Currently Reading

War and the Fate of Europe: Jan Patočka’s Political Testament, Part I by David L. Dusenbury

12 minute read

Read Previous

Joining the Euro: Stern Advice for the Croatian Government by Sven R. Larson

Angel Statues Decapitated and Tabernacle Stolen from Brooklyn Church by David Boos

Read Next


War and the Fate of Europe:
Jan Patočka’s Political Testament, Part I

The last of Jan Patočka’s Heretical Essays is misunderstood. In his preface to the work, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur expressed shock at its final pages. He judges them to be “strange and in many respects frightening.” Writing after Ricoeur (and citing him), Jacques Derrida, in The Gift of Death, faults the Czech philosopher for what he calls his “exceptional and troubling glorification of the Front”—meaning, the hellish combat-lines of the First World War. Derrida even hints that Patočka’s tone becomes “maniacal” in the sixth Essay. More recently (citing both Derrida and Ricoeur), philosopher Nicolas de Warren stresses the “strangeness” of Patočka’s sixth Essay. De Warren says that much of this Essay’s argument is not only “‘foreign’ to orthodoxies of [modern European] thinking,” but “equally strange to the philosophy of history articulated” by Patočka. In other words, de Warren feels that much of it is “unanticipated” by the first five Heretical Essays.

Now, it must be said that de Warren, Derrida, and Ricoeur are eminent philosophers. Derrida and de Warren both offer subtle readings of Patočka’s last Essay. But Patočka’s “war-heresy” in the sixth Essay, as de Warren calls it, has met with confusion and misunderstanding. Why is this? Patočka’s lyricism may be to blame. He indulges in highly evocative statements in the closing pages of his book, and his mystic prose can seem lurid in the context of 20th century “hekatombs.” Thus, after de Warren notes that many of “Patočka’s reflections” in the sixth Essay “elicit unease,” he asks: 

What are we to make of his pointed claim: ‘War can show that among the free some are capable of becoming gods, of touching the divinity of that which forms the ultimate unity and mystery of being’?

What are we to make of this weird divinization of those who kill, and perhaps die, in war? Isn’t this what Derrida called a “troubling glorification of the Front”? What else could it be? Until we have an answer to this last question—What else could it be?—we will not have understood the Heretical Essays.

Patočka’s desire in writing this work was to offer “a different basic conception of history”—namely, one that differs from the materialist and determinist conceptions that were dominant then, and still are. One question provoked by the last of the Heretical Essays is: Did Patočka elaborate a different conception of history, or merely return, in this Essay, to dark, once-dominant currents in early 20th-century German literature? De Warren writes, for instance, that:

Patočka’s reflections [on war in the sixth Essay] can be seen as a troubling instance of the veneration of the Fronterlebnis that flourished during and after the First World War… and which eventually became appropriated into the Kriegsideologie promoted by Nazi ideology during the 1930s.

It would certainly be strange if Patočka concluded his Platonic-Christian theory of history with a fetishization of the “Front-experience” in 1914 to 1918; and it would be even stranger if he sank to the level of a Nazizeit “War-ideology” (a term, Kriegsideologie, which is thought to have been put into circulation by the great, and greatly flawed, novelist, Thomas Mann). 

There is nothing more tedious in 21st-century European discourse than lazy charges of ‘Nazism.’ But the question must be faced: Is the conclusion of Patočka’s Heretical Essays tainted by ‘Nazi’ tropes, or ‘Nazi’ thought? Is his philosophy of the soul’s history a bizarre form of a passé War-ideology?      

It is not. But the only way to show that it is not, is to reconstruct what it is. In the process, we will see that Patočka’s sixth Essay is not “unanticipated” by the first five Essays (as de Warren indicates), and is not “strange” (as Ricoeur deems it). In this Essay, Patočka deplores Europe’s incomparably destructive World Wars, and advances his Platonic-Christian philosophy of history, even when he writes that machine-centered war can reveal that “some [humans] are capable of … touching the divinity of that which forms the ultimate unity and mystery of being.

This last phrase is a clue. It is an experience of the ‘unity of being’ that, Patočka believes, can carry us beyond the dooms of war—but only if this ‘unity’ is recognized as being a ‘mystery.’ 

In this essay (Part I of a two-part series), I will address the question of what caused the World Wars. In Part II, I will take up Patočka’s striking question, namely why the World Wars haven’t caused the sort of ‘conversion’ he thinks we need. And, I will ask, what is the ‘conversion’ that Patočka thinks we need? 

The conclusion of Patočka’s Heretical Essays is that the future of war—and, with it, of all humanity—is a question of the soul. What he calls the “threat of global destruction” is real. Patočka is unnerved by what he terms “the nuclear reality.” That reality is undiminished in the half-century or so since he wrote, and in the intervening decades new war-technologies have emerged. The human powers of destruction, of “death organized en masse,” haven’t ceased to intensify. “The will to war” is not obsolete. As Patočka warned in 1975, the archaic forces which “sent millions of humans into hellfire” in the World Wars—those forces “never die.” That is still a warning for us.

Thus, without what he calls in the third Essay “a gigantic conversion,” the prospects are grim. In other words, the future of Europe is still bound to war, and to the ever-branching, ever-intensifying potencies of machine-centered war. And yet, Patočka hopes for peace. His reflection on war is his attempt to forestall future wars and to call Europeans to a true and lasting peace. But, first, he poses the question: What caused the World Wars?

The mythical cause     

 ‘Myth’ is a structuring idea in Patočka’s fifth Essay, on ‘technological civilization’ and ‘decadence.’ Patočka returns to ‘myth’ in his sixth Essay—on the “Wars of the 20th century and the 20th  century as War.” He opens this Essay with several assertions. Its first sentence reads:

The First World War… [was an] immense event, transcending any individual, carried out by humans and yet transcending humankind—a process in some sense cosmic. 

This is meant to strike one as a mythical formulation. For, later in the essay, Patočka reminds us that:

Conflict is the great instrument which, mythologically speaking, Force used in its transition from potency to actuality. In this process humans as well as individual peoples served merely as tools. Is not precisely here the root of the cosmic sense of warfare?

When Patočka refers to the First World War as an event that “transcend[s] humankind,” it is not empty rhetoric. He believes there is an archaic concept, Force, which seems to have a sort of “demonic” influence in the World Wars. Patočka is not entirely convinced that the World Wars are merely something that humans did. Rather, he intimates that they were something that happened to us, titanic fits of destruction that were inflicted upon us.

It is perhaps because of this sense of the deep, inner logic of the World Wars—a logic that is not wholly governed by what Patočka calls the “awesome [human] will which for years drove millions of humans into a fiery furnace,” but is partly influenced by an archaic Force which is utterly “indifferent” to human life or death—that Patočka is unimpressed by more doctrinaire theories of the origins of the World Wars. In what may be his bluntest critique of Marxist historiography in the Heretical Essays, he writes:  

A sort of conviction spread among us that there must be some true, that is, Marxist explanation of the [World Wars], something hidden in the conceptual treasuries of the Party which guides the movement of history. No one seemed to mind that, in reality, there are no such explanations.

Patočka does not just mean that there are no convincing Marxist explanations of the World Wars. He means that there are no such explanations. He denies that we understand what occurred in those incomparably destructive conflicts—both of which comprise one “monumental auto-da-fé”—or what caused them. Patočka’s conjuration of a quasi-mythical concept of Force is a sign that, for him, more rigorous and profane methods of analyzing the origins of the World Wars are inadequate.

The inadequacy of rationalistic theories of the World Wars is also suggested by a sentence which has perplexed some of his commentators. Patočka writes:

The idea that war itself might be something that can explain, that [war] has itself the power of bestowing meaning, is an idea foreign to all philosophies of history and so also to all the explanations of the World War[s] we know.

Now, the Greek word for ‘war’ is polemos, and it is this Greek word that Patočka has in mind when he later writes that “war can show that … some [humans] are capable of … touching the divinity.” In both cases, what is crucial to understand is that Patočka is trying to deploy a mythical concept philosophically. He wants us to think of Force, and of War, as archaic structures that lie beyond our final control and that, periodically, come to control us. He wants us to think of Force, and of War, as cosmic realities that transcend us.

The technological cause

Patočka has not forgotten his critique of ‘technological civilization’ in the fifth Essay. Though he detects a quasi-mythical Force which is dispersed within the machine structures and human masses that ‘conducted’ the World Wars, he sees that both wars were the bloody consummation of a centuries-old cult of machines in Europe:

[What the wars] demonstrated [is] that the transformation of the world into a laboratory for releasing reserves of energy accumulated over billions of years can be achieved only by means of wars. Thus, [they] represented a definitive breakthrough of the conception of being that was born in the 16th century [with Francis Bacon]… Now [this conception of being] swept aside all the ‘conventions’ that inhibited this release of energy—a transvaluation of all values under the sign of power.

He concludes from this that “the energetic transformation of the world” in late modernity must “take on the form of war,” because war is “the most intensive means for the rapid release of accumulated forces.”

Here, the quasi-mythical concept of Force is redescribed as a technological concept. The energies which machines capture have intrinsic physical qualities which can be super-efficiently ‘released’ in war—which is to say, in situations of spectacular destruction. There is therefore a structural and, as it were, an energetic propensity to conflict in our technological civilization that the World Wars merely revealed.

The organizational cause     

But if the World Wars’ causes are both mythical and technological, for Patočka, they are also organizational. Patočka holds that in a ‘technological civilization,’ “humans… like all else, are stripped of all mystery.” This is a feature of modernity’s organizational logic; and the model of this organizational logic, in the sixth Essay, is Germany. It is in the Germanic lands, Patočka writes—where “the last vestige[s] of the [Holy Roman] Empire” were formally dissolved in the first years of the 19th century—that “a managerial mode of work and thought” took hold, and a break-neck revolution occurred. Patočka holds that, if France was the revolutionary European nation par excellence of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, Germany was the revolutionary European nation par excellence of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. “Long before the [First World] War,” he writes, “Germany had already transformed Europe into an energetic complex”—which is to say, into a technological complex with an energetic propensity to war.

Patočka concedes that “older convictions of Christian origins,” “democratic ideas of the Enlightenment,” and Russian “theocratic-hierarchic ideas” (before the Bolshevik revolution), all figured in the outbreak of the First World War. But it is not on the influence of ‘older convictions’ that Patočka’s stress falls. Rather, he writes:

The revolution taking place [in prewar Germany] had its deep driving force in the conspicuous scientification … a scientification which understood science as technology, [and was thus] a positivism, which for the most part managed to neutralize … the Germany of the fading old empire, [with its] traditions of history, theology, philosophy. 

In turn, he holds that it is not a paradox, but an organizational fact that “conservative Prussia and its military caste, with its ossified bureaucracy, its incredibly narrow-minded Lutheran orthodoxy … [was] the bearer and agent of world revolution” in the late-19th and early-20th century. 

Much as he sees in technological civilization an energetic propensity to war, he sees in 19th-century Germany an organizational propensity to war. “The [German] war was conducted mechanically,” Patočka stresses, and before it could be conducted in that way, the German Reich had to be restructured mechanically

Patočka suggests that the French, in this period, were “humanized by their desire for individual life.” He contrasts this with the Germans—an idea that can hardly be read as a holdover from a German ‘War-ideology.’ And again, Patočka can hardly be thought to be echoing a Kriegsideologie literature when he faults modern Germans for their “domineering rudeness and a total absence of imagination.” The fact is that Patočka never echoes bellicose German (or European) tropes in the sixth Essay, or anywhere else in the Heretical Essays. The following lines from the sixth Essay should terminate the question of ‘Nazism’ in Patočka’s thought:

What Germany had begun, the transformation of the global status quo, finally came about [in the postwar settlements] … This whole new constellation, this pathetic maneuvering [before and during the World Wars], could not but bring on the definitive collapse of Europe.

For a European thinker such as Jan Patočka—one who believes that “care for the soul … gave rise to Europe”—the wildly destructive, Germano-centric history of the late-19th and early-20th centuries can only reflect a profound deformation of the culture of the soul

David L. Dusenbury is a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute in Budapest, and a visiting professor at Eötvös Loránd University. His books are The Space of Time (2014), Platonic Legislations (2017), and The Innocence of Pontius Pilate (2021). His essays and criticism have been published in the Times Literary Supplement, Corriere della Serra, Los Angeles Review of Books, American Affairs, and other cultural and political reviews.