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Telos 136: Germany After the Totalitarianisms, Part II

The previous issue of Telos included a collection of articles concerned with one side of the totalitarian experience in Germany, the Nazi regime and some of its ramifications for political theory, philosophy, and historiography. This current issue, which rounds out the collection of essays organized by Amir Eshel and myself, was initially envisioned as a companion discussion of the second of the two evil twins, Communism, especially in East Germany. After all, the original theorization of totalitarianism in Hannah Arendt’s study on The Origins of Totalitarianism was based on a parallelism (but no simple equation) of Nazism and Communism, although her reference point in a study published in 1951 was of course Stalin’s Russia, not Ulbricht’s Germany. Yet this companion volume has not turned out to be a neatly delimited and symmetrical treatment of East German Communism, and it is worthwhile reflecting on this outcome.

Part of the difference is strictly historical and straightforward: Germany was the undisputed center of the Nazi world (despite an arguably anti-national current in the regime’s world-conquering ambitions, a point on which Arendt insists), while East Germany was merely a provincial satellite, a colony of a world power headquartered elsewhere. Moreover, the Nazi regime had a limited life span of twelve years, while Communism stretched across the past century; it came to power in Russia in the context of the First World War and—as of this writing— still lingers on in agony in Cuba. (The nature of regimes in China, Vietnam, and North Korea will hopefully be discussed in future issues of Telos.) That longer duration allowed for Communism to change. It remained repressive and illiberal, to be sure, hardly on a trajectory toward convergence with the West; but it became less terroristic and charismatic than in the phase of high Stalinism. Nazism or—to use the popular but misused label—fascism may have become “fascinating,” but no one ever thought of using that adjective to describe the routinized dictatorship of East German Communism. (The same could be claimed for the whole Russiadominated Soviet Bloc; while Mao’s China or Castro’s Cuba were able to capture the western imagination, Brezhnev’s world only looked gray, and Honnecker’s was even grayer.)

Yet beyond such objective distinctions between the totalitarian variants in Germany, there is another matter of greater current political urgency that needs addressing. The difference has also been in the eye of the beholder. Whatever one makes of the divergent historical patterns—the alternative vicissitudes of the regimes—the overwhelmingly important point for political morality is that the very basic similarities in those regimes, the shared brutality, the contempt for human life, and the aspiration to suppress existential freedom, were systematically repressed in the West among academics, politicians, and the public sphere at large. On that fundamental level, the regimes were comparable, but not if one were to listen to the received opinion in the public sphere, where Nazism stands for radical evil (and rightly so), while Communism is judged less harshly. One would have to look long and hard (at least outside the Arab world and Iranian government offices) to find admirers of Hitler; meanwhile, latter-day adherents or apologists for Communism abound, avoiding any deep inquiry into the sources of the terror and repeating instead the fantastic notion that Communism was a good idea, poorly executed.

This is not simply an historical misjudgment, an academic misunderstanding of some “long ago and far away.” This remains a failure of the first order in the face of the most important ethical matter of the past century. The West’s romance with Communism (and its nostalgia for that romance) has bequeathed a legacy of hypocrisy that has undermined the credibility of genuinely western values, and nowhere more than in that part of the Left prepared to side with any retrograde and latter-day totalitarian forces as long as they are anti-Western. With incredulity one faces the sorry spectacle of swaths of the Left, especially in Western Europe, expressing explicit support for Hezbollah and glorifying Nasrallah. One can of course reasonably debate and dispute aspects of Israeli policy and military strategy, but this Left’s refusal to distance itself from a backward Islamicism displays the real Communist legacy: a deep-seated contempt for freedom and a willingness to support any thug dressed up in an anti-imperialist costume, such as when George Galloway chose to “celebrate” Nasrallah at an anti-war demonstration in London in late July. By that point, Galloway has become the incarnation of the core of the totalitarianism thesis: the Far Left morphs into fascism, as if the Hitler-Stalin pact were its ultimate moment of truth, which it obsessively repeats, a deep-seated hostility to freedom and liberality.

The essays in this issue trace a line from historical Communism to contemporary culture. Norman Naimark proceeds from the question of genocide as one of the core features of totalitarianism and provides a revealing account of the genealogy of the term. The specific Communist legacy involves the successful efforts by the Soviet Union to limit the scope of the category at the point of its original introduction into international law after the Second World War. Russia was prepared to accept a definition that would criminalize the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, which was a useful tool in the aftermath of the defeat of Nazi Germany, but it prevented the inclusion of other categories, such as the mass murder of economic classes, in order to shield itself from accusations of genocide, especially with regard to the Ukrainian peasantry. Naimark correctly asserts the importance of recognizing that the history of genocide is much wider than the narrow legal definition; it is presumably also wider than totalitarianism, i.e., it occurs in circumstances that differ from the classical models of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. The key is that the legalistic category was handicapped from the start, which may explain the congenital ineffectuality of the law. “The whole world is watching” has come to mean that the whole world watches and does next to nothing, as has been repeatedly demonstrated by the incapacity of international organizations. Darfur is (as of this writing) the most salient recent example. Although the number of dead in that tragedy certainly approaches a grim sum, nearly a thousand times greater than the toll in Lebanon—a year and a half ago the Washington Post cited an estimate of 390,000—there is no flurry of diplomatic activity and no emergency sessions in the ageing high rises on the East River. Disproportionality?

Sigrid Meuschel and Barbara Könczöl explore the internal culture of East German Communism: despite its insistence on an Enlightenment pedigree and its scientific predispositions, GDR Marxism went far beyond (or behind?) reason to celebrate itself, turning itself into a secular religion. It was not merely a “civic religion,” a shared set of values that defined citizenship, but a genuine cult celebration, replete with promises of salvation, an elaborate system of values with which believers could organize their lives, and public liturgical events. (This is evidently another example of the Left, the GDR regime, making peace with archaic positions that it would otherwise dispute.) Needless to say, no deity was invoked as such, but the rhetoric and iconography of Communist self-celebration drew extensively, if eclectically, on Christian traditions: from the Treptow Monument, built over a mass grave of soldiers and incorporating elements of St. George, St. Christopher, and the Archangel Michael, to the ceremonial wreathlayings at the memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. At first glance, the identification of these cultic elements seems to represent an embarrassment, the discovery that in the very homeland of scientific socialism the state depended on public religious celebration. However this example only whets the appetite for a wider consideration of religion and anti-religion in the Enlightenment and in the history of the workers’ movement. After all, the anti-ecclesiastical predispositions of the pre-revolutionary philosophes somehow paved the way for the French Revolution’s Cult of Reason, as if even the politics of revolutionary reason could not do without cult. The standard secularizing histories of modernity that trace a movement out of cult and dogma to culture and freedom may be relegating the religious moment too quickly to an overcome past. Indeed, one has to wonder if even the distorted case of sacralized politics in the GDR stands as an example of an inescapable need for a sacred dimension in social life, as has been otherwise discussed in the pages of Telos.

Konrad Jarausch continues the account of East Germany through a survey of the transformation of German historiography. Before 1989, all the experts were notoriously blind to the possibility that Communist Europe would evaporate, but when its faux solidity melted into thin air, there was a scramble for explanations. Part of the ensuing transformation involved the reorganization of university history departments in the former East, a sad story of the heavy-handed importation of the West German university system with all its failings. Yet that problem belongs to another discussion, the crisis of universities and not only in Germany. Jarausch’s account instead sorts through the competing paradigms available to explain the German events. Not only did the old-style Marxist narrative lose credibility; the hegemonic account in the West, the so-called Sonderweg narrative—the thesis of Germany’s distinctive and flawed path into modernization that differentiated it from France, England, and the United States—suddenly faced new challenges, both from a neo-nationalist historiography (for which unification represented a return to a natural state of affairs) and the various postmodern perspectives, feminist, post-colonial, or local historiographies, suspicious of unification and modernity. This reopened debate is the pertinent point for the wider public. Since the end of World War II, the case of German modernization has served as a central component for a wider self-understanding of modernity: because of Germany’s illiberal backwardness, catastrophe ensued. The weakening of that narrative puts other questions back on the table and therefore enhances the possibilities to rethink modernity.

In the following two essays, Julia Hell and Andrew Hewitt draw out the crucial cultural legacy of the totalitarian experience, albeit in arguments that diverge in important ways. In Hell’s account, the issue is the perception of Stalinism as catastrophe—not for anti-Communists, such as Solzhenitsyn, or for former Communists who choose to decamp, but precisely for those East European intellectuals who, despite Stalinism or even, perversely, because of it, remain adherents. The epigraph she chooses from the once young Joschka Fischer invokes an oscillation between helplessness and actionism—a Left either immobilized because of an inability to act or irresponsible because it acts simply for the sake of doing anything, without thought—and her essay maps these polar perspectives onto the playwright Heiner Müller, one of the few East German authors of note, and Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher who engaged in a debate with his critic Geoff Boucher in Telos 129. Hell builds an argument, with Arendt as a point of reference, that moves from reflections on Stalinism by Müller and Žižek to the quandaries of contemporary politics. While Müller buckles under the pessimism embodied in the helplessness of Walter Benjamin’s famous image of the angel of history—facing a catastrophe and unable to act—Žižek advocates a politics of disrupting the symbolic order, which brings him close to the tradition of anarchism that endorses terrorism as semiotic acts: making a sign, attacking a symbol, sending a message. However the problem with an agenda of disruption is that the victim of a merely symbolic terrorist deed is not merely symbolically dead: and what if the terrorists do not intend to act symbolically but literally, as fundamentalists? In this kindest reading, in which the sophisticated analyst misunderstands the transparent literalist, Žižek would have to be judged a dupe, another deceived European intellectual celebrating disruption until it really happens, and prior to that point unwilling to admit that “really happens” is even a legitimate intellectual criterion. Yet can one still take a politics seriously that languishes in the poppy fields of symbols and ignores the possibility of genuine political deeds? Hell is correct to worry whether Žižek’s account is compatible with any democratic politics. In fact, it may not be compatible with politics at all, in which case Žižek’s thought would display an all the more unmistakable continuity with the intellectual background and the real experience of Communism: a combination of economic determinism and police terror that never accepted an autonomous political realm (or, as with the Bolsheviks, recognized it in order to crush it).

While Žižek’s politics are curtailed by his nostalgia for some silver lining in Stalinism, which may simply turn him into just another “unpolitical” (Thomas Mann’s term) Central European, Andrew Hewitt traces the parallel retrospective, the lingering fascination with fascism. At stake here, however, is not a symbolic dimension, as in Žižek’s appropriation of Lacanian psychoanalysis, which points to the elaboration of the overarching order of the regime. Hewitt is concerned with a deeper level, both visual and somatic, the pursuit of individualized pleasure as an organizing principle for social movement, rather than some scheme, be it trivial or utopian, for social reform. With regard to fascism, Hewitt rightly distinguishes between the political programs for new orders and the affective involvement of the individual members. It is on this second, subjective level that he traces a resurgence of a fascist affect, as registered in popular culture in the film Fight Club. Any ideology, even a merely disruptive ideology, turns out to be little more than pretext for an affect of self-violence, life experience culminating in the sensation of pain and self-destruction. The identification of politicized masochism provides the categorical bridge between the “classical” totalitarianisms of the past and the current political moment. Be it in the self-abnegation of the show trials or in their theatrical representation in, for example, the execution of the comrade in Brecht’s The Measures Taken, Communism centrally involved the destruction and self-destruction of the believer. Scenes of cultic sacrifice link it with National Socialism: the Nazis’ Schlageter commemoration mirrored what would become the Communists’ cult of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. The legacy of these celebrations of sacrifice is the suicide bomber who does not only act instrumentally but dies with a faith in an ideologized redemption. One might arguably be able to undertake a genealogy of suicide bombing and explore how the model of Stalinist discipline combines with an Islamic model of martyrdom to produce a hybrid, or whether it is more basically the case that the chiliastic revolution—regardless of whether it purports to be “scientific” or “theological”—demands the production of corpses and, as Benjamin put it, the “liquidation of the individual.”

Against the background of the totalitarianism discussion, three texts grouped under the rubric “Freedom, Prejudice, and Power” raise issues of contemporary political concern. We gladly republish here the Euston Manifesto, which first appeared on April 7, 2006, in the New Statesman, a statement of liberal and democratic principles, which however also testifies to current political tensions. On several occasions the signatories insist upon distancing themselves from others on the British Left by categorically refusing to make apologies for dictators (unlike the anti-imperialist extreme), by rejecting anti-Semitism as much as racism, and by asserting their support for modern democracies, such as the United States. The acrimony between this left-liberalism and the anti-imperialist Left (like the aforementioned Galloway) has grown increasingly bitter, not unlike the divide within the Democratic Party in the United States (or between the party and the left blogosphere). The nature of the anti-imperialist militancy, however, needs closer attention; it displays some earmarks of a totalitarian continuity, nuanced through its alliance with Islamo-fascism, which requires a renunciation of what might have seemed core leftist values: modernization, secularism, women’s rights. We need a cultural history of this renunciation.

Matthias Küntzel discusses anti-Semitism, especially in Germany, in an address that specifically invokes Adorno’s speech on the same topic in 1962. For Küntzel, a dialectic unfolds between the proliferation of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, especially through Ahmadenijad’s exterminationist rhetoric, and the “secondary anti-Semitism” in Germany. At stake for Küntzel is the urgency to confront this anti-Semitism and a reflection on appropriate techniques for doing so. Jean-Claude Paye brings us back to the United States and explores the renewal of the Patriot Act and the character of the expansion of executive power in the context of the war on terror. Paye details some of the changes, but he also indicates how parts of Congress were able to modify the renewal. The crux of the matter, however, is the systematic conflation of intelligence gathering and criminal investigations, itself a reflection of the ambiguity of the new security challenges: are terrorists criminals or enemies? Like it or not, those inherited distinctions may have surrendered their precision, due to the transformation of international affairs in the post-Cold War world and the proliferation of non-state, but state-supported, terrorist networks. Categories that derive from a world composed primarily of competing nation-states may not be of much help anymore.

Walter Schall’s account of language, epistemology, and morality may seem to be a philosophical outlier in this issue of the journal, which is otherwise so political and historical. Philosophy, however, is never an outlier, and the particular question in Schall’s account is thoroughly germane to the urgent questions of the day: how we choose to think, or not to think, about our ways of life, and how we judge. The predisposition to resist the perception of facts that disturb our habits of life is the best explanation available to understand world opinion’s tolerance for genocide, as it also sheds light on our preference for leading unexamined lives. Yet this refusal of ideas only leaves us trapped in the inertia of routine, which may be the core of what some call “original sin.” Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s portrait of Condoleezza Rice, already featured on our website,, provides a vignette from the State Department, while suggesting how both ideas and faith play a role in her understanding of the democracy project. Philosophy and religion, in other words, are very much at stake in politics.

The issue concludes with two reviews by long-standing friends of Telos. Nino Langiulli discusses Paul Gottfried’s account of the demise of Marxism: what was once a theory of economic development and determinism that saw itself as part of the social sciences has become primarily a method of cultural criticism. Langiulli reports how Gottfried argues that this cultural Marxism—despite its frequent anti-Americanism—participates in a program for U.S. cultural hegemony over Europe. As such, it is in many ways a “paleo-conservative” answer to the “neoconservative” cultural criticism of Alan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind. Avi Tucker examines Gil Eyal’s The Origins of Postcommunist Elites, a discussion of Czechoslovakia between the Prague Spring of 1968 (the year Telos was founded) and the break-up of 1992. He demonstrates the usefulness of elite theory in explaining the late-Communist politics (and as such it provides a methodological alternative to Meuschel and Könczöl on the GDR), but it also sheds a sobering light on the prosaic realities of post-Communist Central Europe. If, as is sometimes argued, the rapid collapse of East European Communism and the establishment of viable democracies with market economies, seduced the U.S. government to attempt a similar transition in the Middle East, the result looks more like the violence of the breakup of Yugoslavia than the Velvet Revolution in Prague, which seems so far away now. If only the fanatic Middle East crises could be managed with “normal” European corruption. Instead, they display what Meuschel and Könczöl identify as characteristic for totalitarianism, a poisonous combination of weak institutions and charismatic politicians with apocalyptic agendas.

Click here to purchase TELOS 136: Germany after the Totalitarianisms, Part II.

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