Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Radical illiberalism opened the door for Nazism in Germany. What will be our fate?

The Nazis did not suddenly appear out of blue and seize power in Germany. Their path to power was cleared by extreme conservatives who worked very hard to erode the values of liberal democracy. Given the shrill rhetoric from the right in this country during the past several years and the resulting polarization of the country, one can only wonder about the future of our own democracy.

Tom Reiss reviews Fritz Stern’s new book, Five Germanys I Have Known, in the upcoming New York Times Book Review. (If the link does not take you past the Times Select wall you will just have to buy the Sunday NYT.) I have not read the book but have seen a couple of reviews. Much of the book is autobiographical but Stern does offer some larger analysis of events in history and how they relate to our own times. Here are some excerpts from the review:
In November 2005, Fritz Stern received an award for his life’s work on
Germans, Jews and the roots of National Socialism, presented to him by Joschka
Fischer, then the German foreign minister. With a frankness that startled some
in the audience, Stern, an emeritus professor of European history at Columbia
University, peppered his acceptance speech with the similarities he saw between
the path taken by Germany in the years leading up to Hitler and the path being
taken by the United States today. He talked about a group of 1920’s
intellectuals known as the “conservative revolutionaries,” who “denounced
liberalism as the greatest, most invidious threat, and attacked it for its
tolerance, rationality and cosmopolitan culture,” and about how Hitler had used
religion to appeal to the German public. In Hitler’s first radio address after
becoming chancellor, Stern noted, he declared that the Nazis regarded
“Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the
basis of national life.”

Stern was of course not suggesting an equivalence between President Bush
and Hitler but rather making a more subtle critique, extending his idea that
contemporary American politics exhibited “something like the strident militancy
and political ineptitude of the Kaiser’s pre-1914 imperial Germany.”


… Outraged by the facile interpretations of Nazism floating around in
the 1950’s — “all the tomes and slogans about Germany’s inevitable path ‘from
Luther to Hitler’ ” — he charts his own, more subtle interpretation of what
caused the Third Reich. Over the years Stern protests the ways radicals abuse
the memory of Nazism to support their present-day political agendas, whether the
1960’s students who called authority figures fascists and Nazis, or those today
who compare foreign leaders they dislike to Hitler and cry “Munich” at every
diplomatic gesture.

Yet the value of Stern’s work is precisely that it has refused to keep
Nazism safely on the other side of a historical and geographic chasm. His first
book, “The Politics of Cultural Despair” (1961), is one of the durable
masterpieces of 20th-century history because it seems to locate the roots of a
peculiarly modern malaise. As he explained in a later edition of the work, “I
attempted to show the importance of this new type of cultural malcontent, and to
show how he facilitated the intrusion into politics of essentially unpolitical

Rather than looking for obvious parallels among contemporary dictators who
ape the style of the Nazis, Stern looks for the nihilistic undercurrents in our
own educated, commercial societies. Hunger and poverty have little to do with
the politics of cultural despair. It thrives especially well at moments of
plenty and prosperity, when people have enough social advantages to dwell on
their inner alienations and resentments.

By probing history for answers to how Germany progressed from radical
illiberalism to Nazism, Stern has created a cumulative canon of warning signs
for the degeneration of any great nation’s politics….

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