The Politics of Cultural Despair

Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair is a study that attempts to understand Nazism as a product of Germany’s unique cultural and intellectual atmosphere in the decades before the rise of Hitler. It was originally written as a doctoral dissertation (later to be published as a book in 1961), and focuses on three key intellectual figures who influenced the development of Germanic ideology: Julius Langbehn, Paul de Lagarde, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. These three figures were social critics, diagnosing the decline of culture and presenting themselves as prophets of a new German spiritual rebirth.   In the Introduction, Stern describes his book as “a study in the pathology of cultural criticism” (p. 1), suggesting that these prophets of doom were simultaneously symptoms of their times as well as dangerous, pathological causes of Germany’s ill-fated drift toward Nazism.

Stern’s book is an engrossing analysis of the lives and works of a group of rather obscure thinkers whose ideas, in less odious form, also appear in the writings of other more well respected German authors; writers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler. But whereas Nietzsche saw the advent of cultural nihilism as something that each individual human being must live through and learn from, and whereas Spengler foresaw the decline of Western culture as an irreversible inevitability, Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller sought to offer a means of collective rescue; a strategy by which they could recover the spiritual heritage of their nation and thus reinvigorate German mass culture. In this way, they were, despite their shared prophesies of doom, optimists about the possibility of cultural renewal.

Stern uses the phrase “conservative revolution” to characterize the utopian strategies of these three figures. On the face of it, this might sound oxymoronic. After all, a conservative seeks, by definition, to “conserve” rather than to “revolt” against the status-quo. But in the case of Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller, their conservatism had nothing to do with defending the existing state of affairs, but with the defense of an idealized past, an “ancient tradition” (p. 1) before the dawn of modernity. In this ancient past, the German people were united by a religious bond of blood under a strong national leader. It was a time before the emergence of liberalism, capitalism, parliamentary democracy and the death of God. It was, however, a time that never really existed at all. These “conservative revolutionaries” were antiquarians, and their goal was to reestablish an imaginary past as a concrete reality in the present.

For Paul de Lagarde, this was to be accomplished with the founding of a new Germanic religion. This new faith was to be based on an interpretation of Christianity stripped of its supposed false dogmas while reasserting its true, original inspiration. Lagarde attacked and criticized the Jewish, Greek and Roman influences on Christianity, advocating the “liberation” of the Gospels from this background, which he claimed glorified Jesus’ death rather than his life. Instead, the true, original spirit of Jesus needed to be resuscitated. According to Lagarde, Jesus was primarily a rebel against the traditions and doctrines of Judaism, not the messiah foretold in the Old Testament or the supernatural “son of God” described by Paul. In line with this, a new Christianity should be focused on this world, becoming fused with the concrete characteristics and needs of the German people, thus creating a faith that would give meaning and purpose to the German state. It would “become the spiritual basis for a new state, for a new hierarchical community that would accept the teleological belief that God had placed men at different stations in life for different purposes” (p. 80).

For Julius Langbehn, the solution to Germany’s spiritual crisis was to be found not in religion (although at the end of his life he did convert to Catholicism), but in art. In his most well known and influential book, Rembrandt as Educator, he offers Rembrandt as “the personification of a cultural ideal” (p. 154) that could rescue Germany from its cultural decline. In the figure of this artist, Langbehn found the antithesis of the modern German. According to him, Rembrandt embodied all of the qualities needed in order for Germany to heal its wounds and rediscover its spiritual strength: sensitivity to the mysteries of Being, an awareness of the contradictions inherent in human life, fierce individualism, spontaneity, willfulness, and Volksthümlichkeit, the characteristic of “belonging to, expressing, yet transcending his people and its traditions” (p. 158). His overall solution to Germany’s cultural crisis was to rebel against the Modern drift toward reason and to return to a primal, tribal form of community using the artist as a spiritual guide.

Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, like Langbehn, was an esthete who also looked to the artist as his hero. According to Moeller, Germany’s crisis was due to a forgetfulness of its primal spirit, and he believed this condition could be corrected by the propagation of a new breed of great, artistic men who would lead the nation toward a utopian future. As an admirer of Dostoyevski, he hoped to revivify the German spirit in the same way that he thought the Russian author had revivified his own country’s spirit. The rescue of Germany required the recognition that the Germans were in their essence, like the Russians, a “young” people, opposed to the “old” people of Britain and the US, and thus that the future belonged to them. Fate, therefore, dictated that Germany must expand its territory and accomplish the “domination of Europe” (p 253). In 1922, he published his most well known book, The Third Reich, which marked “the culmination of Moeller’s thought” as well as “the culmination of the Germanic ideology” (p. 311). In this book, he pronounced the need for a revolution that turned against the previous generation’s embrace of liberalism and modernity. German unity was to be reestablished in a nationalist form of socialism that would eliminate class struggle and reintegrate the workers with the goals of the nation as a whole in an organic, corporatist, hierarchical society.

Though not themselves Nazis, the dark sentiments and the proposed solutions advocated by these three authors were later integrated into the National Socialist platform. Their ideas proved popular because, like many Germans, they felt alienated from the world they inhabited, seeing it as a place where the old values and ways of life were withering away, producing an atmosphere of nihilism, anxiety, and increasing secularism. Populations caught in the grips of these kinds of feelings are prone to looking for saviors who promise a rescue; someone who understands the mood of alienation and who points the way back home. Stern observes that Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller were all “simultaneously proud and resentful of their alienation” (p. 327). On the one hand they proudly trumpeted their own uniqueness as “outsiders,” while on the other they aspired to transform the sick, decaying society around them into a place where they would no longer be outsiders. In so doing, they successfully channeled the mindset of a significant portion of the pre-World War II German population.  Yet the utopia imagined by these “prophets” never did, and never really could, exist. Writing in 1961, Stern points out that these men comprise a “cultural type” that has made an “appearance in all Western countries” (p. 328). In fact, they never go away because the problems they see in the world never go away. Reading about them now, from the perspective of a citizen of the United States during the 21st Century, it is clear their type still exists here, in our own land, and that they are still, tediously, proposing the sorts of “solutions” that they always have.

I think the most fundamental problem with this type of intellectual (both then and now) rests not in their pessimism or their prophesies of doom, but rather in their optimistic and arrogant conviction that they know best how to fix the world once and for all. Doom, of a sort, is inevitable (as Spengler suggests) precisely because the world changes. The old ways of life are under constant attack from the new, and for those who feel as if their own values have been pushed aside and undermined by newly emerging cultural forces, it can feel as if everything is coming to an end. And in a way, it is. Nothing stays the same, we can’t stop the forward motion of time, and we all are going to die. These are painful facts that are difficult to come to terms with, and I sympathize with those who are troubled by them.

But I don’t sympathize with arrogance. Socrates taught us that the highest wisdom consists in knowing that you don’t know everything, and this is a lesson that “conservative revolutionaries” (and utopians of all types, both on the right and the left) either never learned or have forgotten. In their conceit, this type never seems satisfied with just expressing their fear, sadness and mournfulness for a lost past. Instead, they optimistically try to put their ideas into action, making “the leap from cultural criticism to politics” (p. 327). In this, they hope to change the world for the better, but ironically, again and again, they seem to end up making the world worse than it was before.

I once told my wife that the shoddiest kinds of politicians are also artists. Artists are used to molding various raw materials, according to their own will, into a unique vision of aesthetic perfection. When this mentality is translated into political action, it easily becomes oppressive, totalitarian and unhinged from reality. Contrary to Langbehn and Moeller, I think artists are very poor models for political leaders.

Business people are probably even worse.

 

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Museum of International Propaganda

The building that houses the Museum of International Propaganda in downtown San Rafael used to be a children’s store where I would get shoes when I was a little kid. Now it’s eye catching entryway no longer displays the latest in children’s footwear, but rather a modernist banner announcing the museum’s name as well as startling artifacts like a bust of Stalin and a t-shirt of Barak Obama depicted as a Maoist. How times change.

This museum, opened in 2016, is run by Tom and Lilka Areton, who have traveled the world collecting an amazing and diverse assortment of propaganda art, which is now organized and displayed thematically in this small but incredibly compelling space. Tom grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and his wife spent time in the Soviet Union, so they know a thing or two about totalitarian regimes and their use of propaganda.

I had been trying to visit The Museum of International Propaganda since it opened, but because of its irregular hours, it wasn’t until recently that I was successful in actually getting inside. The occasion was a Thursday night lecture on 1970’s Italian leftist poster art, featuring film maker Lou Dematteis and Italian journalist Enrico Deaglio. The event was very well attended by a group of about 40 people, so things were quite crowded, but more than worth the price of admission, which only consists of a suggested donation.

Before the lecture, my friend and I wandered around the museum for a bit, looking at the truly jaw-dropping examples of propaganda art that are part of the permanent collection. In addition to the sorts of things you’d expect to find – like Maoist posters, Nazi statuary, and Soviet art – there are some unexpected and eye-opening artifacts – like a 9/11 themed Islamic prayer rug, a series of posters extolling the superiority of American culture, and politically themed Russian nesting dolls. In the back room, next to a poster depicting a post-revolutionary Chinese utopia, there is a wall-sized reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece Guernica, painted by the museum’s curator. The collection contains a good mixture of old and new propaganda from both the West and the East, reinforcing the message that propaganda is everywhere, and that we in the US are just as subject to its effects as people from other times and places.

The evening’s lecture began at around 7:30 with remarks from Tom, the owner, a really charismatic and funny guy, who shared some of his own memories of hitch-hiking in Italy during the 1970’s. He recalled when he and his wife were picked up by some friendly Italians, and in order to pass the time and entertain their driver, the two of them sang the Italian communist propaganda song Bandiera Rossa (The Scarlet Banner).  The driver thanked them and reciprocated by treating them to his own rendition of another song, which Tom and Lilka did not recognize. When they asked him what the song was, the driver laughingly replied that it was an Italian fascist propaganda song! I guess hitchhiking really does bring different kinds of people together.

After Tom’s remarks, the curator of the exhibition (whose name I unfortunately cannot remember) talked about his own experience as a college student in 1970’s Italy. He described a 15 day long communist festival where thousands of people were treated to free food and drink, as well as art, music and dancing. As he put it, it was, “Pasta, music and girls.” All of this was related to an upsurge in the popularity of the Italian communist party, which that year had garnered 37% of the vote in national elections. His vivid description of the festivities was eye opening, as I don’t normally associate communists with fun. I would expect anarchists to be behind something like this.

Lou Dematteis and Enrico Deaglio were up next, describing the radical political change that Italy has undergone in the years since the 1970’s. While the communist party and various socialist groups had tremendous support in the 1970’s, currently it is the far-right, neo-fascists who have risen to power. Much like in the US, authoritarianism is on the upswing, with the government tacitly lending its support to groups promoting xenophobia, nationalism and racism.

It was interesting to hear that Italy has been, until recently, a country with little immigration, but a lot of emigration. It used to be a place people wanted to leave rather than settle in. Most of the “immigration” issues in the past had to do with southern Italians migrating to the north, where they were treated as an unwanted presence. This kind of internal immigration has recently been overtaken by immigration from Africa, and consequently a racist element has developed which sees Africans as criminals and dangerous drug dealers (sound familiar?) Deaglio told of a recent incident in Rome in which a young woman’s body was found dismembered, and it was rumored that she had been murdered by African drug dealers. In retaliation, a flag-draped Italian fascist drove into the town square where her body was found and shot 8 dark skinned people, as well as firing his pistol into black owned businesses. Afterward, the government forbade any protests or anti-fascist demonstrations.

All of this, Deaglio pointed out, currently promotes an atmosphere directly contrary to that which prevailed in Italy during the 1970’s. Referring to the various examples of socialist and communist political posters on display behind him, he talked about an atmosphere of optimism that now seems to have disappeared from Italian politics. In the 1970’s, he claims, it felt as if Italy was moving in the direction of embracing the values of the left, with class consciousness, feminism and anti-racist sentiments being the norm. The posters on display gave illustration to this feeling, with images of women waving hammer and sickle flags, and groups of friendly looking young people embracing one another and smiling. These are not the sorts of posters that I normally associate with communist propaganda. There were no guns, no soldiers, no supreme leaders in sight. Deaglio said that this was, of course, all part of the calculation. There was a concerted attempt to put a friendly face on socialism and communism during the 1970’s, making Italians feel as if they had nothing to fear from it, and that it represented a progressive, young person’s movement. This all changed when in 1978 The Red Brigade kidnapped and then murdered Aldo Moro, Italy’s former Prime Minister and President of the Christian Democratic Party. There was no way to put a friendly face on that.

It was really fascinating to hear these first-hand accounts of a time gone by. I kept feeling, however, that what I was listening to was not mere history, but the description of a political cycle, a changing of the guard, giving insight into what we in the US are currently experiencing.

Propaganda is all around us, and after visiting the Museum of International Propaganda you will become more aware of the methods and techniques that continue to be used in order to manipulate people in the service of all sorts of political ends, both right and left.