Wednesday, 5 September 2007

After the Downfall: A German Reading of "Lord of the Rings"

Niels Werber

Ruhr University Bochum

I. Race and Space in German Discourses—After the Downfall

"This year, 60 years after the end of the Third Reich, the German public predictably is celebrating the collective reminiscence of this era. The Oscar-nominated German movie The Downfall, with its "human" perspective on high-ranking Nazi "protagonists" and their entourage performing the regime's last act in the "Fuehrerbunker," is playing a significant part in this culture of remembrance. Whereas the protest generation in the 1960s and '70s criticized the hundredfold continuity of Nazi institutions, staff, laws, and ideology, The Downfall is styling the end of the National Socialist dictatorship as an epochal tabula rasa. Whoever outlived the breakdown of the Reich was sentenced in Nuremberg or reeducated under Allied surveillance. Therefore, May 8, 1945, can be seen as Hour Zero, "die Stunde Null." Such a standpoint gets backing from The Downfall, which dramatizes the end of the Third Reich in very suggestive pictures of destruction, annihilation, death, and suicide. Based on the destroyed battlegrounds in the film, the audience may assume that something altogether new would be built. However, in this essay I will investigate which components of the Third Reich have survived the collapse and are still present today.

This interest in a "subliminal" continuity of pre-1945 modes of thinking was enhanced by the tremendous success of John Ronald Reul Tolkien's epic novel The Lord of the Rings on the German book market and the awesome triumph of Peter Jackson's movie adaptation on German movie screens. Both novel and motion picture are obviously obsessed with the differences between certain races (Elves and Numenór, Dwarfs and Hobbits, Orcs and Southrons, Istari and Balrogs), their genealogies, bloodlines, crossbreedings, and even their biogenetic procreation (Uruk-Hai). Their respective realms (pretty Shire, proud Gondor, beautiful Imladris, terrible Mordor) mirror these differences. Through reading Tolkien's novels, seeing the movies, or playing computer games like "The Battle for Middle-earth" (EA Games, 2004), one is introduced into a certain bio- and geopolitical knowledge: first of all, races are different not only in terms of skin color or height, but in moral worth, refinement, wisdom, and political integrity. The races are either hereditarily good and wise like Elves or genetically evil and dumb like Orcs, and therefore they make "natural-born" enemies. The absolute and insurmountable hate between Elves and Orcs is not outlined as a consequence of political decision-making, but as a result of their opposing DNA sequences. To pass off contingent, historical, and changeable political differences as "natural" or "given" oppositions is paradigmatic in discourses of social Darwinism since the mid-nineteenth century. That "the Slavs" were a race hostile to "us" or "France" was "our" sworn enemy were typical phrases in this German context. In Nazi Germany, the construction of a strict difference between "us" and "them" itself was dramatized as threatened through the menace of mingling: "the Jew" was tainting "our" blood in a biogenetic warfare against the body of the German nation. Within the biopolitical discourse, this threat directly provided the justification for an extermination campaign against the Jewish race. Secondly, in a purely geopolitical context, one is taught that the differences between the territories of these races should be considered results of intense interactions between the cultivating nations and their soil. A primary result of this relationship is that the literal ground of a racial war of extermination is not neutral, but partisan. The whole world, including the territories and landscapes, climates and flora, the waters and their tides and currents, the birds and animals—everything is playing its "natural" role in the conflict between the free, noble races of Elves, Men, and their allies, on the one hand, and the "slaves" or "creatures" of evil and their collaborators, on the other hand. The realms, territories, and regions of the different nations have been molded through years of control in such a deep way that they should be counted as important parts of the political and military power of Middle-earth's races. Space and nature are highly politicized, to such a degree that one has to take into account the geopolitical and biopolitical dimensions of Tolkien's world. To view "natural borders" like rivers or mountains as a living periphery of the society and, vice versa, to understand society as a living organism or political body are integral parts of a geopolitical perspective.Thus, a reader of a German geopolitical author, like Carl Schmitt, Karl Haushofer, or Friedrich Ratzel, or a scholar of the discourses of eugenics, breeding, social Darwinism, or racism, either of whom is reading Tolkien's best sellers or viewing Jackson's blockbusters, would easily be convinced of the proposal that he is encountering a world of fiction that could be described best by pre-1945 discourses. It is not only that the analogies between the battle for Middle-earth and the Nazi campaign of racial warfare are striking and not only that some random elements of the Third Reich's politics seem to have survived the "downfall" in the genre of fantasy books, films, and games: rather an analysis of deep structure, narrative logic, rhetoric, and topology in Tolkien's works reveals in terms of geo- and biopolitics an almost frightening coherence.

I do not assert that Tolkien has written his novels in order to reproduce German discourses of race and space, but I would like to argue that a German audience might find a field of differences, models, and arguments in them that was essential to a pre-1945 hegemonic discourse, but fervently is declared dead in the Federal Republic of Germany. The eminent scholar of East European history Karl Schlögel has remarked in his latest book on Geopolitics and the History of Civilizations that the postwar generations have forgotten or repressed everything of the Nazi semantics of space and race, including its long tradition of German political geography. That discourse has completely "vanished in Germany," he claims".


Judy Chicago - HUC Show Banality of Evil/StruthofAcrylic, Oil & Photography30.24 in x 43.25 inframed

1 comment:

Joseph said...

You might be interested to read a blog that appeared today

I felt discomfort with your juxtaposition of Tolkien vis-a-vis pre 45 german discourse even though you do not claim 'intent' on Tolkien's part. But since you do use Tolkien's current popularity as a means to illuminate which 'components of the Third Reich have survived the collapse and are still present today', I think your analysis requires a referencing of some of the points Philen makes - eg. "For Germans in the 1930s and 1940s, Wagner may well have been inextricably tied to a whole slew of associations now viewed as unpalatable by most (and viewed so by at least some Germans like Mann at the time), but as something with its own objective qualities that can be experienced in any number of sociohistorical contexts (and so independently of any specific context), art is not determined forever by a specific context of its creation (the mid-to-late19th century for Wagner) and/or use (the Nazi use of Wagner)." This is highly relevant to Tolkien's popularity - and not just in Germany, with or without its repressed memories. Joseph