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Reactionary Modernism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 January 2010


‘Reactionary modernism’ is a term happily coined by the historian and sociologist Jeffrey Herf to refer to a current of German thought during the interwar years. It indicates the attempt to ‘reconcil[e] the antimodernist, romantic and irrationalist ideas present in German nationalism’ with that ‘most obvious manifestation of means–ends rationality … modern technology’. Herf's paradigm examples of this current of thought are two best-selling writers of the period: Oswald Spengler, author of the massive domesday scenario The Decline of the West in 1917 and, fifteen years later, of Man and Technics, and Ernst Jünger, the now centenarian chronicler of the war in which he was a much-decorated hero, whose main theoretical work was Der Arbeiter in 1932. The label is also applied by Herf to such intellectual luminaries as the legal theorist and apologist for the Third Reich, Carl Schmitt, and more contentiously Martin Heidegger. At a less elevated level, reactionary modernism also permeated the writings of countless, now forgotten engineers, who were inspired at once by the new technology, Nietzschean images of Promethean Übermenschen, and an ethos of völkisch nationalism

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 1999

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1 Herf, Jeffrey, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 1.Google Scholar

2 Quoted in Zimmermann, Michael E., Heidegger's Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics and Art (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp.9Google Scholar and 10.

3 Ibid., p. 65.

4 Quoted in Herf, Reactionary Modernism, p. 2.

5 Ibid., p. 16.

6 Ibid., p. 120.

7 Spengler, , The Decline of the West: Form and Actuality, 2vols (New york: Knopf, 1939), vol. II, p. 507Google Scholar

8 Kant, , Critique of Practical Reason (Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976).Google Scholar,

9 Nietzsche, , The Will to Power (New York: Vintage, 1968), §567.Google Scholar

10 Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the Early 1970s (New Jersey: Humanities, 1990), p. 93.Google Scholar

11 Beyond Good and Evil, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: Modern Library, 1968), §11.Google Scholar

12 This and the following quotations from Dilthey come from many sources, including his Gesammelte Schriften (Leipzig: Teuber, 1923Google Scholar) and Dilthey: Selected Writings, ed.Rickman, H. P. (Cambridge University press, 1986Google Scholar). All of them are referenced in my ‘Verstehen, Holism and Fascism’, in Verstehen and Humane Understanding, ed.O'Hear, A. (Cambridge University Press, 1996Google Scholar). Let me repeat one point I made in that article: there are ‘humane’ and ‘rationalistic’ aspects of Dilthey's thought which sit uncomfortably alongside the ‘historicist’ aspects on which I am currently dwelling.

13 Lukacs, Georg, The Destruction of Reason (London: Merlin, 1980), pp.536f.Google Scholar

14 Spengler, , Decline of the West, Vol.1, pp.41Google Scholar, 22, 6 and 21.

15 Spengler, , Man and Technics: A Contribution to the Philosophy of Life (London: Allen & Unwin, 1932), pp. 77Google Scholar and 16.

16 Ibid., pp. 84 and lOff.

17 Quoted in Nevin, Thomas, Ernst Jünger and Germany: Into the Abyss 1914–1945 (London: Constable, 1997), p. 79.Google Scholar

18 Jünger, Ernst, Der Arbeiter, in Essays II (Stuttgart: Klett, 1964), p. 42.Google Scholar

19 Ernst, Nevinfüinger, pp. 135Google Scholar and 140.

20 Jünger, Ernst, Der Arbeiter, pp.159Google Scholar, 164 and 42.

21 Quoted in Glaser, Hermann, Spiesser-Ideologie von der Zerstörung des deutschen Geistes im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Freiburg: Rombach, 1964), p. 99.Google Scholar

22 For Schmitt's views, see his Political Romanticism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986) and Gottfried, Paul, Carl Schmitt (London: Claridge, 1990Google Scholar).

23 Spengler, ,The Decline of the West, vol.I, pp.41Google Scholar and 427. I discuss Spengler and Jünger's mythopoeia in my Modern Mythology: The Case of Reactionary Modernism’, History of the Human Sciences, 9, 1996.Google Scholar

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26 Jünger, , Der Arbeiter, pp. 89Google Scholar and 50.

27 ‘Total mobilization’, in The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader, Wolin, R. ed., (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), p. 128.Google Scholar

28 Heidegger, , The Question of Being (New Haven: College & University Press, 1956), p. 43Google Scholar. This article discusses Jünger's 1950 essay Über die Linie, in which he critically revisits the themes of Der Arbeiter.

29 Heidegger, , The Question Concerning Technology (and other essays) (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 27.Google Scholar

30 Heidegger, , The Question of Being, p. 37.Google Scholar

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