In thinking about a contribution to the Carnival of US-German Relations which the Fulbrighters over at the Atlantic Review have organized, it occurred to me that German influence on American political thought has never been greater. The ghosts of the Weimar Republic are haunting us still today. The amazing influx of artists, scientists and intellectuals from Germany from 1932 to 1945 was "Hitler's gift" to America; most of these cultural creatives remained in the US after the war, so they have left a permanent mark on American society: the skylines of our great cities bear the imprint of the Bauhaus architects and designers led by Walter Gropius, Hollywood movies - especially film noir - would never have achieved the same greatness without the contributions of Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Max Ophuls and many others; the Abstract Expressionist movement in American painting was heavily influenced by German Expressionism and emigre German painters such as Joseph Albers. Americans were introduced to Freudian psychoanalysis by German psychologists such as Eric Fromm. The contributions of emigre German scientists to every field of science in the US are too numerous to cite here.
The influence of Weimar intellectuals on American political thought has been dynamic and multifaceted. Most of these individuals were persecuted by the Nazis because of their anti-fascist views, so they had definite left-leaning sympathies. The best known at the time were the group of scholars associated with the Frankfurt School, which set up shop in New York City before relocating back to Frankfurt after the war. Many German intellectuals found refuge at the University in Exile at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. Frankfurt School luminaries Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse became heroes of the American New Left, which grew out of the anti-war movement in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Today, their influence on American political thinking has largely faded, although Juergen Habermas - a second-generation Frankfurt School philosopher - is quite influential among academics at political science departments throughout the United States. But it was a little-known German scholar of political philosophy from the opposite end of the political spectrum who would have a profound influence on American political thinking which continues today.
Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a student of philosophy in Germany and watched the Weimar Republic dissolve into chaos and then into tyranny. As a Jew, he was forced to flee Germany and he eventually ended up at the University of Chicago, where he developed a cult following from some the brightest students. For Strauss, the demise of the Weimar Republic represented a repudiation of liberal democracy. Liberalism, to Strauss, equals relativism, which necessarily leads to nihilism. Strauss longed to return to a previous, pre-liberal, pre-bourgeois era of blood and guts, of imperial domination, of authoritarian rule, of pure fascism. In his book On Tyranny Strauss wrote about the natural inequality of human beings, and the necessity of rule by the wise and virtuous over the vulgar masses. In this sense, truth must be safeguarded from the masses, since they are incapable of understanding and dealing with truth. The wise elite must operate in secrecy, since the masses would never willingly subordinate themselves to their rule. Therefore Strauss advocated the use of the "noble lie" to deceive the masses into doing what was in their best interest. The vulgar would be ennobled by the tyranny of the wise; in this program of ennoblement, religion and perpetual war are useful tools.
These views resonated with Struassian disciples such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, William Kristol and Harry Jaffa. They took these ideas out of the classroom and translated them into actual political doctrine: the neoconservative manifesto of the Project for a New American Century. Straussian principles would be implemented on a global scale, and 9/11 provided the perfect pretext. Paul Wolfowitz, who attended Strauss's lectures on Plato, became the architect of the Iraq War, using hyped intelligence concerning WMD's as the "noble lie". The fact that the neoconservative agenda has been a complete failure has led one of the leading neoconservative thinkers, Francis Fukuyama - in his recent essay After Neoconservatism - to deny that Strauss was political at all:
"Contrary to much of the nonsense written about him ...,(Strauss) was a serious reader of philosophical texts who did not express opinions on contemporary politics or policy issues. Rather, he was concerned with the "crisis of modernity" brought on by the relativism of Nietzsche and Heidegger."
As a young man in Germany, Leo Strauss became infatuated with a beautiful and brilliant Jewish scholar, Hannah Arendt, whose impact on American political thought will probably be seen by future historians as greater than any other of the Weimar emigres. Hannah Arendt spurned Strauss's advances and did not conceal her contempt for his ideas. Arendt died in 1975, but the importance of her work is just beginning to be appreciated. Her brilliant analysis, The Origins of Totalitarianism, remains the standard today, and her categories can help us understand the erosion of democracy since 9/11. Her concept of the "banality of evil" which she developed in Eichmann in Jerusalem is useful in understanding how ordinary individuals can plan and carry out acts of inhumanity. Most likely her book The Human Condition will be seen as her most important work. Here she forms a theory of civic participation, elevating political action to an essential human endeavor. Her reflections on the distinctiveness of modern democratic revolutions have been important in the development of republican thought, and for the recent revival of interest in civic mobilizations and social movements.
Strauss and Arendt represent the two poles of the ideological struggle that began in the Weimar Republic and which continues even today in America. I take heart in the growing influence of Arendt's democratic vision of non-coercive political action over the Straussian notion of the "tyranny of the virtuous."