Georg Lukács. From Goethe and Hegel to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, 1942

From Goethe and Hegel to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche

Written: 1942 in Tashkent;
First published: as Von Goethe und Hegel zu Schopenhauer und Nietzsche, in: Wie ist Deutschland zum Zentrum der reaktionären Ideologie geworden? (Veröffentlichungen des Lukács-Archivs), 1982;
Translated: by Anton P.

Present-day Germany is a riddle for friend and foe alike. How did the land “of poets and thinkers” become the land of organized and systematized barbarism? How could in a country that centuries ago produced one of the first European revolutionaries, Thomas Münzer, in a country whose best sons Goethe and Hegel, Marx and Engels were leading pioneers of world progress, how could a Hitler rule unhindered? How could an individual so spiritually inferior and so morally depraved become the leader and role model of such a great people, whose behavior in war shows particularly clearly that its masses have submitted to this leadership? From the very beginning, the Hitler regime displayed such concentrated and extreme barbaric cruelty, such a lust for evil that it by far exceeded and overshadowed any previous reactionary system. This character of Hitlerism is even more pronounced in war. The disregard for human beings, the oppression and extermination of peoples, the threat to freedom of the whole world show German fascism as the wildest and most dangerous enemy that human civilization has ever faced. The famous German organization turns out to be an organization of wild animals for the systematic extermination of the external and internal conditions of every human culture. It is not just about mass devastation, murder, rape etc., but about their deliberate systematization, the necessary and “normal” results of fascist warfare, which, as always, are simply the continuation of politics by other means. Thus the world-historical order of the day is to protect the civilized world from the onset of such barbarism, to prevent the repetition of such a threat to human culture.

But the question we asked at the beginning comes up again and again: How did the German people, once leaders in European humanity, sink this low? Is it still the same people? Or has it become a thoroughly barbaric people through the poison of the fascist regime, the fascist ideology?

For a long time, a sharp mechanical distinction was made between fascism and the German people, and the matter was imagined as if the Germans, tyrannically oppressed by a small group, had basically remained the same. Such views lead to the wrong conclusion, as if the adventurer Hitler had succeeded in using some tricks to raise himself to rule and then to use despotic means to preserve his control. Such a view is incorrect for every important historical epoch of a great people, even if this is the age of the deepest humiliation and distortion. Marx has already opposed such interpretations with regard to the coup d'état of Napoleon III. He says: “It is not enough to say, as the French do, that their nation was taken unawares. Nations and women are not forgiven the unguarded hour in which the first adventurer who came along could violate them. Such turns of speech do not solve the riddle but only formulate it differently. It remains to be explained how a nation of thirty-six millions can be surprised and delivered without resistance into captivity by three knights of industry.[1]

This method must also be used in dealing with the relations between Hitlerism and the German people. But in order to be able to represent the intellectual and moral fall of the German nation, the depth of its humiliation and internal distortion, the picture of the former greatness must also be drawn, albeit briefly. All the more so since Hitler’s propaganda works incessantly to present German fascism to the world as the heir to everything great that the German people has produced up to now. It seems self-evident that emphasizing the former greatness cannot mean an amnesty for today’s bestialities. It is important to understand and present the submission of the German people to Hitler’s despotism as a moment of its historical fate.

To understand a certain event, indeed, a certain period of development of a people as a moment of its historical fate in no way means the recognition of a fatalistic necessity. Because above all in the history of every nation there are junctions, historical crossroads, where the fate of the next few years, sometimes even decades, will be decided by the struggle of class forces, by the mutual struggle of tendencies and counter-tendencies among the people. The strict adherence to the law of historical necessity prescribed by historical materialism does not in the least contradict such a view, such an emphasis on the historical turning points at which the fate of the people can be decided by struggle one way or another. On the contrary.

Of course, once the decision has been made at such a turning point – and the decision is never accidental either – there arises the necessary assertion of certain tendencies which must remain dominant for a shorter or longer period. The struggle between tendencies and counter-tendencies continues, but already under more or less radically changed conditions, and it may be a long time before a new turn is possible again due to the objective circumstances.

This general situation is particularly true of the imperialist period. The deeper a nation – with distorted development tendencies determined by the previous historical crises – becomes entangled in imperialist politics, the more deeply the national goals are mixed with the imperialist ones (and the turning of national struggles into wars of conquest also exists for every bourgeois regime since the beginning of the imperialist period, even if not to this extent), the deeper the poisoning with reactionary ideology has penetrated into the consciousness of the people, the more difficult and painful the turnaround, the rescue.

Such considerations have determined our questioning, our contrasting of Germany in the period of classical humanism and in the present. For it is extremely important for the development of every people how lively the connection with ideology, with the political traditions of the bourgeois revolutionary heyday remained even in the imperialist period. Undoubtedly it was very favorable for the rapid development of the revolutionary movement in Russia that the climax of the democratic-revolutionary ideology (Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov, Shchedrin, etc.) was so close to the emergence of the revolutionary workers’ movement that an immediate union, an immediate and living takeover of the fertile inheritance had been possible. On the other hand, the atheoretical, flat and empiricist nature of the English labor movement, in which Marx and Engels recognized one of its central weaknesses, is not least due to the fact that such a direct connection with the democratic-revolutionary period in England – not only because of the great time span, but also because of the ideological immaturity of this time (religious forms of revolutionary plebeianism) – was very difficult to materialize.

If we now contrast the periods of ideological greatness and imperialist decline for Germany, we must – contrary to the reactionary and fascist attempts to build bridges here – emphasize above all that they have nothing in common, that they are stark, mutually exclusive opposites. The fascists themselves also have a feeling of this contradiction. In relation to Goethe, of course, it is mostly expressed in an extraordinarily demagogic and diplomatic manner, since they are afraid of offending the sentiments of broad masses by a direct attack on Goethe; here, therefore, the falsification plays the main role. The fascists are less embarrassed about Hegel, who is naturally less well-known and famous in broader masses, all the less since they [the fascists] have inherited the rejection of Hegel by their most important ideological predecessors (we only mention Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Lagarde). Rosenberg, for example, unleashed direct and sharp attacks against Hegel. The true attitude of the fascists towards the classical period came in the inaugural lecture of Alfred Baeumler, as a specially appointed professor for political education at the University of Berlin, in which he described the fight against classical humanism and the eradication of its traces from today’s ideology as a main task of the present. This program was later carried out by the “philosophical science” of the Hitler regime.

If one sees clearly the abyss that separates the fascist ideology from that of the classical period of Germany’s heyday, it does not follow that the views of Hitler and his ideological accomplices emerged from nowhere. There were and are, however, people who refuse to research the sources of German fascism on the grounds that this would relieve the fascists and shift responsibility to previous thinkers. But apart from the fact that a reactionary thinker, from whom the fascists can draw, does not necessarily have to be a fascist, such a view means – quite contrary to the intention of its preachers – the proclamation of Hitler as a “genius,” who could independently create a system of views which can at least rule a great nation like the German for a decade. Here, too, Marx gives us the right method for the ideological struggle against the “geniuses” of reaction. Victor Hugo was at the time waging a similar struggle against Napoleon III’s line, even if it appeared wittier than the conception characterized above. Marx, on the other hand, says: “Victor Hugo confines himself to bitter and witty invective against the responsible producer of the coup d'etat. The event itself appears in his work like a bolt from the blue. He sees in it only the violent act of a single individual. He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history. ... I, on the contrary, demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.[2] Our intention is to show in the ideological field how a superficially educated demagogue could attain the role of “Führer” by eclectically exploiting previously-existing reactionary ideologies as a result of the development of the class struggle in Germany and the fate of the German nation it brought about.

If one wants to arrive at such a Marxist exposure of fascist ideology, the struggle between progress and reaction in the course of recent German history must be carefully observed. Now we can of course only make a few suggestive remarks. Above all, it must be emphasized, especially in relation to the bourgeois falsification of the German intellectual history, that German humanism grew up in the struggle against reactionary ideology. This struggle was directed not only against the limitations and backwardness of the Germany of that time, which is also recognized by individual bourgeois historians, but above all against the various contemporary tendencies of reaction. Goethe, for example, fought all his life against those currents that tried to make Christianity up-to-date again (Lavater, Jacobi, Herder, Schleiermacher etc.); He fought against the shallow nationalism of Romanticism before, during and after the Wars of Liberation and at the same time against the religious art proclaimed by it. Hegel always recognized the great progressive role of the French Revolution, maintained its importance even during the restoration period and defended its achievements against the restoration ideology, etc., etc.

Of course, the ideology of classical humanism has its class and time-related limits, which are also repeatedly expressed in geniuses like Goethe and Hegel. The reactionary ideology always clings to these ideological weaknesses and tries to falsify German humanism and turn it into reaction with their help. Only historical concretization can help against such attempts. If, for example, the famous historian of the imperialist period, Friedrich Meinecke, wanted to make Hegel a forerunner of Bismarck because he was a supporter of constitutional monarchy, then it should be noted that in 1820, when Hegel wrote his Philosophy of Right, the constitutional monarchy in Germany would have been an objective step forward. It was only in the forties that the radical supporters of Hegel rightly went beyond this, because with the state of the class struggle at that time, the slogan of constitutional monarchy had already become liberal compromising. Bismarck’s pseudo-constitution after the defeat of the 1848 revolution was reactionary. In its essence, in its tendency, in its social and spiritual content, it had nothing to do with the Hegelian conception.

Such attempts at reactionary twisting of historical contexts – and their number is legion, we have only used a coincidental, striking example – must not obscure the true historical state of affairs: namely, the fact that Hegel, as the intellectual top figure of the classical period in Germany, belongs to the three sources of Marxism highlighted by Lenin, that German humanism is not only the pinnacle of the ideological development of the bourgeoisie, but in this way leads over to the worldview of socialism. This future perspective, of course necessarily unknown to German humanism, corresponds to the fact that in the classical period, despite the political rule of the Holy Alliance, the ideology of Goethe and Hegel remained victorious in the struggle against ruling reaction, and the basis for the development of revolutionary ideologies in the thirties and forties until the emergence of dialectical materialism.

This line of struggle of classical humanism against reactionary ideologies is important because the beginnings of the later ideological hegemony of reaction in Germany were already visible at that time. And not only in German offshoots of the general European reaction of Burke, de Maistre, etc., but in independent reactionary tendencies that contained the most important beginnings of later reactionary ideologies; one thinks of the later development of Schelling and especially of Schopenhauer. It is important, however, that at that time these tendencies could never have a dominant influence. Schelling sat alone in Munich, and Goethe refused his recall to the Jena University; Schopenhauer was an uninfluential private lecturer and later a bizarre and isolated eccentric.

Until 1848, German literature and philosophy were leaders in Europe on the progressive line; just think of Heine, David Friedrich Strauss and Feuerbach. Only after 1848 did that turn begin in Germany which made German thinking a leader in Europe in the reactionary sense. This turn is characterized by the great impact of Schopenhauer. With him and a few decades later with Nietzsche, Germany took the lead in reactionary ideology as undisputedly as it had done in the first half of the 19th century, in the progressive one, with Goethe and Hegel.

We shall later analyze in detail the historical causes and the ideological stages of this turn. Now just this much: Schopenhauer and Nietzsche dominated European thought in the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century no less than Kant, Fichte, the young Schelling and Hegel had in the first decades of the 19th, and as much as all the important motifs in Hegel: dialectics, universality, historicism, etc., were present in every essence of early 19th century progressive thinking, so we find in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche the decisive new motifs of the decadent-reactionary way of thinking: the mixture of agnosticism and mysticism, the new forms of reactionary anti-historicism or pseudo-historicism, the new forms of the apologetics of capitalist society etc. European decadent literature and philosophy is unthinkable without them: Their influence extends from Hamsun to Gide, from Merezhkovsky to Stefan George. Indeed, beyond decadence and reaction, just as Kant, Goethe or Hegel in their time reached beyond the camp of progress, the effect of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche can also be felt in great figures who, in the essential line of their activity, fought against reaction and decadence; I only refer to the temporary influence of Schopenhauer on Leo Tolstoy, to the long-term effect of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on Thomas Mann, etc.

This new role of German thinking is also a reflection of the historical development of the German nation and the class struggles that determine it. In both cases, both in the ascent and in the decline, the connection between the historical-social basis and the ideological reflection is a rather complicated one. The old leading role of German ideology in Goethe’s time is based on political powerlessness, economic backwardness, and Germany’s national fragmentation. From contemporary reports (Madame de Stael, Carlyle etc.) we can see how the ideologues of politically and socially progressive countries experienced and felt this paradox. A partly idyllic, primitive, partly distorted reality from which the great poetry, music and philosophy of the Germans seem to arise suddenly. A Jean-Paul / Hoffmannian social reality with its crowning ideological peak in Faust, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, in the Ninth Symphony.

The political and social background of the second German ideological dominance is completely different, but no less complicated and contradictory. The success and ideological hegemony of Schopenhauer’s pessimism in Germany is an echo of the defeat of the bourgeois revolution of 1848. The German bourgeoisie is aimless, disappointed, disoriented; the ideology of Büchner, Vogt etc. as the ideology of the rapid industrialization of Germany, is a materialism that is flat and vulgar because it did not emerge, as in England and France, as an ideology of preparation for the bourgeois revolution, but as an echo of its defeat. It is very significant – and the author of these lines has described this transition in detail elsewhere – how many important representatives of the German spirit passed from Feuerbach to Schopenhauer in this period; it suffices here to refer to one example of Richard Wagner. Schopenhauer comes to this effect as an ideologue of a witty, biting reactionary philistineism.

But since political and social tendencies were active throughout Europe, which aroused the same or similar moods, if not to the same degree, in bourgeois and petty-bourgeois circles (think of the period of Napoleon III in France, of the defeat of 1870-71 to the shattering of the commune, etc.), the international impact has also occurred, albeit later. This results in a different, opposite, but equally paradoxical social background. The “lonely genius” Schopenhauer preaches pessimism and renunciation of the world from a country that has meanwhile become the first military power in Europe, in which the storm and stress of rapid capitalization is taking place. Its forms are ugliness, distortion and degradation of life, Remnants of the old rigor and the emergence of a new, sophisticated rigor, cultural flatness with the theatrical pomp of outer life. Schopenhauer becomes a European intellectual power with the background of Bismarck’s “Bonapartist monarchy.” He is the ideologue of all impotent dissatisfied people; the leader of an opposition that can never bring itself to action. This is one of the reasons for his great popularity among the German bourgeoisie. In his first novel, Thomas Mann describes beautifully and characteristically how his bourgeois patrician hero Thomas Buddenbrook, when he cannot cope with modern capitalism that is emerging next to him, as his first and only attempt to go along with its methods fails shamefully, finds comfort and reassurance especially in Schopenhauer.

Nietzsche’s view of the world has a general effect on the basis of imperialism of the Wilhelmine period. Nietzsche himself was in the immediately preceding period just as much a “prophetic” champion and forerunner of later reactionary tendencies as Schopenhauer was in the age of Goethe and Hegel; just as in noisy or contemptuous opposition to the empty, decorative pomp, to the ostentatious tastelessness of the vehemently unfolding German imperialism, as were Schopenhauer’s supporters during the Bismarck period.

This oppositional character – Nietzsche’s greatest strength, his often extraordinarily spirited criticism of late bourgeois decadence – is also the key to his international impact. He criticizes decadence wittily and often aptly, but always only gives an “immanent” criticism, ie. a criticism of decadence from within decadence, its criticism without going into its social roots, without exposing its social foundations (indeed, covering them up), criticizing its cultural symptoms without ever leaving the overall atmosphere of decadence. Therefore, anyone who is in any way repelled by the effects of imperialist capitalism, especially its cultural effects, can do without rebelling against the capitalist system; all who suffer from decadence without being socially capable of overcoming it, even those who do not even have the real will to overcome it, find their prophet and philosopher in Nietzsche, the prophet and philosopher of the subjective apparent overcoming of decadence.

So Germany has, with these two “lonely geniuses,” produced the leading ideologues of the imperialist period around the world. (Later history repeats itself, though on a smaller scale, after the first imperialist world war in the case of Spengler.)

Thus, if Germany through the theory and practice of Hitler’s fascism has become the world center and world model of reactionary barbarism, this is not a historical coincidence, not a mere “misfortune” that beset the German people from outside, so to speak, but the growth of an important tendency in the political and ideological development of Germany to a terrible reality.

Apparently, as we have shown, there is a sharp contrast between the thinking of these two “lonely geniuses” and the German reality. In reality, however, there is a deep harmony here: Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are the leading thinkers of European reaction after the defeat of the 1848 revolution. At the same time, however, their homeland, Germany, developed into the model country of European imperialism. Nowhere in Europe had the concentration of capital, the subjection of all branches of capital to the rule of finance capital, achieved such perfection as in Germany. And at the same time, and not by chance, Germany had become the model country of imperialist militarism, the country that impetuously pushed for a new division of the world. On closer inspection, the contrast between image and background thus turns out to be mere appearance.

Germany was defeated in the first imperialist world war. Twenty years later, however, it has risen for the second time, this time as a model of the most reactionary imperialist barbarism: it has established Hitler’s rule, has provoked World War II and threatens the whole world by submitting it to the most barbaric-reactionary imperialism.

It is clear that from this situation follows the need for a relentless ideological struggle against fascist ideology. However, this struggle cannot and must not be limited to the unmasking of their intellectual inferiority, their moral depravity, their barbaric character, even if this unmasking is the central task of the present moment.

German fascism will not survive the war it has criminally conjured up. With the collapse of the Hitler system, the ideology concocted by Hitler, Rosenberg and others will undoubtedly also be thrown on the dung heap. But Germany, the German people, German culture will live on, indeed, revive – and here the question arises: What can, should and will the ideological development for this revival?

This question is neither about rules nor about predictions, but about the concrete ideological situation in Germany. More than a decade of the despotic monopoly of fascist propaganda has produced terrible confusion and devastation there – especially in the youth, but not only in them. And the simple, at times only mechanical, rejection of the fascist “worldview” in the immediate Hitler-Rosenberg sense cannot bring forth a satisfactory solution. All the less since the ideological poisoning of Germany goes back much further into the past, and if no ideological reversal, no self-reflection, no resorting to the traditions of the liberal development of Germany, no radical thinking through to the end of the problems of true Germanness, if the roots of the reactionary ideology remain unshaken, then it is quite possible that, under certain circumstances, a new reactionary ideology will grow and become the ruling one.

The weakness of German democracy has always been an ideological one. If it is to gain strength, it must also renew itself ideologically, it must also be able to effectively combat any reaction from an ideological point of view.

We believe: It would be more than reckless to underestimate this danger. The development of events is uneven and therefore – apparently – surprising, sudden, abrupt. As has been the case several times in its history, Germany’s uneven development can once again confront a situation in which there are objectively favorable conditions for Germany’s democratic recovery without the subjective factor being adequately prepared and armed. We therefore believe that it is absolutely necessary to define these problems at least in their general outlines now, at a time when they are only questions of perspective. Everything is ready: This also applies to politics and cultural policy.

Knowledge of the path that led to the barbaric climax of the reaction under fascism is the minimum here.

It is therefore important to briefly illuminate the historical path that leads from the Germany of Goethe and Hegel to today’s tyrannical barbarism. At the same time, we would just like to briefly remark to our readers that the following considerations deal with the struggle against fascist ideology. Historical and political facts are only given when they are indispensable for an understanding of the ideological context. Space reasons forbid us from citing such facts, especially if we are dealing with generally known facts in which the reader would only find repetitions of what has been presented elsewhere anyway.


1. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852: MIA

2. Karl Marx, Preface to the Second Edition of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1869: MIA