Wait…so was Hitler a Hipster?
by J. Andrew Zalucky
Before I say anything else, I should recommend to anyone who cares about history or is particularly interested in the story of Fascism and National Socialism the first volume of Richard J. Evans’ history of Nazi Germany, The Coming of the Third Reich. I started reading the sample of the Kindle version last month and was so enthralled by the clarity of the writing and attention to detail that I simply had to purchase the full volume.
As I was reading late last night, I came upon a passage about Adolf Hitler and his life in Austria prior to The First World War. Most people, or at least most educated people, are aware of Hitler’s early years as a frustrated artist in Austria that pre-dated his involvement with radical politics. It is commonly known that as a young man, Hitler tried to enter the Academy of Art in Linz, first for painting then in architecture, failing both times. None of this should be news to anyone, and much of how he spent his early adulthood, “drawing, talking with friends, going to the opera and reading” is rather harmless and innocuous.
However, what struck me was the way in which Evans described the period of time after his rejection from the academy and how eerily (and hilariously) familiar it all sounded:
Hitler’s subsequent account of this period lent a retrospective coherence to it that does not seem to have possessed in reality…First unable to come to terms with his failure to get into the Academy, Hitler conceived a violent hatred for bourgeois convention, the establishment, rules and regulations. Rather than train or apply for a regular job, he lived an idle, chaotic, bohemian life, and spent his savings on going to Wagner operas. When the money ran out, he was forced to sleep rough, or find night-quarters in a doss-house. Things only looked up when he received some money from his aunt, and began to sell small paintings, mostly copies, providing himself with the means to live in a Men’s Home, where he rented a cheap room and was able to use the library and the reading-room. Here he stayed for three years, living a life that belonged to the outermost fringes of bohemian culture.
A failed artist living an idle bohemian lifestyle on the financial support of his family, who harbored a distaste for the non-romantic necessities of a successful career.
It’s almost too perfect. Snatch that description and take out the name Hitler, and you may as well be describing today’s pretentious, vapid, millenial hipsters (because I’m sure there must be a few baby-boomers reading this who still don’t know what a hipster is, take a look at wikipedia or this article in New York Magazine).
I shouldn’t be too cruel about this or make too close a connection here. After all, most young people tend to have a chaotic post-college experience where they have to navigate some sort of path to a meaningful existence. And of course, this is true of most people, from the practical finance and accounting majors to the idealistic actors and painters. Hell, when I finished school in 2009 and spent a summer in Boston, trying and failing to find a job in the music industry, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. When one goes about the superficial yet admittedly fun task of setting people, particularly young men, on the hipster-to-bro spectrum of cultural identity- it should be clear that we have a bit of both the hipster and the bro in all of us, just in varying degrees.
For the sake of being a snarky jerk, I find the thought of Williamsburg, Allston, and Portland (Oregon) being hotbeds for potential fascist dictators to be absolutely hysterical. Just imagine an army of thrift-store blackshirts (immortalized as the “thrift-store Gestapo” in Say Anything‘s classic, Admit It) marching down Bedford Ave. singing Vampire Weekend and throwing any record that ever sold more than 100,000 copies into the fire. All political-party pamphlets would be generated by Communications from Elsewhere‘s postmodernism generator. That is a real thing by the way, go to it and keep hitting refresh. In fact, I dare any of you cultural studies majors out there to take one of these and submit it to your professor, who knows, maybe you’ll even get an A for it!
This is all funny of course, but within the joke lies a very real worry.
With so many young, intelligent, affluent and educated people mired in a culture of postmodern relativism, nihilism, and self-righteousness, where does this all lead from a political standpoint? While many of my close friends and I strongly disdain the environment of bland, celebrity-obsessed mainstream culture (especially in music and film), to make the jump to self-imposed ennui and cynicism, like that of the main character in Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, is very different indeed. When the inevitable existential crisis hits, where does the next “leap” take you? If many of these same young people really do disdain the practical and at times boring work required of the various “bourgeois” governing philosophies of the centre-left and centre-right, should we really be surprised if their weight is shifted in a more radical, possibly totalitarian direction? And could we really assume that this would turn into some warm and fuzzy mass movement motivated by the ideals of peace and justice? I highly doubt most hipsters would have the stomach for the work involved in trade-unionism and other pillars of the socialist movement. Many of my generation who found an affinity for the Occupy Wall Street protests have since moved to the various schools of anarcho-syndicalism, mutualism, and other non-statist ideologies. This may seem an exciting and comforting thought, but this is very much limited to those elements who actually have some motivation or conviction. Among other circles, there is a worrisome strand of anti-capitalist thought that has taken on an almost Strasserist character.
It’s also important to point out that at its core, Hipster culture did (and does) have many genuine artists, writers, musicians, and activists that the rest of the group hovers around. However, let’s look to Hitler again, after he moved to Munich in 1913:
Like other Schwabing bohemians, he whiled away much of his time in coffee houses and beer-cellars, but he was an outsider to the real bohemian world as well as the world of respectable society, for while men like Eisner, Toller, Landauer or Muhsam were heavily involved in the theatre, discussing anarchist utopias, or making a name for themselves as poets and writers, Hitler continued his previous, aimless existence, and made no attempt to acquire in Munich the artistic training he had been denied in Vienna.
Do I mean to say that all hipsters are potential fascists? Not necessarily. And it would be lunacy to ignore the importance of the subsequent events of the War, the consequences of the peace, and the temporary Red revolution in Bavaria. But there is something hauntingly familiar about the aimless artist and hanger-on who eventually becomes distressed at the emptiness of his own existence. With the ubiquitous sense of narcissism and deconstructionism in youth culture, what is there to stop someone from say…this:
Again, the clip is meant to be funny, and since it is Tim Heidecker drinking a PBR, you’d be crazy not to laugh at it. But when you think about it, if everything is distilled into a meaningless slop of irony and pretentiousness, is there really any room left for the statement: “fascism is evil” or “genocide is wrong” or “a human has a right to his or her own life”. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a couple hipsters outside the bar once, late in 2011. We were talking about things like OWS and the types of action needed to change the political system and the culture of comfort and ignorance prevalent in the United States. After a lot of back-and-forth, the more bearded of the two turned to me and said: “Basically, if we want to be taken seriously, people need to start being killed. A lot of people need to fucking die for anything to change.” After struggling to keep my eyebrows from launching off of my head, I proceeded to prod and challenge him on this point and refused to leave him alone until he eventually admitted that he didn’t really mean what he said. At worst, he was being callous and ironic for its own sake. At best, he was probably trying to sound romantic and impressive. For my part, I couldn’t see this person harming anyone, but the thoughtlessness of his remark has stayed with me, even as the taste of the night’s alcohol has worn off.
Though the 2010 article I referenced earlier in New York Magazine went so far as to declare hipster-ism dead as a cultural force, I think as our generation grows, its undergoing much more of an evolution than an outright decline. While it is true that most hipsters have an inborn affinity for orthodox liberalism and perhaps a few, after a predictably guilt-ridden mid-life crisis, will actually turn back to the conservatism of some of their parents, what about those who march into the void and decide not to turn back? When you peel away the layers of faux-sophistication and irony, is there anything left?