Of all the fascist movements, German fascism (or “National Socialism”) is probably the most famous and least understood. Fascism in Germany was the epicenter of the brief life of fascism, produced a number of intellectuals – serious and forgotten – from which we are able to derive a lineage of fascist philosophy. While antecedent roots can be traced back to some of the German romantics, we will now turn principal ideals of fascism as contained in the German tradition and their impact on fascist thought.
GERMAN FASCISM or NATIONAL SOCIALISM
Much like with Italy, the rise of fascism in Germany is grounded in certain historical circumstances like the German defeat, and subsequent humiliation during the peace process, in World War I. Factor in an economy that was in ruins, made worse by the Great Depression, and the constant fear of internal revolution and constant civil strife, the once proud German nation that had defeated France in 1871 and was at the fore of defeating Napoleon in 1815, and had become the most powerful nation in Europe in the matter of just a few decades, had seen themselves become a cesspool of decadence, humiliation, and bitterness within two generations. Since the historical knowledge of Germany between 1914-1933 is better known than with Italy, I am not going to go over an explanation of those historical circumstances – instead we will push right into the main ideas of fascism as they arose within the German context.
A certain nineteenth century philosopher stands on awkward grounds due to some of his ideas having been appropriated by the Nazis, others rejected, and his entire corpus of work generally misunderstood (and a figure I intend to cover in more detail in due time) – Friedrich Nietzsche. No study of German fascism is complete without addressing Nietzsche’s relationship with the ascendancy of fascist philosophy, and no study of Nietzsche is complete without addressing how some of his ideas came to influence – rightly or wrongly – German fascist thinking.
First, Nietzsche really wasn’t a fascist. And he was not a nationalist either. He was something between a heroic reactionary anarchist and strange anti-Christian non-theological Catholic conservative when you properly understand his philosophical thoughts. I do not have the time to really delve into those issues here (which I shall cover on Nietzsche proper later), but the assertion that Nietzsche was a fascist is blatantly false and inaccurate and would show that someone has a limited grasp of the philosophical tradition.
Nietzsche’s relationship with fascism is generally grounded on two points. First is Nietzsche’s philosophy of self-overcoming (selbstüberwindung). Second, which is related to the first, is the overcoming of nihilism. (A potential third is Nietzsche’s humanism and the issue of humanism or anti-anti-humanism that lingers in fascist thought.) Self-overcoming is the self-overcoming of nihilism in Nietzsche’s thought. Nietzsche was not a nihilist as most poor readings or high school affinities toward Nietzsche tend to embody. This issue of self-overcoming is the essence of life – struggle. The struggle for life is itself what life is about. Struggle itself is the key to life as Nietzsche explains in Will to Power, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Twilight of the Idols, and as we know by now, struggle is one of the essential concepts in fascism. Nietzsche’s philosophy is an anti-nihilism aimed at liberalism and communism which, through their ideals of life as material consumption for security (liberalism) and equality (communism) devolve life to nothing worth struggling for.
This idea of struggle (not of class struggle, but that struggle and conflict is the essence of nature itself) is generally the result of Hegel’s philosophy and that late generation romantics – Nietzsche among them – who then matched Hegel’s “dialectic” of struggle with Darwinian evolution. Since Nietzsche was engaged in this Hegelianized-Darwinianized form of historicism, he just happened to become a figure for fascism on this token alone irrespective of all of Nietzsche’s other ideas which clearly do not fit within fascist thinking. And although Nietzsche did not like the implications of Hegel’s “end of history” (for Nietzsche understood Hegel’s end of history as the end of the struggle for life), Nietzsche himself was still a radical Hegelian.
To this end we must turn back the pages of history and have the Owl of Minerva still perched on its branch waiting for the setting of the sun. In Part II we briefly looked at two important late Enlightenment German philosophers who helped give rise to Romanticism: Johann Herder and Johann Fichte. Both influenced Hegel. Fichte was even a professor with Hegel at the University of Jena before Napoleon’s invasion in 1806 and the two had a testy relationship despite cross influence on each other.
Hegel’s philosophy has largely been misunderstood and even harder to comprehend for various reasons. First is Marx’s use of Hegel from which most “Hegelians” understand Hegel through the eyes of Marx. (Hegel himself has generally been identified as profoundly “conservative” by most philosophers and historians.) Second is that Hegel himself wrote rather poorly in German since he’s making up new words to explain his ideas, which makes reading him in German just as difficult as attempting to render a translation (and there were many bad English translations of Hegel).
Hegel was definitely a historicist and one of the fathers of historicism. For Hegel, history was a process of conflict and struggle which is Hegel’s dialectic (as opposed to Socratic dialectic which is premised on dialogue). This conflictual dialectic is how history advances in accord with the World Spirit (Weltgeist). The old order vanishes in the fires of revolution and conflict which births the new order which has a heightened understanding of itself because people are essentially spirit (consciousness) for Hegel. Through conflict we come to a better understanding of who we are. At the same time, conflict is grounded in rootedness and the concrete. Therefore, through conflict, we come to understand who we are in relations to others which bind communities together (this principally emerges in his other great work Elements of the Philosophy of Right).
For Hegel, contra Rousseau or the liberal theorists like Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, man is not born free. Rather, man becomes free. Freedom is the end to human existence but it is a freedom of struggle to become free. (This is a larger debate over modern notions of freedom which broke with classical thought, the question is whether we are born free and therefore struggle to preserve said freedom, or whether we are becoming freedom and must attain freedom – whatever “freedom” might mean to various philosophers.) The forces of nature, the forces of other tribes and peoples, the desire for contentment in the world, etc., are all acting upon the person to destroy him and deny his attainment of freedom. For Hegel there are four types of people in the world: the hero, the citizen, the person, and the victim. This understanding of personhood would later be distorted (or misunderstood) by fascism – in part – because of the heroic struggle ideal having been paired with the hero becoming victim in victimization in fascist thought. In Hegel’s eyes, the four types of people are each unique. The hero is never the victim for Hegel but the hero became the victim in German fascist thought.
In short (and I will explore in more detail these concepts from Hegel at a later date), the hero is the man who embodies the world spirit – he struggles, he becomes, he advances, the hero is the subject of history who is moved by the spirit to do the bidding of the spirit. The victim, on the other hand, is the pure individual who denies himself being part of a community (the citizen), denies himself the ethic of responsibility (the person), and is not the embodiment of greatness (the hero). Instead, the victim is basically “the last man” that Nietzsche talks about (in fact, Nietzsche’s idea of the last man comes from Hegel’s victim) – the victim is the person who does not know history, and does not care to know history, and thereby concerns himself only with material pleasure and happiness before he dies. Because the victim does not “move to higher and higher levels of consciousness,” he lets himself become the victim of history; he grows soft, decadent, amoral, and unconcerned with the vitality of life.
Now Hegel does not celebrate the individual qua individual. The individual is but a part of the tidal wave of history, swept up by the magnitude and importance that History is. Individuals have but a small part to play in the unfolding of history since the Spirit moves through people for the purpose of History. That said, the hero and the citizen are the most important of the archetypes of being in the world.
Fascism eventually conflated the two by arguing that the national spirit (volksgeist) is the true embodiment of the hero ethic (hence the nation becomes the hero) that was linked to Aryan anthropology, but the heroic nation had become victimized and therefore the Germans were on the verge of becoming a pathetic race of humans concerned only with lust and material pleasures (the stereotypical portrayal of decadent Weimar society). But the Germans were the World Historical people destined to be the heroic nation rather than the victimized nation, thus the Germans had to revivify their higher consciousness of heroic struggle – to accomplish this a new mythology of the Aryan and heroic pagan were idealized into the consciousness of Germany. It should be noted that none of this is, strictly speaking, Hegelian, though one should be able to see how fascist thinkers were clearly influenced by elements of Hegel’s thought. Furthermore, the conflation of the hero ethic to national spirit was the result of a novel re-reading of the Elements of the Philosophy of Right where Hegel argues in the third part on “Ethical Life” in which ethical duties are bound to community experiences or shared experience (esp. sections 142-155). In Hegel, while the universal morality is true, what compels ethical action is the particular (found in our communities). (Marx, for instance, takes the universal and particular distinction and simply moves it to the worker – the particularity of the German and English worker is not their Germanness or Englishness, but their working-class status.)
The issue of anti-Semitism and Nazism is well-known so I am not going to detail that in this overview of fascism – in part because it would distract us from an examination of the main ideas, philosophies, thinkers, and historical circumstances, which is what we’re primarily examining. That said, anti-Semitism in German fascism was always a strong force for issues that you should be able to connect the dots with from Part II. Semites were viewed as non-Aryans, non-Greek, and non-Western. They were the quintessential embodiment of the victim qua victim in history for German fascists. (And as we all know, Jews were targeted as the “great betrayers” for the defeat in World War I.) Anti-Semitism among other fascist movements, like Italy, was not as entrenched as in Germany due to the fascination with history, anthropology, and Oriental studies that had come to dominate the German academy over the last 100 years from the 1830s-1930s. Hannah Arendt, in her work, The Origins of Totalitarianism goes into anti-Semitism as a modern phenomenon. So one of the distinguishing characteristics of fascism in Germany was the modern phenomenon of anti-Semitism which is a nineteenth century biological concept.
The heroic ideal being embodied by the volksgemeinschaft (people’s community) which is an integral aspect of the volksgeist (people’s spirit/national spirit) is arguably the core contribution that came out of German fascism. The heroic struggle of the individual is now the heroic struggle of the nation as a whole. In fact, this is the purpose of the nation itself. The nation is not necessarily synonymous with the State (in their inceptions), but rather the nation (as a collection of people) is the means to the end of the State. Later, the nation will become one with the State as the completion of the Spirit in history.
Carl Schmitt, arguably one of the most important political philosophers and theorists of the 20th century, was among these radical Hegelians. In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel argued that the State is the idea of God manifested on earth (der Staate ist Gott in der Welt). What Hegel meant by this was that all political theory is essentially secularized theology. The attributes we give to God: God is all-powerful, God is the final judge and legislator, God is all sovereign, people are subject to God even in rebellion, etc., are attributes we give to the State: the State is all-powerful, the State is final judge and legislator, the State is all sovereign, and people are subject to the State. (This idea actually comes from liberal thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Baruch Spinoza long before it was explicitly stated as a secularized theology by Hegel.)
In Political Theology, Schmitt elucidates how political theory is nothing more than a form of theology. The sovereign state, however, paradoxically, is both inside and outside the juridical order. Unlike God, who is outside the juridical order, the State is within it. Like God, however, the State is all sovereign, powerful, and the first principle of jurdical order. From Hegel, along with his own study of liberalism, Schmitt became a neo-Hegelian critic of liberalism (Hegel was also a very strong critic of liberalism in his time). Additionally, political struggle is spiritual struggle. Man as spirit meant that man is a thinking animal. We mustn’t forget that “soul” and “spirit” in traditional Christianity (and Greek philosophy) was always associated with the rational part of the mind – the part that held our supposed innate ideas. Political struggle begins as a war of ideas, in other words, a war over theology (what ideas will influence us and what ideas will we believe in). From this spiritual struggle – the war of ideas – the concrete war in the physical world commences as people fight, die, and devote their lives to their ideas which give their lives meaning.
Schmitt’s two other important works were The Crisis of Parliamentarian Democracy and the Concept of the Political. In Crisis Schmitt addresses the inherent problems between the conflation of liberalism and democracy and how democracy is premised on the rootedness of the people and liberalism is premised on monism, universality, and the attempt transcend the rootedness of communities in order to achieve the universal community. For Schmitt, liberalism’s action theory is not grounded in the concrete particular but the universal abstraction which threatened to alienate and eventually sublate the concrete particular. For Schmitt, democracy is premised on homogeneity, or what he calls “homogeneous mass democracy.” Democracy is neither intrinsically good nor bad. However, for Schmitt, liberalism is incompatible with democracy because democracy is rooted in the particular, the homogeneous, and the communal, whereas liberalism is premised upon universality, abstraction, and the individual. Proper democracy embodies the heroic, ethical, and communal: the hero, the person, and the citizen; liberalism only embodies the victim. But the Concept of the Political is more important to understanding where Schmitt goes with the idea of heroic national struggle.
Following Hegel, Schmitt understood conflict and struggle is the essence of nature. (There is also debate to what extent that the idea of “The Fall” from Schmitt’s early Catholicism also influenced this view.) This gets subsumed by the political as well so the political becomes a conduit of the conflict and struggle that characterizes nature (since the political is an outgrowth of the natural). As he explains, all nations are founded on the “friend-enemy distinction.” The hope of the nation is that the enemy will eventually be “vanished from the world.”
The nation’s sole purpose, then, for Schmitt, is the coming together to engage in the collective struggle against all forces that threaten to extinguish oneself in the world. The nation takes on the heroic struggle of the individual hero and now, as a collective whole, struggles against all foes: other nations, other ideas, other cultures, etc. As Schmitt goes on to explain, the highest struggle of the nation is the particular against the universal – for liberalism’s universalism threatens to eliminate all the markers of plurality: religion, culture, community, history, etc., in order to achieve the abolition of particularism in order to achieve the “new man” which is the universal man. That liberalism therefore fights to eliminate all these markers of difference – in Schmitt’s reading – liberalism also embodies (for nefarious purposes) the essence of struggle which demands a reaction (the antithesis) which is the nation. There is no progression towards a synthesis in Schmitt’s political theory unless liberalism wins out which would mean the destruction of all particulars and the establishment of the universal. This would also destroy nature since nature is principally about struggle and the universal establishment would end struggle through its victory on the universal stage; which itself is the goal of liberalism anyway, the manifestation of a world of peaceable consumption without conflict – Schmitt was also a scholar of Hobbes and Locke as I referenced above.
Therefore, the nation is the antithesis to the universal thesis which is liberalism. The nation is the highest manifestation of the heroic struggle in the world. Because the nation is the highest manifestation of the heroic struggle in the world the State embodies the national spirit of struggle which becomes the end of the State’s existence. This leads to the union of the nation and State to achieve the same the goal: the defense of its particularity in the heroic struggle against its sublation by the universal dream of liberalism. Thus, for Schmitt, the “end of history,” would be tragic. It is tragedy. It is “defeat.” It is the consummation of the victim qua victim writ large, or if you prefer from Nietzsche, the consummation of civilization of last men. The struggle of nature is the struggle against the want for the end of history, which is what the union of nation and State attempts to achieve (in Schmitt’s re-contextualization of Hegel). This is what the political attempts to achieve also. With the nation and State united the State literally becomes the divine idea in the world – but this divine idea is more Pagan than Christian (which is quickly becoming another theme within German fascist thought derivative of both Evola and a century of Oriental studies). (The divine idea of heroic struggle as embodied in the pagan gods.)
The Pagan divine idea of heroic struggle was already established by Julius Evola, whom we briefly covered in Part III. The Pagan gods are constantly quarreling with each other in the Greco-Roman myths. The demi-gods, the “heroes” whom culture idolizes, are equally wrought with constant struggle throughout their stories. Arnold Gehlen was probably the most important of the national socialist philosophers whom nobody has ever heard of. His landmark work was published right at the beginning of the Second World War, Man: His Nature and Place in the World (1940).
Gehlen, an anthropological philosopher and sociologist, took the idea of struggle as the metaphysic of handlung (or action). For him, the first cause (or principle) of action was struggle and the will to struggle. In particular, Gehlen’s action of struggle is the struggle of becoming struggle. (It’s very Nietzschean.) We have to act according to Gehlen because we are rational beings who are aware of our finitude. Other animals act simply because that is what they are. Humans, on the other hand, are destined to the top of the natural pyramid through this struggle with, and against, nature. But only if we struggle to attain our place at the top of the order of the Cosmos. This is why we must become struggle. When born we are not embodying, or becoming, struggle. It is forced upon us and we must choose to either struggle or accept the fate of death (which would be to reject life itself).
Man begins at the bottom of the natural pyramid at birth. Man is weak. Man is decadent. Man is dependent on others. Man is threatened by all the forces of nature itself. However, through this struggle for life – which is also the struggle for embodying the pagan heroic ethos – humans ascend this pyramid (and the rapid ascents are always in violent struggle). This is what makes humans special (quite literally, “divine”). Humans have the capacity for creative action, the ability to adapt, so as to advance dominion over nature. For Gehlen, the metaphysics of life was, “the metaphysics of agreeing and quarreling powers of life.” In other words, all life was quarreling for power, because power is synonymous with life. The more power one has the more life one has because power is the end result of our struggle.
Like Evola, Gehlen identified two causes for the decadence of modern man. First was Abrahamic religion (principally Christianity). Christianity, according to Gehlen, much like with Nietzsche, overthrew the paradigm of struggle and replaced it with the benign idea of “union with God.” While it retained an aspect of struggle (struggle to be in union with God), it eschewed the struggle of life itself (life was about ontological fulfillment in Christianity rather than phenomenological existence in Gehlen’s reading). We are not beset by a cruel and dark world that is out to destroy us in which we must tame it before it kills us in Christian anthropology and cosmology. Since the world is essentially good and not out to kill us, according to Gehlen, Christianity was responsible for the slow decline of Western man who lost sense of who is was: a being of struggle. Second was the rise of industrial capitalism which led to the embrace of the “victim” in Hegel’s fourfold schema of peoples. Through the rise of technology, capital, and industry – technically good things according to Gehlen because we can use techno-industrial-capitalism to tame nature – we nevertheless accepted the liberal ideal which posited that life was not about union with God but simply having a pleasurable life without conflict on earth before we die. Thus, with all the power in our hands, we resign ourselves to becoming last men as the meaning of life. (Which is no life at all according to Gehlen in his following of Nietzsche.)
For Gehlen the two problems of modern man were linked. Because Christianity eliminated the idea of heroic struggle as “barbaric” and “pagan,” and once Christianity laid the seeds of its own demise in much the same way Nietzsche saw Christianity as setting itself up for failure, 1500 years of Christianity had so melted away man’s core that the rise of all the tools and advances that would allow man to become “god on earth” were simply being used to perpetuate the victim lifestyle of material consumption and hedonistic pleasure. Pagan man, for Gehlen (and other German fascists who were interested in “occult mysticism”) was more the embodiment of the ideal of heroic struggle than commitment to Pagan religious rites and practices in much the same way the ‘pagan’ divine idea of the State embodies said struggle at the political level. “Pagan man” simply denoted a way of life (of struggle) more than a life of “going to church,” “praying daily,” and receiving communion. (It will be important to remember this idea of “Paganism” as embodied struggle when we reach more modern movements associated with neo-Paganism, the “Alt-Right,” and Pan-European identitarian movements which I will examine in Part VI.)
From Gehlen we also see the embodiment of the “reactionary modernism”: the use of technology and all the forces of modern progress in order to achieve a new utopian goal. It is not the utopian goal of liberalism – to be sure – but the “reactionary” impetus grounded in fascist historicism of man struggling to become a god on earth (i.e. all powerful and all sovereign over nature) and taking his place at the top of the natural pyramid means that one can never “go back” to the past. One can only look to the past for the pristine ideal and then use all the forces of modernity to actualize it in the present.
For Gehlen, as for Evola, and for Nietzsche, that ideal was the pagan heroic divinity or demi-god that had been lost because of the rise of Christianity. While it is true, numerically, many Christians supported fascism in Italy, Germany, Spain, and the Axis satellites, the reality is that fascist intellectuals had nothing but contempt for Christianity and fascist philosophy is explicitly anti-Christian in its conception and ideals. Fascism was, by and large, dominated by atheist intellectuals who had a super romantic over-idealization of the pagan past which was that past they looked to and then wanted to recreate with all the powers and tools of modernity. Neo-Paganism, as it was conceived of by fascists, had little to do with fertility cults, ancestor worships, and mystery religion (per historical paganism) but was about the human embodiment of the ancient ideal of struggle and bloodshed which is ripe throughout pagan literature. Again, in the historicist mindset of fascist intellectuals, it was the pagans who unknowingly embodied the heroic archetype; now, however, the “new [pagan] man” could be born with the knowledge of why the heroic archetype is the pure embodiment of human life and the actualization of Hegel’s self-consciousness in the world which is the fullest realization of freedom.
(This was also because of Christianity’s historical rootedness in Judaism became a serious problem for some Germans, at least in its “Petrine” or Catholic form; as an aside, in the 19th century German historical scholarship was informed by Hegelianism and posited that Petrine Christianity was essentially Semitic or Jewish in nature while Pauline Christianity became Gentile Christianity which is what the Protestant Reformation came to fully actualize in its break-away from Rome, in fact, Nietzsche saw Protestantism as something closer to Paganism while Catholicism was more the embodiment of actual Christianity and the movement of “Positive Christianity” (a purely Protestant German phenomenon) was about the re-paganization of Christianity.)
In Gehlen’s anthropology one sees the essence of fascist anthropology: the struggle of life, for life, is the struggle for man to become god on earth. This was then interwoven with Schmitt’s concept of the political and the radical Hegelian synthesis of the hero as the nation. Nations would become gods. Some nations would rise to the top of the world pyramid as the strongest manifestations of the embodiment for struggle and the conquest of nature. Lesser nations would expire and vanish into the dustbins of history. The titanic struggle was now between the pleasure seeking nations of last men, out to erase all markers of difference to have peaceable consumption in life before death, and the heroic nations that stood up to the nations of last men and would heroically struggle against the acceptance of death. Conflict could only beget more conflict, and the embrace of conflict is the embrace of the hero-ethic. And the embrace of this hero-ethic is the essence of fascism, the eternal (perpetual) struggle against the movement to death.
National Socialism, then, properly understood from its chief intellectuals and theorists, had very little to do with “socialism” despite its name. It had everything to do with the nationalization of heroic struggle down through every crevice of national society. Struggle was natural. Struggle was heroic. Struggle was revolution. The pages of History had opened itself up to humanity through the Industrial Revolution, World War I, and the Great Depression to reveal this to us. The people who were closest to embodying this reality (but did not understand it) were the pagan heroes of antiquity, which is what led to the romantic embodiment of the Greco-Roman ideal in Germany (and also Italy). National struggle, as the embodiment of heroic struggle, was the chief contribution from German fascism. What made this embodiment possible, of course, was the humiliation of the “heroic” and “great” German nation at the end of World War I where so many currents came together, mixed with Germany’s own intellectual heritage, and birthed the radical conflation of so many strands of thought that can be identified as “fascist.”
Fascism in Germany nationalized, Aryanized (or racialized), and collectivized aspects of Nietzschean wille zur macht (will to power – which in Nietzsche is purely individual), Hegelian dialectics and historicism, Orientalist hero-worship and mythology, and simply recast the Whig narrative of progress within this nationalized, racialized, and collectivized metanarrative of becoming. There was no “European” race, or “White” race, in the consciousness or thought of the fascists. (Though when we explore the contemporary “identarian” or “Pan-European” movement, we will quickly realize that they play with many of these themes and simply universalize it rather than nationalize it.) The nation and the State reigned supreme. Fascism, in its epochal and proper form, nationalized the belief that nature (in other words, all of life) could be reduced to struggle and that the highest manifestation of the struggle for life and becoming took place at the national level. This struggle was itself, revolutionary.
In Part V we will turn to National Falangism in Spain, its relationship with so-called “clerical fascism,” and then pivot to look at Vichy France and Robert Paxton’s eminent study Vichy France: Old Guard, New Order. Thus, we will primarily concern ourselves with whether Spain and Vichy France were actually fascist, or if they were closer to paternalistic national conservatism.
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