Conservatism in Germany
The year 1968 not only marked the culmination of the students’ rebellion, but also the starting point for a conservative counter movement in Germany. Three developments were caused by this event: In 1970 Caspar von Schrenck-Notzing founded the magazine “Criticón” which evolved into the leading journal of intellectual conservatism in Germany until 1998; in 1974 the intellectual Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner set up a book series under the heading “Herder Library Initiative” which comprised more than 170 issues after two decades; and again in 1974 a grand gathering took place in the “Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts” in Munich, whose name was “Reversal of the Trend” (Tendenzwende) and in which prominent theoreticians presented their position about the dominant cultural situation in order to alter its direction.
Schrenck-Notzing was born in 1927 and 18 years old when the Second World War ended. He was the son of the oldest Munich aristocratic family, dating back to 1214, and which had often in its history held high offices. He was educated during the war, but contrary to the then ruling ideas he was instructed in the liberal-pacifist and anti-centrist ideology of the famous Munich professor of philosophy Frederick Foerster. After his studies of history and sociology at the universities of Fribourg, Munich, and Cologne, he spent three winters in India. One outcome of this stay was his first book on “100 Years of India.” In it he analyzed the impact of the European rule in India. In 1961, after his return to Munich, he discovered a completely different cultural atmosphere in Germany than at the time of his departure. It was this perception that made him investigate the causes and the effects of the Allied Powers’ policy. Similarly, as he had analyzed the impact of the British rule in India in 1961, he now tackled the presence and strategy of, especially, the United States in Germany.
The founding of “Criticón” had its origin in the cultural struggle of the late 1960s. Armin Mohler, the famous author of “The Conservative Revolution” of the interwar period and former secretary of Ernst Juenger, intended to create a magazine which stood in firm opposition to these recent upheavals. Since the project was too hot an object for the then-Prime Minister, the Bavarian Franz-Josef Strauß, Schrenck-Notzing took over that task. He planned the periodical as a review magazine that would inform its readers about new publications and special events on the conservative front. The surprising success of “Criticón” was explained in 1987 by Schrenck-Notzing in the 100th issue of the magazine. He emphasized that one secret of its success was that from the very beginning it formed the point of intersection of different varieties of conservatism. “Criticón” never tried to obligate its contributors to a special interpretation of conservatism or to a statement of faith. Another secret consists of its special focus: The magazine soon shed some light on topics such as the Russian dissidents, American conservatives, and the weak points of the German “Christian Democratic Party” (the supposedly “conservative” party). A third feature consisted of the fact that the periodical always swam against the current which, in the meantime, as he points out, has become not only weaker, but considerably muddier.
For almost thirty years “Criticón” was the leading magazine of intellectual conservatism in Germany. Emerging from the resistance to and the repudiation of the cultural revolution it succeeded in assembling outstanding German and foreign theoreticians who were shocked by the measure of destruction, violence, and hate against the state, society, and customary ways of life. Its open-mindedness was in fact a key for its success: The magazine gave conservatives of various kinds the opportunity to take part in a great intellectual debate that maintained and evolved conservatism in Germany. The name “Criticón” stemmed from the novel of the Spaniard Jesuit, intellectual and university teacher Baltasar Gracián who, in the middle of the seventeenth century, published a skeptical account about the tension between the individual and his interest in self-preservation on the one side and the declining Spanish society on the other—a motive easily to be identified in the thought of Schrenck-Notzing himself.
The openness that Schrenck-Notzing showed with regard to “Criticón“ stood in a certain contradiction to the hard position of his first great book on “Character Washing” (“Charakterwäsche”) which appeared in 1965. The book contained an excellent analysis and description of the ways Germans were re-educated after World War II. Schrenck-Notzing explains that after World War II the Allied Forces saw three methods to deal with Germany.
The first possibility referred to the so called “Morgenthau plan” which saw Germany as the great and perpetual factor of disturbance in world history and recommended the permanent isolation of the country from its neighbors and the systematic weakening of its economic and political power. It should be modeled according to an agrarian state. The second method distinguished between two images of Germany: On the one side there is the (bad) Germany of the Prussian squires, the rich industrialists, the influential generals, the Romantic philosophers, and the legal positivists, but on the other (good) side there are the passionate pacifists, the trade unionists, the idealistic socialists, and the enlightened philosophers. Obviously the solution of the German riddle was the fostering of the good party at the expense of the bad one. The third method consisted of the “character reformers.” They rejected the position of the Morgenthau plan and declined the thesis of the two essentially differing Germanys. They, instead, maintained that the qualities, as for instance aggressiveness or racism, are in no way hereditary but simply the outcome of a certain culture. Instead of following the ways of the first or the second group the Allied Powers should alter the general culture by introducing a new style of leadership and a new way of life would consequently come into being.
According to Schrenck-Notzing the way of the “character reformers” was successfully practiced after World War II. In order to change the Germans’ character, democracy had to be established. And setting up democracy not only meant creating political institutions on the basis of regularly repeated elections and timely limited offices, but required a deep transformation of the whole political culture: Democracy had to become not only an outer garment, but an object of inner inclination. In order to realize democracy the school system had to be changed, faculties of political science in universities had to be founded, the influence of television had to be acknowledged, and the party system thought through.
Schrenck-Notzing observed that even if institutions were free in the sense that a true democracy is supposed to be free, they were often, first, systematically devised and afterwards, carefully supervised. Another commonality of democratic institutions was the aim to make the Germans acquainted with their recent past, to impress the events and developments of the Weimar Republic and, especially, of the Third Reich, in their minds. Schrenck-Notzing called this kind of democracy an “educational democracy,” a form of organization that does not give the power to the people but, on the contrary, to a select group of individuals who direct, control, and manipulate public opinion. He found sharp and penetrative words to characterize Germany’s status after World War II:
People say that Germany has been a “tabula rasa” (blank slate) in 1945 on which unheard things could have been inscribed. Nothing is more wrong. In 1945 Germany was not an empty, but a densely depicted slate. The inscriptions, however, have not been made in German, but in English, Russian, and French. Since then the historical dominants of our present are to be found less in the German than rather in the Russian and American history.
Washington and Lenin are much more figures of the present Germany than Bismarck or Frederick the Great. The developments of the American domestic policy nowadays play a similar decisive role for Western Germany as did the developments of the British domestic policy for India 60 years ago. The difference is that the Indians were conscious about that situation and used the chances connected to it.
From this passage one might think that Schrenck-Notzing’s rejection of democracy and the dominant status of the Allied Powers could have derived from, and been fueled by, a certain vicinity to an authoritarian position. Nothing is more wrong than this! For an adequate judgment it is necessary to know his biography.
Schrenck-Notzing was no nationalist who defended a past regime, but, on the contrary, a liberal (in the European sense) who was shocked by the deep changes in Germany. His stay in India had sharpened his eyes and his mind. He was surprised about and repelled by the influence of the foreign powers and the re-arrangement of the institutional and cultural architecture of his country. From this perspective, he discussed the events of re-education in 1965. Three years later, in 1968, he published another book under the title “Future Makers” (“Zukunftsmacher”), in which he investigated the various manifestations of the Left and its (future) influence in Germany and abroad. Again two years later followed the founding of the periodical “Criticón.” Schrenck-Notzing’s hope during the 1970s was for the “reversal of the trend” and, along with it that the “Reconstruction of Conservatism” would succeed. His confidence that utopian schemes and the construction of new societies would be replaced by reason and the “principle of experience,” however, was to be disappointed. Also, the party politics of the “Christian Democratic Union” under the chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982–1998) did not meet his expectations: Conservative principles were used by politicians for the advancement of particular interests rather than for their own sake. Schrenck-Notzing distanced himself increasingly from politics.
In order to promote conservatism, Schrenck-Notzing invested much time and money to establish a “Conservative Library.” He also founded an institute, which in the year 2000 was transformed into a foundation called “Foundation for Conservative Education and Research.” Different publications (books, periodicals, a “Lexicon of Conservatism”) were in the same way part of the foundation’s work as was the organization of lectures and roundtable discussions.
In 1997, at the age of 70, Schrenck-Notzing handed over his magazine “Criticón” to a former contributor. Instead of continuing the successful tradition the new editor changed the character of the periodical by focusing on economic and financial questions; and instead of maintaining the conservative outlook of the periodical, he replaced it by emphasizing the liberal policy of the middle classes. A new magazine, “Secession,” was set up in 2000 by a younger generation to perpetuate “Criticón’s” role—even if the focus, the authors, and the positions were different. In 2008, finally, the library and the foundation were transferred to the headquarters of the leading German conservative weekly, “Young Freedom” (“Junge Freiheit”), in Berlin; members of the staff are dealing with the extensive collections to make the library publicly accessible.
Despite Schrenck-Notzing’s critique of the Allied Powers and their attempt to re-educate the Germans according to abstract plans, he admired the ability of Americans to organize their interests. Conservatism, and this was his firm conviction, has a chance to survive or even to prosper only on the condition that it is organized. And the best organizers were for him the Americans. This conviction is also the reason why he observed for decades the so called “American Conservative Movement,” subscribed to magazines like “Modern Age,” “The University Bookman,” “Chronicles,” “National Review” and others, and had a stable contact with some of its representatives. Russell Kirk, Henry Regnery, Claes Ryn, and Paul Gottfried were among the persons he very much appreciated and repeatedly referred to. He also appreciated the Philadelphia Society’s annual meetings where for decades he was a regular attendee. Sometimes (and with a certain pride) he hinted at being not only one of its long-time members but probably the oldest German one.
Assessing Schrenck-Notzing’s biography requires the consideration of two aspects: The first refers to the disappointment about the weakness of conservatism in Germany, the failure of the “reversal of the trend” in the 1970s, and the unsavory tactics of important “conservative” politicians; the other aspect, however, consists of a number of thoroughly researched and elegantly written books and articles, as well as of the highly successful management of the periodical “Criticón” by which he decisively influenced and forged German conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century.
Dr. Harald Bergbauer is assistant professor at the Munich School of Political Science, teaching political theory there and at the University of Armed Forces, Munich. Between 2004 and 2008 he worked with Caspar von Schrenck-Notzing at the Foundation of Conservative Education and Research. Mr. Bergbauer is currently working on a disquisition of Russell Kirk’s interpretation of American conservatism and his role within the conservative movement.
Posted: November 14, 2010 in Essays.
Did you see this one?
Change and Continuity
Gerald J. Russello
Volume 44, Number 1 (Fall 2005)