Eric Kurlander review of Anson Rabinbach’s “Staging the Third Reich”

Anson Rabinbach. Staging the Third Reich: Essays in Cultural and Intellectual History. Edited by Stefanos Geroulanos, Dagmar Herzog. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2020. 494 pp. ISBN 9780367818975.Staging Third Reich


Anson Rabinbach has spent the past five decades generating an extraordinarily diverse and sophisticated body of work on Nazi culture and ideology, the highlights of which are brought together in this single volume. The collective impression is stunning, not only for what Rabinbach’s scholarship tells us about the Nazi past but for how it helps us to understand our 21st-century present. Because of the sheer range of material, twenty contributions in all, I will focus here on three broad themes the editors themselves highlight in the introduction and concluding interview: Nazi culture, antifascism, and the postwar legacies of Nazism.

When Professor Rabinbach began his career in the late-1960s, building on the insights of his Doctorvater, George L. Mosse, there were few historians taking Nazi culture and ideology seriously; even fewer outside the United States. Indeed, as Rabinbach observes in multiple contributions to this volume, it was largely German-Jewish émigrés to America–– Mosse, Peter Gay, Fritz Stern, and Fritz Ringer, among others–– who first began to illuminate how the Nazi revolution “could be traced back to distinctive mentalities that were formed in the Kaiserreich and coalesced into a politically virulent agenda among a wide variety of intellectuals, students, and professors in the years following Germany’s defeat in the First World War.”[1] Instead of examining the (proto-)fascist mentalities of the German Bildungsbürgertum, Mosse and Stern’s counterparts in Germany focused primarily on the persistence of ostensibly pre-modern sociopolitical structures, offering, in Rabinbach’s words, “a kind of exoneration” of postwar intellectuals active in the Third Reich.[2]

No wonder that the generation of West German historians who began their careers in the Third Reich, such as Theodor Schieder and Werner Conze, refused to acknowledge the existence of “Nazi culture”.[3] No wonder, according to Rabinbach, that a second generation of German social historians, such as Conze’s student Hans-Ulrich Wehler, likewise “discounted the role of ideology and concentrated on the study of social structures (survivals of the Wilhelmine era) to emphasize the ‘corrective’ to Germany’s unique path to modernity [Sonderweg].”[4] In contrast to their German counterparts, Rabinbach argues, German-Jewish exiles emphasized the “modernity of the Holocaust” as “a counter-discourse to the thesis of a German Sonderweg”, which émigrés “perceived to be an excessively Germanophobic discourse.” Given the emphasis of younger German-Jewish émigrés like Stern and Mosse on a “German cultural Sonderweg”, this claim may appear paradoxical. But it makes sense, according to Rabinbach, insofar as the German Jewish Bildungsbürgertum, as Mosse himself observed, worked “more than any other single group” to “preserve Germany’s better self across dictatorship, war, Holocaust, and defeat.”[5]

If Rabinbach has always distanced himself from the dominant Sonderweg paradigm of the 1960s and 70s, he has remained equally critical of vulgar Marxist interpretations of fascism. Nazi culture, after all, was never merely an expression of bourgeois philistinism. It was “designed to organize and absorb private experience into politically useful forms: in the sports organizations, the Thingspiel movement, the party bookstores and libraries, radio evenings, and of course in the mass tourism and cultural activities of KdF.”[6] Nazism also translated the “myth of the war experience,” in Mosse’s words, into a mass movement, with decommissioned veterans providing both the more working class SA and university-educated SS “many of their most prominent leaders”.[7] To be sure, the “emotional core of fascism” was not without its bourgeois elements. But the culture of the interwar period, including the “völkisch-historical novel”, constituted a “repatriation of the worker to the Volks-totality.” While “middle-class male and female readers read for self-cultivation and to find solace in domestic and intimate realms, the male worker preferred distant horizons and ‘colorful.’”[8]

Already in the 1960s and 70s, Mosse emphasized that Nazi culture went well beyond “the product of first-rank minds or the property of a small elite,” stressing “the profound impact of often marginal and esoteric coteries of thinkers on the literate, but not exclusively intellectual public.”[9] Rabinbach extends this lens, highlighting, for example, the Nazi preoccupation with the “natural look” in women’s fashion. He recognizes, following contemporaries such as Claudia Koonz and Detlev Peukert, that such seemingly innocuous propaganda efforts were part of the Third Reich’s larger project of racial and social engineering, which ultimately produced the Final Solution.[10] The “‘dejudaization’ of German public culture,” Rabinbach concludes, “was realized through the subtle interplay of legal discourse, pedagogical incitement, civil apartheid, and ‘scientific’ racism”.[11]

When it comes to Nazi culture, Rabinbach is probably less intrinsically interested in (proto-)Nazi mysticism and occultism than Mosse or Stern.[12] But he does acknowledge “what [Thomas] Mann famously called the ‘daemonic’” or esoteric aspects of Nazi culture, which informed Nazi race thinking from its “earliest days to the enormity of the Holocaust.”[13] It’s just that fascism for Rabinbach is “not merely those irrational drives which bourgeois society necessarily repressed, but the genuine striving for commonality and emancipation, the cultural surplus that was also abandoned by Marxism.” Following Ernst Bloch, a Marxist intellectual who Mosse himself largely dismissed, Rabinbach concludes that “the revival of the occult and mysticism under the Nazis has to be taken seriously, not only because the mystical critique of science was taken seriously, but because it contains precisely those motifs.”[14]

The Nazis, according to Rabinbach, never resolved the cultural and intellectual contradictions between propagating esoteric race theories and Germanic paganism, on the one hand, and offering Germans highly modern, easily digestible mass entertainment on the other. Goebbels’s propaganda industry clearly havered between the two poles; even Hitler proved as interested in screening King Kong as in attending a performance of Lohengrin.[15] Indeed, Nazism can be characterized, per Rabinbach (via Arendt), as a “temporary alliance between the elite and the mob … between dispossessed intellectual Lumpen and a gebildete elite who shared the same aesthetic and philosophical contempt for politics.” “The success of National Socialism derived not merely from political and economic frustration, German thought, nor even hatred of the Jews,” Rabinbach suggests, summarizing the seminal insights of Mosse, Stern, and company, “but from a deep cultural, intellectual, ritual, liturgical, and ceremonial repertoire firmly established in Germany during the nineteenth century.”[16]

Perhaps most relevant for today is Rabinbach’s essay about interwar antifascism. In his various contributions to this volume, Rabinbach works to find a middle ground between the Marxist narratives of (anti)fascism still dominant in the 1960s and the revisionist view, represented by historians such as François Furet, that “the idea that antifascism was a disguised Stalinism.”[17] The desire to create an eclectic anti-fascist front sometimes “masked uncritical admiration for the Soviet Union’s achievements,” Rabinbach concedes, as well as “ideological imprecision, especially in defining who or what was ‘fascist.’”[18] Rabinbach is likewise skeptical of antifascist efforts to create “mirror image of the communist conspiracy that Nazi leaders believed in from the outset”, often propagating the “image of a regime without popular support resting on the machinations of social outcasts, morphine addicts, and homosexuals”.[19] Nevertheless, after Stalin’s crimes began to be more widely publicized, antifascism became “characterized by social inclusivity, political flexibility,”[20] and the anti-Stalinist left became more willing to work with liberals and Social Democrats against fascism.[21]

In other contributions, Rabinbach makes clear his debt to the Frankfurt School and Marxist-inflected theories of fascism, virtually all of which accepted the “authoritarian potential of [bourgeois] liberalism.” The “bourgeois state did not collapse,” Johannes Agnoli reminds us (via Rabinbach), “but transformed itself structurally, to adjust its function to the transformed situation.” Its “executive functions in the maintenance of social order were separated from the institutions in which socialists who wanted to change that order were seated.”[22] Like Adorno and Marcuse, Rabinbach nonetheless supplements Agnoli’s neo-Marxist emphasis on capitalist structures with a neo-Freudian analysis of superstructure, including a fascinating excursus on Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, which explains fascism through its rejection of feminine values and fear of female sexuality.[23]

Rabinbach cites his studies with Mosse as transformative in moving away from the Marxist narratives of his youth and developing a more syncretic approach to understanding fascism. The Crisis of German Ideology, he recalls, was the “first book I had read about Nazism that talked about ideas—that talked about cultural movements—and that explained not only what he called ‘the Antisemitic Revolution; but how a movement of miscreants and nutty marginal ‘völkisch’ writers became the center of German politics and eventually took over Germany.”[24] As Mosse suggests, following the Frankfurt School, “the fascist ideal of the new man inherits from the hated Enlightenment the concept that a new man can be created by education and experience,” but provided “ancient Germanic virtues” and the “remythologizing of race” as “Nazism’s answer to a disenchanted world.” “Even when it claimed to be a revolt against the modern world”, Rabinbach notes, fascism’s “core myth was anti-conservative in its fixation on the new man and new order that it promised to create. It was an alternate model of modernity rather than an outright rejection of it.” Which is why émigré intellectuals confronted “the experience of the genocide,” Rabinbach observes, “not by crossing the divide into Counter-Enlightenment’ but by calling into question the ‘very terms of the divide itself.’” Far from implicating German-Jewish intellectuals in the same “fatal contagion” that had facilitated Nazism, “their ability to sustain the tension between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment distinguished the German Jewish exiles from those Weimar writers and thinkers who sought to overthrow the same antinomies by embracing a new politics of the will, most prominently Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt.”[25]

Ultimately, Rabinbach recognizes both the quintessential modernity and the cultural and intellectual pluralism of the Nazi movement. Even during the Second World War, he reminds us, Nazi leaders became embroiled in “the humanist affair” of 1940-41 which “pitted the ‘Nordicist,’” völkisch ideology associated with Alfred Rosenberg against ‘Third Humanism,’ an older movement to return to Greek or Renaissance ideas associated with Italian fascism and bourgeois intellectuals like Heidegger. Rosenberg worried that a return to Greco-Roman humanism might act as a “Trojan horse” for universalistic humanistic ideals, sapping the Nazi movement of its völkisch strength. For “Italian fascism still retained a humanist core that was not racist and not antisemitic. It had a universalist dimension that the Nazis rejected outright,” which is why Rosenberg and Himmler preferred a culture rooted in race: “the blood-determined spiritual inheritance of the Indo-Germanic peoples.”[26]

It is this intellectual pluralism and cultural malleability, Rabinbach suggests, that made fascism so attractive to an otherwise modern, educated German public that should have known better. At a time when illiberalism and authoritarianism are again making headway across Europe and the United States–– the same forces that George L. Mosse dedicated his career to studying and combating–– we might well heed the lessons embedded in this volume. Fascism, as these chapters remind us, does not emerge victorious through violence and jackboots; but wrapped in the familiar trappings of mass culture, mass media, and bourgeois intellectual life.

[1] Chapter “5: Nazi Culture. The Sacred, the Aesthetic, and the Popular (2005),” p. 110. See, for example, George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964); Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study In The Rise Of The Germanic Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961); Fritz Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969); Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Insider as Outsider (New York: Harper, 1968).

[2] See Jonathan Catlin, Dagmar Herzog, Stefanos Geroulanos, eds.“‘Nazism was a unique modernist project’: Interview with Anson Rabinbach, December 2, 2019”, p. 462. Despite his emphasis on German-Jewish émigrés, Rabinbach acknowledges his intellectual debt to some pioneering German cultural historians of the 1960s and 70s, including Guido Schneeberger, Helmut Heiber, Georg Iggers and Michael Kater. See Guido Schneeberger, Nachlese zu Heidegger: Dokumente zu seinem Leben und Denken. Mit zwei Bildtafeln. Selbstverlag, Bern 1962; Helmut Heiber, Walter Frank und sein Reichsinstitut für Geschichte des Neuen Deutschlands. Stuttgart Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1966; Georg Iggers, The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1966; Reinhard Bollmus, Das Amt Rosenberg und seine Gegner. Studien zum Machtkampf im nationalsozialistischen Herrschaftssystem. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1970; Michael Kater, Das “Ahnenerbe” der SS: 1935-1945. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1974.

[3] See Chapter “3: The Emotional Core of Fascism in its Most Virulent Psychic Manifestations (1989)”; Chapter “6: The Humanities in Nazi Germany (2006)”.

[4] See Chapter “5: Nazi Culture: The Sacred, the Aesthetic, and the popular (2005)”, p. 111.

[5] Even the “radical inversion of German nationalist historicism into the negative historicism of the Sonderweg was the continuation of an indigenous German historical discourse by other means.” Chapter “19: The abyss that opened up before us. Thinking About Auschwitz and Modernity”, p. 401.

[6] Chapter “2: Organized Mass Culture in the Third Reich,” p. 59

[7] “The Emotional Core of Fascism”, p. 71.

[8] Chapter “4: The Reader, the Popular Novel, and the Imperative to Participate,” p. 92.

[9] “Nazi culture”, p. 110.

[10] See, for example, Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2003); Detlev Peukert, Inside the Third Reich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); Peter Fritzsche, Life and Death in the Third Reich (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2008).

[11] “Nazi culture”, p. 120.

[12] See, for example, Anne Harrington, Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (Princeton: Princeton, 1996); Corinna Treitel, A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2004); Uwe Puschner and Clemens Vollnhals, eds. Die völkisch-religiöse Bewegung im Nationalsozialismus: eine Beziehungs- und Konfliktgeschichte (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012); Peter Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Nazism (Boston: Brill, 2014); Eric Kurlander, Hitler’s Monsters. A Supernatural History of the Third Reich (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017).

[13] “Nazi Culture”, p. 126.

[14] Chapter “12: Unclaimed Heritage: Ernst Bloch’s Heritage of Our Times and the Theory of Fascism (1977), p. 254.

[15] “Nazi Culture”, p. 179.

[16] Chapter “7: The Temporary Alliance Between the Elite and the Mob: Reflections on the Culture and Ideology of National Socialism”, p. 174.

[17] “’Nazism was a unique modernist project’”, pp. 461-462.

[18] Chapter “8: “Antifascism” (2006),” pp. 192-193

[19] Chapter “10: Staging Antifascism. The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror (2008),” pp. 225-226.

[20] Chapter “8: Antifascism”, p. 189.

[21] Chapter “20: Moments of Totalitarianism”, p. 434.

[22] Chapter “14: Toward a Marxist Theory of Fascism and National Socialism (1974)” pp. 297-298.

[23] Chapter “3 (co-authored with Jessica Benjamin) The Emotional Core of Fascism”, pp. 66-82.

[24] “‘Nazism was a unique modernist project’”, pp. 454-455.

[25] Chapter “19: “‘The abyss that opened up before us’: Thinking about Auschwitz and Modernity (2003)”, pp. 409-420.

[26] “‘Nazism was a unique modernist project’”, pp. 459-460.

KurlanderDr. Eric Kurlander is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at Stetson University. His books include Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich (Yale, 2017; paperback 2018), Living With Hitler: Liberal Democrats in the Third Reich (Yale, 2009), The Price of Exclusion: Ethnicity, National Identity, and the Decline of German Liberalism, 1898-1933 (Berghahn, 2006) and two co-edited volumes, Revisiting the ‘Nazi Occult’: Histories, Realities, Legacies (Camden House, 2015) and Transcultural Encounters between Germany and India: Kindred Spirits in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Routledge, 2014). He has held research and writing fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation; Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; the German Historical Institute; the German Academic Exchange Service; the Krupp Foundation; and Harvard University’s Program for the Study of Germany and Europe. He is currently working on a co-written textbook titled Modern Germany: A Global History (Oxford, 2021) and a monograph, Before the Final Solution: A Global History of the Nazi “Jewish Question” 1919-1941.

Leave a Reply