Mencken the Teuton
When the Bad Boy of Baltimore was bad, he was horrid.
Jan 30, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 19 • By FRED SIEGEL
I, too, like the leaders of Germany, had grave doubts about democracy. . . . It suddenly dawned on me, somewhat to my surprise, that the whole body of doctrine that I had been preaching was fundamentally anti-Anglo Saxon, and that if I had any spiritual home at all it must be in the land of my ancestors. When World War I actually started I began forthwith to whoop for the Kaiser, and I kept up that whooping so long as there was any free speech left.
This wasn't a brief episode, but the very core of Mencken's political being. He proudly proclaimed in his columns for the Baltimore Sun papers that, in the battle between autocracy and democracy, he wanted to see democracy go down. Mencken was enamored not only of the Kaiser's autocratic rule, but with "the whole war machine." He mocked Allied outrage over German killings of Belgian civilians, as well as the sinking of the S.S. Lusitania, which brought the death of 124 Americans. Hobson tells us that he advised Theodore Dreiser, a fellow German-American, that "there can never be any compromise in future men of German blood and the common run of 'good,' 'right thinking' Americans. We must stand against them forever, and do what damage we can do to them, and to their tin-pot democracy."
During the course of the war he was censored by the Sunpapers, but wrote three revealing articles for the Atlantic. The first, "The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet," celebrated Nietzsche as the inspiration for the new Germany, which was "contemptuous of weakness." Germany, as he admired it, was a "hard" nation with no patience for politics because it was governed by the superior men of its "superbly efficient ruling caste." "Germany," he concluded, "becomes Nietzsche; Nietzsche becomes Germany." Mencken approvingly quotes Nietzsche to the effect that "the weak and the botched must perish. . . . I tell you that a good war hallows every cause."
The second Atlantic article, based on Mencken's own reporting from the Eastern front in 1917, was a piece of hero worship that exalted General Erich Ludendorff as Germany's "national messiah." Mencken treasured the kaiser, but he thought Ludendorff was worth "40 Kaisers," and was the man to lead German Kultur in its total war against Anglo-Saxon civilization. According to Mencken, the general's greatness was to be found in the way that he had stamped out people's individuality so that "the whole energy of the German people [could] be concentrated on the war."
The third, and most intriguing, essay--"After Germany's Conquest of the United States"--talked about the benefits to America of being ruled by the hard men of a superior Kultur. Known only because of the exchange of letters between Mencken and the editor of the Atlantic, the article was withdrawn and never published. Interestingly, despite Mencken's extraordinary efforts to document his own life, the manuscript, according to Vincent Fitzpatrick, curator of the Mencken collection, cannot be found. Mencken's reputation, it seems, was saved by wartime self-censorship--in Boston, home of the Atlantic.
Mencken had genuine cause for bitterness during World War I, when the excesses of zealous Americanism left him fearful for the safety of his family. But neither Rodgers nor his other biographers have noted the context of that hostility. While Mencken was touting the genius of Teutonic militarism, German saboteurs blew up the munitions depot at Black Tom Island off Manhattan. That strike, until 9/11 the most violent action by a hostile force in the history of the city of New York, caused $40 million of damage, sinking the island and its contents into the sea. The Kaiser's plans to invade America might never have come off, but Germany plotted to bring Mexico into the war against the United States.
The Sage of Baltimore needs to be placed in a broader intellectual context. The man who is still selectively celebrated by people like Rodgers, as if he were nothing more or less than an American iconoclast, was one of a number of anti democratic thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of them, like D.H. Lawrence, were proto-fascists; others, like H.G. Wells, were apologists for Stalin. But they all denounced democracy in the name of vitalism, eugenics, and a caste system run by an elite of superior men.