Friday, September 25, 2009

Germany and the West

Harper's always has the best links and articles, and this one seems interesting:

Why did Germany only come to associate itself with the West at a very late date?
The First World War was waged by the Germans as a war of the ideas of 1914 against those of 1789. Order, Breeding, and Inwardness (Ordnung, Zucht und Innerlichkeit) against Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity (Liberté, égalité, fraternité). Parliamentary democracy came to Germany in 1918 as a consequence of military defeat, and consequently in the twenties and early thirties it appeared to many as an un-German form of governance. The “West” was a negative battle concept for the conservative elites that acquired cultural hegemony in the late Weimar Republic. And National Socialism was the catastrophic high point of the rejection of the West as a political project.

Isaiah Berlin has said much the same thing in his writings on Romanticism, and very persuasively. But this struck me because it's only been a couple weeks since I read a contrary opinion from John Gray in Straw Dogs:

This murderous vision was not confined to Nazis. In less virulent forms, the same view of human possibilities was held in the thirties by much of the progressive intelligentsia. There were some who found positive features even in national socialism. For George Bernard Shaw, Nazi Germany was not a reactionary dictatorship but a legitimate heir to the European Enlightenment.

Nazism was a rag-bag of ideas, including occultist philosophies that rejected modern science. But it is mistaken to view it as unambiguously hostile to the Enlightenment. Inasmuch as it was a movement dedicated to toleration and personal freedom, Hitler loathed the Enlightenment. At the same time, like Nietzsche, he shared the Enlightenment's vast hopes for humanity. Through positive and negative eugenics - breeding high-quality people and eliminating those judged inferior - humanity would become capable of the enormous tasks ahead of it. Shaking off the moral traditions of the past and purified by science, humankind would be master of the earth. Shaw's view of Nazism was not so far-fetched. It chimed with Hitler's self-image as a fearless progressive and modernist.

[...] The radical right-wing movements of the interwar years were not enemies of "Western Civilization" so much as its illegitimate offspring. The Fascists and Nazis had nothing but contempt for Enlightenment scepticism and toleration, and many of them scorned Christianity. But - however perversely - Hitler and his followers shared the Enlightenment's faith in human progress, a faith that Christianity had kindled.