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Revolutions for What?

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

The Revolution of Nihilism. Warning to the West. By Hermann Rauschning. New York: Alliance Book Corporation. $3.00. Stalin. By Boris Souvarine. New York: Alliance Book Corporation. $3.75.

At a time when history is written at breath-taking and heartbreaking speed, when the headlines of to-day are outdated tomorrow, the intelligent and perturbed reader is looking for sign posts to lead him through the chaos of current affairs. In spite of the daily growing flood of publications, there is a dearth of substantial studies cutting through the surface of events, revealing the driving forces behind the news. We need such studies if we are to achieve a true evaluation of the dynamic dictatorships controlling half of the earth and overshadowing the rest of it, especially since the actual information on these new totalitarian states—scanty as it often is—is going through a propagandists sieve before it reaches the American reader. Particularly does the world east of the Rhine need interpretation by the well informed who lived in that world. It is no mere accident that the authors of the books discussed here are Europeans, and that these studies are translations offered by a young publishing house which makes the alliance of the best European and American thinking its aim.

Hermann Rauschning’s book, “The Revolution of Nihilism,” undoubtedly should be regarded as one of the outstanding analyses of National Socialism. It has been justifiably regarded as “required” reading giving an important key toward the understanding of the Nazi threat to Western civilization. True, most of the arguments presented are not really new, certainly not to the experts. Numerous books and articles have hinted at almost all the elements of this totalitarian crisis in Europe. However, what gives Herr Rauschning’s book its importance is not only its effective presentation of a most complex phenomenon, but even more its extraordinary timeliness. The American publication appeared just at the outbreak of the present war. A few years ago this book might not have been understood at all.

A former leading party member, first Nazi president of the Danzig Senate, Herr Rauschning gives us an inside picture of the National Socialist movement. It is even more effective since this picture is free from the “revelations” of an embittered and disappointed adherent (compare this study with the book by Ludecke, “I Knew Hitler,” informative though that is). Every line of the book reflects the author’s absolute integrity, the honest responsibility of a restrained but passionate fighter.

The main thesis of Herr Rauschning’s analysis is the basically nihilistic character of National Socialist dynamism. Nihilism to him means the total rejection of any sort of doctrine. National Socialist ideology is far from being definitive and permanent, as the unalterable party program pretends to be; it is above all a tool in the hand of the ruling class to control the masses. The only permanent feature is the continuous revolution. Here the inner discrepancies of the “revolution by arrangement”—as Herr Rauschning calls the seizure of power in 1933—become obvious. Only too late did the conservative elements of this national coalition within and without the party (and this included Herr Rauschning himself) realize that the actual driving forces of National Socialism were engaged in an unprincipled struggle for power, a revolt of super-careerists. Power for power’s sake became the slogan, and only the ruthless and shameless opportunists survived. Means, not ends—the techniques of revolution became the real objectives of their endeavor. The totalitarian control of the nation, impregnating every detail of social and personal life, led to “the destruction of character —the great achievement of National Socialism.” Now it attacks European civilization and order.

Herr Rauschning discusses this nihilistic dynamism of National Socialism in three steps. He opens with an analysis of its rise and establishment within Germany. A second section, on the role of the army in the Third Reich, its slow disintegration as the conservative standard bearer, leads to a more elaborate study of the aims and techniques of National Socialism in driving toward universal unsettlement and final world domination. Undoubtedly this third section will arouse the greatest interest in the American reader. In this connection it is especially valuable in describing not only the prevailing concepts in Nazi Germany concerning the status of the world (the end of the small nations, the decay of France, the breakdown of the British Empire, et cetera), but also in discussing in detail the most influential school of geopolitics (which might be called the substitute for Marxism in a semi-bourgeois world) and its main representative, the Professor-General Karl Haushofer. The real character of National Socialism becomes apparent in these fields of international affairs, where it emerges, so to speak, before the eyes of a world public. This last section is the most successful in the book.

So far as the earlier chapters are concerned, it is questionable whether they will be fully understood by an American audience, even though they reveal the real significance of “The Revolution of Nihilism,” The shortcomings of the earlier chapters are partly the result of the abbreviation of the original German text; this has dimmed the full picture. Yet this is not the only explanation. The book is neither a factual history nor a systematic analysis of National Socialism. It is a commentary on the Third Reich’s character, addressed to a German public as a last appeal by a German patriot. A sensitive American reader with some European background will certainly feel all the implications, but for the average reader too much is taken for granted.

One might even venture to say that the shortcomings of the book are caused by the personality of the author himself. A descendant of East-Prussian landowners, the son of an active officer, Hermann Rauschning grew up with Christian-European standards of respect for institutions and individual life. He is simply stunned by the destructive nihilism he is suddenly confronted with. He cannot really explain it. He can only describe this great attack against human decency and against all that is holy to him. Traditional conservatism at its best has never been strong in critical analysis. The only causal element Herr Rauschning clearly presents is a most sincere self-reproach directed against his own conservative class and its blunders in recent German history.

To be sure, he sees all the forces which led to the rise of nihilism, but he does not delve deeply enough into the reasons why these trends became basic causes of social and intellectual uprooting. He scarcely mentions the problem of leadership in a mass democracy, complicated by the sweeping changes of modern industrialism and urbanization, the breakdown of a fixed social order and basic religious concepts. He might have shown how the new demagogical rule became a substitute for institutions. An analysis of what the war did to German youth, what the inflation meant to a disturbed middle class, what unemployment contributed to a negativistic radicalism—all this would have led him to a realization of the social roots of destructive nihilism. It is no mere accident that he does not see the rise of National Socialism against the background of a crisis of modern capitalism and middle class society. In this respect a study like Stephen Raushenbush’s “The March of Fascism” goes deeper into the causes of these new dictatorships.

So far as the specific German conditions are concerned, Herr Rauschning undoubtedly understands the enormous influence of the war and its outcome on the rise of a new nationalism. He himself is, politically speaking, at least partially a product of these depressing experiences of a post-Versailles world. Rut what he does not sufficiently consider are the anti-European roots to be found within Germany. In fact, this anti-European concept of National Socialist Germany could go back to pre-European traditions and thus bring into the open a basic discrepancy which has been in existence in Germany throughout her history. It is no mere accident that the Nazis have attacked the so-called intelligentsia as their main enemy: more than any other group in Europe, the intelligentsia stands for European traditions. Unfortunately, its ideas did not succeed in permeating the German nation as a whole. The result has been a permanent tension between this small intellectual elite and the German people, which has often been simplified in the formula Weimar versus Potsdam. The German Republic tried in vain to end this conflict, so unfortunate for German development. Its failure unleased the pre- and anti-European forces which, not having really participated in the great European experiences (Christianity, the reception of classical traditions, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, et cetera), certainly cannot find a formula for living in this European world. National Socialism, therefore, is out to destroy “Europe” and to erect a new world of its own.

Herr Rauschning does not cut through the social and intellectual forces which created this nihilistic state of mind and he is almost fatalistic in his view of its dynamics. This is one of the reasons why his concept of a future development is only vague. Yet even his outline of a “European solution” is most interesting and indicates fruitful possibilities for future developments. In opposition to the concept of centralization which the Third Reich carries into international affairs with the final aim of world domination, Herr Rauschning presents the idea of federalism as the only solution combining freedom and order. It is not by chance that the author of “The Revolution of Nihilism” parted from the National Socialists in a clash over the complete coordination of Danzig. He soon realized that this conflict represented not only an insurmountable difference between his point of view and the Nazis’ concept, but it also led him to test the Nazi attack against Western standards and values. He thus elevated his personal experience into a worldwide issue in this study of extraordinary importance. It is to be hoped that his book does not represent a political testament but a call to action.

Timeliness can certainly not be denied to Boris Souvarine’s biography, “Stalin.” In fact, one may say it seems almost too timely to bring out a debunking biography on this greatest enigma in world affairs today, An “authoritative” book of this kind will be enthusiastically received by heretofore ardent Bolshevists of the Western world as an easy and welcome explanation for the disillusionment following the German-Russian alliance. What may actually be a part of a great revolutionary strategy or a revival of pre-War imperialism now strangely blended with earlier world revolutionary ambitions will be quickly labeled as the deed of the villain who joined up with the archenemy and became a traitor to the cause. The “devil theory of history” will again find ample scope, trimmed up in modern fashion with a good dose of psychoanalytical inferiority complexes. It should make a best seller for the large public which never gets tired of personality revelations thrown on the screen in intense blacks and whites.

True, if there is any justification for the biographical approach to modern dictatorship, Stalin’s Russia offers the ideal case. It was under his rule that Lenin’s Bolshevism underwent an extraordinary metamorphosis, identifying itself more and more with one man. In fact, Stalinism—to even the most judicious interpreters of recent Soviet development—shows definite tendencies toward oriental despotism. To M. Souvarine it is plainly the rule of a modern Genghis Khan. But his book is certainly more than an outright condemnation of Stalin the Terrible or an “expose” of Bolshevism as such. It is a detailed history of the revolutionary movement in Russia before the seizure of power and after, carried through the civil war, the fight over the succession of Lenin, the five-year plans, collectivization, Kirov’s assassination—in short, here are all the landmarks in the rise of Stalin, up to the present “counter-revolution” (analyzed in a postscript to the original French edition of 1935). The book tells the story of the seemingly inevitable degeneration of a great ideal of a free stateless society to totalitarian and personal despotism.

The very voluminous narrative brings together all that is and can be known about Stalin, and sometimes a little bit more than that. Elements of Stalin’s personality set forth are worth noting: his unbalanced will to power, his narrow realism, his oriental dexterity in unscrupulous maneuvers. But the analysis of Lenin, Trotsky, and the minor actors of the Revolution are often even more revealing and pointed than the picture drawn of Stalin. What makes this study especially illuminating is the elaborate treatment of the techniques in operation under Stalin’s rule. A comparison with Herr Rauschning’s presentation can easily establish the many similarities and imitations in means and methods, in institutions and types of men prevalent in both political systems. Such parallels indicate basic identities in National Socialism and Bolshevism. Seen against this background, the German-Russian treaty is certainly more than a tactical maneuver in an international poker game.

The author, one of the founders of the French Communist Party and a former executive of the Communist International, had direct contact with leading Bolshevists during most momentous years. This revealed to him sources of information otherwise closed. It is also certain that his separation from the Bolshevists in 1926 gives his book a definite anti-Stalinist bias, though this fact does not label it a “Trot-skyite” product. His biting criticism of Trotsky himself sufficiently proves that.

Ardent partisanship—if clearly recognized—does not diminish the value of M. Souvarine’s “Stalin,” which is not only an informative analysis, but an exciting piece of writing too. The political scientist may complain about the utter impossibility of checking the evidence for much of the material. He has to accept the colorful presentation as at least one side of the picture, to be balanced by the contradictions of the Stalin camp. Such a provisional evaluation is one of the difficulties with which contemporary history has to reckon. This is particularly true in judging biographies of leading actors still on the scene. The author himself felt these unavoidable limitations when he stated that “any portrait of Stalin would be premature before his fall or death.” This only proves that, in spite of the definite values of this biography, it certainly is not, as the publisher and some of the first enthusiastic reviewers claim, “the definitive biography.”


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