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The Volk and German Romanticism

The concern of conservative German intellectuals, including a large proportion of German academics, to seek a third way between the failed liberalism incarnated by the Weimar Republic and the Bolshevism which they unanimously feared was motivated by both historical and conceptual factors. On the one hand, it was motivated by such historical circumstances as the concern to redeem the German defeat in the First World War, to restore German honor and pride. But it was also spurred on by the reactionary tradition of German Volk -thought, with its stress on the historical realization and exaltation of the Germans as German, which impelled both the imperialist movement stemming from Bismarck and the National Socialist conception of the German nation. In Mein Kampf , Hitler clearly stressed the fact of belonging to the German Volk , namely the conception of nationality (Volkstum , from Volk ), as more important than the state, which was merely a means to the achievement and preservation of the higher form of human being.[42]

The Volk perspective, which is older than Nazism, was already an important current in nineteenth-century German thought. It emerged as a romantic response to the general problem of human being in modern society, the so-called condition humaine , with important ties to German romanticism and conservative thinking. The völkisch perspective, like romanticism with which it is allied, represents an approach to the problems of modern life which eschews rational solutions of any kind, includ-


ing economic analysis, social reform, and so on, in favor of an emphasis on human being in an often mystical sense. It differs from romanticism, which places primary emphasis on the individual, in the appeal to supraindividual, mystical forces and the stress on the people writ large. The importance of the individual is limited to the belonging to the group, typically the nation or the race, or both. Unlike romanticism, which is often apolitical, völkisch thought is typically related to extreme forms of political conservatism and the most virulent types of nationalism.

Völkisch ideas were typically advanced in order to counter widespread alienation held to be characteristic of modern society. The conception of alienation, understood as separation, say the separation of human being from its essence, or essential nature, is older than modernity. It has a long theological lineage, for instance in the idea that Adam and Eve, and human beings in general, were separated from God. In this view, which dominates Christianity, the purpose of human life is to overcome one's separation from the divine by finding the way back to God. This view receives a secularized development in the effort of modern thinkers to "think" the problem of the modern human being. It can be illustrated in a passage about labor that Hegel cites from Adam Smith:

But the value of labor decreases in the same proportion as the productivity of labor increases. Work becomes thus absolutely more and more dead, it becomes machine-labor, the individual's own skill becomes infinitely limited, and the consciousness of the factory worker is degraded to the utmost level of dullness. The connection between the particular sort of labor and the infinite mass of needs becomes wholly imperceptible, turns into a blind dependence. It thus happens that a far-away operation often affects a whole class of people who have hitherto satisfied their needs through it; all of a sudden it limits [their work]. makes it redundant and useless.[43]

The concern with alienation as the condition of human being in modern society is a frequent theme in modern thought in an almost bewildering variety of ways, in literature, art, and philosophy, but also in psychology, psychiatry, sociology, and other disciplines. All of these disciplines are concerned with the recognition and analysis of the phenomenon of alienation and the diagnosis of ways to achieve reconciliation, to heal the perceived dichotomy. This concern is widely present in modern political philosophy, for instance in Hobbes's view of the social contract as a necesssary evil, and in Rousseau's espousal of a political reformulation of society to reach a simple human community that is neither the state of nature nor civilization as we know it. In the period after the French Revolution, the diagnosis and supersession of alienation becomes a main theme in the thought of Hegel.[44] The dual concepts of alienation


and reconciliation are important to the views of his main successors: Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.[45] Alienation is further a main theme in Heidegger's early position and, under the guise of a concern for the historical realization of the German people, a persistent aspect of all his later thought.

The philosophical concern with the diagnosis and supersession of alienation runs parallel to a similar concern in the romantic movement, including literature, art,[46] and politics. Political romanticism found expression in such diverse tendencies as romantic traditionalism, romantic humanitarianism, and romantic nationalism. In reaction to the French Revolution, a specific form of political romanticism was created in Europe by the fear of revolutionary ideology in the writings of Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, and L. G. A. de Bonald. Philosophically, romanticism has been described as a loosely related set of views consisting in the rejection of rationalism, of the Locke-Hume philosophical axis.[47] Romanticism is said to be typified by a cluster of beliefs including idealization of social relations in contrast with the Enlightenment view, the idea of the state as a social organism, opposition to the thought of the French Revolution, sympathy for Roman Catholicism, and nationalism.[48] It has further been observed that in all its varieties, romanticism celebrates the self.[49]

The idea of the Volk features a characteristic romantic response to the problem of the separation, or alienation, supposedly typical of life in modern society. The general idea of Volksgeist , or spirit of a people, which cannot be equated with Volk ideology, its degenerate, reactionary form, appears in historical investigations, in the writings of such diverse thinkers as Burke, Montesquieu, Hume, and Voltaire. The intellectual genesis of this concept has been traced to three writers.[50] Herder, who refers to the Geist des Volkes, Geist der Nation , and Nationalgeist ; Hegel's coinage of the term "Volksgeist, " in the course of early meditations on popular religion and Christianity;[51] and the controversy involving E K. Savigny and G. F. Puchta, in the historical school of law, about the relation between the national spirit and the legal system. Rotenstreich points out that the idea of a Volksgeist provided "a descriptive concept as well as a normarive demand of faithfulness"[52] influential in politics, literature, law, and philosophy, as well as the distinction between peoples and their traditions.

The idea of a Volksgeist need not, but can, be used for specifically conservative purposes, as witness the later Nazi confusion of the distinctions between Volksgeist and race. The concept of the Volk is difficult to define, but important to grasp as a central factor in Heidegger's turn toward Nazism. According to Bourdieu, who mainly bases himself on Mosse, the völkisch perspective is an attitude toward the world, which


resists any objectification, englobing literary, historical, and philosophical sources, as well as biological and philological forms of racism, including a series of confused views regarding phantasms, technology, workers, the elite, the people, and concerning history and country.[53] Mosse stresses the filiation leading from romanticism to the idea of the Volk , which he regards as similarly irrational and emotional. He adduces a series of traits as characteristic of right-wing, völkisch thought, including the Volk as a desired unity beyond contemporary reality, "a more tangible vessel for the life force that flowed from the cosmos," a romantic pantheistic concept of nature, a view of the spirit as limited to a national entity, and a concept of man as not vanquishing or overcoming nature but as living in harmony with it.[54] Heidegger's later exaltation of allegedly misunderstood nature as physis through his conception of Gelassenheit is, with the exception of the philosophical formulation, typical of the Volk perspective. From a quasi-philosophical perspective, the Volk point of view reached its dubious high point in the insistence of Alfred Rosenberg, the chief Nazi ideologist, in his analysis of the alleged myth of the twentieth century, on soul as the interior form of race and the racial soul as the effective motor of history.[55]

Romantic thought is essentially antirationalist, directed against the Enlightenment and its legitimate achievements in the defense of reason. Whereas the Enlightenment thinker seeks a rational solution to the problems of society, founded on faith in reason, the disillusioned romantic[56] typically eschews reason in an effort to return into oneself to seek the proper attitude to life and reality. There is a clear connection between the intrinsically romantic effort to resolve the great social and political problems of the day through essentially magical solutions and the essential antirationalism common to all forms of totalitarian thought. Berlin's account of the antirationalistic, romantic approach to human life and action, including the problem of alienation, in the writings of Joseph de Maistre, an early forerunner of fascism, is an accurate description of the Volk -ideological approach to modern life which influenced Heidegger's own Nazi turning:

Human action in his [i.e., Maistre's] sense is justified only when it derives from that tendency in human beings which is directed neither to happiness nor to comfort, nor to neat, logically coherent patterns of life, nor to self-assertion and self-aggrandizement, but to the fulfillment of an unfathomable divine purpose which men cannot, and should not try to, fathom— and which they deny at their peril.[57]

In his own way, Heidegger echoes this concern in his steadfast insistence throughout his entire career on the importance of Being. It is literally


through uncognizable Being, which in his view towers over beings, or mere entities, and human being alike, that he sought to comprehend all questions concerning human being now and in the future.

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