In Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, in a chapter detailing the autumn of 1939 as Hitler prepared to invade Poland, we find the following passage.
In the course of the night we stood on the terrace of the Berghof with Hitler and marveled at a rare natural spectacle. Northern lights of unusual intensity threw red light on the legend-haunted Untersberg across the valley, while the sky above shimmered in all the colors of the rainbow. The last act of the Gotterdammerung could not have been more effectively staged. The same red light bathed our faces and our hands. The display produced a curiously pensive mood among us. Abruptly turning to one of his military adjutants, Hitler said: “Looks like a great deal of blood. This time we won’t bring it off without violence.”
(“This time” was Hitler referring back to the bloodless takeovers of Austria and Czechoslovakia that preceded his grab for Poland.)
Speer’s passage struck me immediately as familiar. The literary device can be found in countless epic poems and myths—the Omen on the Eve of War. It’s a pretty standard technique, and you can see it in the Aeneid. This is the pertinent passage, from Dryden’s translation into heroic couplets. (Not anyone’s favorite translation anymore, I know—but it’s not copyright-protected, and I can cut and paste it):
Nor fails the goddess to foment the rage
With lying wonders, and a false presage;
But adds a sign, which, present to their eyes,
Inspires new courage, and a glad surprise.
For, sudden, in the fiery tracts above,
Appears in pomp th’ imperial bird of Jove:
A plump of fowl he spies, that swim the lakes,
And o’er their heads his sounding pinions shakes;
Then, stooping on the fairest of the train,
In his strong talons truss’d a silver swan.
Th’ Italians wonder at th’ unusual sight;
But, while he lags, and labors in his flight,
Behold, the dastard fowl return anew,
And with united force the foe pursue:
Clam’rous around the royal hawk they fly,
And, thick’ning in a cloud, o’ershade the sky.
They cuff, they scratch, they cross his airy course;
Nor can th’ incumber’d bird sustain their force;
But vex’d, not vanquish’d, drops the pond’rous prey,
And, lighten’d of his burthen, wings his way.
This similarity between history and epic is not surprising: People to this day search for indicators in the natural world that refer to their own situations. In its benign form, this sense of connectedness—between the universe at large and a private, earthly situation—drives people to believe in astrology. Incidentally, Speer mentions this when he gets to describing Germany in early 1945, as the Russians are approaching:
…the [German] populace had long since stopped believing the newspapers. There was one exception: During the closing months of the war a growing band of desperate people began pinning their hopes on the astrological sheets. Since these were dependent on the Propaganda Ministry…they were used as a tool for influencing public opinion. Fake horoscopes spoke of valleys of darkness which had to be passed through, foretold immanent surprises, intimated happy outcomes. Only in the astrological sheets did the regime still have a future.
There is, however, a malignant form of this. Hitler spoke frequently of his “star,” his “destiny,” and about “Providence” saving him from assassination attempts (though a shrewdly irregularized schedule made it difficult to target him). I don’t mean to imply that Aeneas was the Hitler of Alba Longa (though Aeneas was, by modern notions, a brutal colonial imperialist, subjugating the indigenous Etruscans), but it seems that warlords meditating violence, both in epic poetry and history, link themselves to the cosmos. In their minds, the universe, through natural phenomena, keeps up a commentary on their decisions and sends coded or symbolic messages about the outcome.
You may be thinking: Omens can be good or bad, encouraging or foreboding, and in the case of the Berghof omen, that was about as bad as an omen gets.
The foreboding nature of that omen results from hindsight, now that we know the Germans lost. Speer mentions a staging of the Twilight of the Gods, but Wagner’s climactic smash-all enters his mind retrospectively, too—he wrote Inside the Third Reich during his imprisonment at Spandau, after Speer’s own buildings had been smashed. A German defeat was by no means certain back in 1939, or even in 1941. Hitler wanted war; he wanted the bloodbath presaged by those red lights. To have his face and hands covered in (Jewish and Slavic) blood was not, to his mind, a negative thing. Note how Hitler interprets that omen as presaging violence—not necessarily disaster. (Disaster, incidentally, means evil star.)
Psychologically, this is an identification of the self with the impersonal phenomena of inanimate nature—the implicit conception of himself as a flood, an earthquake, an oceanic shift. His armies are cast as a creatively destructive, natural disaster that is occurring on enemy territory. Accordingly, mercy has no meaning for him, just as it doesn’t for the hurricane. The warlord’s sympathy is directed toward the cosmos; hubris-goaded, omen-guided, he feels what nature feels, which is nothing at all.