Leo Strauss, “German Nihilism” (in Interpretation Vol. 26 No. 3 Spring 1999)

1. At first, the value of Strauss’ lecture seems to be that of a historical document. It is delivered in 1941 shortly after the fall of France and before it is clear the U.S. will enter war. Strauss, a German Jew, asserts that virtually no one in Germany liked the Weimar Republic; it was considered merely an Anglo-French imposition. He wonders to what degree one can consider the German youth that embraced Nazism nihilistic.

This last question creates an historical and theoretical discussion. The German youth come close to nihilism; they have a nihilism of a sort. To say they have no moral purpose is to ignore the will to sacrifice inherent in their militarism. Where they are nihilistic – they are certainly at a point which can be termed evil – is in their rejection of Enlightenment. They do think reason the enemy, as Western democracy and communism both came from Enlightenment thought. Their arguments are almost exclusively in terms of history: i.e., if you say a “natural law” exists which means their desire for self-preservation has reasonable bounds, they might argue that “natural law” was followed and therefore comprehended by early modern notions of the “law of nature.” This kind of thinking makes the use of reason itself a historical development. For them, there is a peculiarly German way that is neither Western democracy or communism. Heidegger speaks of it in “Introduction to Metaphysics” when he talks about Germany being between the West and Russia. Spengler talks about a “Faustic” science, asserting that there can be nationalist science.

That German way involves some all-too-powerful notions that concern morality. So much for concern with morality: in a way that casual observers  of hypocrisy can’t at all see, a more rigorous thinker must confront its leading to the most evil acts. In Germany’s case, the following seems to have happened. Their militarism wasn’t simply aggression. Cities go to war to preserve a way of life, to preserve their identity and virtue. Morality depends on what is more “closed” than “open.” Complete universality and tolerance must of necessity render morality obsolete. Western democracy certainly has pretensions to that universality and tolerance. Perhaps worse in their mindset is communism. Not that class and inequality aren’t problems, but full equality is not a solution as much as the end of history. Think of the dumbest, crudest person one knows satisfying all his base desires and that alone being the goal of society. There is no way to reprimand him or call him to something higher.

I do think Strauss’ discussion in this lecture needs to be supplemented with his later essay, the Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. Independent of its theoretical themes, i.e. whether Spinoza’s hope that a secular, enlightened Europe could be more peaceful and embrace Jews fully, the essay does an excellent job demonstrating how much hatred Germany had for the Jews over its history. It is hard to believe that any idea could have stopped that much hate. In “Daybreak,” Nietzsche hoped for the day all anti-Semites would be shot. For our purposes, the Preface helps further a convincing picture of pre-WWII Germany: a country with a lot of military power and aggression, humiliated, only able to “unite” on what it hates.

2. That’s the historical discussion, as far as I’m concerned. You probably think it is quite theoretical, but Strauss turns to what could have moderated or educated the young Germans who turned to Nazism. That’s where things get really, really interesting.

Strauss cites Churchill’s rhetoric, particularly the “Their Finest Hour” speech, as perhaps being able to save Germany from choosing Hitler. Trouble is, Churchill is British and this is well after the outbreak of war. The peculiar thing about Churchill’s speech is that it is delivered after the fall of France, after England was lucky to salvage its forces from the fighting there. In other words, Strauss is pointing to Churchill’s magnanimous, noble rhetoric as instructive as how one deals with defeat as a part of life. (For later: one of the amazing things about Churchill in this speech is how he levels with the UK about how many troops they have and how the fighting will go. Our politicians, by contrast, can’t even talk to us about the budget without fudging numbers. We are in dire need of statesmen.)

Strauss does not really dwell on the “noble.” Instead, he continues in the latter half of his lecture from a thread left hanging earlier. He had alluded to how the youth of Germany were only educated in history and progress and did not have more traditional, classical teachers who could work with the ambitious and potentially unscrupulous. But later, Strauss spends a lot of time talking about how while the Nazis may have a culture, they certainly do not have civilization. Civilization involves some respect for reason, not just an aesthetic pride. Not the fine arts, not creation or production, but the idea of discovery unites science and morals and puts them on a higher level. This is not to say there is a natural law. It is more to say that reason functions to work to the truly universal, emphasis on “work” and “truly.” There are trade-offs and the twin pillars of Western thought – Jerusalem and Athens – certainly collide and contradict each other, when not having some contradictory elements within themselves.

One might think Strauss’ moral rhetoric excellent, but wonder how it is theoretical. I actually think the basis for an investigation of nobility is being put forth. The trick is to see that Churchill’s rhetoric works for reasons a bit too close to the pride animating the Nazis. The real difference is that Churchill’s rhetoric has, as an end, grace and strength in defeat. Still, it is prone to some utterly inhuman perversions, such as the firebombing of Dresden or this crap that thankfully did not see the light of day during the war. I wonder about defeat – a limit on man, a lack of success – not merely as a moral guide but as the basis of anything theoretical. Socrates’ knowledge of ignorance was just that. Strauss ends his essay with a line from the Aeneid justifying imperium: “to spare the vanquished and crush the arrogant.” One might wonder about self-construction as a species, where mercy is extended by those aspiring to rule in what is hopefully a moment of self-recognition.