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ender and hitler: sympathy for the superman (20 years later)

2007-03-26 - 8:06 p.m.

Note: Most of the time I don't bother to write much about books I dislike. There's so much good work out there waiting to be explored that it seems a waste of our limited lifespans to focus on garbage. However, once in awhile, the humbug just gets to be too much, and it becomes almost impossible to resist the urge to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. The 1980s was the decade of the over-the-top humbug, from an actor with Alzheimer's playing the part of leader of the Free World on down. I couldn't do much about Iran-contra or idiots who paid $3 million for a painting signed by the artist's girlfriend. But I could squeak up about Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.

I'm not a trained critic, and I feel that my piece has since been out-dated by John Kessel's fine essay, Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality, which at the time of this posting can be found as a free nonfiction offer on Kessel's webpage by clicking right here. However, because of repeated requests, I've decided to go ahead and post my humble essay online where people can find it easily and make up their own minds. If you need a good strong critical piece, you'll undoubtedly find the Kessel essay more valuable. If you just want to see what all the hoo-hah was about back in the day, I trust you'll be sufficiently amused.

If you've already read it and you're just curious to know what I think about it today, you can skip ahead to the end.

If you really like this book and hate this essay, I don't have a problem with that. Everybody's entitled to their own opinions. In the original publication and in a reprint, Card's rebuttal was printed alongside my essay. However, I can't do that here, because I don't have the right to reprint his work. And, anyway, this site is also my diary, which by its nature is a personal thing. That's why I don't allow comments and why I only rarely permit "guest entries," invariably by people who are well known to me. My best advice to you is that if you want to rebut my essay, make a page on your own site or submit your piece to a site that is open to public submissions. Heck, maybe you'll hit lucky and even get paid for your work.

You probably can't email me because my email address is usually turned off to email addresses I haven't previously approved. Sorry about that. But, again, it ain't a dialogue. It's a diary. So, without further ado, here's the notorious Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman.

Let me tell you about a book I just read.

It's the story of a young boy who was dreadfully abused by the grown-ups who wanted to mold him into an exemplary citizen. Forced to suppress his own emotions in order to avoid being paralyzed by trauma, he directed his energy into duty rather than sex or love. In time, he came to believe that his primary duty was to wipe out a species of gifted but incomprehensible aliens who had devastated his kind in a previous war. He found the idea of exterminating an entire race distasteful, of course. But since he believed it was required to save the people he defined as human, he put the entire weight of his formidable energy behind the effort to wipe out the aliens.

You've read it, you say? It's Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, right?

Wrong. The aliens I'm talking about were the European Jews, blamed by many Germans for gearing up World War I for their own profit. The book is Robert G. L. Waite's The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hilter.

I don't know of any pair of novels that have been as consistently misinterpreted as Card's Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. Even a reader with a rudimentary knowledge of twentieth century history might be expected to guess that the character of Ender Wiggin, the near messianic superhero, is based on that of Adolf Hitler. Card himself is the "Speaker for the Dead" who seeks to understand and forgive the genocidal dictator's behavior by demonstrating that his intentions were good. Because Hitler/Ender committed genocide to preserve the existence and dignity of what he defined as human, he is not a monster but a true Superman who willingly shouldered the heavy responsibility thrust upon him.

For those who missed the point of what he was doing in Ender's Game, Card sums up the Speaker philosophy near the beginning of Speaker for the Dead. "Speakers for the Dead held as their only doctrine that good or evil exist entirely in human motive, and not at all in the act..." Toward the end, he has a child voice the inevitable corollary, "When you really know somebody, you can't hate them." To which I can only say, "Bullshit." You can easily hate someone you know very well -- ask a few people who have had to learn a great deal about their abusers in an effort to head off some of their attacks -- and, in any case, adults remain responsible for their actions no matter how good their intentions. Certainly, it isn't OK to kill somebody because you think he might try at some time in the future to kill you. Why then is it OK to wipe out whole races for the same reason? What in the world made responsible science fiction readers and writers embrace Ender Wiggin, a.k.a. Adolf Hitler, as a hero?

It isn't because the books are skillfully written. Ender's Game is plotted around the weariest cliche going, the game that becomes real. Speaker for the Dead is a preachy, tedious text that substitutes coincidence and the Superman's omniscience for plot drivers. The characters in both books, to quote a friend, are constructed of the highest grade cardboard. But since Norman Spinrad has already detailed Card's amazing lack of originality in plot and character construction, I won't indulge in a literary hack job here. I'll only say that I suspect that we take Ender/Hitler to our hearts because fascist ideals remain frighteningly alive in all of us. We would all like to believe that our suffering has made us special -- especially if it gives us a righteous reason to destroy our enemies.

Perhaps you feel that I exaggerate. I can hear you thinking: How could anyone equate that abused little boy with the Great Dictator? What kind of dirty mind does that Radford person have, anyway? In reply, I will now demonstrate that the Ender/Hitler connection is clearcut and central to the structure of both novels. I'll leave it to you to decide what it means that so many people found it so easy to identify with Ender Wiggin.

The Formative Years

To see what Card's up to, let's first look at Ender's formative years. Because eugenics works in his universe, Card grants the government the ability to predict the Wiggin children's genius from their parents' genes. Since the first two children are disqualified from Battle School on personality grounds, the parents are asked to try again -- producing Ender, whose early years are a nightmare of persecution because he's a Third child in an overpopulated world. His only friend is his sister Valentine, with whom he'll eventually wander about the galaxy in a quasi-incestuous relationship.

The reader is left with several questions that aren't easy to answer without comparing Ender's background to Hitler's. Why invoke eugenics, at best a pseudo-science and at worst an excuse for controlling one's "inferiors?" Why is it so important that Ender be a Third, to the point that Card gives the word a capital T? And why, oh why, the unnecessary and offensive hints at incest with his sister, the only member of the family that Ender is close to?

Alan Bullock writes in Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, the following synopsis of Hitler's early years. "Adolf was the third child of Alois Hitler's third marriage. Gustav and Ida, both born before him, died in infancy....There were also, however, the two children of the second marriage with Franziska, Adolf Hitler's half-brother Alois, and his half-sister Angela. Angela was the only one of his relations with whom Hitler maintained any sort of friendship. She kept house for him at Berchtesgaden for a time, and it was her daughter, Geli Raubal, with whom Hitler fell in love."

It's all here, isn't it? Hitler was three times a third -- the third child of a third marriage, and, because his older siblings died in infancy, the third child actually present in the house. Since his mother didn't conceive again until Hitler was six, Hitler, like Ender, spent his formative years as the third of three children. Like Ender, he eventually grew away from all of his family except his older sister. The main difference is that it was her daughter, and not Angela herself, with whom he engaged in a chaste but emotionally compelling love affair. (After Geli killed herself to escape her uncle's attentions, the doctor confirmed that she died a virgin. Likewise, Card makes us wait until well into the second novel before he tells us that Ender hasn't consummated his love for Valentine.)

Similarly, both children's lives were deformed by physical and emotional abuse. Ender escapes the abuse of his peers to join the Battle School -- where he is, of course, abused by adults. Hitler was literally treated like a dog by his father, who expected him to answer to his whistle and accept vicious beatings -- beatings which were all the more terrible to the boy because he had an undescended testicle and deeply feared losing the other. Both cases represented awful violations of a child's body and spirit in the attempt to mold the kind of character that adults decided the child should have.

The Logic of Misogyny

As an adult, it's in his relationships with women that Ender displays some of his most obvious parallels with Hitler. Indeed, as with the incest theme, some elements of Speaker for the Dead are inexplicable unless you're aware of Hitler's dyed-in-the-wool misogyny. In a world where the Wiggin genes are "crying out for continuation," Ender's chastity until his marriage at the age of 37 is puzzling. But, again, when we look at the Hitler connection, all becomes clear. Probably because of his childhood trauma, Hitler remained chaste for an unusually long time. He isn't known to have felt love for any woman until -- are you ahead of me here? -- age 37.

Another bizarre element is the fact that Ender chooses a bitter, self-destructive woman for his mate. Why? I presume it's to remind us that Hitler too chose self-destructive women. Of the seven close to him, six killed themselves or made serious attempts to do so.

In his eagerness to help us understand Ender/Hitler, Card comes close to justifying misogyny. At the Speaking of Marcao, Ender says that Novinha solicited beatings from her deceased husband in order to atone for her adultery. Marcao wasn't really a violent person, you understand, since he never hit anyone but his wife. How false and ugly that seems to those of us aware of the truth about abusive behavior, which is that abusive people will take out their frustrations on anyone -- woman, child, dog, or elderly parent -- who doesn't have the power to fight back. In this central chapter, meant to help us understand how speaking the truth heals a community, we see only a new lie traded for the old. Marcao may not have been the great guy we pretended he was, but hey, it was all his wife's fault.

Women have heard this tired story too many times before. It's called Blaming the Victim.

The author's contempt for women shows most clearly in his creation of Jane, a sentient supercomputer. Now there is no reason on God's green earth for Jane to present herself as female or even human. But Card knows that the reader would die laughing at the image of a neutered computer focusing on Ender like this. "And with all that vast activity, her unimaginable speed, the breadth and depth of her experience, fully half of the top ten levels of her attention were always, always [Card's emphasis] devoted to what came through the jewel in Ender Wiggin's ear." Hard to swallow, isn't it? But Card expects us to understand when he depicts Jane as a woman in love. Surely the reader will recognize that a woman, no matter how intelligent, has nothing better to focus on than a man?

The Necessity of Genocide

The most explicit parallel between Hitler and Ender is that they're both genocides. Hitler, of course, ordered the death of millions of Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, physically and mentally handicapped persons, and so on. Ender exterminated an entire intelligent species. Most people, I hope, agree that mass murder, much less genocide, is quite indefensible. Yet, as we follow Ender's life after he wipes out the Buggers, we're invited to understand and forgive his actions.

Why? How? Here are two answers. "I would prefer not to see anyone suffer, not to do harm to anyone. But then I realize that the species is in danger..." "I thought I was playing a game. I didn't know it was the real thing. But...if I had known the battle was real, I would have done the same thing. We thought they wanted to kill us." The first words are Hitler's, the second Ender's. But the idea is the same, an appeal to good intentions. To save our people, we had to eliminate the threat presented by the existence of the stranger.

And that's a valid argument, if you're still a child and no one has ever told you what the road to Hell is paved with. It's a matter of historical record that Hitler honestly believed that the people he defined as human were in terrible danger from "inferior races." He did not merely use the threat to Nordic racial purity to become Fuhrer. Rather, he became Fuhrer because there was simply no other way to institute the sweeping racial programs his beliefs required. As Waite writes in The Psychopathic God: "The horror of Hitler was this: he meant what he said, he lived by his ideals, he practiced what he preached." And this, precisely, is the horror of Ender the Xenocide.

That's why Card lays such great stress on Valentine's silly "orders of forgiveness," which give the people in Speaker such a convenient vocabulary for their racism. Says a "brilliant" student in Speaker: "Through these Nordic [!] layers of forgiveness we can see that Ender was not a true Xenocide, for when he destroyed the Buggers, we knew them only as varelse [the truly alien]." To Hitler, of course, Jews, Blacks, and Slavs were equally alien, so by the same argument he is also innocent of genocide!

Forgiving Hitler

The most offensive thing about Ender is that he goes Hitler one better. Where the Fuhrer would have been content to kill everybody he thought might possibly one day represent a threat to his people, Ender does kill everybody -- and then proceeds to steal their heritage. Ender the Xenocide becomes the first Speaker for the Dead, writing the book that will define what the Buggers are for three thousand years. It is as if Hitler not only exterminated the Jews, he then went on to write his own story of what the state of Israel might have been.

If there is anything uglier than silencing the voice of the alien because she is alien, it is then filling in the silence with your own version of what she was. Yet Card represents this act as Ender's redemption.

For the reader who isn't convinced that writing a book (no matter how highly acclaimed) makes up for exterminating a race, Card offers an alternative, albeit rather contradictory, excuse for his genocide's actions -- genetic determinism. Although this "science" has been shown to represent such an oversimplification that it's a downright distortion, Card makes it the foundation of the biology of his universe. From the very beginning, authorities can breed geniuses more easily than you or I could establish a strain of purebred blue budgies, and never mind that breeding for color and size involves at most a few genes, while breeding for intelligence would require a total understanding of the complicated interactions between whole chromosomes. In Card's strange world, children can inherit advanced qualities like a talent for xenobiology -- a bizarre combination of genetic determinism and Lamarckianism since these characteristics were presumably artificially acquired at some point in the past. (Or does Card imagine that there is literally a gene for xenobiological talent that we can breed for? How could such a thing evolve? Surely our genes would have to be macroscopic to carry all the information he assumes they do.) In any case, his pseudo-science serves primarily as an excuse for ugly actions running the gamut from genocide to vivisection.

At the very beginning of Speaker, Card has the thirteen-year-old Novinha exclaim, "But you can't understand the piggies just by watching the way they behave! [Card's emphasis] They came out of a different evolution. You have to understand their genes, what's going on inside their cells." The reader may chuckle at the idea of understanding a race's psychology from its genes -- but Card plots later events so that Novinha's odd statement is entirely borne out. Environment (except for childhood traumas aimed at garnering reader sympathy) is nothing. Inheritance is all.

So what does this have to do with Ender/Hitler? Everything. Hitler, of course, believed in precisely this kind of oversimplified pseudo-scientific mishmash, and that's why he thought that applying the methods of the budgie breeder to human beings would work. Since there are no pet stores to accept your culls when you're breeding people, he built the death camps. And if the world really worked that way, I suppose you could say he was justified. If intelligence and moral character were actually reducible to a couple of recessive genes just waiting to be cultivated, then you could breed a race of Supermen using Hitler's methods. Indeed, short of genetic manipulation on a level we haven't mastered yet, his methods would probably be the only way to breed Supermen.

(Perhaps Hitler should have asked some budgie breeders first. They could have told him that the culls often turn out to be the smartest, most personable birds -- because they're taken into people's homes and given personal attention. Beautiful show budgies who do nothing but preen and sire young don't say, "Look at the pretty bird." But Hitler -- and Card -- already know that intelligence is mainly inherited and easily correlated with other desirable traits, so why bother to see what actual breeders say?)

Ender, of course, is a Superman -- the greatest one. Breeding, not training, made him what he is. Remember, he brutally murdered a schoolboy for strategic reasons before he was accepted into Battle School. Although his training helped refine his talents as a killer genius, all the pre-arranged trauma and intensive schooling in the galaxy would have gone for naught had it not been for his superior genes. Card therefore Speaks for Ender by saying that the boy killed for the noblest reasons and couldn't have done otherwise anyway. So why should we attach moral meaning to his actions?

This interpretation also explains the clunky ending to Ender's Game. Having saved the world just by being what he is, Ender proceeds to demonstrate his innate nobility by wallowing in his own guilt. Sure, he isn't to blame and he knows it -- but why not be a real Superman and prove how sensitive you are while saving the world?

Speaker's ending is even more ludicrous. Having spent most of two novels telling us why we can never understand the alien, Card has Ender pull a quick turnaround at the last minute so that Bugger, human, and piggie can live together in harmony. (This in a universe where tolerance is so rare that premarital sex is unthinkable and whole planets are chartered on the basis of narrow religious, racial, and national affiliations!) Just a little understanding and a quickie resurrection by our local Superman are enough to unravel the twisted knot of racially predetermined hatreds. Hitler's made it to Brazil to put what he's learned to use in the interest of racial harmony between European, Indian, and African. He's even brought a few Jews with him to lend the Brazilians a hand!

I'm sorry, Card, but it doesn't wash. It's just too cheap. In the real world, the murdered don't rise from the dead when the Great Leader decides that the times are right for tolerance. Shakespeare, speaking of another figure oft-cited as the model Superman, said it better: "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones..." So it was with Caesar, so it is with Hitler. All the understanding in the world doesn't change the fact that this man deformed the face of the twentieth century and that all of us are living with his destructive legacy. Perhaps you meant to focus on the good men do rather than their evil when you wrote: "Destroyed everything he touched -- that's a lie, that can't be truthfully said of any human being who ever lived." Perhaps you meant to help us enlarge the sphere of our capacity for forgiveness. No doubt, in any case, that you meant well.

But it doesn't really matter, does it? As long as people are struggling against anti-Semitism, misogyny, and all the other ways of oppressing the different, it seems inappropriate to focus overmuch on the delicate feelings of the oppressor. Look at the fact that the Fuhrer was sincere and re-define his life as dedicated rather than evil? Forgive Hitler? Card, from your privileged position as a white male American Christian, you have no right to ask us that.


And so here we are, 20 years later. To this day, the most common response by Card fans to my essay is that they just don't see it. My goodness gracious, why should anyone imagine that hundreds of pages of meditation on genocide and forgiveness wasn't just pure science fiction, with nothing to say about the twentieth century or its most notorious genocide? To which I can only shrug and say, Hmm-kay, I start with the assumption that the guy is not a complete idiot and that he knows what he's doing and that he actually had something to say. I don't agree with what he had to say, but he did have something to say. The argument that he's an oblivious airhead is not particularly flattering to either you as a fan or Card as an author. If that's your argument, fine, but you'll have to forgive me if I think it's pathetic.

Very occasionally I get the question I expected in the first place: "So? What's wrong with that? Isn't it a perfectly valid enterprise to try to understand these monsters? What's wrong with using art to get into that kind of brain and figuring out how it works?"

Well, there you go. That's the answer. There's nothing wrong with that. Why do we read if not to get into other people's minds? I think Card took on a most ambitious project -- to see if he could get us into the mind of somebody that we would normally never dream of identifying with in a thousand years. The trouble is, I pulled his punchline by blabbing the "gotcha" before he put the third book out. And instead of saying, OK, you got me, I was trying to experiment with enlarging the normal human capacity for forgiveness, he freaked and called me a girl. ("Radical feminist" is the phrase he used, but yeah -- it means he freaked and called me a girl. Probably not too many guys get called "radical feminist" as an intended insult. And how 1980s is that anyway?) And once he put his foot in his mouth, he couldn't quite figure out how to get it back out. My take on it, anyway.

The line I would have taken is simple: Forgiveness, even to the very end, is a core belief of Christianity, and hence a core belief of large numbers of Americans. It is perfectly fair to see how far we can push the concept of forgiveness and who deserves to be forgiven. You don't like how far I went and who I forgave? Well, that's what makes horse-racing. Hey, it's a more reasonable answer than sputtering, and I can actually respect the point of view of the fans who suggested it.

Anyway, if I wanted to nutshell it, I'd say that my objection to Ender's Game is that our society already focuses too much on telling the powerless to forgive and forget. We've got entire religions devoted to it. We don't need more propaganda on the topic. It's a little cheap to tell me what I can get anywhere. When you tell me a story, tell me something I don't know already. Surprise me. Boo hoo hoo, he was abused, so he killed everybody...It's been done. It's stale. It ain't pining for the fjords, it's dead, Jim.

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