by Alan Gilbert
September 9, 2009
My head spins with a hundred plans, of which none is likely to be realized: England, U.S., Palestine. France is out of the question – in part because of the circumstance that they consider me a ‘Nazi’ here.
-– Strauss to Gerhard Krueger, December 3, 1933
Der Kopf schwirrt mir von hundert Plaenen, von denen vermutlich keiner realisiert werden wird: England, USA, Palaestina. Frankreich scheidet voellig aus – zum teil infolge des Umstands, dass ich hier al ‘Nazi’ gelte. Gesammelte Schriften, 3:435 – my apologies for a mistaken page number in a previous post – h/t Charles Butterworth).
“The German-Jewish intellectual proletariat,” as he specified in his letter to Loewith on May 19, 1933, is who considered Strauss a Nazi in France in 1933. He had taken a definitive turn toward Heidegger, after Heidegger’s pointed nationalist rebuff of Strauss’s doctoral teacher (Doktorvater) Ernst Cassirer in Davos. An offshoot of Locarno, the Davos meetings were the central symbol of the new Franco-German peace (the conferences lasted fatefully from 1928-32). Heidegger wanted a do-over (Wiederholung) of the World War. He and Schmitt joined the Nazi party on May 1, 1933 (May Day to mock the left or perhaps the decent). It took some ferociousness about politics on Strauss’s part to have earned this reputation as a “Nazi” even in December of 1933.
Strauss’s position is complicated and a bit elliptical (he tended to use words even in letters with a deliberate ambiguity, to experiment with some amusement with hidden writing). Strauss puts the word Nazi in scare-quotes. Perhaps he could not quite say, even to this friend, that he thought National Socialism was the birth of a new age, one that cancelled slave morality as Nietzsche and Heidegger articulated it, from the Jews to the Christians, democrats and communists, the whole secular perversion. The last men.
As Charles Butterworth has pointed out to me, one should beware of thinking of the “last men” as simply secular. Consider Sarah Palin and her followers. I think this is an apt understanding of Nietzsche. And at least in the early 1930s, it was also Strauss’s. Strauss seems to have wanted to get beyond, with Nietzsche, even Moses, to revert to the kings rather than the prophets (see his 1930 “Religioese Lage der Gegenwart” [“Religious Situation of the Present”]):
“The end of this struggle is the complete rejection of tradition neither merely of its answers, nor merely of its questions, but of its possibilities: the pillars on which our tradition rested; prophets and Socrates/Plato have been torn down since Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s partisanship for the kings and against the prophets, for the sophists and against Socrates – Jesus neither merely no God, nor a swindler, nor a genius, but an idiot. Rejected are the theorem and “Good-Evil” – Nietzsche, as the last enlightener.”
“Through Nietzsche, tradition has been shaken at its roots. It has completely lost its self-evident truth. We are left in this world without any authority, without any direction.” (GS 2:389; trans. Michael Zank; h/t William Altman).”
He continues insistently: “and even so, the Bible: we can no longer assume that the Prophets are right; we must earnestly ask whether the kings are not right.”
Strauss was a despised Jew, one who pretended as much as possible not to be a Jew in public (the well-known story of his studying with Jacob Klein in a coffee shop, pretending to be businessmen and shouting out “Nietzsche!” to watch the expression on Klein’s face). Strauss wanted to be a German, part of the remaking of Germany against the decadence of modern bourgeois or as he put it, liberal culture, the decadence of Weimar. But he also furthered a political Zionism, an analogue to his sympathy for the German national revolution as an alternative to the liberal culture he despised (“the ridiculous and childish imprescriptible rights of man” and perhaps the “meskine Unwesen” – the wretched nonentity - of the May 19, 1933 letter to Loewith). Strauss also feared and detested the Nazis’ treatment of “me and my kind as by nature – phusei – subhuman.” But he did not yet see this as the center of Nazism (Klein who had previously thought the National Socialists might be a national revolution had already come to this, see his letter to Strauss of June 19-20, 1934, GS 3:512 cited below) . Perhaps in writing to Krueger, Strauss was troubled by others’ identification of his position, even though it was also a position he took and out of probity - integrity - had to take (hence the identification of others). Perhaps he was shocked at the depth of hostility his enthusiasm for the National Revolution generated. In response, he would leave Paris but not change his views.
It is hard to take in what Nietzsche meant on the Right in Europe: that all secular culture was in some sense an offshoot of the glittering Jewish transvaluation of values: the “poor” as “holy” and “friend.” That all that must be uprooted; that Nietzsche and Strauss admired the kings, not the prophets (see my The Prophet Amos and the King’s Man Amaziah here). One can also hear the visceral contempt of upper class intellectuals, particularly in Germany, for both the poor and the Jews. As I pointed out about Max Weber in Democratic Individuality (ch. 9-12), the one physics professor who was a Social-Democrat, concurring with the large working class socialist movement growing with each election, was fired in 1904. Guess the authorities were worried about “Social Democratic” physics before their successors banned Einstein for not producing “German” or “Aryan” physics. Here class prejudice, racism and anti-radical ideology and demonism fuse (anti-radical ideology: the view that outside agitators, usually foreigners, stir up otherwise contented people – “dupes” – to protest or go on strike or rebel against a war or segregation or…. The central contradiction: the views are “irrational” and must not be discussed; yet even one such person, one Angela Davis among the 3,000 faculty members at UCLA, is sufficient danger to require firing her. Pied pipers. It is hard to imagine a more anti-democratic view). One reason that Weber’s discussion of Marx’s theory is so weak (particularly in his analysis of the rise of capitalism), is that he knew hardly any radicals, particularly as equals; Georg Lukacs, was of course his best student, and the one of whom he speaks in “Science as a Vocation”: if you are a jew, toil without hope (“lasciate ogni speranza”) in German academia (see Democratic Individuality, ch. 9). There was a distaste among many – not Weber or Nietzsche – for Jews and of course, a mad distaste, including for Weber and Nietzsche, toward workers and communists (my friend Tracy Strong has written to me about the subtleties of Nietzsche, how easily one may mistake him, as in part the Right did; I will post on this soon).
In his striking article on “The Alpine Limits of Jewish Thought,” Will Altman has brought to the fore two citations from Strauss’s correspondence with Jacob Klein. On June 19-20, 1934, Klein writes, “Nazism is perverted Judaism.” The context of the letter is worth absorbing. He first suggests that he had once had a view much like Strauss does now – seeing in National Socialism an antidote to liberalism and communism or the last men - had even perhaps suggested it to Strauss, and wanted to correct the error
“It’s necessary for me to correct an error I’ve made repeatedly; it concerns National-Socialism…”
“I previously believed that it constituted part of that general and necessary movement that, having emerged from ‘liberalism,’ had at the same time had a dialectical [aufhebende] tendency to abolish it. In the framework of this movement, anti-Semitism also had its own place and an increasingly well-defined basis. All things considered, however, it constituted only one—though hardly adventitious—sideshow [Nebenerscheinung]. I expressed this thought, in a letter to you earlier this year. But this is simply not true.”
“National Socialism has basically only one principle: its anti-Semitism. Everything else is basically not national-socialist: it is entirely external imitation of Russian and Italian matters, beginning with the head-gear of the Hitler Youth and ending with certain senseless propositions relevant to Germany that have nothing whatsoever to do with what is actually happening. With respect to these imitations, National Socialism is certainly also part of that general movement. But it is only linked in order to vitiate it. That which concerns anti-Semitism, on the other hand, involves a matter of greater scope. It is actually the first decisive struggle [der erste entscheidende Kampf] between what has long since borne the name of God and godlessness. About this there can be no doubt. The battle is decisive precisely because it gives itself a battleground determined by Judaism. National Socialism is ‘perverted Judaism,’ nothing else: Judaism without God, i.e. a true contradiction in terms.” (trans.Will Altman)
Es liegt mir dran, einen Irrtum zu korrigieren, den ich frueher immer begangen habe. Es handelt sich um den Nationalsozialismus….
Ich glaubte frueher, er stele einen Teil jener allgemeinen und notwendigen Bewegung dar, die eine aus dem ‘Liberalismus’ stammende und ihn zugleich aufhebende Tendenz hat. Im Rahmen dieser Bewegung hat auch der Antisemitismus einen bestimmten Platz und eine allen Beteiligten gerecht werdende Begruendung. Aber im Grunde genommen stellt er, so betrachtet, nur eine (wenn auch nicht zufaellige) Nebenerscheinung dar. Diesem Gedanken gab ich, wenn ich mich recht erinnere, noch vor einem Jahre in einem Brief an Dich Ausdruck. Das ist einfach nicht wahr.
Der Nationalsozialismus hat ueberhaupt nur ein Fundament: eben den Antisemitismus. Alles andere ist ueberhaupt nich nationalsozialistisch: es ist ganz aeusserliche Nachamung russischer and italienischer Dinge, angefangen mit der Kopfbedeckung der Hitler-Jugend und endigend bei gewissen in Deutschland sinnlos verwandten Saetzen, die schlecthin gar nichts mit dem, was wirklich geschieht, zu tun haben…Es ist tatsaechlich der erste entscheidende Kampf zwischen dem, was von Alters her den Namen Gott traegt, und der Gott-losigkeit. Daran ist nicht zu zweifeln. Der Kampf ist darum entschidend, weil er sich auf den vom Judentum bestimmten Kampfplatz begibt: der Nationalsozialismus ist ‘pervertiertes Judentum’ nichts anderes: Judentum ohre Gott, d.h. eine wahre contradictio in adjecto. (GS, 3:512-13)
On June 23, 1934, Strauss responds startlingly that he is repelled by Klein’s “defeatism.” Even in mid-1934, he was unwilling to hear of the Nazis that they were mainly anti-Jewish. He still looks to a dialectical, imitation Hegelian (perhaps more accurately Nietzschean) aufhebung of modernity inherent in the National Revolution. Repelled by God, Jewish or Christian, Strauss offers the Nietzschean thought about Klein’s vision of National Socialism as “perverted Judaism”: only if the whole modern world is. Note this is not a thought that German modernity is the secularization of Christianity (Weber’s view about the ghosts of Protestant vocation); it is about the secularization of the Jewish prophets. Strauss clearly preferred the kings to the prophets. And though one could try to reduce it merely to context, a local thought, not something Strauss deeply believed, the two had obviously corresponded and thought about these issues. It seems a deliberate response to Klein’s serious remark.
“Now to your general remarks, which surprised—not to say repelled—me through their defeatist tone. That one learns from events is good—but it does not follow that one can say what’s correct through them. And that is what you’re doing, it seems to me. There is absolutely no excuse ‘to crawl to the cross,’ I mean to speak of ‘God.’ And even if we were confined again in the ghetto and thereby compelled to go to the Synagogue and uphold the entire Law, we would do it as Philosophers, i.e. with an unspoken but nevertheless decisive reservation. I have considered the problem of the replacement of the civil state by the communities (Kehillah) in the last year and seen that this in principle changes nothing for our kind although almost everything in outward form. That Revelation and Philosophy as opposed to Sophistry—i.e. as opposed to the whole of modern Philosophy—are united, I dispute as little as you. But that changes nothing as concerns the fundamental difference between Philosophy and Revelation: Philosophy is possibly under one roof with belief, prayers, and preaching but can never combine into one.”
“That National Socialism is perverted Judaism I would admit. But only in the same sense in which I admit this description for the whole modern world—National-Socialism is only the last word in ‘secularization,’ i.e. the belief in the harmony that produces itself from itself or the reign of passion and feeling or in the sovereignty of the Volk.” (GS 3:516-17; trans. Will Altman).
Nun zu Deinen allgemeinen Bemerkungen, die mich durch ihren defaitistischen Ton uebberascht, un nicht zu sagen, entsetzt haben. Dass man aus den Ereignissen lernt, ist gut – aber es geht nicht an, dass man sich durch sie das Richtige sagen laesst. Und das tust du wie mir scheint. Es gibt keinerlei Anlass, ‘zu Kreuze zu kriechen,’ ich meine, von ‘Gott’ zu reden. Und selbst wenn wir wieder in das Ghetto gepfercht und so gezwungen wuerden, in die Synagoge zu gehen und das ganze Gesetz zu halten, so meussten wir auch das also Philosophen tun, d.h. mit einem wenn auch noch so unausgesprochenen, aber gerade darum um so entschiedeneren Vorbehalt. Ich habe mir das Problem der Ersetzung des Staates dur die Gemeinde (Kehillah) im letzten Jahr wohl ueberlegt und gesehen, dass das fuer unsereinen prinzipiell nichts aendert, wenn auch in der Form beinahe alles. Dass Offenbarung und Philosophie gegenueber der Sophistik, d.h. genenueber der gesamten modernen Philosophie, einig sind, leugne ich so wenig wie Du. Aber das aendert nichts an der fundamentalen Differenz zwischen Philosophie und Offenbarung; die Philosophie ist mit Glauben, Beten under Predigen vielleich unter einen Hut, aber niemals in eins zu bringen.
Dass der Nationalsozialismus pervertiertes Judentum ist, wuerde ich zugeben. Aber nur in demselben Sinn, in dem ich es fuer die ganze moderne Welt zugebe – der Nationalsozialismus ist nur das letzte Wort der ‘Saekularisierung,’ d.h. des Glaubens an die sich von selbst herstellende Harmonie oder an das Recht der Leidenschaft und das Gefuehls oder an die Volkssoveraenitaet.
Leo has many deep scholarly insights (he worked harder and longer and on different people than other scholars, opened a whole range of study where the middle ages had been a closed book to most political theorists, discerned, sometimes accurately, hidden writing, soared but also perhaps killed himself through late night study; the mind moves to the last, even though “my fingers refuse me their services.” On scholarly interpretation, his standpoint, so strange to Americans and possessing a kind of probite or outspoken intergrity, has flashed a surprising and sometimes brilliant light on many thinkers, not otherwise considered (he is also remarkably foolish on Rousseau and Hegel and Marx and Socrates, and even sometimes perhaps Plato and others nearer to his heart). A different outlook is, as Weber suggests, ingredient to scholarly discovery, to seeing things that the “mainstream” doesn’t and is complacent about, to provoking insight…His teaching has intrigued a diverse group of devoted followers, many of whom do not dream, despite the now infamous 1933 letter to Loewith – they misread the “Principles of the Right” to suggest opposition to Hitler - that he held such a political outlook. As Joseph Cropsey once said to Steve Holmes, then a junior professor with Cropsey at Chicago, in denying his request to look at the letters in Regenstein: “some might be misunderstood.” I have finally understood I think and the point of this essay is to reveal just why Cropsey said it. Strauss’s politics were – and I suspect continued to be (see here and here) – sublimely foolish and dangerous.
But philosophically, Strauss also offers few thoughts of his own about these matters (except perhaps Zionism). His response to Loewith is entirely derived from an enthusiastic and, in this respect, crude version of Nietzsche. As Strauss would later say in “Origins of Heideggerian Existentialism,” Nietzsche “naturally” would not become a Nazi because he was more thoughtful about Jews – even seeing them as stronger and possibly renewing of European culture – than Germans. He even cites this thought from Nietzsche in his talk on “Why we remain Jews.” Perhaps like Heidegger, Strauss too was striving to be a true national socialist, to lead as a jew the eradication of the prophets. But the image of a race, one that had transvalued the value of the “poor” and brought modern secularism to its decadence in the last men, was alive in Strauss’s words in the 1930s. Think again of the “meskine Unwesen” (meskine – an Italian, French, Portuguese word highly associated, as Altman has pointed out, with Shylock or Fagin). Meskine identifies the wretched or miserly capitalist features of liberalism. Why else did Strauss choose this non-German word? Did he himself not sympathize then with the National Revolution?
Strauss did not write to Jacob Klein affirming the “principles of the Right” in May 1933. But his friends all knew. By July 6, 1933, Klein understood Strauss’s inclination occasionally, as a matter of probity, to take up frightening positions and he himself was perhaps frightened just then by Strauss’s political pigheadedness. But being aware of and sharing Strauss’s fear for the jews (a party that hates “me and my kind as by nature subhuman” as Strauss had written to Loewith), Klein may also have thought of Strauss simply not being prudent, proclaiming what he saw as the virtues of the national revolution and keeping in silence his fear about the Jews. Charles Butterworth has wisely suggested this to me, and I think it may be right. This would be a decisive shading: Strauss was imprudently in favor of the national revolution because he did not quite focus on its anti-semitism of which he was also aware. But there is another, I am afraid, more likely alternative: Strauss then thought that National Socialism, despite its drawbacks, was a genuine antidote to the liberalism which he despised (and thus that Jews or at least German Jews may have been better off under the National Socialists; in the letter to Loewith, he had said, he would not crawl to any cross, even the cross of liberalism, and better than any cross the ghetto: he genuinely admired the Roman imperial spirit. But that spirit was incarnated by the German right. If the meskine Unwesen of modern decadence, the liberal - hear Strauss’s distaste - and capitalist greedy last men, is what needs to be fought (rather than referring ambiguously somehow only to Hitler), then perhaps even the Hakenkreuz - the Swastika which was still a cross or kreuz – might realize this struggle (As Will Altman put it cleverly in an email: “Fight fire with fire: only an anti-cross cross can destroy the Jewish matrix of the Christian cross”). If one recognizes this ambiguity in the May 1933 letter (I did not; the two translators Eugene Sheppard and Scott Horton did not, although Sheppard has apparently – Altman informs me – changed his view about the phrase; Peter Minowitz, who has wrestled with some of these issues in attempting a somewhat cautious defense of Strauss’s politics did not; yet once Altman pointed this out, relying on an insight of Michael Zank, it is hard not to see it), the whole meaning shifts. The National Revolution, Strauss is suggesting subtly to Loewith in May 1933, is still the antidote to modern decadent, Jewish-inspired culture, even though it hates “me and my kind.” No wonder Jews – even Heideggerian Jews - were repelled. (GS, 3: 624-5).
Loewith originally may have entertained thoughts like this as Klein explicitly had (Loewith had been Heidegger’s assistant; Strauss and Loewith were both young Jewish reactionaries in politics). Politically more astute, however, Loewith realized what the Nazis were about more quickly than Klein, let alone Strauss. But Loewith as his response indicates – “I do think it counts very much against the German Right that it will actually not tolerate the spirit of science and German Jews” (GS 3: 626 ) - reacted with fear to what Strauss was becoming (Altman has some interesting insights into this in discussing Loewith’s fine article criticizing the empty decisionism of Schmitt and by implication Strauss in “The Alpine Limits of Jewish Thought” – available on the web if one googles William H.F. Altman). I should also note: these reactionary Jewish intellectuals were all proud to be Germans; they all shared racism toward Eastern Jews, the Ostjuden. What the Nazis did in power, however, would eventually persuade Strauss that Loewith and Klein were right - that murdering Jews was the main point. So Strauss later moved away from the vulgar National Socialism of Hitler – as he put it in his 1941 lecture on “German Nihilism,” though not from true national socialism – see Leo Strauss: the courage to destroy here. As I noted here, Strauss was still a German nationalist, admired blitzkrieg, and even in the 1941 lecture, an army with freedom of movement (General Rommel, the desert fox, had recently taken command of the Afrikakorps).
In July 1933, Klein wrote:
“Do you know that I am frightfully pissed off at you?!! The following rumors circulate about you in Berlin, and namely, by the following paths: a) Gordin – Gurwitsch – Leo Strauss; b) Hans von Sch. – Hannah Arendt – Dr Stern – Leo Strauss: ‘Herr. Dr. Leo Strauss has become a French nationalist, even though he was previously a German nationalist.’ You need send me no philological-historical clarifications of this noteworthy sentence – I can reconstruct for myself the circumstance – but why in the world did you not shut your mouth in front of these people??!! Or why do you express yourself in a way that directly leads to such interpretations?! I have begged Hilde to have a big talk with you on this matter – I hope that she might tend to you with her own temperament.” – Jacob Klein to Strauss, July 6, 1933, GS 3: 466.
Weisst Du, dass ich furchtbar wuetend auf Dich bin?!! Folgende Geruechte zirkulieren ueber Dich in Berlin, und zwar auf folgendem Wege: a) Gordin – Gurwitsch – Leo Strauss; b) Hans von Sch. – Hannah Arendt – Dr. Stern – Leo Strauss: “ Herr. Dr. Leo Strauss sei franzosischer Nationalist geworden, nachdem er frueher deutscher Nationalist gewesen sei.’ Du brauchst mir keine philologisch-historische Aufklarung dieses bemerkensweten Satzes zu schicken – ich kann mir den Tatbestand schon rekonstuieren -, aber warum um alles in der Welt haelst Du nicht diesen Leuten gegenueber den Mund??!! Oder warum aeusserst Du Dich in einer Weise, die gerade zu sochen Interpretationen herausfordert?! Ich habe Hilde gebeten, Die in diesem Punkte eine grosse Rede zu halten – ich hoffe, dass sie das mit dem ihr eigenen Temperament besorgt. -
The Nazis were the German national revolution. Individuals got fired in German schools before 1933 for saying they were pro-Nazi. The bitter mockery of the rumor – that Strauss was now a French national revolutionary or fascist – Strauss had requested Schmitt to arrange a meeting for him with Charles Maurras, the leader of Action Francaise and anti-semite in Paris - stems from shock and distaste at Strauss’s fierce enthusiasm for an anti-modern, national revolution, one whose main animus was plainly directed against Jews. Strauss’s letter to Schmitt is, unintentionally I suspect, a model of what he later called exoteric writing. He wanted to discuss Hobbes with Maurras, because Maurras had coincidentally said some similar things about Hobbes. It was thus a purely scholarly interest. No doubt Schmitt, Strauss and Maurras all shared a scholarly interest in Hobbes. But it was in the light of the urgent transformation of Europe. They were all extreme reactionaries, fascists. A bizarre anti-semite even by then fascist standards (though he in a 1938 book on Hobbes would cite as true one view of “the Jew Strauss”), Schmitt had become a Nazi just then, Maurras was sympathetic to Nazism, and Strauss…. (Strauss to Schmitt, July 10, 1933 in Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, p. 128; Sheppard, pp. 56-57). Because Strauss was a Jew and Schmitt now Prussian State Councilor under Hitler, Schmitt had ceased to respond to Strauss’s letters. Hilde was Loewith’s wife.
Strauss’s enthusiasm for national socialism paralleled his Zionism. He was a Zionist who hoped for the dissolution among Jews in Palestine of modern secular sentiments, who, with Weber, saw secularization as a lapsed Christian stance (the “ghosts” of lapsed Protestant vocation haunt the modern capitalist). He also scorned cultural Zionism or any orientation other than political. It is why in 1957, to the National Review he would emphasize “the nearness of biblical antiquity” in Israel, a nearness “a conservative should admire” (even though he suspects it will fade). As a Zionist, that was as near as he could get to the Nietzschean root (the kings and not the prophets). In the 20s, he had scorned cultural Zionism or any other orientation than political and national-socialist; in his 1923 article “Response on Frankfurt’s ‘Word of Principle,’”[Antwort auf das ‘Prinzipielle Wort’ der Frankfurter], he sided with the Jewish Wanderbund Blau-Weiss, an imitation of the German youth wanderers who excluded Jews) headed by the fuehrer Walter Moses (Gerschom Scholem styled the group “semi-fascist”). He endorsed the means necessary to the Jewish national revolution even though he himself proceeded toward those means with “a necessary reservation.” His 1957 letter both spoke of what an American conservative might believe (even though he was not such a conservative) and what Jews in Israel might believe (even though he retained this “reservation”). His dying letters to Scholem, however, take on occasional shadings of mysticism and ecstatic (if one may use such a word about Leo) affection for Jewish spirituality.
As Strauss came to see Nazism more clearly, he was torn; he moved, later in the War, to the position that the Nazis main purpose was to kill Jews. Even before, there is a powerfully moving letter to Klein in 1933 with hopes that Klein will see Strauss’s father and gratitude that he did (he switches from an experimental English into German to discuss this). He speaks of how “it must be going very badly with my father. The shop [in Kirchhain] is ruined.” (December 1, 1933, GS 3:424; see also Klein to Strauss, January 26, 1934, GS 3: 487-88). Strauss was frightened for his father and perhaps had some inkling that his father might perish in the camps. But of course, as Klein mentions, the father did not understand Strauss, and Strauss perhaps also had a kind of self-conscious denial, an outspokenness quite late about the National Revolution and a hinting at it even after. His failed courtship of Hannah Arendt and the lingering bitterness on both sides perhaps testify, in Strauss, to the same kind of rivenness.
According to Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in 1932, Strauss had been attracted to Arendt who later apparently commented brutally to several friends that Strauss defended a party which had no place for him because he was a Jew:
“Hannah Arendt’s tolerance for intellectuals who failed to understand the darkening political situation grew weaker as her allegiance to the Zionists’ critique grew deeper. Leo Strauss, the author of a much admired critique of quite a different sort, Die Religionskritik Spinozas, met with a curt rejection from Hannah Arendt for his lack of awareness. Strauss, an associate of the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums, met Arendt at the Prussian State Library and made an effort to court her. When she criticized his conservative [sic –Reactionary] political views and dismissed his suit, he became bitterly angry. The bitterness lasted for decades, growing worse when the two joined the same American faculty at the University of Chicago in the 1960’s. Strauss was haunted by the rather cruel way in which Hannah Arendt had judged his assessment of National Socialism; she pointed out the irony of the fact that a political party advocating views Strauss appreciated could have no place for a Jew like him. (Jung-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, p. 98).
Why authors like Jung-Bruehl, particularly in America, refer to fascism or Reaction as if it were conservative in the Burke or Oakeshott sense is something of a mystery. The use provides cover for authoritarianism – as in the so-called neo-conservatives. Fascism or authoritarianism or Reaction is, and is only, decadent conservatism, conservatism which has forgotten or lost itself, no longer a defense of the rule of law, habeas corpus and individuality. Kneeling to Throne and Altar, or as of the twenties, giving a salute to Der Fuehrer or Il Duce is a very different understanding from valuing individual liberty – the equal liberty of each individual. The motive of transition of course is fear of working class radicalism and the dangers of communism – the lower orders, those crude creatures cannot be, they are surely not…individuals - and being willing to do anything – often far worse than communists and to innocents – to fight it. In other words, fascism is demented conservatism or conservatism on steroids.
With care in his Straussophobia, pp 36-38, Peter Minowitz checked the story with Jung-Bruehl who wrote to him “graciously” that she had interviewed three associates of Arendt who had told her. It was Arendt’s story (we do not get to hear Leo’s). Trying to distance Strauss from Arendt, Peter points out cleverly that those who retail the story give credence to Heidegger’s mistress, a woman who gave herself “body and soul” to a married man (the last is a little moralistic and silly). But Peter’s response begs the question: why did Arendt who knew Strauss well think that he was a willing adherent of National Socialism, even speaking with his Jewish friends and potential lovers in support of it? Why was Arendt who was so bedazzled by Heidegger intellectually as was Strauss, then a Zionist as was Strauss, affronted by Weimar to an extent (Heidegger/Arendt Letters, Ludz, ed., p. 160), perhaps like Strauss, so put off by Strauss? Peter is silent. That Strauss was amazingly to the Right of Arendt, a Reactionary which she was not, that he had taken up the unspeakable national revolution might be a reason. Perhaps, she gave her body, but not her soul to Heidegger (she was fierce on Eichmann and the banality of evil, but never criticized Heidegger or even spelled out her differences with him; her late appreciations of Heidegger on his 80th birthday admire a purposeless thinking – a way through the woods - and refer to his Nazism delicately as the “one time” he entered politics and an “escapade” named by others a “mistake” – p. 160). She exclaims with bemusement: “Who but Heidegger would have thought of seeing National Socialism as the “encounter between global technology and modern humanity?” (what Heidegger thought, critical of liberalism and socialism, with their emphases on man against nature, is actually an admirable point of contact between the philosopher and deep environmentalism or ecology – see Michael Zimmerman’s Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity). But Strauss did give his soul to that great philosopher and the German “national revolution” in 1933, and after, 20 years silence, again after Heidegger began speaking of true national socialism in 1953 (as usual, Strauss reports that he had not attended to Heidegger for 20 years, but does not say explicitly what suddenly came to interest him and invoked a new passion for, as he put it, the only great philosopher of our era – perhaps there will be another one in Burma in 2200 Strauss helpfully imagines). There is one sentence in “What is Political Philosophy?” which suggests that Nazism made “discredited democracy” look like a “golden age” (Peter rightly emphasizes it; Will suggests that looking “literally” at that sentence, it indicts Parliament and American democracy too). But of course a wise authoritarian regime, a fascist one, willing to use brutal means if they would promise success against “the enemy” might be even more golden…
Until two late letters to Scholem where Strauss speaks repetitively of Heidegger as a great mind lodged in a kitsch-soul, he did not much criticize Heidegger, then or later (the last sentences of On Tyranny in 1948 are a criticism though earlier in the essay - p. 27 - he refers to a continuity driven by technology between liberalism and communism, the US and the Soviet Union, both heading into tyranny for which Heidegger’s national socialism was an antidote; in the “Origins of Heideggerian existentialism,” he seems to criticize Heidegger but even there, the literal meaning – that Heidegger was a Nazi - is perhaps not a criticism (he also speaks, with Heidegger, of a “dark night of the world” and with Nietzsche, of the need for a planetary war followed by European domination). Except perhaps for the “golden age” in “What is Political Philosophy?.” there is no sentence in Strauss that rivals Arendt’s phrase: “this mistake [about the Nazis as the planetary confrontation with technology, liberalism and socialism] is modest compared with the far more decisive error that consisted of avoiding the reality in the Gestapo’s secret rooms and the torture hells of the concentration camps which were set up immediately after the burning of the Reichstag, in favor of supposedly higher realms.” (p. 160) Unlike Strauss, Arendt was not into exoteric writing (in the end, Strauss detested Hitler, but not a possible true nihilism or national socialism). Strauss speaks of murdering Jews toward the end of the War, but also never of the camps.
In late reflections, Strauss speaks of Heidegger’s power and how he began to dominate first Germany and then Europe. In her celebratory letters for Heidegger’s 80th birthday – actually, read by her in a radio broadcast at the time and published in the Munich newspaper Merkur - Arendt speaks of the same phenomenon in a deeper and more beautiful way, one of passion and an artist’s creativity (her words have widely influenced poets like Denise Levertov) which suggest that she and Strauss would have had, when they first met, something unique and deep in common:
“Let me begin, then, with this public beginning...with the year 1919, the teacher’s entrance into the public sphere of the German academy at the University of Freiburg for Heidegger’s fame is older than the publication of Being and Time in 1927; indeed, it is questionable whether that book’s unusual success – not only the immediate sensation it caused, but above all its extraordinarily lasting influence, which very few of the writings of this century can match – would have been possible were it not for, in a word, the successful teaching that preceded it, and which the book’s success, at least in the opinion of those who were students at the time, only confirmed.”
“There was something strange about this fame, perhaps even stranger than that of Kafka in the early twenties, or that of Braque and Picasso in Paris a decade earlier, to name only a few artists who were also unknown to what is generally understood as the public and yet exerted an extraordinary influence. For in Heidegger’s case, there was nothing available for the fame to be based on, nothing written, except for lecture transcripts that circulated from hand to hand; and the lectures addressed texts that were well known – they contained no teachings that could have been paraphrased and passed on. Little more than a name was known, but the name made its way through all of Germany like the rumor of a secret king. There was something completely different from the ‘circles’ centered on and directed by a ‘master’ such as the George circle, which, although known to the public, was set apart from it by the aura of a secret that only the members of the circle were supposed to know. Here there was neither secret nor membership; those whom the rumor had reached did know one another, because they were all students; there were some friendships among them, and later of course the occasional clique was formed, but there was never a circle and nothing esoteric was involved” (Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger, Letters, 1925-75, ed Ursula Ludz, p. 149)
The George-kreis was much like the Straussians and did involve something esoteric (she may have been thinking of Strauss, too, here). What Heidegger did was to revive thinking in a mysterious and yet striking way, which Arendt then names, and to give rise to many different strands of creativity – Arendt and Strauss, but Loewith, Tillich, Marcuse, Sartre (at a distance) and many others. Arendt continues:
“Who heard the rumor, then, and what did it say? At that time, after the First World War, there may not have been any rebels at German universities, but there was a widespread uneasiness about the teaching and learning going on at all academic institutions that were more than mere professional schools, and among all the students to whom studying meant more than preparation for a profession. Philosophy was not a field that led to a well-paying job but rather, the field for those determined to become paupers – it was that very determination, in fact, that made them so demanding…But they didn’t know what they really wanted, either. The university usually offered them either schools – the neo-Kantians, the neo-Hegelians, the neo-Platonists, etc. – or the old school house discipline, in which philosophy compartmentalized into such fields as epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, logic, and the like, was not so much taught as finished off by abysmal boredom…”
“The rumor that drew them to the lecturer in Freiburg and somewhat later to Marburg said that there was someone who actually realized the things Husserl had proclaimed, who know that they were not an academic matter but a matter for thinking people – and had been so, of course, not just since yesterday and today but for a very long time – and who, precisely because the thread of tradition was broken for him, was discovering the past anew. What was technically decisive was that, for example, Plato was not talked about, nor was his theory of ideas spelled out. Rather, through an entire semester, a dialogue was pursued and interrogated step by step so that there was nothing millenary anymore in the teaching, but only an absolutely contemporary problematic. All this probably sounds quite familiar to you today, because so many now work this way; before Heidegger, no one did. The rumor put it quite simply: thinking is alive again; the cultural treasures of the past, which everyone had believed dead, are being made to speak again; whereby it turns out that they are saying quite different things from what one had skeptically assumed. There is a teacher; one can learn, perhaps, to think." (pp. 150-51)
That Strauss was, in the brilliance of his teaching at Chicago, a child of Heidegger is revealed deeply in this statement (we may also see it in Strauss’s late report of his 1920s remark to Franz Rosenszweig, that upon hearing Heidegger’s teaching of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Strauss had realized comparatively that Weber, whom he had previously admired beyond others, was “an orphan-child” (Waisenkind). Arendt’s entire letter/speech is worth reading carefully.
Strauss was undoubtedly drawn to Arendt by what she had learned directly from Heidegger. They could have bonded in this common project as well as in Zionism. Though Strauss was moved by Heidegger and had listened to lectures, however, he had not studied closely with him or known him well. Strauss may have divined from Arendt – it may by then also have been a rumor among students of Heideggerian leanings – that Arendt had been involved with Heidegger, which might also have presented psychological difficulties for Strauss, who was, at that point, in awe of Heidegger and of course would forever growl afterwards “there are no women philosophers.” It was self-evidently a stupid saying – since Arendt who lectured down the hall from Leo was a far more creative and decent political philosopher (see here; she admired the French Resistance and the democracy of Athens, which Strauss detested); also Mike Goldfield’s remarks in the video of the 2007 debate at APSA here. It was repeated to their eternal embarrassment by Strauss’s students Allan Bloom (when Bloom said this at the American Enterprise Institute, a woman raised her hand, stood up, said “I am a philosopher,” turned her back on him, and walked out) and Werner Dannhauser. Here is the pain of foundered relationships among those like Strauss and Arendt who were seemingly quite close, except for the bitterness of Nazism: if Hannah was nasty about Strauss’s proclivity for National Socialism, Strauss and his acolytes were mustily reactionary and grotesque about women, Hannah to the point, and poor Leo a fool.
On this relationship, Charles Butterworth has pointed out to me that Arendt worried about the Palestinians, a view that might have made, if acted upon, a home for Israel in the Middle East (the regime is now a dauntingly self-destructive militarism in disdain of people in the Middle East and reveals the true meaning of the term “neoconservative”): “Strauss is a Zionist who has no concern for the people in Palestine who would be hurt by the Zionist enterprise. Arendt, like Judah Magnes, did have that kind of concern. That was certainly a big divide. At Chicago, after her discovery of the banality of evil and willingness to blame Jews for believing the Lord would save them, the divide become only greater.” There were certainly other sources of the hostility which Jung-Bruehl’s story recounts. But Arendt plainly saw Strauss’s affection for the national revolution as central to their differences and made that cuttingly clear to her friends.
In her last letter for 20 years, Arendt had written to Heidegger, speaking of the love they both affirmed, asking about how Heidegger had apparently not recognized her, and implying anti-semitism:
“But: I had already stood before you for a few seconds, you had actually already seen me – you had briefly looked up. And you did not recognize me. When I was small child, that was the way my mother once stupidly and playfully frightened me.” (Sept. 30, 1929, p. 51).
Heidegger did not respond until Winter 1932-33: “The rumors that are upsetting you are slanders that are perfect matches for other experiences I have endured over the last few years.” He offered a long list of Jews he was helping (he seems surrounded by Jews) and concludes “Whoever wants to call that ‘raging anti-Semitism’ is welcome to do so.” (p. 52) In withdrawing Husserl’s name from the dedication of Being and Time, he would do less well as Nazi Rektor-Fuehrer at Freiburg in 1933-34. Physically as well as spiritually, he traded his trademark black clothes for the Nazi uniform.
In 1932, Arendt would, unsurprisingly, have been pointed with Strauss about Heidegger’s National Socialism, and her bitter humor probably reflects pretty much what he thought. It can have been, for Strauss, no pleasure to see his two great mentors, Schmitt and Heidegger, join the Nazis on May 1, 1933, when he could not.
In 1932, Strauss had been to the Right even in comparison with Schmitt whom he refines and provokes to go further (still somehow within the horizon or as it were, the spider’s web of liberalism). He concludes his remarks with a thought about the urgent task of the moment (one might ask: what just then makes the task urgent?);
“We said that Schmitt undertakes the critique of liberalism in a liberal world, and we meant thereby that his critique of liberalism takes place within the horizon of liberalism; his unliberal tendency is restrained by the still unvanquished ‘systematics of liberal thought.’ The critique introduced by Schmitt against liberalism can therefore be completed only if one succeeds in gaining a horizon beyond liberalism. In such a horizon Hobbes completed the foundation of liberalism. A radical critique of liberalism is thus possible only on the basis of adequate understanding of Hobbes. To show what can be learned from Schmitt in order to achieve that urgent task was the principal intention of our notes.”(Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: the Hidden Dialogue, p. 119)
He added to this thought in a letter to Schmitt of September 4, 1932:
“The ultimate foundation of the Right is the principle of the natural evil of man; because man is by nature evil, he therefore needs dominion. But dominion can be established, that is, men can be unified, only in a unity against – against other men. Every association of men is necessarily a separation from other men. The tendency to separate (and therewith the grouping of humanity into friends and enemies) is given with human nature; it is in this sense destiny period.” (The Hidden Dialogue, p. 125).
Little did Strauss understand he was speaking of Germans that would soon strike not only against Rohm and social revolution (the S.A.), unions, Communists, Roma and “Jew-dominated liberalism and Bolshevism” but…against even national revolutionaries like Strauss. He would be more aware that he spoke of Israel against Palestine (in the 1957 letter to the National Review, he hails “the diadem of an independent judiciary” in Israel. This may be partly exoteric – he hated the American Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, see Sotomayor, Brown v. Board of Education, Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll studies, and Leo Strauss here – but it is the most heartfelt praise of a liberal institution in Strauss’s writing and I doubt that it is simply exoteric). Nonetheless, with Heidegger in 1953, he would stand for true national socialism and his view – replacing liberal institutions with much more authoritarian, tyrannical institutions – has become increasingly influential in America, in part through the efforts of the main, politically active part of his students (and their students).
Those who revere Strauss speak of his exchange with Schmitt to suggest that he was moving to the new ground of studying the ancients. But at this time, Strauss was in favor of the German national revolution. He criticizes Schmitt for admiring Hobbes’s vision of the war of all against all as if it prefigured Schmitt’s own stance on the importance of enemies (a nation defines itself by a great enemy for both Schmitt and Strauss in 1932). Instead, for Strauss, Schmitt is misguided. In speaking of individuals who seek to avoid violent death and gain some comfort in life – Hobbes’s message - Hobbes speaks as the liberal dawn of what will become, for Nietzsche and Strauss, the last men (Schmitt is an arcane Catholic, and detests Nietzsche; he thinks that the last men are the triumph of Satan, put off by a catechon, something that holds back the end). As a philosophical (but hardly just a philosophical) purpose, Strauss avows, one must go to another unnamed place. That was the place of Heidegger’s philosophical politics. Of Schmitt. That was also the place of the rumors in Paris. The German national revolution.
Edgar Allen Poe once wrote a revelatory mystery, “The Purloined Letter,” in which his detective C. Auguste Dupin at last discovers it in plain sight: in the filigreed mail rack in a minister’s apartment. Strauss is often disarmingly literal – he says something with a plain meaning, like “I did not consider Heidegger again for 20 years” or “I am not a conservative” – which only hints at but does not spell out what he does think. One can always avoid the implication, look the other way. He leaves the indulgent reader to imagine that a German Jew in exile could not have supported the German national revolution. Yet evidence of Strauss’s meaning imposes itself in the rumors in Paris and Germany. He cannot stay in Paris because “here they consider me a ‘Nazi.’
Perhaps the obvious thought eludes those who identify with Strauss. What great change in Germany were Strauss and Schmitt awaiting in 1932 and 1933?**
*He was often so in a self-destructive way, consider his publication of Philosophy and Law as a candidate for a job as professor of religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem: Scholem wrote of him that to announce himself as an atheist and to identify Maimonides as a philosopher and hint at Heidegger and atheism would pretty well finish him as a candidate - maybe 3 people would vote for him anyway; he referred to the “suicide” of an able mind. Strauss was a despised and frightened Jew who sometimes burst out, shockingly (consider again his joke about pretending to be businessmen with Klein in a coffee shop and shouting “Nietzsche”). Though he didn’t like the prophets, he could speak in a prophetic and thundering voice, even if he would then be shunned. He also wanted, too much, to be German. And he appalled all the Jews and other decent Germans he knew. Say the truth, might be his motto, even if you are despised or die (as opposed to courage which this does reflect, the intelligence of such a maxim of course depends upon what one takes to be the truth). That was the point of the long nihilist peroration at the end of the “Restatement” to On Tyranny – see here. Further, there were hidden boxes within boxes within boxes. Reining himself in enough to be exoteric and depend on careless American readers and even followers - a German Jewish exile from Hitler just can’t be a fascist, let alone an adherent of the German national revolution, let alone, a true National Socialist. Didn’t he oppose the ‘vulgar’ Hitler, that “insane tyrant”?
**At p. 97 of Eugene Sheppard’s Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile, he says this, but quickly turns away from the shocking political implications of this insight: “In the commentary on Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political (1932), for example, Strauss pointed to the as yet unnamed paradigm that was to burst from the depths of Weimar politics and constitute a ‘horizon beyond liberalism.’ The intellectual influence of Schmitt, and especially Heidegger, along with the concomitant distancing from Ernst Cassirer, neo-Kantianism, and even Husserlian phenomenology – all contributed to Strauss’s critique of Weimar.”