Hitler & Putin: Isn’t it Romantic?


Streetwise Professor reports:

I’ve written before on how Russia strikes me as a very Romantic country.  Not in the look-into-my-eyes-darling sense of the word, but in the more philosophical sense of the word (note the capitalization).  That thought struck with particular force as I began to read Peter Viereck’s Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler.  Many of the Romantic strains that Viereck identifies in German history and character types are also pronounced in Russia.  Indeed, take virtually any one of the quotes to follow, and you can replace “German” with “Russian” and still strike very close to the bone.

First, a Nietzsche quote in Viereck:

The Germans think that strength must reveal itself in hardness and cruelty; then they submit with fervor and admiration; they are suddenly rid of their pitiful weakness and their sensitivity over trifles, and they devoutly enjoy their terror.  That there is strength in mildness and stillness, they do not believe easily.

Here’s Viereck himself:

Almost every major German figure bears within himself both sides of this contrast [between the Romanized German and the Saxon].  That is why German thinkers and bards talk more of “two souls in one breast” than do the thinkers of any national culture.  . . . They treat their souls as a fond mother treats an enfant terrible: scolding yet egging on.  That may make them “geniuses” and “daemonic,” but this inner conflict over the Roman wall is not always so harmless.  Sometimes it is psychologically accompanied by projection, fanaticism, hysteria, instability, delusions of persecution plus persecution of others, and convulsive outbursts of physical violence.

That last sentence really hits the mark.

This next quote resonates given Russian arguments about its victimization at the hands of invaders over the centuries:

Indeed, throughout history Germany can argue an excellent case against the west.  Tact and peaceful reasoning were not conspicuous in the invasions of Germany. . . . But this admission does not invalidate our thesis that Germany’s aggressive inferiority complex against western civilization is the greatest cultural and political tragedy of Europe.

Here Viereck quotes Gustav Pauli:

Romanticism is Germanic and reached its purest expression in those territories which are freest from Roman colonization.  Everything that is regarded as an essential aspect of the romantic spirit, irrationalism, the mystic welding together of subject and object, the tendency to intermingle the arts, the longing for the far-away and the strange, the feeling for the infinite and the continuity of historic development.

I found the phrase about “mystic welding together of subject and object” in particular to be a good characterization of Russians as well.

Here’s Viereck again:

Romanticism is really the nineteenth century’s version of the perennial German revolt against the western heritage.

Here’s a really good, though extended, passage that fits quite well:

Some readers may object that the stress on schizoid polarity in German minds, on inner swings of the pendulum, is inconsistent with stress on the German craving for discipline, authority, ruthless order.  But is it inconsistent?  Is not, rather, the excessive and traditional discipline by the German state the direct product of the excessive lack of inner discipline of the individual German?  In Germany as in America the increase in centralization of state power is the process by which the state is sucked into the vacuum created by the default in responsibility of the individual citizen.  Anarchy and tyranny are merely the opposite faces of a single coin.

. . . .

Germans accepted authoritarian Prussianism so enthusiastically precisely because it was so un-German  They accepted it as the opposite extreme, the needed overcompensation, of what they unconsciously sensed as their most dangerous and typical quality: their intoxication with chaos, their Faustian romanticism.

But even in this reaction Germans could not escape themselves.  In fact, nothing is more typical of the chaotic romantic temperament than this very attempt to escape from itself into the prison of limitless authoritarianism.

Germans have a strange habit of fleeing not from prisons but into prisons.

. . . .

The masses worship a prison-camp type of state with fanatic hysteria so long as it saves each of them, as romantic individuals, from his inner mental and emotional anarchy.

The juxtaposition of extreme anarchic and extreme authoritarian tendencies is well-remarked in Russia.  Indeed, to this very day many defenders of the current system invoke fears of the former to justify the latter.

Here’s some interesting pieces on the statist impulse:

[Quoting Novalis} “From each true state-citizen grows forth the soul of the state, just as in a religious community a single personal God manifests Himself as if in thousands of shapes.”  Novalis defines each citizen as a mere “limb” of the state organism, which is “alive and personal.”

. . . .

The organic view was valuable in unifying so loose a federation as the Germany of the eighteenth century and of the pre-Bismarck nineteenth century.  Such an all too “atomistic” Germany was, we must remember, the historical context of the romantic revolt against atomism.

. . . .

The self-justified state, like the Faustian man, must not let ethical discrimination hamper its experience of life’s totality.  So we are not surprised to find Adam Muller end with bloody hymns to war.  The result of Hegel’s state-worship too, was that the state became the ethical end in itself in much influential German political thought.  All individuals, all the external restrictions of international morality, and all the concretely existing internal parts of the state must be sacrificed to its mathematically non-existent who, the sum that is greater than its parts.

Statism, the state idolatry, the personification of the state, the submergence of the individual in the collective, the view that the state is the highest representation of the collective, are all quite pronounced in Russia too.  Russians too seem to flee to prisons rather from them, and seem think that on the whole it’s a good thing.

There’s a lot more, but these selections make the point.  I’d also point out that the virulent anti-Americanism (and anti-Semitism) that characterized German Romantic thought echoes strongly in Russia today, and for much the same reason.

Following on Pauli, Viereck hypothesizes that German Romanticism was the product of the division of Germany between the Latinized West and the Barbarian East.  That Germany was on the divide between two civilizations with wildly different mental and moral universes.  Romanticism was a revolt of the East against the West.

Russia, too, has a very uneasy, conflicted relationship with the Latinized West.  Indeed, although the dividing line did not run directly through Russia, as it did Germany (thanks to Hermann/Arminius), post-Peter I’s introduction of Western ideas into Muscovy, the same conflict has rent Russia, with many of the same consequences, political and psychological.  The Slavophiles and latterly, the Eurasianists (new and old), are in essence Russia’s indigenous Romantics.  (It is well known that German Romanticism was quite influential in Russia.  I think that this is primarily a matter that the doctrine found very fertile soil waiting for it there.)

In brief, Russia’s conflicted relationship with the West, and the psychological complexes associated therewith, bear uncanny similarities to Germany’s.  Both Germany and Russia lie on civilizational fault lines, and Russia and the non-Romanized parts of Germany were not all that dissimilar in terms of economy and social organization.  It should not be too surprising that each reacted similarly to the onslaught of modernity and the hegemony of the Latinized West, though each of course exhibits its own distinct characteristics.

Harking back to a post On Russophobia from almost exactly a year ago (and one which arguably had the biggest impact on the trajectory of SWP), it seems to me that my attitudes towards Russia are strongly reflective of my attitudes towards Romanticism.  I am decidedly un-Romantic, and indeed, think that Romanticism was an almost entirely pernicious doctrine.  Indeed, when I consider many of the political, cultural, and social phenomenon or viewpoints that I find the most objectionable, the thing that they are most likely to have in common is an explicit or implicit Romantic tie.  Hence, it is not surprising that I find much not to admire in Russian society, culture, and polity.  And as I said in On Russophobia, self-styled Russophiles, or Slavophiles, or Eurasianists would agree wholeheartedly with many of my characterizations of the features of Russian life and mind, but celebrate them, whereas I do not.

This disagreement Romanticism is characteristic of classical liberals.  I note with interest that in her Bourgeois Virutes, Deirdre (nee Donald) McCloskey, a more ardent classical liberal/libertarian than even I, repeatedly traces the horrors of the 20th century large and small to the baleful influence of the German Romantic school, and intends that the third volume of the proposed trilogy will set out her case in detail.  Viewed in this way, the debate over Russia is merely another manifestation of a longstanding philosophical conflict that has raged for a very long time, and in very many places.

So, from here on out: Don’t call me a Russophobe.  Call me a Romantiphobe.

Update:  Reading Viereck’s introduction to the last (2003) edition, I came across this sentence:

The same context is true of Slavophilism (imitated from the German romantic’s [sic] by the Aksakov Brothers) and the Arab Volk mystique.  Had I but world enough and time (at 86), I’d have expanded Metapolitics to enable me to add to its subtitle: “From the German Romantics to Russians and Arabs.”

So, I guess the late Dr. Viereck would have agreed with the essence of my analysis.

One response to “Hitler & Putin: Isn’t it Romantic?

  1. Just as a small footnote: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who preceded both the so-called Classicists and the Romantics, condemned anti-semitism in such works as Nathan der Weise, struggled against the authoritarianism of north German Protestantism and Christianity in general, even left the Freemasons because he could not stomach what he perceived as ritualized cant. The passion he demonstrated in defense of tolerance and freedom of thought disappeared in the reaction against Reason, advanced by enormous talents devoted to the nurturing of the emotions. Students who read Lessing and then later works generally divide into two groups: 1) those who find Lessing’s call to reason compelling, and fail to understand the magnificent self-indulgence of later writers; 2) those who cannot be bothered with “dry word games” and enthuse about the agonies of the tortured ego. It is said that German culture borrowed from other Western traditions for a long time,and then repaid its loan in one massive production: Romanticism. For good or ill.

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