of industry and agriculture, of labor, of the proletariat, of the bourgeoisie, of nations, and so forth as if these were things mechanical in nature. It pits class against class, race against race, nation against nation, and group against group for dominance and control. It dehumanizes, reducing man to that accidental portion of himself by which he may be classified in some mechanical fashion. It decivilizes. (Statistics applied to man is the ultimate mental act of dehumanization, for it reduces man to a number. And it is hardly an accident that the use of statistics has grown with the spread of socialism, for they are a prime means of manipulation and directing change. Statistics ought to be used in public with the same restraint as profanity, for they profane man by reducing him to a virtual nullity.)

Another way that socialism attacks the foundations of civility is to weaken or destroy the inherited culture. Culture is society’s way both of liberating and restraining man. Socialism, whether of the communist or Nazi variety, proceeds by undermining the received religion, morality, education, literature, and customs and either destroying or controlling and redirecting them for its purposes. The removal of civilized restraints was a major contributor to the ferocity, the extent, and-the atrocities of World War II. But it may be well to examine in some more depth the assault of socialism on the foundations of civility at a rudimentary level. The most basic and direct attack of socialism is upon private property. (That the Nazis gave other ideological grounds for their confiscation and control of private property did not alter the primacy of their assault on property.) This set the stage for much else that followed, including the atrocities of World War II and after.

A Small Atrocity

A simple story may help illustrate the point. This is the story of a small atrocity, an atrocity so insignificant beside the monstrous ones of World War II that it would not appear to be worthwhile to tell it. Yet it is a poignant story and, if I mistake not, one pregnant with meaning. It happened in a village not far from Bonn, Germany on a raw overcast morning in March of 1945. The scene was the kitchen of a small house. In one corner of the room sat an old German couple, huddled in their winter clothes against the chill weather. In the center stood a couple of American soldiers, cooks for a mortar platoon of a heavy weapons company. I stood aside, watching. One of the soldiers was picking up china, piece by piece, dropping it to the floor and breaking it. The old couple cringed and mumbled to one another. The soldier silenced them with a menacing look and turned to us to say, "I’ve been in this war since North Africa, and the Germans are to blame." He proceeded to smash the rest of the china. It may not have been china that would have brought a great price in the market, but it was such as they had, and by the looks of them they could not easily replace the broken pieces. It was, as I said, only a small atrocity.

Whatever moved him to this destructive act, this callous soldier had grasped, however unwittingly, what lay at the root of the cause of World War II and was re-enacting it. I viewed his act at the time with a mixture of horror and disgust, but I was helpless to do anything about it, for I had no authority and was there only temporarily awaiting transportation to my platoon. What hurt me, of course, was his wanton disrespect for property, someone else’s property at that!

I had been brought up to respect property, to use it with care, and to value it: mine, the family’s, and that belonging to others. It was a lesson drilled into me as a child and reinforced on at least one occasion which I recall by a rare whipping from my father. One of my brothers and I had been throwing pieces of baked potatoes at one another. There were several violations going on, but I suspect that the most serious was the misuse of baked potatoes. They were intended to be eaten, not as missiles in fraternal conflict. I was taught respect for much else besides, but I now understood that under girding and buttressing the rest was respect for property.

Disrespect for Property

Socialism inculcates disrespect for property, not in the abstract, perhaps, but in the concrete. Socialists hold real property owners in contempt and particularly owners of productive equipment. When they are in power they confiscate property or take effective control over it. In theory, this might do no harm to the property, but in fact it is quite otherwise. One of the Catholic popes is supposed to have said something to the effect that property ownership may not be good for the individual but it is very good for the property. Whatever the merits of the first part of his proposition, the insight in the second part is sound: No better way has ever been found to have property cared for, protected, and used properly than private ownership of it. Property held in common is frequently abused and neglected, being protected mainly by such habits as have been formed in caring for private property. State-owned property can attract little more respect than the state that owns it; not much, one gathers, as the state becomes bloated with the tasks it takes on and poorly performs.

There is an essential nexus between property and man. It is the means of his livelihood, the base of his production, the goods with which he trades, and the foundation of his independence. Individual life depends upon it, and social life withers without it. Socialism breaks this connection between man and property. Socialists fulminate against property and the propertied, describe them as capitalists or "finance capitalists," as exploiters, and, by implication, hold property in contempt.

Property is a vital extension of the man who owns it. It is his lifeline to and from the world about him, a buffer from the outside and one of his most effective means of reaching out to others. In socialist theory, man’s individual ownership and control over property is only an incident in his historical development. Property is, therefore, separable from the individual who owns it. So it is, of course, but if it is done against his will the effects are devastating. A man’s heart is separable from the rest of his body, but if it is ripped out he must surely die. Man does not necessarily die when his property is taken away, though he may; but he is bereft of his main protection from, and means of contributing to, those about him.

My central concern here, however, is with the extended impact of the loss of respect for property and a general assault upon it. There is no way to launch an assault upon a man’s property without at the same time assaulting him. To put it another way, lack of respect for property is part and parcel of lack of respect for the owner of it. Every property owner surely feels this; it tends to be one of his reasons for going to the defense of his property.

A Protective Shield

There is a shield, so to speak, which protects each of us from violation by others. Property is the outworks of the shield. It is the boundary line of our real property, the walls of our house, the enclosure of our vehicles, the door to our rooms, and the clothes that we wear. The inner-works of the shield are the awe in which we hold life and the respect for the individual and what is his. Loss of respect for property precedes or accompanies the destruction of the outworks of the shield. Respect for the individual and the awe with which life is held crumble as the outworks are breached. Of course, the assault upon religion, morality, and the received culture accompanies the assault upon property in socialist lands. This assault cuts away the respect for property, for the individual, and for life, too.

The ferocity and brutality of World War II, then, was a consequence of the erosion of respect for property, for the individual, and for life. It frequently occurred in that order, too. The trespass, confiscation, and alienation of control over property from the owner frequently preceded the assault upon the individual and the callous taking of lives. The Jews in Germany had generally lost the bulk of their property or control over it long before they were shipped to such places as Auschwitz to be exterminated. First, they lost control over department stores, publishing houses, and other types of businesses. Then they were denied employment in many areas. Only after they had lost whatever means they had once possessed for protecting themselves were they subjected to the "final solution." Totalitarianism proceeded in Germany by divesting the people in general of the control of their property.

The serving up of Russian soldiers in vast numbers as cannon fodder had been preceded by the confiscation of their property and increasing control over their lives. The individual counts for nothing, Soviet propaganda had taught, and the leaders demonstrated the validity of the thesis using men as if they were nameless things in combat. A Russian detachment in retreat marched by the place where a Russian soldier was lying dead. Someone asked if they were not going to get his identification. "For what purpose?" asked the officer in charge. "So that you can notify his family," was the reply. "Oh, that’s not necessary," the officer said, "when they don’t hear from him after awhile they’ll realize he is dead." Tens of thousands of German prisoners disappeared into the Soviet Union, never to be heard from again. The government of the Soviet Union proposed to plan every aspect of the economy for a huge empire, yet could not be bothered to perform the most basic task of government of notifying the next-of-kin of those who died in its charge.

First Trespass, then Death

Though we may not ordinarily think of it that way, much of the maiming and killing of war could not occur until property had been trespassed. This was certainly true for World War II. The millions of civilians that were wounded and killed by bombings and other sorts of bombardments were usually initially the victims of trespass first. Those under shelter were usually secure until the building around them had been struck, set fire, or demolished by shells or bombs.

Perhaps it can be visualized this way. One of my most vivid images from World War II is of rooms nakedly exposed to onlookers when the outer walls had been blasted away by bombs or shells. It sticks in my mind that I gazed upward once, though it may have occurred any number of times, into a delicately-appointed bedroom indecently exposed for all to see. The three walls left standing were pink, the bed had one leg hanging over that portion of the floor that had been bombed away, and there was a dresser and table or stool. It was a room such as might have been lived in by a young girl. The trespass in such cases, and the violation of civilized rules and decorum, was virtually simultaneous with the maiming and killing.

This is not a brief against war as such. It is intended, however, to call attention to those ideologies which hold property, and hence life, in contempt, and by so doing turn war into a catastrophically destructive affair.

The boundaries of nations, too, serve as a shield protecting the lives and property of people within them. The trespass of these boundaries is, by extension, a trespass upon property. National boundaries were violated at will during World War II. Indeed, this was frequently done with callous disregard for the rules of relations among nations: without warning, without any declaration of war, and without restraint. German armies invaded Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, and other lands in this fashion. Nor did the Soviet Union, Japan, and Italy observe civilized rules for beginning wars against nations. In consequence of such violations millions of persons were carted off to serve one or another nation as slave laborers for their war machines. The condition, once again, was the trespass of property.

The Defeat of Nazism

One variety of socialism—Nazism or Fascism—went down to defeat at the end of World War II. That portion of the ideology which was racist and militaristic was as nearly discredited as such things ever are. Nazi Germany was thoroughly, completely, and ignominiously defeated. By the first of May, 1945, Allied armies had swept back the once proud German armies onto German soil and that was virtually all occupied. Hitler and his entourage were in an underground bunker in Berlin, a city shattered and devastated by repeated and prolonged bombings and now under siege by Soviet artillery. The roads out of the city were closed and no regular airports were available. In desperation, Adolf Hitler and his bride, Eva Braun Hitler, committed suicide. The SS detachment was hard put to get together enough gasoline to burn their bodies. Much of Germany was in ruins, and the power of the Nazis had evaporated. The rubble in the streets was the remains of Hitler’s ambitious plans for architecturally redesigning such cities as Berlin.

The reasons for the defeat need some amplification. At its height, the Nazi empire had encompassed most of continental Europe from the Urals to the Atlantic with outposts in North Africa. That portion not occupied was under governments generally friendly to Germany if neutral (Spain, Sweden, Vichy France, etc.) or allied with the Axis (Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, etc.) excepting mainly the Soviet Union. What had been European civilization save the British Isles, was under German sway. Never before in history had continental Europe been so near to being under a single power.

Hitler had under his control many of the most highly developed lands in the world, a goodly portion of the most skilled peoples in the world, and experts of unsurpassed ability. German chemists were among the best in the world. (They probably could have made ersatz water if hydrogen and oxygen had been in short supply.) Only oil, among major natural resources, was not generally available in sufficient quantity to fuel his war machine. Even so, the potential was there for a Fortress Europe which would have been impervious to all outside power. Why that did not happen needs some explanation.

There were undoubtedly many contributing factors to the German defeat. Historical post mortems have already explored them, and they will not occupy our attention here. But the crucial fact is that Hitler never mustered most of the might of Europe behind him. Most of the peoples never identified with the Nazi cause. Such cooperation as they generally contributed to it was grudging at best and something less than half-hearted as a rule. Indeed, Hitler’s only significant effort to get the willing support of the peoples of Europe was to picture his as an anti-Communist crusade. That was obviously a flawed position, however. He might have been able to overcome the implications of the Nazi-Soviet pact but not the fact that he was at war with Britain and the United States, among many other non-communist nations. Moreover, his own cruel regime was hardly an improvement over Soviet Communism.

Submission Sought

In the main, though, the Nazis did not even seek the willing aid of many of the peoples of Europe. On the contrary, the peoples were held in contempt, and the Nazis sought only to beat them into submission. This was in keeping with the ideology. Nazism was national German socialism, and all who were not predominantly Nordic or German were believed to be inferior peoples. The cruel treatment by the SS of the peoples in eastern Europe made the Nazis as feared and hated as the Communists had ever been.

Hitler refused on a number of occasions the importunings of his officers to be permitted to recruit an army from the Russian prisoners of war. Armies of other nations that fought with Germans enjoyed only a kind of honorary status as equals. Hitler generally held the Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian soldiers in contempt as inferior to the Germans. Not surprisingly, many of the Italian officers were eager to get out of the war, and the armies from central Europe were at best fair weather friends.

In short, the Nazis failed to muster the support of Europe because of their ideology. Their national racism could only be repugnant to all others. It appears that Hitler could only have mustered the willing support of Europe, if at all, by abandoning his ideology. At any rate, he did not get it, and without it his armies were overcome by forces from the outside even as they were weakened by resistance from within Europe.

Promises Unfulfilled

Hitler had promised to build a "folkish state." He had promised to augment the power of the individual by merging it with the collective, to elevate the German people by freeing them from their submission to the Treaty of Versailles. They would become masters by identification with him as the symbol and embodiment of themselves. There is no doubt, either, that many Germans felt the surge of power as they heard or saw Hitler speak, as they massed to participate in the performance of the Nazi rituals, as they looked on marching German soldiers and won their first great victories. The might of the German collective was palpable at the Nuremberg Party rallies, as hundreds of flags waved above, as searchlights played upward in the skies, as thousands lifted their arms and shouted "Sieg Heil" in unison. For a few years, many, perhaps most, of the German people were caught up in the pomp, the pageantry, and the promises of a collective beatitude.

If so, their exaltation was short-lived. Hitler did not build a "folkish state." He built a state over which Nazi Gauleiters ruled and the "folk" were an instrument of state to be used as their rulers decided. The subjection of other peoples and the importation of forced labor may have hidden from Germans for a time the fact of their own subjugation. Collectivism augmented the powers of the rulers at the expense of those who were ruled. Much of the substance of Germany went into building the instruments for and fighting a war. The more the people built the less they had. However glorious the early victories, more and more of the young men were required to go to war. As the casualty lists lengthened many families came to know the ultimate cost of war. None could deny the curtailment of their lives as they spent more and more of their time in bomb shelters to escape the fury of the bombs. The Germans were not a master race, as Hitler had told them, they were only a mastered people.


Just when individual Germans realized this there is no way of knowing for a whole population. What we do know is that by the end of the war many Germans were glad indeed to have done with Hitler and his obsessive vision. In the last weeks of the war the armies of the Western Allies were often greeted by the Germans as heroes. As American tanks, trucks, and jeeps drove through many towns and cities people lined the sidewalks to wave and cheer. This would have been a smart thing to do in any case, but it had the look of spontaneity about it. At least at the moment of their arrival, the Western Allies were being treated as liberators.

In the east, a different kind of story was taking place. Germans, and others, were fleeing by the hundreds of thousands before the advance of the Red Army. Taking whatever they could with them, they fled toward the west seeking refuge from an army bent on plundering and pillaging and destroying what it would. Sometimes before, but certainly as soon as they could lay down their arms, German troops too sought to make their way west to surrender to the Western Allies. For several days after the end of the fighting, the relics of the German armies poured through the lines of the Western Allies making their way to places of internment. Men clung to the sides of whatever vehicle they could find that would enable them to evade the clutches of the Red Army.

The defeat of the Axis in World War II did not significantly loosen the grip of the idea that has the world in thrall, not for long anyway. True, the hold of the Nazi variety of revolutionary socialism was struck off from western Europe, but in central Europe the grip of revolutionary socialism, communism, was established and tightened.

Tyrannizing Poland

World War II had broken out in the wake of the German invasion of Poland. The British and French governments had declared war on Germany in an attempt to preserve the territorial integrity of Poland. When Hitler heard just before the end of the war that a Soviet sponsored puppet government was being set up in Poland he remarked the irony of it all. The British and French had gone to war against him to save Poland, and now the Poles were being turned over to Soviet tyranny. Indeed, any who would ponder the meaning of World War II, and the impact of the idea that has the world in its grip, could do no better than begin with Poland.

Poland has for several centuries been a bending and bent buffer between Russia and western Europe. Time and again Poland has been the scene, or a part of it, of the clashes between European powers and the butt of the treaties by which they ended their conflicts. If ever a people deserved the compassion of men of good will it must surely be the unfortunate Poles. Shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland the Soviet Union invaded from the east. The country was then partitioned. Part of the country was then "Nazified" while the remainder was being "Sovietized." The full fury of the SS was let loose in the Nazi "zone of occupation." Poland’s relatively large number of Jews were subjected to a pogrom the like of which had never been seen before. Some of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps were located in Poland, and the most vigorous extermination was carried out there. Thousands of Jews died in an heroic stand against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. The resisters were wiped out. Nor were Jews the only victims: numerous Poles were dislocated to allow Germans to move in; intellectuals and potential leaders got vicious attention from the SS.

The Final Blows

As the Red Army advanced upon Warsaw the Polish resistance movement made a determined effort to expel the Germans from the city. The Soviet armies halted their advance and waited, apparently with malice aforethought, for the Germans to wipe out the resistance. Roosevelt and Churchill appealed to Stalin at least to allow British and Americans to airlift aid to the resisters, but their appeal fell on deaf ears. On top of all this, thousands of Polish officers were shot down in cold blood by Soviet forces at the Katyn Forest Massacre. All that remained to be done to destroy Poland, it would seem, would be to sow the soil with salt.

At any rate, the Soviet Union had an eviscerated Poland upon which to impose its regime in 1945. The Soviet Union won the battle for central Europe, a main arena in the contest of World War II. Communist regimes were subsequently imposed on Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Czechoslovakia. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had already lost all semblance of independence by being incorporated into the Soviet Union. Part of Poland was incorporated into the Soviet Union, part of Germany into Poland, and a communist regime established in East Germany. Finland, too, lost territory to the Soviet Union.

Could it have been otherwise? Possibly. It was the style, in some circles anyhow, after World War II to blame the fall of these countries to communism, particularly that of Poland, on decisions made at the Yalta Conference of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill in early 1945. This is almost certainly a misreading of history. The concessions made to Stalin at that conference were largely in recognition of a fait accompli. The Red Army was already in or marching into these countries. It was the presence of the Red Army that made it possible to establish communist regimes generally.

The Channel Crossing

The decision that sealed the fate of central and eastern Europe was almost certainly made in 1943. It was the, decision to concentrate British and American forces in England for a cross-channel invasion of France in 1944. It was the decision for the English channel, so to speak, over the Adriatic and Aegean Seas. The signal for the decision was given in December of 1943 when General Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces and moved from Italy to England to prepare for the cross-channel invasion.

The Western Allies had already established a second front on continental Europe in 1943. It was in Italy. Winston Churchill favored an assault on the "soft under-belly of Europe," probably by way of the Adriatic. Militarily, the most strategic target in all of Europe was the Rumanian oil fields. Once the oil reaching German forces from Rumania and Hungary was cut off the days of the German air force, tank divisions, and guided missiles would be numbered. Politically, if the assault had been made in this way, much of southern and central Europe might have been spared the occupation by the Red Army, and the communist regimes. Instead, armed forces were concentrated in England, and in the course of 1944 much of the military force was withdrawn from Italy to attack westward in support of "Operation Overlord," the cross-channel invasion. The die was cast many months before January of 1945.

Post-War Communism

The spread of communism greatly accelerated in the wake of World War II. The devastation of western Europe, the defeat and demilitarization of the Axis, left power vacuums in much of the world. Wherever these occurred, communists saw them as opportunities for expansion, either by way of joining coalition governments—and occupying key positions in them until one party emerged triumphant—or by fomenting civil wars. Not only had all of eastern, most of central, and much of southern Europe fallen to communism, but with Japan defeated and demilitarized, China became communist. As colonies were cut loose from demoralized European countries, these became prime targets for the spread of communism.

Communism was the only significant variety of revolutionary socialism in the world after World War II. But communism is not the only variety of socialism in the world. The idea that has the world in its grip has two faces: one is revolutionary socialism; the other is evolutionary or gradualist socialism. It is appropriate now to turn our attention to some examination of the working of evolutionary socialism.

Next: 15. Sweden: The Matrix of Tradition and Gradualism.