Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Leo Strauss on "German Nihilism": Learning the Art of Writing

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Leo Strauss on "German Nihilism": Learning the Art of Writing

Article excerpt

In February 1941, Irwin Rommel took command of the Afrika Korps and began his daring drive on Suez. Neither the U.S.A. nor the U.S. S. R. had been added to the list of the Reich's enemies: Britain stood alone. Meanwhile, in neutral New York, an intellectual encounter between two German émigrés proved likewise fateful. One of these was the former Nazi Hermann Rauschning, author of The Revolution of Nihilism: A Warning to the West.1 The other was Leo Strauss, who offered his colleagues at the New School an analysis of Rauschning's book in a lecture delivered on February 26, 1941. A contextualized analysis of the lecture "German Nihilism"-unpublished until 19992-itself constitutes a warning the West would be prudent to heed.

The lecture is divided into three parts. The first is entitled "The ultimate, non-nihilistic motive under-lying German nihilism." Here Strauss contrasts open and closed societies and shows that a non-nihilistic "moral protest" is the basis of German Nihilism.3 In the second part, "The situation in which that non-nihilistic motive led to nihilism," Strauss describes the dilemma confronting "the young nihilists" during the Weimar years. Finally, in his analysis of Rauschning in part three, "What is nihilism? And how far can nihilism be said to be specifically German?" Strauss connects German Nihilism (via German militarism) to its non-nihilistic origin in German philosophy. Important though both the beginning and the end of "German Nihilism" unquestionably are for understanding what Strauss is doing, it is characteristically the middle part that is decisive.4

Strauss divides Part II into three sections. The first is called: "German nihilism is the reaction of a certain type of young atheist to the communist ideal or prediction." Along with the second, this section offers an interesting glimpse of the intellectual milieu of the young Strauss before he left Germany in 1932. 5 In the second section, "On the affinity of youth to nihilism, and the nihilistic consequences of the emancipation of youth," Strauss indirectly blames an older generation of progressives for the fact that a more honorable and less vulgar type of nihilism, embraced by youths inspired by Nietzsche, was transformed into the Nazi "Revolution of Nihilism." Although undoubtedly important, these two sections are comparatively straightforward from an exegetical perspective in comparison with the last.6 Here Strauss makes his case for what I will call "the secret teaching" of "German Nihilism." Strauss's success in concealing this teach-teaching-and thereby escaping "persecution" even after revealing it-demonstrates the limited extent to which he had mastered "the art of writing" in 1941.

"German Nihilism" must therefore be situated in relation to Strauss's "Persecution and the Art of Writing." Strauss published that seminal article in September 194 1,7 and, in retrospect, it sheds light on its unpublished counterpart. Although one recent apologia for Strauss8 denied that Strauss himself practiced exotericism-i.e. hid from the careless reader a secret teaching "between the lines"9-while another10 merely suggested that he did not, "German Nihilism," especially the third section of Part II, provides evidence that he did. "German Nihilism" is in fact a particularly revealing instance of exotericism because Strauss himself-by choosing not to publish it - tacitly admitted that he was still learning "the art of writing." As what Alfons Söllner has called "an ultraconservative thinker,"11 Strauss had compelling grounds for thinking that "German Nihilism" would subject him to "persecution" in a liberal democracy.

Strauss offers a chronologically nuanced answer to the question, What is German Nihilism?, by distinguishing the later development of National Socialism from its Nietzschean origins in "post-War Germany."12 In fact, Strauss makes a double distinction: National Socialism is both a late and a vulgar development of "German Nihilism. …

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