wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Jeffrey Herf

Reactionary Modernism

Junger and Schmitt called themselves romantics, but insisted that they meant something quite different by this than what they criticized as the escapist doctrines of the nineteenth century. They were masculine and active, rather than effeminate and passive. Many of the reactionary modernists prided themselves on being Nietzschean advocates of the will to power and aestheticized politics, but they omitted Nietzsche's criticisms of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and idolatry of the state.

But the fact remains that however selective the reactionary modernists were toward German cultural traditions, there was very fertile soil in which their ideas could grow. From the romantics through the volkisch ideologues, Nietzsche, Wagner, Lebensphilosophie, the youth movements before World War I, and the conservative revolution afterward, Germany produced a series of thinkers who celebrated non-rational values on a scale simply not matched anywhere else in Europe. However much the terms may have changed to accommodate the industrial landscape, German Innerlichkeit remained a tradition hostile to liberalism, which insisted that politics was either beneath contempt or the place where souls were saved, often toyed with violence as a value in itself, and dreamed of apocalyptic visions of total community erasing a wholly degenerate age. As Mann put it, there was only one Germany and it placed its highest values in the service of evil. Although Heidegger and Mann did not agree about much of what was fundamental in the Third Reich, they both understood that Hitler had seized on an important aspect of Germany's national identity in bringing into existence a 'highly technological romanticism.'

Finally, we should recall that historical and sociological observers of modern Germany agree on the following peculiarities of Germany's path to modernity. Compared to England and France, industrialization in Germany was late, quick, and thorough. Economic units were large, and the intervention of the state was direct and extensive. No laissez-faire traditions gained acceptance in the propertied classes. Most important, capitalist industrialization took place without a successful bourgeois revolution. The bourgeoisie, political liberalism, and the Enlightenment remained weak. Nowhere else in Europe did rapid industrialization confront feudal structures so rapidly and harshly as in Germany. No other European society became capitalist and industrial to such an extent without a single successful bourgeois revolt or strong liberal political tradition. On the contrary, in Germany the liberal principle remained weak. Although aesthetic modernity and the cult of technics existed elsewhere in Europe and in the United States, nowhere did modernity and tradition meet in such unmitigated confrontation as in Germany. Nowhere else did the reconciliation of romanticism and modern technology become a matter of national identity. It was this—in Lukacs's term—'Prussian path' that constituted the historical and social background for the language of romanticism and then reactionary modernism and that insured that the values of the Enlightenment would remain weak in German ideology. It was the Enlightenment's weakness, not its strength, that made reactionary modernism a force of political significance in Germany, while elsewhere cults of technology similar in some respects remained the harmless preoccupations of literary intellectuals. Without a strong liberal tradition to balance the traditions of the engineers and right-wing intelligentsia, German society could not mount a successful resistance to the romantic obfuscation of the nature of technology and its relation to society that culminated in Goebbels's speeches, Todt's highways, Speer's war machine, and Hitler's final solution.

However critical the Frankfurt theorists were of developing Soviet orthodoxy, their analysis of National Socialism, even after World War II, was imprisoned in the limits of Marxist theory. Probably the most peculiar and bizarre analysis of nazism was Marcuse's view that liberalism and fascism were intertwined. He mistook the weakness of German liberalism, its failure to have effectively confronted the authoritarian forces in German society, for the essence of liberalism. Benjamin's analysis of fascist aesthetics was particularly insightful in grasping the appeal of fascism for the intellectuals in France and Italy as well as in Germany. But again, Benjamin generalized a phenomenon that was most widespread and pervasive in Germany into the problem of fascism as a European phenomenon. Franz Neumann's Behemoth was embarrassingly wrong about the Holocaust because he could not believe that the Nazis would do something so irrational as to kill the scapegoats that allegedly held their rule together. He, too, interpreted National Socialism as a German variant of a crisis generally inherent in advanced monopoly capitalism.