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.