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Forecasting a Nightmare: Viereck and the Nazis

Peter Viereck's philosophical history of Nazism, and his contrarian conservatism, may have something to teach us about our politics today.

In the preface to the 1961 edition of Metapolitics, Peter Viereck assured the reader that the book in its present expanded condition was “coming into its own.” Not only because Viereck was in his 20s when he first wrote it, but because it had overcome considerable controversy from the first time around.

Published just a few months shy of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the book’s “linking of nazism (sic) with German romanticism was considered anti-German war-mongering by many German intellectuals and by some fellow Americans also.” Among those critics was Jacques Barzun who thought the book confirmed “latent prejudices … some possibly useful to practical ends of pugnacity and group cohesion.” Even his original publisher Alfred A. Knopf had misgivings when a consultant suggested the removal of the original concluding section for its “unrealistic exaggerations which the pig-headed young author would regret 20 years from now.” 20 years hence, Viereck “pig-headedly” reinserted it.

It would be fair for any reader of Metapolitics in 2020 to see it mostly as a document of vindication. Its exaggerations have since become historical commonplaces: the influence of Wagner on Hitler, the overt militarism and antisemitism of Mein Kampf, the opportunistic misuse of Nietzsche for stoking German nationalism, the anti-Christian and anti-Western bent of Nazism, the presence of “rehabilitation camps,” and the complicity of the “honest, unsadistic German majority” that brought Nazism to power. 

But rather than gloat, Viereck restored the text in part as a tribute to and in vigilance for the triumph of West Germany’s task to “achieve authority without authoritarianism.” That is, leaving the “mystic faith in the daemonic bohemian” romanticism behind in favor of “un-daemonic limits of the Judeo-Christian ethics” and “freedom-revering conservatism.” And at the same time in vigilance against “the present American mood of smugness in general and the forgetfulness of Nazi evil in particular.”

Metapolitics is a peculiar, chimerical book. It combines the doctoral dissertation, which indeed is its genesis, with the agitating pamphlet, condensing centuries of German history and intellectual activity with sober expository prose and resolute moral purpose. It is, on the one hand, a canary in the coalmine bringing a dire warning, and on the other hand a cryptozoological anomaly that is obscure to most, appears occasionally, and is not always understood. Not least of all because Viereck’s aim is paradoxical: an intellectual history of how a European nation came to embrace book-burning and genocide.

In writing the book, Viereck rejected “‘scientific’ sociologies” and “’realistic’ economic motivations” for his indictment of Hitler, preferring instead “moral choice and evil.” That this began as a means to attain a PhD at Harvard is a little hard to believe, yet Viereck’s polemical agenda had to share space with his immense learning on the subject at hand. Metapolitcs conducts itself almost like a learned but foreboding “It’s a Small World” ride of a collective mind coasting to barbarism. He sets several dichotomies: Protestant vs. Catholic, Nordic vs. Mediterranean, French vs. German, Kultur vs. the West, romanticism vs. rationality, and Prussian vs. not Prussian. Of the French conflict, Viereck summarizes: 

By winning [the battle of Jena] the French won perhaps the most Pyrrhic victory of modern times. Their physical victory, accompanied by their aggressive intellectual influence, became a social catalyst. This French catalyst changed German nationalism for the first time from aesthetic dilettantism to political dynamite. 

He conjures many figures, some long forgotten, their disparate talents and temperaments converging on the same end of Teutonic ascendency. Johann Gottfried Herder conceived of a benevolent aesthetic nationalism while Johann Gottlieb Fichte made it more aggressive and programmatic. Historian and politician Heinrich von Treitschke became an eloquent publicist for Bismarck’s Prussian hegemony and against Jews for “undermining the foundations of state, church, and society” with “French ideas” like free press and democracy. 

Viereck dedicates an entire chapter to the pre-Nazi nationalist Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, whom he describes as both “the first stormtrooper” and “the German Jacobin.” Considered by many to be a liberal reformer, a figure of the 1848 revolutions, and a founder of gymnastics, “Father Jahn” is revealed by Viereck to be a model demagogue whose rough but ferocious rhetoric offended polite society in the early 19th century but energized German university students to found militarized fraternities and burn books. Jahn was instantly recognizable for his primitive dress and long, flowing beard, affectations his followers imitated. Viereck’s droll wit comes in surprising flares: “Jahn himself, while a student, lived for a while in a cave, scorning such decadent artificialities as houses.”

Jahn’s book burnings were “consciously imitated” by the Nazis though Nazi Germany itself “would horrify Jahn personally.” Herder’s own nationalist influence would not prevent him from being “jailed as a pacifist and internationalist if he lived in Germany” in 1941. Nazism is both the culmination of every nationalist and romantic impulse of German culture and an inflammation of them:

[I]s it not, by this very fanaticism, a sort of Indian summer of nationalism? Is it not the last violent rigor mortis [he might have meant convulsions] of the senile concept of autonomous national sovereignty—a nationalism to end all nationalism?

A strictly intellectual examination of Nazism sets aside more common figures like Himmler, Göring, and even Goebbels, focusing instead on incubators of its racist vision like Houston Chamberlain, Wagner’s son-in-law and “Hitler’s John the Baptist.” 

He spends two chapters on a mostly obscure but important figure, Alfred Rosenberg, an Estonian of German ancestry who became the Nazi court philosopher despite having no degrees in philosophy. Though a very dull orator compared to his rival Goebbels, Rosenberg was an effective journalist and an overhauler of German education to teach his “highbrow racism” as a valid science. Yet Nazi culture as directed by Rosenberg was a haven for the “semi-educated,” pedantic busybodies who were “pathetically sincere, whose pride is the glib Kultur-lingo” that sounds “Wagnerian, high-falutin, half-digested, irresponsible, super-heroic, and, above all, vague.” Viereck mocks the pretensions of this audience’s magazine The World-Battle:

But apparently no truly nordic (sic) shopkeeper is getting his money’s worth of world-philosophical lore unless the prefix Welt is being generously squandered. How glorious to feel that even though you are a sturdy folkic shopkeeper and not a dirty intellectual you can still flaunt a great big Weltanschauung … with the best and fight in a Weltkampf …, and even experience Weltschmerz …, a Kitsch for which we prefer to coin the word Weltschmalz.  

A contemporary reader seeing such passages will be tempted to make contemporary parallels. Not least of all in the wake of David Simon’s explicit parallel-making adaptation of The Plot Against America, set in the time and political atmosphere in which Metapolitics was published. But as a how-to in teasing out fascism generally, Viereck’s book is not helpful. Indeed, Viereck uses “fascism” infrequently and with little precision; it is not even listed in the index, compared to “romanticism,” which takes up nearly a page.

Looming authoritarianism is nothing new to American political discourse. Instances of “fascism” and “Weimar” have been deployed across the ideological spectrum to denote tendencies in our leaders whether contemporaneously against George W. Bush and Sarah Palin or retroactively against Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln. The unreality Donald Trump’s presidency imposes on American imagination, let alone the actual act of governing, has made the sense of creeping fascism more acute. This approach is a mistake, however, because it turns a historical event into a crude predictive formula that obscures more than it clarifies. This is, moreover, to gloss over the most substantial lesson of Metapolitics: the need for national self-examination.

Assessing the arc of Trumpism usually ends in finding who, besides Russia, is more to blame. Is it Samuel Francis? Rousseau? Kids posting frogs on 4chan? Even without explicit conspiracy theories, the accumulated result resembles a yarn-webbed bulletin board. Metapolitics was pretty clear on whom to blame: the German people. What Viereck wanted to show was how, over the course of centuries, those people could become accustomed to a certain kind of authoritarian rule. Authoritarianism is possible anywhere, but its emergence is peculiar to the history, habits, and weakness within certain borders. It’s almost as if to combat one form of nationalism one must be a better nationalist.

Yet Viereck’s answer to countering the vulgar, particular nationalisms was a refined, universal conservatism. As he wrote in The Atlantic in 1940, “Conservatism must include what Thomas Mann calls humanism: the conservation of our cultural, spiritual, and individualist heritage.” Viereck was more famous for his heterodox stance against the burgeoning ideological conservative movement of the mid-20th century. To Willmoore Kendall, Viereck’s “new conservative” merely demonstrated “how you can be a Conservative and yet agree with the Liberals about everything not demonstrably unimportant.” 

For all of Viereck’s foresight as to the Nazi threat, a resilient nationalist sentiment on the right today, amid a political atmosphere impatient with nuance, would render his humanist conservatism even more remote from American society that it was in the 1950s. But Viereck viewed his conservatism less as a program to be handed down than as an historical inevitability that unravels, against which ideology is always attempting to triumph, and always in need of vigilance from any reasonable, moral person: 

Painfully, over æons, civilization stamps its traditional values and conservatism upon men. Only within these values, or traffic lights, are freedom and objective justice possible. One by one, Hitler smashes these traffic lights of the “common basis of humanity.”

Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey. He has been published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Lapham’s Quarterly, and The Week. Follow him at his blog and on Twitter @CR_Morgan.