Review

The Legacy of the Conservative Revolution

Erwachende Germania (Awakening Germania) (1849), a 220 cm x 280 cm oil on canvas by Christian Köhler (1809-1861), New York Historical Society.

The title of German historian Rolf Peter Sieferle’s book Finis Germania, published posthumously in 2017, evokes similar associations as Spengler’s great work published almost exactly one hundred years earlier (in 1918), Der Untergang des Abendlandes (generally translated as The Decline of the West). Even before picking up the book, someone without any prior knowledge of the work or its author can already guess that it is about a gloomy development, a kind of irreversible end for Germany.

The reader may not have heard about the controversy surrounding the publication of Finis Germania: how the work became a ‘scandalous book,’ which, although it sold a huge number of copies for a philosophical study, was removed from the Spiegel bestseller list. Or the fact that German critics accused the author of anti-Semitism, right-wing conspiracy theories and the like, whose writing is “pervaded by cynicism, bitterness, resigned anger,” who is a humourless observer and a bitter man. 

Regardless of whether or not you had heard about the scandals, you could likely have guessed from the title that the book will not serve to reinforce the grand progressive narrative. This narrative is, of course, generally accepted to the point of being the expected conception of the process and meaning of history for most elites in the West. Even if the reader is an un-sceptical adherent of the former narrative, i.e. of the faith in progress, but not an extreme partisan, it is likely that he will quickly ‘put Sieferle’s work in its place.’ With a sort of patronising pat on the back, he might agree that the mood of the work is “like a version of Monty Python’s 20th century version of the cultural pessimist in 20th century Germany,” and that Sieferle, because he “too often reaches for Nietzschean depths but usually misses the mark, ends up tripping over his own rhetorical shoelaces and stumbling into a puddle of absurdity”—as the British critic Timothy Garton Ash has written.

If, however, our imaginary reader has the intellectual integrity to relativise his own relativism, at least for the time of reading the book, if he is able to put aside, at least for a short while, familiar postulates of worldview, then reading Sieferle’s book can be a profound and challenging experience. 

The real interest and enjoyment of Finis Germania do not primarily lie in the sections dealing with the National Socialist era, which have given some journalists reason to cry scandal and reduce the meaning of this work to a single dimension of their own misreading. These passages, apart from being part of a single, albeit important, chapter in the book (“The Myth of the Past”), do not contain anything terribly offensive or unheard of. Armin Mohler and Ernst Nolte already discussed the questions Sieferle raises in the 1960s and 1970s, and similar positions—pro and con—had appeared in the historiographical debate in the 1980s. In these controversial passages, Sieferle is interested in why and how it was possible to construct a supposedly secularized, yet ultimately religious, myth about the meaning of history in the name of “confronting the past.” That is, why “Auschwitz[…] constitutes the only absolute truth[…] that modern society, fragmented by relativisms and perspectivisms, can still possess.” It is important to note that Sieferle is not an apologist for the horrors of the Nazis. Instead, he is examining Germany’s response to these horrors. As he puts it, “the atrocities of national socialism gave the left extra moral ammunition.” The actual subject of the work is not national socialism. The book is, in fact, a critique of the view that history consists of linear progress—that is, the paradigm of progress which sees the history of humanity as a continuous moral, intellectual, and social development. 

“All constructions of history are the product of a particular time. Through history, the present pursues certain ideological goals, seeks meaning in events, or even tries to determine who is friend and who is foe,” Sieferle writes. He makes clear that there is no abstract concept of ‘justice’ in history which must necessarily prevail sooner or later and which offers man a kind of immanent fulfilment in this world. Rather, he argues that the dominant socio-political paradigm of the good, which he calls the “petty-bourgeois amorphous political style” of post-World War II German political culture, that “basic social-democraticism” for which “even the idea of any kind of social difference is intolerable,” today simply equates the good life with the comfortable life. This culture, according to Sieferle, lives itself out and celebrates itself in soulless economic mechanisms, in the worship of technology, in the denial of all social and cultural differences, in the cult of engineering rationality and functionalism. All this the culture does while ridiculing, labeling, trivializing, marginalizing or stigmatizing anyone who dares to criticize the only path that is considered to be the only salvation, against which, of course, only tragic detours can be imagined, and which the whole world should be adapting to with ever faster steps. 

“Modern civilized society is truly democratic,” writes the author in one of the most successful passages of the work, “that is to say, the little man rules it and leaves his mark on everything. This is what distinguishes it from the high cultures of the past, which were dominated by an aristocracy clothed in a patina of sophistication. The reason why mass civilization is so uncultured (which, moreover, it does not even notice) is that it is ruled by an ordinary type of man, the mass man. Fast food and the entertainment industry were invented for this mass man, and they satisfy his needs perfectly.”

And in a well-written passage, which is truly Nietzschean in tone and characterizes the state of modern society, he says the following: 

No society has ever known more; and no society has ever been so anti-intellectual.

No society has ever been so wealthy; and no society has ever been so obsessed with wealth.

No society has ever been so differentiated; and no society has ever been so one-dimensional.

No society has ever believed so much in politics; and no society has ever so deeply despised politicians.

No society has ever been so populous; and no society has ever held the individual in such high esteem.

No society has ever been more civilized; and none has ever been so vulgar.

No society has ever been more satiated; and none has ever been so greedy.

No society has ever been more secure; and no society has ever been more fearful.

No society has ever been more pacifist; and no society has ever been so armed.

These and similar insights into the state of modern culture are the most convincing and perhaps best parts of Sieferle’s book—and above all they show that the political philosophical ideology and cultural-literary current that was called the ‘conservative revolution’ in Germany between 1919 and 1932 still has followers in the present day. Authors who are able to offer a cogent conservative critical analysis of modern civilization and politics, while avoiding vulgarization and misdirection. Sieferle’s book—although some of its details will certainly be debated by many and for a long time to come—is above all a book that is a worthy heir to the best writers of the conservative revolution: Ernst Jünger, Oswald Spengler, Edgar Julius Jung. 

Zoltán Pető is a researcher at the Thomas Molnar Research Institute at the National University of Public Service in Budapest. His research interests include conservative political philosophy from the end of the 18th to the present-dayHe wrote his Ph.D. on the political theory of Erik Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, soon to be published as a book. His main area of interest is German conservative political thought of the 20th century.

This review of the Hungarian translation of Finis Germania was originally published by Kommentar in February 2021, http://kommentar.info.hu/cikk/2021/2/a-konzervativ-forradalom-orokose-rolf-peter-sieferle-finis-germania-2020.

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