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Leo Strauss, the Conservative Revolution, & National Socialism, Part 2

Leo Strauss [1]

Leo Strauss

2,566 words

Part 2 of 3

Editor’s Note: 

The second installment of this essay was delayed because I had to acquire, read, and digest a major new book before I could move forward: William F. Altman’s The German Stranger: Leo Strauss and National Socialism [2] (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012), which argues that Strauss was indeed a kind of “Nazi” Jew who came to the United States and set to work subverting our liberal democracy, which Altman wishes to defend. Fortunately, Altmann’s book did not require that I revise my own thesis, but I will devote an extensive review to it in the near future. 

Strauss’s Common Roots with National Socialism: The Lecture on “German Nihilism”

Leo Strauss was unable to find permanent employment in England, where he had lived on a Rockefeller Foundation grant writing The Political Philosophy of Hobbes. So in 1937, he came to the United States. Strauss was first a research fellow at Columbia University, then in 1938 he was hired by the political science faculty of the New School for Social Research, where he taught until 1948.

Strauss’s lecture “German Nihilism” was prepared for delivery at the General Seminar of the New School’s Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science on February 26, 1941. The seminar was entitled “Experiences of the Second World War.” At the time of the lecture, France was under German occupation, England was under German bombardment, the Lend-Lease Act had not yet been voted on by the Senate or signed by Roosevelt, and Hitler and Stalin were still at peace. The attack on the Soviet Union would only commence on June 22, 1941; Pearl Harbor would take place on December 7, 1941; and Germany and Italy would declare war on the United States on December 11, 1941.

The text for discussion was Hermann Rauschning’s The Revolution of Nihilism,[1] which claims that National Socialism is essentially a form of nihilism. Strauss claims, however, that “National Socialism is only the most famous form of German nihilism—its lowest, most provincial, most unenlightened and most dishonorable form” (p. 357). Because National Socialism is not the sole form of German nihilism, Strauss claims that the defeat of National Socialism will not mean the defeat of German nihilism.

But what is German nihlism? As it turns out, Strauss uses the term German nihilism to refer to what is more commonly called the Conservative Revolution. For instance, Strauss names the leading German nihilists as Oswald Spengler, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, and Martin Heidegger (p. 362). Behind them all towers the figure of Nietzsche. These are the leading thinkers of the Conservative Revolution, and Nietzsche was one of their greatest influences. As Strauss puts it:

Of all German philosophers, and indeed of all philosophers, none exercised a greater influence on post-war [post World War One] Germany, none was more responsible for the emergence of German nihilism, than was Nietzsche. The relation of Nietzsche to the German Nazi revolution is comparable to the relation of Rousseau to the French revolution. That is to say: by interpreting Nietzsche in the light of the German revolution, one is very unjust to Nietzsche, but one is not absolutely unjust. (p. 372)

As I have argued, Strauss himself belonged to this broad intellectual milieu: He was deeply influenced by Nietzsche and Heidegger; Schmitt was a respected interlocutor and patron; he read and commented on Spengler and Jünger; they were all moving in the same “pagan-fascist” direction. The only thing that separated them was the historical contingency that they were German nationalists and Strauss was a Jewish nationalist.

Strauss proposes to discuss the “ultimate motive” that animates German nihilism. This motive, he claims, is “not in itself nihilistic” (p. 357). Then he proposes to discuss the “situation in which that non-nihilistic motive led to nihilistic consequences” (p. 357). Finally, he will propose a new definition of nihilism to bring the problem of German nihilism into better focus.

Strauss’s project, in short, is to defend the philosophical principles of German nihilism, because these are principles that he himself fundamentally shares. This, however, presents him with a problem, for these are the philosophical principles of National Socialism as well. Thus Strauss must prevent Conservative Revolutionary principles from being “refuted” by National Socialist practice. This fallacious argument is what Strauss later termed the “reductio ad Hitlerum,” claiming that, “A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler.”[2]

In the “German Nihilism” lecture, Strauss argues that it is not Conservative Revolutionary principles that lead to what is objectionable about National Socialism, merely the contingent historical situation in which they expressed themselves.

Furthermore, to insulate his own Conservative Revolutionary principles from the taint of National Socialism—in order to conceal any resemblance between National Socialism and his own adherence to “German nihilism”—Strauss adopts a strategy that he will employ throughout his entire intellectual career: the intentionally dishonest, parodistic characterization of National Socialism in the most vacuous and negative terms possible.

1. The Non-Nihilistic Motive of German Nihilism

According to Strauss, German nihilism is not merely a will to destruction or self-destruction. Rather, it is the desire to destroy something specific, namely “modern civilization” (p. 357), and this desire is based not on morbid psychology, but on a philosophical critique of modernity.

According to Strauss, this “limited nihilism becomes an almost absolute nihilism only for this reason: because the negation of modern civilization, the No, is not guided, or accompanied, by any clear positive conception” (p. 357). This is an example of Strauss’s deceptive strategy of asserting that National Socialism had no positive conception of an alternative social order, whereas in fact the National Socialists had quite concrete plans (none of them including world domination and exterminating world Jewry) which they put into practice whenever possible.[3]

Strauss emphasizes that the German nihilists were primarily opposed to modern morality, rather than modern science or technology. (Even Heidegger, who criticized the “essence of technology,” emphasized that the essence of technology is different from technology itself and actually refers to modern man’s attitude toward the world, his view of the world as transparent to human knowing and available for human use.) According to Strauss, the German nihilists’ moral protest against modernity:

. . . proceeds from the conviction that the internationalism inherent in modern civilization, or, more precisely, that the establishment of a perfectly open society which is as it were the goal of modern civilization, and therefore all aspirations directed toward that goal, are irreconcilable with the basic demands of moral life. That protest proceeds from the conviction that the root of all moral life is essentially and therefore eternally the closed society; from the conviction that the open society is bound to be, if not immoral, at least amoral: the meeting ground of seekers of pleasure, of gain, of irresponsible power, indeed of any kind of irresponsibility and lack of seriousness. (p. 358)

Strauss’s argument is based on the second of Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, “The Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.” Nietzsche holds that the moral life is rooted in participation within a particular culture, i.e., within a matrix of shared traditions, practices, and beliefs. The core of a culture is a set of ideals or norms. To participate in a culture is to feel that one is part of the culture and the culture is part of oneself. It is an experience of identity. It is also an experience of commitment to the culture’s ideals, the feeling that they are obligatory, that they demand that one change one’s life. This obligation is experienced as a kind of vitalizing tension between the ideal and the reality of one’s life, leading one to master one’s passions and mobilize one’s energies toward living up to the ideal. The moral life, in short, requires cultivation within a normative culture.

But normative cultures are plural. Moral ideals, when described abstractly, might be universal and thus uniform. But when they are concretized in terms of communal myths, moral exemplars, and practices, they are unavoidably plural and particular.

Cosmopolitanism, however, aims at opening the closed horizons of particular cultures to one another. The core of this opening is moral. It is not enough to be informed about other cultures. One must also cease to disdain them as other, foreign, inferior, or alien. To accomplish that, however, one must cease to regard one’s own culture as somehow superior just because it is one’s own.

Thus to open one’s horizons to other cultures, one must first reflect on one’s own culture. But reflection is incompatible with participation: one either plays the game or is a spectator, but one cannot be both.

Reflection on one’s culture objectifies it: one makes it an object of one’s reflective consciousness. But objectification is incompatible with identification. (Even when one reflects on oneself, one introduces a split in one’s consciousness between the self that reflects and the self that is reflected upon.)

When one replaces cultural identification with cultural objectification, participation with reflection, one also replaces a sense of commitment to one’s culture with an attitude of detachment, and even when one is forced to take part in the characteristic activities of one’s culture—when one attends weddings and funerals, for instance—one participates ironically, in “scare quotes.” One does not fall in love. One “falls in love.”

But when the norms of one’s society are regarded with detachment rather than commitment, they lose their obligatory quality, their claim upon one’s soul. The vitalizing tension between ideal and real is relaxed. One no longer feels obligated to live up to ideals, only give them ironic lip service. This is experienced as a kind of liberation. But it ultimately leads to decadence by relaxing the vitalizing tension created in the soul by the claim of ideals. Freedom is ultimately just a choice of masters. Thus freedom from ideals simply clears the way for the individual to be ruled by his passions and by the contingencies of day-to-day life, including the reign of public opinion, of what “they” say. In short, it clears the way for selfishness and triviality.

The next paragraph of Strauss’s lecture draws upon Carl Schmitt’s views as expressed in The Concept of the Political, which Strauss presents as a neat deduction from Nietzsche, entirely dispensing with Schmitt’s own Hobbesian premises, which Strauss rejected and taught Schmitt to reject as well.

If the moral life is rooted in a plurality of different cultures and ways of life, this also implies the existence of real conflicts of interest. These conflicts can always become existentially serious: peoples can fight over them; men can kill and die over them; in short, there can be war. And the potential for war is the origin of the political in Schmitt’s sense. In Strauss’s words:

Moral life, it is asserted, means serious life. Seriousness, and the ceremonial of seriousness—the flag and the oath to the flag—are the distinctive features of the closed society, of the society which by its very nature, is constantly confronted with, and basically oriented toward, the Ernstfall [the serious case, a central Schmittian concept], the serious moment, M-day, war. Only life in such a tense atmosphere, only a life which is based on constant awareness of the sacrifices to which it owes its existence, and of the necessity, the duty of sacrifice of life and all worldly goods, is truly human: the sublime is unknown to the open society. The societies of the West which claim to aspire toward the open society, actually are closed societies in a state of disintegration: their moral value, their respectability, depends entirely on their still being closed societies. (p. 358)

Liberalism and other forms of utopianism seek to create a world in which there is no enmity and thus no politics. But liberals have enemies too: namely political realists like Schmitt who reject the idea of a pacified and depoliticized world. Thus, Schmitt argues, liberalism reconciles the fact that it is a political movement with its antipolitical aims through simple self-deception and hypocrisy.

Liberals are enemies of enmity, intolerant in the name of intolerance, hateful crusaders against “hate,” cynical political fighters against Realpolitik. Liberals wage perpetual war for perpetual peace. They drop atomic and incendiary bombs on civilian populations; they employ lies, torture, and terrorism; they demonize and dehumanize their enemies—all in the defense of humanity, of the inalienable rights of man. As Strauss puts it:

The open society, it is asserted, is actually impossible. Its possibility is not proved at all by what is called the progress toward the open society. For that progress is largely fictitious or merely verbal. Certain basic facts of human nature which have been honestly recognized by earlier generations who used to call a spade a spade, are at the present time verbally denied, superficially covered over by fictions legal and others, e.g., by the belief that one can abolish war by pacts not backed by military forces punishing him who breaks the pact, or by calling ministries of war ministries of defense or by calling punishment sanctions, or by calling capital punishment das höchste Strafmaß. The open society is morally inferior to the closed society also because the former is based on hypocrisy. (p. 358)

Strauss emphasizes that the German nihilists’ underlying moral protest against modern civilization has nothing to do with militarism or love or war. It has nothing to do with nationalism, because the nation state is not the only form of closed society. It does, however, have to do with the “sovereign” people or state, since this is the paradigm of the closed society. But the ultimate root of the protest is moral: “a love of morality, a sense of responsibility for endangered morality” (p. 359).

This is the moral protest of Plato’s brother Glaucon against the idea of a “city of pigs” devoted entirely to natural necessity. It is the protest of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an admirer of Sparta, “against the easy-going and somewhat rotten civilization of the century of taste,” and of Friedrich Nietzsche “against the easy-going and somewhat rotten civilization of the century of industry” (p. 359).

If, however, the principles of German nihilism are not nihilistic, how did they lead to nihilism, i.e., National Socialism? Strauss claims that they led to National Socialism only because of contingent historical circumstances. Because these circumstances are contingent, there is no necessary intellectual connection between the moral critique of modernity and National Socialism, and to assert otherwise is to commit the fallacy of the reductio ad Hitlerum. Strauss’s explanation of the historical situation that led to National Socialism is the topic of my next installment.


1. Hermann Rauschning, The Revolution of Nihilism: Warning to the West, trans. E. W. Dickes (New York: Longmans-Green, 1939). Swiss historian Wolfgang Hänel exposed Rauschning’s other major book Hitler Speaks: A Series of Political Conversations with Adolf Hitler on his Real Aims (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1940) as fraudulent, which means his books have no probative value, since everything he says has to be independently verified. For a summary of Hänel’s findings, see Mark Weber, “Swiss Historian Exposes Anti-Hitler Rauschning Memoir as Fraudulent [3],” The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 4, no. 3 (Fall 1983): 378–80; ; cf. Wikipedia’s article [4] on Rauschning. Rauschning’s unreliability is not, however, a problem for Strauss, since very little of his lecture depends on Rauschning, who serves merely as a point of departure.

2. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), pp. 42–43.

3. See, for example, David Schoenbaum, Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany, 1933–1939 (New York: Norton, 1997).