Smith discusses the mythological thinking that dominated Nazi ideology, as explained in Cassirer’s book The Myth of the State.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

The philosopher and historian Ernst Cassirer was born in 1874 into a family of Polish Jews. After studying at various German universities, he went on to write numerous important works on science, philosophy, and history, including his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (in three volumes), and The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, which remains one of the best overviews of Enlightenment thought ever written. After being introduced to the ideas of Immanuel Kant by the brilliant sociologist Georg Simmel, Cassirer went on to become a defender of the neo‐​Kantianism of the “Marburg School.” (For an explanation of the important differences between the Marburg School and Kant’s ideas, such as the repudiation of Kant’s unknowable “thing‐​in‐​itself,” see Chapter Two of Edward Skidelsky, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture Princeton University Press, 2008).

When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Cassirer vacated his teaching position at the University of Hamburg and moved to Sweden. Later, fearing that Jews would be unsafe in that country, he moved to England and taught at Oxford for two years. Then, beginning in 1941, Cassirer taught at Yale and, lastly, at Columbia University (NYC) until his death in 1945.

Cassirer was a classical liberal in the German tradition of Kant, Goethe, and Wilhelm von Humboldt. (See my essay The Culture of Liberty: Wilhelm von Humboldt.) In contrast to English liberalism and its stress on economic freedom and politics, German liberals focused more on the cultural aspects and benefits of a free society. Individuality, moral autonomy, and cultural diversity were dominant and recurring themes in German liberalism.

Until his last work, The Myth of the State, Cassirer wrote very little on political subjects. He began writing this book in 1944, after being commissioned by Fortune Magazine to write an article on National Socialism, or Nazism. Cassirer expanded this article into a book, finishing it in 1945, just days before his death in April of that year. As Edward Skidelsky (cited above, p. 223) said of The Myth of the State: The origins of Nazism “are sought not in the barracks and beer cellars of Munich and Vienna, but in the works of Machiavelli, Hegel, Carlyle, and Arthur de Gobineau.”

I shall not discuss the intellectual antecedents of National Socialism until my next essay. Here I shall focus on Cassirer’s application of his theory of mythological thinking to modern totalitarianism. Cassirer had a keen interest in the nature and social role of myths; indeed, the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is titled Mythical Thought. I shall quote liberally from the final chapter of The Myth of the State (“The Technique of the Modern Political Myths)” in this summary of Cassirer’s views. As we shall see, Cassirer’s ideas apply not only to fascism or to Nazism, but more broadly to totalitarian governments in general.

According to Cassirer, after World War I “Germany’s whole social and economic system was threatened with a complete collapse….This was the natural soil upon which the political myths could grow up and in which they found ample nourishment.” Mythological thinking “reaches its full force when man has to face an unusual and dangerous situation.” This is as true in modern civilizations and “advanced stages of man’s political life” as it was in earlier, more “primitive” societies.

In politics we are always living on volcanic soil. We must be prepared for abrupt convulsions and eruptions. In all critical moments in man’s social life, the rational forces that resist the rise of the old mythical conceptions are no longer sure of themselves. In these moments the time for myth has come again. For myth has not been really vanquished and subjugated. It is always there, lurking in the dark and awaiting its hour and opportunity. The hour comes as soon as the other binding forces of man’s social life, for one reason or another, lose their strength and are no longer able to combat the demonic mythical powers.

Mythological thinking, according to Cassirer, is the “personification of collective wishes”; and when this “collective desire” reaches a fever pitch and when rational solutions appear hopeless, people typically look for a solution in the form of a strong political leader with “mystical power and authority” whose “will is supreme law.” But though civilized man shares the same violent passions as members of a “savage tribe,” and is liable to yield to the same irrational impulses, civilized man “cannot entirely forget the demand of rationality.”

In order to believe he must find some “reasons” for his belief; he must form a “theory.” And this theory, at least, is not primitive; it is, on the contrary, highly sophisticated.

In contrast to the myths generated spontaneously in primitive communities, modern political myths are “made according to plan.”

The new political myths do not grow up freely; they are not wild fruits of an exuberant imagination. They are artificial things fabricated by very skillful and cunning artisans. It has been reserved for the twentieth century, our own great technical age, to develop a new technique of myth. Henceforth myths can be manufactured in the same sense and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon—as machine guns or airplanes. That is a new thing—and a thing of crucial importance. It has changed the whole form of our social life. It was in 1933 that the political world began to worry somewhat about Germany’s rearmament and its possible international repercussions. As a matter of fact this rearmament had begun many years before but had passed almost unnoticed. The real rearmament began with the origin and rise of the political myths. The later military rearmament was only an accessory after the fact. The fact was an accomplished fact long before; the military rearmament was only the necessary consequence of the mental rearmament brought about by the political myths.

The first step in the creation of modern political myths has been to change the function of language. Language may be used either to convey objective information, which is its “semantic” function; or it may be used to evoke strong emotions with the intention of controlling human behavior. (The latter, which Cassirer called the “magical” function of language, bears an eerie resemblance to what we now call “politically correct” language.) Additionally, under totalitarian governments in which “there is no private sphere, independent of political life, the whole life of man is suddenly inundated by a high tide of new rituals. They are as regular, as rigorous and inexorable as those rituals that we find in primitive societies.” To neglect the performance of these rituals is far more than a sin of omission; it is “a crime against the majesty of the leader and the totalitarian state.” The Nazi salutes Sieg Heil! (Hail [to] Victory) and Heil Hitler! (Hail Hitler!), along with the rituals that accompanied the mass meetings of the Nazi Party, are probably what Cassirer had in mind here.

Political rituals, argued Cassirer, “lull asleep all our active forces, our power of judgment and critical discernment, and….take away our feeling of personality and individual responsibility.” Moreover, when a society is inundated with rituals, we typically find collective responsibility in place of individual responsibility. Rousseau was wrong when he depicted man in a primitive state of nature as free and unconstrained; in fact, his behavior was severely constrained by rituals and his responsibility to his clan or other group. We might hope that modern man has transcended these constraints, but that is not the case. “When exposed to the same forces, he can easily be thrown back to a state of complete acquiescence. He no longer questions his environment; he accepts it as a matter of course.”

[H]ere are men [in Germany], men of education and intelligence, honest and upright men, who suddenly give up the highest human privilege. They have ceased to be free and personal agents. Performing the same prescribed rites they begin to feel, to think, and to speak in the same way. Their gestures are lively and violent; yet this is but an artificial, a sham life. In fact they are moved by an external force. They act like marionettes in a puppet show—and they do not even know that the strings of this show and of man’s whole individual and social life, are henceforward pulled by the political leaders.

Unlike the attempts of traditional governments to compel or to prohibit certain types of actions, modern totalitarian governments attempted to control how men think by inculcating political myths. These political myths “acted in the same way as a serpent that tried to paralyze its victims before attacking them. Men fell victims to them without any serious resistance. They were vanquished and subdued before they had realized what actually happened.” Modern totalitarian states “suppress and destroy the very sense of freedom; but, at the same time, they relieve men from all personal responsibility.” Cassirer continued:

Our modern politicians know very well that great masses are much more easily moved by the force of imagination than by sheer physical force. And they have made ample use of this knowledge. The politician becomes a sort of public fortuneteller. Prophecy is an essential element in the new technique of rulership. The most improbable or even impossible promises are made; the millennium is predicted over and over again.

As Cassirer saw the matter, Nazi ideology was not a natural or inevitable outgrowth of German culture, which had a long and distinguished tradition of liberalism. This is not to say that Cassirer was oblivious to the irrationalism and statism preached by various German philosophers. Far from it; as he said about Hegel:

But it was the tragic fate of Hegel that he unconsciously unchained the most irrational powers that have ever appeared in man’s social and political life. No other philosophical system has done so much for the preparation of fascism and imperialism as Hegel’s doctrine of the state—this “divine idea as it exists on earth.”

In spite of this, however, Cassirer maintained that Nazi ideology was a regression to a mythological, or pre‐​rational, way of thinking. Hegel and other statist philosophers did not bring about Nazism directly; rather, their ideas had a “corrosive” effect that prevented rational thinking about individual rights and politics from regaining the ground it had lost.