Political Enigmas and Spiritual Problems

People throw the word “courage” around too glibly, and the word should rarely apply to historians.  Yet we might possibly call the German historian Fritz Fischer and the work he did in the early-mid 1960’s courageous.  In the aftermath of W.W. II and the collapse of Nazism, Germany found itself divided and at the center of the Cold War.  The trauma of the 20th century played out in their backyard.  They had to comes to terms with their past and their place in the world.  Understandably, most everyone said something like:

  • Nazism was horrible and we have much to answer for.  But, it was a 12 year “blip on the radar.”
  • We caused W.W. II . . . and that was wrong.  But . . . we must understand that W.W. II was a byproduct of the unjust Treaty of Versailles.
  • What made that treaty so unjust was that Germany wanted peace in 1914.  But instead, we found ourselves encircled by England, France, and Russia.  Some may say we started W.W. I, but if we did, we did so out of self-defense.  We were just minding our own business, but other countries sought to “snuff us out.”
  • Thus, when we talk about helping to shape a new peaceful order of nations, we can draw on the vast majority of our history to do so.

Fischer argued instead that in fact, Germany pursued an aggressive policy leading up to both conflicts.  If they faced “encirclement” from other nations in 1914 that had everything to do with Germany’s own drive to dominate Europe themselves.  Certainly Hitler and the Nazi’s had racial aims that had almost nothing to do with the Germany of 1914.  But . . . their territorial and economic aims remained remarkably similar.  In these policy areas the Nazi regime simply picked up where Germany left off decades prior.

In making such arguments Fischer obviously made himself extremely unpopular.  He directly challenged Germany’s sense of history and sense of identity.  Provided that his arguments came from a genuine seeking of truth and not from a masochistic, cynical self-loathing, the term “courageous” might apply.

I find Fischer’s arguments persuasive.  He cites many instances of Germany planning for a long time to expand its influence, an influence it “deserved” because of its economic and military power.  Even the academic elite of Germany joined in, as Johannes Haller wrote,

Let the German nation arise, strong and invincible, only in the greatest danger conscious of all her strength.  Let her reclaim the place in the world that is hers, the place that she once had that was taken from her in the ignoble times of her weakness.  Let her begin again what she was in the long gone–mistress of the north and east, champion of German culture, and safeguard of western civilization against the tyranny of Asiatic barbarism.

As early as 1903 the scholar Erich Marcks wrote that, “the old liberalism is dead,” and that

the idea of increased state autonomy, the idea of power, has replaced it.  It is this idea that inspires and guides leading men everywhere.

It is amusing to see how the “Germany as playing defense” school of thought deals with certain comments of high-ranking German officials just before W.W. I.  Germany’s plan, for example, to fight a general European war involved willfully violating Belgian neutrality–a neutrality guaranteed by international treaty.  Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg called this guarantee a “scrap of paper.”  German apologist Egmont Zechlin called this statement, a mere  “figure of speech,” an expression of “mood.”  It is not likely that the Belgians themselves thought much of this “mood” in August 1914 when Germany invaded unprovoked and invented a blatant lie to justify the invasion.  This reminds me of the ingenious response Marty Dibirgy received to his question some time ago:

What struck me about Fischer’s book World Power or Decline, was not so much his main argument, which I already agreed with.  What I found surprising was the philosophy that lay behind Germany’s aggressive actions.  While I disagree with Germany’s apologists, I concur with them on one point.  The belief that one must continually advance, expand, “seize the day,” and so on, was hardly limited to Germany.  Most European intellectuals said likewise.  Darwinism, among other intellectual fads, filled the mind’s of men with the idea that one must continually grow or perish.  The idea may have been first expressed by Alcibiades.  When advocating for an expedition to Sicily, Thucydides has him say to the Athenian Assembly,

What reason can we give ourselves for hesitating? What excuse can we give our allies for denying them aid? We have given them our word under oath to protect them and now we are saying they never helped us? Our treaty with them was not for them to come to Athens and help us but to harass our enemies in Sicily and prevent them from attacking us. This they did. Like all great imperial powers we have acquired our dominion by our readiness to stand by anyone, barbarian or Greek, who asked for our help. If we sit by and do nothing or make distinctions on the basis of nationality when people ask our help, we will not only add little to our empire but we will probably run the risk of losing it altogether. Wise men are not content to repel the attack of a superior power, they anticipate it. We cannot regulate at our pleasure the extent of our empire. Given our position, we must neither relax our hold on our subjects nor give up our plans to attack and rule over others. For if we do not rule over them, we will be ruled over by them! We cannot afford the luxury of inaction like those who are our subjects unless we wish to exchange places with them and become subjected to them.

The debates surrounding the origins of W.W. I and who one should primarily blame can engage and fascinate, but most miss that the real cause of the war lay in Europe’s spiritual restlessness.  The Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment initially spurred on some notable cultural and intellectual innovation.  By the end of the 19th century, however, all we had left was a pointless, restless, unease.  We must move so we do not die.  But in what direction should we move?  Where should we go?

In his book Nihilism, Father Seraphim Rose (then just Eugene Rose) called this malaise “Vitalism.”

The chief intellectual impetus for Vitalism has been a rejection of the realist/scientific view of the world, which simplifies things and “dries them out” of any emotional life.  Unfortunately, however much the Vitalist might yearn for the ‘spiritual’ or the ‘mystical,’ he will never look to Christian truth to fulfill this need, for Christianity for them is as ‘outdated’ for him as the most dedicated rationalist.

The Christian truth which the Enlightenment undermined and rationalism attacked is no mere philosophy, but the Source, the Truth of life and salvation, and once there begins among the multitude a conviction that Christianity no longer remains credible, the result will be not an urbane skepticism imagined by the Enlightenment, but a spiritual catastrophe of enormous dimensions, one whose effect will make itself felt in every area of life and thought.

Towards the end of the 19th century, a restlessness and desperation had begun to steal into the hearts of a select few of Europe’s intellectual elite.  This restlessness has been the chief psychological impetus for Vitalism; it forms the raw material that demagogues and craftsmen of human hearts may play upon.

Fascist and National Socialist regimes show us what happens when such craftsmen utilize this restlessness for their own purposes.   It may seem strange to some that such restlessness would manifest itself in places that had reached the seeming pinnacle of human cultural and political achievement, but such manifestations should not surprise us . . . .

In such phenomena “activity” serves as an escape–an escape from boredom, meaninglessness, and most profoundly from the emptiness that takes possession of the heart that has abandoned God and refuses to know their own selves.

In politics, the most successful forms of this impulse have Mussolini’s cult of action and violence, and Hitler’s darker cult of “blood and soil.”   Vitalism, in its quest for life, smells of Death.

I love Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog.  Like so many others I find him broadminded, engaging, and properly provocative.  His most recent tome, The Complacent Class, makes some timely arguments about the state of the union.  He asserts that Americans have grown lazy.  We prefer being comfortable to a challenge.  We spend time with people just like us, and modern technology allows us to pick only the music, food, movies, etc. that we know we will like.  More than ever, we live in self-contained loops, and this has grave implications of for our culture.

I usually agree with Cowen and most of what I read about the book seems persuasive.  But one of the key supports to his arguments is the apparent fact that Americans move around and change jobs much less than they used to.  Perhaps this is a byproduct of some of the other changes in society.  Cowen calls this a serious negative, but I’m not so sure.  Putting down roots will not help build local communities if we decide to stay inside on our screens.  But the wandering psychological restlessness prevalent from 1850-1930 helped contribute to two devastating world wars.  For all of his movement and desperation to seek a challenge, how much did Alexander the Great grow as a person?  A cursory examination of his life hints more at degeneration than growth.

Cowen apparently thinks of growth in terms of seeking a challenge, conquering it, and then moving on to a new challenge.  He’s onto something.  But a tree continually transplanted will never flourish.  The unseen growth of roots in a plant are what really count.  Cowen equates movement with embracing risk, which certainly applies at times.  On some occasions, however, movement can be about avoiding risk, avoiding problems, avoiding the challenge of real growth by going somewhere else.  The desert monks of centuries ago recorded this anecdote, which all of us do well to heed:

A brother said to a hermit, “My thoughts wander, and I am troubled.”  He answered, “Go on sitting in your cell, and thoughts will come back from your wanderings.  If a donkey is tethered, her foal skips about but always comes back to her.  It is like that for anyone who for God’s sake sits patiently in his cell.  Though his thoughts wander, they will come back to God again.”


The Tyranny in “Freedom”

In his classic work Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton uses a masterful analogy.  In discussing the relationship between authority and adventure, he writes,

Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

As good Americans we tend to believe that absolute freedom and tyranny lie at opposite poles.  We are mistaken. Instead, they have a tendency to bend around and shake hands.  Plato recognized this long ago in his Republic. After discussing various forms of government in Book VII and how the good in each gets perverted, he turns his attention to democracies:

The ruin of oligarchy, [said Socrates] is the ruin of democracy; the same disease magnified and intensified by liberty overmasters democracy — the truth being that the excess of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction; and this is the case in vegetable and animal life, but above all in forms of government . . .

The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.   . . . And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.

Socrates continues in the discussion to say that democracies create “a new kind of drone.”

I thought about both Plato and Chesterton when listening to a reaction from one commentator on the Supreme Court’s decision on homosexual marriage.  He agreed with the decision not for legal or moral reasons (which I would disagree with but at least understand in part), but because, “thankfully, the Court recognizes that we live in the 21st century.”  That is, the Court should essentially approve of whatever we happen to be doing at any given time.*  This may look like freedom, but in fact enslaves us to a particular moment without any benefit of perspective. Maybe we must come to terms with the fact that this is what democracy means now.  Perhaps it has always been so and we failed to recognize it.  In any case, this method leaves ourselves only to the walls inside our own heads.

This is why “great” revolutions often end up making things much worse than the regimes they overthrew.  Of course no one intends this at the outset or even recognizes the possibility, partly because revolutionaries perceive a truth, or part of the truth, with crystal clarity.  This truth will give them the motivation they need for revolution.  But because this truth is only part of the whole Truth, it leads to a frozen dogmatism.  The fences melt away in our rush to embrace freedom, and all end up huddling at the center whether they wish it or not.

One of the great virtues of Nicolas Berdyaev’s The Russian Revolution is his keen vision that sees past the political aspects of Communism and into its spiritual core.  Of course the Soviet state adopted atheism as its official policy, but Berdyaev puts the roots of communist origins within the deep and ardent tradition of Russian spirituality.

Anyone who has read 19th century Russian literature recognizes the depths of profound insight and feeling those masters tapped.  Their intensity of feeling led them to examine the nature of suffering perhaps as no other epoch has.  The first modern globalization movement allowed more sensitive souls more exposure to more suffering.  Some, like Dostoevsky, took suffering and had it transformed by the cross.  But others failed to do so, and developed what we might call a “naked” hatred of suffering.  As one early Bolshevik proclaimed, “Suffering has no right to exist.”  Everyone must be happy.

This rejection of the meaning of suffering cannot bring one closer to our fellow men, because of course we do suffer and always will.  To reject suffering sets one up to reject the experience of mankind, and then, mankind itself.  Suffering without the Cross gives way to tyranny.

The early revolutionaries had within them a deep asceticism.  All things not geared fully towards improving the material lot of the people must be expunged.  Beauty itself became a debauched and corrupting luxury.  Everyone must do without so that nothing ever gets wasted, either in the mind or on the ledger sheet.  Such asceticism, without grace, again leads to tyranny. But let us not miss the fact that this tyranny has its roots in a certain idea of freedom.  Communists wished the people to be free from suffering, free from worry about the future, free from the competitive aspects of capitalist societies.  Now we know that such freedom leads to a drabness and narrowing of life.

Soviet Architecture

Berdyaev wrote in 1931 and he had a keen insight for the westerners to whom he wrote.  Westerners at that time and now, fundamentally are skeptics, and they assumed that the Soviets shared this basic outlook.  Not so.  The communist has deep (though misplaced) faith, and the people understand and embrace this faith.  The state could not hold together for any other reason.  This faith flies in the face of “evidence” against it.  Most communists rejected the physics of the early 20th century, for example, because Einstein and others smacked of mysticism, and we must exorcise all mysticism so that the people will have true happiness.  In the end pure rationalism becomes entirely irrational and ridiculous.  Still they press on.  Our failure to recognize this faith led us to combat it by all the wrong means.  One thinks of Nixon trying to impress Khruschev by showing him better refrigerators.  It showed our misunderstanding and our bankruptcy.  Was this all we had to offer?  If Khruschev was not impressed, we should be surprised.

The first part of Berdyaev’s book focuses on the spiritual failures of the revolutionaries themselves, but then he adroitly and appropriately turns the tables.  How did such a movement come about?  If the revolutionaries showed great spiritual hunger, we must consider the fact that churches in their locales could not feed them.  The rise of communism comes from the failure not just of capitalism to produce a just society, but from the Church to live out its calling.  He writes,

Christianity has not put its truth into full living practice.  It has found its realization either in conventional formula or in theocracies which deliberately ignore freedom (which is the fundamental condition of any genuine realization), or it has practiced a system of duality, as in modern history, when its power has weakened.  And therefore Communism has made its appearance as a punishment and a reminder, as a perversion of some genuine truth.

As I and others lament the recent high court decision on the validity of homosexual marriage we do well to follow Berdyaev’s example and point our fingers in the right place.  For what we see before us comes fundamentally from the Church’s failure to explain the true nature of marriage not as an emotional bond between two people, but as an image of salvation itself, the marriage of Heaven and Earth.  In Eastern churches, the bride and groom process around the congregation during the service wearing crowns.  These crowns represent crowns of the martyrs.  Marriage, like monasticism, is a kind of martyrdom, a death out of which new life emerges. What we see before us should serve as a “punishment and a reminder” of what we should have proclaiming and living out all along.


*One sees this in many places in our culture.  Take, for example, the rise of graphic novels.  Rather than be comfortable with the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, we hear ardent insistence that “graphic novels are just like books.”  In my limited experience it seems obligatory for authors of young-adult fiction to include a mean teacher in the story who fails to allow a student to hand in a book-report on a graphic novel.  The theme is the same —  whatever we happen to be doing must be affirmed by all.