Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Disreputable mountebanks, but dangerous.

Young Hitler, in Vienna:
From the wealth of new ideas to which he was exposed, he made a selection which he cobbled together to compose the philosophy of National Socialism. The pseudo-anthropology of Guido von List made a deep impression on him. . . .

Another of the charlatans under whose influence Hitler fell was Lanz von Liebenfels . . . . What Hitler knew of racial sciences and eugenics, and later imported into National Socialism policy, came not from scientific reading but filtered through popularizers and vulgarizers like Liebenfels.

All in all, the adventures of Adolf Hitler in the realm of ideas provide a cautionary tale against letting an impressionable young person loose to pursue his or her education in a state of total freedom. For seven years Hitler lived in a great European city in a time of ferment from which emerged some of the most exciting, most revolutionary thought of the new century. With an unerring eye he picked out not the best but the worst of the ideas around him. Because he was never a student, with lectures to attend and reading lists to follow and fellow students to argue with and assignments to complete and examinations to sit, the half-baked ideas he made his own were never properly challenged. The people he associated with were as ill-educated, volatile, and undisciplined as himself. No one in his circle had the intellectual command to put his chosen authorities in their place as what they were: disreputable and even comical mountebanks.
J.M. Coetzee, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Monster," New York Review of Books 8, 10 (Feb. 15, 2007) (a review of Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest).

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