Sunday, March 02, 2014

Leo Strauss's 1933 Letter to Lowith: Was He Devoted to "Fascistic, Authoritarian, Imperial Principles"?

Today, in the New York Times Book Review, Barry Gewen (an editor at the Review) reviews Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood by Joachim Fest.  This book tells the remarkable story of Fest's father--Johannes Fest--who was one of the few Germans who openly rejected Nazism and Hitler while living under the Third Reich.

One passage in this review contains a parenthetical remark about Leo Strauss:
"Joachim reports that his father once said of his Jewish friends that 'in their self-discipline, their quiet civility and unsentimental brilliance, they had really been the last Prussians'--the embodiment of all that was good and right about Germany. (It's necessary to add a wrinkle here: At least some of these Jewish-German conservatives would probably have become Nazis if they could have.  As a youthful Leo Strauss wrote to a friend in 1933: 'Just because the right-wing oriented Germany does not tolerate us, it simply does not follow that the principles of the right are therefore to be rejected.')  Toward the end of his book, Joachim offers a rueful meditation on the fraught German-Jewish relationship, saying it went much deeper than the French-Jewish or English-Jewish connection, and suggesting that the Holocaust 'may be interpreted as a kind of fratricide.'"
It is disturbing to see Strauss identified as a Jewish-German conservative who acknowledged that he would have become a Nazi if he could have.  Gewen draws this conclusion from Strauss's infamous letter to Karl Lowith of May 19, 1933.  Unfortunately, he conveys the impression that this is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the letter, and thus he ignores the intense debate over the letter by those who have read it carefully.  Strauss's critics have pointed to this letter as the "smoking gun" evidence for Strauss's secret teaching of fascism.  His defenders have insisted that the letter does not have to be read this way.

The most meticulous and thoughtful studies of this letter that I have seen are those by Peter Minowitz (in Straussophobia, pp. 154-63) and William Altman (in The German Stranger, pp. 225-34).  They come to opposing conclusions.  Minowitz defends Strauss against the charge that the letter clearly announces his leaning towards Nazism--or towards what he identified as the "fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles" of the right.  Altman contends that Strauss really was committed to a philosophical and theological version of National Socialism, and that this is how Lowith interpreted it.

Having left Germany in the summer of 1932, Strauss was writing to Lowith from Paris.  By May of 1933, Hitler had been in power in Germany for four months, and the Nazis were extending their control over the whole society.  Strauss and Lowith had been students of Martin Heidegger, who had recently delivered his Rectoral Address at the University of Freiburg, in which he enjoined the students and faculty to exert "spiritual leadership" in the service of the new Nazi Germany.  I was in Freiburg a few months ago, and some of the faculty at the University still talk about the troubling influence of Heidegger

Strauss began his letter by talking about the efforts he and Lowith were making to get grants from the Rockefeller Foundation.  He then wrote (as translated by Altman):
"As for me, I have the second year after all.  Berlin [actually Carl Schmitt] has recommended me and that was decisive.  I am staying in Paris for this second year as well, and I will attempt to accomplish something during this time that will permit me to continue working.  To be sure, the 'competition' is considerable: the entire German-Jewish intellectual proletariat finds itself here.  It is awful--I wish I could run away to Germany."
 "But here's the catch [der Haken].  Surely I can't 'opt' for some other country--a homeland and above all a mother tongue can one never select, in any case I will never be able to write other than in German, even though I will be forced to write in another language--: on the other hand, I see no acceptable possibility to live under the swastika [dem Hakenkreuz], i.e., under a symbol that says nothing else to me except: 'You and your kind, you are subhuman physei [by nature] and therefore true Pariahs.'  Thee exists here only one solution.  We must repeatedly say to ourselves, we 'men of science'--for so people like us called ourselves during the Arab Middle Ages--non habemus locum manentem, sed quaerimus [we have no abiding place, but we are seeking one]. . . . And, as to the substance of the matter: i.e., that Germany having turned to the right does not tolerate us, that proves absolutely nothing against right-wing principles.  On the contrary: only on the basis of right-wing principles--on the basis of fascistic, authoritarian, imperial principles--is it possible with integrity, without the ridiculous and pitiful appeal to the droits imprescriptables de l'homme [the unwritten rights of man] to protest against the money-grubbing bedlam [das meskine Unwesen].  I am reading Caesar's Commentaries with deeper understanding, and I think about Virgil: Tu regere imperio . . . parcere subjectis et debellare superbos [you rule an empire . .  to spare the vanquished and to crush the proud].  There exists no reason to crawl to the cross [zu Kreuze zu Kriechen], to liberalism's cross as well, as long as somewhere in the world there yet glimmers a spark of the Roman thought [des romische Gedanke].  I therefore do not fear the emigrant's destiny--at the most secundum carnem [according to the flesh]: hunger and the like--.  In a sense our kind is always 'emigrant;' and what concerns the rest, the danger of embitterment, which certainly is very great, Klein, who in every sense was always an emigrant, is for me the living proof that it can be defeated."
 "Dixi, et animam meam salvavi [I have spoken and have saved my soul]."
Here is Minowitz's translation of the crucial Unwesen sentence:
"To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is, from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with propriety (Anstand), that is without resort to laughable and pitiful appeal (lacherlichen und jammerlichen Appell) to the droits imprescriptibles de l'homme, to protest against this shabby nuisance/monster (das meskine Unwesen)."
The big difference in these translations concerns that against which right-wing principles protest.  For Altman, the protest is against "money-grubbing bedlam"--that is, the low acquisitiveness of liberal society.  For Minowitz, the protest is against Hitler and the Nazis as "this shabby nuisance/monster."

Altman and Minowitz agree, however, that Strauss is clearly showing his  sympathy for "the principles of the right" as including "fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles."

According to Minowitz, Strauss is saying that the only realistic way to oppose Nazism is to appeal to right-wing principles of authoritarian and fascist imperialism, because liberalism cannot win a battle against Nazism in Germany.  According to Altman, Strauss is saying that a right-wing atheistic imperialism is required to overcome the debasement of human life by a liberalism rooted in Judeo-Christian religion.

Altman points to Strauss's association of the cross of Christ with the cross of liberalism: "The epistolary connection between God and liberalism is revealing and what it reveals is the real smoking gun: an intellectual basis for the Verjudung-hypothesis" (228).  What Altman means by "the Verjudung-hypothesis" is the Nietzschean idea that liberalism is nothing but the slave morality of a secularized Judaism.

Minowitz suggests various possibilities:
"One could hypothesize that Strauss's letter to Lowith invoked the Romans because he happened to be reading Caesar and because he regarded Roman thought as a serious alternative to both liberalism and Nazism.  One could also hypothesize that in the relevant sections of the letter Strauss, during a desperate period of his life, is expressing a possibly fleeting mood that does not well capture the agenda of his mature professional activities, when he was determined to reopen the quarrel between ancients and moderns with a focus on classical political philosophy.  Or one could hypothesize that Strauss have revealed a dastardly secret teaching that would frame the next forty years of his work." (162)
What I find most ominous in all of this is Strauss's refusal to come to the defense of classical liberalism and his scornful insistence that he will never crawl to liberalism's cross.

Or should we agree with Strauss that in 1933 liberalism was not a morally or politically defensible alternative to Nazism or right-wing principles?

I am also troubled by the way that Strauss praised Heidegger as the greatest philosopher of the century.  Shouldn't Strauss have seen that anyone like Heidegger who cannot grasp moral reality and see evil as evil cannot be a true philosopher, because he cannot see things as they really are?

I will read Joachim Fest's book to see if the story of his father's life under the Third Reich illuminates the possible grounds of resistance to Nazism.

Gewen says this in his review:
"Johannes Fest was the middle-class headmaster of a primary school in suburban Berlin, a pious Catholic and father of five, a cultural conservative who revered Goethe and Kant, and a loyal German patriot--'a dyed-in-the-wool Prussian,' in Fest's words--the kind of person who might have been expected to become an active supporter of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists.  In a foreword by Herbert Arnold . . ., the elder Fest is described as 'tailor-made for a career' with the Nazis.  And yet some quirk in his personality made him a fierce Weimar republican, ready to sacrifice himself, even his family, to principles he knew to be right even as everyone around him was yielding to mass hysteria. 'Not I," a best seller in Germany when it appeared in 2006, . . . is a memorable tale of lonely courage, stoic endurance, self-imposed hardship and a life lived amid ubiquitous, all-encompassing danger: 'Even innocent-sounding remarks could be life-and-death matters.'  It reminds us that simple human decency is possible even in the most trying of circumstances."
Strauss might have noted that Fest was a "cultural conservative" and a "dyed-in-the-wool Prussian" as showing that he was a man of "right-wing principles."  But he was also a "fierce Weimar republican" who showed manly courage and principled resistance to evil even at great cost to himself and his family.  Notice that he was also a pious Catholic.  So apparently he was willing to crawl to the cross of Christ as well as the cross of liberalism to find the moral strength to stand for justice and truth when all around him were seduced by Hitler.  Doesn't this show how liberalism and Christianity can nurture human excellence rather than the debasing "joyless quest for joy"?

I have developed some of these points in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Xenophon said...

A good analysis of the much-discussed letter of 1933 and its complete misinterpretation by Altman. Strauss may have been reading Caesar and Virgil in 1933 with some vague idea of a "new" Roman-like imperial regime. Perhaps he saw Italian fascism- which at that time did not yet show anti-Semitic tendencies- as the better embodiment of "fascist, authoritarian, imperial principles." If he did hold that view for a brief period in the 1930s- it's hard to be sure- he surely came to abandon it, preferring the classic polis (which could include elements of democracy in a mixed regime) to the imperialistic empire. He could have learned from studying ancient writers such as Aristotle, Xenophon, Thucydides and Herodotus about the limits and defects of such imperialistic empires. But as he later wrote to Lowith after the war, he saw it as unlikely that the classic polis could be restored in the modern world. So perhaps modern liberalism could perhaps merit more consideration.

Larry Arnhart said...


Thanks for this. This is a good statement of what is probably the best reading of this letter in the context of Strauss's later development.

Alcibiades said...

Interesting question on Strauss and the "shabby monster". Yet I think we ought to be careful about what the "shabby monster" might be, and it could very well be liberal democracy as a whole. After all, it was liberal democracy which brought the Nazis to power. Whatever appeal the social democrats had in Germany in 1928 had eroded by 1932. If such radical change can happen in four years, it could shift again just as easily. I think it is important, here, to be mindful that the spring of 1933 was a time of radical changes...nobody during that time would have known that the Nazis would devolve into some 12 year long rump. For all Strauss and Lowith knew, all of the changes that the Nazis imposed could be gone by summer.

This is, of course, the weakness of liberal democracy; it is fickle. It changes with whatever passing fancy takes hold of the times. This is why, I suspect, the right-wing shift "says nothing against the principles of the right," because the right Strauss is referring to seems to be a kind of monarchist, old-Junker right, not a fascistic right.

I tend to think that this early Strauss needs to be understood as having European bearings with respect to conservatism, and conservatism in Europe is all about maintaining hierarchical, monarchic values in defiance of economic and political liberalism. Isn't that what Strauss is referring to, when he refers to Caesar and "debellare superbos"?

The "proud" here seem to be Hitler and the Nazis, but who is the emperor? Well, we already have an emperor in exile (Kaiser Wilhelm II). We also have a president (von Hindenberg), a good old fashioned Prussian Junker who embodies the kind of authoritative, aristocratic, patrician values that seem to have gone missing in Weimar. Strauss seems, to me at least, to be saying (in a delicate way) that these aristocratic forces need to assert some control over "the shabby monster" (be it in its Nazi or social-democratic form).

What does this all mean? Well, I have difficulty seeing this letter as a call for Weimar, limited government and capitalism. Instead, I see it as a call for the Junkers to say, "Okay kids, you've had your fun with liberal constitutionalism and elections. Time to go back to your farms and workshops, and leave the governing to us, like you used to do."

That's my take on it.

Clifford Bates said...


I think Xenophon might be on to something here. Also we need to see how shameful liberal regimes were behaving in 1933-39 were behaving toward Hitler. One did not see from liberal state a firm resistance to him or what he had in store for the Jews. Rather in 34-36 it was the Italian and Austrian Fascists who were the most strong against the Hitler regime and the Nazis. Also the Polish regime rule by PiƂsudski (no liberal democrat he), who with the Italians turned to France to Crush Hitler early, but liberal France was not interested.. and so went history.