How the Nazis Lost the War on the West

Three refugees saw the Third Reich as the enemy of civilisation. Today we can learn from their example

Daniel Johnson

It was Horace Walpole, that pioneer of all things Gothick, picturesque and romantic, who was also the first to imagine the decline and fall of European civilisation. In 1774, he wrote to a friend: “The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, a Virgil at Mexico, and a Newton at Peru. At last, some curious traveller will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St Paul’s, like the editions of Balbec and Palmyra.”

Today, 240 years later, we no longer smile at what was for Walpole a jeu d’esprit — his reference to Baalbek and Palmyra in Lebanon and Syria respectively betrays the bibliophile’s flourish, inspired by British travellers who produced the first accurate and elegantly illustrated accounts of these magnificent Graeco-Roman ruins. For us, the thought of a ruined and desolate Europe is no mere fantasy, but a real possibility. After all, the continent has been devastated twice in the last century and the eastern half has still only partially recovered from that catastrophe.

The West has not, as Walpole’s remark reveals, always been coterminous with Europe. For his era, the West still meant the New World, the Americas. As Giorgios Varouxakis has shown, however, the first to use “the West” in its modern sense of a Western civilisation that includes both Europe and America was the French founder of Positivism, Auguste Comte, in 1848. Comte himself used the term “the republic of the West”, but his English follower Richard Congreve took the idea further in 1866, proclaiming that “the leadership of the human race is invested in the West” — a leadership, however, that was not imperial but cultural, the “advanced guard of Humanity”. The Positivists, like the Hegelians before them, believed fervently that history was on the side of the West, which the rest would emulate in due course.

For the subsequent century and a half, this Western vanguard has consciously acted as a model for mankind. Throughout that time, the British and later the Americans, with help from other English-speaking peoples, have borne the main burden of defending Western civilisation, at great cost to themselves but incalculable benefit to the rest, including Europeans. Now, it seems, many Europeans may be tiring of the West’s self-appointed mission. They exhibit the symptoms of war-weariness, albeit without having needed to defend themselves for decades. Such an attitude would be culpable even if the West lacked enemies; but today, as in the past, they are legion.

Looking back seven decades to the late 1930s and ’40s, the last time the West found itself in such an enfeebled state, we find that a few voices were raised against the prevailing fatalism. I want to recall three who are either forgotten or remembered for the wrong reasons.

Vienna during the interwar years was a microcosm both of the best of the West and the worst of its enemies. From my grandfather, Dr Thomas Hunt, I have inherited a Who’s Who of Austria in 1937. He must have used it when visiting fellow physicians in Vienna, some of whom he helped to find a new home in London when they fled after the Anschluss in May 1938. The book still includes hundreds of Jewish luminaries, even those already abroad. The writer Stefan Zweig, for instance, is listed as resident at “Hallamstreet, London W1”, but Sigmund Freud’s address is still “Wien IX Berggasse 19”; a year later he would forced to seek refuge in Hampstead. Vienna in the 1930s was the first laboratory where anti-Western pathologies could be studied in isolation. Then the lunatics took over the asylum.

In 1937, on the eve of the Anschluss — the Nazi annexation that extinguished his native Austria — Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi published a notable tract for the times: Totaler Staat-Totaler Mensch. Today Coudenhove-Kalergi is revered as the pre-war prophet of the European idea, which he propagated tirelessly under the slogan of “Paneuropa”. But it is revealing to discover that by “Europe” he meant essentially the West, which he saw as the essential bulwark against the threat of totalitarianism, both Fascist and Communist. His book culminates in a paean of praise for the freedom-loving British, quoting “Rule Britannia”: “Britons never shall be slaves!” Rightly, he intuited that continental Europe would turn to the offshore islanders in its hour of need. He held up to other Europeans as examples of true “federalism” the British Empire and the United States. He saw that the survival of Western civilisation was at stake: Europe was polarised between England, the home of democracy, peace and the rule of law, and Germany, the “total state” based on dictatorship, war and the rule of a master race. Like so many others, he clung to the delusion that peace still had a chance. However, the Spanish Civil War was already a memento mori for Europe; Spanish émigrés had already seen their country sacrificed on the altar of ideology. 

My yellowing copy of this book is inscribed by Coudenhove-Kalergi to another great European intellectual, the ambassador of the Spanish Republic to Washington, who was by this time already in exile: “A mon cher Ami, Salvador de Madariaga, avec mes voeux sincères pour 1938. Vienna.” Within a few months of this inscription, Coudenhove-Kalergi would be forced to flee from Hitler, just as Madariaga had fled from Franco. Europe was suddenly awash with refugees — especially Jewish refugees. Many found a safe haven in Britain: the house just outside Oxford where Madariaga lived now has a commemorative blue plaque. When the brightest and the best start to leave — as many of the French Jews are now emigrating to escape the intolerable levels of anti-Semitism there — it is a sure sign of danger.

Another pre-war refugee whose voice has been unaccountably lost in obscurity is now even timelier: the Anglo-Hungarian philosopher Aurel Kolnai. Like many other Jewish émigrés, Kolnai fled the suffocating atmosphere on the Continent — from the Horthy regime in Budapest to the equally authoritarian Dollfuss and Schuschnigg governments in Vienna — and once settled in England he set out to analyse the threat presented by the Nazi ideology in far greater detail than anyone had hitherto attempted. The result was The War Against the West, published in 1938 by Victor Gollancz’s New Left Book Club — even though Kolnai, a liberal conservative who had converted to Catholicism, could not have been less enamoured of the Communist fellow-travellers lionised by Gollancz.

Kolnai’s great achievement was to show that Nazi ideology was animated by a hatred of Western civilisation. Nothing less than its total defeat would suffice. “The Western cause does not mean a nation set against another nation, not even a party fighting another party: it means the world of civilisation organised in moral self-awareness versus the rebels to mankind.” He was clear that “the conflict between the West and Nazi Germany is inseparably connected with the inner problem of Western society.” Kolnai also saw that the enemies of Western civilisation had already combined “in an embryonic form” during the Great War. We know that as a young man in Budapest, he ardently prayed for an Allied victory over the Central Powers, even though the defeat of his Hungarian countrymen led to the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, revolution, counter-revolution and his own exile. He warned that “the Soul of the West is everything. There must be a spark to kindle the fire; there must be a living and active core around which to align mankind: the West aware of the menace of its Foe, and all that is Western and akin to Western essence, outside the West.”

Kolnai strove to be objective about the Nazis, and with hindsight overdid the effort to do justice to a phenomenon he loathed: “I set myself the task of proving, not disproving, that National Socialism is a thing of grandeur.” One must remember that he was writing in 1938, before the Holocaust or even Kristallnacht. But his earlier phenomenological studies of hatred, arrogance and disgust — each a classic of its kind — were useful in explaining the emotional appeal of Nazi ideology. He had himself studied under some of the finest minds in the Austro-German culture that the Nazis destroyed: in Vienna with the Classical Liberal economist Ludwig von Mises and the Logical Positivist Moritz Schlick; later in Freiburg with the Phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. As Bernard Williams and David Wiggins write in their biographical introduction to his Selected Papers (Ethics, Value and Reality, London 1977), Kolnai cherished the West for its refusal to restrict public discussion. He lauded the superiority of a society based on rationality and decency over one based on myth and militarism, but he also had a profound sense of the West’s fragility. This Jewish convert to Catholicism rejected the destructive tendencies of modern liberalism: its tendency towards big government, its rejection of any objective values, its antipathy to privilege or hierarchy. He treated Nazism as a manifestation of “daemonic evil”, the Satanic adversary of the Judaeo-Christian civilisation to the defence of which he devoted the best years of his life. Having performed his wartime service of analysing Nazi thought in order to immunise the West against its influence, Kolnai turned his attention to the dangers inherent in humanity’s Promethean attempt to build a godless post-war world amid the ruins of Europe. In a 1944 article on “The Humanitarian versus the Religious Attitude”, he summed up this  critique: “By ‘emancipating’ the Image from its Exemplar, the privileged Creature from its sovereign Creator, [man] has virtually destroyed his humanity.”

My final pioneering analyst of the Nazi war against the West is Leo Strauss, who is still highly controversial in the United States, his adoptive home, where he is seen by a largely hostile academy as the eminence grise of neoconservatism, a kind of modern Machiavelli who preached an esoteric, elitist and martial doctrine. A new book, Leo Strauss: Man of Peace by Robert Howse (CUP, £19.99), attempts a liberal reinterpretation by distancing Strauss from the Straussian “cult”, especially prominent conservatives such as Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, and Irving and Bill Kristol. Howse makes much of the fact that Strauss quarrelled for a time with Bloom, and that neither Mansfield nor either of the Kristols actually studied with him. Other neoconservatives who were pupils of Strauss, such as Paul Wolfowitz, drew the same conclusion, however; namely, that there is a moral duty to oppose tyranny.

It does not seem to me that the Strauss who emerges from Howse’s study, which focuses on his views about war and peace, international law and legality, really challenges the established view of him as a defender of the grand tradition of Western civilisation and an idiosyncratic critic of modern Western liberalism. Irving Kristol summarised Strauss very well: “In the battle between the ‘ancients’ and the ‘moderns’, he was on the side of the ‘ancients’ . . . Himself a victim of Nazism, he defended liberal democracy while keeping it intellectually at a distance. He was no right-wing ideologue, as some of his critics have claimed, nor did he fit easily into contemporary conservative discourse.”

Strauss was a German rather than an Austrian Jew, whose emigration began already in 1932, when he moved from Berlin to Paris and later to England before finally settling in the United States in 1937. It was in early 1941, before Pearl Harbor, while teaching at the New School of Social Research in New York, that he gave a lecture on “German Nihilism”. While the lecture is in part a response to a then-popular but ephemeral book, Hermann Rauschning’s Revolution of Nihilism, it ranges much more widely. Indeed, it is in reality a reckoning with the German thinkers whom Strauss had revered and in some cases known personally, but who “knowingly or ignorantly paved the way for Hitler” or even served him: Oswald Spengler, Moeller van den Bruck, Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger and Martin Heidegger. Strauss spoke from the heart about the temptations of the currents of thought that culminated in the Third Reich: “Nihilism is the rejection of the principles of civilisation as such . . . I said civilisation, and not: culture. For I have noticed that many nihilists are great lovers of culture, as distinguished from, and opposed to, civilisation. Besides, the term culture leaves it undetermined what the thing is which is to be cultivated (blood and soil or the mind), whereas the term civilisation designates at once the process of making man a citizen, and not a slave; an inhabitant of cities, and not a rustic; a lover of peace, and not of war; a polite being, and not a ruffian.”  

Strauss then refines his definition of nihilism to embrace relativism, for “every interpretation of science or morals in terms of races, or of nations, or of cultures, is strictly speaking nihilistic . . . Civilisation is inseparable from learning, from the desire to learn from anyone who can teach us something worthwhile. The nationalist interpretation of science or philosophy implies that we cannot really learn anything worthwhile from people who do not belong to our nation or our culture.” For Strauss, German nihilism is inseparable from destruction: “There is reason for believing that the business of destroying, and killing, and torturing is a source of almost disinterested pleasure to the Nazis as such.” Nihilism rejects the distinction between just and unjust wars, indeed the very idea of a law of nations, in favour of “a radicalised form of German militarism”.

Strauss concurs with Nietzsche that the whole tenor of German thought since the 18th century had been to reject modern civilisation, which is above all English (“Je méprise Locke“, as the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling is supposed to have said). The English have “the very un-German prudence and moderation not to throw out the baby with the bath [sic], i.e. the prudence to conceive of the modern ideals as a reasonable adaptation of the old and eternal ideal of decency, of the rule of law, and of that liberty which is not license, to changed circumstances.” Strauss then returns to the war, then still confined to Europe: “The present Anglo-German war is then of symbolic significance. In defending modern civilisation against German nihilism, the English are defending the eternal principles of civilisation.” The Germans have shown themselves to be a provincial nation, while the English deserve their empire because (and here he quotes Virgil’s Aeneid) they have learned how to spare the vanquished and to crush the arrogant.

What can we learn from the cases of Coudenhove-Kalergi, Kolnai and Strauss? We could have discussed other refugees from Vienna or Berlin, such as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper. Indeed, Strauss’s lecture anticipates Popper’s classic The Open Society and its Enemies, which appeared four years later in 1945. Strauss lauds the open society, but as an homme serieux himself is alive to the reasons why the Nazis abominated it: “Seriousness, and the ceremonial of seriousness — the flag and the oath to the flag — are the distinctive features of the closed society.” But all these intellectuals shipwrecked in the hurricane that engulfed central Europe had something in common: they were desperate to construct defences against the ideas that threatened to destroy civilisation — and them with it.

Today we face multiple threats to that civilisation, both internal and external, that are, if not as direct as that posed by Nazi Germany, perhaps even more difficult to resist. What we lack is any equivalent of the refugees who came to our aid at a time when the intellectual balance of power was by no means one-sided. Compared to the battle of ideas that was fought and won 70 years ago, we lack intellectual firepower. Fortunately, so do our adversaries.

For as long as our civilisation survives, the West’s enemies will see its mere existence as a provocation. They wish to exploit our democratic system in order either to return us to the dark age despotisms of the past, or to create a tabula rasa on which to erect their utopian fantasies of the future. Fear is the foe, no less formidable for its absence of rationale. These pandemics of panic must be distinguished from the self-criticism of an open society that is confident of its own survival. The dream of perpetual peace is always in danger of being extinguished by the nightmare of incessant war, but the West has enough grasp of reality to wake up in time. Like Bunyan’s pilgrim, the West has always made progress: “Who so beset him round/ With dismal stories/ Do but themselves confound — / His strength the more is.” The war against the West will never end. Neither will the vigilance of its defenders.

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