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Hitler, Wittgenstein and Me
December 2, 2018
by William P. Meyers

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We were all Roman Catholic altar boys

I am nobody important, but I do read books by important people and write about them from time to time. It is an almost-sunless Sunday in Seattle, so what better time and place to brood about my connections with Adolf Hitler and Ludwig Wittgenstein?

I grew up in the Marine Corps and as a child loved a TV show called Combat. It followed a group of U.S. Army soldiers fighting the Germans in France towards the end of World War II. Thereby helping to perpetuate the myth that America defeated Germany in World War II, when in fact the U.S.S.R. was already steam rolling over German troops in Eastern Europe.

In any case in the show the German soldiers were called Krauts and I used the term at some point in front of my father, retired USMC Captain Meyers.

My father told me not to use the term. He explained our family name, Meyers, is German and it was not right to run down Germans. Not all Germans were bad people. My father had fought in the Pacific in World War II, and later said that when he was stationed in Japan in the 1950s he came to think highly of the Japanese people.

My father had grown up in Chicago in a family of unionized workers. The hard core racism in my family came from my mother, former Private First Class Bessie Juanita Meyers, who had grown up in Texas. I have written about my mother's support for segregation elsewhere.

Our family was Roman Catholic and I was an altar boy from the age of about 8 until I left for college.

So I understand the kind of command-and-control family that Adolf Hitler grew up in. Some differences, though, from my family. Hitler grew up in a nation, Austria (actually the Austro-Hungarian Empire, up until the end of WWII), that was almost purely Roman Catholic. I grew up mostly in the south of the United States, where Catholics were and are still very much a minority. Hitler's father was a petty bureaucrat. We were both altar boys, and we both considered becoming priests at some point or another. We were both lower-middle class, with parents who aspired to climb higher on the social ladder.

In contrast Ludwig Wittgenstein was born into the wealthiest family in Austria and perhaps in Europe. His family was Roman Catholic, but was known to have been partly descended from Jews. Ludwig grew up in a house that had every luxury and was visited regularly by famous artists and musicians. He too did his duty as an altar boy. Eventually, living in England, he became the most influential philosopher of the 20th century. He also gave away all of his wealth early in life and lived a very spartan existence at Cambridge University.

Strangely, Wittgenstein and Hitler went to the same school, the Realschule in Linz, at the same time. So they knew each other as children.

As a child I knew about Hitler, of course, but I did not learn he was Roman Catholic until I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, likely when I was in college. The refusal of Catholics and Americans to deal with this fact, like the refusal to deal with the Somerset Case, became a point of fascination for me.

I studied philosophy and politics at university, including Wittgenstein. In fact the only class I took at university that was devoted to a single philosopher was about Wittgenstein's philosophy (it did include reading philosophers who commented on him).

Wittgenstein was also a homosexual, though I don't think that was mentioned in the class I took. I believe that partly created his interest in questions of how word meanings and common human assumptions can lead us to mistakes of all kinds.

I see Wittgenstein as a very good person and Hitler as a very bad person, but I don't see Hitler as most Americans see him. I don't see National Socialism the way either most Americans on the left, or most Americans on the right, see it. I know too many facts, too many details. See my other essays on Hitler and Fascism.

While many governments and churches from ancient times have tried to totally control large groups of people, I think the Roman Catholic Church still stands as the most successful mind-control group in world history. Good thing they did not win World War II.

I think when people leave the Catholic Church they often dump the good with the bad. One thing Hitler must have dumped is called the Examination of Conscience. This was typically a once-a-week affair of looking back at one's thoughts and actions to determine if one has done something wrong (sinned). While I came to disagree with the Church about what constitutes right and wrong, I still believe it is good to be honest with oneself about how one behaves. That is the only way to behave better. It is not without dangers, however. Catholicism uses guilt as a control mechanism, and makes people feel guilty about some things they should not feel guilty about. Hence the need to refine ones values, in addition to examining conscience.

It is now only 2 PM, but the winter sun is beginning to set.

Time to think about walking the dog.

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