As the twenty-first century grinds on, with history returning in spades, Ernst Jünger, German warrior and philosopher, grows more relevant every day. This book, On the Marble Cliffs, I view as his third book in an unrecognized trilogy advising us how we should conduct ourselves under different types of tyranny. It fits with two other books, more famous, The Forest Passage (1951) and Eumeswil (1977), which also parse freedom and oppression, each with a different focus and tone. This book, fiction both dreamlike and phantasmagoric, is lesser known and even harder to grasp than the other two. Yet it serves the same purpose: to instruct us how an individual in society should act when threatened by, or subsumed by, tyranny.
Dictatorship, in the form of Caesarism, is in the American air. I have recently written on what, in practical terms, an American Caesar would do; I will soon tell you how likely our Caesar is, and why. As it happens, I am at the same time working my way through all the books of Carl Schmitt, in their order of original publication, and his next book up, Dictatorship, published in 1921, clarifies the historical and legal-analytical part of what is unspooling before our eyes. We cannot be better informed, analytically at least, than by pondering this work of the peerless German, whose book, as always, puts to shame today’s mostly insipid political and constitutional analysis.
The Outlaws is advertised to modern readers as a memoir of the post-World War I struggles between the armed German Left and Right, between the Communists and the Freikorps. But it’s not. The Freikorps appear some; the Communists little, and often when they do, as quasi-friends of some on the Right. Rather, this is a personal memoir of Ernst von Salomon’s growing up in the 1920s, and follows his life, of which Freikorps conflict inside Germany was a small part. The book instead narrates his participation in postwar government-sponsored Freikorps fighting defending the Baltic Germans; his involvement in the assassination of Walther Rathenau, foreign minister of the Weimar Republic; and his resulting time in prison. All of these are surrounded by the introspective reflections of a right-wing German of 1930, which is what makes them interesting.
I am fond of pointing out that the safety and security we think we enjoy is, historically speaking, anomalous and ephemeral. This memoir, by the late Kristina von Rosenvinge, brings this truth to life. It is not a maudlin tale of woe. Instead, it is optimistic and grateful, even though the events it narrates, of her young life during World War II and immediately after, must objectively have been extremely trying. And since I am always looking for additional messages in books, aside from simple human interest, I found her story has much to tell us both about history, and about the future.
Eric Hoffer was, Dwight Eisenhower said in 1952, his favorite philosopher. This endorsement made Hoffer, a self-educated San Francisco stevedore, famous. The True Believer is the book that Eisenhower gave all his friends. Read today, however, this book is mediocre, at best. It is the type of book that congratulates the reader while pretending to challenge him; it is a mirror that reflects to the reader what he wants to hear—especially for self-proclaimed “moderates” of flexible principle like Eisenhower. The True Believer is the Cream of Wheat of political books—you can taste anything you want in it, and if you add the right toppings yourself, you can be sure that you will be pleased.
Victor Klemperer is famous today for his diaries covering the Nazi era in Germany. But those were published in 1995, thirty-five years after his death. The only book he published in his lifetime was this one, in 1947: The Language of the Third Reich. Its original title, Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen (i.e., Notebook of a Philologist), with the Latin evoking Imperial Rome, is more precise and informative, but I suppose we’re too uneducated today for that title to be used. Either way, this book is fascinating in its description of the twisting of language by the Nazis, who, like all ideologues, turned words to their own ends of power.
This book, a brief work of cultural history, outlines four parallel aspects of three political systems: the American New Deal, Italian Fascism, and German National Socialism. The point of Three New Deals is that these political systems shared core similarities in certain programmatic manifestations. The author, Wolfgang Schivelbusch, fortunately does not claim that the three systems were essentially the same. He offers, instead, a discussion of the interplay between the governed and the governors in each of these systems—how each shaped the other, in ways that can be compared and contrasted across systems. The result is a book of modest interest from which, perhaps, something more can be spun.
This is an academic monograph, rather than a work of propaganda or political inspiration. Those looking for a rabble-rousing polemic in the style of today’s mass-popular conservative authors, or of a Wayne LaPierre speech, will be disappointed. What the reader gets instead is far more valuable: an understanding of modern history as it relates to gun control, and illumination of how gun seizures may work in practice if our own government turns criminal.
Carl Schmitt, preeminent antiliberal, is that rare thing, the modern political philosopher relevant long after his time. The simple remember him only for his grasping embrace of National Socialism, but the more astute, especially on the Left, have in recent times found much to ponder in Schmitt’s protean writings. He did not offer ideology, as did so many forgotten political philosophers, but instead clear analysis of power relations, untied to any specific system or regime. So, as the neoliberal new world order collapses, and the old dragons of man, lulled for decades by the false promises of liberal democracy, rise from slumber, such matters are become relevant once more, and Schmitt informs our times, echoing, as they do, his times.
It seems to me that we in the West are like men in a cavern, out of which lead many paths, none signposted. Some paths lead to bright futures, but other paths lead to terrible ones, among them those where, once again as we did not so very long ago, we slaughter each other over ideology. And the way back is closed, so we must choose one path forward. The service of this book is that it illustrates Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s dictum, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Thus, reflecting upon this book may help us choose the correct exit from the cavern, and to that end, it is worth bearing the unease that comes over us when we read books like this.