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Total learning: 15 lessons Time: 1 semester

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Week 14. ‘Conservative Revolution’ and Reactionary Modernism in Interwar Germany: Transfers, Entanglements and Radical Politics in Eastern Europe. Conclusions: Centers and Peripheries of European Modernity after the Great War

Following the earlier discussion of the post-imperial Russian space, the final class of the course will look at the other ‘center’ defeated in WWI and re-constituted in its aftermath: Germany. While spared the worst of the revolutionary violence, interwar Germany – in its Weimar incarnation – was deeply affected by postwar trauma and produced several intellectual and political responses. The most interesting and seminal of these was probably the reactionary modernist tendency embodied in the concept of conservative revolution. In Jeffrey Herf’s terms, these thinkers proposed a ‘reconciliation between the antimodernist, romantic, and irrationalist ideas present in German nationalism and … modern technology,’ effectively merging ‘technology and unreason.’ The class will examine the views of several intellectual figures, e.g., Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt, Hans Freyer, Oswald Spengler, and Moeller van den Bruck. All these thinkers were shaped by the war experience (admittedly, to various extents) and proposed an anti-liberal, nationalist, and ‘heroic’ reinterpretation of modernity. Some of them rejected it altogether, but the most interesting members of this cohort displayed certain ‘productive tensions’ (Roger Woods) that made their works ambiguous and, often, sophisticated. The carrying over of military values and the ‘heroic’ war ethos into peacetime society was another defining feature of the current. Their ideological affinities with Nazism were undeniable, although most of them (pace Schmitt or Heidegger) were ambiguous about supporting it completely. However, the impact of these thinkers on Nazi worldviews and policies should not be minimized. The primacy of ideology and the irrational and palingenetic elements in Nazism owed a lot to the intellectual baggage of reactionary modernism. The conservative revolution also had its reverberations throughout Eastern Europe (even in Soviet Russia). We will examine these entanglements, concluding with a synthetic discussion about the shifts in the hierarchy of centers and peripheries of European modernity during the interwar period.

Readings:

  • Herf, Reactionary Modernism, chapters 1 (“The paradox of reactionary modernism”), 1-17 and 2 (“The conservative revolution in Weimar”), 18-48.
  • Woods, The Conservative Revolution in the Weimar Republic, Introduction (1-6) and chapter 1 (“The Conservative Revolution and the First World War”), 7-28.
  • David-Fox et al., Fascination and Enmity, chapter 10 (Dietrich Beyrau, ‘Mortal Embrace:’ Germans and (Soviet) Russians in the First Half of the Twentieth Century’), 228-240.