Today, with good cause, Adolf Hitler is the personification of evil.
Yet without him my parents may never have married and I certainly would not have been conceived in a hospital where my father was recovering from war injuries.
Unless every event prior to our birth happened exactly as they did, none of us would be here to contemplate the incredible unlikelihood of our birth.
Each of us owes our existence to the unique cell that multiplied to become us when it was fertilised, at that exact instant, by a singular unique sperm. The slightest variation in the circumstances of this event and you would not be reading this. You would not exist at all.
Because of the need for this precise event to have happened we are all exquisitely dependent on the exact past that led up to that fertilisation. In the same way our successful birth and our path through life since has been determined by the circumstances and accidents of our lives; in turn resulting in our own children.
Of course for each of us existence is equally contingent on many other accidents and events in the past. Obviously every one of your ancestors had to exist; each with the same degree of chance and improbability: all four grandparents; eight great-grandparents; 1,048,576 twenty times great grandparents and so on.
This takes your ancestry back about 400 years.
If I go back as far a William the Conqueror the number grows to around five thousand billion; after forty-two generations. Since this is ten thousand times the number of humans on the planet at the time; and I’m definitely not related to everyone; there has been an awful lot of inbreeding by distant cousins going on; probably in a handful of towns or villages. My profile in Genebase.com shows that I am related to quite a lot of humanity within 100 generations; about 73% of their present database; including 12 Afro-Americans and 15 indigenous Americans. A similar ancestry applies to you; and to everyone alive today.
You may think that it is obvious that your parents (and theirs; and theirs; and so on) needed to be just as they were when these copulations led to you. But it is amazing how frequently we hear in popular culture someone say: ‘if only my father had not been a drunk who beat my mother’; or ‘if only my parents had been wealthy’; or even more weird: ‘if my mother had married some other man I would have had a better life’; completely disregarding that in any of these circumstances they would not exist at all.
I have no such complaints. My father was an electrical engineer and an almost model husband; as was his father; and his brother. My mother's family were similarly exemplary; as described elsewhere on this website. My existence and those of my children are therefore directly dependent on the natural scientists that pioneered our knowledge of electricity; and technology in general. But it is not nearly so interesting to attribute one’s existence to Newton; or Benjamin Franklin; or Michael Faraday; good people who were motivated by the quest for truth and knowledge; as to the opposite.
Our existence depends equally on the evil doctrines of the past that motivated men like Hitler; Stalin; Napoleon; the Spanish inquisitors; or on the self-serving acts of mass murderers like those that poisoned indigenous people or perpetrated other similar atrocities for profit.
Often the best intentioned were among the worst killers in history.
One such pivotal man in history was Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE, ADC, (19 June 1861 – 29 January 1928).
He was another who was essential to my existence. It is certain that without him, and decisions he took, my grandparents would not have had my mother. My Grandfather fought; was gassed; somehow avoided death; and won his Military Medal (in extreme peril), all under Haig's command. My mother was conceived after these events.
Memorial to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Edinburgh Castle - Military Genius or The Butcher of Flanders Field?
Haig commanded the allied forces at several critical actions during the First World War. He is variously remembered as one of the greatest British soldiers: ‘The Master of the Field’ and, alternatively, as: ‘The Butcher of the Somme' (or the Butcher of Flanders Field).
Haig was certainly a man of fixed opinions who was faced with, for him, an insurmountable learning curve; as the nature of war changed. He was slow to grasp the importance of advances in technology: artillery; machine-guns; barbed wire; and war gas.
Haig was a highly religious man who wrote that he was doing God’s work and that his hand was divinely driven. Unfortunately for him the German officers had the same God guiding their hands; somewhat better as it turns out.
At the battle of the Somme the allies, including Australians, suffered 623,907 casualties including 146,431 dead. On the first day, 1 July 1916, the British army suffered 60,000 casualties ‘before breakfast’.
Haig went on to command the three battles at Ypres (/ˈiːprə/ [eepra] - but known by the Tommies and Diggers in the trenches, ‘Wipers’). In third Battle of Ypres (21 July to 6 November 1917 - also known as the Battle of Passchendaele) British, Canadians, ANZAC, and French forces recaptured a minor strategic objective, the Passchendaele Ridge in three and a half months, at the cost of 310,000 allied and 260,000 German casualties.
When I grew up in Australia, Haig’s name was synonymous with British military incompetence; or worse, deliberate and criminal disregard for the lives of our finest young men.
So when Grandma took me to see her name carved into the wall of the Banqueting Hall in the Civic Centre at Newcastle upon Tyne, as a result of her time as Sheriff, I blurted out that it would be more impressive if it was not shared with the ‘Butcher of the Somme’.
Freemen of the City of Newcastle
Haig had apparently been made an Honorary Freeman of the City soon after the armistice in 1918. Grandma was truly shocked and scandalised that I thought so little of the great man who had been instrumental in ‘winning the war’.
But there is another angle to this. On the German side a young school dropout, who had variously considered the priesthood and settled instead into the life of a somewhat bohemian artist, felt the stirrings of German patriotism when war was declared. Despite an ailment that initially had him exempted, he partitioned to join the Prussian Army. He became a runner at Ypres where he was wounded and was twice awarded for bravery while still a private soldier; earning the Iron Cross.
This was the award that he later wore proudly as ‘Fuhrer of the Third Reich’ and commander of the greatest military machine the world had then seen.
Had the battles been conducted differently Hitler may have been killed, possibly by a shell from one of my Grandfather's gun's. Had he not been a war hero he may not have commanded the respect that allowed him to become the leader of the National Socialist German Workers' Party and political leader of the Kampfbund, a league of patriotic fighting societies. These largely ex-soldiers held that the German Army was in fact undefeated but had been sabotaged by Marxists together with Jewish bankers and newspaper proprietors; and the corrupt politicians who capitulated at the Armistice. In November 1923 they attempted an uprising against the Weimar Republic in Munich, the Munich Putsch.
The Putsch inevitably failed and Hitler was jailed. He used his time in jail to write a book Mein Kampf (My Struggle) in which he describes his political opinions and how he came to hold them. The book can be read on-line or downloaded from Project Gutenberg Australia.
Hitler dedicates it to the 15 comrades who fell during the Munich uprising.
Today Mein Kampf is regarded to be an anti-Jewish rant of the worst kind and is still banned in many countries. In the preface Hitler writes that one of its purposes is to: ‘to destroy the legendary fabrications which the Jewish Press have circulated about me’.
It is well documented that as an artist prior to World War One, many of Hitler’s clients for his paintings were wealthy Jews and that he seemed to get on well with them; against the growing anti-Jewish sentiment already gaining popularity.
His anti-Jewish opinions seem to have developed and magnified as a result of the war and possibly as a result of believing that a book: 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion', was genuine. This book originated in Russia as: "The Jewish Programme to Conquer the World", around the end of the 19th century. It is a clever amalgamation of actual Zionist sentiment, based on verifiable sources, and imaginative conspiracy theory. It is thought to have originated with the Russian Secret Police, in support of the widespread Pogroms against the Jews that broke out in Russia in the 1880's.
These attacks on Jews resulted from the extreme religious beliefs of orthodox Christians, to the exclusion of other religions. The Pogroms had an even more violent resurgence between 1903 and 1906 under Tsar Nicholas II, who failed to punish the perpetrators. Some historians believe the Tsar himself to have been behind these later outbreaks. He was certainly a religious fundamentalist who believed in magic and famously in the powers of the mystic healer Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. Thus many believed that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, during which the Tsar and his family were executed, was a manifestation and demonstration of a Jewish conspiracy.
In the thirties 'The Protocols' were widely believed to be genuine. For example Wikipedia says that Henry Ford funded printing of 500,000 copies that were distributed throughout the US in the 1920s. It was also widely distributed by the Fascists.
All the while the Vatican was notably silent on the matter and maintained good diplomatic relationships with Mussolini in Italy and, in due course, with Hitler in Germany. Scholars argue about whether ambiguous statements from the Pope (Pius XII) were anti-Jewish, or rather, anti-communist at the time. But it is fair to say that he did speak out against the mass-killing of the disabled and genetically defective and certainty did not sanction mass-killing of any kind.
The First World War is central to Mein Kampf. A central theme is the sacrifice made by Germans in the war, only to be stabbed in the back by forces that he claims to have an international agenda: international Jews; Marxists; Capitalists (the New York Stock Exchange); or to be so degenerate and bourgeois (like the democratic political leaders and Wartime profiteers) that they blindly did the bidding of these more focused, sinister forces (like the Bolsheviks in Russia whom he claims are part of a larger Jewish conspiracy).
While Mein Kampf does not call for the mass annihilation of Jews it does suggest that some prominent Jews should suffer the same fate as did the German troops in the trenches:
’ At the beginning of the War, or even during the War, if twelve or fifteen thousand of these Jews who were corrupting the nation had been forced to submit to poison-gas, just as hundreds of thousands of our best German workers from every social stratum and from every trade and calling had to face it in the field, then the millions of sacrifices made at the front would not have been in vain. On the contrary: If twelve thousand of these malefactors had been eliminated in proper time probably the lives of a million decent men, who would be of value to Germany in the future, might have been saved. But it was in accordance with bourgeois 'statesmanship' to hand over, without the twitch of an eyelid, millions of human beings to be slaughtered on the battlefields, while they looked upon ten or twelve thousand public traitors, profiteers, usurers and swindlers, as the dearest and most sacred national treasure and proclaimed their persons to be inviolable.’
Hitler sees a world dominated by struggle for race survival: ‘Man has become great through perpetual struggle’. Ultimately he predicts there will be a crisis of territory:
‘Races which are culturally superior but less ruthless would be forced to restrict their increase, because of insufficient territory to support the population, while less civilized races could increase indefinitely, owing to the vast territories at their disposal. In other words: should that state of affairs continue, then the world will one day be possessed by that portion of mankind which is culturally inferior but more active and energetic.’
He claims that modern democracies perpetuate this by giving voice to the weak and that racial purity was being corrupted by allowing internal colonisation by weaker races.
This kind of racial thinking was already strong throughout Europe and is clearly evident in British and American writing in the 1920’s. In Germany Friedrich Nietzsche was popular in the bohemian world of Hitler’s youth and some of his work can be interpreted to support Hitler’s racial and anti-Semitic beliefs. But it is said that Hitler was more ‘deeply and fundamentally’ inspired by the composer Richard Wagner, particularly his last opera Parsifal.
When I went to school in the 1950's in Australia several of our teachers had fought in the first war; including the Headmaster who taught 6th class who bore a hip injury; shrapnel from a shell. We could often divert his attention from some boring topic by asking about the war; and instead learn about strafing boats on the Nile with a Vickers machine gun or some other interesting bit of trivia.
At his knee we learnt about the mass slaughter of the flower of Australian youth. I can still be reduced to tears by the War Memorial in Sydney or Canberra. We were encouraged to blame this incomprehensible slaughter on: imperialism; an interrelated, inbred, bunch of royal families and their internecine politics; and the sheer incompetence of British military leadership.
Hitler appeals to exactly the same sentiment in Mein Kampf but he blames it on the Jews.
Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy argues that the stream of philosophy that was embraced by Nietzsche and Wagner has its roots in the romanticism of Lord Byron; the English/Scottish poet who was disgraced and expelled from England for allegedly siring a child by his married half-sister; and who was the father of Ada Lovelace, now recognised as a pioneer of computer programming. Thereafter Byron had a major influence on continental and particularly German philosophy.
Without these earlier accidents of history Hitler may never have written Mein Kampf.
That Mein Kampf immediately struck a chord with many Germans in the aftermath of the First World War, and in this atmosphere of German nationalism, can be seen from the many newsreel records from the period showing the celebrity and adulation that Hitler commanded.
The book was an almost instant bestseller. Some 260,000 copies were sold before Hitler came to power; enabling him to repay debts from his trial and buy a Mercedes car while still in jail. He was soon released.
The book proves the adage that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. Just seven years after publication Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany.
After he became Chancellor, then Fuhrer, it is estimated that a further ten million copies were produced.
The tumultuous events of the ‘Weimar’ years, prior to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor are another story; vastly documented in the media and on the web.
But two elements helped Hitler’s rise to power: solid working Germans, Hitler’s power-base, were scandalised by the ‘degenerate behaviour’ of those in power, in particular at the libertarian recreations of the demimonde of Berlin, as described by Christopher Isherwood in his Berlin Stories; and the collapse of the economy of the Weimar Republic, that had been imposed on Germany by the allies after the war in 1919.
To demonstrate the scale of this collapse: in January 1921 one US dollar cost seven Marks; by 1923 one US dollar cost 4.2 billion Marks. The resulting unemployment hit 'working Germans' badly.
The so called ‘moral collapse’ was accelerated by this downward path of the Mark. Prostitution became rampant; simply to survive. It was said that 'a dalliance with a 15 year old in Berlin cost no more than 30 US cents' at this time (I owe this to Mel Gordon's book 'Voluptuous Panic').
As many of the bankers and foreign capitalists blamed for this economic situation; and artists blamed for moral collapse; were Jewish, or had Jewish names, it was easy for Hitler to ascribe this ‘depravity’ to their deliberate intent.
The Weimar years were recently the subject of a series of art exhibitions in Sydney titled ’Mad Square’ encompassing Expressionism, DADA, Bauhaus, Constructivism, and eroticism (much of it fetishistic, homosexual and bisexual). It was from these art and social movements that Hitler chose examples of degenerate art that he claimed demonstrated the general decline in cultural values. Much of it was subsequently destroyed during the Reich; along with many books that were also labelled ‘degenerate’ or ‘depraved’. Book and art burnings became symbolic of his rise to power. It's one of the reasons that today we do not approve of book burning, or banning, and its slightly shocking that Hitler's book has suffered the same fate in some places.
Once in power Hitler's domestic and foreign policies centred on gaining Lebensraum (living space) for the Germanic races. Germany rearmed, building a vast modern and efficient war machine, and set about ‘unification’ with, or conquering, neighbouring territories. Citizens identified as ‘racially degenerate’, such as Jews and Gypsies and anyone with a genetic disease, were first marginalised and then purged; very large numbers being rounded up and systematically put to death.
It is estimated that as a result of Hitler as many as fourteen million people lost their lives.
I am obviously not arguing that mass murder is a good thing because without it you, like me, would not exist.
Rather I want to encompass the whole past as the very fabric from which we arose; with all its evil doctrines and wars; along with all its fine acts of self sacrifice and charity; artistic insights and creativity; together with the successful uncovering of truths about our universe.
My choice of Hitler is 'close to home' for me, and particularly well documented, but I could equally have focused on the history of Scotland; the Spanish Inquisition; or Lord Byron.
Like a personal tartan, the past before our birth is our special fabric because had the smallest thread been different or the slightest bit out of place it would not have us to observe it; someone else perhaps.
When you think about it this goes for the entire universe. The subtlest of changes just a few million years ago would have meant that no humans would be here at all to wonder at its mysteries. This is the most fundamental prerequisite for your universe; and mine.
I find it endlessly fascinating.
I don't think that there is any flaw in the argument that we are each dependent for our very existence, and therefore our ability to observe the universe, on the exact events that preceded our birth.
But this has some interesting consequences. Many of these have been the topic of much philosophical and theological debate.
If, for example, you like some, believe that you have a special relationship with a god and can converse with or at least send a message to that god in prayer, then do you also believe that you were destined by that god to exist? Perhaps you don't think that you are so important but you might believe that certain prophets were.
The implication of such a belief is that all that went before you, or perhaps Mohammad, Jesus, Ezekiel, Moses or the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was irrevocably required; and that the decisions made by everyone in the prehistory of that event were necessarily ordained.
Thus the decisions made by Napoleon to attack Russia or to escape from Elba, that he thought were his own, were in fact required by your god, down to the last detail of his life, in order that you and, if you have them, your children exist to interact with your god.
Similarly your god arranged that all of history happened as it did: Hitler, Stalin and Slobodan Milošević are part of his/her deliberate creation in order that children born today exist.
This is not a new idea. It has long been argued by theologians and supports the the claim for the Judeo-Christian God's omnipotence and omniscience. But as pointed out by its critics it also implies that criminals and sinners are not ultimately responsible for their actions; as their actions were ordained as a necessary part of creation. Judas was required to betray Jesus so that he might die for our sins.
Extending this idea implies that no one has 'free will'. I had to behave exactly as I did: in school; and university; and at work; and socially; and in private; and all the interactions an apparent accidents of my life had to be just so; in order that my children would come into existence.
This is a serious problem for theologians: either everything is ordained and even when sinning one is following God's plan; or God has largely stepped out of the picture, perhaps after the initial creation, and limits his/her interventions to a bit of judicious weeding; tilling and/or replanting according to whim. These grand interventions may be perceived by us as lightening strikes; natural disasters; meteor impacts; planitary extinction events; supernova; and so on.
While there are non-religious arguments for the view that the universe already exists in space and throughout time, related to Einstein's incorporation of time into a space-time continuum (see Free Will, Certainty and Uncertainty on this website), that the future is already determined runs counter to common sense; and our everyday belief in our own volition (ability to choose).
Some philosophers, mathematicians and physicists argue that the universe is at its fundamental level, as described by quantum mechanics, is unpredictable and random; that the global appearance of predictability, as described in physical laws, is a higher order phenomenon. In this case the same starting initial conditions may not always result in the same outcome. So it is possible that complex but apparently entirely physical things, like a meteor impact, may or may not happen; unpredictably. This may then provide an explanation for Free Will.
From my perspective my children are the the direct or indirect outcome of my considered and deliberate actions; even if one thing did lead to another. But from their perspective they would not exist to perceive the universe unless I, and their mother, had behaved exactly as we did; we are a necessary part of their fabric of existence.
As a result, if we reject the view that everything is ordained, and prefer to think that we make choices, we are obliged to believe in a universe in which the future is entirely contingent on the day-to-day actions of humans. Its present was in the hands of our ancestors.
That we are here is therefore entirely accidental; even though it is almost infinitely improbable. This same improbability encompasses every human, past and present, on the planet.
In this view, the future may also depend on any animal that has volition (makes a choice) such as: the dog that bites; the cat that scratches; the horse that throws; as these interactions are constantly changing the course of human decision making.
While some philosophers, like Descartes, have argued that no animal, except humans, has the ability to make such choices; that other animals are simply reacting predictably to a situation; this seems unlikely when a chimp can be shown to out-think a human on certain tasks. Either a chimp makes considered choices or a human does not. And what's so special about humans anyway?
This impact on the future may encompass other living things that we interact with; like those that do not seem to have volition but may nevertheless behave unpredictably such as: the bee that stings; the weed that grows; the virus that evolves; or the bacteria that infects. Thus it may be that a characteristic of living things, as opposed to the inanimate, is our ability to change the future; or possibly everything subject to quantum uncertainty is constantly on the verge of a different future?
There was a time when we might have regarded our influence on the future to be limited to future human events, at arms length from the actual greater universe, but now human actions are depleting planetary resources; impacting on its climate; extending to other planets; and beyond the solar system itself. We still, with good reason, regard an earthquake, tsunami or cyclone to be the work of nature, beyond human influence or control, but we are more doubtful about a lightening strike; bushfire; loss of top-soil; epidemic; plague; or climate change.
In contemplating the perceived uniqueness of this present; and its apparent dependence on the actions of mankind; some philosophers have proposed that all alternative scenarios do in fact exist, in different parallel universes, but we only experience the universe that happens to have us in it. But then why do I have the sense that the choices I made in life had only one set of consequences? Why don't I perceive all the universes with me in them, for example when I decide to take a sip of coffee, or not; or on a grander scale, with different partners and children?
There are several extended discussions of these issues on this website - seek them out using the search function.
Added 23 April 2020 - in the year of Covid-19
I've just finished reading Philip Kerr's excellent historical fiction Prussian Blue (published in 2017) to discover that his final paragraphs seem to echo some of the thoughts that I had six years earlier, see above.
Anyway, this is what Philip wrote - as his flawed hero, Bernie Gunther, returns to Munich in 1956 and contemplates his past:
… I perceived how history was nothing more than an accident, a fluke, a matter of a few centimetres here or there, a head turned, a sudden gust of wind, a dirty gun barrel, a misfired cartridge, a breath held for a second too long or too little, an order misheard or misunderstood, an itchy trigger finger, a second's delay, an instant's hesitation. The idea that anything is ever meant to be seemed nonsensical; small causes can have large effects, and some words of Fichte came to mind, about how you could not remove so much as a grain of sand from its place [without thereby] changing something in [in all the parts of] the immeasurable whole.
When Adolf Hitler, Ludendorff, and more than two thousand, SA men had marched to this spot from the Bürgerbräukeller some two kilometres away, they encountered a blockade made up of a hundred and thirty policemen armed with rifles. The stand-off that took place ended when one of those guns - history doesn't tell us to which side it belonged - was fired, after which there was a lot of shooting on both sides. Four policemen and sixteen Nazis were killed. By all accounts Goring was struck by a bullet in the groin, while some of the men standing beside Adolf Hitler were killed outright, so perhaps it was hardly surprising he thought he had been picked by God to lead the country. Had he, I wondered, ever really believed that what he was doing was right?
Philip Kerr, who was younger than I but a much better writer, died on 23 March 2018 (aged 62). I was moved to wonder if those mutant cells in his bladder, that multiplied uncontrollably to bring about the demise of the entirety that was him, came into being through misadventure or historical inevitability.
A year after one of Philip's cells killed him another rogue biological entity came into existence that has already killed 180,000. Not a mutant cell, a much smaller entity, a virus originally from a bat, mutated sufficiently to adapt to a new, human, host in which to replicate.
A person in china is thought to have been the first to inhale this new virion that, by random mutation of its outer proteins, was now able to attach to cells in the human host, thus enabling it to multiply. This seems to have happened around November 2019. Since then well over 2.5 million people have gone on to play host to it worldwide. With that mutation, in a particle so small that it can only be seen using an electron microscope, the future of humanity changed irrevocably.
The present event is unusually devastating but virus', from the common cold to the seasonal flue and measles, are doing this all the time. Their ability to mutate rapidly constantly interferes in human affairs: directly and through our crops and animals. As Philip Kerr remarks: a breath held for a second too long or a speck of sand out of place changes the future.