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The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in…

The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic… (1961)

by Fritz R. Stern

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A culture produces its most ardent, strident critics at times of extreme tumult and change. In “The Politics of Cultural Despair,” Fritz Stern details precisely one of those extended periods, from around the middle of the nineteenth century in Germany through the Weimar Republic. He looks at the lives and work of three people who have been largely forgotten today – Paul Lagarde, Julius Langbehn, and Moeller van den Bruck – whose modes of cultural criticism eschewed liberal, parliamentary politics and adduced ways of imagining a mystical German future which would reinvigorate the Volk.

The first critic discussed is Paul de Lagarde (1827 – 1891), a brilliant philologist and Biblical scholar, especially of the Septuagint, and polyglot. The biographical sketch that Stern offers paints a less-than-desirable picture of Lagarde. His prodigious talents were not unaccompanied by enormous ambition, and he often blamed his colleagues for the academic projects he was unable to complete. He was a sociopath, a snob, and a prig, all of which seem to be character traits of everyone considered in the book. Later in his career, Lagarde passionately took up cultural criticism, thinking that Germany was headed for permanent destruction. Everywhere he looked, he saw only decline, with a secular, Mammon-worshipping state replacing traditional German values; to replace it, he favored a kind of nationalistic “heroic vitalism” that eschewed mushy, bourgeois liberalism. He was a thoroughgoing idealist who insisted that will and character (Nietzsche and Schopenhauer reappear throughout the book in varying interpretations and misinterpretations) predominated over all else, even the corrupt German political apparatus. Lagarde proposed a solution in which the Greek, Roman, and Jewish “elements” were extirpated from the Bible, and from middle-class German Protestantism, in an attempt to create a religion of the future by synthesizing Biblical ideas with the indomitable German Geist or, as Stern calls it, “mystical nationalism with a Christian veneer.” His work in this vein would have him hailed as a prophet within his own lifetime.

Julius Langbehn had many of the same critical concerns, and tried to suggest art as a fundamental savior. His 1890 book “Rembrandt als Erzieher” (“Rembrandt as Educator”) proposed Rembrandt as a kind of salvific figure who could re-teach Germany what true art was, especially its power to save obsolescent German culture. “He had sought a national rebirth through art, but art he regarded as synonymous with mysticism, and hence a form of religion. Rembrandt was the symbol of that reform, and resurrected prophet who could destroy the false art of naturalism and, by his example, prove that the goal of art was not the creation of beauty alone, but the attainment of the most sublime and fullest truth. In the search for that truth, Langbehn believed art and religion coincided, both alike mediating between man and the divine” (p. 112-113). Langbehn also despised science and rationalism because he perceived them to be soulless, demonstrable, and positivistic. He thought that a mind before education and science was at its most creative, and called for a return to German Kindlichkeit (childlike nature) and Volksthumlichkeit (“folksiness”). Langbehn thought that a focus on art as a means of spiritual realization was the answer to Germany’s problems.

Moeller van den Bruck, author of the well-known “Das Dritte Reich,” continued the themes outlined by Lagarde, Langbehn, and others before them. He idealized the mores and folkways of Prussia, thinking them better than the decadent ones of Germany; many of these ideas, perhaps contrary to what Moeller actually wanted, led to the mythical idea of the Third Reich. In the face of Germany’s staggering and unexpected defeat in World War I, and the harsh impositions of Versailles, Moeller turned himself to the creation of a group of soi-disant Jungkonservativen (young conservative revolutionaries) who wanted Germany to her former greatness. “After Versailles, after the vindictive measures of the victors and the submission of the vanquished, Moeller’s long-standing hatred of the West as the repository of all that was old and putrid acquired specious justification. The bourgeois life and the liberal ideals had been equally loathsome to him, and his fight against both now engaged his heart and mind, and won for him a large political audience. In his espousal of a pro-Russian foreign policy and in his vision of a Third Reich he was devising new means to implement an old hope: to tear Germany from its Western course” (p. 246). Less politically extreme than the other two critics, he attempted a kind of quasi-Hegelian dialectical synthesis to bring out his personal political utopia.

In the last chapter, “From Idealism to Nihilism,” Stern synthesizes all three critics, and compares their ideas to other predominant figures of the time, including Darwin, Nietzsche and, eventually, Hitler. This book is worth five stars, had it not been for Stern’s constant implication that the critics’ scholarship and their sociopathic egotism were somehow connected. It’s almost as if he wants tell the reader that they are bad cultural critics because they were horrible people (which, for the most part, they were). This commentary, which can come across as ad hominem in its excess, does detract a bit from Stern’s otherwise spectacular scholarship.

Stern’s book is a fascinating tool for understanding the pre-War I German cultural and social ethos. All of these critics saw the gradual undoing of a Germany that they knew and loved, and then saw it replaced with a more secular and urban country, whose modern institutions – education, science, parliamentary democracy - they grew to hate. They all suffered from a staggering ignorance of political reality, and despised practicality and utility. Their idea of the perfect Germany was religious, immediate, irrational, and intuitive. In short, they were prophets without a God. ( )
2 vote kant1066 | Mar 23, 2012 |
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