TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Telos 135: Germany After the Totalitarianisms, Part I

Telos 135: Germany after the Totalitarianisms, Part I is available for purchase in our store.

Telos 135: Germany after the Totalitarianisms, Part IWith the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, a widespread rethinking of political history and social theory commenced. Questions long frozen in the glacial stand-off between East and West began to thaw out, and the ideological mythologies of the twentieth century were subjected to new scrutiny. Why had the century of modernity been so centrally catastrophic? What was the nature of the worst offenders, the totalitarian regimes—especially in Germany, Italy, and Russia—that had generated so much violence? How could intellectuals and public opinion alike have facilely regarded Nazi Germany and fascist Italy as nearly identical formations (when they displayed so many differences)? And how could Stalinist Russia have been hailed as a positive alternative to Nazi Germany (when they displayed so many similarities)? With the disappearance of the Soviet Union, these interrogations could be pursued without the agenda, baggage, and defensiveness of the previous historical era. The question of the totalitarian state could finally be posed with the advantage of historical distance.

This return to the totalitarian question took place, however, within the specific intellectual context of the post-Cold War, marked by its own postmodern rejection of grand historical narratives and models of revolutionary innovation: while this late twentieth-century turn away from radical novelty did not necessarily imply conservatism, it certainly resonated with an underlying sense of caution and was, in any case, diametrically opposed to the enthusiastic aspirations and visions of the “new man” that had pervaded western thinking at the start of the century, on the right and the left. By the end of the century, utopias, of whatever flavor, had ceased to be compelling, in part because of the presumption that any utopian agenda would necessarily issue into compulsion and violence. Thus the end of Communism was read through postmodernity’s ironic lenses.

Meanwhile, a second perspective also shaped the understanding of the end of an era. The failure of state socialism in Russia and Eastern Europe unfolded before the gaze of neo-liberalism, with its own interpretive framework and its deep suspicion of any state intrusion into the economy. While Communism was collapsing in its native country, the activist state was being rolled back in parts of Western Europe and the United States. By now, however, a decade and a half after the end of Communism in Europe, the neo-liberal fantasy of a world in which states are as small as possible may be running into its own limits. In Russia, when all is said and done, the strong state has not disappeared: this is the vexing question of the character of Putin’s regime. In France, the efforts to liberalize the labor market have failed in the face of the public’s love affair with regulation, and even in the United States, the rhetoric of “compassionate conservatism” (a phrase clearly designed to distance the Republican party from the Reagan legacy, misunderstood as Dickensian) has elicited greater, not less, government programming, and therefore also greater debt to pass on to future generations: some compassion.

Hence the characteristic paradox of our current historical moment: on the one hand, the much touted commitment to freedom and deregulation, linked to a profound trust in the individual, and on the other, the persistence of the state and the mentalities of statist dependence. The model of the totalitarian states of the early and mid-twentieth century provides the backdrop for this statism that just will not go away. The more we distance ourselves from the great dictators, the more we feel the power formations of the past lurking just offstage. The frequency with which Bush is denounced through a comparison with Hitler (or Berlusconi with Mussolini) indicates how much that past lingers on in this present.

While the totalitarian question remains current because of the dynamic of political transformation in the West, it has taken on an amplified urgency for another, external reason: the recurrence of totalitarian (or imitatively totalitarian) regimes in parts of the developing world. The most salient examples remain the unhappy three that have posed (or were presumed to pose) significant security threats, the notorious axis of evil: Saddam’s Iraq, which Kanan Makiya anatomized in his book with the tellingly descriptive title Republic of Fear; the Iran of the Mullahs, with its emerging nuclear capacity and declaredly annihilationist intentions; and North Korea, with its grotesque combination of genocide, famine, and a family dynasty of delusion. None of these examples could be safely categorized as what Hannah Arendt designated as “normal police states,” i.e., political systems that lack liberal democratic habits but in which state violence is deployed in largely rational manners in order to protect the regime in power. In such stable dictatorships, opponents are crushed, but the passive citizenry is left in peace, to the extent that it refrains from any political action. In her Origins of Totalitarianism, she contrasts such conservative states with the dynamic sadism of violence in totalitarian conditions, in which everyone—not only regime critics and opponents—can become a target of elimination, with or without trials, and with or without any rationalization. Moreover, the totalitarian regime aspires to export its arbitrary violence; it disregards the limits posed by national borders (and therefore ends up acting against its own national interests) in order to pursue expansive ambitions if not fantasies of world conquest.

To be sure, none of the current neo-totalitarian regimes has achieved the power capacity once associated with Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. They appear to be rogue states at the margins, rather than major geopolitical actors. However in the nuclear age, and with an array of weapons alternatives developed since the classic age of totalitarianism, the distinction between major and minor actors is less reassuring than it once may have been: the transformation of weapons technology potentially magnifies the impact of smaller states into burgeoning mushroom clouds. The influence of these states was constantly muffled during the decades of the Cold War, when the competition between the two superpowers dominated world politics. All other disputes were subordinated to that binary logic. With the end of the Cold War, however, these previously submerged threats could rapidly assume a much greater importance, especially given the proliferation of the new technologies and the elaboration of a network of non-state actors, terrorist organizations, prepared to act in conjunction with, if not at the direction of, the neo-totalitarian regimes.

Two issues back, Telos 133, compiled by special editors Frank Adler and Danilo Breschi, presented contemporary rethinkings of Italian fascism. Fascism is of interest to the journal because it represents a prominent case of authoritarian rule, because of the light it sheds on the history of socialism, and as an exemplification of the problems of modernity. The discussions in that issue not only demonstrated the explicit differences between fascism and National Socialist Germany; they also revealed the extensive affinity between fascist Italy and the Soviet Union, otherwise regarded as the bulwark of “anti-fascism.” Yet if the line between fascism and anti-fascism begins to blur, the whole paradigm may soon crumble. It turns out that a contemporary reexamination of the totalitarian phenomena of the twentieth century can lead to a very significant reshuffling of the deck. Received opinion and the absolute certainties of political correctness have lost their credibility.

After our reexamination of fascism, this issue of Telos and the next include special sections focused on totalitarianism in Germany: both National Socialism and the Communism of the former East Germany. Many, although not all, of the papers collected in these sections came from a conference held at Stanford University in November 2005, organized by Amir Eshel and myself. Taken as a whole, the essays investigate the theoretical models and intellectual-historical categories with which we can elucidate the nature of totalitarianism, particularly with regard to Nazi Germany. Peter Uwe Hohendahl launches the discussion with an overview of the debates within Critical Theory. Efforts by the Frankfurt School group to come to grips with National Socialism find them struggling to settle on an adequate vocabulary, as they range from political theory through Marxist economism to hermetic philosophy. Hohendahl highlights their insistence on thinking the relationship between liberal democracy (Weimar) and the Nazi dictatorship in dialectical terms, i.e., not as thoroughly reified opposites but as moments in a historical process. This in turn leaves us with the question as to how the democratic system can transform itself into totalitarianism: then and now.

While the Critical Theorists were hardly blind to the persecution of the Jews, it plays a surprisingly small role in their account. Jeffrey Herf’s essay extensively documents the centrality of anti-Semitism to the Nazi narrative. It was simply not the case that the genocidal intentions were hidden: on the contrary, they were proclaimed and spelled out. Anyone with ears to hear could have anticipated the outcome. Herf concludes by tracing the direct link between the Nazi exterminationist agenda and the emergence of Arab anti-Zionism (a topic that Matthias Küntzel has otherwise addressed in the pages of this journal).

Proceeding from a critique of Giorgio Agamben’s account of terrorism, Sigrid Weigel presents an elaborate contrast of the treatments of violence by Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. At stake is the continuity or rupture between theological concepts (which underpinned the religious wars) and Schmitt’s model of the modern European order; yet that Westphalian world had already been challenged by the rise of the United States. For Weigel, Schmitt remains trapped within residual theology, while Benjamin presents an alternative and ultimately more successful secularization of violence and politics. The urgency of her account goes beyond the intellectual-historical reconstruction; instead it directs us to reconsider the extent to which, all liberal intentions notwithstanding, we are standing at the start of a new religious war in which martyrdom (suicide bombing) may become the new partisanship.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht argues that the central juncture in Martin Heidegger’s Nazi period was the so-called “Night of Long Knives” of 1934, in which Hitler mandated the extermination of the SA leadership around Ernst Röhm. This coup is taken to mark a transition from an initial phase of the Nazi regime to a new internal power arrangement. Gumbrecht maps Heidegger’s statements regarding the regime onto this paradigm transition, from the revolutionary National Socialism of the SA to the hierarchical and revelationist ideology of the SS. At stake is the structure of the totalitarian epistemology, a perspective that also allows Gumbrecht to leap ahead in his conclusion to contemporary totalitarian indicators. Todd Presner also grapples with Heidegger, but in relationship to Arendt and their contiguous but divergent accounts of the mass killings of the death camps. While Heidegger’s existentialist description of death assumes the absolute subjectivity of the isolated individual, Arendt insists on the relationality among individuals, given the human condition of being plural on earth. Presner also draws productively on Edith Wyschogrod’s notion of a “death-world” (a term coined in parallel to Husserl’s life-world).

The two following essays were not presented at the conference, but both are relevant as examinations of alternative forms of resistance to the Nazi regime. Karl Heinz Bohrer inquires into the lost paradigm of Prussia, a tradition he traces from Frederick II to the Prussian aristocrats who attempted to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. The continuity of values includes an aggressive assertion of identity—Prussia’s battle with the great powers of eighteenth-century Europe—as well as a sense of honor and duty. Herbert Lindenberger looks at the bombing of an anti-Soviet exhibit in Berlin on May 18, 1942, by communist, largely Jewish resistance fighters. The attack elicited violent reprisals: Lindenberger wonders about the political appropriateness and ethical legitimacy of the attack, where reprisals could have been anticipated.

This issue also includes a note by Ying Ma in which she explores the character of anti-Americanism in contemporary China. China of several decades ago, especially during the Cultural Revolution, met the criteria for totalitarianism. If that is no longer the case, it is still a far cry from the liberal expectations of western democracies. Anti-Americanism plays an important role in stabilizing the regime and maintaining an effective domestic resistance to political liberalization.

In an extensive review essay, Andrew Utter looks at Paul Robinson’s Queer Wars and its effort to understand the cultural and political criticism inherent in the different strands of gay conservatism, associated especially with writers such as Bruce Bawer, Andrew Sullivan, Michelangelo Signorile, and Gabriel Rotello. Leonard Harris reviews Lucius T. Outlaw, Jr.’s Critical Social Theory in the Interests of Black Folks. Harris endorses Outlaw’s focus on the objective standing of racial communities, in contrast to widely held notions of cultural relativism and the social constructionist view on race. Finally, Amir Engel provides an illuminating critique of Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley’s volume, Seeking Mandela. Engel shows that the situations in South Africa and Israel are too divergent to reduce an analysis to the question of whether a Mandela might emerge in the Middle East. Religion, for example, was a unifying factor in South Africa; it is the opposite in Jerusalem, all the more so after the Hamas electoral victory. Whether South Africa truly represents the success story implied by Adam and Moodley’s use of it as a paradigm for the Middle East would be worth further examination, perhaps in a future Telos.

Comments are closed.