The catastrophe of modernity
In the Spring of 1918 Franz Kafka wrote in his notebooks:
Wir sind, mit dem irdisch befleckten Auge gesehn, in der Situation von Eisenbahnreisenden, die in e einem langen Tunnel verunglückt sind undzwar an einer Stelle wo man das Licht des Anfangs nicht mehr sieht, das Licht des Endes aber nur so winzig, daß der Blick es immerfort suchen muß und immerfort verliert wobei Anfang und Ende nicht einmal sicher sind. Rings um uns aber haben wir in der Verwirrung der Sinne oder in der Höchstempfindlichkeit der Sinne lauter
Ungeheuer und ein je nach der Laune und Verwundung des Einzelnen entzückendes oder ermüdendes kaleidoskopisches Spiel. Was soll ich tun? oder Wozu soll ich es tun? sind keine Fragen dieser Gegenden.
By definition any passage from Kafka’s diaries is open to many readings, Jewish, Christian, Freudian, Kabbalistic, Zen Buddhist, Gnostic, existentialist and so on, which is why for many he has come to epitomize the irreducible ambivalence of modernity itself. But the passage also admits a historical interpretation as an allegory for the existential situation of Europeans in the fourth year of the Great War. The railway lines can be seen as representing the tracks which allow the ‘train’ of a functioning, intact culture to carry the mass of the inhabitants (train passengers) through linear historical time with a collective destination or telos that renders life meaningful as a communal experience. When culture works as a fully functional railway system it confers on individual existence a sense of unreflexive substance, normality and wholeness by endowing it with a nomos, here used not in the specialized sense given it by Carl Schmitt, but with the connotations of totalizing cultural-view familiar frm cultural anthropology, or what Nietzsche called ‘a horizon framed by myth’. By 1918 both the residual telos that gave European society a sense of direction and the nomos that provided its shared values, its self-evidence, already under stress before 1914, had broken down or vanished for a large percentage of its inhabitants under the pressure of events .
It is worth noting Kafka’s suggestion in this passage that there was no objective reaction to the derailment of History in 1918: the cultural catastrophe breakdown and induces acute disorientation in all, but the kaleidoscopic patterns of sensations formed by external darkness and intense hallucinations can create a sense of fatigue or ecstasy depending on the mood and injury of the individual passenger: some are seized by depression and ‘cultural despair’, while others may manically compensate with utopias which blot out the blackness by allowing the faint glimmer of light to be mistaken for a new dawn.
Modernity as a catastrophe for totalizing cultural truths
According to this reading Kafka is finding words and images not for the ‘human condition’ in general but for the cataclysmic European experience of history that been created by the war for a highly cultured citizen of urban life under the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. The sense of catastrophe both objective and spiritual it records with photographic intensity is the overture to my brief talk which attempts to erect a temporary bridge over the historical space between the First World War and the Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy addressed by the lectures of two distinguished historians before and after mine. The foundation stones of this bridge stand on well-trodden ground, namely the idea of modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a fundamentally disruptive and destabilizing factor in the evolution of Western society. Consistent with this premise, modernity has been analysed since 1945 in terms of irreducible ambivalence (e.g. by Zygmunt Bauman), of an all-pervasive anxiety and Angst (e.g. Roy Porter and W.H. Auden), of the disinherited mind (Erich Heller), of spiritual homelessness (Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner), as the ‘disembedding’ of existence (Anthony Giddens), and so on. This is nothing new. Already in the late 19th century what was generally seen as an age of progress in the West was associated by its critically alienated artists and intellectuals with such forces as ‘disinheritance’ (Gérard de Nerval), ‘uprooting’ (Maurice Barrès), ‘degeneration’ (Max Nordau), ‘disenchantment’ and ‘desouling’ (Max Weber), anomie (Émile Durkheim), or ‘nihilism’ and ‘decadence’ (Friedrich Nietzsche). All these diagnoses resonated with a tide of artistic, intellectual, and scientistic obsession with decay and decline so strong it gave its name to an entire artistic movement: Decadence.
The effect of the mechanized devastation and slaughter of the Great War was to democratize and radicalize the sense of the West’s decay. When Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes became an international bestseller, and T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland catapulted him to fame it was a sign that far beyond the confines of the avant-garde ‘ordinary people’ were experiencing modernity in terms of crisis, breakdown, and apocalypse: or what Karl Kraus called in his 200 scene-black comedy written between 1915 and 1922, The Last Days of Mankind. This perception of modern history became so diffused that there was no longer anything cryptic about Walter Benjamin’s image of progress as a destructive storm in his theses on the philosophy of history written shortly after the outbreak of World War Two.
Thus when the American Marxist theorist Frederic Jameson wrote in the 1990s of modernity as a ‘catastrophe’ that ‘dashes traditional structures and lifeways to pieces, sweeps away the sacred, undermines immemorial habits and inherited languages’ he is part of a century-old tradition of viewing modernity as disaster, literally an inauspicious constellation of stars. In Hamlet’s words the time of modernity is permanently ‘out of joint’. Or to quote Woody Allen’s film Deconstructing Harry, modernity makes everyone ‘out of focus’.
The revolt against decadence and the dialectic of modernity
However, Jameson makes an important qualification at the end of his pronouncement: modernity ‘leaves the world as a set of raw materials to be reconstructed rationally’. The thesis of my talk is that the numerous authoritarian and totalitarian projects, both left and right, incubated by the chaos of the war-time and inter-war period in Europe, are to be seen as attempts to reconstruct rationally (though of course to outsiders operating a conflicting world-view, irrationally) a world that was not just objectively in crisis but that subjectively had fallen apart, and so create an alternative modernity in which external chaos and inner ‘Zerrissenheit’ would be banished in what would be literally a ‘new order’. This is because, for those ‘entzückt’ rather than ‘ermüdet’ by the catastrophe of modernity in 1918, cultural pessimism was not a final verdict on the age but a transitional state which matures into the realization that out of the death of the old culture a new one is being born in a process known as ‘palingenesis’, or rebirth.
In fact, the pessimism of all the pioneers of the analysis of modernity we have referred to, whether we think of Barrès, Weber, Durkheim, Nietzsche, Nordau, or Benjamin, was palingenetic, living testimonies to what Ernst Bloch baptized ‘the Principle of Hope’ based in the ‘Noch-Nicht-Bewusste’, a faculty he considered more important than Freud’s Unbewusste. This profound dialectic of cultural despair and palingenetic hope can be illuminated by the analysis of cultural dynamics offered by social anthropology, and in particular by Peter Berger’s theory of the innate human need for a nomos which he describes as a ‘sacred canopy’ of mythic meaning protecting human beings from the horror of the void in an existence stripped of protective myth. The primordial reflex to ward off nihilism and despair by postulating a transcendent reality and a new futurity, produces the religion-based cultures of traditional society, as well as, in a secular age, the ‘temporalized’ utopias so typical of Western modernity, projects for a new age to be realized within history.
This approach to the forces regenerating culture in the face of crises and catastrophes is further refined by the theory of ‘liminoidality’ elaborated by Victor Turner on the basis of pioneering work by Arnold van Gennep on ;rites of passage’. Radical individual, societal, or natural transformations potentially induce a life-threatening experience of chaos, but in a stable culture this is accommodated through rites de passage that dramatize change and reconfigure it within a cosmic perspective of cyclic metamorphosis. However, when the change is too profound and unprecedented to be accommodated by the established traditions of the culture, the liminal phase cannot be resolved in an established process of simulated metamorphosis, so that the phase of transition is perpetuated and is now experienced as literally soul-destroying breakdown and chaos. This forces a society to evolve new cultural strategies to create a renewed sense of order, closure, and transcendence vital to communal life, a new sacred canopy.
The creation of such a new nomos (also called a ‘mazeway’, a plan to lead us out of the labyrinth of chaos) is often associated with the emergence of what anthropologists call a ‘revitalization movement’ based on syncretising old and new ideological and ritual elements in what the American Edgar Wallace calls a ‘mazeway resynthesis’. The process of synthesising a new worldview within a revitalization movement regularly invokes a mythicized past to regenerate the future and is often embodied in an individual attributed by his followers with special powers and a unique redemptive or soteriological mission — a charismatic propheta — who will lead them out of the moribund order into a new realm.
Modernity as permanent liminoidality
Once modern totalizing ideologies are seen as modern equivalents of new nomoi produced by societies in profound crisis, as new sacred canopies for a secularizing civilization widely experienced as in an advanced stage of dissolution, then this anthropological theory of the dynamics of cultural renewal has an obvious bearing on the theme of this symposium. In particular, it illuminates the structural relationship between on the one hand the spectacular achievements of cultural modernism in fin-de-siècle Europe in general and late Habsburg Vienna in particular, and the rise of authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies in Europe in the aftermath of the Great War. This causal relationship is thrown into relief by recognizing that the effect of Western modernity was to create a condition of permanent transition and unresolved liminality (i.e. liminoidality) which was experienced with particular intensity by cultural producers in Austria-Hungary before 1914.
There is an abundance of testimonies within ‘modern’ artistic and intellectual life to the experience of modernity as perpetuated transition and liminoidality: Marx’s sensation that ‘all that is solid melts into thin air’; Baudelaire’s impression that reality had become ‘ephemeral, fugitive, contingent’; T. S. Eliot conviction after 1918 that a city such as London had slipped into unreality are just some of the more famous. Despite his general confidence in his mission to formulate the nomos of the post-nihilist age, Nietzsche also knew moments of anguish when his mission to discover a new continent of mythically grounded Being resembled imprisonment aboard the Flying Dutchman, condemning him to drift for ever on the shoreless oceans of the liminoid, gazing at its shifting, mythless horizons till he shouts out in sheer deperation:
Land! Genug und übergenug der leidenschaftlich suchenden und irrenden Fahrt auf dunklen fremden Meeren! Jetzt endlich zeigt sich eine Küste: wie sie auch sei, an ihr muss gelandet werden, und der schlechteste Nothhafen ist besser als wieder in die hoffnungslose skeptische Unendlichkeit zurückzutaumeln. Halten wir nur erst das Land fest; wir werden später schon die guten Häfen finden und den Nachkommenden die Anfahrt erleichtern.
The decadent state of the Habsburg Empire in the late 19th century also inspired articulate testimonies to its acutely liminoid condition in the works of artists such as Kafka, Schnitzler, and Hugo von Hoffmansthal who articulated expressed the exhaustion of language and the invasion of everyday life by ‘das Gleitende’. Writing at the turn of the century, the Czech decadent artist Jirí Karásek spoke of ‘the horror of transition, the uncertainty of this age which has cast out everything old but has not yet created anything of its own to replace it, an age with nothing to lean on, in which the anxieties of someone drowning are to be heard’. Hermann Bahr echoes this sentiment:
Das Ich ist unrettbar. Die Vernunft hat die alten Götter umgestürzt und unsere Erde entthront. Nun droht sie, auch uns zu vernichten. Da werden wir erkennen, daß das Element unseres Lebens nicht die Wahrheit ist, sondern die Illusion.
The Principle of Hope and the modernist revolt against decadence
Yet, faithful to the primordial dialectic we have postulated between despair and hope, the acute condition of liminoidality at the turn of the century inevitably provoked myriad bids by existentially sensitive individuals to break out of anomie. Thus Bahr finishes the passage cited above by declaring: ‘Für mich gilt nicht, was wahr ist, sondern was ich brauche, und so geht die Sonne dennoch auf, die Erde ist wirklich, und ich bin ich.’ In the first issue of the review Die Moderne published in 1890 the logic of palingenetic pessimism is expressed in Zarathustrian tones:
Es geht eine wilde Pein durch diese Zeit und der Schmerz ist nicht mehr erträglich. Der Schrei nach dem Heiland ist gemein und Gekreuzigte sind überall. Ist es das große Sterben das über die Welt gekommen?
Es kann sein, daß wir am Ende sind, am Tode der erschöpften Menschheit, und das sind nur die letzten Krämpfe. Es kann sein, daß wir am Anfange sind, an der Geburt einer neuen Menschheit, und das sind nur die Lawinen des Frühlings. Wir steigen ins Göttliche oder wir stürzen, stürzen in Nacht und Vernichtung – aber Bleiben ist keines. Daß aus dem Leide das Heil kommen wird und die Gnade aus der Verzweiflung, daß es tagen wird nach dieser entsetzlichen Finsternis und daß die Kunst einkehren wird bei den Menschen – an diese Auferstehung, glorreich und selig, das ist der Glaube der Moderne.
Taking this argument a stage further we arrive at a redefinition of ‘modernism’ as a historical force. Rather than confine it to the sphere of radical innovation in the sphere of art and aesthetics, it now applies to an initiative in any sphere of cultural production, including the scientific and ideological, to overcome the nomic crisis of modernity in one of two modes of revolt against decadence. One occurs when the artist or thinker momentarily breaks through to a fresh sense of the sublime, the transcendent, or the numinous. Such ‘epiphanic modernism’ is familiar from the works of such figures as Charles Baudelaire, Vincent Van Gogh, James Joyce, Virginia Wolf, or Rainer Maria Rilke, who epitomised the epiphanic moment in the phrase from the 7th Duino Elegy: ‘Hiersein ist herrlich’ (a phrase given a bitter irony by the proximity of Duino to the most apocalyptic Materialschlacht of the First World War along the Isonzo battle front.) In an Austrian context Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arnold Schönberg, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, were epiphanic modernists, as was Oskar Kokoschka who once declared his expressionist portraits of the Viennese were of people who ‘lived in security, yet were all afraid’, which is why he ‘painted them in their anxiety and pain’. A forensic investigation of the psychological mechanism involved in the modern epiphanic experience is Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, described by one critic as an ‘investigation of the void at the heart of the experience of modernity’. In the course of it Musil maps the network of invisible meridians that connect ephemeral states of mystic transcendence, which Musil calls ‘der andere Zustand’ or ‘das tausendjährige Reich’, to the pathological violence of the serial killer and sociopath Moosbrugger, both reactions to the modern void.
Yet in terms of its impact on shaping European history after the Great War the far more significant mode of modernism was the one expressed by those who intensely experienced the anomie and decadence of the age but believed they could go beyond private revelations of higher states of being and exit the tunnel of decadent modernity altogether. They convinced themselves that a re-grounding, a re-embedding, a rebirth was possible, that the crashed train of Western civilization could be repaired or replaced and proceed at top speed on another set of railway tracks leading into a future freed from anomie and despair. At this point modernism becomes ‘programmatic’ rather than simply epiphanic. It was championed by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Filippo Marinetti, by architects such as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, by philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche or Martin Heidegger. It was also promoted by idiosyncratic social reformers such as Madam Blavatsky who believed the lost occultist wisdom retrieved in theosophy could save the West from spiritual starvation, or Richard Ungewitter, who fought a tireless campaign to transform society through naturism, or Alfred Ploetz, the evangelist of the social hygiene needed to combat the problem of degeneration that was crippling the West. Viennese society also produced a rich crop of programmatic modernists too, such as Hermann Bahr, Karl Kraus, Sigmund Freud, Otto Weininger, Ernst Mach, and Fritz Mauthner, all seeking in idiosyncratic ways to establish new foundations, a new arche to modern life
Such considerations allow me to assert the basic thesis of this talk. The Great War and its immediate aftermath did more than create concentrated urban and rural areas of acute socio-economic and political instability in Europe which in some countries liberal parliamentary regime prove incapable of resolving, thereby creating a political space for illiberal movements and regimes to flourish. It also intensified the societal experience of anomie and liminoidality which even before 1914 had fostered a vast range of creative responses by individuals desperate to ward off the prospect of the collapse of history as a meaningful narrative and escape the terror of the void. As the US historian Peter Fritzsche puts it, by invalidating ‘the grand narrative of “History” as it had developed over the course of the nineteenth century, the Great War
encouraged contemporaries to envision the wholesale renovation of the social body. The war offered a new universe, and it generated its own possibilities. […] The future had never appeared so dangerous or so open-ended as when viewed from among the ruins of the postwar years.
A glimpse of the conflicting mazeways that thrived in the more cosmopolitan areas of Europe in the liminoid conditions that prevailed after the war is provided by this eye-witness account of the scene in Bohemian Schwabing in the early 1920s:
The occult fashion of the time after the First World War had its origin here in Schwabing! Theosophists, […] mystics, Gnostics, Taoists, Mazdaists, Buddhists, neo-Buddhists, Zionists crowded together with Nihilists, Collectivists, Syndicalists, Bolshevists, Pacifists, […] and other world-reforming fanatics of all races. Here everything impossible to man was jumbled up with all human possibilities, [tempting] those bitten by its heroism to sacrifice themselves for a great idea, for a divine Leader, for a woman.
Within such a Babel of pessimistic diagnoses of the present and utopian visions of new beginnings — all too often pervaded by fantasies of communal redemption, sacrifice, and cleansing — it becomes intelligible that particularly in areas of Europe where the objective social fabric, political structure, and territorial boundaries had been transformed beyond recognition by the war or its outcome, programmatic modernism in the form of utopian political projects to solve the crisis rose to the surface to float alongside the debris of shattered regimes of power and thought. The Russian Revolution served to fuel palingenetic political expectations that History itself was at a turning point.
Inevitably, then, forms of political radicalism that had been largely marginalized by liberal parliamentary systems or Europe’s absolutist regimes before 1914 now moved centre stage and acquired the character of a crusade of programmatic modernism against a decadent civilization. Political creeds proliferated, with such names as anarchism, anarcho-Syndicalism, Marxism-Leninism, democratic centralism, social democracy, political anti-Semitism, Christian nationalism and socialism, organic ultra-nationalism, politicized racism and biopolitics, often with fuzzy boundaries between them, all jostling for position to offer themselves as the exclusive panaceas for the crisis of the West. After 1918 Europe became for millions of the spiritually homeless disaffected with liberalism and rationalism an age ripe for a new politics born not of the deliberation and debate of a segregated caste of politicians, but of decisiveness, of action, of faith, of will, of movement, of planning, of community, of solidarity, of charisma, of spectacle, of communal destiny, of sacrifice. The stage was set for new forms of political regime bent on either repairing or replacing wholesale the tattered sacred canopy of modernity.
Two testimonies of the time offer an insight into the ancient process of maze-way resynthesis that took place in the attempted reordering and ‘renomizing’ of politics amidst the intensified liminoidality issuing from the Great War. The first is to be found the opening passage from Ernst Jünger’s Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis (first published in 1922) which expresses (in Kafka’s sense) the Entzückung of someone who knows with fanatical certainty that civilization is going to emerge from the tunnel of history’s train-crash on new tracks stretching into the future:
Zuweilen erstrahlt an den Horizonten des Geistes ein neues Gestirn, das die Augen aller Rastlosen trifft, Verkündung und Sturmsignal einer Weltwende wie einst den Königen aus dem Morgenlande. Dann ertrinken die Sterne ringsum in feuriger Glut, Götzenbilder splittern zu irdenen Scherben, und wiedereinmal schmilzt alle geprägte Form in tausend Hochöfen, um zu neuen Werten gegossen zu werden.
Die Wellen solcher Zeit umbranden uns von allen Seiten. Hirn, Gesellschaft, Staat, Gott, Kunst, Eros, Moral: Zerfall, Gärung — Auferstehung? (…)
Warum ist gerade unsere Zeit an Kräften, vernichtenden und zeugenden, so überreich? Warum trägt gerade sie so ungeheure Verheißung im Schoß? Denn mag auch vieles unter Fiebern sterben, so braut zu gleicher Zeit die gleiche Flamme Zukünftiges und Wunderbares in tausend Retorten. Das zeigt ein Gang auf der Straße, ein Blick in die Zeitung, allen Propheten zum Trotz. (…)
Nicht nur unser Vater ist der Krieg, auch unser Sohn. Wir haben ihn gezeugt und er uns. Gehämmerte und Gemeißelte sind wir, aber auch solche, die den Hammer schwingen, den Meißel führen, Schmiede und sprühender Stahl zugleich, Märtyrer eigener Tat, von Trieben Getriebene.
A year before the war’s end a certain Benito Mussolini was convinced he had witnessed a new elite being born in the front-line fighting with Austrian troops who would transform history: the ‘trenchocracy’.
The servicemen of today are the vanguard of the great army who will return tomorrow. They are the thousands who await millions of demobilized soldiers. This enormous mass — conscious of what it has achieved — is bound to cause shifts in the equilibrium of society. The brutal and bloody apprenticeship of the trenches will mean something. It will mean more courage, more faith, more tenacity. The old parties, the old men who carry on with the exploitation of the political Italy will be swept aside.[...]
The words republic, democracy, radicalism, liberalism, the word ‘socialism’ itself, have no sense any longer: they will have one tomorrow, but it will be the one given them by the millions of ‘those who returned’. And it could be something quite different. It could, for example, be an anti-Marxist and national socialism. The millions of workers who return to the mud in their fields, after being in the mud of the trenches, will realize the synthesis of the antithesis: class and nation.
The rise of modernist authoritarianisms
At this point it is important to distinguish two isms omitted from the earlier list of new species of politics: authoritarianism and totalitarianism. The inter-war authoritarian regimes sought to solve the problems of modernity by blending conservative elements such as politicized Christianity, monarchism, patriarchal family values, a celebration of the peasantry, and rigid class stratification with ‘modern’ currents of ultra-nationalism, anti-Communism, anti-liberalism, and anti-Semitism, as well as with varying blends of military and personal dictatorship. In Catholic countries such as Portugal, Spain, Hungary — and of course Austria — authoritarianism could draw for its legitimation on highly elaborated Catholic theories of corporatism and the welfare state as well as the Church’s critiques of liberal democracy, laissez-faire economics, and individualism. After all, by the 1920s political Catholicism was offering its own brand of alternative modernity.
Authoritarianism was thus not straight forward ‘reaction’, but a new mazeway, the product of intensive syncretism improvised in crisis conditions to offer the basis of an alternative modernity adapted to the national culture. Thus Salazar adapted ideas from the Maurras’ Action Française, Hungary under Horthy retained a parliamentary system, while Dollfuss could draw on powerful currents of Austrian-German patriotism, Karl Lueger’s Christian Socialism, the corporatist socio-economic theories of Othmar Spann, and the Fascism of neighbouring Italy. However, authoritarianism was imposed by existing elites on the masses from above with no attempt at radicalizing the masses and only a simulated revolutionary momentum towards a radically new society. It was more intent on creating a dam to hold back the rising flood of chaos than channelling it into the foundation of a new order
Totalitarianism was prepared to carry out more drastic surgery on the body politic of any society it conquered. It sought to resolve the crisis of modernity in a new order based on a transclass social and anthropological revolution maintained in power by a populist revitalization movement under charismatic leadership. Totalitarianism applied comprehensive social engineering — involving an elaborate political religion — for what was known in Soviet Newspeak as ‘retooling the soul’. This result was what Zygmunt Bauman terms a ‘gardening state’, one which in the case of Nazism and Stalinism ruthlessly weeded out and uprooted the human embodiments of decadence. The totalitarian state is the ultimate product of programmatic modernism as a political response to the crisis of modernity, since it treated the civic population as the raw material for producing a new type of human being. In the words of Emilio Gentile, it sought to bring about not just a political but an anthropological revolution.
The birth of a home-grown Austrian totalitarian ideology from the Great War
Several conclusions can be drawn from this whirlwind exposition of a complex — some would say over-elaborate — interpretation of the link between the Great War and the rise of totalitarianism. The first is that the ‘Austrofascism’ of the Dollfuss/Schuschnigg regimes was not a form of totalitarianism or of fascism in the generic sense of the terms, but a home-grown authoritarian remedy for the very real threats posed by the socio-economic crisis, the structural problems faced by the new nation-states, by Communism, and by Nazism. The Ständestaat was simultaneously conceived as a bulwark against anarchy and as a prophylactic against the degeneracy, spiritual bankruptcy and anomie of the secular individualism fostered by modernity.
Second, Austrian Nazism was a totalitarian and genuinely fascist movement for ethnic revitalization, a radicalization of ethnic nationalism which abandoned Georg Schoenerer’s crusade to adopt the new pan-German mazeway promulgated by the NSDAP. The assassination of Dollfuss in the abortive Nazi coup of July 1934 thus epitomizes the violent clash of two alternative modernities, both of which rejected liberal democracy, Bolshevism, and the status quo, but only one of which was fired by a vision of renewal with the potential for committing the mass murder of soldiers and civilians on an unprecedented scale.
Third, it is no coincidence that it was in fin-de-siècle Vienna where a young Austrian from a village near Linz, the future propheta of the Nazi movement for German rebirth, served his ideological apprenticeship, commenting later in Mein Kampf that ‘Vienna was and remained for me the hardest, though most thorough school of my life’. Hitler’s most scholarly biographer, Ian Kershaw, confirms that ‘the Vienna “schooling” did indeed stamp its lasting imprint on his development’, stressing the way the city ‘epitomized tension – social, cultural, political – that signalled the turn of an era, the death of the nineteenth century world’. The backcloth to his daily existence was thus one of dissolution: ‘The mood of disintegration and decay, anxiety and impotence, the sense that the old order was passing, the climate of a society in crisis was unmistakable.’ Hitler’s own comment on the Zeitgeist of the city in 1908 is revealing: ‘Nothing is anchored any more, nothing is rooted in our spiritual life any more. Everything is superficial, flees past us. Restlessness and haste mark the thinking of our people. The whole of life is being torn completely apart.’
But the dialectic of modernity meant the same metropolis was also buzzing with palingenetic remedies to the rootlessness, anomie, and sickness of the modern age that so haunted the young Hitle, providing an ideal habitat not just for modernist art and thought but propagating the ultranationalism and anti-Semitism of Georg von Schönerer’s Pan-German League, Karl Lueger’s Christian Social Party, Karl Wolf’s German-Radical Party, and Ariosophy, an Aryanized and occultist variant of theosophy evolved by Guido von List and Lanz von Liebefels. The ethos of Secessionist Vienna also helped incubate the Zionism of Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau, as well as the rise of Austromarxism as an alternative to Marxism-Leninism. All these movements were bent on removing the causes of decadence root and branch in a new type of society. All were species of political modernism.
The young Hitler graduated from the hard schooling of life in a city saturated with visions of decay and rebirth just in time to undergo his own traumatic rite de passage on the Western front. He went on to become first the drummer, then the self-appointed leader of a movement of national revitalization which he equipped with a new mazeway, a total Weltanschauung exclusively designed to shelter ethnic Germans under its sacred canopy and formulated in Mein Kampf whose chapters are pervaded by the topoi of decadence and rebirth.
One of the millions of Austrian Germans who sought existential refuge elsewhere was the writer Hermann Broch. Vienna served as his forward observation post in the battle for the West’s renewal, and it was there that between 1928 and 1931 he composed Die Schlafwandler, a deeply modernist trilogy of novels exploring the growing nomic crisis that was seizing Europe in the first decades of the 20th century, ‘der Verfall der Werte’. The bulk of its citizens, however well educated, he saw as cut off from any reflexive insight into the deadly illogical logic that was shaping their lives. Buffeted by the ‘Orkan des Eisigen’ in a world whose protective sky has been ripped to shreds by modernity, each individual remains ‘ausgestoßen aus der Epoche, ausgestoßen aus der Zeit’. Yet precisely because they are condemned to this historical and ontological exile, Broch portrays each as living on the psychological cusp of the ultimate modernist Aufbruch to a new time: revolution, ‘Tat der Selbstaufhebung und Selbsterneuerung, letzte und größte Tat der zerfallenden, erste des neuen Wertsystems, Augenblick der radikal geschichtsbildenden Zeitaufhebung im Pathos des absoluten Nullpunkts’.
The absolute zero point — the train-crash of modernity caused by the Great War — has left modern individuals ‘zurückgeworfen in eine kreatürliche Angst, in die Angst dessen, der Gewalt erleidet und Gewalt tut’, a vulnerable psychological state that predisposes them to succumb to the primordial longings generated by the experience of the liminoid. At the height of outer and inner chaos each modern citizen may fall prey to:
die Sehnsucht nach dem Führer, der leicht und milde bei der Hand ihn nimmt, ordnend und den Weg weisend, der Führer, der keinem mehr nachfolgt und der vorangeht ..., aufzusteigen zu immer höheren Ebenen ..., er, der das Haus neu erbauen wird, damit aus Totem wieder das Lebendige werde, er selber auferstanden aus der Masse der Toten, der Heilsbringer, der in seinem eigenen Tun das unbegreifbare Geschehen dieser Zeit sinnvoll machen wird, auf daß die Zeit neu erzählt werde.
After his release from the Landsberg prison Hitler knew that his mission was to be just such a leader for the whole German people once it had been purged of its cultural and human degeneracy. He would also be the Head Gardner of a new Germany. As he wrote in Mein Kampf:
Erst wenn einmal eine Zeit nicht mehr von den Schatten des eigenen Schuldbewußtseins umgeistert ist, erhält sie mit der innere Ruhe auch die äußere Kraft, brutal und rücksichtslos die wilden Schößlinge herauszuschneiden, das Unkraut auszujäten.
Within ten years Hitler’s private epiphany induced by the Great War had become the programme for an entire nation, and the blueprint for hell on earth. A totalitarian ideology of lethal radicalness had been poured from the blast-furnace of the Great War. Hitler himself, after his apprenticeship in modernist Vienna, had been ‘gehämmert und gemeißelt’ by his own traumatic experiences of modernity and was determined that he would no longer be a victim of History, but one of those who would henceforth ‘den Hammer schwingen, den Meißel führen’.
By the time the Third Reich annexed Austria on 12 March 1938 millions of Austrians had convinced themselves that Hitler would rebuild the devastated house of modernity so that time could now begin anew in a ‘tausendjähriges Reich’, not just spiritual and inward as it was for Musil, but historical and territorial. However they had delivered themselves into the hands not of a Saviour or Healer but a political Moosbrugger, not locked away but elevated to the status of infallible Führer, the serial killer by proxy of countless millions of ‘Selbstopfer’ and ‘Fremdopfer’ sacrificed to the Moloch of the New Order.