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Life Arts    H4'ed 4/14/16

shakespeare and hitler

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Message Manfred Weidhorn

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Shakespeare died in late April on virtually the same day on which he was born. So too, oddly enough, did Hitler come close to doing the same thing in the late phase of another April. The god of irony must be smiling at this unique double coincidence. Is spring the time of hope or of misery?

The yoking of the names of these two men is a sure way of provoking puzzlement or outrage. The one is at the summit of human creativity, the other is at the nadir of human loathsomeness; Stalin and Mao may each have killed more people, but Hitler remains the most depraved, and ultimately most self destructive, major leader of all time.

And yet, the two men are indeed joined in one important way. What they had in common was a rich imagination. The word "imagination" has been celebrated by Romantic writers and overworked by literary critics and psychologists. It essentially means two things: [1] the ability to ask, "What if?" and then to posit a world different from the one that exists and that seems inescapable; and, more narrowly, [2] the ability to put oneself into the minds of other people. The latter virtue, which is the source of the Golden Rule, has been aptly portrayed by Keats: "If a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel." All effective writers must have that uncommon empathy; Shakespeare excelled at it.

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That Shakespeare was imaginative is like saying that the sun shines brightly. That Hitler was equally so is not as self evident. Of the variant of imagination that involves sympathy for other individuals, Hitler had none; he even ended up blaming the trusting and loyal German people for a disaster clearly of his own making. His use of the imagination was different. He put himself, not into the minds of people he invented, but into the minds of the audience he faced. And combining this psychological insight with his histrionic speaking style, his charisma, his serial risk taking, his boundless ambition, and, above all, his terminal immorality, he thrived--until overtaken by the inevitable hubris.

He thus intuited and exploited the anxieties and the rancor of the post World War I defeated German people, whom the victorious Allies held responsible for the actions of leaders they had never elected and who suffered from the ravages of inflation and unemployment on top of the need to pay reparations. Addressing legitimate grievances was complemented by his spreading of fantasies. Sensing that his personal hatred of Jewry was shared by a populace with a long history of anti-Semitism, he propagated the myth that Germany lost because it was stabbed in the back by a Jewish conspiracy.

Addressing all these grievances was to be merely a prelude to a New Order. Demagogues have arisen throughout history, but no one else has ever been so effective in seeming to offer people what they wanted to hear . Then, when in power, he intuited and exploited the thinking of his conventionally unimaginative diplomatic opponents as effectively as he had those of his political opponents during his rise.

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Louis Farrakhan some years ago was taken to task for describing Hitler as an "evil genius." Farrakhan has made anti-Semitic remarks, but this was not one of them, for Hitler was surely as much of a genius as he was evil. How else explain the German conquest of Europe, from the English Channel to the gates of Moscow, from the icy North Cape to the North African desert? In the number of foreign peoples brought into subjection and in the speed of accomplishment--a mere two years---Hitler's feat was unparalleled in history. Truly that would be a phenomenal achievement for anyone, but especially so for someone who was not, like Alexander the Great or Charlemagne or Genghis Kahn, born into royalty; or like Julius Caesar, a prominent patrician; or like Napoleon, a scion of a minor aristocratic family. No condottiere or field marshal, no pope or business tycoon or sports champion, no popular entertainer or brilliant intellectual, led this charge, but just a complete nobody--a poorly educated social misfit who was not even born in the country he would lead and who for a while was a homeless person, literally a "bum." People who understandably take offense at having Hitler placed on a level with Shakespeare have to answer the question of how such a drifter could have done so much if he lacked that limited but intensely focused imagination.

How many children are urged by parents and teachers to "use your imagination!" and how many adults are urged to "think outside the box!"? That these two men of April, both lacking much formal education, succeeded mainly through the imagination dramatizes the idea that that celebrated mental faculty is, like money or political power, morally neutral. It can be used for good or for evil.

If one were to propound the riddle that mankind does not deserve itself, the joining of these two names would clarify the ambiguity of the proposition: Any species which produces the atrocities of a Hitler does not deserve the beauties of a Shakespeare, or, equally valid, any species that produces the glories of the playwright does not deserve the horrors unleashed by the dictator.

Indeed, the Talmud (which Hitler wanted to destroy) tried to resolve that riddle. The rabbis raised the question of whether it would have been better if man had been created or had not been created, and, after two and half year of debating, they concluded negatively. In other words, the horrors perpetrated by Hitler were simply not redeemed by the beauties of Shakespeare; the human experiment was a flop. That judgment, were it to prevail, would vindicate the saturnine poet who called April the "cruelest month."

Manfred Weidhorn

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4 Aberdeen

Fair Lawn NJ 07410

 

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For 51 years Professor of English at Yeshiva University. Author of 13 books and over a hundred essays.
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