Category Archives: German History

Stand By Your Nazi Man

 

James Wyllie, Nazi Wives:

The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany (St Martin’s, Press) 

With the proliferation of literature about seemingly every aspect of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime, women have hardly been overlooked.  One of the leading works is Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, a nuanced study of women who joined the Nazi cause and in surprising numbers abetted willingly and enthusiastically the Holocaust, the Nazi project to exterminate Europe’s Jews (reviewed here in 2016).  But according to freelance British journalist and screenwriter James Wyllie, there has never been an in-depth study of the wives of the most notorious Nazis,  a gap he seeks to fill in Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany.  The absence of a serious study of the top Nazi wives, Wyllie contends, bolsters the claim made after World War II that they were helpless bystanders as the Nazi terror unfolded.  Wyllie seeks to refute this claim.  A close look at the women who married the leading Nazis also yields important insights into the nature of Nazi rule and the psychology of its leaders, he argues.

In Nazi Germany, the ideal woman was above all expected to be a child bearer, adding to the stock of the master Aryan race, while remaining compliant and subservient to her  husband.  Although supporting the goals and aspirations of the Third Reich, the Nazi woman was to be largely apolitical, with the serious questions of politics reserved for the men.  Concentrating on six women, Wyllie aims to demonstrate how the wives of Nazi leaders adhered in varying degrees to these standards, yet used their positions near the top of the party hierarchy to involve themselves, directly or indirectly, in the Nazi project.

Wyllie profiles: Isle Hess, wife of Rudolf Hess, Adolph Hitler’s chief deputy until he flew a solo mission to Scotland in 1941 in an attempt to negotiate peace with Great Britain; Magda Goebbels, married to chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels; Margaret Himmler, wife of Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzsaffell, the SS, the German paramilitary security unit, and a chief architect and implementer of the Holocaust; Gerda Bormann, whose husband Martin served as Hitler’s private secretary; Emmy Goering, second wife of Hermann Goering, commander-in-chief of the German Air Force, the Lutwaffe; and Lina Heydrich, married to Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s chief deputy in the SS who shared responsibility for design and implementation of the Holocaust and served as administrator of annexed Czechoslovakia until assassinated in Prague in 1942.  Also featured are Goering’s Swedish first wife Carin, perhaps the most fanatical Nazi among the women depicted in the book, who died early in her husband’s career; and Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress who became his wife 36 hours before both took their own lives in a Berlin bunker as the Red Army moved in on the shattered capital.

Wyllie has amassed an impressive amount of information about these women, arranged in rough chronological order against the backdrop of familiar events, beginning with the Nazis’ rise from obscurity to power in post-World War I Germany, through their defeat in 1945, and ending in the early post-World War II era.  He goes into strikingly intimate detail: how they met their husbands, in some cases when the couple first had sex together, how their marriages functioned and malfunctioned, how they squabbled among themselves, and the children each couple reared.

The six women came from similar backgrounds.  All were reasonably well educated, raised in conservative middle-class families, Catholic and Protestant.  They were inculcated with what Wyllie describes as a sense of “strident patriotism” (p.10), based on a belief in the superiority of German culture, a hatred of socialism and a “fear that the unruly masses would devour them” (p.10).  They came of age in the “profoundly insecure and volatile circumstances” of post-World War I Germany.  “Old certainties were gone,” writes Wyllie. “The civilized conventions of their parents’ generation appeared increasingly irrelevant.  Cut adrift, they each gravitated towards a self-styled savior who promised the world” (p.11).

That savior was of course Adolph Hitler, the Führer.  In a study of women, Hitler is unavoidably the book’s core character.  Each of the women Wyllie portrays had a different relationship to the Führer, but all were able to “enjoy their many privileges and their gilded lifestyles because Hitler allowed them to(p.264-65).  Consequently, Wyllie   probes each woman’s relationship to Hitler.  “Any power the top Nazi wives had was entirely dependent on his goodwill,” he asserts.  “One false move was enough to ruin them; Hitler could reduce them to nothing with the wave of his hand”  (p.265).

But Wyllie also probes the women’s relationship to the Nazi regime, examining their ideological side, their anti-Semitism, and the degree to which they were aware of the gruesome details of the Nazi project.   After the Nazi defeat, none who survived evinced  willingness to accept responsibility for the havoc and destruction their husbands had wreaked upon Germany and Europe.  But these weighty questions are relegated mostly to the final chapters and seem secondary to the mundane and sometimes prurient details of the women’s personal lives.

** *

Hitler abstained from marriage and a normal family life because he considered himself married to the German people, the reason his relationship with Eva Braun was kept under wraps and largely out of public view (long-standing readers of this blog will recall my 2013 review  of two biographies of Braun).  When off duty, the Führer preferred the company of women and took great interest in the top Nazi wives, an interest “bound up with his need for an extended family” (p.264).  He was “more relaxed and comfortable in the company of women, as long as they openly and unconditionally adored him, didn’t discuss politics and conformed to the stereotypes he found attractive” (p.265).

When necessary, the Führer played the role of matchmaker and marriage counselor for his extended family.  Hitler coaxed Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess into popping the question with an impatient Isle Pröhl.  Isle had been involved with the procrastinating Hess for more than seven years, in a relationship Wyllie describes as sexless, held together primarily by the couple’s “unquestioning enthusiasm for Hitler’s poisonous ideology” (p.18).  The couple married in a small civil ceremony in December 1927, with Hitler serving as a witness.

The Führer took a different route to coax Magda Quant into marriage with his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels.  Magda, “sophisticated, multilingual, well-travelled, elegant, poised, at ease in elevated company and never short of male admirers” (p.43), had been married and was divorced when she first met Joseph while working in his propaganda department.  From the beginning it was a volatile relationship, in no small measure because Joseph rejected monogamy as an “outdated bourgeois convention” and “made no secret of his own insatiable sexual appetite” (p.50), yet could not abide the thought of Magda with another man.

Hitler at least fantasized about having a clandestine affair with Magda and concluded that he might enhance his seductive fantasy if she were married.  Magda, no doubt infatuated with the Führer, appeared willing to enter a triangular relationship that would involve marrying the chief Nazi propagandist.  We don’t learn whether Hitler’s interest in Magda ever progressed beyond fantasy, but Magda and Joseph married in 1931, with Hitler again serving as a witness.

When Joseph’s affair with a Czech actress took the couple to the cusp of divorce, the Führer intervened, bringing the couple together at his mountain retreat, the Berghof, where he made “brutally clear” (p.192) that they would have to mend their marriage and Joseph would have to stop seeing his Czech paramour; otherwise, both would lose their exalted places in the Nazi hierarchy.  The couple got the message and stayed together.  Their marriage produced six children, all of whom they infamously killed before themselves committing suicide in the final days of the Third Reich.

Magda Goebbels appears to have been the only one of the six Nazi wives who did not genuinely love and admire her husband. But she was hardly the only one whose marriage was tested by her husband’s extramarital affairs. Margaret Boden, a Red Cross nurse, married SS chief Heinrich Himmler, eight years younger.  After having a daughter and adopting a son together, her dour husband fell in love with his twenty-six-year-old secretary, Hedwig.  She and the SS chief had two children together.  Although Heinrich spent most of his spare time with Hedwig and his new family, he regularly wrote tender love letters to Margaret and delivered presents to her and their children.  At Christmas 1944, with the Nazi war machine in full retreat, Margaret expressed in her diary how proud she was that “all of Germany” (p.218) looked up to her husband.

Gerda Buch, daughter of Walter Buch, a high-ranking military officer in World War I who fell under Hitler’s spell in the aftermath of the war, met Hitler when she was a teenager and called him “Uncle Adolf.”   From an early age, Gerda “lived and breathed Hitler’s ideology.  It was second nature to her” (p.266).  Through her father, Gerda met Martin Borman, who surely calculated that an “association with the daughter of such a prominent Nazi could only smooth his passage through the ranks of the party” (p.40). When the couple wed, Hitler and Hess served as witnesses.

Gerda, Wyllie’s nomination for the  wife who adhered most closely to ideal Nazi feminine standards, had seven children with Martin, even while her husband pursued liaisons with multiple women during the couple’s married life and probably abused his wife physically.  Gerda didn’t fight back, didn’t seek help, and didn’t confide in anyone else.  She believed it was her duty to obey her husband, and “there’s every indication that she was truly devoted to Bormann” (p.96-97).

Gerda also befriended Himmler’s mistress Hedwig.  That Himmler was married to another woman was in Gerda’s view the natural way men were, the “healthy expression of a man’s biological need to reproduce” (p.202).  She had the same attitude toward her husband and his serial extra-marital affairs. When Martin departed from his usual habit of short stands by falling for an actress—one who had previously rejected Goebbels’ advances—Gerda was oddly unopposed to the affair.  She seems to have conceived of a ménage-à-trois where the two women would produce children for Martin, thereby contributing to Germany’s efforts to increase its sagging national birthrate.

* * *

The Nazi leadership was notorious for its infighting, bureaucratic rivalries, and sharp competition for the Führer’s favor.  It is thus no surprise that sharp competition also marked many of the relationships between the wives of the top leadership.  The Nazi wives competed continually for the informal moniker of “First Lady” of Nazi Germany, a contest to which Wyllie returns repeatedly.  Eva Braun, although recognized as the alter ego of the Führer among the women at the Berghof, was kept under wraps and never part of the competition (Braun was nevertheless often quite assertive among the women at the Berghof).  Once the Nazis seized power in 1933, Magda Goebbels was the obvious candidate to assume this public role.  She gave the first Nazi Mother’s Day address via national radio, and, with her husband and their children, was constantly photographed as the “perfect Nazi family” (p.75).

But the Goebbels’ marital difficulties left Magda open to competition from Emmy Goering, Herman’s second wife and an accomplished actress.  While all the Nazi wives lived well during the 1930s and most of the war years, the Goerings were in a class by themselves for  unabashed opulence.   Their vast estate, known as “Carinhall” after the deceased Carin, dwarfed the accommodations of the other top Nazis.  The couple’s lavish lifestyle attracted much public attention.  For a while during the mid-1930s, Emmy and Herman became the Nazis’ “first couple” (p.80).

But if Emmy’s increasingly high profile was a “direct challenge to Magda’s status as the First Lady of the Reich” (p.75), Magda was able to hold on to her title because Hitler never warmed to Emmy.  Among the top wives, she was the “least interested in Nazism” (p.267).  Hitler didn’t disparage or criticize her, but he was “never relaxed around her either,” Wyllie indicates. “There was none of the intimacy or the meeting of minds that he experienced with Magda” (p.84-85).

The fiercest rivalry was between Lina Heydrich and Margaret Himmler, whose husbands forged a surprisingly close working relationship as top SS brass until Reinhard was assassinated in Prague in 1942, leaving Lina a widow.  Before her husband’s death, Lina yearned to be the most influential SS wife, a position Margaret held by virtue of her husband’s lead role in the SS.  Lina “couldn’t bear playing second fiddle to a woman for whom she had nothing but contempt.  Lina thought Margaret was inferior to her in every way and never missed an opportunity to ruthlessly put her down” (p.113).  She sabotaged Margaret’s efforts to host regular tea parties for SS wives.  Margaret, less outspoken than Lina, sought to have her husband tell Lina’s husband that he should divorce Lina.

But for all the energy the two women expended sniping at one another, Wyllie describes both as “snobs” who “looked down their noses at most of humanity” (p.266).  Moreover, the two women shared a fervent anti-Semitism.  Margaret, visiting the Eastern Front, reacted to the “Jew trash” she saw — “most of them don’t even look like human beings” (p.169).    As a young woman, Lina loathed the Polish Jews who had settled in her Baltic fishing village: “to her, they were like an alien species.” Later, when she lived on an estate outside Prague, according to one of the estate’s Jewish prisoners, she “spat at her workers, calling them ‘Jewish pig[s]’” (p.209).

* * *

All but Magda Goebbels survived the war and each found herself alone in the post war era.  Along with Joseph Goebbels, Himmler and Goering took their own lives, and Bormann likely did the same.  Hess remained imprisoned until his death in 1987.  Although the Allies’ post-war justice system treated the women lightly, all engaged in denial and deception over their roles and those of their husbands in the Nazi project.  Margaret Himmler told an American journalist she had seen press coverage about the death camps and “knew her husband would be blamed.”  She told the journalist she was “just a woman” who “did not understand politics” (p.245).

Lina Heydrich wrote a book, candid and in its own way “disarmingly honest” (p.253).  She was unapologetic about the ideological convictions she shared with her husband, and shameless about their racism, while downplaying her husband’s direct involvement in the Holocaust.  Lina was obsessed by the idea that her husband was being treated “unfairly by posterity.”  He was being judged harshly for acts he considered an “unavoidable political necessity,” as she put it.  It was all too easy to condemn the “decisions of those times from today’s warm bed” (p.252), Lina wrote.

Emmy Goering wrote a spirited a defense of her husband, My Life with Goering, which avoided the issues that had marked her husband’s career.  Hermann’s  only crime had been loyalty to Hitler, she contended.  A woman in love “thinks only of her partner’s success, and it is of little importance to her how he obtains it” (p.261).  But among the top Nazi wives, Emmy came closest to expressing an iota of remorse about what the Nazis had done and the extent to which she and her husband may have been responsible.

“I often wonder now,” Emmy wrote, if we should not have been “a little more vigilant and when we saw injustices being done, if we should not have put up stronger resistance, especially to Hitler over the Jewish question” (p.261).   Wyllie characterizes Emmy’s uneasiness as “willful blindness,” which was “not accidental” but rather “typical of many Germans who benefited from the regime and preferred to ignore its brutal excesses and look the other way, rationalizing their lack of resistance and passive complicity” (p.267).  In an account heavy on the minutiae of the personal lives of the top Nazi wives, “willful blindness” may be the most apt common denominator tying those lives together.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 7, 2021

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Father and Son and Nazi Art

 

Mary Lane, Hitler’s Last Hostages:

Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich

(PublicAffairs)

In November 2013, Mary Lane, chief European art correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and all of 26 years old, was in New York to attend an art auction at Christie’s when her editor called and asked her to fly to Berlin immediately to cover a breaking story: a German magazine, Focus, had just revealed that nearly a year earlier a trove of approximately 1,200 artworks ostensibly stolen by Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime, including works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, and Henri Matisse, had been discovered by German authorities in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, a reclusive octogenarian, in the course of a tax investigation.  If authentic, the works were clearly worth several million dollars.

Lane got her story out that November, then spent the next several years looking into the story behind the story.  The result is Hitler’s Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich, which lays out how Cornelius’ father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, had amassed these and other paintings (along with some sculptures, woodcuts and etchings) while working on the  Adolph Hitler’s obsessional dream of the Führermuseum, a museum to be built near his birthplace in Linz, Austria, to showcase the art which the Nazis had stolen from museums, galleries, and private collections across Europe.  The Gurlitt case is intriguing, as Lane amply demonstrates, but hardly singular.  The Nazis stole a staggering amount of artwork during their murderous twelve years in power.

What Lane terms the “largest art heist in history” (p.122) includes approximately 600,000 paintings stolen from Jews alone, at least 100,000 of which are still missing, according to Stuart Eizenstat, United States  State Department expert advisor for Holocaust issues.  Eizenstat characterized the looting as “not only designed to enrich the Third Reich, but also an integral part of the Nazi goal of eliminating all vestiges of Jewish identity and culture.”  Eizenstat was the primary negotiator of the “Washington Principles,” a set of terms agreed upon in December 1998 by 44 countries, including Germany, Switzerland and Austria, to facilitate the return of Nazi-confiscated artworks to their lawful owners or compensate them.  The principles were more moral commitments than legal constraints, to be implemented within each country’s legal framework.   Since the principles were adopted, efforts to restore confiscated artworks to their rightful owners or their families have intensified.  Yet one of Lane’s most startling discoveries was that in the Gurlitt case Germany demonstrated a surprisingly tepid commitment to the Washington Principles.

Lane seeks to place the father-and-son Gurlitt case within the broader context of how art figured into the racist ideology of the Nazi regime.  She provides much biographical information on Hitler’s youth and especially his artistic pretensions prior to World War I — her first full chapter for example, is entitled “Portrait of the Dictator as a Young Man.”   Hitler was “genuinely obsessed with art” (p.7), she observes at the outset, considering himself an artist first and a politician second.

In elaborating upon how integral art was to the overall Nazi project, Lane emphasizes the role that Hitler’s sycophantic propagandist Joseph Goebbels played in prioritizing Hitler’s vision of what he termed “Aryan art” and ridding Europe of its opposite, “degenerate art.”  These terms were never satisfactorily defined, but in the Nazis’ binary world, Aryan art tended toward romantic landscapes, classical nudes and depictions of the heroic endeavors of the German people, whereas “degenerate art” usually referred to contemporary works, works that contained unpatriotic or overtly sexual themes, or were produced by Jewish artists – and often a mixture of these factors.   Lane adds specificity to her story by tracing the fate of two confiscated paintings that were discovered in Cornelius’ possession in 2012 and the effort thereafter to return them to their rightful owners: German Jewish impressionist Max Liebermann’s 1921 Two Riders on the Beach, inspired by the equestrian paintings of Edgar Degas; and Henri Matisse’s Woman With a Fan, a 1901 portrait of a “creamy-skinned brunette with a flowered blouse waving a fan to ward off the summer heat “ (p.159).

Lane also takes an unusually long look at George Grosz, a contemporary of Hitler who like the future Führer served in World War I and gained prominence – or notoriety – through his brutal depictions of the war’s realities.  After the war, Grosz was identified with the Dada art movement, which portrayed the follies of war in satirical and often non-nonsensical images.  He further burnished his reputation with his graphic sexual representations.  Grosz  became an outspoken and highly visible opponent of Hitler and his party.  To the Nazis, he represented degenerate art at its most degenerate.  After Grosz fled to the United States in 1933, some of his paintings wound up in the Gurlitt trove.

At times, Grosz seems to be the main protagonist of Lane’s story.  She devotes extensive portions of her book to him presumptively to demonstrate what principled artistic opposition to Hitler entailed.  But the Grosz sections are not an easy fit with the rest of her narrative.  The Gurlitt case, only about one half of this volume, is easily the most compelling half.

* * *

Hildebrand Gurlitt was born in 1895 in Dresden, and grew up in an artistic milieu. His father was a respected art historian whose tastes favored contemporary artists rather than old masters.  Hildebrand’s  maternal grandmother was Jewish, making him vulnerable when the Nazis came to power in 1933.  In the 1920s, Gurlitt became the director of a small-town museum where he promoted contemporary art and numerous Jewish artists, while engaging simultaneously in the ethically dubious practice of brokering sales.  He then moved to head the Hamburg Art Association, but was fired from the position shortly after the Nazis came to power, both because his preference for avant-garde art clashed with the Nazis’ artistic tastes and because he refused to fly the Nazi flag outside the Association’s building.

As the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism increased, Gurlitt realized that as a one quarter Jew who was no fan of the Nazis, he had to “leave the country, join the resistance, retreat into obscurity, or collaborate with the Nazis” (p.127).  Gurlitt chose the last option, becoming in 1938 one of four officially designated art dealers authorized to help liquidate confiscated Nazi artworks to support the Führermuseum project.  Hitler and Goebbels envisioned financing the project by seizing paintings and other artworks from galleries and museums across the country — and, later, in countries they planned to conquer — and destroying most “degenerate” pieces but selectively selling others across the continent to increase their foreign currency reserves to finance their war efforts.

Gurlitt used his extensive international connections to put together deals for the acquisition of works for the Führermuseum, many of which took place in France and the Netherlands after the Nazis occupied those countries.  Gurlitt generally returned to the government much of what he realized from his sales, but was allowed to keep a commission.   He also retained a portion of the works on the side for his personal “collection.”  With few exceptions, Gurlitt destroyed the paperwork.  As the Nazis faltered on the battlefield after their defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943, Hitler remained obsessed with the Führermuseum and Gurlitt forged ahead with acquisitions for the museum – and for himself.

Toward the end of 1943 or in early 1944, Gurlitt personally retained several stunning paintings by respected old masters, including a luminous work from the 1630s by Jan Brueghel the Younger of Dutch villagers welcoming home sailors.  He also consummated a huge art deal in Paris just before it was liberated in August 1944, acquiring works by many of the most significant names in modern French art, among them Degas, Manet, Pissaro, Renoir, and Courbet.  The deal included paintings and sculptures, but also woodcuts, lithographs and etchings.  The latter were easier to transport and “particularly difficult to trace as artists usually produced them in limited editions” (p.167).

If Gurlitt paid something for these and other artworks, it was a fraction of their  true value, and the money probably did not reach the genuine owners.  Overall, Gurlitt acquired approximately 3,800 pieces for the Fühermuseum project, making a small fortune in commissions for himself in the process, all the while acquiring works for his own collection.  It is “inconceivable,” Lane observes, that “on his salary Gurlitt could have acquired the more than 1,000 artworks he obtained during the war were it not for the dirty money he took in exchange for working as a high-ranking member of Hitler’s Führermuseum Project” (p.163).

In 1945, the year of the Nazi capitulation, Gurlitt moved most of his works to a private collection outside Dresden, his home city, and later to a manor 250 miles away in southwest Germany.  From there, he began a five year cat-and-mouse game with the “Monuments Men,” a group of about 400 art experts from Allied nations, formed in 1943 to protect art and other culturally significant artifacts in the event of an Allied victory.  In the post-war period, the Monuments Men were charged with finding and recovering artworks stolen by the Nazis (part of what was officially known as the “Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program,” the Monuments Men were celebrated in an eponymous 2014 film that starred George Clooney and Matt Damon).   Coming from many countries, the Monuments Men often did not speak a common language and never had the resources needed to accomplish their objectives.  Gurlitt bet his future and his art trove on telling them “calculated lies” for which they would have “insufficient resources to fact-check or rebut” (p.183).

Gurlitt won the bet.  The Monuments Men focused more on Gurlitt’s boss on the Führermuseum project, Hermann Voss, but eventually turned to him.  They questioned him seriously enough that he ended up giving up approximately 7% of his stock, falsely claiming that it represented his entire collection.  In late 1950, the Monuments Men returned the 7% to Gurlitt, which included Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach.   At some point in the post-war period, Gurliit also acquired Matisse’s Woman With a Fan, which the Nazis had looted from the renowned Parisian gallery of Paul Rosenberg, a personal friend of Pablo Picasso.   After Rosenberg fled Paris for the United States in 1940, the Nazis turned the gallery into the “Institute for the Study of Jewish Questions.”

* * *

Hildebrand Gurlitt died in an automobile crash on the Autobahn in November 1956, the point at which Lane’s focus turns to son Cornelius, 24 at the time of his father’s death.   Hildebrand’s estate provided Cornelius  with a comfortable inheritance, and from that point onward he determined that he would not work.  But he discretly sold  some of the works his father had retained on the grey market, dealing most frequently with Galerie Kornfeld in Bern, Switzerland.  In 1960, Cornelius moved into a huge house in Salzburg, and took with him 250 of his father’s most precious items, including works by Picasso, Munch, and Kandinsky.  His mother died in 1968 and he and his younger sister Betina had a falling out, after which  the increasingly isolated Cornelius began to manifest symptoms of severe paranoia.

By September 2011, German tax authorities suspected that Cornelius had been selling art without meeting reporting requirements.  In February 2012, the authorities obtained a warrant to enter Cornelius’s Munich apartment and ended up seizing all that he had hoarded there, approximately 1,2000 artworks.  German authorities did not disclose the confiscation to the international community, as the Washington Principles prescribed.  The German Government did commission a task force to evaluate the works, but only for tax purposes, not whether they might constitute confiscated art.  Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to make any public statement on the matter, not even an acknowledgement of the need for Germany to increase its efforts to restitute Nazi-confiscated art.  To Lane, it looked like the German government simply wanted to hide this discovery from world attention.

Cornelius, for his part, remained defiant. He gave an interview to Der Spiegel in which he defended his father, denying that he had been complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime, and further denying that either he or his father had dealt in confiscated  art.  His father had been a hero for saving art from destruction, Cornelius contended.   Protected by a statute of limitations that had run in 1970, he went on to say that even if clear proof of prior ownership were presented, he had no intention of returning the works.  With the war 70 years in the past, it was time for families with claims to such works to “simply move on” (p.226).   And he chastised the government for invading his property and privacy, without charging him of a crime.

When German art experts suggested that he donate the works to a museum, Cornelius, then gravely ill, came up with a more cunning idea.  While hospitalized in January 2014, he signed a secret will that bequeathed his entire collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern in the Swiss capital.  But later that year, as he literally lay dying, he had a change of heart, in Lane’s view the result of contemplating the adverse effect which publicity about his case had had on his family name.  Cornelius signed an agreement in which the government dropped its tax investigation and stipulated to a one-year research period during which the state would have access to all paintings in his collection.  Shortly thereafter, in May 2014, Cornelius died at age 82.

After Cornelius’s death, his lawyers, the Kunstmuseum Bern and the German government formalized a deal his whereby the government would conduct research into the provenance of each work and return any looted pieces to the rightful heirs, if they could be located.  The remainder would belong exclusively to the museum. The families of the original owners of Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach and Matisse’s Woman with a Fan, were easily identified.  Both families were by then Jewish-American, living in New York City, and each presented unimpeachable documentation of lawful ownership.

Marianne Rosenberg, the granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg, had actively pursued the Matisse painting with her father, Paul’s son Alexandre, who died in 1987.  The Rosenbergs elected to keep the painting, one of the most valuable in the Gurlitt trove.  Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach belonged to the family of Holocaust survivor David Toren, then approaching age 90.  Less wealthy than the Rosenberg family, the Torens sold Liebermann’s work on auction.  Their long pursuit of the painting was by then well-publicized, and the family was more than surprised that the final price came to nearly five times its conservative initial estimate.  Recovery of the painting for the Toren family constituted a “further step in the long process of coping with the pain that Hitler had inflicted on millions of people,” Lane writes, and provided the family with a “certain sense of emotional closure regarding their fraught past” (p.256).   Lane does not indicate whether any additional works in the Gurlitt trove were returned to rightful owners.

* * *

In an Epilogue, Lane discusses an October 2018 exhibition in Berlin that featured 200 works from the Gurlitt trove, most by artists whom Hitler had labeled degenerate, including several Grosz street scenes.  German Culture Minister Monika Grütters made the opening remarks at the exhibition, noting how Germany had made progress in establishing institutions to deal with looted Nazi art.  But she never acknowledged that Germany had made any errors in how it had handled the Gurlitt case.  Nor did Minister Grütters address why the German government, by hiding the existence of the trove for more than a year, had “obstructed the very investigation into the art works that she now claimed to advocate” (p. 61).

By that time, moreover, Lane goes on to note, no high level German official had publicly backed the enactment of legislation, such as amending the statute of limitations, that would prevent a “future Gurlitt” from admitting to hiding Nazi-looted artworks while flaunting how the law protected him over the victims from whom the works had been stolen.  Lane’s answer to the question whether Germany had learned enough in the case she so  thoroughly investigated to prevent future Gurlitts  is a “resounding ‘no’” (p.266).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 5, 2020

 

10 Comments

Filed under Art, European History, German History, History

Deciphering Buber’s Judaism

 

 

Paul Mendes-Flohr, Martin Buber:

A Life of Faith and Dissent

(Yale University Press)

From the late 1890s through the mid-1960s, Martin Buber seemed to be in the middle of every public debate over what it meant to be Jewish and how one could be a good Jew in the modern world.  Although he resisted being labeled either a “theologian” or a “philosopher of religion,” Buber fashioned his own idiosyncratic version of Judaism, a version that rejected most traditional Jewish ritual.  He rarely observed Yom Kippur, and in general disdained the liturgical practices associated with the Jewish faith.  Buber rather spent his adult life searching for what he termed the “primal spirituality” of Judaism, all the while encouraging Jews to embrace people of other faiths.  Buber’s version of Judaism, sometimes referred to as “Jewish humanism,” sometimes more lightheartedly as “religious anarchism,” seemed to some of his critics geared to appeal more to Christians than to his fellow Jews.

I first encountered Buber in an undergraduate comparative religion course, where we were assigned his best-known work, “I-Thou,” generally thought to be the foundational text for what has come to be known as Buber’s “philosophy of dialogue.”  I remember thinking I was in way over my head in trying to decipher what seemed like a deeply serious but altogether inscrutable work.  Now, several decades later, Paul Mendes-Flohr, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has provided me with another chance to get a handle on Buber.  In his recent biography, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent, Mendes-Flohr charts Buber’s multifaceted intellectual journey, emphasizing how Buber’s thinking and writing evolved over the years.

Buber, a quintessential product of what the Germans call Mitteleuropa and its vibrant late 19th century Jewish culture, was born in Vienna in 1878.  He spent most of his youth in the city then known as Lemberg (today Lviv, part of Ukraine), at the time the capital of Galicia, a province within the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a substantial Polish-speaking population.  But it was in Germany where Buber made his professional mark.

Buber lived through Germany’s defeat in World War I and its post-war experiment in democracy, the Weimar Republic.  He survived the early years of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime after it assumed power in Germany in 1933.   Although required as a Jew to cede a university position, Buber continued to write and speak in Germany as a highly visible spokesman for Judaism until 1938, when he fled with his family for Jerusalem, in what was then termed Palestine.  Jerusalem was his home base for the remainder of his life, but he traveled extensively in the post-World War II era, including numerous trips to the United States, up to his death in 1965.  What was arguably the single most consequential event in Buber’s long life occurred in Vienna at age three.

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Buber’s parents separated and his mother eloped with a Russian military officer when he was three years old.  The young Buber witnessed his mother leaving, but she did not bid him farewell and he did not see her again.  Buber never recovered entirely from this early childhood trauma. Images of motherhood appeared in his writings and speeches throughout his adult life, indicating that he was still feeling the “enduring impact” of yearning to be reunited with his “inaccessibly remote mother” (p.3), as Mendes-Flohr puts it.  After his parents’ breakup, young Martin moved to Lemberg, where he lived with his grandparents until his teenage years.

Solomon Buber, Martin’s grandfather, was a successful businessman who was also a recognized Jewish scholar and interpreter of Jewish texts. Solomon taught his grandson Hebrew and the panoply of rules and customs required in an observant Jewish household.  Buber’s subsequent rejection of much of formalized Judaism probably had its roots in a rebellion against his grandfather’s pedagogy.  At age 14, Buber moved back with his father, who by then had remarried and moved to Lemberg.  While the young Buber as an adolescent and young adult remained largely estranged from his grandfather, the two reconciled prior to Solomon’s death in 1906.

Although the emotional scars left from his mother’s early departure never left him, while a university student in Zurich in 1899 Buber fortuitously found the woman who would always be there for him, fellow student Paula Winkler.  One of the few women in the university, Winkler was from a Catholic family and considerably taller than the diminutive Buber.  Their romantic attachment quickly produced two daughters, born in July 1900 and July 1901.  Buber did not inform his father or grandparents of Paula or his daughters until after the couple married in April 1907 and Paula had converted to Judaism.  By then, grandfather Solomon had died.

Despite its unconventional beginnings, Buber’s marriage to Paula endured until her death in 1958, at age 81.  Throughout their years together, Paula served as her husband’s confidante, editor and general sounding board for much of the thinking that he put to paper or delivered to audiences, while doing much writing on her own.   Buber found in Paula, Mendes-Flohr writes, “not only the mother figure he longed for, but also a soul mate; they were bonded by both romantic love and their enduring intellectual and spiritual compatibility” (p.13-14).

When Buber first met Paula, he was already active in Zionism, the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine, the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people.  His attraction to Zionism was due in no small part to his relationship with Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), often considered the founder of the modern Zionist movement. Buber initially saw Zionism as a way to maintain solidarity with his fellow Jews even as he rejected most communal Jewish religious practices.  The young Buber was fascinated with the idea of a Jewish renaissance and saw in Zionism a means to revitalize the spiritual and cultural life of the Jewish people.   Zionism provided Buber and many young Jews of his generation with a “revolutionary, secular alternative for maintaining a Jewish national consciousness and solidarity” (p.22).

But Buber and Herzl had a personal falling out, and by 1905 Buber had ceased to be involved in Zionist activities.   He signed onto a letter that denounced the conventional Zionist vision of a future Jewish state arising in the ancient homeland as “aping Euro-Christian culture” while “utterly bereft of Jewish content” (p.38). For Buber, the movement had come to be based on what he termed the “bonds of blood alone” (p.88). Yet he still saw in Zionism a potential to “reintroduce contemporary Jews to the ‘Jewish spirit’” and to Judaism’s “spiritual and cultural resources” (p.32), becoming what Mendes-Flohr terms a “cultural” rather than  “political” Zionist.

The German experience in World War I further shaped Buber’s approach to Zionism. Like many Jews of his generation, Buber saw no conflict between his allegiance to Judaism and his allegiance to Germany.  That young Jews were joining the war ranks on equal terms with other Germans was initially a positive feature of the war effort for Buber, presenting an opportunity to bring about a higher degree of national unity.  But as the conflict endured, Buber came to oppose not only the war itself, but all forms of chauvinistic nationalism.

These views crystallized when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, in which it asserted its support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.  Buber’s opposition to the Declaration placed him at odds even with fellow cultural Zionists. If a Jewish state were to materialize in Palestine, he contended, it should be “for humankind . . . for the realization of Judaism” (p.115-16).  For the remainder of his life, Buber continued to criticize Zionism –and the State of Israel when it came into existence in 1948 — for what he  considered its “self-enclosed, parochial nationalism” (p.199).

Buber’s festering doubts over the Zionist project prompted him in 1919 to begin work on a manuscript that aimed to establish what he termed the “general foundations of a philosophical (communal and religio-philosophical) system to which I intend to devote the next several years” (p.131).  He was alluding to I and Thou (Ich-Du in the original German), the work with which Buber would be identified for the rest of his life and thereafter, first appearing in 1923 but not translated and published in English until 1937.

 I and Thou probed the ramifications of the German word Begegnung, meeting, which for Buber meant, in Mendes-Flohr’a words, an “interpersonal encounter between individuals that occurs in an atmosphere of mutual trust” (p.3).  Buber himself once wrote that “[a]ll real life is meeting” (p.3).  His call to engage the world in dialogue, our life with others, “also recognized the painful truth of how difficult it is to achieve, how often life’s journey is filled with mismeetings and the failure of I-Thou encounters to take place” (p.3-4).

Buber’s notion of “I-Thou” and his “philosophy of dialogue” can be understood only in relationship to “I-It,” the opposite of “I-Thou.”  These are Buber’s “two fundamental and dichotomous modes of relating to the world” (p.141), Mendes-Flohr explains..  The human person “achieves the fullness of being by experiencing both modes of existence” (p.262-63).  I-It entails the “physical, historical, and sociological factors that structure objective reality,” in other words the “labyrinthine world we often call ‘reality’” (p.262-63).  To attain the fullness of life, our relationships with other human beings cannot be based on an object — It — but on Thou, as an “automatous subject with a distinctive inner reality” (p.263), as Mendes-Flohr puts it.

As if to show the I-Thou principle in action, much of Mendes-Flohr’s narrative involves Buber’s exchanges with thinkers, colleagues and friends over the course of his long life, among them such luminaries as early Zionist visionary Herzl, Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, and David Ben-Gurion, modern Israel’s founding father who served as its first prime minister.  But his most influential exchanges were with two men whom he also considered  friends, Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929).  Landauer led Buber away from Judaism and into mysticism, while Rosenzweig took Buber out of mysticism and helped him reach what Mendes-Flohr considers his most mature understanding of the Jewish faith.

A leading early 20th century German anarchist, Landauer knew Buber from 1900 onward, although their friendship deepened as World War I broke out.  Landauer, who had by then withdrawn entirely from formal Judaism, helped steer Buber away from the nationalist sentiments he had entertained at the outbreak of the war.  Landauer imparted to Buber his interest in Christian mysticism and Buddhism, aiding Buber’s search for the “essential spiritual unity of all beings” (p.53).  Landauer was active in Kurt Eisner’s revolutionary coup d’etat in Bavaria in 1919 and was murdered by counter-revolutionaries in that conflict.   Buber was “deeply shaken by the tragic death of his friend; he viewed Landauer as a martyred idealist, a gentle anarchist who had sacrificed his life in a doomed effort to herald an era of politics without violence” (p.127).  Landauer was, in Mendes-Fllohr’s view, Buber’s ”intellectual and political alter ego” (p.51; he was also the paternal grandfather of American film-director Mike Nichols, born several years after his death).

Rosenzweig, eight years Buber’s junior, was already making his mark as an iconoclastic German philosopher when he first met Buber in Berlin in 1914.  Their friendship blossomed after 1920, not coincidentally after Landauer’s death (Rosenzweig had by then famously backed out at the last minute of a conversion to Christianity, discussed in Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind, reviewed here in 2017).  Mendes-Flohr credits Rosenzweig with helping Buber get past his infatuation with mysticism.  The pair undertook to translate the Hebrew Bible into German, a project that was both lingual and theological.  Their task was complicated when Rosenzweig contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known to Americans as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”), which killed him in 1929.  Buber’s friendship with Rosenzweig led to what Mendes-Flohr considers the maturation of Buber’s understanding of Judaism, in which genuine spiritual renewal lies neither in “culture” nor “religion” but rather in the “lived everyday” (p.164).  The sensibility we sometimes call “faith,” Buber wrote, “cannot be constituted by the inwardness of one’s soul: it must manifest itself in the entire fullness of personal and communal life, in which the individual participates.” (p.209).

Buber also met several times after World War II with Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  Although one of Germany’s most original and complex 20th century philosophers, Heidegger’s professional reputation was permanently tainted by his affinity for Hitler’s Third Reich in the 1930s.  Buber was aware that Heidegger had supported the Nazi regime and studiously avoided the “difficult questions attendant to Heidegger’s Nazi past” (p.281).  Heidegger for his part eagerly engaged with Buber, motivated by his desire to receive at least an implicit exculpation for his Nazi past.  Buber’s meetings with Heidegger tested his vision of reconciliation, “undoubtedly shaped by a Jewish theological sensibility that there can be no divine pardon for offenses against others until one has turned to one’s fellow human beings whom one has offended, and not only asked their forgiveness, but also adequately repented for the wrongs done to them” (p.286).

The Heidegger meetings failed to rise to the level of what Buber considered genuine dialogue, making reconciliation unattainable.  Buber and Heidegger entertained “divergent horizons of expectations” that reflected “very different conceptions of grace and atonement,” (p.285).  In a subsequent lecture, delivered in 1960, Buber argued that through his uncritical embrace of Nazism, Heidegger had neglected the interpersonal responsibility of one individual to the other, “even to a stranger who bears no name, allowing for the excessive celebration of ‘superpersonal’ social and political institutions in our ‘disintegrating human world’” (p.290; Heidegger’s post-World War II attempts at reconciliation with his former girl friend Hannah Arendt are analyzed in a work by Daniel Maier-Katkin, reviewed here in 2013),.

In 1938, when he was 60 years old, Buber and his family immigrated to Palestine, where he began a professorship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Although Jerusalem was  Buber’s home until his death in 1965, he was never fully at ease there.  His appointment at the Hebrew University was in “Philosophy of Society,” in which he was to draw upon the “principles and methods” of sociology.   With no formal training in sociology, Buber used his university position to stress sociology’s ethical dimensions, very much at odds with its general character as a value-free discipline.

When the State of Israel was created ten years later, in May 1948, a civil war broke out between Arab and Jews, leaving Buber aghast.  With his World War I era objections to the Balfour Declaration and political Zionism resurfacing, Buber wrote that when he had first joined the Zionist movement 50 years previously:

[M]y heart was whole. Today it is torn. The war being waged for a political structure might become a war of national survival at any moment. Thus against my will I participate in it with my own being, and my heart trembles like any other Israeli.  I cannot, however, even be joyful in anticipating victory, for I fear that the significance of Jewish victory will be the downfall of Zionism (p.250).

Buber words were directed at least in part to Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), with whom he had developed an odd friendship.  The pair disagreed upon almost every issue that Israel faced in its early days, starting with the fate of displaced Arabs, yet they were bound to one another by a deep reservoir mutual respect.  Buber lobbied Ben-Gurion in 1961 to spare the life of Adolph Eichmann after his capture in Argentina and trial in Jerusalem, to no avail (Deborah Lipstadt’s account of the Eichmann trial was the subject of a review here in 2013).

Buber subjected himself to searing criticism in Israel in 1951 when he accepted, in abstentia, the Goethe Prize from the University of Hamburg for his “promotion of supranational thinking and humanitarian endeavors in the spirit of Goethe” (p.270).  Many in Israel considered Buber’s acceptance of the prize as exonerating Germany for its extermination of six million Jews, contending that he should have ostentatiously refused the prize.  Buber responded that by rejecting the prize, he would “undercut the commendable efforts of those Germans ‘fighting for humanism’ and thereby play into the hands of their enemies, even to those guilty of mass murder” (p.271-72).  As a Jew and an Israeli citizen, Buber considered it his duty to “acknowledge (and thus encourage) the German advocates of a rededication to the humanistic tradition associated with Goethe” (p.272).

Then, in 1953, Buber came under further fire when he accepted a prize and gave a lecture in what had once been St. Paul’s church in Frankfurt, destroyed in the war and the city’s first public building to be rebuilt afterwards.   The building had not been used for religious purposes since 1848, a fact that was “ignored by or unknown to some of Buber’s Israeli critics, who excoriated him for speaking in a church” (p.276).  In his lecture, which was attended by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Theodor Huess, Buber acknowledged the vast pain and immeasurable suffering which the Nazi regime had inflicted upon his people.  Yet, he recognized that not all Germans had acquiesced in the Nazi horrors.  Some had resisted, others had assisted and protected endangered Jews. “Reverence and love for these Germans now fills my heart” (p.278), Buber told the audience.

Buber’s wife Paula, who never felt accepted in Jerusalem as a Jew despite her conversion, died unexpectedly in 1958 in Venice, where the couple had stopped en route back to Jerusalem after a tour in the United States that had included a stint for Buber at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies.  Paula was buried in the 13th century Jewish cemetery on the Lido.   Buber had a  difficult time resuming his work in the aftermath of his wife’s death.  In his twilight years, he “increasingly cherished friendships and visits, particularly by youth from abroad and Israel” (p.304).  On the occasion of his 85th birthday in 1963, Buber indicated to well wishers that he wanted to be remembered as a “naturally studying person,” someone  for whom “learning and study are an expression of human freedom” (p.320).  Two years later, at age 87, Buber died in his sleep in his Jerusalem home.

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Throughout his long career, Martin Buber’s idiosyncratic version of Judaism sought to sharpen the spiritual sensibilities of his fellow Jews while urging their expanded commitment to the larger family of humankind.  But with his  complex and often portentous thinking, Buber’s writings and lectures were never easy to grasp.  Paul Mendes-Flohr is therefore to be lauded for ably distilling Buber’s thought in this penetrating biography, a work that should appeal even to readers not schooled in Jewish history and culture.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 20, 2020

 

6 Comments

Filed under Biography, Eastern Europe, European History, German History, Intellectual History, Religion

Conservatives, Where Are They Coming From?

Roger Scruton, Conservatism:

An Invitation to the Great Tradition

(St. Martin’s Press)

Roger Scruton’s Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition should be read in tandem with Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century, reviewed here earlier this month.  Scruton, a fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature who currently teaches at the University of Buckingham, has produced a work much like that of Rosenblatt, an erudite yet eminently readable piece of intellectual history.  Whereas Rosenblatt’s work centers on the etymology of the word “liberal,” Scruton focuses on what he terms the “tradition” of conservatism — but that may be a distinction without a difference.

The journey that Scruton takes his readers on overlaps at a surprising number of junctures along the way with people and places highlighted in Rosenblatt’s work, including a focus on the same core countries: France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States.  Scruton’s work accords more attention to Great Britain than to the other three and might be considered first and foremost a portrayal of the British conservative tradition.  But Scruton locates the origins of that tradition in the 18th century Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Rosenblatt’s starting points for modern liberalism.

Modern conservatism, Scruton writes, began more as a “hesitation within liberalism than as a doctrine and philosophy in its own right” (p.33).  The relationship between liberalism and conservatism, he emphasizes, should not be thought of as one of “absolute antagonism” but rather of “symbiosis” (p.55).  In the aftermath of the French Revolution, liberals and conservatives sparred in various contexts over the implications and limitations of the revolution’s ideals of liberté and égalité and the management of change.  Conservative hesitations “began to crystallize as theories and policies” (p.33) as a necessary counter to what Scruton terms the “liberal individualism” that the French Revolution seemed to prioritize.

Liberal individualism leads to a belief in the “right of individuals and communities to define their identity for themselves, regardless of existing norms and customs” (p.6), Scruton writes.  In the eyes of conservatives, liberal individualism does not regard liberty as a “shared culture, based on tacit conventions” (p.6).  This perception runs counter to the liberalism that Rosenblatt depicts, in which liberals at least until World War II consistently grounded individual rights in the needs of the larger community.  But liberalism makes sense, Scruton contends,  “only in the social context that conservatism defends” (p.55), a proposition Rosenblatt would likely endorse.

In Scruton’s account, conservatism in the mid-19th century found its natural antithesis not in liberalism but rather in the cluster of movements known as “socialism,” movements that spoke for an emerging working class as the industrial revolution was changing the face of Europe.  For the remainder of the century and into the 20th, conservatives opposed socialist schemes to reform society from top to bottom, whether utopian,  evolutionary, revolutionary or dictatorial.  Scruton’s conservative tradition might therefore be thought of as a flashing yellow light for liberalism – slow down! – and a stark red light for socialism – – stop!!

With conservatism and socialism at odds from the start, one strand of conservatism aligned with what was termed “classical liberalism,” which favored free markets and generally unfettered industrial capitalism.  But another strand, termed “cultural conservatism,” found itself largely in agreement with much of the socialist analysis of the deleterious effects of capitalism.  This strand, which has proved surprisingly enduring, proposed culture as “both the remedy to the loneliness and alienation of industrial society, and the thing most under threat from the new advocates of social reform” (p.82).

Scrtuon, again like Rosenblatt, is at his best when he describes the conservative tradition during the 19th century.  He too seems to run low on fuel when moving into the 20th century, especially the post World War II era.  Readers may be disappointed to find, for example, no analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s contributions to modern conservatism, or the implications of Brexit and the “populism” which purportedly fueled Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, a term Scruton scrupulously avoids.

But these voids underscore what I suspect may be Scruton’s main if implicit point: that the key to understanding the conservative tradition lies more in an appreciation of conservative attitudes and dispositions than in comprehending discrete principles or the evolution of thinking over the nearly 2 ½ centuries since the French Revolution.  Scruton acknowledges that conservatives have not always been good in defining or explaining their goals and notes wryly that they “suffer under a burden of disapproval, which they believe comes from their habit of telling the truth, but which their opponents ascribe either to ‘nostalgia’ for an old and misremembered way of life or a failure of compassion toward the new ways of life that are emerging to replace it” (p.154-55).

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Scruton begins by emphasizing the debt that modern conservatism owes to Aristotle, to the English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, and to the philosophies of such key 17th century thinkers as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1677) and John Locke (1632-1704).  But modern conservatism received its first extended articulation in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, first published in November 1790, more than a year after the fall of the Bastille but prior to the execution of King Louis XVI and the advent of the Reign of Terror.  Burke (1729-1797), the Irish-born Whig Parliamentarian whom Scruton considers the “greatest of British conservative thinkers” (p.26), demonstrated in Reflections an “astonishing” ability to “see to the heart of things and to predict the way in which they are bound to go” (p.44).

Burke questioned the revolutionaries’ abstract faith in reason.  He favored a more particularized form of reasoning that emerges “through custom, free exchange and ‘prejudice’” (p.51). To Burke, the revolutionaries in France had failed to take account of the passions and sentiments that govern human character at least as much as reason.  The past to Burke was not something to be discarded and overcome, as the most radical of the revolutionaries seemed to maintain, but rather something to be built upon (among the radicals Burke had in mind was the American Thomas Paine, whose debates with Burke are ably captured in Yuval Levin’s work reviewed here in 2015).

Burke and his Reflections provided modern conservatism – or at least the British version – with a blueprint that defined its distinctive character throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century: a “defence of inheritance against radical innovation, an insistence that the liberation of the individual could not be achieved without the maintenance of customs and institutions that were threatened by the single-minded emphasis on freedom and equality” (p.104).  To be sure, human societies must change over time, but only in the name of “continuity, in order to conserve what we are and what we have” (p.3).  Burkean conservatism should not therefore be mistaken for political reaction.

The most articulate of the reactionaries, diehard French lawyer and philosopher Joseph Comte de Maistre (1753-1821), defended the divine right of kings, advocated for restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and saw the Enlightenment as a an “insurrection against God” (p.69).  De Maistre spoke for a wide range of ultra-royalists, disaffected nobles and backward-looking Catholics who sought in essence to undo the whole Enlightenment project and restore all that had been swept away by the French Revolution.  Scruton sees in de Maistre’s thinking a “certain remorseless extremism” (p.69) which does not fit comfortably within the conservative tradition he depicts.  Since de Maistre’s time, Scruton argues, conservatism in France has “almost invariably” been connected with a “reverence for the Catholic faith and for France as bearing witness to that faith” (p.71).

In German-speaking lands in the early 19th century, the differences between liberalism and conservatism were placed in sharp focus by debates between the two greatest German-speaking political philsophers, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).  Kant in many ways epitomized the liberal individualism of the Enlightenment, placing the “freely choosing individual into the very center of his world view” and judging “all institutions and procedures in terms of that one idea” (p.56; in a work on the 18th century Enlightenment reviewed here in 2015, Anthony Pagden argued that Kant was the Enlightenment’s single most important thinker).

Hegel by contrast regarded Kant’s freely choosing self as an “empty abstraction. The self does not exist prior to society, but is created in society, through . . . custom, morality and civil association” (p.59).  Hegel found the “roots of legitimate order” (p.70) not only in custom but also in continuity and free association.  In Scruton’s phrase, Hegel “rescued the human individual from the philosophy of individualism” (p.66).

But as conservatives and liberals in the middle decades of the 19th century ruminated over the limitations to the French Revolution’s ideal of liberté , it fell to the aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, one of France’s leading 19th  century liberals, to spell out conservative hesitations over the the revolutionary ideal of égalité.  Tocqueville’s views were shaped by his tour of the United States in the 1830s, as expressed in his classic work, Democracy in America.  Tocqueville considered equality among citizens to be the hallmark of American democracy, although he was aware that the institution of slavery undermined the country’s claims of equality.

Tocqueville wrestled with how equality might be reconciled with liberty in the “increasing absence of the diversity of power that had characterized traditional aristocratic regimes” (p.75).  For Tocqueville, unchecked pursuit of equality breeds loss of individuality that tends, as Scruton puts it, “towards uniformity, and begins to see the eccentric as a threat” (p.76).  Tocqueville was one of the first to warn against what he called “democratic despotism,” where majority sentiment is in a position to override the rights of minorities.

Tocqueville was among those mid-19th century liberals who shared conservative anxieties over the rise of the diverse working class movements known as “socialist.”  Conservatives recoiled at what they perceived to be socialism’s “gargantuan schemes for a ‘just’ society, to be promoted by the new kind of managerial state” (p.104).  Socialism for conservatives seemed altogether indifferent if not hostile to the very traditions they revered, and was bent upon undermining the bonds among citizens that they regarded as the glue holding societies together.  Conservative opposition to socialism in all its forms hardened in the 20th century after Vladimir Lenin and his band of Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, leading to a “tyranny yet more murderous than that of the Jacobins in revolutionary France” (p.104).

One conservative response was to align with so-called “classical liberalism,” that strand within liberalism that championed free trade, market capitalism and economic laissez faire.  But not all conservatives found the answer to socialism in laissez faire economics.  Many saw free markets as altogether amoral, exalting individualism and financial profit above the needs of the community.  The “cultural conservatism” that emerged in the mid-19th century included a strong anti-capitalist strain, addressing concerns that the demographic changes brought about by industrialization had detached people from their religious and social roots.

Scruton finds a nascent cultural conservatism in Germany with the thinking of Johann Gottried von Herder (1744-1803), once a student of Immanuel Kant.  Herder posited culture, consisting of “language, custom, folk tales and folk religion,” as the element that “unites human beings in mutual attachment” (p.96).  Herder’s cultural conservatism, Scruton notes, became a “kind of political radicalism, influencing the revolutions of 1848,” in which German speakers “laid claim to a shared identity within boundaries that would bring them together as a single nation state” (p.97).  In Britain, the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was among the earliest cultural conservatives.

Coleridge sought to infuse religion back into society, but was also a strong proponent of increased government assistance for the poor, thereby setting the agenda for “subsequent cultural conservatives who opposed unbridled free market economics” (p.83).  After Coleridge, the cultural conservative banner was carried by the poet and essayist John Ruskin (1819-1900), the essayist Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), and, in the 20th century, by the poems, plays and essays of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and the religious reflections of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963).  But Scruton’s analysis of the conservative tradition in 20th century Britain revolves primarily around the thinking of three key theorists: lawyer and legal historian Frederic William Maitland (1850-1906), a transition figure from 19th to 20th century conservatism; the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1993), who almost single handedly kept the argument for free market capitalism alive in the mid-20th century; and the complex and often enigmatic political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) who — also almost single handedly — was able to maintain the academic respectability of conservatism in post-World War II Britain.

* * *

In a series of posthumously published lectures, The Constitutional History of England (1908), Maitland contended that the foundations for liberty in Britain lay not in the abstract theorizing of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution but in the English common law and the tradition of parliamentary representation.   Limited government,  he maintained, had been the rule rather than the exception in England from medieval times onward.  The rights claimed by Britain’s 17th and 18th century theorists in Maitland’s view had always been implied in the English common law.

Half a century later, Hayek linked Maitland’s insights into the English common law with his case for unfettered free market capitalism – for “classical” liberalism — as a further argument against centralized government planning.  In a work published in 1960, The Constitution of Liberty, his second best known work after his 1944 best seller, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek portrayed the English common law as the “heart of English society,” living proof that justice resides in the “transactions between freely associating people and not in the plans of sovereign power” (p.110).  Just as the free market is an example of a “spontaneous order, which arises by an invisible hand from free association,” generating solutions to economic problems “of its own accord,” the common law also generates a “spontaneous legal order, which, because it grows from particular solutions to particular conflicts, inherently tends to restore society to a state of equilibrium” (p.107-08).

Oakeshott attacked the murderous collectivist ideologies of the 20th century — communism, fascism and Nazism — but a part of his argument also applied to Britain and democracies generally: the damage done when politics is directed from above.  Oakeshott mounted an assault on what Scruton terms the “dirigisme” that entered British politics after World War II, in which the state would “manage” not only the economy, but also education, poverty relief, housing, employment, “just about anything on which the well-being and security of the people might seem to depend” (p.114).  Scruton goes on to note that Oakeshott utilized his position as a professor of political philosophy at the London School of Economics (where Hayek also taught) to “build up a network of sympathetic students and colleagues.”  For a while,  the LSE politics department “became a center of conservative resistance to the prevailing socialist consensus” (p.115).

This passage hit me like a thud.  In the late 1960s, I was fortunate to participate in this Oakeshott-led program in political philosophy, which I considered at the time to be a stimulating but relatively obscure academic enterprise.  Scruton even mentions the contributions to conservative thought of my advisor that year – termed “tutor” at LSE – Elie Kedourie, and those of Professor Kenneth Minogue, who was my instructor for an in-depth course on Thomas Hobbes.  In Scruton’s view, Oakeshott’s program in political thought at the LSE bore some resemblance to that of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago in the same time period – although it is easier to say “Straussian” than “Oakeshottian” (Strauss and the influence of the Straussians were the subject of a review here in 2015).  None of this even remotely registered with me during an otherwise memorable year at LSE.

But overall, British conservatism since World War II for Scruton has been at best a “fragmentary force on the edge of intellectual life, with little or no connection to politics” (p.127).   Conservatism as the antithesis of socialism and Bolshevism more or less fell with the Berlin wall, and it has had difficulty establishing new moorings.  Today, British conservatism’s main enemies in Scruton’s view are religious extremism, especially an “armed and doctrinaire enemy, in the form of radical Islam” (p.148), the emerging orthodoxy of multi-culturalism, and “political correctness,” that “humorless and relentless policing of language, so as to prevent heretical thoughts from arising” (p.128).  Not by accident, recent intellectual conservatism in Britain has been buttressed by many immigrant voices.  It is the “privilege of the immigré,” Scruton writes, to “speak without irony of the British Empire and of the unique culture, institutions and laws that have made Britain the safe place of refuge for so many in a smoldering world” (p.131).

* * *

The hesitations that are baked into the conservative tradition that Scruton depicts have doubtless served as useful checks on liberal enthusiasm over the past two centuries.  But readers may leave Scruton’s work wondering how these  hesitations fit into today’s cantankerous political debates.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 19, 2020

 

4 Comments

Filed under British History, European History, French History, German History, History, Intellectual History

Liberals, Where Are They Coming From?

 

Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome

To the Twenty-First Century

(Princeton University Press) 

             If you spent any time watching or listening to the political conventions of the two major American parties last month,  you probably did not hear the word “liberal” much, if at all, during the Democratic National Convention.  But you may have heard the word frequently at the Republican National Convention, with liberalism perhaps described as something akin to a “disease or a poison,” or a danger to American “moral values.”  These, however, are not the words of Donald Trump Jr. or Rudy Giuliani, but rather of Helena Rosenblatt, a professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, in The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (at p.265).  American Democrats, Rosenblatt further notes, avoid using the word “liberal” to describe themselves “for fear that it will render them unelectable” (p.265). What the heck is wrong with being a “liberal”? What is “liberalism” after all?

Rosenblatt argues that we are “muddled” about what we mean by “liberalism”:

People use the term in all sorts of different ways, often unwittingly, sometime intentionally. They talk past each other, precluding any possibility of reasonable debate. It would be good to know what we are speaking about when we speak about liberalism (p.1).

Clarifying the meaning of the terms “liberal” and “liberalism” is the lofty goal Rosenblatt sets for herself in this ambitious work, a work that at its heart is an etymological stud — a “word history of liberalism” (p.3) — in which she explores how these two terms have evolved in political and social discourse over the centuries, from Roman to present times.

The word “liberal,” Rosenblatt argues, took on an overtly political connotation only in the early 19th century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Up until that time, beginning with the Roman authors Cicero and Seneca, through the medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe, “liberal” was a word referring to one’s character.  Being “liberal” meant demonstrating the “virtues of a citizen, showing devotion to the common good, and respecting the importance of mutual connectedness” (p.8-9).  During the 18th century Enlightenment, the educated public began for the first time to speak not only of liberal individuals but also of liberal sentiments, ideas, ways of thinking, even constitutions.

Liberal political principles emerged as part of an effort to safeguard the achievements of the French Revolution and to protect them from the forces of extremism — from the revolution’s most radical proponents on one side to its most reactionary opponents on the other.  These principles included support for the broad ideals of the French Revolution, “liberté, égalité, fraternité;” opposition to absolute monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical privilege; and such auxiliary concepts as popular sovereignty, constitutional and representative government, the rule of law and individual rights, particularly freedom of the press and freedom of religion.  Beyond that, what could be considered a liberal principle was “somewhat vague and debatable” (p.52).

Rosenblatt is strongest on how 19th century liberalism evolved, particularly in France and Germany, but also in Great Britain and the United States.  France and French thinkers were the center points in the history of 19th century liberalism, she contends, while Germany’s contributions are “usually underplayed, if not completely ignored” (p.3).  More cursory is her treatment of liberalism in the 20th century, packed into the last two of eight chapters and an epilogue.  The 20th century in her interpretation saw the United States and Great Britain become centers of liberal thinking, eclipsing France and Germany.  But since World War II, she argues, liberalism as defined in America has limited itself narrowly to the protection of individual rights and interests, without the moralism or  dedication to the common good that were at the heart of 19th and early 20th century liberalism.

From the early 19th century through World War II, Rosenblatt insists, liberalism had “nothing to do with the atomistic individualism we hear of today.”  For a century and a half, most liberals were “moralists” who “never spoke about rights without stressing duties” (p.4).  People have rights because they have duties.  Liberals rejected the idea that a viable community could be “constructed on the basis of self-interestedness alone” (p.4).  Being a liberal meant “being a giving and a civic-minded citizen; it meant understanding one’s connectedness to other citizens and acting in ways conducive to the common good” (p.3-4).  The moral content to the political liberalism that emerged after the French Revolution constitutes the “lost” aspect of the history that Rosenblatt seeks to bring to light.

Throughout much of the 19th century, however, being a liberal did not mean being a democrat in the modern sense of the term.  Endorsing popular sovereignty, as did most early liberals, did not mean endorsing universal suffrage.  Voting was a trust, not a right.  Extending suffrage beyond property-holding males was an invitation to mob rule.  Only toward the end of the century did most liberals accept expansion of the franchise, as liberalism gradually became  synonymous with democracy, paving the way for the 20th century term “liberal democracy.”

While 19th century liberalism was often criticized as opposed to religion, Rosenblatt suggests that it would be more accurate to say that it opposed the privileged position of the Catholic Church and aligned more easily with Protestantism, especially some forms emerging in Germany (although a small number of 19th century Catholic thinkers could also claim the term liberal).  But by the middle decades of the 19th century, liberalism’s challenges included not only the opposition of monarchists and the Catholic Church, but also what came to be known as “socialism” — the political movements representing a working class that was “self-conscious, politicized and angry” (p.101) as the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of Europe.

Liberalism’s response to socialism gave rise in the second half of the 19th century to the defining debate over its nature: was liberalism compatible with socialist demands for government intervention in the economy and direct government assistance to the working class and the destitute?  Or were the broad objectives of liberalism better advanced by the policies of economic laissez faire, in which the government avoided intervention in the economy and, as many liberals advocated, rejected what was termed “public charity” in favor of concentrating upon the moral improvement of the working classes and the poor so that they might lift themselves out of poverty?  This debate carried over into the 20th century and, Rosenblatt indicates, is still with us.

* * *

With surprising specificity, Rosenblatt attributes the origins of modern political liberalism to the work of the Swiss couple Benjamin Constant and his partner Madame de Staël, born Anne-Louise Germaine Necker, the daughter of Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker who served as finance minister to French King Louis XIV (Rosenblatt is also the author of a biography of Constant).  The couple arrived in Paris from Geneva in 1795, a year after the so-called Reign of Terror had ended with the execution of its most prominent advocate, Maximilien Robespierre.  As they reacted to the pressing circumstances brought about by the revolution, Rosenblatt contends, Constant and de Staël formulated the cluster of ideas that collectively came to be known as “liberalism,” although neither ever termed their ideas “liberal.”  Constant, the “first theorist of liberalism” (p.66), argued that it was not the “form of government that mattered,” but rather the amount. “Monarchies and republics could be equally oppressive. It was not to whom you granted political authority that counted, but how much authority you granted.  Political power is dangerously corrupting” (p.66).

Influenced in particular by several German theologians, Constant spoke eloquently about the need for a new and more enlightened version of Protestantism in the liberal state.  Religion was an “essential moralizing force” that “inspired selflessness, high-minded principles, and moral values, all crucial in a liberal society. But it mattered which religion, and it mattered what its relationship was to the state” (p.66).  A liberal government needed to be based upon religious toleration, that is, the removal of all legal disabilities attached to the faith one professed.  Liberalism envisioned strict separation of church and state and what we would today call “secularism,” ideas that placed it in direct conflict with the Catholic Church throughout the 19th century.

Constant and Madame de Staël initially supported Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1799 coup d’état.  They hoped Napoleon would thwart the counterrevolution and consolidate and protect the core liberal principles of the revolution. But as Napoleon placed the authority of the state in his own hands, pursued wars of conquest abroad, and allied himself with the Catholic Church, Constant and Madame de Staël became fervent critics of his increasingly authoritarian rule.

After Napoleon fell from power in 1815, an aggressive counter-attack on liberalism took place in France, led by the Catholic Church, in which liberals were accused of trying to “destroy religion, monarchy, and the family.  They were not just misguided but wicked and sinful.  Peddlers of heresy, they had no belief in duty, no respect for tradition or community.  In the writings of counter-revolutionaries, liberalism became a virtual symbol for atheism, violence, and anarchy” (p.68).  English conservative commentators frequently equated liberalism with Jacobinism.  For these commentators, liberals were “proud, selfish and licentious,” primarily interested in the “unbounded gratification of their passions” while refusing “restraints of any kind” (p.76).

Liberals hopes were buoyed, however, when the  bloodless three day 1830 Revolution in France deposed the ultra-royalist and strongly pro-Catholic Charles X in favor of the less reactionary Louis Philippe.  Among those initially supporting the 1830 Revolution was Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th century France’s most consequential liberal thinker after Constant and Madame de Staël.  Tocqueville famously toured the United States in the 1830s and offered his perspective on the country’s direction in Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, followed by his analysis in 1856 of the implications of the French Revolution, The Old Regime and the Revolution.

Tocqueville shared many of the widespread concerns of his age about democracy, especially its tendency to foster egoism and individualism.  He worried about the masses’ lack of “capacity.” He was one of the first to warn against what he called “democratic despotism,” where majority sentiment would be in a position to override the rights and liberties of minorities.  But Tocqueville also foresaw the forward march of democracy and the movement toward equality of all citizens as unstoppable, based primarily upon what he had observed in the United States (although he was aware of how the institution of slavery undermined American claims to be a society of equals).  Tocqueville counseled liberals in France not to try to stop democracy, but, as Rosenblatt puts it, to “instruct and tame” democracy, so that it “did not threaten liberty and devolve into the new kind of despotism France had seen under Napoleon” (p.95).

Tocqueville’s concerns about democracy and “excessive” equality were related to anxieties about how to accommodate the diverse movements that termed themselves socialist.  Initially, Rosenblatt stresses, the term socialist described “anyone who sympathized with the plight of the working poor . . . [T]here was no necessary contradiction between being liberal and being socialist” (p.103).   The great majority of mid-19th liberals, she notes, whether British, French, or German, believed in free circulation of goods, ideas and persons but were “not all that adverse to government intervention” and did not advocate “absolute property rights” (p.114).

In the last quarter of the 19th century, a growing number of British liberals began to favor a “new type of liberalism” that advocated “more government intervention on behalf of the poor.  They called for the state to a take action to eliminate poverty, ignorance and disease, and the excessive inequality in the distribution of wealth .  They began to say that people should be accorded not just freedom, but the conditions of freedom” (p. p.226).   French commentators in the same time period began to urge that a middle way be forged between laissez-faire and socialism, termed “liberal socialism,” where the state became an “instrument of civilization” (p.147).

But it was in 1870s Germany where the debate crystalized between what came to be known as “classical” laissez faire liberalism and the “progressive” version, thanks in large part to the unlikely figure of Otto von Bismarck.   Although no liberal, Bismarck, who masterminded German unification in 1871 and served as the first Chancellor of the newly united nation, instituted a host of sweeping social welfare reforms for workers, including full and comprehensive insurance against sickness, industrial accidents, and disability.  Most historians attribute his social welfare measures to a desire to coopt and destroy the German socialist movement (a point Jonathan Steinberg makes in his masterful Bismarck biography, reviewed here in 2013).

Bismarck’s social welfare measures coincided with an academic assault on economic laissez faire led by a school of “ethical economists,” a small band of German university professors who attacked laissez faire with arguments that were empirical but also moral, based on a view of man as not a “solitary, self-interested individual” but a “social being with ethical obligations “(p.222).  Laissez-faire “allowed for the exploitation of workers and did nothing to remedy endemic poverty,” they contended, “making life worse, not better, for the majority of the inhabitants of industrializing countries” (p.222).  Industrial conditions would “only deteriorate and spread if governments took no action” (p.222).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many young Americans studied in Germany under the ethical economists and their progeny.  They returned to the United States “increasingly certain that laissez-faire was simply wrong, both morally and empirically,” and “began to advocate more government intervention in the economy” (p.226).  On both sides of the Atlantic, liberalism and socialism were drawing closer together, but the debate between laissez faire liberalism and the interventionist version played out primarily on the American side.

* * *

During World War I, Rosenblatt argues, liberalism, democracy and Western civilization became “virtually synonymous,” with America, because of its rising strength, “cast as their principal defender” (p.258).  Germany’s contribution to liberalism was progressively forgotten or pushed aside and the French contribution minimalized.  Two key World War I era American thinkers, Herbert Croly and John Dewy, contended that only the interventionist, or progressive, version of liberalism could claim to be truly liberal.

Croly, cofounder of the flagship progressive magazine The New Republic, delivered a stinging indictment of laissez-faire economics and a strong argument for government intervention in his 1909 work, The Promise of American Life.  By 1914, Croly had begun to call his own ideas liberal, and by mid-1916 the term was in common use in The New Republic as “another way to describe progressive legislation” (p.246).

The philosopher John Dewey acknowledged that there were “two streams” of liberalism.  But one was more humanitarian and therefore open to government intervention and social legislation, while the other was “beholden to big industry, banking, and commerce, and was therefore committed to laissez-faire” (p.261).  American liberalism, Dewey contended, had nothing with laissez-faire, and never had.  Nor did it have anything to do with what was called the “gospel of individualism.”  American liberalism stood for “‘liberality and generosity, especially of mind and character.’ Its aim was to promote greater equality and to combat plutocracy with the aid of government” (p.261).

Rosenblatt credits President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal with demonstrating how progressive liberalism could work in the political arena. Roosevelt, 20th century America’s most talented liberal practitioner, consistently claimed the moral high ground for liberalism.  He argued that liberals believed in “generosity and social mindedness and were willing to sacrifice for the public good” (p.261).  For Roosevelt, the core of the liberal faith was a belief in the “effectiveness of people helping each other” (p.261). But despite his high-minded advocacy for progressive liberalism – buttressed by his leadership of the country during the Great Depression and in World War II – Roosevelt did not vanquish the argument that economic laissez faire constituted the “true” liberalism.

In 1944, with America at war with Nazi Germany and Roosevelt within months of unprecedented fourth term, the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, then teaching at the London School of Economics, published The Road to Serfdom, the 20th century’s most concerted intellectual challenge to the interventionist strand of liberalism.  Any sort of state intervention or “collectivist experiment” threatened individual liberty and put countries on a slippery slope to fascism, Hayek argued in his surprise best seller.  Hayek grounded his arguments in English and American notions of individual freedom.  “Progressive liberalism,” which he considered a contradiction in terms, had its roots in Bismarck’s Germany, he argued, and leads ineluctably to totalitarianism.  “[I]t is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating” (p.268), Hayek warned his British and American readers in 1944.

Although Hayek always insisted that he was a liberal, his ideas became part of the American post World War II conservative argument against both fascism and communism (meanwhile, in France laissez faire economics became synonymous with liberalism; “liberal” is a political epithet in today’s France, but means a free market advocate, diametrically opposed to its American meaning).  During the anti-Communist fervor of the Cold War that followed World War II, the interventionist liberalism that Croly and Dewey had preached and Roosevelt had put into practice was labeled “socialist” and even “communist.”  To American conservatives, those who accepted the interventionist version of liberalism were not really liberal; they were “totalitarian.”

* * *

The intellectual climate of the Cold War bred defensiveness in American liberals, Rosenblatt argues, provoking a need to “clarify and accentuate what made their liberalism not totalitarianism. It was in so doing that they toned down their plans for social reconstruction and emphasized, rather, their commitment to defending the rights of individuals” (p.271).  Post World War II American liberalism thus lost “much of its moral core and centuries-long dedication to the public good.  Individualism replaced it as liberals lowered their sights and moderated their goals” (p.271).  In bowing to Cold War realities, American liberals in the second half of the 20th century “willingly adopted the argument traditionally used to malign them . . . that liberalism was, at its core, an individualist, if not selfish, philosophy” (p.273).   Today, Rosenblatt finds, liberals “overwhelmingly stress a commitment to individual rights and choices; they rarely mention duties, patriotism, self-sacrifice, or generosity to others” (p.265-66).

Unfortunately, Rosenblatt provides scant elaboration for these provocative propositions, rendering her work incomplete.  A valuable follow up to this enlightening and erudite volume could concentrate on how the term “liberalism” has evolved over the past three quarters of a century, further helping us out of the muddle that surrounds the term.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 7, 2020

 

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, English History, European History, France, French History, German History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory

Being Ordinary in Nazi Germany

 

Konrad Jarausch, Broken Lives:

How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century  

(Princeton University Press)

The words “ordinary Germans” in Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century sent me back immediately to a searing academic debate that riveted a recently reunited Germany and much of the rest of the world in the 1990s between two American scholars, Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen.  Browning and Goldhagen sparred over the extent to which the anti-Semitism that gave rise to the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s project to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population, was engrained in the German population.

Browning’s 1992 work Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, and Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, published four years later, both examined mass executions committed by Reserve Battalion 101 of the German Uniformed Police Force (Ordungspolizel) in Poland in 1942.  The reservists had been randomly conscripted and were mostly middle-aged, with few ideological fanatics or even Nazi party members among them.  Their commander, the two scholars agreed, gave the reservists the opportunity  not to participate in the killing, but most declined to  opt out.   The two scholars offered contrasting interpretations of why so many chose, seemingly willingly, to participate in mass killing, with the difference captured by the words ordinary “men” in Browning’s title and ordinary “Germans” in that of Goldhagen.

Browning attributed the reservists’ participation in mass atrocities to universal factors, such as peer pressure, deference to authority, and adaptation to roles within an occupation unit stationed in enemy territory during wartime — attributes of human nature and group dynamics not unique to Germany or Germans.  Goldhagen, by contrast, emphasized what he described as an “eliminationist” anti-Semitism so deeply embedded in German history and culture that it caused virtually all Germans to kill Jews with enthusiastic cruelty when given the opportunity.  In essence, Goldhagen was arguing that a uniquely lethal anti-Semitism was embedded into the German national character.

There is no explicit mention of the Browning-Goldhagen exchange in Broken Lives, although implicitly Jarusch seems to be distancing himself from Goldhagen in this work (and it’s worth noting that Jarausch and Browning both served in the history department at the University of North Carolina and both did their graduate work at the University of Wisconsin in the same time frame).  But Jarusch’s work might be considered an attempt to restore an ordinary meaning to the term “ordinary Germans.”  Broken Lives gathers together a treasure trove of around 70 autobiographies, memoirs, diaries and journals composed by Germans who lived through and survived the Nazi era, ranging, Jarusch indicates, from enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi regime to courageous opponents.

Somewhat awkwardly, Jarusch calls his group the “Weimar cohort,” although he also uses “memoirists” and “authors.”  Most were born in the decade after World War I and retain childhood memories of the Germany of the 1920s, during its ill-fated experiment with liberal democracy, the Weimar Republic.  About two-thirds of the Weimar cohort were men, one-third women.  These are not “elite memoirs,” Jarusch emphasizes, but rather “untutored accounts” which provide a “more vivid and personal picture of what it meant to live through the twentieth century” (p.11).

The Weimar cohort consists mostly of “apolitical folks who merely took pride in surviving the Third Reich through ingenious stratagems” (p.4; among the cohort, assiduous readers of this blog will recall Joachim Fest, later a noted German historian, whose Not I, a memoir on growing up in the Third Reich, was reviewed here in 2016).  The cohort does not include those “fanatical Nazis” who “did not want to write about their complicity in crimes” (p.4).  Alluding to his title, Jarusch observes that the autobiographies and memoirs collectively demonstrate that Germans “overwhelmingly experienced a sense of broken lives in the twentieth century, disrupted beyond repair” (p.12), in which the normal life cycle progression from childhood to adult was interrupted by forces outside the memoirists’ control.

Jarusch utilizes the individual accounts to compile a fact-intensive, before-during-after narrative of what everyday life was like from World War I onward in Germany, divisible into five segments: 1) the Weimar cohort’s youth in the 1920s; 2) the different ways members of the cohort reacted as the Nazis gained power in 1933 and tightened their grip as the decade proceeded; 3) the cohort’s war experiences; 4) their immediate post-war experiences, in the initial months and years after the end of hostilities; and 5) longer term post-war experiences, as Germany became a Cold War battleground, with a Soviet satellite in the East and a largely capitalist West, and thereafter reunited in 1990 (these five segments coincide with those that Columbia University professor Fritz Stern described in his 2006 memoir, Five Germanys I Have Known; Stern is listed among the “minor individuals” who contributed to Broken Lives, indicating that Jarusch makes only limited reference to his contribution).

Virtually all the Weimar cohort reported “surprisingly benign” childhoods during the 1920s, “quite happy in contrast to later suffering”(p.368-69).  The period of innocence began to give way to more trying times for the cohort with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuring worldwide economic depression, which hit Germany particularly hard.  The Nazi assumption of political power in 1933 “largely dispelled ‘the carefree atmosphere of childhood’” for the cohort (p.63-64).  The war itself, which began in September 1939 and lasted through May 1945, constitutes the pivotal experience of the autobiographies and memoirs, with some memoirists detailing life on the front lines and in combat, while others, mostly women, describe their lives on the home front.  In the post-war period, memoirists living in West Germany enjoyed economic prosperity and “considerable freedom for individual growth that allowed a plurality of life plans to unfold into maturity and old age” (p.303), while the autobiographies and memoirs of those living in East Germany exhibit a “peculiarly defensive character, since their authors attempt to justify individual lives in spite of having to admit the [East German] system’s failure” (p.357).  West Germans memoirists supported reunification in 1990 more enthusiastically than did those from East Germany.

In his narrative , Jarausch uses the material that the cohort provided  primarily in short snippets, inserted into the text in a mechanical manner.  The members of the cohort come and go quickly, a short sentence about x here, another about y there; then we don’t see x or y for several pages or the next or a following chapter.  We never really develop a rapport with x or y, or any of the 17 “key individuals” whose experiences are the flesh and bones of this work.  Despite the richness of the historical raw material, the resulting narrative is wooden and desultory.  Moreover, Jarusch does little questioning of his sources in the narrative.

Almost all the memoirs are retrospectives, written many years – most often decades – after the events they recount, where experiences and memories “blend in a unique fashion that can make it difficult to tell them apart.” The memoirs are thus “selective, biased, and exculpatory, offering an incomplete picture” (p.13).  While their assertions nonetheless may be valuable in “showing how earlier experiences are remembered” (p.13), Jarusch argues, for the most part they are incorporated as fact into the text, with few attempts at qualification.

Women’s memoirs differ from those of men, Jarusch notes at several points.   Both male and female memoirists used their texts to reconcile early Nazi enthusiasm with later disillusionment.  But Jarusch finds more ambivalence in the memoirs of women about their roles in the Third Reich, especially their war experiences.  Drafted by the Wehrmacht and sent to the front, men experienced the war as a “paroxysm of gendered violence against enemies, foreign women, and racial inferiors” (p.102).  Most women in contrast “followed a traditional pattern of caring for their families, dealing with shortages, and keeping up the home front.  At the same time, they coped with the separation from the men by writing letters to soldiers and sending packages in order to keep up their morale” (p.187).

As war fortunes worsened for Germany, many women were required to go to work in war production facilities.  Women were equally exposed to Allied saturation bombing, which often failed to differentiate military from civilian targets.  With the collapse of the Eastern Front and the advance of the Red Army, many women had to organize precipitous flight, combined with the “crowning indignity of mass rape, with its attendant brutalization, pregnancy, and shame that sexually signaled defeat” (p.370).  After the war, the female memoirists were frequently “haunted by ‘anger, grief, shame, and remorse’” (p.187), more so than the men.

Any portrait of Germans being ordinary in extraordinary times cannot escape issues of German victimhood, comparative suffering, and collective guilt.  Jarusch notes the tendency of the autobiographies and memoirs to emphasize personal suffering while making at best only passing reference to the pain of Nazi victims.  Most of his authors, writing years and decades after the Nazi era, saw themselves as “misguided victims in order to minimize their own contribution to the Third Reich” (p.95).  German soldiers, instead of being heroes, came to “see themselves as betrayed victims of a megalomaniac Führer and Nazi dictatorship.  Because their heroism had become meaningless, they were left only with claims of victimization” (p.231).

In several passages, Jarusch considers the degree to which the ordinary Germans of the Weimar cohort might have aided and abetted the crimes of the Third Reich, as close as he comes to weighing in on the Browning-Goldhagen debate.  The memoirs and autobiographies of the cohort suggest that “more ordinary Germans were involved in the Holocaust than apologists admit, but at the same time fewer participated than some critics claim,” (p.218), he writes.  The memoirs and autobiographies “only hint at the full extent of the violence because its graphic description would be too unsettling” (p.134).  Although none admitted to involvement in militarily unnecessary atrocities, the texts “do reveal a widespread knowledge of the Nazi project of annihilation” (p.135).  While most of the cohort “witnessed the persecution without intervening and did their duty during the war effort,” many continued after the war to “claim not to have harmed anyone directly” (p.218-19).

Jarusch addresses the controversy over the exhibition of the Hamburg Institute of Social Research, “War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941–1944,” which toured Germany between 1995 and 1999, at the same time the Browning-Goldhagen debated was roiling the country.  The exhibit raised the question whether the German army, the Wehrmacht, should be considered itself a criminal organization, and if so, whether that makes everyone who was part of it a criminal (in Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, reviewed here last month, Susan Neiman also considered the impact of this exhibit).  Without answering the question directly, Jarusch concludes that the autobiographical accounts “tend to support the version of considerable military participation in atrocities and murder” (p.103), hardly a startling conclusion.

Overall, the dominant experience shared in the retrospectives of the Weimar cohort, Jarusch concludes, was the “disruption of their own life courses by historic forces outside of their control.  Their existence was not the expected progression from happy childhood via turbulent adolescences to mature adulthood with professional success and loving family, but rather a constant struggle against the surprising challenges of depression, dictatorship, war, privation, and the like” (p.366).  Capturing how ordinary Germans lived through and survived the Nazi era is assuredly a tale worth telling.  But while Broken Lives provides much valuable ground-level information  about the ordinary Germans of the Weimar cohort,  it falls disappointingly short in creating affinity with the individual members of the cohort.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 21, 2020

 

8 Comments

Filed under German History, History

German Lessons: Is Mississippi Learning?

 

Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans:

Race and the Memory of Evil (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 

Less than two months ago, protests and public demonstrations erupted on an unprecedented scale across the United States and throughout the world over the killing of African American George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer, captured on videotape.  Fueled by the movement known as “Black Lives Matter,” the protests and demonstrations that continue to this day focus most directly on police violence and reform of criminal justice practices.  But at a deeper level the protests also seek to call attention to the endurance of systemic racism in the United States, the subject that hovers over Susan Neiman’s thought-provoking Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,  giving her work a timeliness she probably never imagined when it first appeared last year.

To address systemic racism, Neiman argues, the United States needs to confront more directly and honestly the realities of its racist past: human bondage dating from the early 17th century which plunged the United States into a Civil War in the mid-19th century, followed by an additional century of legally enforced segregation, rampant discrimination, racial terrorism and second class citizenship, with official sanction of racial discrimination not ending until passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year.  Neiman’s title, moreover, is a give away to her surprising suggestion that Americans can learn much from how Germany finally confronted its own racist past, specifically the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population that it perpetrated over a 12-year period, from 1933 to 1945.

When Neiman looked at the contentious issue of monuments honoring Southern Civil War veterans from the perspective of Germany, where she has lived on and off since 1982, she found it hard to “imagine a Germany filled with monuments to the men who fought for the Nazis.  My imagination failed. For anyone who has lived in contemporary Germany, the vision of statutes honoring those men is inconceivable.” Germans who lost family members during World War II realize that their loved ones “cannot be publicly honored without honoring the cause for which they died” (p.267).  In the United States, by contrast, the president and a substantial if declining portion of the public still support maintaining statutes and memorials honoring the cause of the Southern Confederacy, a reflection of the broader differences between the two countries in coming to terms with their racist pasts that Neiman seeks to highlight.

Learning from the Germans is not an attempt to compare the evils of slavery and discrimination against African Americans in the United States to those of the murder of Jews and others during the Holocaust, an exercise Neiman considers fruitless.  Rather, her work revolves around what might be characterized as “comparative atonement,” for which she uses her preferred if foreboding German word, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, translated into English as “working off the past.”  The word came into use in German in the 1960s as an “abstract polysyllable way of saying We have to do something about the Nazis” (p.30).  In atoning for its racist past, Germany is markedly further down the path to Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung than the United States, Neiman argues, but she also emphasizes how East Germany, when it existed and despite its many faults, was further along this path than West Germany.  Only after German reunification in 1990 did efforts of the former West Germany to atone for its racist crimes begin to gather serious momentum.

The first part of Neiman’s three-part work, “German Lessons,” outlines Germany’s attempt to come to terms with its crimes of the Nazi period, both before and after unification.  The second part, “Southern Discomfort,” looks at the legacy of racism in the American Deep South, heavily concentrated on the state of Mississippi and on the persistence of the notion of the Lost Cause, a romanticized version of the American Civil War that insists that the war was fought not over slavery but over “states’ rights” — an “abstract phrase that veils the question of what, exactly, Southern states thought they had a right to do” (p.186).  In her third part, “Setting Things Straight,” Neiman considers in broad terms how the American South and the United States as a whole can make strides in coming to terms with a racist past, with the German experience serving as a partial guide.  But this part is a more an invitation to debate than a provision of definitive answers.

Neiman, a Jewish American with no direct family connection to the Holocaust, was raised in the American South, in Atlanta, Georgia.  A philosopher by training who studied at Harvard under John Rawls and taught at Yale, she is today the Director of the Einstein Forum, a German think tank located in Potsdam, just outside Berlin.  After nearly a quarter century living and working in Germany, Neiman spent a year at the Winter Institute for Racial Reconstruction in Oxford, Mississippi, a forward-looking institution dedicated explicitly to encouraging people to “honestly engage in their history in order to live more truthfully in the present, where the inequities of the past no longer dictate the possibilities of the future” (p.143).  Utilizing these diverse professional and personal experiences, she mixes analysis and anecdote while introducing her readers to an impressive array of Germans and Americans working on what might be described as the front lines of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung in their respective countries.

Although her analysis of the United States concentrates on the state of Mississippi, Neiman recognizes that Mississippi is hardly representative of the United States as a whole, and not even of the states of the former Confederacy.  But she contends that awareness of history is arguably more acute in Mississippi than anywhere else in United States.  “Focusing on the Deep South,” moreover, is “not a matter of ignoring the rest of the country, but of holding a magnifying glass to it” (p.17-18), she writes.   Although just about everyone in the United States now accepts that slavery was wrong, , the “national sense of shame” which she finds in today’s Germany is “entirely absent” in the United States; shame  is “not the American way” (p.268).

During the nearly three years that Neiman worked on her book, many of the Germans  she met with laughed at her proposed title and rejected the idea that Germany had anything to teach Americans about dealing with their racist past.  Most Germans today are defensive about their country’s efforts to work toward Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, she observes.  They think they  took way too long to transition from looking at themselves as victims, with some adding  that many of their fellow citizens never made the transition.  “Good taste,” she writes, “prevents good Germans from anything that could possibly be construed as boasting about repentance” (p.56).   Neiman sees this widespread defensiveness as “itself a sign of how far Germany has come in taking responsibility for its criminal history” (p.17).  But how Germany arrived at this position is not easy to pinpoint.

* * *

Competitive victimhood, Neiman writes, “may be as close to a universal law of human nature as we’re ever going to get.”   Postwar Germany was no less inclined than the defeated American South to participate in this “old and universal sport”(p.63).   Although 80 years separate the defeat of the American South from that of Nazi Germany, Neiman perceives similar litanies: “the loss of their bravest sons, the destruction of their homes, the poverty and hunger that followed – combined with resentment at occupying forces they regarded as generally loutish, who had the gall to insist their suffering was deserved” (p.63).  For decades after World War II, Germans were “obsessed with the suffering they’d endured, not the suffering they’d caused” (p.40).

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States, Britain and France, the occupying powers in what became West Germany, aimed to institute a process of de-Nazification.  Among its many aims, de-Nazification was supposed to purge former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers from positions of influence.  More broadly, as Frederick Taylor argued in Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany (reviewed here in December 2012), de-Nazification was “perhaps the most ambitious scheme to change a nation’s psyche ever mounted in human history.” But de-Nazification was a failed scheme.  West Germans mocked the Allied attempt to impose a change of consciousness.

The Allies, moreover, lacked the resources to make de-Nazification successful, and Cold War rivalries and realities intruded.  The Allies were “far more interested in securing [German] allies against the Soviet Union than in digging up their sordid pasts” (p.99).  The de-Nazification program was turned over to the West German government, which had “no inclination to pursue it” (p.99).  Well into the 1960s, West German commitments to democratic governance were “precarious, and the possibility of a return to a sanitized Nazism could not be ruled out” (p.55).  The implicit message of Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first post-war chancellor, seemed to be: behave yourself, don’t call attention to your past, and we won’t look too deeply into that past.

East Germany worked off its Nazi past differently.  Although its official name was the German Democratic Republic (GDR), there was little that was democratic about East Germany.  Its borders were closed, its media heavily censored, and its elections a national joke.  Yet, East German leaders had been by and large genuinely anti-fascist, anti-Nazi during the war; the same cannot be said of West German leaders.  East Germany put far more old Nazis on trial proportionately and convicted more than in the West.  The West never invited Jewish émigrés to return; the East did.  Overall, Neiman concludes, East Germany quite simply “did a better job of working off the Nazi past than West Germany” (p.81).

It was not until around 1968 that West Germany began to get serious aboutVergangenheitsaufarbeitung, embarking on a path out of denial in conjunction with the student protests that roiled Europe and the United States that year.  Because their parents could not “mourn, acknowledge responsibility, or even speak about the war” (p.70), the 68ers, as the generation born in the 1940s was called, felt compelled to confront their parents over their war experiences and their subsequent silence about those experiences.  A decade later, the American TV series “Holocaust” served as a catalyst for “public discussion of the Holocaust that had been missing for decades” (p.370-71).  Then, on May 8, 1985, 40 years after Germany’s surrender, West German president Richard von Weizsäcker made headlines when he termed that day one of liberation. Up to that point, May 8 in West Germany had been called the Day of Defeat or Day of Unconditional Surrender (yet Weizsäcker even then symbolized the ambivalence of West German Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung: his father had been a high-level Nazi, an assistant to Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; Weizsäcker defended his father at the post-war Nuremberg trials and always maintained that his father was trying only to make a bad situation better).

By the time of reunification in 1990, expressions of pro-Nazi sentiment had become “socially unacceptable” and have since become “morally unacceptable” (p.311).  A 1995 exhibit on the Wehrmacht, the Nazi army with 18 million members, demonstrated convincingly that it had systematically committed war crimes,  thereby breaking West Germany’s “final taboo” (p.24).  The exhibit was extended to 33 different cities in Germany and Austria and “ignited media discussions, filled talk shows, and eventually provoked a debate in parliament” (p.24).

Today, the right-wing Alternative for Germany, AfD in German, continues to rise in influence in Germany on an anti-immigrant platform many consider neo-Nazi.  Germany gained further unwanted attention earlier this month when Nazi sympathizers were revealed to  have infiltrated an elite German security unit:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/03/world/europe/germany-military-neo-nazis-ksk.html

But today’s Germany has nonetheless reached the point where “open expressions of racism are politically ruinous,” Neiman concludes, which may be the “best outcome we can hope for and it may also be enough. . . Very often, social change begins with lip service” (p.310-11).

* * *

As in Germany, Neiman observes, “the War” throughout the American South is a singular reference.  “Everybody knows that one was decisive, and its repercussions are with us today.”  This knowledge is “more conscious in a Deep South that was occupied, and almost as devastated as Germany, than in the rest of the United States” (p.37).  But the Lost Cause narrative that arose in the American South was an exercise in Civil War historical revisionism that flourished toward end of the 19th and into the early 20th century, in which the war was rebranded as a “noble fight for Southern freedom,” with the post-war Reconstruction period becoming a “violent effort by ignorant ex-slaves and mercenary Yankees to debase the honor of the South in general, and its white women in particular” (p.181).

Reconciliation under the Lost Cause mythology was “between white members of the opposing armies” to be achieved by “valorizing the defeated, and ignoring the cause for which they fought” (p.182). Reconciliation between white and black folk was not on the agenda.  Slowly and hazily, the Lost Cause narrative “came to capture the hearts of the North. Weary of war, eager for reconciliation, and keen to get on with the business of industrialization that was changing the American economy, Northerners conceded most of the mythmaking to the South. Not many had been enthusiastic abolitionists anyway” (p.186-87).

The Winter Institute, where Neiman conducted much of the research for this book, has sought to counter the Lost Cause narrative through such institutional reforms as creating and implementing school criteria on human rights, fostering inter-racial dialogue in communities known for racial violence, and promoting academic investigation and scholarship on patterns and legacies of racial inequities.   What keeps the Winter Institute going is the notion that “if you can change Mississippi communities, you can probably change anything” (p.142).  The primary lesson Neiman derived from her time at the Winter Institute: “national reconciliation begins at the bottom. Very personal encounters between members of different races, people who represent the victims as well as those who represent the perpetrators, are the foundation of any larger attempt to treat national wounds . . . It is a long and weary process, but it is hard to see an alternative” (p.301).

Neiman discusses at length two notorious murderous acts in mid-20th century Mississippi: the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy brutally killed during a summer visit to Mississippi; and the murders of  Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney, three civil rights workers, two young white men from New York and a black man from Mississippi, killed near Philadelphia, Mississippi during the following decade while organizing African-Americans to exercise their right to vote.  The two men tried for the Till murder were promptly acquitted.  Protected   by the Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution, they thereafter took money from Look magazine to confess that they had killed the teenager.  No trial at all ensued in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney.

While the world knew the story of the ghastly Till murder, for decades nobody in the local Mississippi Delta community, black or white, wanted to talk about it.  Neiman sees a similarity to the silence that prevailed in Germany in the first decades after the war, where to both non-Jewish and Jewish families, “anything connected to the war was off-limits.  Neither side could bear to talk about it, one side afraid of facing its own guilt, the other afraid of succumbing to pain and rage” (p.217).

In 1989, the Mississippi Secretary of State issued a public apology to the families of the three slain civil rights workers, the first local white man to publicly acknowledge the crime.  Most Mississippians think that is the reason he lost when he ran for governor the following year.  With a strong push from the Winter Institute, a trial in the case finally took place in in 2005.  The prime suspect, Edgar Ray Killen, then 80 years old, was convicted, but only of manslaughter.  Killen received three 20-year sentences and died in prison in 2018.  Neiman wonders whether the trial has helped a “healing process” or allowed Mississippi to “rest in the self-satisfaction that the horrors that stigmatized the state all belonged to the past” (p.301).

* * *

In her final section, Neiman runs through the most common arguments against reparations to descendants of victims of slavery, and proffers counter arguments.  She glosses over what in my mind is the most difficult: how to determine who gets what amount.   She notes that West Germany paid Israel what amounted to reparations early in the history of the two states, the “price for acceptance into the Western Community and the price was relatively cheap . . . Reparations were paid in exchange for world recognition and the opportunity to keep silent about the quantity of Nazis, and Nazi thinking, that permeated the Federal Republic” (p.289).  Iin the United States, she argues, reparations  need not take the form of precise compensation to individual African Americans but should be the subject of public debate.

On the current polemic surrounding statutes and memorials honoring Confederate war veterans,  Neiman reminds her readers that most were erected in the early part of the 20th century with the express purpose of reinforcing and providing legitimacy to the regime of rigid segregation and discrimination.  They should not be seen as “innocuous shrines to history; they were provocative assertions of white supremacy at moments when its defenders felt under threat.  Knowing when they were built is part of knowing why they were built. . What is at stake is not the past, but the present and the future. When we choose to memorialize a historical moment, we are choosing the values we want to defend, and pass on” (p.263).

* * *

“Forgetting past evils may be initially safer,” Neiman writes, but in the long run, the “dangers of forgetting are greater than the dangers of remembering — provided, of course, that we use the failures of past attempts to learn how to do it better” (p.373).  Although there is no single pathway to Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, understanding the distance Germany has traveled in coming to terms with the Nazi era’s racist crimes should benefit Americans yearning to find a better pathway in the turbulent aftermath of the George Floyd killing.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

July 29, 2020

 

6 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, German History, History, Politics, United States History

Catastrophic Miscalculation

 

 

Benjamin Carter Hett,  The Death of Democracy:

Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic

(Henry Holt & Co)

                  Benjamin Carter Hett’s title, The Death of Democracy, may sound similar to several recent works addressing the contemporary decline of liberal democracy throughout the world, including of course in the United States  — the most obvious example being Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s highly regarded How Democracies Die.  Hett’s sub-title better captures the focus and scope of his work: it is an account of how Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party (officially, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) were able to undermine the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-World War I experiment in liberal democracy, and achieve power in the turbulent 1930s.  To be sure, there are snippets here that may send readers back to the present.  

                 Hitler “lied all the time” (p.38), Hett writes.  Like most  “basically ignorant people,” Hitler had a complex about “not needing to learn anything” (p.53), and routinely voiced scorn for intellectuals and experts.  The Nazis found their strongest electoral support – their “base” in today’s lexicon – in rural Protestant areas of the country.  Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, advocated building a “thick wall around Germany . . . a protective wall” (p.109; but with no indication yet to surface that he promised that Poland would pay for the wall).  For the most part, however, Hett, a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, leaves to his readers the option of drawing lessons for our era from his account of Germany’s post-World War I experience.

                 The sobering story of Hitler’s ascendancy has of course been retold frequently, but Hett tells it concisely and well.  He does so by breaking the story into two general chronological parts, 1914-1929 and 1929-1934.  The first, 1914-29, is a macro-account that includes World War I and Germany’s defeat, the vindictive Versailles Treaty, and the turbulent decade of Weimar politics that followed, when extremists of left and right threatened to undermine the fledgling republic.  Yet, Hett reminds us, up until the Great Depression intervened toward the end of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic somehow managed to find its footing.  

                  The second part, 1929-1934, delves deeply into the background behind the Nazi ballot box insurgency in legislative elections in 1930 and 1932 that led Weimar President, World War I hero Paul von Hindenburg, on January 30, 1933, to appoint Hitler as Germany’s Chancellor  — the head of the Weimar executive branch, roughly equivalent to a Prime Minister within Weimar’s parliamentary democracy.  Hett details the frenetic maneuvering of key Weimar personalities in December 1932 and January 1933 to persuade the aging Hindenburg, then 85 years old, to take the fateful step of appointing a man to run the Weimar government whom he had always distrusted and disdained.  The appointment, Hett emphasizes, was “constitutionally legitimate” and “even democratic” (p.3) under the 1919 Weimar constitution.   

                   Each of he book’s eight chapters begins with a “real time” anecdote that paves the way for the historical narrative that follows.  The first constitutes a powerful scene-setter: the burning of the Reichstag, Weimar’s legislative chamber, on February 28, 1933, one month after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor.   The Nazis portrayed the fire as the opening act of a Communist uprising that provided a pretext to invoke emergency powers, marking that February 28 as the “last night of the Weimar Republic, the last night of German democracy” (p.3).  The final anecdote, the introduction to the book’s last chapter, involves the “Night of the Long Knives,” June 30, 1934, when Hitler eliminated much of the potential opposition to his regime.   The six other chapters also begin with real time anecdotes that add spice to the book’s straightforward, narrowly focused yet engrossing historical narrative.

* * *

                    Hett observes at the outset that Hitler’s Germany is “unique among all regimes in human history in at least one respect: serious historians are unanimous in judging it a catastrophe with no redeeming features.  There is no other regime, not even the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, that can claim such a dubious distinction” (p.8).  But the agreement ends at this point, he indicates.  Historians and intellectuals continue to grapple with the question how and why civilized Germany, with its abundant contributions to European culture, descended into the barbarism of the Third Reich.  No single answer suffices to explain how the land of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms wound up in the hands of Hitler and Himmler.  

                   Like many analyses of Weimar’s downfall and Hitler’s ascendancy, Hett begins with Germany’s loss in the First World War.  It is no exaggeration, he writes, to say that the “answer to all questions about Weimar lies somewhere in the First World War” (p.11).  Weimar Germany never developed a “general social consensus on why the war had been lost or how to respond to the postwar settlement” (p.32-33).  Hett returns repeatedly to a comparison between August 1914 and November 1918 that found its way into right wing mythology in the post WW I era: the purported unity that bound the country together in August 1914, when Germany sent its soldiers off to what was considered a noble cause, versus the disunity of November 1918 when, according to the mythology which Hindenburg helped foster, German troops on the battlefield suffered a “stab in the back” from elites in Berlin and elsewhere, far from the front lines — with “elites” always of course encompassing Jews.   More than any other political party, the Nazis were able to convince the voting public that they could recreate the spirit of 1914 and expunge the stab-in-the-back “betrayal” of 1918.  

                  Hett also follows other analyses in emphasizing how between 1929 and 1933 conservative political elites came to accept Hitler and his unruly followers as a necessary bulwark against what it perceived as the existential threat of Bolshevism.  Authoritarian by disposition and at best only weakly committed to democratic principles, conservative elites reached the conclusion that if a violent Bolshevik uprising were to be averted on German soil, they had “no choice but to find a way to work with Hitler — to use him and his movement” (p.234).  Those who pushed for a role for Hitler in the Weimar government did so notwithstanding their doubts about the Nazi leader and his party, remaining confident that he could be controlled from within – a strong candidate for history’s most catastrophic miscalculation.

                 But if neither of these points of emphasis could be considered groundbreaking, less conventional is Hett’s view that Nazism is best understood as a reaction to “globalism,” by which he means the liberal, capitalist order emanating from Great Britain and the United States, an order based on free trade, the international gold standard and, for Germans, onerous war reparations payments.  After harnessing superior wealth, resources and power to defeat Germany militarily during World War I, Britain and America continued in the post-war era to define the world in which Germany had to operate.   It was a global order that no German could control, a “way of keeping Germany tied down and harmless” (p.108).  More than anything else, Hett argues, the Nazis were a “nationalist protest movement against globalization” (p.106), even if that term was not in use in the 1920s and 1930s.    

                Germans could accept the hegemony of Anglo-American globalization and try to make it work to their advantage.  Or, “against all odds and perhaps against all reason, they could rebel against it.  This was the fundamental foreign policy choice that faced the Weimar Republic throughout its existence” (p.33).  Accommodation to the liberal capitalist order was the reflex of Germany’s democratic parties and politicians, whereas rebellion was the path of the nationalist right.   Among the nationalist groups choosing the path of rebellion, the Nazis offered the most radical approach.  They maintained that Germany could “cut itself off completely from the world economy and rely on its own resources, with no imports, exports, or foreign investment” (p. 109).  Hitler’s frequent invocation of Germany’s need for lebenstraum, living space, in the east should be seen in this light, Hett argues.  Hitler’s “entire program was fundamentally directed to making Germany economically self-sufficient by conquering the Soviet Union” (p.114).  

                 The Nazis and  Germany’s other political parties trolled for votes within the framework of the 1919 Weimar constitution.  That instrument created what Hett terms a “state-of-the-art modern democracy,”  establishing a “scrupulously just proportional electoral system” (p.7) that depended upon coalitions and compromises among Germany’s diverse range of political parties, with small and marginal parties having   outsized n influence.  The constitution also offered protection for individual liberties, voting rights for women, and express equality between women and men.  But Weimar democracy operated in conditions that were “hardly promising: a catastrophic lost war and a hated peace settlement, followed by extraordinary political and economic turbulence” (p.73).  The Weimar Republic witnessed top-level political instability throughout its fourteen years, with thirteen chancellors and twenty-one different administrations.  Yet, despite unfavorable odds, the Republic survived and even flourished in the latter portion of the 1920s, thanks in no small measure to the instrumental work of Gustav Stresemann, Germany’s Foreign Minister from 1923 up until his death in 1929. 

                 Stresemann’s tenure at the Foreign Ministry marked a period when Germany “shed its pariah status and returned to its place as a respected and important force in European and world politics”  (p.57).  During Stresemann’s tenure, Germany joined the League of Nations and obtained significant debt relief.   Weimar Germany’s integration into the international community in the 1920s under Stresemann presents a “forceful reminder that the Republic was not doomed from the start, contrary to another persistent myth” (p.73), Hett writes.  At the time he died in 1929, Stresemann was convinced that Hitler and his party represented the most dire threat to Germany’s reintegration into the international community.

                  Hitler’s rise as force to be taken seriously in Weimar politics coincided with Stresemann’s years as Germany’s Foreign Minister.  The polar opposite to Stresemann “in every important way” (p.54), Hitler led the so-called Munich Beer Hall putsch in 1923 that sought to overthrow the Weimar government.  After serving only a few months in prison for what amounted to an act of treason, Hitler emerged as a national celebrity. He and his Nazi confederates spent the next several years building the party at the grass roots level.   Between 1925 and 1929, Nazi party membership increased from 25,000 to about 180,000.   Hitler by then was convinced that his party could come to power only by peaceable means. 

                The Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed dramatically increased unemployment and bankruptcy rates across Germany, enhancing the appeal not only of the Nazis on the political right but also of the Communists on the left.  A potent force with some 360,000 party members by the early 1930s, the German Communist Party was “just as dedicated as the nationalist right to overturning the democratic system” (p.74).   The Communists consequently refused to engage in political coalition building with the  Social Democrats, Germany’s strongest democratic party which, like the Communists, drew its base from the urban working classes.  The Communists hated no party, Hett observes, maybe not even the Nazis, more than the Social Democrats, whom they considered “not just enemies . . . [but] traitors” (p.65).  Stalin’s German auxiliaries, he notes ruefully, “could, and did, frustrate efforts at forming a united left that might have kept the Nazis from power” (p.113). 

                 The Communists had their own paramilitary forces, much like the Nazis’ SA (or Brownshirts), and conflicts between the two were rampant throughout much of Germany as the 1920s came to a close.  By the early 1930s, conditions in major German cities “came close to a state of civil war” (p.127).     

* * *

                   The second half of the book zeroes in on the maneuvering that took place between 1929 and 1933, as Weimar conservatives wrestled with the recurring question: what to do with Hitler and his Nazi party, increasingly successful at the polls at a time when economic conditions were worsening and civil war was threatening.  The lead roles in what amounts to a “palace intrigue” tale belong to three men: Franz von Papen, Kurt von Schleicher, and President Hindenburg.  Papen served as Chancellor from May to December 1932, and as Hitler’s Vice Chancellor from January 1933 into 1934.  Schleicher served as Defense Minister in 1932 and as Germany’s last Chancellor before Hitler, from December 1932 to January 1933, but was at least equally influential out of government.  

                   Hett describes Schleicher as arguably the “most important actor in the last five years of the Weimar Republic” (p.81).  Before becoming Defense Minister, Schleicher served as a sort of lobbyist for the army and, from behind the scenes “made and unmade chancellors and administrations” (p.12).  He was a “champion manipulator and intriguer, always creeping from door to door, whispering in important ears. . . [He was] calculating, manipulative, and often dishonest” (p.81).   Papen, a career military officer and devout Catholic, had an aristocratic air, “smooth, urbane, and always elegantly tailored” (p.146), but was considered an intellectual lightweight who lacked gravitas and expertise in policymaking.

                The Nazis’ string of successes at the ballot box began before Papen’s chancellorship, in the fall of 1930, when they exceeded their own expectations by winning 107 seats in the Reichstag with 18.3% of the vote, compared to 12 seats and 2.6% of the vote in 1928.  In sixty years of German national elections, Hett notes, no party had ever risen so far so quickly as the Nazis in 1930.  The equally anti-democratic Communists also realized substantial gains.  Then, in July 1932, the Nazis won another stunning electoral victory in legislative elections, earning 37.3% of the vote and 230 Reichstag seats.  Although not a majority, the Nazis became by a wide margin the Reichstag’s largest party.  The Communists were the only other major party to gain seats.  The success of anti-democratic parties on both the left and right, Hett writes, was an “unsurprising product of the dramatically worsening economic situation since 1931 and of growing German anger at uncontrollable global forces” (p.150).  

                 The Nazi electoral successes convinced Schleicher that they would be “ideal foot soldiers” in coping with the civil unrest that was threatening to engulf the country.  But he was “not so foolish that he wanted the Nazis to have any real power.  His strategy always ran simultaneously on two tracks: trying to find a way to use the Nazis, if they could be used, but preparing to fight them if they could not be.  It probably never occurred to him that he might be outmaneuvered in his own devious game” (p.93). 

                   In May 1932, Schleicher convinced Hindenburg to appoint Papen as Chancellor.  Schleicher arranged for himself to become defense minister in the new administration and “imagined he would be the real power in the cabinet,” with Papen serving as “his puppet”  (p.147).  Papen’s cabinet, dubbed the “Barons’ cabinet,” was more right wing and socially elite than any of its predecessors.  Papen’s most dramatic lurch away from democratic constitutionality and the rule of law came through what was  known as the “Papen coup,” a national takeover of most of the functions of Prussia, Germany’s largest and most influential constituent state where the Social Democrats were the dominant party.  Papen himself became special  “Reich commissar” and head of the Prussian government.  He defended this move as a preventive action against a communist insurrection.  Hett characterizes the maneuver as a “decisive coup in the coffin of German democracy” (p.150), comparing it to an American president simultaneously removing the governors of New York and California from office and taking over their functions.

            Hett’s narrative reaches a dramatic crescendo in its account of the fateful and frantic months of December 1932 and January 1933, centered around a flurry of meetings in which Papen, Schleicher and Hindenburg searched for an appropriate role for Hitler and the Nazis, with Hindenburg’s son Oskar, a contemporary of Papen and Schleicher, often in attendance.  Hitler consistently refused any role in the government but the chancellorship and, throughout most of the two month period, Hindenburg just as consistently opposed Hitler’s appointment to that position..

            In the first such meeting, on December 1, 1932, when Papen proposed that Hindenburg appoint Hitler as Chancellor, Schleicher countered by proposing himself as Chancellor.  Hindenburg wavered, then determined to give Schleicher a chance to find the best way forward.  Two days later, Schleicher, stepping out fully from his long years in the political backroom, was sworn in as the chancellor.  Schleicher would “try his luck at a broad coalition, his last, desperate effort to bring political stability on right-wing terms without civil war” (p.161).

            Throughout most of the two month period, Hindenburg found the “very idea of having as his chancellor the man he called ‘the Bohemian private’ an outrage” (p.154).  As late as January 26th, Hindenburg told a friend that Hitler was “at best qualified to be his postal minister” (p.177).  But the following day, Friday, January 27, 1933, the Reichstag forced Hindenburg’s hand when senior Reichstag leaders from all parties agreed to hold a session the following week to vote no confidence in the Schleicher government.

             Schleicher saw the appointment of Hitler as the only way out.  Hindenburg still didn’t agree, and Schleicher and his cabinet resigned rather than face the no-confidence vote.  It was only on the following day, Saturday, January 28, 1933, that Hindenburg reluctantly agreed that no other constitutional solution appeared possible other than to form a government under Hitler’s leadership.  Schleicher would serve as Vice-Chancellor, part of a strong “counterweight against National Socialist predominance” (p.178).  Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor the following Monday, January 30th

                 Schleicher, Papen and their associates sincerely believed, Hett writes, that the presence of conservatives in the cabinet, along with the authority of Hindenburg and, in the last resort, the army, “would surely keep Hitler on the straight and narrow” (p.182).  But as a result of Papen’s 1932 “coup” against the Prussian government, the key Prussian ministries were now part of the national government.  Hitler arranged for Hermann Göring to be named Prussian interior minister, placing the Nazis in control of the powerful Prussian state police.

                 From the beginning, the Nazis struck out at anyone who might be a Nazi opponent.  Hindenburg signed a decree on February 4, 1933, giving the police wide powers to break up political meetings, ban associations, and shutdown media outlets.  The Nazis spent much of February 1933 awaiting a Communist coup that never materialized.  Then the Reichstag fire occurred, six days before the country was to vote in another round of legislative elections.  There is still no consensus, Hett indicates, whether the Nazis themselves started the fire.  There is a consensus, however, that Marinus van der Lubbe, the 24 year old Dutch citizen apprehended inside the Reichstag at the time of the fire, could not have started it by himself. 

                  The Nazis immediately characterized the fire as an act of political arson, the opening act of a Communist uprising.  On the morning following the fire, the cabinet passed and Hindenburg signed an executive order known informally as the “Reichstag Fire Decree,” which  “tore the heart out of the democratic constitution of the Weimar Republic” (p.187).  The decree cancelled freedom of speech and assembly, the confidentiality of post and telegraphic communications, and freedom from arbitrary searches, arrest and detention.  The decree became the “legal foundation for Hitler’s twelve-year dictatorship” (p.187-88), in effect the “Constitution” of the Third Reich.  In the course of the next four months, in a “remarkably fast and relentless process of consolidating power” (p.206), most other guarantees of liberty and the rule of law were swept away.  

                 Hett’s narrative finishes in the summer of 1934, first with the June 30th  “Night of the Long Knives,” in which Hitler eliminated the sources of opposition and potential opposition to the Nazi regime.  Hitler contended that he had squelched a percolating plot among his rowdy SA storm troopers, an argument that Hess considers a pretext for Hitler to strike against his more dangerous enemies within the conservative establishment.  In large part because of the genuine unpopularity of the SA, the Night of the Long Knives “restored a good deal of the regime’s popularity within Germany – and the conservative resistance was shattered” (p.230).

                 Hindenburg, long the most influential and perhaps most resistant among Germany’s conservative elite, sent Hitler a telegram praising  his “decisive intervention,” through which his Chancellor had “nipped all treasonous machinations in the bud” and “saved the German people from great danger” (p.229).  Schleicher was among the victims of the June 30th purge, killed by Nazi assassins in his home.  Papen, unlike Schleicher, had been plotting against Hitler but was spared after writing a groveling letter to Hitler complementing him for his “soldierly decisiveness” in “saving the fatherland from an enormous danger” (p.230).

                  Hindenburg died a little more than a month later, on August 2, 1934.  He went to his grave “serene in the belief that his good name had been secured by Hitler’s success in overcoming the political divisions of the early 1930s” (p.235).  Hitler took over immediately the powers of the presidency.  No one could ever replace the esteemed war hero, Hitler explained to the German public, and the office of the president itself was therefore abolished.  Hitler assumed the formal title of “Führer and Reich Chancellor.”  All members of the armed forces and all civil servants were obliged to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler personally.  Hitler’s’ hold on power was “now complete, and all efforts to control or ‘tame’ him had decisively failed”  (p.231).  From Hindenburg’s death in August 1934 onward, “the switches were set for war – a war to overcome the global economic dominance of Great Britain and the United Sates and to make Germany an economic superpower by seizing a massive land empire in eastern Europe” (p.231). 

* * *

                   Whatever one’s views on parallels between Germany in the early 1930s and the United States in the current era, everyone who values democracy should have an understanding of the case of Weimar Germany.  Benjamin Hett presents that intricate case  meticulously — and often chillingly.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 19, 2019

4 Comments

Filed under German History, History

Searching for Kafka’s Soul in the Courts of Israel

 

Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial:

The Case of a Literary Legacy (W.W. Norton & Co.)

          Franz Kafka is today known for his terrifying vision of faceless bureaucracies and irrational state power.  Some see in Kafka’s most famous works an eerie foreshadow of the totalitarian horrors of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  The English poet W.H. Auden once remarked that Kafka was to his age what Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe had been to theirs.  But when he died of tuberculosis in 1924, just short of his 41st birthday, Kafka, German-speaking, Jewish and Czech, was a writer of no particular acclaim.  He had yet to complete a single novel and the little he had published had failed to attract significant attention. 

           As he approached death, Kafka instructed Max Brod, his long time friend and literary companion, to burn his remaining papers, including manuscripts, diaries and letters.  This was typical of Kafka, who was plagued with deep-rooted anxiety and feelings of inadequacy throughout his life, feelings that animated his unfinished novels and other works.  Fortunately, Brod ignored Kafka’s directive and not only preserved but also edited significantly the Kafka papers.  Many went on to be published, including The Trial and The Castle, now considered among the 20th century’s most consequential novels.

          Brod, also German-speaking, Jewish and Czech, fled his native Prague with his wife Elsa in 1939 while carrying the Kafka papers in a suitcase, barely a step ahead of the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia.  He wound up in Tel Aviv, where he became a close friend of Ilse Hoffe, another German-speaking Jew from Prague, along with her husband Otto and their two young daughters, Eva and Ruth.  Ilse, who at Brod’s suggestion changed her first name to the Hebrew Esther, became Brod’s personal secretary, albeit without a regular salary.  Rather, Brod, during his lifetime, as a form of compensation bequeathed the Kafka papers still in his possession to Esther as a gift.  After Brod’s death in 1968, Esther in turn bequeathed the papers to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth, with the proviso that during her lifetime, she retained the right to publish and sell the papers. 

          When Esther died in 2007 at age 101, Eva and Ruth sought to probate their mother’s will.  But before the court acted on what Eva and Ruth thought would be a routine request, the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem intervened to assert a proprietary interest in the Kafka papers. To further complicate the proceeding, the Literature Archive in Marbach, the German counterpart to the Israeli National Library, also intervened. Each contended that it was the appropriate repository for the papers.  The case continued in Tel Aviv Family Court for five years, after which it progressed through higher levels within the Israeli judicial systems, up to the Israeli Supreme Court.  Not until 2016 did the case become final.

            At the heart of these proceedings was a single, perplexing question: to whom did the Kafka papers belong?  From one angle, the question was narrowly legal, involving Brod’s intent in bequeathing the Kafka papers to Esther as a gift in her lifetime; Esther’s intent in making a subsequent lifetime conveyance to her daughters; and the legal effects of both conveyances (Kafka’s intent was both clear and irrelevant).  These issues will be attractive to present and former law students, familiar with the exercise of teasing the intent of dead people out of complex and ambiguous factual situations.  But the courts also approached the question from a broader angle, one likely to be more engrossing to more readers: with the presence in the litigation of the Israeli National Library and the German Marbach Archive, the courts found themselves with little choice but to embark upon a search for Kafka’s literary soul and determine whether that soul might be considered either Israeli or German.

           Neither the Israeli National Library nor the Marbach Academy presented an overly compelling case that it was the appropriate repository for the Kafka papers.  Kafka never set foot in Palestine, the predecessor to Israel, and Judaism played no evident role in his writings.  Nor was Kafka a German national.  He only wrote in that language, like an American or Australian writing in English, a Belgian or Québécois in French, or a Peruvian or Bolivian in Spanish, but with the hardly insignificant qualification that Germany had both invaded and annexed his native country and was responsible for the deaths of his three sisters and other family members in the Holocaust.

           The fate of  the Kafka papers in the Israeli courts makes for a story that their  deceased author would likely have found suitable for a novel – a story for which the adjective “Kafkaesque” seems unavoidable (“having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality,” according to Merriam-Webster, “often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening”).  Benjamin Balint’s aptly titled Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy tells that story with aplomb, skillfully moving back and forth between the 21st century litigation and its 20th century predicates: Kafka’s own life, his relationship with Brod up to his death, Brod’s efforts to keep the Kafka flame alive before his flight from Prague, and his new life in Tel Aviv with Esther and the Hoffe family. 

          The story involves a three-person chain of custody for the Kafka manuscripts. After having “so vitally linked Brod to his former heyday in Prague,” by the 1950s the manuscripts “began to link Brod with Esther – the currency of their relationship” (p.195).  Then, when Brod, who had been like a second father to Esther’s daughters Eva and Ruth, died in 1968, the manuscripts became a part of the relationship between Esther and her two daughters.  Ruth died during the litigation, in 2012, making Balint’s story as much about Brod, Esther and Eva as it is about Kafka.  But the competing claims of the Israeli National Library and he Marbach Archive highlighted the fraught relationship between Germany and Israel in the aftermath of World War II.  

           These competing claims, Balint writes, “threw into stark relief the very different ways Israel and Germany remain freighted by their ruptured pasts and by the noble lies on which their healing depended” (p.223-24).  Both brought to the judicial proceedings a “concern about their respective national pasts. . . [B]oth sought to use Kafka as a trophy to honor those pasts, as though the writer was an instrument of national prestige” (p.8).  The litigation offered a lesson in “how Germany’s claim on a writer whose family was decimated in the Holocaust is entangled with the country’s postwar attempt to overcome its shameful past,” while reawakening in Israel a long-standing debate about Kafka’s “ambivalence toward Judaism and the prospects of a Jewish state – and about Israel’s ambivalence toward Kafka and toward Diaspora culture” (p.223-24).

* * *

               Max Brod, born in 1884 in Prague, met Kafka when both were students at Charles University in Prague.  Brod, Balint observes, was as exuberant and outgoing as Kafka was inward looking.  With his “joie de vivre, alive with surplus energies,” Brod “radiated a verve, vitality and communion with human life lacking in Kafka” (p.20).  Of a “sunnier temperament, less divided against himself,” Brod appeared  “free of the kind of self-doubt that accompanied Kafka’s pitiless self-scrutiny” (p.20).  Whereas Kafka seemed to care little about worldly success, Brod was “consumed with his own ambition” (p.20).

         During Kafka’s lifetime, Brod was by far the more successful writer, producing poetry, treatises, 20 novels and a variety of “polemical broadsides” (p.25).  Unlike Kafka, Brod was a staunch Zionist whose novels were “suffused with Jews and Jewishness” (p.86).  Early in their relationship, Brod perceived Kafka’s potential literary genius and “obsessively collected anything that Kafka put his hand to.  Kafka, in contrast felt the impulse to shed everything” (p.25-27).  Acknowledging Kafka’s incapacity for self-promotion, Brod “came to serve as his friend’s advocate, herald, and literary agent” (p.28).

         Rather than obey Kafka’s directive that all his papers be burned, Brod in the decade following Kafka’s death in 1924 dedicated himself with a “singular passion to saving the manuscripts and rescuing Kafka from oblivion,” transforming himself into the “greatest posthumous editor of the twentieth century” (p.132).  Brod twice rescued Kafka’s legacy: “first from physical destruction, and then from obscurity” (p.133). The Kafka we know today is almost entirely the creation of Brod.  Without Brod, “there would be no Kafka,” Balint writes. “We cannot help but hear Kafka’s voice through Brod” (p.133).  But without Kafka, he emphasizes, Brod, the “curator of Kafka’s posthumous fame,” would have “long since faded from public memory” (p.135).  

           Not long after he arrived in Tel Aviv, Brod met the Hoffe family, Otto and Ilse (Esther) and their two daughters, Eva and Ruth.  In the early 1940s, Otto and Esther had taken their daughters out of Prague “on a holiday,” as they told them, never to return.  After a stop in Vichy France, the family of four ended up in Tel Aviv.  Brod was then grieving from his wife’s recent death, and became close to the Hoffe couple and their children.  All felt like outsiders in Tel Aviv.  Brod at one point suggested that Esther help him inventory the papers he had carried from Prague in his suitcase.  Esther went on to work regularly at Brod’s apartment, becoming, in Brod’s words, his “creative partner,” “stringent critic,” and “rescuing angel” (p.195). 

* * *

             On two separate occasions, in 1947 and 1952, Brod noted in writing that he had gifted to Esther “all the Kafka manuscripts and letters in my possession” (p.195).  He added in the 1952 note that he and Esther had “jointly” deposited this material in a safe in 1948.  Esther acknowledged the gift by a writing in the margins of the 1952 note.  Brod also executed two wills, in 1948 and 1961, both of which named Esther as his sole heir and executor, bequeathing to her all his possessions. In the 1961 instrument, Brod instructed that after her death his literary estate – not the Kafka papers — should be deposited in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the municipal public library of Tel Aviv, or another public archive in Israel or abroad, with Esther to determine which institution and under what conditions.  Neither instrument mentioned the Kafka papers, indicating that Brod did not consider them part of his estate, having already been gifted to Esther.

          In April 1969, a half year after Brod’s death, Tel Aviv District Court granted probate to Brod’s last will and appointed Esther as executor of his estate.  In 1970, Esther in turn formally bequeathed the Kafka manuscripts to daughters Eva and Ruth as gifts, in equal portions, but retained substantial rights over the papers, including the right to dispose of them as she, Esther, saw fit.  So the matter stood until 1973, when the State of Israel, concerned that Esther might seek to sell Kafka’s manuscripts abroad, sued Esther for possession of the Kafka papers.  

          Under applicable Israeli law, the State’s Archivist was empowered to prevent the removal from Israel of privately owned records that are of “national” value and which, “irrespective of where they are found, are deemed relevant to the study of the nation’s history, its people, the state, and society” (p.200).  The court rejected Israel’s claim, ruling in January 1974 that Brod’s last will “allows Mrs. Hoffe to do with his estate as she pleases during her lifetime” (p.10).   Esther then auctioned off some Kafka letters and postcards in 1974.  In 1988, she put the 316 page original of Kafka’s 1914 draft of The Trial up for auction at Sotheby’s in London.  It sold for £1,000,000, at the time the highest price ever paid for a modern manuscript.   The sale precipitated no reaction from Israeli state authorities.

          After Esther’s death at age 101 in 2007, Eva and Ruth went to Tel Aviv Family Court to  seek probate of their mother’s will, which had been executed in 1988.  The will noted that Esther had already given the Kafka manuscripts to her daughters as gifts.  Anticipating a routine proceeding, Eva was stunned when a lawyer for the National Library appeared, contending that Brod’s will had been misconstrued in the 1974 decision (the Library challenged the 1974 ruling under an article of the Israeli succession code that allows an interested party to ask for the amendment of a probate order on the basis of facts that have come to light since the original order, even if the party did not participate in the original proceeding).  The Library argued that Brod had left the papers to Esther as an executor, not as a beneficiary.  Brod intended Esther to have them only in his lifetime; when he died, he intended that they go to a public archive.  The manuscripts were therefore never Esther’s to give, and she could not now pass them on to her daughters — essentially a repeat of the arguments the court had rejected a third of a century earlier.  Esther had betrayed Brod’s will, the lawyer contended, “much as the Brod had betrayed Kafka’s” (p.34).

* * *

         The German Literature Archive in Marbach, the world’s largest archive of modern German literature, is a state-of-the-art facility for cataloging and preserving papers.  It houses the papers of several writers who had been persecuted by the Nazis.  It entered the litigation when it was negotiating with Esther to buy at least some of the papers, hiring a top Israeli lawyer who contended that the proceedings were a pretext for an Israeli seizure of private property.  If Israel were acting in good faith, he argued, it would negotiate with Eva rather than try to expropriate the papers through litigation. 

            In support of its claim to be the natural home of Kafka’s papers, the Marbach Archive reminded the court that German literature, not the Jewish tradition, “indisputably constituted Kafka’s cultural canon” (p.156).  Even Kafka’s austere writing style was “inseparable from – and made possible by – the German language” (p.157).  Kafka wrote in what Balint terms a “merciless German that pares away superfluity and slack” (p.157; Brod once described Kafka’s prose as “fire” which “leaves no soot behind” (p.157)).  Germany’s claim to the papers, moreover, was an outgrowth of the critical role which literature had played in forging German cultural identity.  Long before the birth of the unified German state in 1871, German language and literature acted “not just as a vehicle of communication but as a crucible of national cohesion.”  To a degree unthinkable elsewhere, “literature has played – and continues to play – a consolidating role in helping Germans come to terms with their Volkgeist”  (p.160).

         The Israeli National Library’s attorney argued that there was “something obscene in the argument that the papers ‘belong’ in Germany, the country of the genocidal perpetrators, the country that gave unprecedented mechanized form to man’s inhumanity to man” (p.79).  But the library still had to support its somewhat amorphous contention that Kafka was a “touchstone of ‘Jewish culture’” (p.90).  It was able to point to some affinities to Zionism that Kafka had manifested as a young man, and demonstrate that he was not indifferent to Judaism so much as confounded by it.

         Before World War I, Kafka attended Zionist activities in Prague, as well the 11th World Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1913.  He took courses on the Talmud and was able to speak and write in Hebrew.  He once wrote to one of his earliest loves, Felice Bauer (a distant cousin of Brod) about the “dark complexity of Judaism, which contains so many impenetrable mysteries” (p.62).  Among the items that Brod found in Kafka’s papers after his death was an unsent 100-page letter to his father on how Judaism, rather than bringing the two together, had actually driven them further apart.  While we “might have found one another in Judaism,” Kafka was prepared to tell his father, the flimsy vestiges passed along to him were an “insufficient scrap. . . a mere nothing, a joke . . . It all dribbled away while you were passing it on” (p.93).

           But several factors undermined Israel’s cultural claim on Kafka.  In all of Kafka’s fiction, there is “no direct reference to Judaism.  One searches in vain for Jews, or Jewish patterns of speech, in Kafka’s placeless fiction” (p.86).  There was never a Kafka “cult” in Israel comparable to that in Germany, France or the United States.  In marked contrast to Germany, there are no streets in Israel named after Kafka. Israel was one of last countries to translate Kafka into its national language. To this day, there is no Hebrew edition of Kafka’s complete works.  For many years, there were no German language or literature courses at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Even today, Germany funds these departments.   

            While Kafka’s cool reception in the Jewish state might be explained as a generalized resistance toward German language and literature, associated with Nazi barbarity, the better view for Balint lies in a widespread aversion to Diaspora culture in Israel.  The underpinnings of Kafka’s work — humiliation and powerlessness, anomie and alienation, debilitating guilt and self-condemnation — were the “very pre-occupations Israel’s founding generation sought to overcome” (p.112).  Balint surmises that Kafka exemplified to Israelis the “political impotence and passivity – the pessimism that flows from a sense of one’s powerlessness – that Zionists so vehemently rejected” (p.110-11).

* * *

            It was not until 2012, a half year after Eva’s sister Ruth died, that the Tel Aviv Family Court issued a 59 page opinion, which began by noting that a “simple request filed by the plaintiffs, the daughters of the late Mrs. Esther Hoffe, to execute her will” had “opened a portal onto the lives, desires, frustrations – indeed the souls – of two of the twentieth century’s great sprits” (p.74).  The court’s decision was appealed to the Tel Aviv District Court, where it remained until June 2015.  The Israeli Supreme Court then heard the case and rendered its decision in 2016.

          Among its many ironies, the litigation had exposed a proprietary attitude over the legacy of a writer whom Balint describes as “bound up in the refusal to belong to a fixed abode”  — a writer who “untethered both himself and his writing from the comforting anchors of national or religious belonging” (p. 226-27).  Balint concludes his cogent analysis by noting that although the Israeli judges had reached a verdict in this irony-riddled case, the “symbolic trial over Kafka’s legacy has yet to adjourn” (p.219). 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 27, 2019

5 Comments

Filed under German History, Israeli History, Literature

Medieval Scholar On the Front Lines of Modern History

 

Robert Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz:

A Life (Princeton University Press)

          Potential readers are likely to ask themselves whether they should invest their time in a biography of a medieval historian, especially one they probably had never heard of previously.  Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963) may be worth their time because he was more than just one of the 20th century’s most eminent historians of medieval Europe, a scholar who changed the way we look at the Middle Ages, although for many readers that alone should be sufficient to warrant their time.   But Kantorowicz’s life story is only in part that of an academic.  It also encompasses some of the 20th century’s most consequential moments.

             A German Jew, Kantorowicz fought in the Kaiser’s army in World War I, then took up arms on three separate occasions on behalf of Germany in the chaotic and often violent period immediately following the war.  After the Nazis took power, Kantorowicz became one of the fiercest academic critics of the regime.  Forced to flee Germany in 1938, Kantorowicz wound up in the United States, where he became, like Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and scores of others, a German Jewish émigré who enriched incalculably American cultural and intellectual life.  He landed at the University of California, Berkeley.  But just as he was settling comfortably into American academic life, Kantorowicz was fired from the Berkeley faculty when he refused to sign a McCarthy-era, Cold War loyalty oath – although not before distinguishing himself as the faculty’s most vocal and perhaps most eloquent opponent of the notion of loyalty oaths. 

          In Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life, Robert Lerner, himself a prominent medieval historian who is professor emeritus at Northwestern University, painstakingly revisits these turbulent 20th century moments that Kantorowicz experienced first hand.  He adds to them his analyses of Kantorowicz’ scholarly output and creative thinking about medieval Europe, by which Kantorowicz earned his reputation as one of the “most noted humanistic scholars of the twentieth century” (p.387).  Lerner also demonstrates how Kantorowicz transformed from a fervently conservative German nationalist in the World War I era to an ardently liberal, anti-nationalist in the post-World War II era.  And he adds to this mix Kantorowicz’s oversized personality and unconventional personal life: urbane, witty, and sometimes nasty, Kantorowicz was a “natty dresser, a noted wine connoisseur, and a flamboyant cook” (p.4) who was also bi-sexual, alternating between men and women in his romantic affairs.  Lerner skillfully blends these elements together in this comprehensive biography, arranged in strict chronological form.

          Although Kantorowicz’s life’s journey encompassed well more than his time and output as an academic, he was a student or teacher at some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions: Heidelberg in the 1920s, Oxford in the 1930s, the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1940s, and the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, in the 1950s.  His stints in Heidelberg and Oxford produced the two major influences on Kantorowicz’s intellectual life: Stefan George and Maurice Bowra.  In Heidelberg, Kantorowicz fell under the spell of George, a mesmerizing poet and homoerotic cult-like leader who espoused anti-rationalism, anti-modernism and hero worship.  In the following decade at Oxford, he met Maurice Bowra, a distinguished classicist, literary critic, and part time poet, known for his biting wit, notorious quips, and “open worship of pleasure” (p.176).  George and Bowra are easily the book’s two most memorable supporting characters. 

          Kantorowicz’s life, like almost all German Jews of his generation lucky enough to survive the Hitler regime, breaks down into three broad phases: before, during and after that regime.  In Kantorwicz’s case, the first may be the most captivating of the three phases.

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          Ernst Kantorowicz was born in 1895 in Posen, today Poznań and part of Poland but then part of Prussian Germany.  The son of a prosperous German-Jewish liquor manufacturer, Kantorowicz volunteered to fight for the Kaiser in World War I.  Wounded at Verdun, the war’s longest and costliest battle, Kantorowicz was awarded an Iron Cross for his valiant service on the Western Front.  In early 1917, Kantorowicz was dispatched to the Russian front, and thereafter to Constantinople.   In Turkey, he was awarded the Iron Crescent, the Turkish equivalent of Iron Cross.  But his service in Turkey came to an abrupt end when he had an affair with a woman who was the mistress of a German general. 

          In the immediate post-war era, Kantorowicz fought against a Polish revolt in his native city of Posen; against the famous Spartacist uprising in Berlin in January 1919 (the uprising’s 100th anniversary last month seems to have passed largely unnoticed); and later that year against the so-called Bavarian Soviet Republic in Munich.  In September 1919, Kantorowicz matriculated at the University of Heidelberg, ostensibly to study economics, a sign that he intended to take up his family business from his father, who had died earlier that year.  But while at Heidelberg Kantorowicz also developed interests in Arabic, Islamic Studies, history and geography.  In 1921, he was awarded a doctorate based on a slim dissertation on guild associations in the Muslim world, a work that Lerner spends several pages criticizing (“All told it was a piece of juvenilia . . .  [C]oncern for proof by evidence and the weighing of sources were absent.  Nuance was not even a goal;” p.65). 

          Kantorowicz in these years was plainly caught up in the impassioned nationalist sentiments that survived and intensified in the wake of Germany’s defeat in the war and the humiliating terms imposed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles.  In 1922, he wrote that German policy should be dedicated to the destruction of France.  His nationalist sentiments were heightened in Heidelberg when he came under the spell of the poet-prophet Stefan George, one of the dominant cultural figures in early 20th century Germany.

          George was a riveting, charismatic cult figure who groomed a coterie of carefully selected young men, all “handsome and clever” (p.3).  Those in his circle (the George-Kreis in German) were “expected to address him in the third person, hang on his every word, and propagate his ideals by their writings and example” (p.3).  George read his “lush” and “esoteric” poetry as if at a séance (p.69).  Since George took beauty to be the expression of spiritual excellence, he often asked young men to stand naked before the others, as if models for a sculptor. 

          George was “firmly antidemocratic” and rhapsodized over an idealized leader who would “lead ‘heroes’ under his banner” (p.80).  By means of George’s teaching and influence, the young men of the George-Kreis were expected to “partake of his wisdom and become vehicles for the arduous but inevitable triumph of a wonderfully transformed Germany,” (p.72), a land of “truth and purity” (p.3).  George urged Kantorowicz to write a “heroic” biography of 13th century Holy Roman emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), at various times King of Sicily, Germany, Jerusalem and the Holy Roman Empire.  George considered Frederick II the embodiment of the leadership qualities that post-World War I Germany sorely lacked.

          Kantorowicz’s esoteric and unconventional biography came out in 1927, the first full-scale work on Frederick II to be published in German.  Although written for a popular audience, the massive work (632 pages) appeared at a time when German scholars recognized that the work had filled a void.  Out of nowhere, Lerner writes, along came the 31 year old Kantorowicz, who had “never taken a university course in medieval history” (p.107), offering copious detail about Frederick II’s reign.  Although the book lacked documentation, it was obviously based on extensive research.  The book proved attractive for its style as much as its substance.  Kantorowicz demonstrated that he was a “forceful writer, taken to employing high-flown rhetoric, alliteration, and sometimes archaic diction for dramatic effect” (p.101). Moreover, he utilized unconventional sources, such as legends, prophecies, manifestoes, panegyrics, and ceremonial chants.

           But Kantorowicz’s work was controversial.  Being published without footnotes led some to charge that he was making up his story, a charge he later rebutted with copious notes.  Others found the biography too enthusiastic, and insufficiently dispassionate and objective.  To many, it seemed to celebrate authoritarianism and glorify German nationalism.  Kantorowicz portrayed Frederick as a tragic hero and the idealized personification of a medieval German nation.  Although not religious, Lerner finds that Kantorowicz came close to implying that the hand of God was at work in Frederick’s achievements.  Early versions of the book carried a swastika on the cover, and the Nazis seemed to like it, even though written by a Jew.  Their affinity for the book may have been one reason Kantorowicz later sought to put distance between himself and the work that established his scholarly reputation.

          In 1924, while preparing the biography, Kantorowicz traveled to the Italian portions of Frederick’s realm, where he was deeply impressed with the remains of the ancient Greeks.  The journey converted him into a Hellenophile, a lover of ancient Greek civilization.  From that point forward, even though Kantorowicz’s publications and his academic life continued to center on the Middle Ages, his emotional commitment lay with the ancients, another indication of George’s influence. 

          In 1930, Kantorowicz’s work on Frederick II earned him a teaching position at the University of Frankfurt, only 50 miles from Heidelberg but an altogether different sort of institution.  Prosperous merchants, including many Jews, had founded the university only in 1914, and it was among the most open of German universities to Jewish scholars.   In the winter of 1932, Kantorowicz acceded to a full professorial position at Frankfurt.  But his life was upended one year later when the Nazis ascended to power, beginning the second of his life’s three phases.

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          Ever an elitist, Kantorowicz looked down upon the Nazis as “rabble” (p.159), although there is some indication that he initially approved of the Nazis’ national-oriented views, or at least found them substantially co-terminus with his own.  But by the end of 1933, his situation as a Jewish professor had become “too precarious for him to continue holding his chair” (p.158), and he was forced to resign from the Frankfurt faculty.  He found plenty of time for research because he could no longer teach, comparing himself to Petrarch as a  “learned hermit” (p.185).

            After resigning from the faculty at Frankfurt, Kantorowicz gained a six-month, non-paying fellowship at Oxford in 1934.  The fellowship transformed Kantorowicz into a life-long anglophile and enabled him to improve his English, a skill that would be vital to his survival when he had to flee Germany a few years later.  Almost everyone Kantorowicz met at Oxford was on the political left, and the German nationalist began unmistakably to move in this direction during his Oxford sojourn.  Renowned French medievalist Marc Bloch was at Oxford at the same time.  The two hit it off well, another  indication that Kantorowicz’s nationalist and anti-French strains were mellowing. 

            But the most lasting relationship arising out of Kantorowicz’s fellowship at Oxford was with Maurice Bowra, as eccentric in his own way as George.  An expert on ancient Greek poetry, Bowra was famous for his spontaneous, off-color aphorisms.  Isaiah Berlin termed Bowra the “greatest English wit of his day” (p.176). Bowra was as openly gay as one could be in 1930s England, and had an affair with Kantorowicz during the latter’s time at Oxford.  Although their romance cooled thereafter, the two remained in contact for the remainder of Kantorowicz’s life.  Lerner sees Bowra replacing George as the major intellectual influence upon Kantorowicz after his stint at Oxford.   

            Back in Germany by mid-1934, Kantorowicz received the status of “professor emeritus” that provided regular payments of a pension at full salary “as if he had retired at the end of a normal career” (p.186).  That Kantorowicz remained in Germany in these years demonstrated to some that he was a Nazi sympathizer, a view that Lerner vigorously rejects.  “No German professor other than Ernst Kantorowicz spoke publicly in opposition to Nazi ideology throughout the duration of the  Third Reich” (p.171),  Lerner insists. But Kantorowicz barely escaped arrest in the wake of the violent November 1938 anti-Semitic outburst known as Kristallnacht.  Within weeks, he had fled his native country  — thereby moving into the third and final phase of his life’s journey.

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            After a brief stop in England, Kantorowicz found himself in the fall of 1939 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he gained a one-year teaching appointment.   Until he was awarded a full professorship in 1945, he faced unemployment each year, rescued at the last minute by additional one-year appointments.  The four years from June 1945 until June 1949, Lerner writes, were “probably the happiest in Ernst Kantorowicz’s life.”  He considered himself to be in a “land of lotus-eaters . . . Conviviality was unending, as was scholarly work”  (p.294).  He was smitten by the pretty girls in his classes, and had a prolonged affair with a cousin who lived with her husband in Stockton, some 50 miles away, but had a car.  By this time the fervent German nationalist had become, just as fervently, an anti-nationalist well to the left of the political center who worried that the hyper-nationalism of the Cold War was leading inevitably to nuclear war and identified strongly with the struggle for justice for African-Americans.     

            Substantively, Lerner characterizes Kantorowicz’s scholarly work in his Berkeley years as nothing short of amazing.  He began to consider Hellenistic, Roman and Early Christian civilizations collectively, finding in them a “composite coherence” (p.261), perhaps a predictable outgrowth of his affinity for the ancient civilizations.  Kantorowicz’s perspective foreshadowed the late 20th century tendency to treat these civilizations together as a single “world of late antiquity.”  He was also beginning to focus on the emergence of nation states in Western Europe.  In part because of uncertainty with the English language, Kantorowicz wrote out all his lectures, and they are still available.  Browsing through them today, Lerner writes, “one can see that they not only were dazzling in their insights, juxtapositions, and sometimes even new knowledge but also were works of art, structurally and rhetorically” (p.273). 

            If the years 1945 to 1949 were the happiest of Kantorowicz’s life, the period from July 1949 through August 1950, one of the hottest periods in the Cold War, was almost as trying as his time in Germany under the Nazi regime.  Berkeley President Robert Sproul imposed an enhanced version of a California state loyalty oath on the university’s academic employees, with the following poison pill: “I do not believe in, and I an not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States Government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means” (p.313).  The oath affected tenured as well as non-tenured instructors — it was no oath, no job, even for the most senior faculty members.

           Kantorowicz refused to sign the oath. One Berkeley faculty member recalled years later that Kantorowicz had been “undoubtedly the most militant of the non-signers” (p.317).  Invoking his experience as an academic in Hitler’s Germany, Kantorowicz argued that even if the oath appeared mild, such coerced signing was always the first step toward something stronger.  He termed the requirement a “shameful and undignified action,” an “affront and a violation of both human sovereignty and professional dignity,” requiring a faculty member to give up “his tenure . . . his freedom of judgment, his human dignity and his responsible sovereignty as a scholar” (p.314). Professional fitness to teach or engage in research, Kantorowicz argued, should be determined by an “objective evaluation of the quality of the individual’s mind, character, and loyalty, and not by his political or religious beliefs or lawful associations”  (p.326).

             In August 1950, Kantorowicz and one other survivor of Nazi Germany were among several Berkeley faculty members officially expelled from the University.  Their dismissals were subsequently reversed by a state court of appeals in 1952, but on the technical ground that the university couldn’t carve out separate oaths for faculty members.  The California Supreme Court affirmed the decision in October 1952, which entitled Kantorowicz to reinstatement and severance pay.  But by that time he had left Berkeley for the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey (technically separate from Princeton University).

          The Princeton phase of Kantorowicz’s life seems drab and post-climatic by comparison. But in 1957, while at Princeton, Kantorowicz produced The King’s Two Bodies, his most significant work since his biography of Frederick II more than a quarter of a century earlier.  Using an “astonishing diversity of sources” (p.355), especially legal sources, Kantorowicz melded medieval theology with constitutional and legal history, political theory, and medieval ideas of kingship to generate a new vision of the Middle Ages. 

          Kantorowicz’s notion of the king having two bodies derived from a Tudor legal fiction that the king’s “body politic” is, in effect, immortal.  In The King’s Two Bodies, Kantorowicz found a link between the concept of undying corporations in English law and the notion of two bodies for the king.  Because England was endowed with a unique parliamentary system, Kantorowicz maintained that it was “only there that the fiction of the king never dying in the capacity of his ‘body politic’ was able to take shape” (p.351).  With new angles to legal history, political theory, and ideas of kingship, The King’s Two Bodies constitutes one of Kantorowicz’s “great historiographical triumphs” (p.355), as Lerner puts it. Appreciation for Kantorowicz’s last major — and most lasting — contribution to medieval scholarship continued to increase in the years after its initial publication.  

            Kantorowicz’s articles after The King’s Two Bodies revolved in different ways around the “close relationship between the divinity and the ruler, and about the vicissitudes of that relationship” (p.363).  In late 1962, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, yet  went about his affairs as if nothing had changed.  He “carried on earnestly with his dining and imbibing.  As usual he drank enough wine and spirits to wash an elephant” (p.376).  He died in Princeton of a ruptured aneurysm in September 1963 at age 68.

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            Some readers may find that Lerner dwells excessively on academic politics – a dissection of the letters of recommendation on behalf of Kantorowicz’s candidacy for a position at Berkeley spans several pages, for example.  In addition, the paperback version is set in small type, making it an eye-straining experience and giving the impression that the subject matter is denser than it really is.  But undeterred readers, willing to plough through the book’s nearly 400 pages, should be gratified by its insights into a formidable scholar of medieval times as he lived through some of the most consequential moments of modern times.  As Lerner aptly concludes, given Kantorowicz’s remarkable life, a biography “could not be helped” (p.388).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 13, 2019

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