Heartless Romantics: Fascism and Romanticism

Twitter’s own Trillburne (aka The Discourse Lover) and the person behind the excellent Age of Napoleon history podcast recently tweeted this piece of fascist trivia:

The thing is, there’s a word for this bourgeois transgressive mentality: Romanticism.

213px-schmoll_goethe_vaThe philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, in a series of lectures (the audio of which you can find online), drew a straight line between the 18th century Romantic era and 20th century fascism. Specifically, he connects the Sturm und Drang cultural movement, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel and the usual cast of German idealists to the rise of Nazi Germany. Certainly, one can see some parallels between Goethe’s famous Young Werther and Adolf Hitler: both are impressionable, impassioned artists who killed themselves when their fanciful dreams were dashed. But whereas Werther chose suicide after rejection from the woman he loved, Hitler shot himself after the object of his desire — a grand German Empire, brutally cleansed of ideological enemies, its special destiny and supremacy manifest — fell to ashes. Werther was the quintessential sentimental fool, a sensitive soul who believed love should conquer all. Hitler, no less a fool, simply believed that, instead of love, Germany should conquer all — the culmination of a cultural faith in a “special path,” Sonderweg in German, for the sacred Fatherland and its volk, including expansionism into Eastern Europe — Drang nach Osten, the “desire for the East.”

180px-nietzsche1882Many of the aspects of Nazi ideology come straight from Romantic philosophy and culture, and those who followed after it. This is perhaps most apparent in the case of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, a disciple of the idealist Schopenhauer, wrote about a “beyond-human,” the Übermensch, who lives to exercise his indomitable will to become an exemplar in this world, in contrast to those living for some fictional afterlife. The Nazis appropriated these concepts, twisting them from abstract metaphysical arguments to ideological justifications for applied social Darwinism. In this respect, they were aided by Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, a nationalist and anti-Semite who embraced the transformation of her brother’s work in a part of the Nazi ethos (or, perhaps more accurately, mythos). After she published a fraction of her’s brother’s notes in 1901, philosophers connected to the Nazis like Alfred Baeumler and Martin Heidegger argued that Nietzsche’s thought constituted a political philosophy anchored on a natural order of hierarchy produced through conflict, a struggle for dominance between differing cultures. Traditional Christian morality and Enlightenment humanism were aberrations, false constructs created to control and constrain the dynamic heroes of the age. It thus falls to the men of remarkable skill and talent to overcome these inhibitions, to accept and fight the primordial struggle for existence, to throw caution and conscience to the wind and achieve ultimate victory. In the words of the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels:

He who throws the dice for a prize also has to dare a wager, hence we have made Nietzsche’s words come true: ‘Have the courage to live dangerously.’ Obviously major projects cannot be carried out as long as dozens of parties get under one’s feet. These parties don’t make history, they only make a fuss. Today one man speaks for the Reich, and his voice echoes the voices of 66 million people.

320px-flag_of_the_legionary_movementIt this sort of romantic, theatrical approach to politics that makes it possible to understand the Iron Guard’s belief in sacrificing their salvation to achieve Romania’s special destiny. Yet there is another important element lacking from the Nazi context: clericalism. The Iron Guard was led by the fanatically Orthodox Christian Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who was referred to reverently by his followers as “the Captain.” Iron Guard followers went so far as to distance themselves from politics, framing their movement as seeking a spiritual revolution. In the words of Mircea Eliade, an Iron Guard ideologist, the movement sought “the supreme redemption of the nation, the reconciliation of the Romanian nation with God, as the Captain said… [T]he victory of the Legion will lead not only to the restoration of the virtues of our nation, of a hard-working Romania, worthy and powerful, but also to the birth of a man who is in harmony with the new kind of European life.” (The Iron Guard was originally called “The Legion of the Archangel Michael” and always referred to its members as “legionaries.”) It would be easy to say that the Iron Guard merely used theology as a political instrument, but the obvious contradiction between mercy and committing atrocities reveals something so problematic about such a pragmatic explanation. The truth is that there is no contradiction; members of the Iron Guard accepted their own individual damnation for a greater good, “the supreme redemption of the nation.” Since fascism elevates the nation, the community above the individual, a single soul is ultimately meaningless next to the deliverance of the communal spirit. If this sounds “silly,” as Trillburne put it, it is because all fascism is based on an appeal to faith over reason, emotion over logic.

163px-bundesarchiv_bild_102-04051a2c_reichsparteitag2c_rede_adolf_hitlersWhile the Nazi ideologues dismissed Christian morality, the regime nevertheless had its own faith based around Germanic paganism and the occult. There is no shortage of sensational documentaries or fantastical works of fiction on the topic, but there is basis in fact. For example, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found the swastika symbol in the ruins of Troy, claiming it to be a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors” — a reference to the now widely debunked belief of 18th century European archaeologists in an “Aryan master race” which had founded all the major civilizations before degenerating into miscegenation. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described the symbol as representing “the victory of the idea of creative work;” in this there are echoes of the Dionysian chaos and religious ecstasy championed by Nietzsche in tension with the order and structure of Apollo, chief tenets of the Enlightenment. One of the qualities of the “noble savage,” so admired in the Romantic era, is an innate goodness, an intuitive sense of right and wrong, who is free to realize his ambitions free from the shackles of “civilization,” “modernity,” the corrupted and decayed social structure and its values.

320px-570_wewelsburgPerhaps no other fascist figure embodies the bourgeois “edge-lord” mentioned by Trillburne as Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi leader of the SS and one of the primary architects of the Holocaust. From a conservative middle-class family, Himmler resented missing the chance to participate in World War I and spent most of his career trying to compensate by organizing an order of elite soldiers, essentially modern knightly Teutonic crusaders, warriors pure in blood as well as ideology. The distinctive lightning bolt runes that constitute SS insignia come from the “Aryo-Germanic” runes invented by the Austrian occultist Guido von List. Wewelsburg Castle, intended to be a holy site for the SS cult, contains a sun wheel mosaic based on the “Black Sun” occult symbol dating from the Germanic migration into Europe during late antiquity. Himmler oversaw the Ahnenerbe (“ancestral heritage”) research society that conducted expeditions to prove the fabricated historical hegemony of the ancient Aryan master race. All this demonstrates that if the Iron Guard mixed their political ideology deeply with Orthodox theology, National Socialism to varying degrees assimilated a form of Romantic adoration for the “noble savage” — in this specific case, invented Aryan ancestors — into their understanding of the world. Moreover, Nazi “true believers” were able to spread this understanding to the majority of Germans, who (even if they did not become zealots themselves) legitimated and treated as valid Nazi claims about the holiness of the German homeland and the preeminence of the German people. They went along with the Dionysian ritual madness of Nazism, embodied in the annual Nuremberg Rallies and their grandiose ceremonies cultivating the worship of Hitler and National Socialism.

320px-donald_trump_alt-right_supporter_283245297460429It may seem facile at this point to compare contemporary widespread political unrest and the resurgence of far-right nationalist politics to the turmoil and rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. Yet, there are indeed parallels between today’s “alt-right” quasi-fascists and those German Romanticists Berlin described as “socially crushed and politically miserable human beings.” Like the Germans of old, today’s Western right-wingers exalt a made-up history of their purity and greatness, an imagined notion of 1950s white suburbia substituting for ancient or medieval German dominance. They blame moral decay on ethnic “enemies” polluting society as well as sacrilegious, unscrupulous left-wingers. Critically, they both also reject the cult of experts described by John Ralston Saul in his Voltaire’s Bastards. There is a shared assault on the technocratic approach to managing politics, economics, and culture governed through insulated, unaccountable, and unethical professional elites (see “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!”). The bitter, angry shopkeeper of the Weimar Republic — so keen to persecute Jews and Bolsheviks to re-obtain national greatness — finds rebirth in the bitter, angry middle-class American eager to attack migrants and “cultural Marxists” to “make America great again.” Again, not every Trump supporter is a white supremacist ideologue, but just as many Germans endorsed Nazi ideology, so too do many Americans legitimize a worldview that sees white Christian Americans as a persecuted group, their superior status restrained by harmful forces that must be purged. Indeed, such a purge is taking place, whether it be in the mass deportations and breaking-up of families by ICE or the badgering of left-wing academics or commentators (the “secular-progressive” enemies in the U.S. “culture war” conceived by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Bill O’Reilly). Never mind that Barack Obama deported more people than any other U.S. president; never mind that many academic disciplines, like political science, are far more divided over theoretical and methodological questions than political ones. The holy wars of the contemporary far-right are no more based in reality than the Nazi crusade against “Judeo-Bolshevism” and other anti-Semitic canards and “Red Scare” tactics.

Again, not a novel observation, but there is an interesting question why today so many people — especially young people, as was the case in 1930s Europe — are turning to the irrational, impassioned politics of the extreme-right and what this says about a deeper, pervasive alienation that is fueling a fusion of liberalism and fascism: hybrid regimes with certain political freedoms and civil liberties but also pronounced nationalism, militarism, and a massive military-industrial economy oriented around endless war. Western hegemony today depends on collaborative institutions, hallmarks of liberal philosophy, but these same institutions — the United Nations, the World Bank, NATO, etc. — are funded and structured in such a way as to ensure Western (particularly U.S.) interests are protected and exploited. In a sense, it is liberalism overlaying a fundamentally fascist approach to power, the “creative victory” of the swastika masqueraded as the organic liberal social contract. Increasingly, however, the right-wing impulse to dethrone the experts, to take back the established institutions into public control to re-purpose them for ideological application, is threatening the status quo. The last time the extreme-right did so, they re-purposed the efficiency and mechanization of the Industrial Revolution from production to annihilation; they industrialized mass murder with the Holocaust. Obviously, ethnic cleansing in the U.S. remains subtle in the form of deportations, mass incarceration of poor people of color, etc. We may not yet be on the precipice of Nazi era genocide. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize where the heartless right-wing romanticism of the past has  led humanity before.