Many Modernities

Jeffrey Herf begins his study of Weimar and Third Reich views on technology and culture (Reactionary Modernism) with the observation that “There is no such thing as modernity in general” (1). There are instead “national societies,” each of which becomes modern in its own way.

German modernity provides a paradoxical illustration. When modernity is described in dichotomous terms, opposed to tradition, reaction, community, technology is always on the modern side of the ledger. But German thinkers simultaneously embraced the technology and rejected the Enlightenment: “Before and after the Nazi seizure of power, an important current within conservative and subsequently Nazi ideology was a reconciliation between the antimodernist, romantic, and irrationalist ideas present in German nationalism and the most obvious manifestation of means—ends rationality, that is, modern technology” (1).

Spengler, Herf argues, synthesized admiration for technology with reaction against the Enlightenment: “Whereas some observers, at the time and since, have interpreted Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West, 1918-1922) and Der Mensch und die Technik (Man and Technics, 1931) as antitechnological tracts,” in fact they “associated technology with beauty, will, and productivity, thereby placing it in the realm of German Kultur rather than Western Zivilisation” (43). Heidegger too was not a Luddite, but hoped that “Germany would be the country to achieve a fusion of technology and soul” (43).

Not all of these reactionary modernists were Nazis, but in Herf’s view “the commonalities outweighed the differences. Whether they liked it or not, Hitler tried to carry out the cultural revolution they sought. It may seem odd to describe Hitler as a cultural revolutionary but both his roots and his intentions point in this direction. He shared with the reactionary modernists an ideology of the will drawn from Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, a view of politics as an aesthetic accomplishment, a Social Darwinist view of politics as struggle, irrationalism, and anti-Semitism, and a sense that Germany was sinking into a state of hopeless degeneration. The promise of Hitler’s totalitarian politics was to reverse this process by attacking the main source of the disease, the Jews. His genius lay partly in convincing his followers that he was going to carry out a cultural revolution and break the drive toward the disenchantment of the world brought about by liberalism and Marxism without pulling Germany back into preindustrial impotence. Like the reactionary modernists, he was contemptuous of volkisch pastoralism, advocating instead what Goebbels called ‘steellike romanticism’” (46-7).

That last phrase sums up reactionary modernism as well as anything could.

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