Below the Fold: Re-Discovering Evil in a Small Town Library

I have spent a lot of time in libraries.

Some of it was joyous. The library in our town when I was growing up provided the books that transported me into mythic worlds where I found my heroes among ancient Greeks, baseball starts, and even of the occasional great politician. Fastballers, spear throwers, and great rhetoricians – these were my summer companions. I once tried to read Arthur Schlesinger’s first book on FDR. I could barely carry the book home on my bicycle. But even as I ran out of summer time and returned the book unfinished, I still remember that amazing mix of fixers that surrounded the master himself, from clever lawyers, campaigning social reformers, and ward bosses — all seeking to change an America gone really wrong. As a Chicago boy, raised behind the lace curtain by a family of New Deal Democrats and a states rights Republican father, I often wondered what would have happened to life around me if Mayor Daley had been Jim Farley instead. It would be a better world, I told myself. When John Kennedy and his motorcade passed our house, and my sister and I festooned the attic with his pictures and bumper stickers, much to the dismay of my father and to the secret pleasure of my mother, I figured a better world was coming again.

The solace of the small town library did not last. The fantasies of childhood were replaced by the imperatives of young adulthood. Other atheneums, university libraries, became my haunts. I feared and despised them for some 20 years. Northwestern’s Deering Library, named for the tractor family, became my enemy. Like all Chicagoans who claim first dibs on near-native Frank Lloyd Wright and keep his quotes as closely as they do the poetry of Carl Sandburg, I would remember his acid description of Deering, a Romanesque part church, part castle, that it looked like a pregnant pig on its back.

Its mastery for me proved impossible. Too many books. An unforgiving card catalog. Dim-lit reading rooms, suffocating stacks. Like those great early cathedrals, natural light was anathema. The scant windows were colored. Light was to have shown presumably from within. Outside was the prairie; inside the seat of learning. The little light of mine couldn’t shine.

I later left the Midwest for the East Coast, but the university libraries there were fortresses of learning no less than Deering had been. Even newer libraries built on modernist designs, all glass curtain walls and open plan spaces on the first floors, turned into cloisters up above where all the books were. I hated them too.

But I see now that it was more than architecture that bedeviled me. My relationship to libraries and books had changed. Thanks to my scholarly pursuits, I had become something of a reluctant intellectual minotaur. The man in me had taken on the mind of an industrialist, piling through books in great heaps, pulling out citations, sources, and reading excerpts at an appalling speed. Did you ever wonder why we love Google? No doubt because it perfects our pursuit of industrial knowledge. It is utterly and ruthlessly efficient. It is like a cleaver that cuts through and strips away the meandering intellectual contexts in which knowledge is found. It gives us the meat of the matter, as one used to say in demanding a synthesis from a wistful student or an absent-minded colleague.

The beast in me was weak. The memory of the good mother that the small town library of my past had invoked prevented me from turning Deering or any other learning castles into objects of conquest. I did not feel strong enough to devour or to subordinate them to my will. Moreover, they became a kind of Kryptonite in my intellectual life. The more time I spent in them, and thus with them, the weaker I felt. Thus, I became a guerrilla user. I would strike quickly, practically upending the portion of the stacks that was my target, grabbing up the books, and fleeing the library after a few life-draining hours. But oh, the fines.

Things changed a bit with the arrival of the university library as pastel airport lounge style. Postmodernist architects, by letting in light and by using colors that I think of as variations on United Airlines O’Hare Terminal robin’s egg blue, calmed me. I still attacked the periodicals room in a frenzy, but I did develop little habits of browsing the new books section, even sitting down, and reading a bit without constant breathlessness and palpitations.

This summer, I spent time in a small town library — Salisbury, Connecticut’s Scoville Library. It says it is America’s first free public library, founded in 1803. The present building was constructed in the late 1880s owing to the benefice of a local iron master named Scoville. It has 33,000 books, the New York Times, The Financial Times, the local newspapers, Harper’s, the Atlantic, but not the New York Review of Books. If the late Norman Cousins were still publishing The Saturday Review, you would doubtless still find it there. Though not a Carnegie library (he financed 3,000 public libraries throughout the nation around the turn of the century), it is like them: a spirited architectural gem, loaded down with the eclectic touches of a time when a lot of Furness and Richardson went a long way.

I find comfort in its finitude. History is just four stands each with six bookshelves: could there be any more than a thousand books? Anthropology and sociology practically disappear, a perverse pleasure for me, the anthropologist.

This is where I re-discovered Hitler. Far and away, he and his Third Reich lead the history collection, a fact I have noted at other town libraries near me in Boston. I had had some good exposure to the genre over the years. In my time as an undergraduate, Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny was a standby in poli sci courses otherwise devoted to mindnumbing abstract theories of modernization and nation-building, a kind of functionalist fun house of American triumphalism produced by the self-satisfied political scientist cold warriors. Bullock was grudgingly assigned as the sugar that made the veiled ideology of American superiority go down more easily. Hitler like Stalin was an anti-American, all that was the evil that we were not. He like Stalin was an object lesson in what could happen mostly elsewhere, save the McCarthy era, if we did not remain vigilant and spread democracy worldwide.

About Hitler, The Holocaust, Night and Fog, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and yes, Mel Brooks became my teachers in addition to Bullock over the years. I had book-marked the new three-volume histories of Hitler and of the Third Reich, but hadn’t gotten to either of them.

At the Scoville Library this summer, I picked up William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), a book I had known of since high school but had never read. I gleaned my first impression of Shirer in the sixties on a late night talk show out of Chicago run by Irv Kupcinet, a former sports and gossip columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, who was also a kind of weekend, Midwestern version of David Suskind. Shirer, as I remember was a solid, big-headed man with facial hair and a pipe. During this time, Hans Morgenthau was on Kup’s show a lot. Shirer, an intelligent, intrepid journalist who had reported first-hand the rise the rise of Nazism and the onset of World War II, had become a respected historian. He held his own with all of the south side U. of Chicago lions that Kup entertained on those late Saturday nights.

Now, in high summer with a lake at my feet, or my feet in the lake, was my chance. A small town library had availed me of another myth, this time a meditation with facts on the rise and fall of Hitler, recited by highly competent and morally attuned Homer. And I descended into the hell of the Hitlerism and the Third Reich.

Shirer’s Hitler is not banal. Her Eichmann, the Holocaust general manager, may have been, but the difference between him as puppet and Hitler as fairly jumps off of each riveting page. Shirer’s Hitler is evil incarnate, a white-hot poker stuck in the eye of German society, blinding the German Cyclops as it devoured its victims. He was a devil, a Beelzebub, who caused the death of scores of millions of people, and who finished his life practically desperate to kill some more.

Hitler was also was possessed of a charisma that guided his evil genius. It was said of Alexander that he could lead his troops anywhere and beyond human endurance. But when his troops felt his gift had become a betrayal of their bond, their unconditional love became hate. If he had crossed the Indus once more, they would have killed him.

Hitler was possessed of the same charisma: he commanded, and others submitted and became his followers. It was subordination fueled by attraction, awe, fear, and a kind of blinding love. Today, part of what seems an almost unending age of cynicism, his followers’ confessions of love seem naively, even absurdly carnal. Listen to what Goebbels wrote in 1926. I quote with major elisions for emphasis:

My heart is beating so wildly it is about to burst. I enter the hall. Roaring welcome… And then I speak for two and a half hours…People roar and shout. At the end Hitler embraces me. I feel happy…Hitler is always at my side…

Adolph Hitler, I love you because you are both great and simple.

We…bow to him…with the manly, unbroken pride of the ancient Norsemen who stand upright before their Germanic feudal lord. We feel that he is greater than all of us, greater than you and I. He is the instrument of the Divine Will that shapes history with fresh, creative genius.” (Shirer, 128-129)

He is the Fuehrer – the leader. “From millions of men … one man must step forward,” Shirer quotes Hitler as writing in Mein Kampf, “who with apodictic force will form granite principles form the wavering idea-world of the broad masses and take up the struggle for their sole correctness, until from the shifting waves of a free thought-world there will arise a brazen cliff of solid unity in faith and will. (Shirer, 109-110)

Hitler had a volcanic temperament. He had fits – not those you would describe your Aunt Ellen of having, but those worthy of psychiatric evaluation. His rages remind one of those attributed to charismatic figures of the past. When in fits of rage, Alexander and Charlemagne would command their soldiers to slaughter every man, woman and child in sight. Only orgies of blood and violence could calm them. Achilles’ rage on the death of Patroclus remains the greatest and most lasting of archetypes to this kind of psychotic break that charismatic figures are prone to, and are by their subalterns often permitted.

But Hitler’s rages were also instrumental. He would use them to bully and intimidate foreign leaders, succeeding in gaining ground for the Reich while giving a knowing wink to his lieutenants. The rages inflicted on his followers achieved more complicated effects. Like a great, mad magician, he turned outsiders into enemies, and enemies into sub-humans, vermin and lice on the German body that had to be exterminated. Vacillators and prevaricators became murderers. People jumped over moral boundaries and executed the slaughter of the Slavs and the Holocaust.

Thanks to the Scoville Library, I found Shirer this summer, and discovered Hitler again. I suffered the sickening fascination of evil. I achieved a greater appreciation of the powers of emotion to overturn reason.

I re-disovered Hitler, however, enwrapped in the comfort of a small-town lending library, a little outpost of reason like the one that succored me in my early life. Thanks to Shirer’s remarkable book, I have learned that though we live in a world of madness, emotion, and unreason, we are led by those possessed mostly of ignorance and hubris, and not of total evil. Call out your analogies for the American empire, Afghanistan, and Iraq: Athens and the Peloponnesian War, 16th Century Spain, the Western Europe of the Two Wars, the Soviet Union of the successors of Stalin. Fair enough. But Hitler? Well, not yet.