Review- Stern, “The Politics of Cultural Despair”

Fritz Stern, “The Politics of Cultural Despair: a Study of the Rise of the Germanic Ideology” (1961) – German-American expat Fritz Stern was among the first to undertake intellectual history as directed at Nazism. In this instance, he looks at three German intellectual figures as precursors of Nazism: Paul de Lagarde, Julius Langbehn, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. They were most popular in the 1870s, 1890s, and 1920s, respectively. All three were “of a type;” self-made outsiders from petty bourgeois backgrounds, alienated from a Germany that seemed to be modernizing in all the wrong ways, reactionary but not down with the traditional elite, and scholars rather than organizers. All three embraced a view of history where Germany’s historical mission was as high and mighty as those holding it back — liberals, socialists, and almost inevitably, Jews — were low and ubiquitous. All three attracted big readerships.

You learn a lot about these three and their contexts, and a picture of German intellectual life in the late 19th/early 20th century as promising but with some deep issues emerges. Of course, being a mid-century intellectual, Stern throws himself bodily to protect poor innocent misunderstood Nietzsche, whose sister presumably made him say all that “blond beast” crap, but the picture is still a clear one for all that. It fills in a lot of context for what would come in the 1930s. This helped open doors that figures like George Mosse and other intellectual historians of fascism would walk through.

As the title and subtitle indicate, Stern sees the contributions of these men as twofold: as contributors to a Germanic ideology of romantic racialism and antisemitism, and as both early sufferers from and exponents of “cultural despair,” the idea that society was irredeemable short of (counter-)revolutionary change. Stern puts a lot of chips on cultural despair as an important concept, something that conditioned the German people to undertake extreme measures. In many respects, the emotional reality of this feeling — one gets the feeling Stern is doing some reporting here of something he witnessed while in Germany — is stronger and more relevant than the actual ideological content of what the three thinkers or those they influenced in the Third Reich actually believed.

This is a provocative thesis but I don’t really agree with it. Stern was a much more dab hand with ideological differences than many of his fellow American historians of the postwar consensus decades, but he seems to accept with them that ideology is a kind of sickness that can be explained psychologically or sociologically rather than a set of ideas and practices that deserve to be understood politically. Among other issues, this undermines his writing on his three subjects. They tend to run together, exemplars of a type — feckless intellectuals projecting their fantasies onto a complex reality — rather than individuals with differences and agendas. This is especially clear in the case of Moeller van den Bruck, who had more of a direct political impact than the other two, and was part of a movement, the Conservative Revolutionaries, that involved very serious intellectuals such as Ernst Junger and Carl Schmitt (neither of which are so much as mentioned). You don’t need to agree with or see as rational a given movement in order to try to understand it on its own terms.

All the same, the book is pretty good, well-written and with clear points, even when I disagree with them. Stern’s priors are clear- admirer of “real” German culture and foe of the ideological fervor, left and right, that would have loomed so large as he came of age during the Weimar period. And he’s not all the way wrong, especially with the terror of modernity that he saw gripping not just Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, but much of the western world. Moreover, it doesn’t seem like we’ve seen the last of something that looks an awful lot like Stern’s “cultural despair” rearing its head with the sense of thwarted greatness and petty malice that sweeps the land. ****

Review- Stern, “The Politics of Cultural Despair”

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