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Walter Benjamin’s theory of fascism

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Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Thank God Passover and Easter are over – and the peace process, too. Not to worry, though, just like Passover and Easter, the peace process will return one day. Maybe soon.

But while the various stand-offs remain, life goes on. The oppression of the Palestinians continues as it has and the persecution of Jewish dissidents in solidarity with Palestinians hasn’t let up either. No rest for the wicked.

The great inversion of Jewish life is permanent, though with each peace process we hope against hope.

What are we to hope for today?

Hope springs eternal – perhaps this is the real message of Passover and Easter – but hope has to be somehow grounded in reality, otherwise it becomes fake. Cynicism can’t be too far around that bend. So, please, no resurrection/liberation language allowed in a thoroughly unredeemed/unliberated world.

This brings me to my Passover reading of the new biography of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the great Jewish literary critic and philosopher of the first half of the 20th century. Interestingly, in his lifetime, Benjamin was never able to secure an academic appointment. That says a lot about him and a lot about the academy of his day. So different from the universities of our day?

Benjamin’s thought matured in the late 1920 and early 1930s as he lived through the tumultuous times that eventually led to the rise of the Nazis and Adolph Hitler. He lived his last years in exile. In 1940, seeking to escape from Nazi-controlled Europe and increasingly despondent about his own future and the world’s, Benjamin committed suicide.

Today I am reading about Benjamin’s transition to politics in 1929 as the stock market crashed and Germany’s post-World War I experiment with democracy faltered. It was at this point that Benjamin wrote a review of a book edited by the leading voice of the intellectual radical right, Ernst Junger. Benjamin’s review is titled, “Theories of German Fascism.” The authors of the Benjamin biography, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, describe Benjamin’s review:

Benjamin’s review, “Theories of German Fascism,” seeks to unmask the strategies at work in the war mysticism – abstract, male-oriented, “impious” – of Junger and his circle. In their vision of the “imperial” warrior he finds a transmutation of the postwar German Freikorps mercenaries, those steel-gray “war engineers of the ruling class” who are essentially the counterparts of the “managerial functionaries in their cutaways”; in their vision of the “nation” he discerns an apology for the ruling class that is supported by this caste of warriors, a ruling class contemptuous of international law and accountable to no one, least of all to itself, and which “bears the sphinx-like countenance of the producer who very soon promises to be the sole consumer of his commodities.” The authors in this collection, comments Benjamin, are incapable of calling things by their names, preferring instead to imbue everything with the heroic features of German idealism.

Benjamin’s review was written a long time ago and seems theoretical, though it was written in anything but a theoretical situation. His review may seem outdated – unless we flash forward to the Jewish scene today.

In the above quote, try substituting Jewish for German and Israel for nation. Now substitute Abraham Foxman or Alan Dershowitz for Junger. There are differences, of course, since Foxman and Dershowitz are not leaders of the Jewish radical right wing. It would be a huge and telling mistake to think of either as right-wing or conservative. To my mind, this makes it worse. There is an entire literature on liberal fascism, though to date little of that literature has turned its eyes to Jewish power.

Of course there are Jews who today apply Benjamin’s critique inwardly with or without knowledge of Benjamin himself. The book in the news now that comes closest is – you guessed it – Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.

If Goliath isn’t a book about fascism, then give me another name. At least we can have a discussion.

I hope Blumenthal isn’t looking for an academic appointment.

While Jewish leaders “imbue everything with the heroic features of Jewish idealism,” Blumenthal, along with other Jews of Conscience are, in Benjamin fashion, fixing their eyes on the facts on the ground. When idealism is oppression on the ground, theory won’t do. Therefore we need an updated review: “Theories of Jewish Fascism.”

Yes I’m aware that Jews can’t be fascists – or torturers or ethnic cleansers. We can’t be – what we have become. Is this because we are (no longer) capable of calling things by their names?

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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23 Responses

  1. LeaNder on April 27, 2014, 12:19 pm

    I am pleased you remind us about Benjamin, Karl Kraus, would be close second concerning earlier masculine war-mongers, occasionally Jewish too.

    But, yes, concerning Benjamin, I once wondered about one of my post WWII/or post Nazi period heroes: Adorno: I forget which archive made me wonder, if I should suspect him too. “I loved” these archives who possess the papers by Jewish authors. Obviously even paper was a luxury for them. They have to use the backsides too. And there was one article Adorno choose to not print in the States. I guess you can easily imagine how much he would have needed the money.

    If I may leave the case of Juenger out for a while, I have never really looked into his apologists, although I knew one indirectly, and interestingly enough my favorite cousin for whatever reason liked one his of his books. I have to admit that this cousin for me is beyond suspicion.

    But back to Benjamin, I should look for an updated version of his biography, since wherever it was, I recently caught the statement that the frontier, he decided was the last limit he would go, would have opened again the next day. And I wonder to what extend this would change my earlier side-line suspicion.

    • Citizen on April 27, 2014, 1:31 pm

      @ LeaNder
      Hard to see any significant aesthetics to Israeli fascism; certainly not anything comparable to Juenger’s interest in his angle on German fascism. Truth and Beauty, or Truth or Beauty?

      • LeaNder on April 27, 2014, 2:17 pm

        Citizen, I cannot see any “aesthetic value” in German fascism”. Do you have The mass as ornament in mind? Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of Will?
        The only one that comes to mind, maybe, if I ponder long and hard enough, is Arnold Breker, who sold his artistic soul to the Nazis.

        And strictly I am no fan of simplistic juxtaposition in this context.

        But, I guess, you know that by now.

      • lysias on April 27, 2014, 5:11 pm

        Riefenstahl was one of the greatest moviemakers of all time. If you cannot take Triumph of the Will (because of its political content presumably, because it’s hard to see how anyone could not find the photography impressive,) how can you possibly object to her Olympia? The scenes of the Marathon running and of the divers towards the end are as impressive as any photography I have ever seen.

      • LeaNder on April 28, 2014, 8:41 am

        lysias, you don’t want me to go into details concerning these films, believe me, don’t look at the aesthetics look at the message. OK, one detail: Hitler descending from the sky like a messiah? …

      • marc b. on April 27, 2014, 2:43 pm

        Citizen, I think even Benjamin is missing the root of fascism, which is more about biology than ideology or even psychology. German fascism, like Zionism, was obsessed with all the squishy bits of blood and sperm and mixing genes and fluids. Fear of Arabs infecting wholesome Jews, soldiers defecating in Palestinians’ homes, routing sewage into Gaza, hyper-masculine fear of female weakness. Always this fear of infection from the other while pissing an ever greater ring around your own territory.

      • lysias on April 27, 2014, 5:14 pm

        George Mosse (scion of the journalistic family of the Berliner Tageblatt) was one German Jewish refugee from the Nazis who understood the fascination of fascism. (Unfortunately, in his later years he did support Zionism and Israel. I have recently read his autobiography.)

      • pabelmont on April 27, 2014, 6:55 pm

        marc b. I’m no psychologist, but I’m glad you made this comment, which is at least filled with (dirty, squishy, fluid-y) facts that have always seemed so very important to me, facts which persuade me that Zionism is rank with terrible mental illness.

        Readers may be interested in the fictional story of the rescue of a teen-age boy from a persona of horrible stuck-up, snobbish, superiority by a teacher (a therapist, in effect, through a very clever educational intervention). This story is by the well-known author and playwright Thornton Wilder, the book is called “Theophilus North”, and the chapter I refer to (but all the book is wonderful) is called “The Fenwicks”.

        My take on your comment, marc b., is that Zionist Fascism is instinct with the cruel, retaliatory acts of sh*tting on others because the Zionists believe that they themselves are sh*t. After all, and isn’t it often said, that people behave the way they have been treated, and surely Jews were (at one time) effectively called and treated as sh*t. And the constant teaching of the holocaust is a constant reminder of this and, in effect, a self-teaching of this dreadful un-truth by holocaust-repeating Jews to themselves and their children. “We were hated, we were treated as despicable, but NO, it is THEY who are to be hated, THEY who are despicable.”

        Don’t read the Wilder for truth or anything but entertainment; but for me it tells a very persuasive story.

      • LeaNder on April 28, 2014, 1:40 pm

        Citizen, in hindsight, I may have triggered your response with something that may in fact have been a weak attempt at apologetics for my country. In hindsight it felt like, although I couldn’t backtrack anymore.

        Fact is, I wondered why they did not try to get him out. And that was what I apparently were struggling with when I encountered the context of the essay, which was way to Marxist for the American mind apparently. But I am sure that they helped him and actually tried to get him out. Maybe he simply thought it was too late when he found the frontier closed. … But now I want to fill this lacunae in my mind.

        Fact is, without money, there were highly reduced chances.

    • lysias on April 27, 2014, 5:09 pm

      Whether you agree with Jünger or not, I do not think there can be any doubt that he was a great prose stylist. I have only read one of his books, In Stahlgewittern (English title Storm of Steeel), but I was really impressed by it.

      • LeaNder on April 28, 2014, 1:32 pm

        lysias, that book obviously speaks to the warrior (soldier) in you. It’s based on his WWI diaries, which seem to be published by now too.

        Am I mixing profiles up? Do I also remember correctly that you read German? Here is a special entry on the book, which Jünger edited and contributed to. The title of his article is interesting: The Total Mobilization

        Published the same year he published his essay Nationalism and the Jewish question.

        Hmm? I never read a line by Jünger, but as a soldier who experienced in WWI, and the end of the regimes that started it, he may have realized that he better did not align too closely with the regime, if he also was aware it meant war.

        In combination with the Benjamin biography this may allow a look into his mental frame of mind before they seized (or where offered on a silver tablet) power in 1933.

        My cousin by the way, avoided the army. But he may in fact have read the same book, if I recall correctly. I don’t judge people either way in this context, but I wouldn’t make a good soldier myself, I think.

      • lysias on April 28, 2014, 6:53 pm

        Yes, I read German. In fact, I was stationed in Berlin with the U.S. Air Force (and later had a sideline career as a reserve naval officer).

        I forgot in my earlier posting that I have read two more books of his, Gärten und Straßen and Strahlungen, his diaries from his time as a Wehrmacht officer in the invasion of France and in occupied Paris. They are also well written, and fascinating as history. (The French movie La guerre d’un seule homme — which seems, unfortunately, to be unavailable on DVD — is a combination of newsreel footage from occupied France with voice-over extracts from Jünger’s diaries.)

      • LeaNder on April 29, 2014, 10:27 am

        so I got it right, lysias. Lysias, it is an attractive aka, easy to keep in mind. But strictly I wish I hadn’t blurted out above. On the other hand, psychologically interesting, no doubt. Ernst Jünger, of all people, apparently triggered a huge desire to not feel automatically guilty: By diverting attention from him or indirectly me, towards Adorno. Did he support Walter Benjamin, as much as he could have. trying to get him over to the States early enough? Couldn’t for once Adorno and Horkheimer share a little guilt with me? Just once? ;)

        I doubt by the way, that Marc intended this, but there you go; Pavlovian responses don’t need to much to trigger them.

        When I helped an Israeli scholar a while back, he made me realize something has changed. On one hand I could deeply empathize with his raw anger and suspicions, fact is I shared it as far as the theologian is concerned, but I also felt I had to lean over backwards to protect him from getting defensive responses based on this anger. Some of the people that could have helped him were probably a lot younger than I am among rare still living. I guess he made me realize something has changed. Jünger for whatever reason is a tiny step on this longer development. I have to admit, at one point I hated debates, in which everybody interested in Jünger is automatically called a Nazi. …

        But back on topic:

        Yesterday I found a review of two recent biographies about Jünger, one written by a journalist the other by a prof of literature, who also by the way edited the war diaries the diverse versions of the Steel of storm are based on. Juxtaposing them in different colors to the original war diaries. Interesting idea. You probably read the 1961 edition.The book has a complicated edition history.

        Here is a recent recension of the war diaries. It can give you a glimpse into the heated debates around Jünger over here: Google translation with one slight change

        “Shot in the stomach. Shot in the head. “- War Diary 1914 – 1918

        Munich – It is said that he was a conservative revolutionary, a militant and partisan of National Socialism. The latter was Ernst Jünger certainly not. Unlike, say, Martin Heidegger, Gottfried Benn and he always kept his distance to the Nazi demagogues.

        I leave Heidegger out, his history is better known. But Gottfied Benn at one point wasn’t printed anymore by the Nazis. I have learned to weigh details carefully, and I am much less sure now what a totalitarian regime would do to me, as much as I would like to imagine myself at least as one of the heroes that helped German Jews that went underground, occasionally without even knowing them, or better still risk employment and life, join the victims in the camps.

        Jünger apparently resisted de-Nazification by the Allies, this was occasionally used to show he had something to hide. On the other hand if you look closer into the elaborate networks of some of the de-Nazified, you often wonder too. This passage of the review of the two Jünger biographies reminded me of the fact:

        Both Schwilk like [Helmut] Kiesel do not dwell much on the period after 1945 devoting strikingly little space to it in relation to the preceding period. Of the “secret Germany” of these years, of the personal links and coalitions, as the correspondence between Theodor Heuss and Ernst Jünger documents or of Jünger with Mircea Eliade, with whom he published the magazine “Antaeus”, we still know relatively little.

        But strictly, I would be more interested in the biography of Benjamin, although I better don’t deny that Goldhagen also triggered a desire to understand my country’s history better than I think I do. …

  2. Stogumber on April 27, 2014, 12:56 pm

    Everyone is a pacifist just until he has found HIS war – the war that is worth it. Rightist Germans found their war after 1914, leftist Jews after 1939 – Benjamin would have found it, too, as did Adorno.
    It’s only a matter of timing, and there’s no reason to treat it as a deep division within mankind.

    • lysias on April 27, 2014, 5:16 pm

      The opposite can also happen. A supporter of wars can become a pacifist, or something close to it, after he has personally experienced the reality of what war is really like.

    • Stephen Shenfield on April 27, 2014, 7:14 pm

      There is an abyss between the view that war is evil but some wars are nonetheless necessary (for instance, in order to defeat a still greater evil) and the view that war as such is glorious, beautiful, holy, romantic, a morally cleansing force, dulce et decorum, etc. Before World War I the positive view of war was the mainstream position and only a progressive humanitarian minority denounced war. The experience of WWI — or, more precisely, the truthful public representation of that experience, e.g. by the English war poets — brought anti-war feeling into the mainstream (to varying extents in different countries). Writers like Junger fought back against this shift and tried to restore the old romanticized view of war in a new form. The fascists took that process further.

      My impression regarding Israel is that initially the predominant view was of war as a distasteful necessity, but that 1967 marked a turning point. The Six Day War, and especially the “liberation” of the Old City in Jerusalem, was infused with a miraculous and even messianic religious significance. That was one sign of the start of the descent of the society into fascism.

    • Citizen on April 29, 2014, 11:09 am

      @LeaNder

      Goldhagen? LOL. My, you are apparently a gullible person. I do think you are honest, earnest, analytical. So tell us, what have you concluded about Goldhagen’s thesis about you Germans? I hope something more acute than Don Imus.

  3. Citizen on April 27, 2014, 1:22 pm

    I agree what you say about Blumenthal’s Goliath. He documents fascism as it’s been happening in Israel, Chapter by Chapter, and funded and diplomatically immunized by Americans. Perhaps some day the History Channel will do a documentary on this? Will there be a new book, then a film based on it–something like Cabaret–taking place in Tel Aviv, not Berlin area? Actually a script could be done now, using selected Goliath scenes. Problem is, we haven’t had WW3 yet, the one ultimately to be, and due to Israel’s fascism. The Hollywood movie Cabaret plays on what is yet to come, which the audience knows.

    But here’s Fox News now: Abbas has called The Holocaust the “most heinous crime of modern history”. Bibi is then shown, saying Abbas is a hypocrite or he wouldn’t be rejecting the peace process. Next up: Danny Danon, Israel’s deputy defense minister, laying on the Hasbara line big time. The Fox News host asks no follow up question at all.

    Remember Dorothy Thompson? http://mycatbirdseat.com/tag/dorothy-thompson-american-journalist/

  4. American on April 27, 2014, 1:51 pm

    ” We can’t be – what we have become. Is this because we are (no longer) capable of calling things by their names?”…ellis

    To answer your question….Yes…..it is because too many people refuse to call things what they actually are.

  5. Marco on April 27, 2014, 2:01 pm

    What other currently or historically oppressed groups need to issue this proclamation? Do Native Americans need to declare the Holocaust more heinous than the genocide against their people? Do blacks need to solemnly affirm that it was worse than centuries of slavery? Do Dalits in India need to organize a press conference admitting that their caste-based oppression is dwarfed by anti-Semitism?

    When does the demand for the recognition of historical wrongs veer off into a form of modern-day privilege?

  6. DICKERSON3870 on April 27, 2014, 8:53 pm

    RE: “The authors in this collection, comments Benjamin, are incapable of calling things by their names, preferring instead to imbue everything with the heroic features of German idealism.” ~ Benjamin
    AND RE: “Yes I’m aware that Jews can’t be fascists – or torturers or ethnic cleansers. We can’t be – what we have become. Is this because we are (no longer) capable of calling things by their names?” ~ Ellis

    SEE: “The Semantic War in the Middle East”, by Uri Avnery, Counterpuch.org, 4/25/14

    [EXCERPTS] Imagine a war breaking out between Israel and Jordan. Within two or three days the Israeli army occupies the entire territory of the Hashemite Kingdom. What will be the first act of the occupation authority?

    Establish a settlement in Petra? Expropriate land near Aqaba?

    No. The very first thing will be to decree that the territory will henceforth be known as “Gilead and Moab”.

    All the media will be ordered to use the biblical name. All government and court documents will adopt it. Except for the radical Left, nobody will mention Jordan anymore. All applications by the inhabitants will be addressed to the Military Government of Gilead and Moab.

    Why? Because annexation starts with words.

    Words convey ideas. Words implant concepts in the minds of their hearers and speakers. Once they are firmly established, everything else follows.

    The writers of the Bible already knew this. They taught “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.” (Proverbs 18:21). For how many years now have we been eating the fruit of “Judea and Samaria”? . . .

    . . . Recently I listened to a speech by a left-wing politician, and was disturbed when she spoke at length about her struggle for a “political settlement” with the Palestinians.

    When I remonstrated with her, she apologized. It was a slip of the tongue. She had not meant it that way.

    In Israeli politics, the word “peace” has become poison. “Political settlement” is the vogue term. It is meant to say the same. But of course, it doesn’t.

    “Peace” means much more than the formal end of warfare. It contains elements of reconciliation, of something spiritual. In Hebrew and Arabic, Shalom/Salaam include wellbeing, safety and serve as greetings. “Political settlement” means nothing but a document formulated by lawyers and signed by politicians. . .

    . . . Peace is not the only victim of semantic terrorism. Another is, of course, the West Bank.

    All TV channels have long ago been ordered by the government not to use this term. Most journalists in the written media also march in step. They call it ”Judea and Samaria”.

    “Judea and Samaria” means that the territory belongs to Israel, even if official annexation may be delayed for political reasons. “West Bank” means that this is occupied territory.

    By itself, there is nothing sacred about the term “West Bank”, which was adopted by the Jordanian ruler when he illegally incorporated the area in his newly extended kingdom. This was done in secret collusion with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, who wanted to erase the name “Palestine” from the map. The legal basis was a phony conference of Palestinian “notables” in Jericho.

    King Abdallah of Jordan divided his fief into the East Bank (of the Jordan river) and the West Bank.

    So why do we insist on using this term? Because it means that this is not a part of Israel, but Arab land that will belong – like the Gaza Strip – to the State of Palestine when peace (sorry, a Political Settlement) is achieved. . .

    . . . So the fight goes on along the semantic front. For me, the really crucial part is the fight for the word Peace. We must reinstate it as the central word in our vocabulary. Clearly, loudly, proudly. . .

    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/25/the-semantic-war-in-the-middle-east/

  7. seanmcbride on April 28, 2014, 9:49 am

    Walter Benjamin’s chief influences:

    1. Jewish messianism
    2. Kabbalah
    3. Marxism
    4. Zionism

    Benjamin was also an admirer of Leo Strauss, a key inspiration for neoconservatism.

    During the era in which Benjamin was a Marxist, Marxists in the Soviet Union had already committed crimes against humanity that rank among the very worst in human history.

  8. notatall on April 29, 2014, 5:59 am

    What makes Benjamin a “Jewish” literary critic and philosopher? Why not Marxist, or German?

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