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The Conservative Revolution (German: Konservative Revolution, lit. 'Conservative Revolution'), also known as the German neo-conservative movement or new nationalism, was a German national-conservative movement prominent during the Weimar Republic in the years between World War I and Nazi Germany (1918–1933).
Conservative Revolutionaries were involved in a cultural counter-revolution and showed a wide range of diverging positions concerning the nature of the institutions Germany had to instate, labelled by historian Roger Woods the "conservative dilemma". Nonetheless, they were generally opposed to traditional Wilhelmine Christian conservatism, egalitarianism, liberalism and parliamentarian democracy as well as the cultural spirit of the bourgeoisie and modernity. Plunged into what historian Fritz Stern has named a deep "cultural despair", uprooted as they felt within the rationalism and scientism of the modern world, theorists of the Conservative Revolution drew inspiration from various elements of the 19th century, including Friedrich Nietzsche's contempt for Christian ethics, democracy and egalitarianism; the anti-modern and anti-rationalist German Romanticism; the vision of an organic and organized society cultivated by the Völkisch movement; a Prussian tradition of militaristic and authoritarian nationalism; and their own experience on the front line during World War I, escorted by both irrational violence and comradeship spirit.
The movement held an ambiguous relationship with Nazism from the 1920s to the early 1930s which led scholars to describe the Conservative Revolution as a "German pre-fascism", or as a "non-Nazi fascism". Although they share common roots in 19th-century anti-Enlightenment ideologies, the disparate movement cannot be easily confused with Nazism. Conservative Revolutionaries were not necessarily racialist as the movement cannot be reduced to its Völkisch component. If they participated in preparing the German society to the rule of the Nazis with their antidemocratic and organicist theories, and did not really oppose their rise to power, the Conservative Revolution was brought to heel like the rest of the society when Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. Many of them eventually rejected the antisemitic and totalitarian nature of the Third Reich, with the notable exception of Carl Schmitt and a few others.
From the 1960–1970s onwards, the Conservative Revolution has largely influenced the European New Right, in particular the French Nouvelle Droite and the German Neue Rechte, and through them the contemporary European Identitarian movement.
Name and definition
If conservative essayists of the Weimar Republic like Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Hugo von Hofmannsthal or Edgar Jung had already described their political project as a Konservative Revolution ("Conservative Revolution"), the name saw a revival after the 1949 doctoral thesis of Neue Rechte philosopher Armin Mohler on the movement. Molher's post-war ideological reconstruction of the "Conservative Revolution" has been widely criticized by scholars, but the validity of a redefined concept of "neo-conservative" or "new nationalist" movement – sometimes extended to the period 1890s–1920s – which differed in particular from the "old nationalism" of the 19th century, is now generally accepted.
The name "Conservative Revolution" has appeared as a paradox, even a "semantic absurdity", for many modern historians, and some of them have suggested "neo-conservative" as a more easily justifiable label for the movement. Breuer wrote that he would have preferred the substitute "new nationalism" to name a charismatic and holistic cultural movement that differed from the "old nationalism" of the previous century, whose essential role was to preserve German institutions and influence in the world. Despite its apparent contradiction however, the association of the terms "Conservative" and "Revolution" is justified the writings of Moeller van den Bruck by his definition of the movement as a will to conserve eternal values while favouring the redesign of ideal and institutional forms in response to the "insecurities of the modern world".
Dupeux considered the movement to be an intellectual project with its own consistent logic, namely the striving for an Intellektueller Macht ("intellectual power") in order to promote new conservative and revolutionary ideas. This change of attitude (Haltung) is labeled by Dupeux a Bejahung ("affirmation"): Conservative Revolutionaries said "yes" to their time as long as they could find means to facilitate the resurgence of anti-liberal and "eternal values" in modern societies. Dupeux conceded at the same time that the Conservative Revolution was a rather counter-cultural revolutionary movement than a real philosophical proposition, relying more on "feeling, images and myths" than on analysis and concepts. He also admitted the necessity to distinguish several leanings within its diverse ideological spectrum.
[Conservative Revolutionnaries] are, admittedly, as reactionary in politics as their pre-war predecessors, but they stand out by their optimism — or at least by their voluntarism — in front of the modern world. They do not really fear the masses, nor the technique anymore. Yet this change of Haltung ("attitude") had significant consequences — the backward-looking regret is replaced by a juvenile energy — and led to a wide-ranging political and cultural initiative.— Louis Dupeux, 1994
Political scientist Tamir Bar-On has summarized the Conservative Revolution as a combination of "German ultra-nationalism, defence of the organic folk community, technological modernity, and socialist revisionism, which perceived the worker and soldier as models for a reborn authoritarian state superseding the egalitarian "decadence" of liberalism, socialism, and traditional conservatism."
Origin and development
The Conservative Revolution is encompassed in a larger and older counter-movement to the French Revolution of 1789, influenced by the anti-modernity and anti-rationalism of early 19th-century romanticism, in the context of a German, especially Prussian, "tradition of militaristic, authoritarian nationalism which rejected liberalism, socialism, democracy and internationalism." Historian Fritz Stern described the movement as disoriented intellectuals plunged into a profound "cultural despair": they felt alienated and uprooted within a world dominated by what they saw as "bourgeois rationalism and science". Their hatred of modernity, Stern follows, led them to the naive confidence that all these modern evils could be fought and resolved by a "Conservative Revolution".
Although terms such as Konservative Kraft ("conservative power") and schöpferische Restauration ("creative restoration") began to spread across German-speaking Europe from the 1900s to the 1920s,[a] the Konservative Revolution ("Conservative Revolution") became an established concept in the Weimar Republic (1918–1933) through the writings of essayists like Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Hermann Rauschning, Edgar Jung and Oswald Spengler.
The creation of the Alldeutscher Verband ("Pan-German League") by Alfred Hugenberg in 1891 and the Jugendbewegung ("youth movement") in 1896 are cited as conducive to the emergence of the Conservative Revolution in the following decades. Moeller van den Bruck was the dominant figure of the movement until his suicide on 30 May 1925. His ideas were initially spread through the Juniklub he had founded on 28 June 1919, on the day of the signing of Treaty of Versailles.
Conservative Revolutionaries frequently referred to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as their mentor, and as the main intellectual influence on their movement. Despite Nietzsche's philosophy being often misinterpreted, or wrongly appropriated by thinkers of the Conservative Revolution, they retained his contempt for Christian ethics, democracy, modernity and egalitarianism as the cornerstone of their ideology. Historian Roger Woods writes that Conservative Revolutionaries "constructed", in response to the war and the unstable Weimar period, a Nietzsche "who advocated a self-justifying activism, unbridled self-assertion, war over peace, and the elevation of instinct over reason."
Many of the intellectuals involved in the movement were born in the last decades of the nineteenth century and experienced WWI as a formative event (Kriegserlebnis, "war experience") for the foundation of their political beliefs. The life on the front line, with its violence and irrationality, caused most of them to search a posteriori for a meaning of what they had to endure during the conflict. Ernst Jünger is the major figure of that branch of the Conservative Revolution which wanted to uphold military structures and values in peacetime society, and saw in the community of front line comradeship (Frontgemeinschaft) the true nature of German socialism.
- the traditional conservative values of the Second Reich (1871–1918), including the egalitarian ethics of Christianity; and a rejection of the project of a restoration of the defunct Wilhelmine empire within its historical political and cultural structures,
- the political regime and commercialist culture of the Weimar Republic; and the parliamentary system and democracy in general, because the national community (Volksgemeinschaft) shall "transcend the conventional divisions of left and right",
- the class analysis of socialism; with the defence of an anti-Marxist "socialist revisionism"; labelled by Oswald Spengler the "socialism of the blood", it drew inspiration from the front line comradeship of World War I.
New nationalism and morality
Conservative Revolutionaries argued that their nationalism was fundamentally different from the precedent forms of German nationalism or conservatism, contemning the reactionary outlook of traditional Wilhelmine conservatives and their failure to fully understand the emerging concepts of the modern world, such as technology, the city and the proletariat.
Moeller van den Bruck defined the Conservative Revolution as the will to conserve a set of values seen as inseparable from a Volk ("people, ethnic group"). If these eternal values can hold on through the fluctuations of the ages, they are also able to survive in the world due to the same movements and changes in their history. Distant from the reactionary who, in Moeller van den Bruck's eyes, does not create (and from the pure revolutionary who does not nothing but destroying everything), the Conservative Revolutionary sought to give a form to phenomena in an eternal space, a shape that could guarantee their survival among the few things that cannot be lost:
Conserving is not receiving to hand down, but rather innovating the forms, institutional or ideal, which agree to remain rooted in a solid world of values in the face of continuous historical setbacks. In the face of modernity as an era of insecurity, opposing the securities of the past is no longer enough; instead it is necessary to redesign new safety by adopting and taking on the same risky conditions with which it is defined.— Arthur Moeller van den Bruck
Edgar Jung indeed dismissed the idea that true conservatives wanted to "stop the wheel of history". The chivalric way of life they were seeking to achieve was, according to Oswald Spengler, not governed by any moral code, but rather by "a noble, self-evident morality, based on that natural sense of tact which comes from good breeding". This morality was not the product of a conscious reflection, but rather "something innate which one senses and which has its own organic logic." If the values of morality were deemed to be instinctive and eternal, they were logically seen as embodied in rural life. The latter became challenged, Spengler believed, by the rise of the artificial world of the city, where theories and observations were needed to understand life itself, either coming from liberal democrats or scientific socialists. What Conservative Revolutionaries were aiming to achieve was the restoration, within the modern world, of what they saw as natural laws and values:
We call Conservative Revolution the restoration of all those elementary laws and values, without which man loses his connection with Nature and with God and cannot establish a true order.— Edgar Jung, 1932
Influenced by Nietzsche, most of them were opposed to the Christian ethics of solidarity and equality. Although many Conservative Revolutionaries described themselves as Protestant or Catholics, they saw Christian ethical premise as structurally indenturing the strong into mandatory, rather than optional, service to the weak. On a geopolitical scale, theorists of the movement adopted a vision of the world (Weltanschauung) where nations would abandon moral standards in their relationship to each others, only guided by their natural self-interest.
Let thousands, nay millions, die; what meaning have these rivers of blood in comparison with a state, into which flow all the disquiet and longing of the German being!— Friedrich Georg Jünger, 1926
Völkischen were involved in a racialist and occultist movement dating back to the middle of the 19th century and had an influence on the Conservative Revolution. Their priority was the fight against Christianity and the return to a (reconstructed) Germanic pagan faith, or the "Germanization" of Christianity to purge it from foreign (Semitic) influence.
Volksgemeinschaft and dictatorship
Thomas Mann believed that if German military resistance to the West during World War I was stronger than its spiritual resistance, it was primarily because the ethos ("character") of the German Volksgemeinschaft ("national community") cannot quickly express itself in words, and as a result is not able to counter effectively the solid rhetoric of the West. Since German culture was "of the soul, something which could not be grasped by the intellect", the authoritarian state was the natural order desired by the German people. Politics, argued Mann, was inevitably a commitment to democracy and therefore alien to the German spirit:
There is no such thing as a democratic or a conservative politician. Either you are a politician or you are not, and if you are, you are a democrat.— Thomas Mann, 1915
Mann was accused by the right of watering down his undemocratic views in 1922 after he removed some paragraphs from the republication of Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen ("Reflections of an Unpolitical Man"), originally released in 1918. If scholars have debated whether these formulations should be considered artistic and idealistic, or rather a serious attempt to draw a political analysis of that period, young Mann's writings had been influential on many Conservative Revolutionaries. In a speech pronounced in 1922 (Von Deutscher Republik), Mann publicly became a staunch defender of the Weimar Republic and attacked many of the figures associated with the Conservative Revolution such as Oswald Spengler, whom he depicted as intellectually dishonest and irresponsibly immoral. In 1933, Mann described National Socialism as the politische Wirklichkeit jener konservativen Revolution ("political reality of that Conservative Revolution").
In 1921, Carl Schmitt published his essay Die Diktatur ("The Dictatorship"), in which he studied the foundations of the recently established Weimar Republic. Comparing what he saw as the effective and ineffective elements of the new constitution, he highlighted the office of the Reichspräsident as a valuable position, essentially due to the power granted to the president to declare an Ausnahmezustand ("state of emergency"), which Schmitt implicitly praised as dictatorial:
If the constitution of a state is democratic, then every exceptional negation of democratic principles, every exercise of state power independent of the approval of the majority, can be called dictatorship.— Carl Schmitt, 1921
Schmitt clarified in Politische Theologie (1922) that there cannot be any functioning legal order without a sovereign authority. He defined sovereignty as the possibility, or the power, to decide on the triggering of a “state of emergency“, in other words a state of exception regarding the law. According to him, every government should include within its constitution that dictatorial possibility to allow, when necessary, for faster and more effective decisions than going through parliamentary discussion and compromise. Referring to Adolf Hitler, he later used the following formulation to justify the legitimacy of the Night of the Long Knives: Der Führer schützt das Recht ("The leader defends the law").
Conservative Revolutionaries asserted that they were not guided by the "sterile resentment of the class struggle". Many of them invoked the community of front line comradeship (Frontgemeinschaft) of World War I as the model for the national community (Volksgemeinschaft) to follow in peaceful times, hoping in that project to transcend the established political categories of right and left. For that purpose, they tried to remove the concept of revolution from November 1918 in order to attach it to August 1914. Conservative Revolutionaries indeed painted the November Revolution, which led to the foundation of the Weimar Republic, as a betrayal of the true revolution and, at best, hunger protests by the mob.
The common agreement with socialists was the abolition of the excesses of capitalism. Jung claimed that, while the economy should remain in private hands, the "greed of capital" should at the same time be controlled, and that a community based on shared interests had to be set up between workers and employers. Another source of aversion for capitalism was rooted in the profits made from the war and inflation, and a last concern can be found in the fact that most of Conservative Revolutionaries belonged to the middle class, in which they felt crushed at the centre of an economic struggle between the ruling capitalists and the potentially dangerous masses.
If they dismissed communism as mere idealism, many thinkers showed their dependence on Marxist terminology in their writings. Jung emphasized the "historical inevitability" of conservatism taking over from the liberal era, in a mirror-image of the historical materialism developed by Karl Marx. If Splenger also wrote about the decline of the West as an ineluctable phenomenon, his intention was to provide modern readers with a "new socialism" that would enable them to realize the meaninglessness of life, contrasting with Marx's idea of the coming of paradise on earth. Above all, the Conservative Revolution drew influences from vitalism and irrationalism, rather than from materialism. Spengler argued that the materialist vision of Marx was based on nineteenth-century science, while the twentieth century would be the age of psychology:
We no longer believe in the power of reason over life. We feel that it is life which dominates reason.— Oswald Spengler, 1932
Along with Karl Otto Paetel and Heinrich Laufenberg, Ernst Niekisch was one the main advocates of National Bolshevism, a minor branch of the Conservative Revolution, described as the "left-wing-people of the right" (Linke Leute von rechts). They defended an ultra-nationalist form of socialism that took its roots in both Völkish extremism and nihilistic Kulturpessimismus, rejecting any Western influence on German society: liberalism and democracy, capitalism and Marxism, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, Christianity and humanism. Niekisch and National Bolsheviks were even ready to build a temporary alliance with German communists and the Soviet Union in order to annihilate the capitalist West.
In his PhD thesis directed by Karl Jaspers, Armin Mohler distinguished five currents inside the nebula of the Conservative Revolution: the Jungkonservativen ("young conservatives"), the Nationalrevolutionäre ("national revolutionaries"), the Völkischen (from the "folkish movement"), the Bündischen ("leaguists") and the Landvolksbewegung ("rural people's movement"). According to Mohler, the last two groups were less theory- and more action-oriented, the Landvolks movement offering concrete resistance in the form of demonstrations and tax boycotts.
French historian Louis Dupeux saw five lines of divisions that can be drawn inside the Conservative Revolutionaries: the small farmers were different from the cultural pessimists and the "pseudo-moderns", who belonged for the most part to the middle class; while the proponent of an "organic" society diverged from those of an "organized" society. A third division split the supporters of deep and lengthy political and cultural transformations from those who endorsed a quick and erupting social revolution, as far as challenging economic freedom and private property. The fourth rift resided in the question of the Drang nach Osten ("drive to the East") and the attitude to adopt towards Bolshevik Russia, escorted by a debate on the place of Germany between a so-called "senile" West and "young and barbaric" Orient; the last division being a deep opposition between the Völkischen and the pre-fascist thinkers.
In 1995, historian Rolf Peter Sieferle described what he labelled five "complexes" in the Conservative Revolution: the "völkischen", the "national socialists", the "revolutionary nationalists", the "vital-activists" (aktivistisch-vitalen), and, a minority in the movement, the "biological naturalists".
Building on the previous studies conducted by Mohler and Dupeux, French political scientist Stéphane François summarized the three main currents within the Conservative Revolution, this broad division being the most widely shared among analysts of the movement:
- the "young conservatives" (Jungkonservativen);
- the "national revolutionaries" (Nationalrevolutionäre); and
- the Völkischen (from the Völkish movement).
"Young conservatives" were deeply influenced by 19th-century intellectual and aesthetic movements such as German romanticism and Kulturpessimismus ("cultural pessimism"). Contrary to traditional Wilhelmine conservatives, Jungkonservativen aimed at assisting the re-emergence of "persistent and fundamental structures"—authority, the state, the community, the nation, the people—while "espousing their times" in the very same movement.
Moeller van den Bruck tried to overcome the Kulturpessimismus dilemma by fighting decadency to build a new political order over it. In 1923, he published the influential book Das Dritte Reich ("The Third Reich"), in which he went further from theoretical analysis to introduce a practical revolutionary programme as a remedy to the political situation: a "Third Reich" that would unite all classes under an authoritarian rule based on a combination of the nationalism of the right and the socialism of the left.
Rejecting both the nation-state narrowed to one unified people and the imperialistic structure based on different ethnic groups, the goal of Jungkonservativen was to fulfil the Volksmission ("mission of the Volk") through the edification of a new Reich, i.e. "the organization of all the peoples in a supra-state, dominated by a superior principle, under the supreme responsibility of only one people" in the words of Armin Mohler. As summarized by Edgar Jung in 1933:
The concept of the nation-state is the transfer of individualistic doctrines from the individuals to the individual state. [...] The super-state (the Reich) is a form of rule that rises above the Volkstum and can leave it untouched. But it shall not want to be total, and shall recognize autonomies (Autonomien) and sovereignties (Eigenständigkeiten).— Edgar Jung, 1933
Although Moeller van der Bruck killed himself in despair in May 1925, his ideas continued to influence his contemporaries. Among them was Edgar Jung, who advocated the creation of a corporatist organic state, free from class struggle and parliamentary democracy, which would make way for a return to the spirit of the Middle Ages with a new Holy Roman Empire federating central Europe. The theme of a return to medieval values and aesthetics among "young conservatives" was inherited from a Romantic fascination for that period, which they believed to be simpler and more integrated than the modern world. Oswald Spengler praised medieval chivalry as the philosophical and moral attitude to adopt against a modern decadent spirit. Jung perceived this return as a gradual and lengthy transformation, similar to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, rather than a sudden revolutionary eruption like the French Revolution.
Other Conservative Revolutionaries rather drew their influence from their life at the front line (Kriegserlebnis, "war experience") during the First World War. Far from the Kulturpessimismus concern of the "young conservatives", Ernst Jünger and the other "national revolutionaries" advocated total acceptance of modern technique and endorsed the use of any modern phenomena that could help them overcome modernity—such as propaganda or mass organizations—and eventually achieve a new political order. The latter would have been based on life itself rather than the intellect, founded on organic, naturally structured and hierarchical communities, and led by a new aristocracy of merit and action. Historian Jeffrey Herf used the term "reactionary modernism" to describe that "great enthusiasm for modern technology with a rejection of the Enlightenment and the values and institutions of liberal democracy":
That time is only worth destroying. But to destroy it, you have to know it first. [...] You had to completely submit yourself to the technique, by shaping it at last. [...] The apparatus itself deserved no admiration — that was the dangerous thing to do — it just had to be used.— Franz Schauwecker, 1931
Jünger supported the emergence of a young intellectual elite that would spring out from the trenches of WWI, ready to oppose bourgeoisie, capitalism and to embody a new nationalist revolutionary spirit. In the 1920s, he wrote more that 130 articles in various nationalist magazines, mostly in Die Standarte or, less frequently, in Widerstand, the National-Bolshevik publication of Ernst Niekisch. However, as Dupeux pointed out, Jünger wanted to use nationalism as an "explosive" and not as an "absolute", to eventually let the new order arise by itself. The association of Jünger to the Conservative Revolutionaries is still a matter of debate among scholars.
The entry of Germany in the League of Nations in 1926 participated in radicalizing the revolutionary wing of the movement during the late 1920s. The event was interpreted as a "sign of a Western orientation" in a country Conservative Revolutionaries had interpreted as the future Reich der europäischen Mitte ("Empire of Central Europe").
The adjective völkisch derives from the German concept of Volk (cognate with English folk), which has overtones of "nation", "race" and "tribe". The Völkisch movement emerged in the mid-19th century, influenced by German Romanticism. Erected on the concept of Blut und Boden ("blood and soil"), it was a racialist, populist, agrarian, romantic nationalist and, from the 1900s, an antisemitic movement. According to Armin Mohler, the Völkischen aimed at opposing the "process of desegregation" that was threatening the Volk by providing him means to generate a consciousness of itself.
Influenced by authors like Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882), Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1854–1936), Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855–1927) or Ludwig Woltmann (1871–1907), the Völkischen had conceptualised a racialist and hierarchical definition of the peoples of the world where Aryans (or Germans) were set at the summit of the "white race". But while they used terms like Nordische Rasse ("Nordic race") and Germanentum ("Germanic peoples"), their concept of Volk could also be more flexible and understood as a Gemeinsame Sprache ("common language"), or a Ausdruck einer Landschaftsseele ("expression of a landscape's soul") in the words of geographer Ewald Banse. The Völkischen indeed idealized the myth of an "original nation", that still could be found at their times in the rural regions of Germany, a form of "primitive democracy freely subjected to their natural elites." The notion of "people" (Volk) then turned into the idea of a birth-giving and eternal entity among the Völkischen—in the same way as they would have written on "the Nature"—rather than a sociological category.
The political agitation and uncertainty that followed WWI nourished a fertile background for the renewed success of various Völkish sects that were abundant in Berlin at the time. Although the Völkischen became significant by the number of groups during the Weimar Republic, they were not so by the number of adherents. Some Völkischen tried to revive what they believed to be a true German faith (Deutschglaube), by resurrecting the cult of Ancient Germanic gods. Various occult movements such as ariosophy were connected to Völkisch theories, and artistic circles were largely present among the Völkishen, like the painters Ludwig Fahrenkrog (1867–1952) and Fidus (1868–1948). By May 1924, Wilhelm Stapel perceived the movement as capable of embracing and reconciling the whole nation: in his view, Vökischen had an idea to spread instead of a party programme and were led by heroes, not by "calculating politicians".
Mohler listed the following figures as adherents to the Völkisch movement: Theodor Fritsch, Otto Ammon, Willibald Hentschel, Guido von List, Erich Ludendorff, Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, Herman Wirth, and Ernst Graf zu Reventlow.
Relationship to Nazism
Despite a significant intellectual legacy in common, the disparate movement cannot be easily confused with Nazism. Their anti-democratic and militaristic thoughts certainly participated in making the idea of an authoritarian regime acceptable to the semi-educated middle-class, and even to the educated youth, but Conservative Revolutionary writings did not have a decisive influence of National Socialist ideology. Historian Helga Grebing indeed reminds that "the question of the susceptibility to and preparation for National Socialism is not the same as the question of the roots and ideological precursors of National Socialism". This ambiguous relationship led scholars to characterize the movement as a form of "German pre-fascism" or "non-Nazi fascism".
During the rise of power of the Nazi party in the 1920s and until the early 1930s, some thinkers seem to have shown, as historian Roger Woods writes, "a blindness towards the true nature of the Nazis", while their unresolved political dilemma and failure to define the content of the new regime Germany should adopt led to an absence of resistance to the eventual Nazi seizure of power. According to historian Fritz Stern, "despite some misgivings about Hitler's demagogy, many conservative revolutionaries saw in the Führer the sole possibility of achieving their goal. In the sequel, Hitler's triumph shattered the illusions of most of Moeller's followers, and the twelve years of the Third Reich witnessed the separation of conservative revolution and national socialism again".
After a few months of adulation following their decisive electoral victory, the Nazis disavowed Moeller van den Bruck and denied that he had been a forerunner of National Socialism: his "unrealistic ideology", as they said in 1939, had "nothing to do with the actual historical developments or with sober Realpolitik" and Hitler "was not Moeller's heir". When taken individually, Conservative Revolutionaries held ambivalent views of the Nazis, but many of them eventually rejected Nazism and the Nazi party after they seized power in 1933, either owing to its totalitarian or antisemitic character, or because there would have preferred another form of authoritarian regime. Stern summarized the relationship in those terms:
But, we must ask, could there have been any other "Third Reich"? Can one abjure reason, glorify force, prophesy the age of the imperial dictator, can one condemn all existing institutions, without preparing the triumph of irresponsibility? The Germanic critics did all that, thereby demonstrating the terrible dangers of the politics of cultural despair.— Fritz Stern, 1961
Many Conservative Revolutionaries, while keeping on opposing liberalism and still adhering to the notion of a "strong leader", rejected the totalitarian or the antisemitic nature of the Nazi regime. Martin Niemöller, initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler, opposed the Nazification of German Protestant churches in 1934, as well as the Nazis' Aryan Paragraph. Despite having made remarks about Jews that some scholars have called antisemitic,[b] he was a leader of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church.
We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt, and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934 — there must have been a possibility — 14,000 Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities in Germany had defended the truth until their deaths? If we had said back then, it is not right when Hermann Göring simply puts 100,000 Communists in the concentration camps, in order to let them die.— Martin Niemöller, 1946
Rudolf Pechel and Fiedrich Hielscher openly opposed the Nazi regime, while Thomas Mann went into exile in 1939 and broadcast anti-Nazi speeches to the German people via the BBC during the war. Ernst Jünger refused a seat in the Reichstag for the Nazi party both in 1927 and in 1933, despised the “blood and soil“ doctrine, and his house was raided several times by the Gestapo. Hermann Rauschning and Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus sought refuge abroad to keep on opposing the regime. Georg Quabbe refused to collaborate with the Nazis as a lawyer. Shortly before his death in 1936, Oswald Spengler prophesied that "in ten years, a German Reich [would] probably no longer exist" (Da ja wohl in zehn Jahren ein Deutsches Reich nicht mehr existieren wird!). In his private papers, he denounced Nazi anti-Semitism in strong terms:
How much envy of the capability of other people in view of one's lack of it lies hidden in anti-Semitism! [...] when one would rather destroy business and scholarship than see Jews in them, one is an ideologue, i.e., a danger for the nation. Idiotic.— Oswald Spengler
Others such as Claus von Stauffenberg remained inside the Reichswehr and later in the Wehrmacht to silently conspire in the 20 July plot of 1944. Fritz Stern stated that it was "a tribute to the genuine spiritual quality of the conservative revolution that the reality of the Third Reich aroused many of them to opposition, sometimes silent, often open and costly. [...] In the final plot against Hitler, in July 1944, a few former conservative revolutionaries risked and lost their lives, martyr to the genuine idealism of their earlier cause."
Some Conservative Revolutionaries did not reject the fascist nature of Nazi rule per se, but would have preferred an alternative fascist or totalitarian State. They often got murdered or imprisoned for their deviation from the Führerprinzip.
Edgar Jung, a leading figure of the Conservative Revolution, was murdered during the Night of the Long Knives by the SS of Heinrich Himmler, who wanted to prevent competitive fascist ideas from opposing or deviating from Hitler's doctrine. For many Conservative Revolutionaries, this event ended the alliance between them and the Nazis. Jung promoted a fascist version of the Conservative Revolution, speaking of nations as being singular organic entities, attacking individualism while praising militarism and war. He also supported "total mobilization" of human and industrial resources, while promoting the productive power of modernity, similar to the futurism espoused by Italian Fascism.
Ernst Niekisch, although anti-Jewish and in favour of a totalitarian state, rejected Adolf Hitler as he felt he lacked any real socialism, and instead found in Joseph Stalin his model for the Führer Principle. He was interned in a concentration camp from 1937 to 1945 for his criticism of the regime.
August Winnig, initially welcoming the Nazis in 1933, opposed the Third Reich for his neo-pagan tendencies. Despite a best-selling essay published in 1937 defending fascism and strongly tainted by antisemitism, but that diverged from the official Nazi doctrine on race, he was left alone by the Nazis due to Winnig remaining mostly silent during the rule of Hitler.
Although he considered Adolf Hitler too vulgar, Carl Schmitt was party to the burning of books by Jewish authors, rejoicing in the destruction of "un-German" and "anti-German" material, and calling for a much more extensive purge, to include works by authors influenced by Jewish ideas. Considered the "crown jurist of the Third Reich", Schmitt remained unrepentant even after 1945 for his role in the creation of the Nazi state.
Hans Freyer was the head of the German Institute for Culture in Budapest from 1938 to 1944. Together with Nazi historian Walter Frank, Freyer established a racist and anti-semitic völkisch historiography during that period.
Wilhelm Stapel joined the Deutschen Christen in July 1933, spoke vehemently against the anti-Nazi Confessing Church of Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth and advocated for the introduction of the Aryan paragraph in the Church. At the same time Stapel was committed to the policy of Reichsminister of Church Affairs (Reichskirchenminister) Hanns Kerrl, to whom he served as an advisor. However, under pressure from the Nazi leadership in 1938, he had to stop the publication of his monthly magazine Deutsches Volkstum.
Study and debate
The precursor in the academical study of the Conservative Revolution was Edmond Vermeil. He published in 1938 an essay titled Doctrinaires de la révolution allemande 1918–1938 ("Doctrinarians of the German revolution 1918–1938"). In the first decades following the end of WWII, most of the scholars who studied the Conservative Revolution and became specialists of the subject were far-right thinkers deeply influenced by ideas of the Conservative Revolution such as Armin Mohler or Alain de Benoist. It was not until the 1980–90s that academical researches on the movement began to spread more globally across the political spectrum.
Post-war revival after Armin Mohler
The contemporary concept of a "Conservative Revolution" was retrospectively reconstructed after WWII by Neue Richt philosopher Armin Mohler in his 1949 doctoral thesis Die Konservative Revolution in Deutschland 1918–1932, under the supervision of Karl Jaspers. Since Mohler called them the "Trotskyites of the German Revolution", his appropriation of the concept has been recurrently accused of being a biased attempt to reconstruct an acceptable far-right movement in post-fascist Europe, by downplaying the influence of these thinkers on the rise of Nazism. Subtitled "a hanbook", the book was conceived, according to historian Roger Griffin, "as a survivalist manual for those who do not wish to lose their spiritual bearings in the present age", and Mohler believed that the project of a "Conservative Revolution" had only been postponed by the Nazi seizure of power. He was also at that time the secretary of Ernst Jünger.
During the 1970s, thinkers of the Conservative Revolution were influencing new radical right movements and theorists such as Alain de Benoist and his Nouvelle Droite. Some academics, especially in West Germany, took a new interest in the subject and began to suspect Mohler's study for his political closeness to the concept. The reactionary and anti-modern characters of the "Conservative Revolution" were during that decade largely emphasised, and the movement seen as nothing more than a fertile ground for Nazism, speaking "the same totalitarian languages".
German-American historian Fritz Stern used the term "Conservative Revolution" in his 1961 book The Politics of Cultural Despair to describe the life and ideas of Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, and rather drew attention to the alienation and "cultural despair" these authors experienced in the nascent modern world, which led them to express such radical ideas in response. Stern grouped however Moeller van den Bruck into a larger "Germanic ideology", along with earlier thinkers from the late 19th century like Paul de Lagarde and Julius Langbehn.
Academic research since the 1980s
In a symposium organised in 1981 and titled "Conservative revolution and modernity", French historian Louis Dupeux pointed out that what Mohler had called the "Conservative Revolution" was neither totally reactionary nor truly anti-modern (they could even show optimism towards the modern world), an analysis later confirmed by the publication of the 1984 book Reactionnary modernism by American historian Jeffrey Herf, who highlighted the acceptance of modern technique beside a rejection of liberal democracy among conservative thinkers of that period. Dupeux also stressed that Conservative Revolutionaries were not only opposed to the "two forms of progressivism"—liberalism and marxism—but also to the "cultural pessimism" of the reactionary and conservative rights, a standoff they attempted to overcome by proposing a new form of reactionary regime that could espouse the new frameworks of the modern world.
In his 1993 book Anatomie der Konservativen Revolution ("Anatomy of the Conservative Revolution"), German sociologist Stefan Breuer rejected Mohler's definition of the term "Conservative Revolution". Breuer defined "conservatism" as the aspiration to conserve feudal Germany, in fact a moribund political project during the Republic of Weimar. The "Conservative Revolution" constructed by Mohler was, in his view, the mirror-image of a young modern society that took conscious of the deadlocks and dangers of a "simple modernity" built only on science and technique. Finally, while noting the complexity that would imply an intellectual classification of that period, Breuer stated that he would have preferred the substitute "new nationalism" to name a more charismatic and holistic version of the German right-wing movement, contrasting with the "old nationalism" of the 19th century, a current which had been aiming only at preserving traditional institutions and German influence in the world.
In 1996, British historian Roger Woods recognized the validity of the concept, while stressing the eclectic character of the movement and their inability to form a common agenda, a political deadlock he labelled the "conservative dilemma". Woods defined the Conservative Revolution as "ideas which cannot simply be explained and summarised as if they were a political programme, but rather as expressions of tension". Regarding the ambiguous relationship with Nazism, downplayed by Mohler in his 1949 thesis and accentuated by 1970s analysts, Woods argued that "regardless of individual Conservative Revolutionary criticisms of the Nazis, the deeper commitment to activism, strong leadership, hierarchy and a disregard for political programmes persists. [...] Unresolved political dilemmas result in an activism and an interest in hierarchy which mean that there can be no fundamental objection to the National Socialist assumption of power."
Historian Ishay Landa has described the nature of the Conservative Revolution's "socialism" as decidedly capitalist. Landa points out that Oswald Spenger's "Prussian Socialism" strongly opposed labor strikes, trade unions, progressive taxation or any imposition of taxes on the rich, any shortening of the working day, as well as any form of government insurance for sickness, old age, accidents, or unemployment. At the same time as he rejected any social democratic provisions, Spengler celebrated private property, competition, imperialism, capital accumulation, and "wealth, collected in few hands and among the ruling classes". Landa describes Spengler's "Prussian Socialism" as "working a whole lot, for the absolute minimum, but — and this is a vital aspect — being happy about it." Landa likewise describes Arthur Moeller van den Bruck as a "socialist champion of capitalism" who praised free trade, flourishing markets, the creative value of the entrepreneur, and the capitalist division of labor, and sought to emulate British and French imperialism. Landa notes the similarities of Moeller's critiques of socialism with those of neoliberals such as Friedrich von Hayek and writes that "far from hostile to the bourgeois spirit, Moeller's text is suffused with such spirit."
The Nouvelle Droite, a French far-right philosophical movement created in the 1960s to adapt traditionalist, ethnopluralist and illiberal politics to the European post-WWII context and to distance itself from earlier forms of far-right like fascism and nazism, mainly through a project of pan-European nationalism have been deeply influenced by the Conservative Revolution, as well as its German counterpart the Neue Rechte.
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