Thrillers and Hitler


“You’ve read the story,” he said. “I grant you it reads like a dime novelette; but there it is, staring you in the face, just the same. All at once, both in England and America, there’s some funny business going on in the oil and steel and chemical trades. The amount of money locked up in those three combines must be nearly enough to swamp the capitals of any other bunch of industries you could name. We don’t know exactly what’s happening , but we do know that the big men, the secret moguls of Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange, the birds with the fat cigars and the names in -heim and -stein, who juggle the finances of this cockeyed world, are moving on some definite plan. And then look at the goods they’re on the road with. Iron and oil and chemicals. If you know any other three interests that’d scoop a bigger pool out of a really first-class war, I’d like to hear of them.” (The Last Hero 43-44)

One of the odd characteristics of Hitler’s rhetoric, as Kenneth Burke noted in 1939, was that he appealed to a blazingly contradictory narrative about the Jews. Jews, Hitler said, were rapacious capitalists, out to screw over the working class, AND they were all Bolsheviks, out to screw over the wealthy. Burke said that Hitler’s answer was simply, “Aha, that makes them even more clever!” But, why would a narrative which obviously involves Jews operating for completely oppositional goals (rapacious capitalism and Bolshevik overthrow of capitalism) motivate people to believe that Jews are evil and dangerous—wouldn’t that argument clearly show that “Jews” are not all the same, and don’t have the same motives (and that “Jewish” and “Bolshevik” are not interchangeable)?

Why did that argument work?

In 1930, Leslie Charteris published The Last Hero, a thriller about his Robin Hood hero Simon Templar’s attempts to right the wrongs of the world. The basic premise of the book, also the premise of the next book (Knight Templar or The Avenging Saint) is that there is an international conspiracy to get major nations into war. That global conspiracy is composed of people (mostly Jews, as indicated in the passage above) in the steel, oil, and chemical industries who think they will benefit in the short term by a massive European war.

Simon Templar, The Saint, is willing to be fairly ugly in his means, including murder and torture, but because his ends are always blazingly good all of what he does is to be admired. He is up against completely evil people, who want to drag people into a war as bad as the Great War, perhaps worse. They just happen to be Jews.

This plot device, esssentially a MacGuffin in its simultaneously empty and excessive signification, comes up also in John Buchan’s 39 Steps, and almost too many other popular sources to name. The basic premise of a thriller—that there is a large plausible conspiracy against the hero—needs to be simultaneously simple, credible, and insane. And, so, that the Jews are behind it fits the bill.

They caused the Great War, and benefitted from it, and so are looking for another. This, to us, might seem an insane narrative, and it is delusional at best, but it was common, and its omnipresence contributed to the success of fascism. So, paradoxically, a belief that war was a Jewish plot imposed on naïve but well-meaning world leaders contributed to one of the most destructive wars in world history.

World War I was, in this narrative, not caused by excessive nationalism, fear-mongering rhetoric, a sense of fatalism about a European war, a passion on the part of the French to regain the Alsace-Lorraine, a passion on the part of the Germans to expand within Europe, sheer incompetence on the part of people trying to manage the diplomatic crisis created by terrorism, or a hovering opportunism on the part of nations (not Jews) to benefit from a war. There remain arguments about who caused the war (Germany’s brinksmanship, Russia’s mobilizing, Britain’s dithering, with the largest number of scholars on the side of Germany) but there isn’t really much disagreement as to what—and it was a concatenation of screwups that enabled leaders engaged in wishful thinking to engage in a war very different from the one they wanted.

Paul Fussell famously argued that the Great War forced a lot of people to accept irony and ambiguity as fact of life, to accept the war as a Great Fuck-up. But many people didn’t (and don’t) want to admit that that unnecessary war was caused by mistakes, misjudgments, and missed telegrams. That such devastation could have been unplanned and unintentional is unimaginable to some people, and for such people, a conspiracy theory, even one that posits a vast network of thoroughly evil people, is preferable to the possibility that we are subject to what almost amounts to random chance.

It was nearly impossible to believe that the war had been fought for good reasons, or that the war had been conducted intelligently, or that it had even really been necessary. There were various responses available: that war is unnecessary, that the methods of negotiations among countries are flawed, that people fuck up, that the world is open to horribly random events. All of those narratives obstruct any attempt to think of political issues as absolutely clear choices between right and wrong. A vast conspiracy turns it back into a clear story of good and bad people.

A vast conspiracy is also rather nice for an author, especially of thrillers. The author doesn’t have to keep coming up with villains, and that the conspiracy is vast, evil, and cunning can be used as duct tape to put together plot points that might otherwise require more explication than the author wants to give, or the readers want to drag through.

And that’s an important point about thrillers: they are supposed to be thrilling, with car chases, basements slowly filling with gas, treks across moors, speedboats, fights, and snappy dialogues. So the conspiracy—whatever it is—has to made plausible in as few words as possible, and that means relying on beliefs readers already have about what conspiracies possibly and plausibly exist. The notion of a Jewish conspiracy goes far back into the Middle Ages, and authors like Buchan and Charteris simply changed the details of the narrative.

There was, in other words, a kind of easy anti-Semitism in interwar literature, easy both in the sense that it was easy to use and easy to believe. Most of the conspiracies are, if you think about them at all, profoundly implausible—makers of steel, oil, and chemicals didn’t actually want another world war, as war had as many risks for them as potential gains (they might want remilitarizing, or some skirmishes, but not a “first-class war”) and, of course, the conspirators are supposed to be brilliant, but engage in silly and pointless actions (such as elaborate ways of killing the hero). They act against their own interest because all they want is to be evil. They are precisely the sort of conspirators who would screw over the wealthy on behalf of the poor and the poor on behalf of the rich, at the same time. Just because.

I don’t know if authors like Charteris and Buchan were personally anti-Semitic; Charteris famously loathed fascism, but Buchan openly admired Mussolini. But none of that matters. It wouldn’t matter if they were hostile to fascism and even hostile to anti-Semitism, if they used Jews as the villains simply because it was easy. What matters is that they did, and it was easy. Easy anti-Semitism made their plot problems easier, and all those plots that reinforced the notion of a convoluted and internally contradictory conspiracy made Hitler’s own conspiracy theory more plausible. There’s no reason to imagine that authors of thrillers were trying to help fascism—they were trying to write books—but they did.


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