5. Regaining My Religion

–  Persecution, says he, all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.

–  But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.

–  Yes, says Bloom.

–  What is it? says John Wyse.

–  A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.

–  By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.

     …

–  Or also living in different places.

–  That covers my case, says Joe.

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

I. Nationalism Unbound

Beatifying Gandhi’s Assassins

On the evening of 30 January 1948, five months after the independence and partition of India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was walking to a prayer meeting on the grounds of his temporary home in New Delhi when he was shot three times, at point-blank range, in the chest and abdomen. Gandhi, then seventy-eight, and weakened by the fasts he had undertaken in order to stop Hindus and Muslims from killing one another, collapsed and died instantly. His assassin made no attempt to escape and, as he himself would later admit, even shouted for the police.

Millions of shocked Indians waited for more news that night. They feared unspeakable violence if Gandhi’s murderer turned out to be a Muslim. There was much relief, but also some puzzlement, when the assassin was revealed as Nathuram Godse, a Hindu Brahmin from western India. Godse had been an activist in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Association, or RSS), a paramilitary outfit of upper-caste Indians devoted to the creation of a militant Hindu state. He was also a keen disciple of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the chief ideologue of Hindu nationalism, and Gandhi’s bitter rival for nearly half a century.

In a passionate speech in court, Godse echoed his mentor (who was also on trial for Gandhi’s murder). He accused Gandhi of harming India by appeasing Muslims and by introducing such irrational things as ‘purity of the mind’ and individual conscience into the realm of politics, where, according to him, only national self-interest and military force counted. He claimed that Gandhi’s ‘constant and consistent pandering to the Muslims’ had left him with no choice. Godse requested that no mercy be shown him at his trial; and he went cheerfully to the gallows in November 1949, singing paeans to the ‘living Motherland, the land of the Hindus’.

*   *   *

More than half a century later, Hindu nationalists have never been closer to fulfilling Godse’s and Savarkar’s dream of making India a land of the Hindus. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the most important among the various Hindu nationalist groups affiliated to the RSS, holds power in India. Narendra Modi, a lifelong member of the RSS, is India’s most powerful prime minister in decades, though he still stands accused, along with his closest aides, of complicity in crimes ranging from an anti-Muslim pogrom in his state in 2002 to extrajudicial killings.

Gandhi’s assassin is revered by many among a young generation of Indians. Repeated attempts to build a temple to Godse have been foiled. But Savarkar, whose portrait hangs in the Indian parliament, is securely placed at the centre of a revamped Indian pantheon. In 2008 Modi inaugurated a website (savarkar.org) that promotes a man ‘largely unknown to the masses because of the vicious propaganda against him’. On his birthday in 2014 the prime minister tweeted about Savarkar’s ‘tireless efforts towards the regeneration of our motherland’.

‘Hinduize all politics,’ Savarkar exhorted, ‘and Militarise Hindudom.’ While Modi’s neo-Hindu devotees on Facebook and Twitter render the air mephitic with hate and malice against various ‘anti-nationals’, his government moves decisively against ostensibly liberal and Westernized Indians, who belong to what the chief of the RSS in 1999 identified as that ‘class of bastards which tries to implant an alien culture in their land’. Denounced by the numerous Hindu supremacists on social media as ‘sickular libtards’ and ‘sepoys’ (the name for Indian soldiers in European armies), these apparent Trojan horses of the West are now being purged from Indian institutions.

This cleansing of rootless cosmopolitans is crucial to realizing Modi’s vision in which India, once known as the ‘golden bird’, will ‘rise again’ and become a ‘world guru’. India’s absurdly uneven and jobless economic growth may have left largely undisturbed the country’s shameful ratios – 43 per cent of all Indian children below the age of five are undernourished, and 48 per cent stunted; nearly half of Indian women of childbearing age are anaemic, and more than half of all Indians still defecate in the open. A minority of upper-caste Hindus have long dominated a diverse country, which contains the second-largest Muslim population in the world. But many ‘rising’ Indians, who feel frustrated by India’s failure to be a great power, share Modi’s fantasy of imminent glory.

The Coldest of Cold Monsters

India, V. S. Naipaul declared in the mid-1970s, is ‘a wounded civilization’, whose obvious political and economic dysfunction conceals a deeper ‘intellectual crisis’. As evidence, Naipaul offered some symptoms he had noticed among upper-caste middle-class Hindus – the same amalgam of self-adoration and self-contempt that Dostoyevsky had detected in the Westernized Russian. These well-born Indians betrayed a ‘craze for phoren’ consumer goods and approval from the West as well as paranoia about the ‘foreign hand’. They asserted that their holy scriptures already contained the discoveries and inventions of Western science, and that an India revitalized by its ancient wisdom would soon vanquish the decadent West.

Indians, Naipaul wrote, are tormented by a ‘sense of wrongness’ because they feel ‘they are uniquely gifted’. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the Bengali scholar and an influential commentator on India in the 1960s and 1970s, claimed that ‘cringe and hate’ had been ‘the motto of the Indian people under British rule’. He warned against the volatile ‘anti-Western nationalism’ of apparently Westernized Indians; he had seen, he claimed, too many ‘Hindu tadpoles shedding their Western tails and becoming Hindu frogs’.

Both Naipaul and Chaudhuri generalized wildly about India, assessing a vast and diverse country through the inferiority complex of an upper-caste minority. However, their obsessive mapping of the high-born Hindu’s id created a useful – and increasingly very recognizable – meme of intellectual insecurity, confusion and belligerence. And, as it happens, thwarted Indians seeking private and national redemption are by no means unique.

Many other elites struggling with projects of national emulation also contend that they are uniquely gifted, accomplished and superior, morally and spiritually, to the West. ‘We will strive to be leaders,’ Vladimir Putin announced in December 2013, of Russia’s new role in the world. Nothing less would do for ‘a state like Russia, with its great history and culture, with many centuries of experience not of so-called tolerance, neutered and barren, but of the real organic life of different peoples existing together within the framework of a single state’.

Meanwhile, China’s President Xi Jinping outlines a ‘China Dream’ to re-establish his nation as a great power on a par with America: a vision in which he and his party are the representatives of a 5,000-year-old civilization, inoculated against Western political ideals of individual freedom and democracy. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounces Turkish journalists and academics as fifth columnists of the West, speaks of Islam as ‘Europe’s indigenous religion’ from ‘Andalusia to the Ottomans’, and vows to protect the domes of European mosques ‘against all the hands that reach out to harm them’. No one, he promises, ‘will be able to stop’ Islam from growing into ‘a huge tree of justice in the centre of Europe’.

Chronic anti-Westernism might partly explain the tub-thumping by Indian, Russian, Chinese and Turkish elites. But many countries in the West are also obsessed with patriotic education, reverence for national symbols and icons, and the uniqueness of national culture and history; they, too, sound the alarm against various internal and external enemies. Far-right parties in France, Austria, Holland, Germany and the United Kingdom openly admire Putin’s resolve to re-create ‘organic’ life in a ‘single state’. Ethnic-racial nationalism surges in England. In the United States, the mere presence of a black man in the White House inflamed white supremacism. ‘Israel,’ wrote David Grossman in 2016, ‘is being sucked ever deeper into a mythological, religious and tribal narrative.’

Back in 1993, the suggestion from Gianfranco Miglio, the ‘theorist’ of Italy’s Northern League, that ‘civilized’ Europe should deploy the atavistic nationalism of ‘barbarian’ Europe (the East) as a ‘frontier guard to block the Muslim invasion’ would have seemed preposterous. Today, the demagogues ruling Hungary and Poland claim to be the sentinels of a Christian Europe in a parody of their actual role in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As it happens, no European country stokes ideological xenophobia today more than the one to which Rousseau advised ‘an exclusive love of country’ and the necessity of national strength and character: Poland.

In another ironic twist of history, the idolatry of the nationalistic state, the ‘coldest of all cold monsters’, as Nietzsche called it, has intensified in Enlightened France. While conducting its own ‘war on terror’, the French government seems to be trying to invent Rousseau’s Sparta: using such political and cultural technologies as national history, national flag, national education, and the imaginary unity of national language, to project the image of a homogenized national community.

Nationalism has again become a seductive but treacherous antidote to an experience of disorder and meaninglessness: the unexpectedly rowdy anticlimax, in a densely populated world, of the Western European eighteenth-century dream of a universally secular, materialist and peaceful civilization.

Louis Vuitton in Borneo

The triumphs of capitalist imperialism in the nineteenth century had fulfilled on a grand scale Voltaire’s dream of a worldwide materialist civilization knit together by rational self-interest. This pioneering intellectual and commercial entrepreneur proved to be, in Nietzsche’s assessment, the ‘representative of the victorious, ruling classes and their valuations’.

A typical later example was the inhabitant of London, who in 1914, as John Maynard Keynes wrote, could ‘order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth … he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world’. This blessed citizen of an empire, who was best positioned to make money in globalized markets, ‘regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement’. To him, ‘the projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries’ seemed to have no influence on social and economic life. The extensive conflagrations of the early twentieth century, during which racial and national identity was repeatedly valued more than economic rationality, shattered this illusion. As Keynes wrote, with devastating understatement, ‘The age of economic internationalism was not particularly successful in avoiding war.’

In the late twentieth century, however, the old dream of economic internationalism was revived on a much grander scale after Communism, the illegitimate child of Enlightenment rationalism, suffered a shattering loss of state power and legitimacy in Russia and Eastern Europe. The financialization of capitalism seemed to realize Voltaire’s dream of the stock exchange as the embodiment of humanity, which, however religiously or ethnically diverse, spoke the unifying language of money. The establishment of the European Union (EU) seemed to vindicate Nicolas de Condorcet, who had insisted that Europe formed a single society. And the universalist religion of human rights seemed to be replacing the old language of justice and equality within sovereign nation states.

The ‘magic of the market’, in the exuberant phrase of the Financial Times commentator Martin Wolf, seemed to be bringing about the homogenization of all human societies. As Louis Vuitton opened in Borneo, and the Chinese turned into the biggest consumers of French wines, it seemed only a matter of time before the love of luxury was followed by the rule of law, the enhanced use of critical reason, and the expansion of individual freedom.

*   *   *

Today, however, this vision of universal uplift seems another example of intellectuals and technocrats confusing their private interest with public interest, their own socio-economic mobility as members of a lucky and arbitrarily chosen elite with general welfare. Nowhere does the evidence of moral misery accumulate faster than in the so-called public sphere. The setting for opinion and argument originally created in France’s eighteenth-century salons by face to face relations, individual reason and urbane civility, is now defined, in its digital incarnation, by racists, misogynists and lynch mobs, often anonymous.

In the absence of reasoned debate, conspiracy theories and downright lies abound, and even gain broad credence: it was while peddling one of them, ‘Obama is a foreign-born Muslim’, that Donald Trump rose to political prominence. Lynch mobs, assassins and mass shooters thrive in a climate where many people can think only in terms of the categories of friends and foes, sectarian loyalty or treason. The world of mutual tolerance envisaged by cosmopolitan elites from the Enlightenment onwards exists within a few metropolises and university campuses; and even these rarefied spaces are shrinking. The world at large – from the United States to India – manifests a fierce politics of identity built on historical injuries and fear of internal and external enemies.

In its mildest forms in Catalonia, Scotland and Hong Kong, nationalism is again the means to establish and reinforce collective identity, to designate what ‘we’ are like and how we differ from ‘them’, if not to dictate the stern political consequences – exclusion, expulsion, discipline – for those categorized as ‘them’. The extraordinary outbreak of anti-immigrant racism in England after the referendum on Brexit in June 2016 seemed to confirm Rousseau’s assertion that ‘every patriot hates foreigners; they are only men, and nothing to him.’

Yet again, the Genevan seems to have been more perceptive than his metropolitan detractors in casting doubt on the universalist and cosmopolitan ideals of commercial society, and in understanding the emotional appeal of rejecting them. Rousseau, darkly aware that wounded honour and the desire for glory and recognition drive human beings more than economic motives, did not live to witness the nationalistic backlash to cosmopolitan civilization. But his own critique, and its resonant echoes in Germany, are key to understanding why mythological, religious and tribal narratives are being scripted in the age of neo-liberal individualism, and indeed why the inquiry into early modern thought and the interrogation of the present require a common framework.

The First Angry Young Nationalists

Between 1770 and 1815 a galaxy of German thinkers and artists, almost all readers of Rousseau, responded to the then emergent commercial and cosmopolitan society; and their response set a pattern of the greatest importance for the history of politics and culture. It started with assertions of spiritual superiority and an aesthetic ideology, mutated over time into ethnic and cultural nationalism, and, finally, into an existential politics of survival. All the diverse movements of German Idealism that transformed the world of thought – from Sturm und Drang to Romanticism to the Marxist dialectic – originally emerged out of the resentment and defensive disdain of isolated German intellectuals, which Rousseau’s rhetoric justified and reinforced.

Feeling marginalized by the sophisticated socio-economic order emerging in Western Europe, and its aggressive rationalism and individualism, these young men started to idealize what they took to be the true Volk, an organic national community united by a distinctive language, ways of thought, shared traditions, and a collective memory enshrined in folklore and fable. In contrast to the Rights of Man, and the Atlantic West’s notion of the abstract universal individual equipped with reason, the Germans offered a vision of human beings defined in all their modes of thinking, feeling and acting by their membership of a cultural community. This elaborate theory of collective identity and nativist salvation eventually proved more appealing and useful to other latecomers to history than the Enlightenment’s abstract notions of individualist rationalism.

Not surprisingly, it was the near-exclusive creation of Germans in provincial towns among whom Rousseau’s elegant denunciations of Parisian society and celebration of simple folk found their most receptive and grateful audience. Doomed to political backwardness, they were condescended to not only by the French (Voltaire thought the German language useful for ‘soldiers and horses; it is only necessary when you are on the road’), but also by their own Francophile elites, such as Frederick of Prussia, who appointed an inept Frenchman to head the Royal Library in Berlin over the heads of the philosopher Lessing and the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, arguing that the salary of 1,000 thalers was too much for a German. As Herder asked sarcastically, who needs ‘a fatherland or any kinship relations’ when we can all be ‘philanthropic citizens of the world?… The princes speak French, and soon everybody will follow their example, and then, behold, perfect bliss.’

The Rousseau-reading Germans countered the cosmopolitan ideals of commerce, luxury and metropolitan urbanity with Kultur. They claimed that Kultur, the preserve of lowly but profound native burgers, pastors and professors, was a higher achievement than a French Zivilisation built around court society. For Kultur combined the nurturing and education of the individual soul (Bildung) with the growth of national culture. Starting with Herder and Goethe, prodigiously talented German literati elaborated, for the first time in history, a national identity founded on aesthetic achievement and spiritual eminence.

The invasion and occupation of German-speaking lands by Napoleon, the child of the French Enlightenment and Revolution, then helped transform cultural Romanticism into a nationalistic passion. In yet another world-defining pattern, the German myth of the Volk as a repository of profound traditional values, and the opposition between German Kultur and French Zivilisation, was deepened by the disgrace of submission to foreigners. The writer Johann Joseph von Görres claimed that when ‘Germany lay in deep humiliation, when its princes became servants, the nobility scurried after foreign honours … [and] the learned worshipped imported idols, it was the people alone … which stayed true to itself’. Assuming the voice of the ancestors who had fallen in the ‘holy battle for freedom of religion and faith’, Fichte declared to his compatriots:

So that this spirit may gain the freedom to develop itself and grow up to an independent existence – for this reason our blood has been spilt. It is for you to give meaning and justification to the sacrifice by elevating this spirit to the world domination for which it has been appointed.

Subjugated and dishonoured Germany came to generate that strange compound we have subsequently seen in many countries: harmless nostalgia for the past glories of the ‘people’, combined with a lethal fantasy of their magnificent restoration. Cults of the Volk did not cease to seduce, and mislead, in the second half of the nineteenth century, even as Germany consolidated its political unity and Bismarck’s Second Reich frenetically pursued industrialization. German nationalists defined themselves even more desperately and superciliously against the ideals and achievements of France and Britain. Joseph Conrad was among those who recoiled from the ‘promised land of steel, of chemical dyes, of method, of efficiency; that race planted in the middle of Europe assuming in grotesque vanity the attitude of Europeans among effete Asians and barbarous niggers.’

But few of the many anxious observers of Germany saw that German patriots had added to an older inferiority complex before the advanced West a tormenting ambivalence about their own rising materialist civilization. For them, it became an existential necessity, no less, to condemn Zivilisation for its materialism and soullessness while upholding Germany’s profound moral and spiritual Kultur. They gave an earlier German idealism about culture a political edge and racial complexion by arguing that the Volk, once cleansed of cosmopolitan Jews, would return society to primal wholeness; it could abolish the intellectual and political antagonisms of modernity, and put an end to alienation and atomization.

It was through these inner deflections in Germany that, as the historian Friedrich Meinecke wrote, ‘the national idea was raised to the sphere of religion and the eternal’. Socially maladjusted scholars, literary writers, composers and painters competed to articulate the primacy of the Volk, connecting it increasingly to the inferiority of the Jew. Even Thomas Mann, whose writings reflect a fundamentally ironic view of German society, came to believe during the First World War that German Kultur had to be protected against Western Zivilisation, and the false and superficial cosmopolitanism of its German devotees.

These included Mann’s own brother, Heinrich, confirming the profoundly intimate nature of the enemy. Mann was later reconciled with his brother. Among many other Germans, however, personal struggles to adjust to a daunting modern world, which usually ended in failure, confusion and drift, deepened the yearning for an uncomplicated belief. The simple ‘people’ came to appear to many of these disorientated men the natural guardian of virtues that had been lost among city-dwellers: weren’t the Volk spontaneous, unpretentious and immune to the contagion of modernity? Weren’t they opposed to devious money-grubbing Jews and the effete, sophisticated ruling classes that chased after alien gods?

Thus, a single trend in German thought dating back to the eighteenth century became toxic. The Volk, expeditiously conflated after 1918 with a purified race, began to seem a magical antidote to the spiritual disorientation induced by modernity, and some of the most intelligent and sensitive Germans were inebriated by it. In 1933, as the Nazi Party moved ever closer to supreme power, the poet Gottfried Benn confided to a friend:

Metropolis, industrialization, intellectualism, all the shadows that the age had cast over my thoughts, all the powers of the century that I confronted in my production, there are moments when this entire tormented life drops away and nothing is left but the plain, the expanse, the seasons, simple words – the Volk.

This exhausted and resentful state of mind prepared the ground for the authoritarian state; it was the basic condition of possibility for the uncanny avant-gardist who, while resurrecting symbols of Germany’s glorious past, outlined a glorious vision of the future in which the German Volkwould triumph in the international racial struggle. He offered his followers escape from failure and self-loathing, and release into quasi-erotic fantasies of a near-permanent supremacy: a Thousand-Year Reich, no less. It is no accident that the psychology of ressentiment, first articulated by Rousseau, was embodied and elaborated by German ‘strangers’.

The Making of Cultural Nationalism (and Its Built-in Contradictions)

To understand why cosmopolitan civilization based on individual self-interest has turned out to be a perilous experiment rather than a secure accomplishment, and why nationalism remains its inseparable twin, we must return to Herder, one of Rousseau’s most influential disciples. Like Rousseau, he felt personally affronted by the snobbish intellectualism that presumed to tell other people how to live. But Herder went much further than his teacher. Rousseau’s patriotism was basically inward-looking, inspired by what he took to be the civic ideals of Sparta. Herder, while struggling with the Enlightenment’s quasi-aristocratic culture and universalist claims, insisted on a showy separatism, based on the idea of a vital German culture rooted in region and language.

The nascent German intelligentsia had been the first to come up against the notion of a mandarin culture maintained by a sophisticated minority in a superior language – one to which the untutored masses around the world ought to aspire. Herder inaugurated the nativist quest – hectically pursued by almost every nation since – for whatever could be identified as embodying an authentic national spirit: literary forms, cuisine and architecture as much as language. ‘Each nation,’ he argued, ‘speaks in the manner it thinks and thinks in the manner it speaks.’ Pushing against the French philosophe prescribing his own felicity to all and sundry, he insisted that each nation follow its own organic growth, bringing the human race closer to its ultimate destiny – the fullness of humanity.

Herder was no simple theorist of nationalism, like Fichte, who came to think that Germans were simply superior to everyone else. Striving to create a distinctively German art and style, Herder also recognized a creative principle in different national cultures. He claimed that each of the world’s many nations has a particular character, expressed diversely in its language, literature, religion, traditions, values, institutions and laws, and that history was a process of national self-fulfilment.

Still, his path-breaking concept of cultural identity went on to serve the psychological and existential needs of not only Germans but also many late-coming and unevenly modernizing peoples, and is now also invoked in the Atlantic West against globalizing elites. All kinds of chauvinists work out its implications when they argue that their communities should be true to their own distinctive way of being, rebuffing foreign imports and migrants.

Herder himself, his early disciple Goethe said, had in him ‘something compulsively vicious – like a vicious horse – a desire to bite and hurt’. But Herder may have himself provided the most accurate description of his own personality: as ‘driven by a vague unrest that sought another world, but never found it’. In this vagueness of yearning, and imprecision of destination, his admiration for and revulsion from France, Herder resembles all cultural chauvinists who came after him: they claim a fixed identity, but their selves are actually constantly in flux, often mirroring those of their supposed ‘enemy’. Thus, Hindu chauvinists tend to be Westernized Indians, profoundly dependent on the modern West for, as Naipaul wrote, ‘confirmation of their own reality’. Tied to an imperative to diminish a sense of inadequacy and to feel superior, such an identity never ceases to be conflicted and contradictory while presuming to bring peace and harmony.

*   *   *

Herder exemplified most vividly among his German peers what Kant identified as ‘longing’, distinguished from desire by its paralyzing awareness of the incapacity ever to achieve the desired object. In 1769, when he was in his mid-twenties, Herder travelled to France from the Baltic port of Riga, where he had spent several exasperating years as a Lutheran pastor in literary feuds. In this commercial city Herder had achieved a measure of fame. But its perceived smallness, and parochial culture, made him feel like a ‘pedantic scribbler’. Like many German provincials, Herder had an idealized image of France as the home of the worldly, elegant and sensuous philosopher, who spoke a language of unparalleled clarity and precision. He saw himself returning from Paris, fully Gallicized, to Riga as a cosmopolitan reformer. As it turned out, Herder never saw Riga again. Instead of mutating into a French-style man of the world, he became the philosophical father of cultural nationalism.

His awakening during his travels to Paris, his perception of hollowness behind the mask of civility and refinement, of simple nature underneath the gloss of civilization, mimics Rousseau’s own perception of the vanity and corruption of modern society on the road to Vincennes. And it anticipates the struggles of Fichte, another keen reader of Rousseau; trying to overcome his plebeian past, Fichte moved from satirizing the moral ills of commercial society to authoring full-blown theories of autarkic and us-versus-them nationalism.

But Herder was more volatile in his emotions than either Rousseau or Fichte. Writing from Nantes, he confessed to his former teacher Hamann (a Francophobe who on a trip to London had experienced his own revulsion from complacently rationalist Westerners): ‘I am getting to know the French language, French habits and the French way of thinking – getting to know but not getting to embrace, for the closer my acquaintance with them is, the greater my sense of alienation becomes.’ In Paris, ‘festooned with luxury, vanity and French nothingness’, a ‘decadent den of vice’, Herder failed to meet any of the philosophes he had fantasized meeting. His fervent desire to wear the French identity of a sociable man and be a charming salon wit shaded into premature and acute disappointment. ‘Magnificence in arts and institutions are in the centre of attention,’ he wrote. ‘But since taste is only the most superficial conception of beauty and magnificence only an illusion – and frequently a surrogate for beauty – France can never satisfy, and I am heartily tired of it.’

Defensive Goths

Herder, like many other provincials, had been attracted, appalled and demoralized by the French capital of cosmopolitanism, and the superior airs of its thinkers. He attacked Enlightenment intellectuals with the peculiar intensity of the spurned lover who thinks he has seen through his own illusions, and found that there is not much there behind dazzling appearances. One of his targets was Rousseau’s jaunty old enemy: ‘Voltaire may have spread,’ Herder conceded, ‘the light, the so-called philosophy of humanity, tolerance, ease in thinking for oneself.’ But:

at the same time what wretched recklessness, weakness, uncertainty, and chill! What shallowness, lack of design, distrust of virtue, of happiness, and merit! What was laughed off by his wit, sometimes without any such intention! Our gentle, pleasant, and necessary bonds have been dissolved with a shameless hand, yet those of us who do not reside at the Château de Fernay [Voltaire’s residence near Geneva] have been given nothing at all in their stead.

Having established Voltaire’s incorrigible frivolity in his own mind, Herder moved rapidly from what he called ‘a way of thinking without morals and solid human feeling’ to the assertion that French lacks what German has: a true moral freedom and connection with sense experience. In his poem ‘To the Germans’ he exhorted his fellow countrymen to ‘Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine. Speak German, O you German!’

Many Germans followed Herder’s intellectual journey. They moved from being, in Lessing’s mordant words, ‘subservient admirers of the never sufficiently admired French’ to a willed feeling of superiority, and on to a fervent desire to beat the adversary at his own game. In 1807, as French troops occupied Berlin, Fichte, once a self-proclaimed Jacobin, would argue in ‘Addresses to the German Nation’ that the Germans were lucky to hold on to their language while the French ‘only want to destroy everything that exists and to create everywhere … a void, in which they can reproduce their own image and never anything else’. Aurelie tells Wilhelm Meister in Goethe’s eponymous novel, ‘I hate the French language’, and then, praising German as a ‘strong, honest, heartfelt’ language, sneers that French is ‘worthy of being the universal language with which people can lie and deceive one another’.

The need to affirm a sense of national identity that was the exact opposite of the frivolity, refinement, irony and facetiousness of cosmopolitan and wealthy France drove the Germans into continuous idealizations and falsifications. The poet Klopstock, who called for a return to the Volkthrough the study of peasant legends, claimed that corruption flourished among the rich and the sophisticated while moral purity thrived among the humble.

Gothic style, identified by the French philosophes with barbarism, came to be celebrated for its alleged Germanness. Herder himself played a crucial role in its revival. Returning from France, he met Goethe in Strasbourg in 1770 – one of the most fateful encounters in the history of culture – and found a vulnerable object of indoctrination. The young Goethe was soon working himself up into ecstasy before the Gothic minster of Strasbourg: ‘This is German architecture, our architecture! Something of which the Italian cannot boast, far less the Frenchman!’

In Herder’s anthology On German Art and Character (1773), Goethe attacked ‘Frenchmen of all nations’ and made France seem a byword for imitative, pseudo-rational thought. The rebellion against the narrow intellectualism of the French Enlightenment, led by Herder, and popularized by the young Goethe and Schiller, turned into the movement known as Sturm und Drang, ‘stress and strain’, the essential precursor of the Romantic Revolution that transformed the world with its notion of a dynamic subjectivity. Many of its adherents were students – with their rakish dress, long hair, and narcotic and sexual indulgences, they were prototypes for the counter-cultural figures of our age. These young men upheld feeling and sensibility against the tyranny of reason, natural expression against French refinement, and a determination to find and enshrine a uniquely German spirit.

Herder challenged the Enlightenment assumption that progress in history had been made inevitable by the accumulation and refinement of rational knowledge. He argued that the histories of nations operated according to their own principles and could not be judged by the standards of the Enlightenment. He contended that Europeans living in large cities are neither more virtuous nor happier than the ‘Oriental patriarch’ who achieves virtue and felicity by upholding the beliefs and values of his natural and social milieu.

Herder went on to develop a vision of history with a Rousseauian emphasis: an original social setting of simplicity, truthfulness and self-sufficiency had been ruined by luxury and a cosmopolitan culture of insincerity and dubious morality. In place of Sparta, Herder invoked the Germanic tribes of what he called ‘the North’, which preceded and followed the Roman Empire, and created a society marked by social harmony and moral clarity. ‘In the patriarch’s hut, the humble homestead, or the local community,’ he explained, ‘people knew and clearly perceived what they talked about, since the way they looked at things, and acted, was through the human heart.’ Introducing educated Germans to folk poetry and the cultural values of humble folk, Herder hoped that a literature emancipated from classical French rules would unleash a national spirit among the politically divided Germans. Even the German discovery of the classical past could not remain free of its obsession with their allegedly shallow neighbour. The French had proclaimed themselves as the heirs of the Roman tradition. So it was up to the art, architecture and poetry of Greece to stimulate a cultural renaissance in Germany.

According to Winckelmann, the son of a cobbler who became the most famous art historian of his time, ‘the only way for us to become great, indeed to become inimitable, if that were possible, is through the imitation of the Greeks’; and, he might have added, the rejection of everything French. In German hands, literary and classical scholarship and the brand-new discipline of history received the imprint, ineradicable to this day, of cultural defensiveness.

Quietly Desperate in the Provinces

This potent ressentiment of German literati had a political origin (as did the passive aggression of all aspiring nationalities that followed them). Germany had lost the leading position it had enjoyed at the end of the medieval period after the axis of the European economy shifted from the centre of the Continent to the Atlantic seaboard. The population had doubled over the previous century; and there was an abundance of young Germans, many of them brilliantly creative in music, art, literature and philosophy. Yet they had to suffer petty princes, religious division and constricted economic systems.

The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation consisted of three hundred states and another fifteen hundred minor units, all with different customs, manners and dialects. (Arriving in Leipzig from Frankfurt, even Goethe, the son of wealthy patrician parents, appeared weird to the locals.) Political and cultural unity was bedevilled by the division, dating back to the Reformation, of Germans into Catholics and Protestants. Austria and Prussia, two important components of the Holy Roman Empire, were locked in conflict, and frequently pursued policies that seemed to undermine rather than serve the overall German interest.

Educated Germans were alert to events elsewhere: the great economic transformations the Industrial Revolution was bringing to England, the political revolutions in France and America. They had read their Montesquieu and Rousseau, among the most celebrated authors in Germany during the second half of the eighteenth century; they knew about doctrines of the separation of powers and the social contract upon which all government power ought to be based. They were impatient for Germany to also embark on a transition from the fixed structures of old Europe to a new society animated by the desire for freedom and equality.

German writers felt this aspiration most keenly. For, as the Swiss-French author Madame de Staël was the first to observe in De l’Allemagne (1813), the most popular book on Germany for decades, they had no status and were sentenced to a life of isolation and insecurity in their provincial cities and small towns – unlike their counterparts in the fast-developing nation states of England and France, who mingled with both the high nobility and the bourgeoisie. There was no unified ideological ‘market’, as Frederick the Great pointed out to Voltaire, of the kind that allowed complex networks of the Republic of Letters to form in France and England. The aristocratic salons, where Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophers reigned, made Germans feel excluded and gauche. French writers looked down upon German. Even more annoyingly, German aristocrats boosted the prestige of French letters, threatening to replace a profound and pious tradition with the superficial and impious ways of France.

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Germans confronting a forceful cultural imperialism both at home and abroad could find no relief in national cohesion. Political frustration led to a continuous expansion in spiritual, aesthetic and moral preoccupations. The Lutheran and Pietist emphasis on inner freedom – which partly explains why some of Rousseau’s most fervent and influential admirers were German and why Romanticism developed in Germany – was deepened among a well-educated minority. As Goethe and Schiller wrote in the Xenien (1796): ‘To make yourself a nation – for this you hope, / Germans, in vain; / Make yourselves instead – you can do it! / Into men the more free.’

Many Germans, looking for a source of pride, and failing to find it in the present or the near future, also became vulnerable to the quest for national origins in the distant past. Tacitus’ Germania, which contains the story of the Germanic hero Arminius, the vanquisher of the Romans, had already provided an ancestral myth. More material came, unexpectedly, from Scotland. In 1761 a Scottish translator called James Macpherson published what he said was ancient Gaelic poetry he had discovered while exploring the highlands and islands of Scotland. Fingal, An Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with several other poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, was followed up with The Works of Ossian in 1765. Samuel Johnson doubted their authenticity and asked to see the original texts. Macpherson never obliged.

The evidently long-lost poems with their gloomily romantic setting and sentimental themes were suspiciously Rousseauian in their exposition of virtues uncorrupted by civilization. As the translator wrote in his preface: ‘The human passions lie in some degree concealed behind forms, and artificial manners; and the powers of the soul, without an opportunity of exerting them, lose their vigour.’ A huge success across Europe – the young Corsican then known as Napoleone di Buonaparte read them eagerly – Ossian offered an organic conception of culture and community, one that transcended the hierarchy of class and caste; he seemed to confirm that the lowest of the low could possess the highest values. Ossian naturally had his biggest fans among Germany’s thwarted and alienated youth. Invoked to justify the rights of scorned Scots in Britain, he more significantly vindicated the indigenous ways of the unsophisticated Volk in Germany. Ossian’s songs, Herder asserted, ‘are songs of the people, songs of an uncultivated, sense-perceptive people’.

It seems apt today that the search for ancestral myths – common to all nationalisms – was inaugurated by a fraud; and that its legacy was forgeries of supposedly ancient poems in many countries. But for restless young Germans, impresarios of longing, the quest for a common homeland or group or Church, a place that could transcend their discouraging political reality, had a special intensity. Herder continued to believe that Ossian had opened up a new spiritual home for the Germans long after the poems were revealed to be a hoax.

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In this atmosphere of deceived and frustrated longing, the French Revolution erupted volcanically. Its conversion of religious and metaphysical questions into political ones – freedom, equality and the brotherhood of man – stimulated German political and intellectual life like nothing had before.

Almost all the German thinkers of the 1790s originally welcomed the Revolution, which seemed to shrink the gap between longing and object. Some Germans saw in it a prelude to their own liberation from arbitrary tyranny and provincialism – the young theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher argued suggestively and riskily that monarchs were not exempt from the guillotine. Schelling said he wanted to escape the land of ‘clerks and clerics’ to breathe the ‘free airs’ of Paris. Fichte, who had spent his youth in a series of humiliating tutorial jobs, actually applied for the job of French professor at Strasbourg; he hoped to educate the German youth in the traditions of freedom and place them in the vanguard of progress.

Some, such as Schiller and Friedrich Jacobi, were sceptical that the Revolution could ever reach a peaceful conclusion. Nevertheless, there was general consensus about its basic ideals, broad admiration for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and celebration of the end of aristocratic privilege. Hegel, who erected a liberty tree in Tübingen, proclaimed that ‘only now has humanity come to understand that spiritual reality should be ruled by Thought’. For Kant it was proof of mankind’s emergence from its self-imposed immaturity, the process he had termed Enlightenment: a world-historical experiment in which man was finally self-determining and free.

For many Germans reading Kant after 1789, the ageing disciple of Rousseau appeared to have achieved in theory what the French had achieved in practice. German philosophy, in this narcissistic view, had been quietly heralding freedom all along. So passionate was this self-vindication in Germany that, as Nietzsche later quipped, the ‘text’ of the French Revolution ‘disappeared under the interpretation’.

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Disillusionment grew quickly after the Jacobins rose to power, terror was unleashed in the name of freedom by radical political forces, and, disturbingly for the literati, the urban lower classes seemed to gain influence. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), translated by Friedrich Gentz – later one of the closest advisors to the chancellor of Austria, Metternich – became a hit across Germany with its warnings against violent and hubristic political engineering.

Georg Forster, the writer and activist, who fled a failed mini-revolution in the German city of Mainz to Paris (to die there embittered in 1794), wrote to his wife that ‘the tyranny of reason, perhaps the most unyielding of all, lies yet in store for the world’. Goethe worried that the alliance of the masses with an intellectual elite had inaugurated a new era of deception. People incapable of self-awareness were now in charge of improving others. ‘What must I put up with? / The crowd must strike, / Then it becomes respectable. / In judgement, it is miserable.’

Others came to recoil from, in Nietzsche’s words, the ‘semi-insanity, histrionicism, bestial cruelty, voluptuousness, and especially sentimentality and self-intoxication, which taken together constitutes the actual substance of the Revolution’. Even Herder, a passionate defender of the Revolution (Goethe claimed to have spotted his inner Jacobin), finally confessed to being repelled by ‘a populace agitated to madness, and the rule of a mad populace’. He issued his own Burkean warning for the future: ‘What effects might, indeed must, this vertiginous spirit of freedom, and the bloody wars that will in likelihood arise from it, have upon peoples and rulers, but above all on the organs of humanity, the sciences and arts?’

Reports of atrocities from France seemed to demonstrate that inner freedom and morality were necessary before fundamental political change could take place. The liberal catchword of the 1790s accordingly became Bildung. Schiller set out a theory of drama that was an aesthetic preparation for political freedom. According to this pioneering German Romantic, the Enlightenment and science had given an ‘intellectual education’ to man but left undisturbed his ‘inner barbarian’, which only art and literature could redeem.

Diagnosing Alienation

Schiller also began to make the first of many critiques familiar to us from Marx, Weber, Adorno and Marcuse of modern commercial society, its gods of utility and instrumental reason, and its deformations of the inner life. Science, technology, division of labour and specialization, he wrote, had created a society of richer but spiritually impoverished individuals, reducing them to mere ‘fragments’: ‘nothing more than the imprint of his occupation or of his specialized knowledge’.

In Schiller’s vision, the Enlightenment’s ideology had evolved into the terror of reason, destroying old institutions but also the spiritual integrity of human beings. It was now to be the task of the Romantic generation to shore up the ideal of Bildung against modern society, and its atomism, alienation and anomie. Against individual fragmentation and self-maiming, the Romantic ideal of Bildung reaffirmed the value of wholeness, with oneself, others and nature. It was aimed to make the individual feel at home again in his world, instead of seeing it as opposed to himself.

The Romantics developed further Rousseau’s notion of social hypocrisy in which the human self repressed its true desires and feelings within a culture of civilized manners. They also critiqued specialization, the development of the one at the expense of all the others. The sources of alienation, according to them, lay in the decline of the traditional community – the guilds, corporations and family – and the rise of the competitive marketplace and social-contractism, in which individuals pursued their self-interest at the expense of others.

Man was alienated from nature also because modern technology and mechanical physics made nature into an object of mere utility, a vast machine, depriving it of magic, mystery or beauty. ‘Spectres reign where no gods are,’ wrote Novalis. Modern man, according to him, was ‘tirelessly engaged in cleansing nature, the earth, human souls, and learning of poetry, rooting out every trace of the sacred, spoiling the memory of all uplifting incidents and people, and stripping the world of all bright ornament’.

Against these pathologies of modernity, the German Romantics counterpoised ideals of wholeness or unity. Self-division would be overcome by acting according to the principles of morality, by realizing an ideal of community, or what today’s autocrat Vladimir Putin calls the ‘organic life’; and healing the split from nature with immersion in it.

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On the face of it, this was a backward-looking programme. It seemed to bemoan the advent of bourgeois society and Enlightenment, and celebrate the unity and harmony found in classical Greece or the Middle Ages. But there was no going back for the Romantics. The challenge before them was how to achieve the harmony and unity of the past in the future, how to form a society and state that provide for community – a source of belonging, identity and security –while also securing rights and freedoms for individuals without them fragmenting into self-interested atoms.

As Novalis wrote, Germany may not be a coherent political nation like France, and in fact had fallen behind its Western neighbours in many respects. But it did not matter since Germany is ‘treading a slow but sure path ahead of the other European countries. While the latter are busy with war, speculation and partisan spirit, the German is educating himself with all due diligence to become an accomplice of a higher culture, and in the course of time this advance must give him much superiority over the others.’

In almost all cases the German Romantics in their provincial centres were reacting to what they perceived as the defects and excesses of both the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. But Romanticism was not a mere reaction. It was also, in Ernst Troeltsch’s words,

a revolution, a thorough and genuine revolution: a revolution against the respectability of the bourgeois temper and against a universal egalitarian ethic: a revolution, above all, against the whole of the mathematico-mechanical spirit of science in western Europe, against a conception of Natural Law which sought to blend utility with morality, against the bare abstraction of a universal and equal humanity.

Politicizing the Spiritual

We can see now that the German Romantics’ desire to re-enchant the world had radical implications. They shattered the Enlightenment’s notion of a single civilization of universal import; they offered an idea of civilization as a multiplicity of particular national cultures, all with their own special identity. But it took a catastrophic defeat and occupation, and wars of liberation, to turn cultural Romanticism into a treacherous political Romanticism.

In the absence of a German national state, Volk and Kultur had seemed abstract entities – objects of futile longing. Napoleon’s imperialism infused them with fresh content. As Wagner, the nineteenth century’s most resonant apostle of German nationalism, wrote: ‘The birth of the new German spirit brought with it the rebirth of the German people: the German War of Liberation of 1813, 1814 and 1815 suddenly familiarized us with this people.’

On 9 October 1806, Prussia, in alliance with Russia, Saxony, Saxony-Weimar, Brunswick and Hanover, declared war on France. The Prussian army, victorious since the Seven Years War, felt invincible; and its self-assessment was broadly shared within Prussian society. However, on 14 October, Napoleon’s French armies crushed the anti-French coalition at Jena and Auerstädt. Some commanders surrendered their fortresses without firing a shot, and troops retreated in chaos. Defeat only five days after the declaration of war came as a devastating shock. The Holy Roman Empire had finally collapsed just weeks before; Prussia was now reduced to a minor power (and forced in its weakness to become an ally of France). Just as Germany was achieving a spiritual renaissance, it disintegrated politically and came under foreign occupation, manifested by ever-increasing taxation, economic exploitation, conscription and arbitrary oppression.

At a moment of political catastrophe and cultural crisis, the early Romantic struggles for re-enchantment in Germany mutated, largely due to its humiliations by Napoleon and German elite collaboration with him, into chauvinistic, even militaristic, myths of the Volk, fatherland and the state. In less than two years (1805–7), Fichte moved from upholding freedom in a cosmopolitan realm to asserting a fiercely ‘German’ desire for freedom. In his ‘Addresses to the German Nation’ he condemned German cowardice before the French and called for a return to the authentic German self. The Urvolk, he argued, were the ‘first people’ in Europe to keep their own language since they, unlike the Romanized peoples in western and southern Europe, had remained in the ancestral homelands. Disregarding the facts of defeat and occupation, Fichte exhorted a German-led ‘re-creation of the human race’.

Despite many local anti-French struggles, the liberation of Germany came only after Napoleon’s Grande Armée, backed by a Prussian army in the rear, was forced to withdraw in defeat from Russia in the autumn of 1812. Prussia then betrayed its ally and its king declared war on France, speaking opportunistically of the ‘cause of the Volk ’. ‘Whatever is not voluntary,’ Madame de Staël wrote of the ferocious anti-Napoleon upsurge, ‘is destroyed at the first reverse of fortune.’ The nationalists could now come out of the closet; the many fantasies born of the lack of a state and nurtured through political fragmentation had been unleashed.

The Lure of Xenophobia

Fichte had been their original fount. He not only insisted that Germany find its own path to modernity by rejecting the ‘swindling theories of international trade and manufacture’ and by instituting patriotic education. He also gave nationalism its characteristic secular feature: the transposition of religious into national loyalties.

Many other neglected and marginal German intellectuals also participated in the race to fix the special qualities of Germanness. These were, not surprisingly, almost all men with clear ideas of what women ought to do. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the ‘father of gymnastics’ and also the innovator of student fraternities, expressed early a view that would become widespread among demagogic nationalists of the nineteenth century: ‘Let man be manly, then woman will be womanly’ (in other words, passive, soothing and domestic). Reserving the privilege of truculent activity for the male, Jahn deigned to recognize only two kinds of men who had taken up the ‘holy idea of humanity’: the Greeks of classical Hellas and the Germans. Certainly, his notion of the Volk, as consisting exclusively of frat boys, fused well with a hatred of the French, especially Napoleon.

Napoleon was an imperialist in the modern sense, a prototype for European colonialists in Asia and Africa: he not only extracted resources from the territories he conquered; he also politicized the Enlightenment notion of universal rationality, imposing the metric system and the Code Napoléon on all subjugated peoples. To his victims these ‘resources of civilization’ made him seem ‘more terrible and odious’, as his liberal critic Benjamin Constant charged, than Attila and Genghis Khan.

The Romantics had initially celebrated Napoleon as the sacred embodiment of the Revolution. With his modest background, and short stature, this self-made man from Corsica, who had seized the most dazzling crown in the world and shaped the frontiers of Europe with his will, reminded the provincials of their own aspirations. To Goethe, Beethoven, Hegel and Heine, Napoleon was an embodiment of the spirit of history.

But Napoleon lost his luster among most German artists and writers after the defeats at Jena and Auerstädt and the humiliation of the French occupation. He showed particular contempt for the Germans, their traditions and Protestant faith; he deliberately maligned the reputation of their virtuous Prussian queen, and then insulted them by calling her ‘the only real man in Prussia’. And so in Trinity Church in Berlin a religious ceremony, presided over by Schleiermacher, inaugurated the war against the French infidel in March 1813, the theologian speaking from the pulpit, and rifles leaning against the church wall.

Fichte suspended his class at the University of Berlin, exhorting his students to fight until they attained liberty or death. Themes of martyrdom resonated through the campaign; the poet Theodor Körner wrote before his own martyrdom of death in the cause of Germany as a ‘nuptials’ with the fatherland. ‘It is not,’ he clarified, ‘a war of the kind the kings know about, ’tis a crusade, ’tis a holy war.’ This ‘holy war’ – the first in post-Christian Europe – preceded by many decades the jihad against military and cultural imperialism credited to Islamic fanatics.

Jahn exhorted Germans to ‘know again with manly pride the value of your own noble living language’ and leave alone the ‘cesspool’ of Paris. The exponent of patriotic calisthenics was surpassed by the poet Ernst Moritz Arndt: ‘Only a bloody hatred of the French,’ Arndt asserted, ‘can unify German power, restore German glory, bring out all the noble instincts of the people and submerge the base ones.’ ‘I will my hatred of the French,’ Arndt wrote, ‘not just for this war, I will it for a long time, I will it forever … Let this hatred smoulder as the religion of the German folk, as a holy mantra in all hearts, and let it preserve us in our fidelity, our honesty and courage.’

No one, however, hated as eloquently as Heinrich von Kleist. Germany’s greatest dramatist went beyond political grievance in his luridly precise description of swinging a small French boy around and smashing his head against a church pillar. The scion of a distinguished military family in Prussia, von Kleist abandoned his family tradition and military career, committing himself to a programme of intellectual and aesthetic growth. Arrested by the French police in 1807 on suspicion of being a spy and detained for a year, he then embarked on a literary career in Francophobia.

He brought out a patriotic journal called Germania in time for the anti-French uprising. In his ode ‘Germania to Her Children’ von Kleist spelled out what he required of his German peers:

With the Kaiser preceding you

Leave your huts and homes

Sweep over the Franks

Like the boundless foamy sea.

Von Kleist wanted Germania’s children to dam up the Rhine with French corpses. Sneering at ‘prattlers’ and ‘writers’ who speak abstractly about freedom, he called for the baptism of Germany with blood. In ‘War Song of the Germans’, he argued that the French must be made extinct, like the beasts that had once roamed the forests of Europe.

Impatient for Progress

Patriotic rhetoric became increasingly commonplace among educated Germans, especially after the explicitly anti-nationalist post-Napoleonic settlement sealed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It left Germany as a Confederation of thirty-nine states, and those Germans hoping for unity even more frustrated than before. In 1817 hundreds of students, members of a student fraternity inspired by Jahn, gathered near the Wartburg castle on the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing up of his theses. This castle had been a refuge for Luther, where he had translated the Bible; it now became a symbol of German nationalism as disciples of Jahn recited prayers for Germany’s salvation and threw ‘un-German’ books, including the Code Napoléon, into a bonfire.

Metternich, the keeper of Europe’s peace, cracked down on universities; Jahn was imprisoned for six years. But the student unrest signalled a far wider discontent than one that the Austrian chancellor’s secret police could stem. The American and French Revolutions had left many young men around the world fretting that they had been left out or had fallen behind in the march of progress. A brilliant military marauder like Napoleon brought, often in person, thrilling new ideas of liberation to many of them. A series of constitutionalist revolts, led by intellectuals and army officers, and often modelled on Napoleon’s own coup, erupted across southern Europe – in Spain, Italy and Greece – in 1820 and 1821.

In 1825 military heroes of Russia’s ‘wars of liberation’ against Napoleon in 1812–14 challenged the Russian autocracy. These ‘Decembrists’, as they came to be called after the month of their abortive uprising, were brutally crushed, though they were representatives of Russia’s aristocratic elite. Five of them were hanged and hundreds exiled to Siberia for life.

The failure of the uprising seeded a Romantic cult of sacrifice and martyrdom (and originally inspired the greatest piece of prose fiction of the nineteenth century, War and Peace). The youthful Herzen, who was fourteen at the time of the uprising, inaugurated Russia’s distinctive revolutionary tradition when on the hills overlooking Moscow he swore a ‘Hannibalic oath’ to sacrifice his entire life to the struggle begun by the Decembrists. Such ideas of resistance and protest, which eventually expanded into revolutionary socialism, were made more urgent and appealing by a repressive state in Russia. In Europe, too, all aspirations for freedom had to reckon with strong and canny forces of conservatism: the supranational dynastic states, dubbed the ‘Holy Alliance’ by the Russian Tsar.

Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna may have brought peace to Europe, and relief to its monarchical ruling classes, embodied best by the stern and paranoid figure of Metternich. But the mood across post-Napoleonic Europe and Russia was febrile, registered in the growing popularity of soul-stirring opera and lyric poetry, the cult of Byron, and Stendhal’s novels about the maladie du siècle. Young men everywhere waited for a new revelation on the same scale as the French Revolution, or at least some replacements for obsolete religious beliefs.

The fascination with the mysterious, the esoteric and the irrational that characterizes the entire epoch would pave the way for the revolutions of 1848. After their failure, accumulated frustration would generate intransigent movements of socialism as well as nationalism, and desire for a genuine, thoroughgoing revolution that would bring freedom and equality to all, not just a few.

Alternative Gods

‘What is exploding today was prepared before 1848 … the fire that burns today was lit then.’ The German jurist Carl Schmitt wrote these words in the mid-twentieth century; they ring even truer today. In the years before 1848, thwarted idealism went into forging new religions and ideologies, and revolts and uprisings kept young men gainfully employed as professional conspirators and insurgents. The Italian Carboneria, which became the first secret organization to lead a large-scale uprising in modern Europe, offered a model for many subsequent small revolutionary cells.

As such quasi-Christian sects and societies burgeoned, Byron spoke in 1818 of the Italian yearning for the ‘immortality of independence’. The English poet went on to become a pied piper, seducing bored men into dreams of private glory. He drummed up support for Greek independence among secularized Europeans brought up on a heavy diet of antipathy to Ottoman Turks and reverence for ancient Greece (and himself died, as Alexandre Dumas put it in the overblown style of the age, ‘for the Greeks like another Jesus’). Germans responded to the new Crusade in Greece with particular eagerness, and, like many others, were disillusioned, if not dead, soon after arriving in the land of their dreams (Hölderlin’s 1797 novel Hyperion anticipates their crushing disappointments).

There were rebellions in Spanish American colonies in which the new vocabulary of equality and liberty played a central role. Restless young men from virtually every European country travelled to South America in search of suitably chivalrous and uplifting causes (and usually ended up sacrificing their lives to such fiascos as Simón Bolívar’s attempt to unite the Continent). John Keats was among those tempted to fight in Venezuela. Even John Stuart Mill, emerging from a breakdown, found that Byron’s ‘state of mind’ was too disturbingly like his own, exposing the good life in prospering England as a ‘vapid, uninteresting thing’. Mill later projected his own fear of debility and boredom to modern society as a whole, warning against the dangers of spiritual stagnation.

Chateaubriand in The Genius of Christianity (1802) had tried to renew the appeal of Catholicism for a new generation. But a return to traditional religion was unlikely in post-Enlightenment France – Voltaire’s scoffing had taken care of that possibility. Robespierre, a priest manqué (in Condorcet’s words), with his religion of the ‘Supreme Being’ had, however, broadened the scope for pseudo-religions; and France, struggling with let-down after the adventures of the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, produced some ambitious schemes for secular salvation in the period between 1815 and 1848.

The most influential of these figures, Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, who in 1825 came up with a new universal religion, le Nouveau Christianisme, voiced a general suspicion that the Rights of Man had proved to be deeply inadequate. Society had now to be organized and regenerated in ways other than through the principles of ‘individualism’ – a word to which the Saint-Simonians gave wide currency through their criticism of the crisis of authority in France. The poet Alphonse de Lamartine, writing a hagiography of Joan of Arc during the bleak days of the Bourbon Restoration, hoped for a new spiritual community. Charles Fourier, a travelling salesman, claimed to be the new Messiah, who had unlocked the secret to universal harmony. Saint-Simon’s secretary, Auguste Comte, floated a religion of Positivism. Defining human progress as the transition from theological and metaphysical ways of thinking to the scientific or ‘positive’ one, and outlining a grandiose role for experts, Comte achieved widespread fame, and such unlikely disciples as Turkey’s modernizing autocrat, Atatürk.

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The scope, opened up by the Enlightenment, for social engineering by rational experts was broadened as the scientific ‘value-neutral’ approach and technocratic ideas began to enter the political realm; they were helped by breakthroughs in modern medicine, which, improving everyday life, made progress seem automatic, and such effective advocates as Saint-Simon, who blended a passion for science and technology with the existing cult of emotion.

Saint-Simon’s disciples, who inherited and expanded a lexicon of pseudo-religious high-mindedness (‘creed’, ‘mission’, ‘universal association’, ‘humanity’), turned out to be a diverse and prominent lot; they ranged from people hailing Jews for creating ‘industrial and political links among peoples’ and India’s sensuous goddesses and androgynous gods to Pierre Leroux, who inaugurated modern ideological journalism with his newspaper, The Globe. Another Saint-Simonian, Suzanne Voilquin, a working-class woman, travelled in the 1830s to Egypt (where she assumed Arab male dress), America and Russia with her message of female empowerment.

The French revolutionaries had done little for women; their general attitude was summed up by the leading radical newspaper Les Revolutions de Paris, which advised women to stay home and ‘knit trousers for our brave sans-culottes’. But revolutionary feminists were well represented among the followers of Fourier and Saint-Simon; the sheer novelty and audacity of their claims made them seem ultra-radical. George Sand, probably the most influential European woman of her age, offered a romantic version of female emancipation, basing it on the rights of the heart. But this was also the time when even the most modulated demands for female liberty were met with furious sexual epithets from men in public life, attesting to a profound anxiety about their own muddy self-definition.

Napoleon’s martial ethos and brazen misogyny were largely responsible for this (unsurprisingly, France did not give women the vote until after the Second World War). Asked by Madame de Staël, his most tenacious and influential critic, who he thought was the greatest woman in history, Napoleon replied, ‘The one, Madame, who has the most children.’ On another occasion he examined her décolletage and asked her whether she breast-fed her children; he also pulped Madame de Staël’s book on Germany, declaring it to be anti-French.

Even the sophisticated Tocqueville couldn’t hide his condescension for George Sand. ‘She pleased me,’ he declared after a meeting with the writer. Hoping to revitalize hopelessly bourgeois French males through imperial expansion in Africa, he couldn’t help adding, ‘I loathe women who write, especially those who systematically disguise the weaknesses of their sex.’ Unsurprisingly, Sand was depicted in popular caricature as a virago, holding a whip. The cult of passion and sexuality she promoted did have some takers; and her idealized images of workers and peasants turned the nineteenth-century’s serialized novel into effective socialist agitprop. A visit to Sand in 1847 turned Margaret Fuller, a cautious feminist in New England, into a revolutionary in Italy. Dostoyevsky and Herzen both credited Sand with stimulating their social conscience.

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The cult of the nation, however, grew faster in France and elsewhere among insecure men who dominated the public sphere. Its leading exponent was a Catholic priest, the Abbé Félicité de Lamennais, who believed that God, working through the people, had caused the French Revolution. His 1834 book Words of a Believer, one of the most widely read books of the nineteenth century, offered an apocalyptic vision of oppressed humanity, and its global salvation. It was Lamennais who tried to establish a precise relationship, subsequently insisted upon by nationalists in India as well as Italy, between the ‘motherland’ and the isolated individuals who voluntarily ‘penetrate and become enmeshed’ with it.

The historian Michelet, a keen reader of Herder, thought that his ‘noble country’ should ‘fill within us the immeasurable abyss which extinct Christianity has left there’. Reinterpreting history as the spiritual development of France, he presented Joan of Arc as the lover of France rather than God. France, he declared, was the ‘pilot of the vessel of humanity’ and its revolution the Second Coming.

Eventually, Napoleon, dead since 1821, made a second coming as a demigod. His sacred memory thrilled the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz as well as Stendhal and Balzac, in whose novel The Country Doctor (1833) the emperor is considered divine (it helped that his birthday was also the Feast of the Assumption). This resurrection was the prelude to a bizarre worldwide deification of a ruthless imperialist. For those who abhorred it, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the general European adoration of Napoleon signified the triumph of godless amoralism. Raskolnikov, the former law student in Crime and Punishment (1866), derives philosophical validation from the cult of the Corsican after murdering an old woman:

A true master, to whom everything is permitted, sacks Toulon, unleashes slaughter in Paris, forgets an army in Egypt, expends half a million lives marching on Moscow, then laughs it all off with a quip in Vilno; and he even has idols erected to him after his death – so everything really is permitted.

Napoleon set the template for many popular despotisms to follow, by seeking, in Madame de Staël’s words, ‘to satisfy men’s interests at the expense of their virtues, to deprave public opinion by sophisms, and to give the nation war for an object instead of liberty’. ‘The French, alas!’ she lamented, ‘seconded him only too well.’ And so did aspiring nationalists and imperialists across Europe. Napoleon’s holy ghost supervised the July Revolution of 1830 that ended the Bourbon Restoration, and liberated the repressed creed of the French Revolution. Copycat uprisings in Poland, Italy and Spain soon followed, but suffered for want of mass support.

Their zealous leaders exiled in Paris, London or Geneva remained undaunted, however. Failure or success paled before the necessity of emotional intoxication. The young German writer Heinrich Heine was typical of those who moved to Paris to be close to the action. ‘Together,’ he wrote, speaking of the reappearance in 1830 of Lafayette, the tricolour and the ‘Marseillaise’, ‘they kindled my soul into a wild glow … bold ardent hopes spring up’.

How to Develop, German-Style

In Heine’s politically conservative and stagnant country, however, the yearning for enchantment fed a massive religious revival that made the country seem medieval rather than modern. More than a million pilgrims went to Trier in 1844 to glimpse what they believed to be the Holy Robe of Christ. The sale of theological books rocketed. The spiritual unrest and longing for the infinite spilled over from political theory and art into political-philosophical speculation.

The modern world’s greatest philosophical system, implicit in all our political ideas and values today, was built during this time. The French Revolution may have announced the nineteenth century’s religion of the nation, and the cults of liberty and equality; but Germans brooding on their political inadequacy produced an Ur-philosophy of development: one to which liberal internationalists and modernization theorists as well as communist universalists and cultural nationalists could subscribe.

As the German states modernized in response to the Revolution and Napoleon’s depredations, Hegel came to see human history culminating in a new political system in Germany. Prepared by Luther’s Reformation the Germans, he maintained, were better placed spiritually and philosophically than the French for the tasks of reason and progress. Indeed, the historical trajectory of the Revolution and Germany’s development pointed to an imminent ‘end of history’, when all the major conflicts of history would be at last resolved.

Since Prussian and other German states appeared further than ever from this historical terminus in the 1830s and 1840s – an especially bleak time for German intellectuals – one of Hegel’s keen disciples readjusted his philosophical universal history. Germany’s backwardness, as he saw it, could only be eradicated by a working-class revolution – so far-reaching that it would amount eventually to the emancipation of humanity.

In the social and economic history written by Karl Marx – another form of German exceptionalism and system-building – the end of history became synonymous with a proletariat revolution and the creation of a communist society in Germany. Building brilliantly on the Romantics’ original critique of alienation, Marx came to see Germany as the catalyst of a worldwide transformation.

Marx’s collaborator, Engels, even claimed a sixteenth-century German (and devoutly Christian) peasant leader for the idea of Communism: Thomas Muenzer, he wrote, like a ‘genius’ understood that the ‘kingdom of God was nothing else than a state of society without class differences, without private property, and without superimposed state powers opposed to the members of society’.

The failure of the 1848 revolutions showed that much remained to be done before the Kingdom of God could be established on Earth. Marx and Engels posited several phases, such as class struggle, in the path towards it. Critics such as Max Stirner and Bakunin had argued that the task of securing individual freedom could not be entrusted to such ideological abstractions as class and state – ‘spooks’, as Stirner called them.

Furious with both Stirner and Bakunin, Marx underlined that the conditions must be right before man could become fully human; he should be free of economic and social constraints, and this freedom was not simply an act of individual will or assertion of ego. It had to be worked towards in progressive stages, such as bourgeois industrialization, working-class disaffection and revolution. This was all supposedly scientific. As Engels asserted in his eulogy on the occasion of Marx’s death in 1883, ‘Just as Darwin discovered the laws of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.’

Thus, development came to be infused with fresh earnestness and world-historical urgency, and then exalted with the prestige of science. Mere being came to be degraded, thanks to Germany’s special experience, by becoming. As Nietzsche wrote caustically, ‘The German himself is not, he is becoming, he is “developing”. “Development” is thus the truly German discovery.’

In the long term, ‘development’ proved to be the most important discovery: it is still the word we use to assess societies. Human self-knowledge since the nineteenth century has been synonymous with all that could help the process of ‘development’: the advance of science and industry and the demystification of culture, tradition and religion. All the hopes, transmitted from Marxists to modernization theorists and free-marketeers, of ‘development’ emerge from nineteenth-century German thinkers: the first people to give a deep meaning and value to a process defined by continuous movement with a fixed direction and no terminus. All our simple dualisms – progressive and reactionary, modern and anti-modern, rational and irrational – derive their charge from the deeply internalized urge to move to the next stage of ‘development’, however nebulously defined.

Finding the Enemy Within

As Romanticism metamorphosed into grand proclamations about the spirit of history (and its fondness for Germany), Heine warned against ‘that vague, unfruitful pathos, that unprofitable vapour of enthusiasm, which plunges, scorning death, into an ocean of generalizations’. Shorn of his earlier hopes, Heine became Germany’s most acute critic as the country’s slow progress under a conservative regime incited grandiloquent daydreams of power among the intellectuals. As he then wrote, ‘The French and the Russians rule the land, / Great Britain rules the sea, / But we’re supreme in the realm of dreams, / Where there’s no rivalry.’

Heine keenly sensed Romanticism’s disturbing mutations. In ‘Atta Troll’ (1841) a bear dancing vigorously and ineptly represents the Young Germany:

Atta Troll, trend-conscious bear, respectably

Religious, ardent as a companion,

Through seduction by the Zeitgeist

sansculotte of the primeval forest.

Dances very badly, yet with

Conviction in his shaggy bosom.

Also pretty stinky on occasion.

No talent, but a character.

The Jewish poet was an early critic of nationalism, having noticed its malign dependence on various enemies for self-definition: ‘The French-devourers,’ he wrote, ‘like to gobble down a Jew afterwards for a tasty dessert.’ He attacked the book-burners at the Wartburg ceremony of 1817:

Dominant there was that Teutomania that shed so many tears over love and faith, but whose love was no different than hatred of the foreigner and whose faith lay only in stupidity and could, in its ignorance, find nothing better to do than to burn books!

Heine went after the solemn intellectual defenders of nationalism, the German philosophers and historians who ‘torture their brains in order to defend any despotism, no matter how silly or clumsy it may be, as sensible and authentic’. His defiant Francophilia, and contempt for German nationalists, exposed Heine to anti-Semitic attacks. The most formidable of his critics after 1871 was Heinrich von Treitschke, a kind of intellectual spokesman for unified and rising Germany with his patriotic histories. In 1807, Fichte had already floated the possibility of expelling unassimilated Jews. Treitschke made anti-Semitism respectable in Bismarck’s Second Reich with an article that began with the words, ‘The Jews are our national misfortune.’ He deplored the fact that Heine ‘never wrote a drinking song’ and ‘of carousing in the German way the oriental was incapable’. ‘Heine’s esprit,’ he concluded, ‘was by no means Geist in the German sense.’

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Treitschke was trying to name and shame un-German Orientals when Germany had become a unified nation state, and its material and political conditions had vastly improved. For a long time only some bookish Germans had been even interested in a national state, despite the best efforts of various freelance revolutionaries. The misery of peasants and factory workers had bred passive acceptance rather than political resistance, let alone revolutionary rage – a fact that continually frustrated Marx and pushed him into increasingly radical hopes. Francophobia acquired a mass base only in 1840, when France demanded the surrender of German territories on the left bank of the Rhine.

Soon after its unification, Germany surpassed France, defeating its old tormentor militarily in 1871 with the help of new railways and telegraphy networks. German troops bombarded and occupied Paris, and the subsequent violent chaos of the Paris Commune made Germany seem to many in the French elite a worthy model of national emulation. Germany also started to close in on Britain with a belated but extensive industrial revolution. Germans who had contented themselves by daydreaming about their intellectual and spiritual leadership could now boast about an imperial Second Reich. And intellectuals like Treitschke exercised far more influence in a unified Germany than they ever had in the past.

After a wild burst of enthusiasm, however, the messianic hopes generated by German unity soon came up against the soulless realpolitik of Bismarck and the prosaic reality of an industrializing country. ‘German spirit,’ Nietzsche epigrammatically noted in 1888, ‘for the past eighteen years, a contradiction in terms.’ It was also Nietzsche who had observed previously and perceptively that ‘once the structure of society seems to have been in general fixed and made safe from external dangers, it is this fear of one’s neighbour which again creates new perspectives of moral valuation’.

An existential envy of neighbours lingered in unified Germany while the achievement of material success brought tormenting ambivalence in its wake to people who had boasted a great deal of their spiritual culture. Germans seemed less united, and more disconnected from their glorious traditions, than before as they laid railways, built up cities and made money. The gap between organic German Kultur and mechanistic Western Zivilisation seemed to shrink. Many modernizing Germans seemed to resemble too much the unbridled plutocrats and profit-seekers of England, France and the United States.

Self-distrust led to more boosting of the Volk, and the fantasy that the people rooted in blood and soil would eventually triumph over rootless cosmopolitans, confirming Germany’s moral and cultural superiority over its neighbours. Thus, Germany generated a phenomenon now visible all over Europe and America: a conservative variant of populism that posits a state of primal wholeness, or unity of the people, against transnational elites, while being itself deeply embedded in a globalized modern world.

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Self-hatred expanded into hatred of the ‘other’: the bourgeois in the mirror. In German eyes, the West was increasingly identified with soulless capitalism, and England replaced France as the embodiment of the despised bourgeois world, followed by the United States. As Treitschke wrote: ‘The hypocritical Englishman, with the Bible in one hand and a pipe in the other, possesses no redeeming qualities. The nation was an ancient robber knight, in full armour, lance in hand, on every one of the world’s trade routes.’ The United States became the ‘land without a heart’, another heir of the ultra-rational Enlightenment.

But the main embodiment of Western moral degeneracy and treachery was the Jew. Whether capitalist modernization boomed or went into crisis (which it did severely in Germany in 1873), the Jews were to blame. Anti-Semitism, notwithstanding its long historical roots, served a frantic need to find and malign ‘others’ in the nineteenth century; it acquired its vicious edge in conditions of traumatic socio-economic modernization, among social groups damaged by technical progress and capitalist exploitation – small businessmen, shopkeepers and the artisan classes as well as landlords – and then condescended to by their beneficiaries. This was not traditional Jew hatred in a new guise, as the first generation of Zionists, all assimilated and self-consciously European Jews, recognized, if much too slowly.

Theodor Herzl was a proud German nationalist, a fraternity and duelling enthusiast no less, until he found himself drowning under the anti-Semitic tide of the 1890s. By then religious prejudice had been transformed, with considerable help from Darwinian notions of natural selection and evolutionary progress, into racial prejudice. Alienated and confused Germans had started to define their hope for stability and solidarity by identifying and persecuting the apparent disruptor of the Volk: the unassimilable and biologically different Jew with conspiratorial cravings to undermine their civilization.

By inventing a mythical evil in the form of the rootless Jew, and finding a basis for it in modern science, the anti-Semites could transcend all manner of social conflicts and ideological contradictions, and stave off anxieties about their own status. A classic anti-Semite in this sense was the famous Orientalist Paul de Lagarde, a university careerist like many exponents of Volk ideology, whose personal resentment of the academic establishment – he had received his professorship only late in life – inflated into disappointment at the spiritual failures of Bismarckian Germany. Nietzsche correctly called him a ‘pompous and sentimental crank’. Such prophets enumerating the discontents of a commercial and urban civilization, warning against the loss of values, and exhorting a spiritual rebirth of Germany, successfully mixed cultural despair with messianic nationalism. They influenced two generations of Germans before Hitler.

Hating the Modern While Loving the People

Austria-Hungary produced the most powerful anti-Semitic demagogues. It had entered capitalist modernity late, and with terrible consequences for its traders and artisans. A socially insecure as well as economically marginal lower middle class aimed its ressentiment at the liberal elite. Consisting of the propertied bourgeoisie and assimilated Jews, the liberals quickly conceded the political initiative to petit-bourgeois demagogues.

For much of the 1880s a harsh new political language was articulated by Georg von Schönerer, who incited lower middle-class ethnic Germans against what he described as ‘the Jewish exploiters of the people’ – the so-called ‘exploiters’ including Jewish peddlers as well as bankers, industrialists and big businessmen. He introduced two major anti-Semitic laws, modelling them on the Californian Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (then, as now, racists, anti-Semites and chauvinist nationalists feverishly cross-pollinated).

Fin de siècle Vienna, which elected an anti-Semitic mayor in 1895 and where both Hitler and Herzl spent their formative years, was a hothouse of venomous prejudice. (Freud developed his theory of psychological projection while observing the city’s paranoid inhabitants.) The most disturbing case, however, of the lurching German spirit in the nineteenth century was of the diabolically gifted Wagner.

His rise to fame coincided with Germany’s much-heralded ascent to great-power status, and its resulting self-doubts. Like Herder, Wagner had left Riga out of frustration to find fame and fortune in Paris (where he briefly became friends with Heine). Poverty, neglect and misery in the French capital, where the Jewish composer Meyerbeer reigned supreme in musical circles, roused Wagner to an abiding hatred of the city: ‘I no longer believe,’ he wrote in 1850, ‘in any other revolution save that which begins with the burning down of Paris.’ Wagner left Paris in 1842 after Rienzi, his early Romantic opera about a failed revolutionary, became a pan-European hit (one enraptured teenage viewer would be Adolf Hitler in 1906). But his exalted duties as a court Kapellmeister in Dresden left him deeply dissatisfied. As an artist with a high sense of his calling, he found himself humiliatingly beholden to bourgeois plutocrats.

Identifying the comfortable opera-going philistines of the bourgeoisie as the cause of all evil, Wagner deprecated parliaments and hoped that revolution would bring forth a leader capable of lifting the masses to power, to unscaled aesthetic heights, while creating a new German national spirit. He found his true calling as revolutions broke out across Europe in 1848. ‘I desire,’ he wrote, ‘to destroy the rule of the one over the other … I desire to shatter the power of the mighty, of the law, and of property.’ Eager to merge his excitable self in what he called ‘the mechanical stream of events’, he found an eager companion in Bakunin, who, a year younger than Wagner, was then beginning on his own long journey as the exponent of anarchism.

While Karl Marx fled the Continent in 1849 to his final refuge in England, Wagner manned the barricades of Dresden (helping, among other things, to procure hand grenades). Bakunin suggested that he write a terzetto, the tenor singing ‘Behead him!’, the soprano ‘Hang him!’ and the bass ‘Fire, Fire!’ Wagner got his thrills when the opera house where he had lately conducted Beethoven’s democratic Ninth Symphony went up in flames (he was later accused of causing the fire). But the uprising was crushed, and Wagner had to flee to Zurich in a hired coach, subjecting Bakunin and other solemn-faced companions to demonic cries of ‘Fight, fight, forever!’

*   *   *

The German Romantics had wished to found with their art a new communal vision to offset the social divisions of economic utilitarianism and individualism. Wagner inherited this ambition, along with their Teutonic legends and mythologies, and then inflated them into a magnificent vision of Germany’s spiritual and cultural regeneration. He mixed art with politics to devastating effect, decades before D’Annunzio, and came to embody the Romantic Revolution at its most prophetic – and megalomaniacal – in his attempt to replace God with modern man.

The process inaugurated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – whereby man replaces God as the centre of existence and becomes the master and possessor of nature by the application of a new science and technology – had reached a climax by the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The view of God as only an idealized projection of human beings rather than a Creator had taken hold among the European and Russian intelligentsia well before 1848. Among writers and artists trying to create new values without the guidance of religion, Wagner loomed largest in his attempt to construct a new mythos for human beings.

In these gigantic projects, Wagner gave his art a starring role. In his view, the artist, degraded by capitalism and bourgeois philistines, ought to be the high priest of the nation. Instead he was producing ‘entertainment for the masses, luxurious self-indulgence for the rich’. A new social bond was needed among the masses, and between the masses and the poet. Between 1848 and 1874, Wagner achieved a synthesis of theory and practice in writing the libretto and music for The Ring of the Nibelung, which was performed in full two years later at the opening of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth (where one of the attendees was Nietzsche).

The Italian Futurist Marinetti, who hated the ‘insupportable platitudes’ of Puccini’s operas, called Wagner ‘the greatest decadent genius and therefore the most appropriate artist for our modern souls’. The cult of Wagner was pan-European, cutting across national and ideological lines. Hitler claimed that he got his Weltanschauung from his early exposure to Wagner’s Rienzi: ‘It began at that hour.’ Herzl wrote his groundbreaking manifesto of Zionism, The Jewish State (1895), in constant proximity in Paris to the anti-Semite’s music, confessing that ‘only on those nights when no Wagner was performed did I have any doubts about the correctness of my idea’. Marinetti claimed that Wagner ‘stirs up the delirious heat in my blood and is such a friend of my nerves that willingly, out of love, I would lay myself down with him on a bed of clouds’.

Wagner’s European eminence signified the much-awaited triumph of German spiritual culture over its old materialistic and corrupt bourgeois adversary, the French. However, the man himself, at the height of his fame, was still tormented by his humiliation in Paris, where the fascination of this provincial with luxurious metropolitan life had ended in partial success and scandal. He wrote an ode while German armies were encircling Paris in 1871, and a one-act play when they conquered and occupied the city. Soon he was verifying Heine’s fear that Francophobia’s flip side is anti-Semitism.

Meyerbeer, his rival in Paris, seemed to Wagner proof that the moneymaking Jew had infected the cultural realm: ‘In the present state of the world the Jew is already more than emancipated: he rules, and will rule as long as money remains the power that saps all our acts and undertakings of their vigour.’ It was essential, Wagner wrote in his essay ‘Know Thyself’, that German folk achieve self-knowledge, for then ‘there will be no more Jews. We Germans could … effect this great solution better than any other nation.’

Nietzsche famously broke with Wagner over the latter’s progressively demagogic nationalism. In his earliest writings, Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche had criticized the Bildungsphilister, the cultivated philistine, the embodiment of the narrow-minded intellectuals and educated nationalists rising to the fore in the new Germany. He had attacked, too, the popular culture and literature that had started to cater to the ‘desperate adolescents’ of Young Germany.

The spectacle at Bayreuth of the great composer administering musical thrills to the Bildungsphilister by celebrating the pompous, nationalistic Reich eventually repelled Nietzsche (so much so that he fled from the assembled Wagnerians to a nearby village). In Nietzsche’s view, materialism and loss of faith were generating a bogus mysticism of the state and nation, and dreams of utopia. Describing Bismarck as a ‘fraternity student’, he lamented ‘Germany’s increasing stupidity’ as it descended into ‘political and nationalistic madness’. He also used the Germans to indict a broader complacency in Europe: its investment in liberal democracy, socialist revolution and nationalism. Nietzsche kept insisting until his lapse into insanity that his peers – the thinkers and doers of his time – had failed to recognize the consequences of the ‘death of God’: ‘There will be,’ he warned, ‘wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before.’ Nietzsche’s hero, Heine, had even fewer illusions about his compatriots. He wrote the most prophetic words of the nineteenth century: ‘A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.’

The Identity Politics of the Elite

Heine believed that ‘Teutomania’ had irrevocably blighted Germany’s political and intellectual culture; he died too early to see that the German habit of idealizing one’s country for its own sake would afflict educated minorities everywhere.

Unlike in France and England, where political citizenship and civil nationalism were the norm, the Germans had upheld immersion in the Volksgeist. The long years of political disunity had made a shared culture seem the matrix for a future nation. For young men elsewhere lacking both a state and a nation, this primarily cultural definition of nationality, and promise of a spiritual community, came to be deeply seductive. It flourished among them since it was not only able to fill an aching inner emptiness; it could also give actual employment and status to an educated but isolated class.

From its ranks emerged – everywhere – the prophets and the first apostles of nationalism. Indeed, nationalism, like the Enlightenment, was in its early stages almost entirely a product of men of letters. These energetic and ambitious men took it upon themselves to convince their respective Volkthat its best interests lay in transcending sectarian interests and unifying, preferably under their command. They transformed their pursuit of personal identity and dignity into a chivalrous defence of what they saw as collective identity and dignity.

Men of letters had prepared the emotional and intellectual climate for the French Revolution. In the eighteenth century, the language of politics, according to Tocqueville, had taken ‘on some of the character of the language spoken by authors, replete with general expressions, abstract terms, pretentious words, and literary turns of phrase’. Literary writers, imaginary (Ossian clones) as well as deskbound ones, went on to play a central role in nineteenth-century nationalism as members of tiny educated minorities. In particular, poets, often in exile, managed to exalt, with their lyrical power, the amorphous fantasies of self-aggrandizement into the principles of nationhood.

Poetry has never been so widely and keenly read as it was in the early nineteenth century. ‘People and poets are marching together,’ the French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve wrote in 1830. ‘Art is henceforth on a popular footing, in the arena with the masses.’ This was surely a poetic exaggeration. Poets, however, encouraged such political readings of their work, envying Walter Scott, who had practically invented Scotland with his ground-breaking ethnic lore and historical local colour. Poetry’s connection with prophecy was repeatedly underlined, not least by Pushkin, whose fascination with the Prophet Mohammed’s ability to move people with the power of his words alone produced in 1824 a cycle of poems: Imitations of the Quran. This calls for resistance to oppression while blending Pushkin’s own persecution and exile with that of the founder of Islam.

Appropriately, the most famous of poet-prophets came from a country that had ceased to exist in the late eighteenth century: the Pole Adam Mickiewicz. Such stateless nationalists managed to construct through nationalism a network of power – resembling that of the French men of letters during the eighteenth century – against obsolete and iniquitous hierarchies at home. People who felt their societies to be politically backward and apathetic also learned to mine consolation in this demoralizing feeling: ‘In history,’ even the liberal-minded Herzen asserted, ‘the latecomers receive not the leavings but the dessert.’

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Russians, this reader of Schiller and Schelling declared, were better placed than the Germans to be the guide and saviour of humanity. For many Slavophiles in Russia, too, the true Russian way was not Western-style abstract individualism, but the peasant commune built on a sense of community in church and society. Those vulnerable to the immense soft power of German philosophy – Italians, Hungarians, Bohemians, Poles – devised their own cultural-linguistic nationalism, marked by resentment and frustration. Soon, the Japanese fell under its spell, followed by other Asians. No educated minority was more thoroughly ‘Germanized’ than the Japanese in the nineteenth century. Close readers of Fichte abounded at all levels of Japan’s state and society. By the early twentieth century, many Japanese thinkers became as frantic about defining ‘Japaneseness’ – Japan’s evidently absolute spiritual and cultural difference from the West – as about championing strict state control of domestic society, and enforcing conformity in thought and conduct.

Philosophers of the Kyoto School such as Nishida Kitaro and Watsuji Tetsuro made ambitious attempts to establish that the Japanese mode of understanding through intuition was both different from and superior to Western-style logical thinking. As with the Germans, this was no mere conceit of ivory-tower dwellers; clear identification of the other as inferior was essential to building up internal unity and confidence for Japan’s inevitable and final showdown with its enemies. The Kyoto School provided the intellectual justification for Japan’s brutal assault on China in the 1930s, and then the sudden attack on its biggest trading partner in December 1941 – at Pearl Harbor.

Thus, the concepts discovered on Herder’s trip to France, and during the larger German recoiling from metropolitan society and quest for Kultur, were adapted to different conditions and traditions. Each ‘wounded’ people defined their unmediated sense of belonging unreservedly in terms of their own ‘people’, religious community or ethnic group. Just as German writers had sought to re-create archaic Greece or the Middle Ages in modern myth, so poets and artists elsewhere rediscovered, or freshly invented, mythical heroes and events for political use. Marked and conditioned by its origins – the revolt of German intellectuals against French culture and domination with some help from Ossian – cultural nationalism crystallized the desperate ambitions, drives, fantasies and confusions of generations of educated young men everywhere, even as the Crystal Palace expanded around the world, making it more and more homogeneous.

II. Messianic Visions

Literary Activism

In the autumn of 1855, as war raged in Crimea, the European poet-prophet of nationalism Adam Mickiewicz arrived in Istanbul. His life and work had already spanned five decades of one of the most turbulent periods in modern Europe. He had met everyone who mattered – Pushkin in Moscow, Hegel in Berlin, Metternich in Marienbad, Goethe in Weimar, Chopin and George Sand in Paris. His disciples were some of the most influential people in the nineteenth century, including Lamennais and Mazzini.

Typically, Mickiewicz, born in Lithuania, had gone into exile at the age of twenty-four; the national poet of Poland, he visited the country we now know as Poland only once, and never saw Warsaw or Krakow. Mickiewicz addressed God on behalf of a hopelessly scattered Polish diaspora in 1832:

Almighty God! The children of a warrior nation raise their disarmed hands to you from every quarter of the world. They cry to you from the bottom of Siberian mines and the snows of Kamchatka, from the plains of Algeria and the foreign soil of France.

But God did not listen. Mickiewicz raised many armies and participated in multiple uprisings for Polish independence. He hoped that France, where he delivered a series of stirring lectures in the early 1840s, would save the world. Repeatedly disappointed, he invested his much-tested faith in 1855 in Russia’s defeat by Western Powers allied with Turkey. In Istanbul, he threw himself into efforts to strengthen the ‘Ottoman Cossacks’, a legion raised from emigrants and Polish prisoners of war. Assisting him in this task was another writer, Michał Czaykowski, who had participated in the failed Polish uprising of 1831, and had lived in Istanbul since 1851 with his wife Ludwika, an old friend of Mickiewicz from Lithuania. Czaykowski in fact had converted to Islam and, joining the Turkish army, had become General Sadyk Pasha.

Mickiewicz, refusing all offers of finer accommodation, holed up in a small room in Tarlabası, an old immigrant neighbourhood in the heart of Istanbul. He felt at home in Turkey, which he said reminded him of his native land. Also, Polish émigrés like him were exposed to none of the hostility and suspicion they encountered among authorities in France.

The Ottoman Empire had offered refuge to Polish exiles since Catherine and Frederick partitioned Poland in the late eighteenth century (a Polish village founded in 1842 still exists near Istanbul). During his travels through Crimea in the 1820s, Mickiewicz had developed a fraternal feeling for Muslims who had been conquered and humiliated by Catherine’s Russia at the same time as Polish Catholics. In Istanbul he insisted that Jews among the Ottoman Cossacks form a separate legion: the ‘Hussars of Israel’, as he anointed them. Jewish militancy in his view would galvanize not only Jewish masses across Russia but also the passive Christian peasantry of Poland and Lithuania: ‘We shall,’ he said, ‘spread like lava with our continually growing legion.’

Much to Mickiewicz’s delight, a synagogue was opened in the Cossacks’ camp, and a fine military uniform designed for the Hussars of Israel by a Jewish officer. But his partner, a Muslim convert in command of both Jewish and Ukrainian soldiers, finally drew the line at such incredible and untenable alliances. His Turkish overlords, he said, would fear the prospect of the Hussars of Israel focusing their emancipatory energies on the Ottoman province of Palestine. Angrily disappointed, Mickiewicz retreated to his Istanbul home. He was still strategizing futilely about the Hussars of Israel when a few weeks later, in November 1855, he suddenly died of cholera.

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Poland, the country effaced from the map of Europe with the help of Enlightenment philosophes, remained a dream until the end of the First World War. But Mickiewicz left a lasting legacy in the form of a nationalist cult of sacrifice and martyrdom, a vogue of ceremonies and ritual, and an aesthetic longing, articulated by several writers after him, for action and danger.

Writing of the literary influences over the French Revolution, Tocqueville marvelled at ‘the most unusual historical situation – in which the entire political education of a great nation was carried out by men of letters’:

Under their lengthy discipline, in the absence of other leaders, and given the profound ignorance of practice from which all suffered, the nation read their works and acquired the instincts, the cast of mind, the tastes, and even the peculiarities of those who wrote. So that when the nation finally had to act, it carried over into politics all the habits of literature.

This was also true for stateless and nation-free writers like Mickiewicz, who suffered from a ‘profound ignorance of practice’. They flourished at a time when literary exiles created peoples and nations in an atmosphere of heady freedom – in flagrant disregard of geographical facts and territorial boundaries – and entrusted them with holy missions.

Herder’s historicism had posited a world culture developing from lower to higher stages, with the torch of progress passed on from one country to another. It enabled the bookish latecomers to modern history to promise their imagined ‘people’ a ‘tryst with destiny’: a phrase Jawaharlal Nehru used on the eve of India’s independence in 1947, and which could have been deployed by anyone in the preceding century – from the Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni, Hungarian poet-nationalists Sándor Petőfi and Ferenc Kölcsey, the Russian anti-Western writers Konstantin Sergeyevich Aksakov and Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev to the Zionist novelists and poets Theodor Herzl and Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Mickiewicz went much further than all the poet-prophets in believing that Poland, crucified by Frederick and Catherine, was nothing less than the ‘Christ’ of nations, which ‘will rise from the dead and will liberate all the peoples of Europe from slavery’. (It was this identification of nation with God that attracted the Catholic Lamennais to the Polish writer in Paris.) The messianic fervour he brought to his quest for a nation lived through his many disciples. It manifests itself today among settler-Zionists, whose secular hero Jabotinsky proclaimed that nationalism was the holy Torah, as much as it does among the Hussars of Hinduism.

Failing Better at Supremacism

Mickiewicz was rarely parted from his copy of the Bible; and he was vulnerable to the cult of Napoleon and such charlatans as Andrzej Towianski, who claimed that the Slavs, the Jews and the French had appointed roles to play in the coming Apocalypse. But there was nothing uniquely Polish or even Christian about Mickiewicz’s overt religiosity of nationalist sentiment, the belief in resurrection and salvation. All those who felt left behind by the Atlantic West’s economic and political progress could imagine themselves to be the chosen people.

Failure made the messianic fantasy of redemption and glory grow particularly fast. Such was the case in Italy, where notions of cultural exceptionalism – built on myths of ancient Rome’s unique and universal significance, and played up by a series of poet-prophets – made even national self-determination seem a mean achievement to the self-chosen people. Few countries were as poorly equipped for nationhood as this overwhelmingly peasant, illiterate and linguistically diverse country. Since the Renaissance, Italy had been divided into city states that were continually threatened by invasion and occupation from neighbouring powers. Marx compared it to India, arguing for:

the same dismemberment in the political configuration. Just as Italy has, from time to time, been compressed by the conqueror’s sword into different national masses, so do we find Hindustan, when now under the pressure of the Mohammedan, or the Mogul, or the Briton, dissolved into as many independent and conflicting States as it numbered towns, or even villages.

Risorgimento (literally, ‘resurrection’), the movement for the political unification of Italy, began after the French Revolution, and lurched in the following eighty years through three wars of independence and several diplomatic and military battles. But for many young Italians the political and social work required to overcome Italy’s fragmentation and achieve unity always seemed paltry compared to the new spiritual community that could be built for universal purification and revival.

Thus, the chasm between pretence and reality yawned wider in Italy than in Germany; and the Risorgimento never managed to bridge it. The peasant masses remained indifferent to Mazzini’s plans for a ‘Third Rome’; the urban proletariat was insignificant; local loyalties and traditions were stronger than the idealism peddled by students and bourgeois intellectuals, who were nearly all drawn from the propertied classes, and, like Mazzini and Garibaldi, often lived abroad.

Military unpreparedness brought repeated failures on the battlefield. In the end, scattered uprisings and the stirring rhetoric of republicans like Mazzini and Garibaldi failed to bring a united Italy into being. Diplomatic intrigue by the liberal-conservative Camillo Cavour and much assistance from a monarchy helped found Italy; and the new country consolidated itself largely through the ill-luck and losses of its foreign occupiers. Despite these failures and disappointments of the Risorgimento, one of its leading activists managed to turn romantic nationalism into a religion worldwide while also specifying its theological basis.

*   *   *

A true disciple of Mickiewicz and Lamennais, Mazzini hoped through sheer will and rhetoric to unite a hopelessly fragmented and geographically scattered country and raise it to a summit of cultural and political excellence. As Gandhi put it in his first eulogy to Mazzini in 1905, he was one of the ‘few instances in the world where a single man has brought about the uplift of his country by his strength of mind and his extreme devotion during his own lifetime’. Italy was like India, whose people, Gandhi wrote, ‘owed allegiance to different petty states’. Thanks to Mazzini, Italians were now ‘regarded as a distinct nation’.

In actuality, Mazzini failed repeatedly and disastrously as a political activist. But this remained obscure to the me-too nationalists everywhere who responded to Young Italy, the organization of self-sacrificing patriots that Mazzini created in 1831, with Young China, Young Turkey and Young India. Perhaps even accurate knowledge of his failures would not have dispelled Mazzini’s aura in Asia. For this fervent reader of Ossian was the perfect prophet for an early generation of emulous nationalists – in India and China as well as Ireland and Argentina – who despaired over their own somnolent and unenlightened masses, and their inability to summon them to concerted action.

Mazzini, closely following Lamennais, spoke of ‘Duties to Man’ rather than Rights of Man. The French Revolution had helped entrench, he argued, an arid bourgeois individualism; ‘the cold doctrine of rights, the last formula of individualism’ was now ‘degenerating into sheer materialism’. He offered a new, ostensibly more virtuous vision of the modern individual, one who can find fulfilment in surrendering his immediate interests to the well-being of the nation.

It left ominously unclear how individual duties were to play against the seemingly legitimate pursuit of individual interests. Nevertheless, this shift in emphasis to individual duties was welcome to intellectuals in countries that were not independent and where the notion of individual rights seemed a bit moot. Duty there could be turned into an obligation to wrest liberty, as Mazzini wrote, ‘by any means from any power whatever which denies it’. These intellectuals could hearken to Mazzini’s praise of martyrs who ‘consecrate with their blood an idea of national liberty’ and ‘sacrifice all things, and needs be life also’ since ‘God provides elsewhere for them.’

Educated men in countries with intensely religious populations could only approve when, after a botched invasion of Italy in 1834, Mazzini brought God back into the political frame, identifying Him with national sovereignty: ‘We must convince men,’ he wrote, ‘that they are all sons of one sole God, and bound to execute one sole law here on earth.’ Mazzini openly scorned the Catholic Church, but in the name of a more effective, useful and ambitious religion. ‘Ours was not a sect but a religion of patriotism,’ he clarified. ‘Sects may die under violence; religions may not.’

The religious view of politics naturally turned into a demand for all aspects of life to be subordinated to politics, and subsumed into a militant total faith. Nationalism, as Mazzini conclusively defined it for many, was a system of beliefs that pervades collective existence, and encourages a spirit of self-sacrifice, in order to bring about a revolutionary community. Education – or indoctrination of the masses, the ‘people’ – was deemed crucial to this end. And a large popular following, he believed, could only be achieved by appropriating the vocabulary and practices of Catholicism: God, faith, duty, preaching, martyrdom and blood. It was a short step from the interpenetration of religion and politics – a competitor to the French deities of liberty, fraternity and equality – to cultural supremacism.

*   *   *

Mazzini blithely revised history: the Roman Empire, he claimed, had been the ‘most powerful nationality of the ancient world’. And he unapologetically conferred the role of world saviour on Italy: in the Third Rome, after the First and second Romes of the Caesars and the Church, Italy would give a ‘new and powerful Unity to all the nations of Europe’.

This confederation of European states would ‘civilize Asia’, sweeping away the Ottoman ‘papacy’ along with the Roman one, and create a ‘council of mankind’. ‘There flashed upon me, as a star in my soul, an immense hope,’ Mazzini claimed, ‘Italy reborn, at one bound the missionary to Humanity of a Faith in Progress and in Fraternity more vast than that of old.’

The liberal critic Gaetano Salvemini described Mazzini’s political system as a ‘popular theocracy’. Gramsci would dismiss his thought as ‘hazy claims’ and ‘empty chatter’. One of Mazzini’s own comrades, Luigi Carlo Farini, was accusing him of incoherence as early as 1851. But such criticisms missed the fact that Mazzini was an exponent of political style, an artist depending on the incantatory effect of words like ‘God’, ‘people’, ‘republic’, ‘thought’ and ‘action’ – terms that demanded submission rather than cogitation.

Pushkin and Mickiewicz had first linked poetry with prophecy in the nineteenth century; Mazzini deepened the connection by repeatedly speaking of the artistic, poetical and political Genius who gives voice to the ‘people’. Combining aesthetic with religious experience, he first showed that potent symbols in politics were more important than a clear doctrine or specific project. The grand but vague style of course left a lot of ideological wriggle room. A nationalist, in Mazzini’s schema, could be a monarchist as well as colonialist, pagan and Catholic. However liberal or cosmopolitan Mazzini’s nationalism in theory, it left a large space for utopian fantasy of both the left and the right.

Georges Sorel, the most influential thinker of fin de siècle France, insightfully noted in Reflections on Violence (1908) that Mazzini, while apparently pursuing a ‘mad chimera’, confirmed the importance of myth in revolutionary processes. ‘Contemporary myths lead men,’ Sorel affirmed, ‘to prepare themselves for a combat that will destroy the existing state of things.’ Reviewing Sorel’s book in Benedetto Croce’s Italian translation, a young socialist called Benito Mussolini was even more to the point: Mazzini had given Italians a myth that ‘impelled them to take part in conspiracies and battles’.

The War on Bourgeois Mediocrity

Mussolini wrote his review while Mazzini’s messianic thinking experienced a revival across Italy in the early twentieth century. His myths were originally a product of the religious mood of the early nineteenth century, the desire for an unreachable ideal that can be sensed in the writings of Novalis, Hölderlin, Byron and Shelley. They inevitably came to feed, as did German infatuation with the Volk in the second half of the century, on widespread feelings of frustration.

For the reality of United Italy failed to match up to the sonorous rhetoric that had heralded it. The nation achieved after manifold battles with foreign occupiers had degenerated into political corruption; the great disappointment intensified the messianic tendencies of all those who followed in Mazzini’s wake. The developmentalist ideology pioneered by the Germans, and given a pseudo-scientific gloss by Positivism, had also reached Italy. But, as one bitter failure followed another in the late nineteenth century, Mazzini’s successors in Italy, like many others, became convinced that only a war and imperial expansion by a powerful state could redeem his vision.

The Mazzini-inspired patriots aspired to the rank of ‘sixth great power’ of Europe; but, as Bismarck tactlessly pointed out, ‘Italy has a large appetite, but poor teeth.’ The country simply lacked the economic and technical resources to achieve that status. There were vast natural differences between the north and south. Italy had no long-established government like Britain’s, or a monarchy worthy of being idealized. The democratic revolutionaries of the Risorgimento had upheld popular sovereignty against the papacy; but parliament, modelled on Westminster, turned out to be a shoddy thing, a byword for venality and unaccountability.

Industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries concentrated wealth in the hands of a tiny minority, accentuating the contradictions of an incomplete modernization. Heavy taxation made unification an economic burden on the poorest; hundreds of thousands emigrated to the United States. Some who stayed joined protests. These ranged from apocalyptic outbursts, such as the Lazzaretti in Tuscany, to peasant revolts and brigandage. Young men disillusioned with Mazzini’s republicanism found Marx’s proletarian revolution too impractical for a peasant country; they were attracted, however, by the anarchist doctrines of Bakunin. Incontestably, Bakunin, feuding with both Marx and Mazzini, achieved his greatest influence in Italy in the 1870s. His followers included Errico Malatesta, a beacon to anarchists across Europe until his death in 1932, and Italy’s pioneering feminist, the Russian-born Anna Kuliscioff, who between them launched several uprisings.

These revolts, lacking popular support, inevitably flopped – the ageing Bakunin travelled to witness one fiasco in Bologna in 1874. Failure forced the young anarchists to turn away from public movements and grow more conspiratorial and self-aggrandizing; the idea of ‘propaganda by the deed’ – now manifest universally in video-taped, live-streamed and Facebooked massacres – grew naturally from the suspicion that only acts of extreme violence could reveal to the world a desperate social situation and the moral integrity of those determined to change it.

A series of murderous bomb attacks in 1878, including an unsuccessful one on Italy’s new king, Umberto I, inaugurated a Continent-wide surge in propaganda by the deed. Assaults were aimed at the German emperor and the king of Spain. In March 1881 a group called the People’s Will assassinated the Russian Tsar, Alexander II. This successful strike inspired a meeting in London of Europe’s leading anarchists, including Malatesta and the Russian Peter Kropotkin. Much emphasis was now placed on acquiring the right technical skills for making bombs. And while the leaders held conferences and published theoretical works, small cells of terrorists sprang up all over Europe and even America. Over the next quarter of a century heads of states, including the presidents of France (Carnot) and the United States (McKinley), the king of Italy (Umberto I), the empress of Austria (Elisabeth) and the prime minister of Spain (Canovas), were murdered.

*   *   *

Nevertheless, messianic supremacism remained the dominant ideology in Italy, largely because the extravagantly promised nation seemed stuck in a limbo of development. And it was the country’s best-educated men, especially writers, who railed most stridently at the meanness of post-Risorgimento Italy, for which they blamed its bourgeois ruling classes.

The writer and editor Giovanni Papini wrote in 1905 that the post-Risorgimento generation had created a bureaucracy, laid down laws, built railroads, even raised economic standards, but ‘failed to give national life that content, those attitudes and ideals which are the expression of a great culture’. Papini himself moved from a flirtation with Max Stirner’s philosophical egoism to Mazzini’s millenarian nationalism, since, as he wrote, ‘a nation lacking a messianic passion is destined to collapse’:

I feel – like a Mazzinian of the old days – that I can have a mission in my country … Rome has always had a universal, dominating mission … [It] must become once again the centre of the world and a new form of universal power take its seat there … The Third Rome, the Rome of the ideal, must be the fruit of our will and our work.

Giosuè Carducci, the first Italian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Alfredo Oriani, a popular novelist, deepened Mazzini’s nationalist ideology based on forms and symbols. Carducci lamented that the Risorgimento had promised an imperious ‘Rome’ but instead saddled Italy with a venal ‘Byzantium’. Oriani made it seem that all roads leading to the Third Rome had to be bloody:

War is an inevitable form of the struggle for existence, and blood will always be the best warm rain for great ideas … The future of Italy lies entirely in a war which, while giving it its natural boundaries, will cement internally, through the anguish of mortal perils, the unity of the national spirit.

The Italians weren’t alone in working themselves up into a militarist lather during the nineteenth century. The British Empire may have been originally acquired in a state of absent-mindedness. But, by the 1870s, the relentless expansion of capital, the endless dynamism of competition and acquisition, and international rivalry made empire seem indispensable to the pursuit of economic interests and national glory. France, fulfilling Tocqueville’s deepest desires, expanded its colonies dramatically after 1870. So did Germany, which acquired a colony in South-West Africa, and also managed to secure a naval base in remote China. And more and more people became part of imperialist projects in the Europe-wide peaking of appropriative mimicry. For the imperial nation did not just demand duty from its citizens; it asked for dynamism, speed and sacrifice – a whole new relationship with history.

Italy, signing the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria in 1882, had signalled its intention to be an imperial power. D’Annunzio would rhapsodize enviously about the ‘German instinct for supremacy’ and the ravenousness of Kipling’s England, ‘opening its jaws to devour the universe’. ‘Never,’ wrote the poet and wannabe imperialist, ‘had the world been so ferocious.’ He hoped for Italy to join the feral party. But Italy, scrambling late for Africa, suffered the ignominy of losing a war to Ethiopia in 1896, shattering the dream of an easy empire. Italy’s scramble for China quickly descended into farce. In 1899 the Italian government sent a telegram to China’s tottering Qing rulers, threatening war after being refused a naval base on Chinese territory. It then sent a second cable withdrawing its threat – but the second telegram arrived before the first one.

The militant Zionist Jabotinsky, who was then a pacifist student in Rome reporting on Italian events to his compatriots in Odessa, spoke of the ‘malcontento’ in Italy and ‘the ‘incredible dissatisfaction’ which ‘would sooner or later lead to rebellion’. The young, who had grown up after unification, felt a deeper hatred of a cosmopolitan class of bankers, industrialists and landlords, who seemed to be supervising a sham parliamentary democracy, representing only themselves. The novelist and playwright (and later nationalist leader) Enrico Corradini pointed out that ‘all the signs of decrepitude, sentimentalism, doctrinairism, immoderate respect for fleeting life and for the weak and lowly – are exhibited in the intellectual life of the middle class which rules and governs’.

Ultra-nationalism and imperialism were a corollary of this hatred of ineffective democracy, liberal individualism and materialism. The defeat by Ethiopians made military glory even more imperative; Italy, it seemed, could only regain its grandeur through war, and its confirmation as an imperial power on a par with Britain and France. War could also get rid of dead wood and consolidate a new national community.

News of the Russo-Japanese War, and the sacrifices made by Japanese civilians for a famous victory, confirmed that war and nature red in tooth and claw were the essence of the modern era. Corradini wrote of the beauty of mechanized slaughter. In Rome in 1908 crowds emerged from the royal premiere of D’Annunzio’s The Ship, a sadistic drama of murder, sexual jealousy and suicide infused with exhortations to virile conquest, chanting a line from the play, ‘Fit out the prow and set sail for the world.’ The Futurist Manifesto, authored by the playwright’s fans the following year, reflected, with its exuberant exalting of war as the world’s sole hygiene, a bellicose mentality that had long been in the making.

Superman for Dummies

D’Annunzio’s own work and life were shaped from the mid-1890s onwards by the Nietzschean idea of the superman: the individual authorized by his successful self-overcoming personality to scorn ordinary mortals and their conventional morality. Running for parliament in 1897, despite his contempt for politics, D’Annunzio confessed to a friend: ‘I have just come back from an electoral trip; and my nostrils are still full of an acrid smell of humanity.’

Disdain for the compromises of democracy and sluggish masses would in Fiume in 1919 mutate into Byronic postures of military and existential heroism and a heavily stylized mass politics. The French men of letters had originally imported literary language into politics. The Germans critiqued the levelling effects of modernity with an explicitly aesthetic ideology; and Wagner had constructed the first great spectacles in art. But D’Annunzio, though labelled ‘Wagner’s monkey’ by Thomas Mann, actually wielded a greater power of seduction in the new era of mass media and politics. Recoiling from tediously deliberative liberal democracy, he offered an existential politics of flamboyant gestures. ‘It seems to me,’ he wrote, ‘that the word, addressed orally and directly to a multitude, must have as its only purpose action, violent action if necessary.’

He also tapped into a loathing of liberal-bourgeois civilization that had intensified all through the nineteenth century. Even a profound sensibility like Tocqueville had indulged a hyper-masculine dream of grandeur, heroism, self-sacrifice, power and conquest – the martial virtues apparently depleted by self-seeking liberal-bourgeois individualists. In 1919, Fiume’s international cast of rebels served as a reminder – in the interregnum before another round of mechanized slaughter – of an increasingly militarized will to power, trampling into the dust the liberal Enlightenment assumption that rationally self-interested individuals would use science and moral self-control to create a good society. Unlike his fellow artists, D’Annunzio articulated both his disaffection with liberal-bourgeois civilization and an awesome plan to overcome it. Raising the stakes to life or death, he presaged the political magicians – at least one of them a failed artist – who would beguile angry masses with promises of superhuman action and mythopoeic visions of a radiant future.

The demagogues were helped by the repeated failure of liberal-bourgeois democracy to respond to the masses of people struggling with the fear and uncertainty provoked by the vast and opaque processes of modernization. From the 1870s onwards, as Italy and Germany became unified states, a suspicion intensified across Europe that parliamentary democracy, easily manipulated by elites with sectarian interests, was deceitful, or at least incapable of achieving general well-being. The trio of Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto and Robert Michels, three pioneering sociologists, simultaneously sought to expose the hypocrisy, cynicism and egotism of self-serving elites behind the rhetoric of democracy.

They were not ‘neo-Machiavellian’ for the sake of it. The old liberal model, which evidently worked to protect the rights and freedoms of privileged individuals, had failed to confer democratic citizenship on ordinary people, let alone bring them economic rewards or restore their sense of community. Meanwhile, cities were growing uncontrollably, condemning most of their inhabitants to physical and moral squalor, and even its posher inhabitants to much fear and anxiety about the rising masses.

The spirit of history seemed to falter in its march, or at any rate require a massive push from human beings. One proposed answer, calamitous in its consequences but emerging from the experience of liberalism and democracy and meant to overcome their failure, was to have gigantic state projects, in which non-bourgeois elites would harness the strength of the masses – what we now call ‘totalitarianism’.

An intellectual revolution prepared the way for it, starting with Darwin’s idea that evolutionary progress was contingent on a violent struggle for existence. Social Darwinism, as it rapidly developed, applied Darwin’s theory of natural selection – of the progress of species by adaptation to changing local environments, preserving the ‘favourable variations’ and rejecting the ‘injurious variations’ – to society at large. Progress still looked as inevitable as when Adam Smith first linked it to mimetic desire and aggressive mutual competition, but after Darwin and the rise of the masses the workings of the invisible hand no longer seemed adequate.

*   *   *

Drastic measures were needed; and eugenic thinking, as it became respectable in the wake of popular Darwinism, fed on a widely felt need for a systematic alternative to an old model that looked unsuitable for a struggle that only the fittest would survive. So did the vogue for looking at the world as a struggle between races. Bogus notions of the ‘Aryan’ and ‘Jewish’ races had swiftly gone mainstream in the second half of the nineteenth century along with anxieties about birthrates, immigration and mass politics. E. A. Freeman, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, was no outlier in his claim in the early 1880s that the United States ‘would be a grand land if only every Irishman would kill a negro, and be hanged for it’.

Imperialists in Britain and America considered it their manifest destiny as members of superior races to rule over their dark-skinned inferiors – their ‘new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half-devil and half-child’, as Kipling put it. For other Europeans envying Anglo-America’s territories and resources, racial categories began to seem an ethical as well as a scientific way to classify and organize a nation (and to exclude inferior and undesirable people). Anything that promotes, in Hitler’s later words, ‘the health and vitality of the human species was morally good’. Thus, race in the late nineteenth century appeared, in France as well as Germany, an attractive collective subject, a replacement for the selfish liberal individualist.

Social disorder and economic crisis also helped the rise of Marxist parties, and made class, the working class, and specifically trade unions, appear as another likely collective agent of history and spearhead of social renewal. As the nineteenth century ended, a range of haughty doctrines of progress through willed human intervention exerted a broad emotional appeal among educated men. And there were highbrow intellectuals at hand to offer textual encouragement, and even specific guidelines to agitators like D’Annunzio. Soon after he went insane in 1888, Nietzsche’s ideas of the self-overcoming superman, the will to power, and the morality of war started to explode across the world.

Obscure for much of his life, a spate of translations made Nietzsche the prophet of restless young men everywhere. Nehru noted the rage for him at Cambridge University in the first decade of the twentieth century. But young Jews in Russia, Chinese exiles in Japan, Muslims in Lahore and many other men acutely conscious of their vulnerability were fortifying themselves through Nietzschean resolves to ‘resist all sentimental weakness’ and to acknowledge that ‘Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overwhelming of the alien and the weaker, oppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own form, incorporation, and at least, at its mildest, exploitation.’

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Artists like Flaubert and Baudelaire had long been railing against the bourgeois cults of humanitarian progress, and spinning dreams of virility. Baudelaire in The Flowers of Evil (1857) saw descent into the abyss as the only antidote to the tedium and soullessness of life with the conventionally enlightened bourgeois. In between painstakingly mocking the latter, and its cults of progress, Flaubert indulged in elaborate fantasies of violence and sex in his historical fictions, Salammbô (1862) and The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874). J. K. Huysmans in À Rebours(1884) detailed his attempts to overcome his disgust at ‘everything that surrounds me’. Zola in his late nineteenth-century novels deplored at length the sterility, vanity and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. Max Nordau’s best-selling broadside Degeneration (1892) fixed the characteristic features – bleak pessimism, ennui, enervation – of the fin de siècle sensibility.

But Nietzsche seemed to answer most thrillingly, as the century ended, a general feeling of malaise: he seemed best able to discern, as Lu Xun, China’s iconic modern writer, claimed, ‘the falsity and the imbalances’ of nineteenth-century civilization. He confirmed the sense that old practices and institutions were failing to respond to the imperatives of development and progress, but he also seemed to amplify a widely felt need for a New Man and New Order.

Nietzsche’s writings provided a kind of pivot into a new set of questions and range of possibilities, which had not been present a century earlier when Rousseau first offered his political cure – a coherent and united community of patriotic citizens – to the discontents of modernity. He seemed to be turning away from sterile reason to life-sustaining myth, from moral notions of good and evil, truth and falsehood, to aesthetic values of creativity, vitality and heroism. As a detractor of both liberal capitalism and its socialist alternative, Nietzsche seemed to be offering, with his will to power, an unprecedented scope for human beings to reshape the world: to create, in effect, one’s own objects of desire, values, ideology and myths.

To his youthful followers across the world, he provided the intellectual framework for several quintessentially modern and pressing projects: the radical trans-valuation of inherited values, the revolt against authority and its shibboleths, the creation of new forms of superabundant life, and politics in the grand mode. This is why Zarathustra’s promise of a great leap from the debased present into a healthier culture, even a superior mode of being, recommended Nietzsche to many Bolsheviks (much to Lenin’s displeasure), the left-wing Lu Xun, and fascists as much as to anarchists, feminists and aesthetes. Iconoclasts of all kinds could interpret Nietzschean self-overcoming as a call to grandiose political action as well as an apolitical exhortation to individual reinvention. The German writer Lily Braun wasn’t the sole fin de siècle feminist to claim to ‘need the flashing weapons from his armoury’.

*   *   *

Nietzsche, however, was only one of the thinkers and artists in the intellectual revolution of the fin de siècle who attacked the shared assumption of mainstream politics – the liberal conception of society as an aggregate of formally equal, self-seeking individuals – with their exhortations to world-historical tasks and hardness. Henri Bergson captivated many artists in France and Italy, including Proust, with his theories of intuition, involuntary memory and élan vital, which also influenced many prevalent political notions such as collective consciousness of a class or race, the espritof the nation and the sovereignty of the individual.

The most popular among these thinkers was Herbert Spencer with his notion of a self-made man who overcomes all obstacles, biological and social, in his appointment with destiny. Spencer believed, among many things, that a race of Supermen would rise after industrial society had accomplished its task of weeding out the unfit. His medley of ideas, variously interpreted, consumed and appropriated, found an awestruck global audience. Spencer himself, towards the end of his long life, confessed that ‘I detest that conception of social progress which presents as its aim, increase of population, growth of wealth, spread of commerce.’ However, for budding Egyptian, Indian and Chinese nationalists as much as for Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Spencer had defined nothing less than the laws of social evolution and progress. (Exasperated by the adoration of Spencer by fellow Indians, Gandhi in Hind Swaraj (1909) quoted G. K. Chesterton’s sarcastic remark, ‘What is the good of Indian national spirit if they cannot protect themselves from Herbert Spencer?’)

Many others in the same cluster of thought as Spencer spoke of unconscious impulses and heroic striving, heredity and environment, the rediscovery of the uncivilized within human souls, national greatness and regeneration, and the struggle for existence. A common urge among them was the surrender of the effete rational self to irrational forces that were the true fount of creativity and energy. War in particular came to be widely celebrated, especially among educated classes.

In even relatively affluent England, there appeared, as J. A. Hobson wrote in The Psychology of Jingoism (1901) a ‘coarse patriotism, fed by the wildest rumours and the most violent appeals to hate and the animal lust of blood’. Hobson deplored these pathologies. So did the poet Edward Carpenter, who sought with the Fellowship of the New Life (founded in 1883, with the sexologist Havelock Ellis, the feminist Edith Lees and the animal-rights activist Henry Stephens) ‘a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour’.

How to Be a New Man

Spencer was appalled during the Boer War by bellicose poets and journalists, and the general militarization of public life. England had become, he wrote, ‘a fit habitat for hooligans’. Many more writers and thinkers were eager to intensify racial, class and national passions. ‘It is war,’ Treitschke argued, ‘which turns a people into a nation.’ The German historian clarified that the ‘virile’ features of history are ‘unsuited’ to ‘feminine natures’. Even Max Weber, a sensitive and troubled figure, sneered at the unmanly and immature bourgeoisie and the ‘Anglo-Saxon conventions of society’. Agonizing over Germany’s unfitness for international competition, he warned in 1895 that Germans ‘do not have peace and happiness to hand down to our descendants, but rather the eternal struggle to preserve and raise the quality of our national species’. Weber would later welcome a ‘great’ and ‘wonderful’ war in 1914, greeting guests at his home in his reserve officer’s uniform.

‘Societies perish because they are degenerate,’ asserted the French writer Arthur de Gobineau (a friend of both Tocqueville and Wagner). His screed Essay on the Inequality of Races (1853–5), justly neglected on publication, was rediscovered after France’s humiliating defeat to Germany in 1871 sparked a desperate search for recipes of regeneration. For racial theorists, it became an intellectual resource along with The Foundation of the Nineteenth Century (1899), an extended hymn to the Teutonic spirit by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Wagner’s notoriously anti-Semitic English son-in-law.

Hitler attended Chamberlain’s funeral in 1927. Some startlingly diverse figures at the turn of the century enacted in their writings the dialectic of decadence and rebirth fully worked out later in Mein Kampf. In Degeneration (1892), Max Nordau, the co-founder with Theodor Herzl of the World Zionist Organization, identified a range of culprits, from Wilde to Zola, for widespread emasculation. ‘Things as they are,’ he wrote, ‘totter and plunge. They are allowed to reel and fall because man is weary.’ Nordau soon became obsessed, along with other Jewish readers of Herbert Spencer, with creating a new generation of Muskeljudentum, literally muscular, virile, warrior-like Jews.

*   *   *

The fixation with manliness cut across apparent ideological barriers. Maxim Gorky, one of the many Bolshevik adepts of Nietzsche, hoped for a Russian Superman to lead the masses to liberation. Undaunted by Lenin’s denunciation of ‘literary supermen’, he would later hail Soviet man as the ‘New Man’, who was pitting his human will against intransigent nature. Likewise, Mussolini hoped to fabricate a ‘New Italian’, who would talk and gesticulate less (and also eat less pasta) while being driven by a ‘single will’. The novelist and Catholic monarchist Maurice Barrès was one of the French aesthetes of the time who moved from hating decadent bourgeois to exalting a national self, which, defined by heredity, tested its will against such treacherous ‘others’ as cosmopolitans, socialists and Jews.

Muhammad Iqbal, South Asia’s most important Muslim writer and thinker in the early twentieth century, returned from his studies in Europe with a Nietzschean vision of Islam revivified by strong self-creating Muslims (Iqbal surely took heart from Nietzsche’s own Islamophilic view that the ‘Crusaders fought against something they would have done better to lie down in the dust before’). Lu Xun was convinced that the Chinese nation had to consist of the kind of self-aware individuals with indomitable will exemplified by Zarathustra. Once a sufficient number of Nietzschean self-overcoming individuals come into being, the Chinese ‘will become capable of mighty and unprecedented achievement, elevating us to a unique position of dignity and respect in the world’.

Muhammad Abduh, the Arab world’s foremost scholar and jurist, who paid a fan’s ultimate tribute to Herbert Spencer – a visit to the philosopher’s home – presented his reformist Islam as a bulwark against the degeneracy apparently caused by both extreme traditionalists and hyper-Westernized Muslims. Swimming in the same intellectual currents of fin de siècle Europe, the Hindu revivalist Swami Vivekananda, another earnest student of Spencer, called for Hindus to eat beef, develop ‘muscles of iron’ and pray, ‘O Thou Mother of Strength, take away my weakness, take away my unmanliness, and make me a Man!’

The Hindu, Jewish, Chinese and Islamic modernists who helped establish major nation-building ideologies were in tune with the main trends of the European fin de siècle, which redefined freedom beyond bourgeois self-seeking to a will to forge dynamic new societies and reshape history. It is impossible to understand them, and the eventual product of their efforts (Islamism, Hindu nationalism, Zionism, Chinese nationalism), without grasping their European intellectual background of cultural decay and pessimism: the anxiety in the unconscious that Freud was hardly alone in sensing, or the idea of glorious rebirth after decline and decadence, borrowed from the Christian idea of resurrection, that Mazzini had done so much to introduce into the political sphere.

Like the European thinkers who influenced them, Nordau and Iqbal were not arguing specifically against capitalist or imperialist exploitation. They could seem completely indifferent to the criteria of the left and the right: private property, inequality or alienating modes of production. The key problem for them was a decadent or degenerate modern culture that fostered egotism, cynicism and passivity; they saw a solution in radical renewal, achieved through a strong will and commitment to superhuman action.

*   *   *

A more extreme version of such Prometheanism was the belief, already articulated by Italian nationalists and taken up by the demagogues of the twentieth century, that bloodshed was necessary in the creation of the New Man. Such was the extraordinary conjuncture of the fin de siècle that Georges Sorel, a retired engineer and autodidact in Paris, could say independently at the conclusion that conflict, combat and the élan vital embodied by heroic individuals are necessary for the world to move forward.

Sorel wanted to see ‘before descending into the grave’ the ‘humbling of the proud bourgeois democracies, today so cynically triumphant’. Indulging this desire in his writings, Sorel came to enjoy an elastic appeal, like Mazzini, whom he greatly admired. Mentor to Catholic nationalists in France, Sorel saluted Lenin in 1919 and Mussolini was one of his devotees when the latter was still a socialist. ‘What I am,’ the Duce said, ‘I owe to Sorel.’

Sorel’s writings came out of, and reflected, a largely traumatic experience of France after its embourgeoisement: the country seemed lost in what Tocqueville in 1851 called a ‘labyrinth of petty incidents, petty ideas, petty passions, personal viewpoints and contradictory projects’, and appeared redeemable only through virile empire-building in North Africa. Born in 1847, Sorel grew up as the country went through the humiliation of German invasion in 1870 and the trauma of the Paris Commune.

In Zola’s The Debacle (1892), which documents both ordeals, the novel’s sickly protagonist grapples with ‘the degeneration of his race, which explained how France, virtuous with the grandfathers, could be beaten in the time of their grandsons’. Sorel himself frequently invoked Ernest Renan’s angst-ridden question, ‘On what will the future generations live?’ His own answers were as uncompromisingly tough as Tocqueville’s, composed in a language reminiscent of Nietzsche, in which the alternative to bourgeois vices was not a particular economic system but a whole new – and epic – mode of being in the world.

Sorel scorned the promise of liberalism and socialism, and the simple utilitarian saw of maximizing happiness. Pain and suffering, he asserted, was life. Life acquired meaning and grandeur from the struggle against decay and destruction, and striving for liberation – to be achieved by a self-chosen heroic morality. Sorel prophesized a revolt against the bourgeois, which has ‘used force since the beginning of modern times’. ‘The proletariat now reacts against the middle class and against the state with violence.’ As he wrote, ‘All our effort should aim at preventing bourgeois ideas from poisoning the class which is arising.’

Sorel borrowed his terms of reference from religious movements: war, honour, glory, heroism, vitality, virility and sublimity. He was interested in the Mazzini-style myth that could stir the soul, and bring to power the elite of strong men who could rule. And so he offered prophecy rather than blueprint. It did not matter who fulfilled it – big industrialists, trade unions, American frontiersmen, or Catholic monarchists – though he tended to speak more of the proletariat, recognizing it as the angel of history in the age of the masses. For him, the love of conquest and the will to power resolved all apparent contradictions of political theory.

In that sense, Wyndham Lewis, one of England’s rare fascist thinkers, was right to say that Sorel ‘is the key to all contemporary political thought’. For his work consummated the nineteenth century’s steady transformation of politics: from the Enlightenment’s liberal notion emphasizing rational self-interest and deliberation to Napoleon’s total war, heroism and grandeur, aestheticization and, finally, an existential politics where survival is at stake, and the choices are life or death.

*   *   *

Sorel’s eclecticism (or unity) of thought gave him a bigger reputation in Italy than in his native France; many of his books first appeared there, and their eager students were to include Gramsci as well as Mussolini and Marinetti. He also had many influential disciples in Germany, including the writer Ernst Jünger, who would see the First World War through Sorelian lenses, as ‘the forge in which the world will be hammered into new limits and new communities’ – a project of building unity and fraternity through bloodshed that was later applied by Hitler to life at large. In Italy, however, Sorel immediately found a favourable intellectual climate.

Early in the century, Italian prophets of Futurism had started to advertise their fascination with violence, modern technology, insane acts and pageants. Unlike the Impressionists or Cubists, the Futurists were political artists, who saw themselves as creating a revolutionary style for heroic violence. They actually competed with Italian imperialists in the new century in uttering bombast about communion with the savage forces of life. Marinetti hailed war as the ‘breeder of morals’. Papini spoke of the necessity of ‘cleansing of the earth … in a warm bath of black blood’. Even the liberal Salvemini, opposed to imperialism, conceded that the national unity brought by war was not to be belittled.

Arguing that France’s domestic instability necessitated Napoleon’s warmongering and imperialism, Madame de Staël had wondered whether a nation could be ‘oppressed in the interior without giving it the fatal compensation of ruling elsewhere in its turn?’ North Africa, which Napoleon invaded early in his career, was also the site where Italians in the early twentieth century sought to avenge their setbacks and humiliations.

A cult of Rome and Roman imperialism became common among diplomatic as well as artistic circles. Amid general enthusiasm, Italy went to war with the Ottoman Empire, invading the Ottoman territory of Libya in 1911. Sorel hailed it as ‘Italy’s greatest day’. Marinetti marvelled in the second Futurist Manifesto at ‘the remarkable symphony of the lead shrapnel’ and the ‘sculpture wrought in the enemy’s masses by our expert artillery’. The Italian assault on Libya was ferocious, stirring sympathy for its Muslim victims and anger against Western imperialists as far as Malaya. But Marinetti, who travelled to Libya as a newspaper correspondent, deplored the government’s lack of ruthlessness; he thought that military operations were undermined by ‘stupid colonial humanitarianism’.

*   *   *

The ravaging of Libya, which suffered the world’s first aerial bombing in 1912, confirmed that the emerging New Man, theorized by Nietzsche and Sorel, and empowered by technology, saw violence as an existential experience – an end in itself, and perpetually renewable. D’Annunzio, in exile in France since 1910 from his creditors and out of literary favour, returned to the fray with war songs, each meant to fill a whole page in the Corriere della Serra. As early victories gave way to Arab resistance, and diplomatic compromise, Papini thought D’Annunzio’s war songs were too feeble. ‘The future needs blood,’ he argued. ‘It needs human victims, butchery. Internal war, and foreign war, revolution and conquest: that is history … Blood is the wine of stronger peoples, and blood is the oil for the wheels of this great machine which flies from the past to the future.’

Italy’s subsequent intervention in the First World War, in which it was initially neutral, came to be cheer-led by a broad social coalition, socialists as well as anarchists, on the grounds that war would act as a sort of detergent. Among its champions was Mussolini, who had opposed the Libyan adventure, but was now fiercely interventionist, and actually had been expelled from the Socialist Party for his warmongering. He was on his way to found the myth that would goad men to transcend their mediocre selves and become supermen.

As Italy went to war in May 1915, he wrote:

If the revolution of 1789, which was both a revolution and a war, opened up the world to the bourgeoisie after its long and secular novitiate, the present revolution, which is also a war, seems to open up the future to the masses and their novitiate of blood and death.

Over four years later, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s occupation of Fiume offered the socialist apostate a fresh template for arousing the masses: black uniforms, stiff-armed salutes, military parades, war songs, and the glorification of virility and sacrifice. Mussolini later encouraged the writing of a biography of D’Annunzio entitled The John the Baptist of Fascism. He clearly fancied himself as the Messiah. But Mazzini, the true Messiah, had already come and gone, leaving a large imprint on the modern world.

Reading Mazzini in Shanghai and Calcutta

Mazzini would have been appalled by the degeneration of his dream of humanizing man through democratic nationalism into romantic imperialism. For Gandhi was not wholly wrong to see the Italian as ‘a citizen of every country’, who believed that ‘every nation should become great and live in unity’. Nor was Mazzini unjustified in thinking that a good society should be based on duties rather than individual rights.

Gandhi together with Simone Weil was among many twentieth-century thinkers who questioned the emphasis on rights – the claims of self-seeking possessive individuals against others that underpinned the expansion of commercial society around the world. They, too, said that a free society ought to consist of a web of moral obligations. But Mazzini’s messianism cancelled his good ideas; and he failed to anticipate that his desired Third Rome might require high levels of brutality, and that Europeans, not to mention Ethiopians and Libyans, might resist it.

One early perceptive critic of Mazzini was the Russian anarchist Bakunin. They met at the home of their mutual friend Herzen in London in the early 1860s. Bakunin had good reason to be grateful to the Italian, who had defended him from Marx’s harsh attacks. The Russian anarchist ought also to have thrilled to Mazzini’s call for ‘insurrection of the masses’, for the ‘holy war of the oppressed’. But he wrote disparagingly of Mazzini as a ‘great priest of religious, metaphysical and political idealism’ and enumerated his blunders: ‘It is the cult of God, the cult of divine and human authority, it is faith in the messianic predestination of Italy, queen of all the nations, with Rome, capital of the world.’ Bakunin criticized, too, Mazzini’s ‘passion for uniformity that they call unification and that is really the tomb of liberty’.

Mazzini’s passion for unification and uniformity actually recommended him to his non-European disciples: fellow exiles and expatriates, in the rest of the world, who grappled with the encroachments of European globalizers on one side the collapse of the authority embodied by their mandarins and Brahmins. These unmoored men, almost all with powerful literary imaginations, saw their own unborn or fallen nations as bursting into the small club of advanced nations in the way Italy had, throwing off the shackles of foreign occupation, corrupt religion and sectarian differences to offer a new vision of humanity.

Savarkar, the chief ideologue of India’s Hindu nationalist movement, emerged from his immersion in Mazzini’s collected works to conclude that Indians, like Italians, ‘were building humanity’. The conservative Hindu thinker Lala Lajpat Rai explicitly identified Mazzini as the founder of a new religion, whose creeds of nationality, liberty and unity were to be practised with blood and martyrdom. Another close reader of the Italian, Bipin Chandra Pal, used him to promote the cult of Bharat Mata (Mother India), revealing an allegedly ancient Hindu idea of the divinized and spiritualized nation, or the nation as mother, to be derived almost entirely from European nationalist notions.

Another devotee of Mazzini was Liang Qichao, China’s foremost modern intellectual, and an inspiration to many writers, thinkers and activists across East Asia. Exiled to Japan in 1898, Liang produced a large inspirational history of Italy aimed at galvanizing his Chinese compatriots. Typically, he placed Mazzini at the centre, minimizing the latter’s differences with Cavour, and his eventual failure and irrelevance. Liang believed at this early stage in his career in the necessity of violence or what he termed ‘destructionism’ for the revival of Chinese civilization: ‘After catastrophes that arise in the cause of liberty,’ he wrote, ‘one can expect to reach modern civilization at some point.’ He was under the impression that Italy by the end of the nineteenth century was a successful nation state with a formidable military and industrial power: ‘the shame inflicted on generations of forefathers is now removed,’ he wrote, ‘and the glory of a 2,000-year-long-history is restored’.

Liang hoped to restage in his own country the glorious resurrection of an ancient civilization. Mazzini also offered to him a model for personal heroism, journalistic fluency and a thrilling revolutionary politics. The Chinese intellectual, exiled like his hero and engaged in futile plots and secret societies, didn’t examine Mazzini’s ideas so much as find reasons in his life for self-exaltation. Eventually, Liang moved on from hazy claims and empty chatter. But by then one of his most devoted readers in the Chinese provinces, Mao Zedong, had inherited Liang’s fascination with revolutionaries who sacrifice themselves and others.

*   *   *

Mazzini’s magnetic appeal made for an extraordinarily diverse fan base, whose members tended to quickly transcend their religious and ethnic background in their search for philosophies of vitalism and action. In Egypt, the Jewish playwright James Sanua, the founder of modern Arabic drama, transmitted Mazzini’s ideas to Arab nationalists almost as soon as the Italian had formulated them. In the 1870s, Sanua’s close associate, Jamal al-din al-Afghani, the first ideologist of political Islam, established ‘Young Egypt’. Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the intellectual icon of Israel’s settler-Zionists, was briefly the editor of The Young Turk, a newspaper founded by Young Turks shortly after they took power in Turkey in 1908. Jabotinsky credited Mazzini, whose writings he had encountered in the turbulent Italy of the fin de siècle, for giving ‘depth’ to his ‘shallow Zionism’, ‘transforming it from an instinctive sentiment into a worldview’.

A member of Mazzini-inspired ‘Young Bosnia’ assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand in 1914, triggering the First World War. Mazzini had his deepest and more enduring influence in India, where his cult far exceeded that of any Western figure, including John Stuart Mill. His books became best-sellers as early as the mid-nineteenth century, and eventually turned into how-to manuals for Hindu nationalists. Secret societies modelled on the Carboneria and Mazzini’s Young Italy arose in Calcutta in the 1870s, providing a ready platform to budding nationalists. As Surendranath Banerjea, known as the Indian Burke, wrote, ‘It was Mazzini, the incarnation of the highest moral forces in the political arena – Mazzini, the apostle of Italian unity, the friend of the human race, that I presented to the youth of Bengal. Mazzini had taught Italian unity. We wanted Indian unity.’

But, colonized by the British, India suffered, more than even Italy, from the disadvantages of incomplete nationality; and its educated elites carried heavier burdens of irresolution – and fantasy. By the late nineteenth century many Hindus, who came from high castes that enjoyed relative power before the British arrived and constituted India’s educated elite, liked to believe that Hindus constituted a great nation by default, and that India was their sacred land.

These pupils of Mazzini belonged to the first and second generation of upper-caste South Asians educated in Western-style institutions in the new cities and towns created by British colonialists. Resentments abounded among these upper-caste Hindus, who had no real power, and were seen by their overlords as backward and effeminate. India’s most famous novelist of the nineteenth century, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, typified the tendency to cringe and hate. A high official in the Bengal bureaucracy, he spun garish fictional fantasies about militant Hindu saviours. Anandamath(1882), his most famous novel, describes a band of holy warriors rescuing ‘Mother India’ from barbaric foreign invaders.

Like the early Zionists, who embraced many anti-Semitic stereotypes, these late nineteenth-century Indian nationalists internalized British clichés about Indians as weak, unworldly and unmanly. Longing for martial valour, these men were too fastidiously conscious of their high-born status to turn into a boldly left-wing revolutionary intelligentsia, like the Russian one. The political ideology that seemed a natural fit for these educated, progressive but marginalized Hindus was a radicalism of the right.

They reinvented and reconfigured tradition itself as part of an effort to create a Hindu nation. As Pal confessed, ‘all these old and traditional gods and goddesses who had lost their hold upon the modern educated mind have been reinstalled with a new historic and nationalist interpretations in the thoughts and sentiments of the people’. (Predictably, it did not occur to them to ask, as B. R. Ambedkar, the devastating critic of upper-caste delusions, did: ‘How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation?’)

Many of these insecure Hindus were vulnerable to the inherent teleology in Mazzini’s religion of humanity: the God who loved progress and made man the carrier of the Divine Spirit. Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, one of the nineteenth-century religions of humanity, had actually fought in Italy with Garibaldi and befriended Mazzini in London, before fixing on India as the place for the next great awakening. Various mystical doctrines and occult organizations in the West in the late nineteenth century were informed by European scholarship in Hinduism and Buddhism. Arriving in India, they found many eager and gullible adherents (including the teenaged Jawaharlal Nehru, who was initiated into the Theosophical Society by the Fabian socialist gadfly Annie Besant).

Many of these Hindus were particularly susceptible to a scheme that promised the achievement of modernity through their tradition: a national rebirth that would revivify what was perceived by British liberals and Utilitarians to be stagnant and degenerate. For instance, the idealized image of the woman as nation could be made to seem spiritually superior to the unruly and demanding modern wife (and used to control her). The chauvinism of these Hindus was boosted by the general expectation that a new age of mankind was at hand, and that, as devotees of Bharat Mata, they might be called upon to lead it. At the same time, they couldn’t help but despair at the lack of real ingredients for such a Hindu nation.

Apathetic masses and an infinitesimal, politically insignificant middle class drove them into obsessive daydreams of sacrifice and martyrdom. It was among these upper-caste Hindus, often irreligious if not militantly secular, that the idea of ‘Hindutva’, a form of political Hinduism that organizes and militarizes the Hindus, grew. And from these messianic figures emerged the men who assassinated Gandhi, and whose intellectual progeny now rule India.

Learning from (While Exterminating) the Brutes

The most important of these Indian exceptionalists now seems to be Savarkar, the chief theorizer of Hindutva, whose intellectual spurs were almost all European. He was born in 1883 in the western Indian city of Nasik, into a Brahmin family that not long after his birth fell into financial difficulties. In 1902, Savarkar agreed to marry the daughter of a family friend on the condition that his father-in-law would pay for his education at Fergusson College in Pune. He first read Herbert Spencer in Pune, and was enthralled by his vision of struggle. At the age of twenty-three Savarkar went to England on a scholarship set up by one of the English writer’s devoted Indian students. He spent the next four years in a daze of Mazzini worship.

A true disciple of the Italian nationalist, Savarkar abhorred conventional religion while embracing a secular notion of salvation. But, conforming to a general pattern of escalation, he went much further than his hero in making Hindu nationalism an ideology of hate and violent revenge. In this he had learned the lessons of Wagner’s Germany most effectively: ‘Nothing makes the Self conscious of itself,’ Savarkar wrote, ‘so much as a conflict with [the] non-self. Nothing can weld peoples into a nation and nations into a state as the pressure of a common foe. Hatred separates as well as unites.’

The pathological hatred of foreigners that overcame Heinrich von Kleist also drove Savarkar. He lamented the ‘suicidal ideas about chivalry to women’ that prevented Hindu warriors of the past from raping Muslim women. (Savarkar’s emotional impairment is confirmed by his virtual silence about his marriage and family life in his autobiographical writings.) In his book on the Indian Mutiny in 1857, he carefully described European women and children being slaughtered by Indians during the risings. ‘A sea of white blood spread all over … body parts floated in it.’ He concluded the description of each atrocity with a gleefully specific reference to the historical injury thereby avenged.

Violence for Savarkar always seems to have been a form of emancipation. He relates in his autobiography how as a twelve-year-old boy he led a gang of schoolmates to vandalize his village mosque ‘to our heart’s content’. In his world view, revenge and retribution were essential to establishing racial and national parity and dignity. But the Hindus needed to have proper enemies against which to measure their manly selves.

To this end, Savarkar built a lurid narrative of Muslims humiliating Hindus; but he also played up Muslims’ ‘fierce unity of faith, that social cohesion and valorous fervour which made them as a body so irresistible’. He gushed enviously about the Prophet and the world dissemination of Islam through a deft use of the ‘sword’. His praise of Muslims, duty-bound to ‘reduce all the world to a sense of obedience to theocracy, an Empire under the direct supervision of God’, stressed all the qualities that he thought overly philosophical and politically fractious Hindus sorely lacked.

The Hindu self, in other words, needed to learn from the Muslim non-self. Indians had to abandon values like ‘humility, self-surrender and forgiveness’ and nurture ‘sturdy habits of hatred, retaliation, vindictiveness’. Indians had been misled by their metaphysical and religious traditions, such as Buddhism, which could not compete with the ‘fire and sword’ of India’s invaders. Moreover, they had to learn from the modern Europeans, who had defanged Islamic civilization, in another twist in the cycle of civilizations. Echoing Herzl’s notion of ‘Darwinian mimicry’, Savarkar hoped for Hindus to adapt themselves to, and then rise in, a world that was ‘red in tooth and claw’.

*   *   *

Trying to work up hatred as a categorical imperative, Savarkar found Gandhi’s non-violence ‘sinful’. Much of his life was defined by his antipathy to Gandhi, a ‘crazy lunatic’, as he put it, who ‘happens to babble … [about] compassion, forgiveness’. The two men knew each other in London early in their careers, and there was some talk of working on the common cause of Indian freedom. In 1906 they met at a lodging house for Indian students and aspiring revolutionaries in Highgate. In one account of their encounter, Savarkar, who was frying prawns, offered them to Gandhi. When Gandhi, a vegetarian, refused, Savarkar allegedly said that only a fool would attempt to fight the British Empire without being fortified by animal protein.

Gandhi seems to have taken due note of Savarkar’s political as well as culinary choices. The Hindu activist had friends among a range of expatriate Indian revolutionaries, who partook of the general trend of assassination in Europe and America, believing in Mazzini’s notion that ‘ideas ripen quickly when nourished by the blood of martyrs’. One of his upper-caste disciples assassinated a British official in the first successful act of terrorism in India. In 1909, Savarkar inspired another murderous assault on a senior British official in London; he then helped set up scholarships in the name of the assassin.

Gandhi, who had arrived in the British capital a few days after the killing, condemned it as a ‘modern political act par excellence – terrorism legitimized by nationalism’. ‘India,’ he cautioned, ‘can gain nothing from the rule of murderers.’ During his stay in England, Gandhi was much disturbed by the appeal of terroristic violence among Savarkar and his associates. He may have already decided to reinterpret Mazzini in order to rescue him from the Hindu militants. In any case, on the way back to South Africa from England, Gandhi feverishly wrote, in nine days, his manifesto for Indian freedom and denunciation of modern civilization, Hind Swaraj.

In this book he devoted a whole chapter to the topic ‘Italy and India’. Gandhi, worried that Mazzini’s religion of humanity could be appropriated for sectarian ends, blended the Italian’s idea of patriotic duty and education into his own quasi-Hindu ideal of spiritual independence (Swaraj, or self-rule, as distinct from self-government). ‘Mazzini has shown,’ he argued, ‘in his writings on the duty of man that every man must learn to rule himself.’ As distinct from Savarkar’s duty, which was to kill for one’s religious community, Gandhi wrote of the necessity of a non-violent social order.

Gandhi then indulged in some historical revisionism. He blamed the violent aspects of the Risorgimento on Garibaldi: ‘He gave, and every Italian took, arms.’ As for Mazzini, he stood ‘aloof from the petty compromises’; he was superior to Cavour in realizing that ‘true liberty does not consist in the right to choose evil, but in the right to choose the ways that lead to good’. This was why Mazzini’s ambitions were unrealized in Italy and a ‘state of slavery’ prevailed there. Gandhi ignored altogether Mazzini’s faith in science and progress, or his fantasy of a Third Rome (and the Italian’s dismissive views of Hinduism). He used the Italian’s writings to cement his argument that ‘to observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions’ and that India ought not to aspire for independence through violence. The Indians who thought otherwise were ‘intoxicated by the wretched modern civilization’, which is predicated on violence.

*   *   *

Savarkar and Gandhi’s paths diverged sharply after 1909. Savarkar was arrested in 1910 for his involvement in the murder of a British official in India, and condemned to fifty years in prison. After just two months at a draconian prison in the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, he was writing mercy petitions to the British – an exercise in abject self-cancellation that came to light many decades later.

In one such supplication, Savarkar described himself as a ‘prodigal son’ knocking on ‘parental doors of the government’. He promised to ‘be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government’ and to ‘bring back all those misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide’.

As the First World War broke out, he wrote ‘I most humbly beg to offer myself as a volunteer to do any service in the present war, that the Indian government think fit to demand from me.’ Savarkar was denied his moment on the battlefield (unlike his Zionist coeval Jabotinsky, who helped found the Jewish Legion, and fought with the British during their fateful conquest of Palestine in 1917). Nevertheless, he seems to have got a vicarious ‘thrill of delight in my heart’ on hearing of Indian soldiers participating in the slaughter of the First World War: ‘Thank God! Manliness after all is not dead yet in the land.’ He pointed to the common dangers to Hindus and Christians of Turko-Afghan hordes to the north of India, writing that ‘every intelligent lover of India would heartily and loyally cooperate with the British people in the interest of India herself’. The British eventually commuted his sentence after fewer than fourteen years in prison. But they also forced Savarkar to cease his anti-imperialist activities. Interned in a small western Indian town, he was left to define the Hindu self in opposition to what it was not.

His prison library in Andaman had contained writings by Treitschke and Herbert Spencer, and the complete works of Mazzini. He deployed his obsessive readings in the Italian to write Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (1928), the book that comes closest to defining the ideology of modern Hindu nationalism. According to Savarkar, Hindutva embraced ‘all the department of thought and activity of the whole being of our Hindu race’. Closely imitating Mazzini’s imprecisions, he wrote, ‘India was the land of Hindus, their culture was Aryan, and their roots traced back to the Vedic times.’

There was a bit more clarity in Savarkar’s call to ‘Hinduize all politics and Militarise Hindudom.’ Such aims could at least appear to be achieved by identifying Muslims as the enemy within. They were undeniably alien to India: ‘Their holy land is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently, their names and their outlook smack of foreign origin.’ (Savarkar characteristically forgot that the holy places of Christian Europe are in Palestine.)

Savarkar himself had no time for any of India’s indigenous faiths or traditional ways of life. ‘He [Mazzini] savagely attacked,’ Savarkar wrote approvingly, ‘the notion of the gates of Heaven, if there be such a thing, being open to anyone who had neglected to serve the nation, whiling away his time in empty rituals of religion.’ Savarkar was as much forward-looking and scientistic as any of the fascists, communists and Zionists bred during the fin de siècle. ‘If you want success on earth,’ he wrote, ‘you must acquire earthly power and strength. If your movement has material strength you will succeed whether or not you have divine blessing for it … Has not atheist Soviet Russia become a World Power?’

Hindutva concluded with cautionary examples of Armenian and Christian enemies within the Turkish nation and equally suspect ‘Negro’ inhabitants of the United States, which, he insisted, ‘must stand or fall with the fortunes of its Anglo-Saxon constituents’. This tacit endorsement of the 1915 genocide in Turkey and white supremacism in America was immediately followed by an appeal for a Hindu empire. Part of the last sentence of the book reads, ‘the limits of the universe – there the frontiers of my country lie.’

While Savarkar filled up pages with dreams of sub-Mazzini imperium and pseudo-Fichtean reflections, he was being politically eclipsed by his rival, Gandhi, who seemed during the 1920s and 1930s to speak for Muslims as well as Hindus, and had an impressive organization behind him. Gandhi drew his political imagery from popular folklore; it made him more effective as a leader of the Indian masses than any upper-caste Hindu politician who relied upon a textual, or elite Hinduism, not to mention ill-digested bits of European political theory.

Savarkar became president of a party called the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, and busied himself with reconverting non-Hindus to Hinduism. He again offered his co-operation to the British as the latter imprisoned Gandhi in 1942. ‘The essential thing,’ he said, ‘is for Hinduism and Great Britain to be friends and the old antagonism was no longer necessary.’ Lacking a mass base, Hindu nationalist leaders had from the 1920s onwards opposed Gandhi and courted the British in an attempt to bring an anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism into Indian politics through the back door.

No immediate benefits accrued to Savarkar himself. But this was the time when ultra-nationalists and cultural supremacists were consolidating worldwide amid a global social and economic breakdown. The closest observers and keenest imitators of the manly Social Darwinists of Italy, France, Germany and Japan were often nationalists without a nation state. In 1923, Jabotinsky formed a youth group called Betar, modelled on European militant groups with its emphasis on calisthenics, brown shirts, parades, salutes, and military-style organization and discipline. Two years later a member of Savarkar’s party, the Hindu Mahasabha, broke away to form the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Like Betar, it recruited boys at an impressionable age, and a British intelligence report published in 1933 warned that ‘it is perhaps no exaggeration to assert that the Sangh hopes to be in future India what the “Fascisti” are to Italy and the “Nazis” to Germany’.

Savarkar himself supported Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy, identifying it as a solution for the Muslim problem in India: ‘A Nation is formed,’ he wrote in 1938, ‘by a majority living therein. What did the Jews do in Germany? They being in minority were driven out from Germany.’ Admiration for Nazi Germany was widely shared among Hindu nationalists at the end of the 1930s. In his manifesto ‘We, or Our Nationhood Defined’ (1939), Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, supreme director of the RSS from 1940 to 1973, asserted that India was Hindustan, a land of Hindus where Jews and Parsis were ‘guests’ and Muslims and Christians ‘invaders’. Golwalkar was clear about what he expected the guests and invaders to do:

The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture … or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges.

Savarkar was arrested the same day, 30 January 1948, that his most fervent admirer in his party, Nathuram Godse, murdered Gandhi. During his trial, Godse made a long and eloquent speech reprising Savarkar’s themes; he was disappointed to find that his hero, eager not to return to jail, ignored him coldly in the courthouse and prison.

Savarkar himself was acquitted of the conspiracy to murder Gandhi, though Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first home minister and no mean Hindu nationalist himself, was convinced by his intelligence sources that ‘a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar’ created the conspiracy to kill Gandhi and ‘saw it through’. An official commission of inquiry into Gandhi’s death, in the late 1960s, drew on testimony unavailable at the original trial to find Savarkar guilty of leading the conspiracy.

Savarkar was dead by then. His last years had been darkened by bitterness. The rival he had helped murder was hailed as a ‘saint’; his own efforts to mobilize Hindus had come to nothing. Evidence showing his complicity with British rulers came to light after his death. It is much clearer today that his notions of Hindutva had been third-hand at best – deriving from Mazzini, who in turn had borrowed them from Mickiewicz, Saint-Simon and Lamennais, and from fin de siècle students and interpreters of Herbert Spencer.

Yet Savarkar, the archetypal mimic man, expressed early the aggressive desires of an educated upper-caste minority trying to secure an exalted place for itself in a fast-changing world: an ambitious elite that was long on education but short on political power and influence. Savarkar’s methods have returned to the centre stage of Indian politics as many members of an expanded and globalized middle class frantically assert a strong Hindu identity internationally. They have, to rephrase Bismarck on Italy, large teeth as well as a large appetite as they reactivate the fin de sièclevision of Social Darwinism, using Savarkar’s and Vivekananda’s kaleidoscopic conflations of past with future, myth with science, and archaism with technicism.

Failure to catch up with ‘advanced’ countries and gain international eminence has now replicated in India, after many other countries, the fantasy of a strongman who will heal old injuries and achieve closure by forcing the world to recognize Indian power and glory. The self-chosen mission of middle-class Hindus for India’s regeneration is tuned to the highest pitch. Back in the 1960s, Naipaul was scornful of their ‘apocalyptic’ language. Today, the bizarre lurching between victimhood and chauvinism that he noticed has an ominous geopolitical dimension as India appears to rise (and simultaneously fall), and many ambitious Indians feel more frustrated in their demand for higher status from white Westerners.

For more than two decades the apocalyptic Indian imagination has been enriched by such Hindu nationalist exploits as the destruction in 1992 of the sixteenth-century Babri mosque and the nuclear tests in 1998. Celebrating the latter in a speech titled ‘Ek Aur Mahabharata’ (‘One more Mahabharata’), the head of the RSS claimed that Hindus, an ‘extremely intelligent and talented’ people who had thus far lacked proper weapons, were now sure to prevail in the forthcoming epic showdown with ‘demonic anti-Hindus’ (a broad category that includes Americans, apparently the most ‘inhuman’ people on earth).

Until this cosmic battle erupts, and India knows true splendour, Hindu nationalists discharge their world-historical responsibilities to Bharat Mata in the only way they can: by attacking various alien and hostile powers that stand in their way, such as cosmopolitan intellectuals and Muslims with transnational loyalties. In the anti-Muslim pogrom supervised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Gujarat in 2002, a fanatic called Babu Bajrangi seemed to have fulfilled Savarkar’s fantasy of mutilating foreign bodies: he claimed to have slashed open with his sword the womb of a pregnant woman while leading a mob assault on a Muslim district that killed nearly a hundred people. He also crowed to a journalist in 2007 that Modi sheltered him repeatedly. Eventually sentenced in 2012 to life imprisonment, Bajrangi has spent, since Modi’s ascent to power in 2014, most of his time outside prison.

Meanwhile, Modi stokes Savarkar’s shame and rage over more than a ‘thousand years of slavery’ under Muslim and British rule. Even Naipaul, celebrated for his destruction of Third Worldist illusions, succumbed to the pathology of mimic machismo he had once feared and despised. He hailed the vandalizing by a Hindu mob of a medieval mosque in 1992, which triggered nationwide massacres of Muslims, as the sign of an overdue national ‘awakening’. As though trying to transcend his ‘savourless’ and ‘mean’ life in England, Naipaul also endorsed the Ossian-ish history peddled by Hindu nationalists.

Back to the Future?

Nineteenth-century Germans showed how the Volk, or the people, became a sentimental refuge from the arduous experience of modernity; many sank deeper into resentment and hatred of the existing order while waiting for true national grandeur. Vagueness about how true grandeur was to be achieved proved to be the perfect recipe in Italy as well as Germany for an escalating anxiety and despair, which no amount of genuine endeavour and gradual progress seemed able to heal. Even educated classes in serenely imperialist and powerful countries such as England succumbed to jingoism (the word was coined in 1878) – to what J. A. Hobson, encountering it for the first time, called a ‘strange amalgam of race feeling, animal pugnacity, rapacity, and sporting zest’, a ‘primitive lust which exults in the downfall and the suffering of an enemy’.

Many more billions of individuals, struggling to find a place in the world, or defeated by the whole gruelling process, and resigned to failure, boost their self-esteem through identification with the greatness of their country. Whether glory in the arena of sports or entertainment, a Nobel Prize, or military victories, the triumphs of a few seem to infuse many with pride. Leaders standing up to Western elites perceived as arrogant and interfering can always count upon a historical reserve of ressentiment. President Putin’s popularity at home actually rose after Europe and America imposed sanctions on Russia, causing an economic crisis.

So it would be a mistake to see jingoism as a creation of political rabble-rousers alone. Popular culture has long promoted it. Bollywood films actually prefigured the insistent cultural nationalism of India’s new rulers and intelligentsia. Modi’s claim that India is poised to be a ‘world guru’ and lead the world does not seem so puzzling after watching the blockbuster, Kal Ho Naa Ho (Whether Tomorrow Comes or Not), whose protagonist introduces Indian values to unhappy white American families. Millions of Indians have long been exposed to the televised demagoguery of the yoga instructor Baba Ramdev, India’s answer to Jahn, the German inventor of calisthenics. Now serving as a guru to the Indian government, Ramdev proposes mass beheadings of all those who refuse to sing the glories of Bharat Mata.

The anti-Western cinema and literature produced during Mao’s rule over China could be dismissed as communist propaganda. Chinese bookshops today, however, are awash with such xenophobic polemics as China Can Say NoWolf Totem, the biggest-selling book in China after Mao’s Little Red Book, laments how timid Chinese peasants fell prey to canny Westerners who, as ‘descendants of barbarian, nomadic tribes such as the Teutons and the Anglo-Saxons’, have the blood of wolves in their veins. In 2016 the celebrated Chinese pianist Lang Lang led a patriotic Chinese upsurge against an international tribunal’s ruling in favour of the Philippines and condemning China in the maritime dispute involving the two countries.

Religion in Russia, officially banned during the Soviet period, now summons a mostly Christian population to battle against such alleged imports of Western liberalism as homosexuality. One of Putin’s closest allies runs Tsargrad TV, a Russian Orthodox TV channel, which aims to give voice to ‘traditional’ values. Turkey’s highest-grossing film, Conquest 1453, which describes Mehmed the Conqueror’s conquest of Istanbul in 1453, led to a revival of Ottomanism, which is manifested as much by Burger King’s Sultan meal combo (a TV ad features a Janissary devouring a Whopper with hummus) as by Turkish foreign policy. President Erdogan invokes the Ottoman Empire in order to justify Turkey’s involvement in Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, Kosovo, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia: ‘Wherever our forefathers went on horseback,’ he claims, ‘we go, too.’ He plans to build a new mosque in Cuba, claiming bizarrely that Muslims settled the island long before it was spotted by Christopher Columbus.

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Modi, who believes that ancient Indians flew aeroplanes, combines his historical revisionism and nationalism with a revolutionary futurism. He understands that resonant sentiments, images and symbols rather than rational argument or accurate history galvanize isolated individuals. Mazzini and then Sorel had insisted that myths are necessary to involve and mobilize ordinary human beings in mass politics, along with leaders who embody the collective agent of history. The early twentieth century produced many such myths and leaders across Europe; and in The Revolt of the Masses (1930), José Ortega y Gasset voiced a paternalist liberal’s complaint against the arrival of ‘raving, frenetic, exorbitant politics that claims to replace all knowledge’.

It is now the fate of many more countries to suffer the avalanches of bitter know-nothingism, or myths, that the Spanish philosopher feared. Marshalling large armies of trolls and twitter bots against various ‘enemies’ of the people, the contemporary demagogues seem as aware as Marshall McLuhan that digital communications help create and consolidate new mythologies of unity and community. Yet the despotisms of our age of individualism are soft rather than hard – democratic rather than totalitarian – and they emerge as much from below as from the strongmen on top. Today’s raving, frenetic, exorbitant politics – an extravagantly rhetorical idealism about nation, race and culture – is often the product of people unconnected to political parties or movements. It is also they who appear willing to give up hard-won civil liberties, and acquiesce in, even zealously support, pre-emptive war, extrajudicial killings and torture.

Tocqueville captured the phenomenon of invisibly creeping despotism in atomized societies devoted to the pursuit of wealth when he wrote that people ‘in their intense and exclusive anxiety to make a fortune’ can ‘lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of each and the prosperity of all. It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold.’

There is also something else going on in societies defined by the equality of conditions. Claiming to be meritocratic and egalitarian, they incite individuals to compare themselves with others and appraise themselves in an overall hierarchy of values and culture. Since actual mobility is achieved only by a few, the quest for some unmistakable proof of superior status and identity replaces the ideal of success for many. Consequently, the pitiless dichotomy of us-versus-them at the foundation of modern nationalism is reinforced.

People seek self-esteem through a sense of belonging to a group defined by ethnicity, religion, race or common culture. Mass media, popular culture and demagogues fulfil and manipulate their need for psychological dependency, and fill up their imaginative lives with a range of virtual enemies: immigrants, Muslims, liberals, unbelievers and the media itself. Professional groups, such as doctors, lawyers, small businessmen, once categorized as the petite bourgeoisie, are particularly prone to thinking of themselves as besieged.

If they belong to ethnic and racial minorities, they feel the inequality of opportunity most intensely. The postcolonial world since the mid-twentieth century has experienced multiple insurgencies by people who felt cut off from their share of power and privilege: Tamils in Sri Lanka, Kashmiris and Nagas in India, Muslims in the Philippines. But what explains the fact that many individuals among even relatively privileged majorities stand ready to support murderous leaders?

A ‘taste for well-being’, Tocqueville wrote, ‘easily comes to terms with any government that allows it to find satisfaction’ – and any kind of atrocity, he might have added. Modi, as he rose frictionlessly and swiftly from disgrace to respectability, did not only attract academics, writers and journalists who had failed to flourish under the old regime – the embittered pedantocrats and wannabes who traditionally serve in the intellectual rearguard of illiberal movements. Ratan Tata, the steel- and car-making tycoon, was one of the first big industrialists to embrace Modi in the wake of the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. Mukesh Ambani, another business magnate and owner of a twenty-seven-storey home in the city of slums, Mumbai, soon hailed his ‘grand vision’. His brother declared Modi ‘king among kings’.

At the same time, Modi positioned himself in the gap that a democracy dominated by a liberal elite had opened between itself and ambitious lower middle-class Hindus. Claiming to be a self-made man, he accused this elite of pampering Muslims while condescending to honest Hindus, and preventing them from unleashing their entrepreneurial energies. He made many poorly educated, underprivileged laggards – people brought up on Ayn Randian clichés of ambition, iron willpower and striving – feel masters of their individual destinies.

In their indifference to the common good, single-minded pursuit of private happiness, and narcissistic identification with an apparently ruthless strongman and uninhibited loudmouth, Modi’s angry voters mirror many electorates around the world – people gratified rather than appalled by trash-talk and the slaughter of old conventions. The new horizons of individual desire and fear opened up by the neoliberal world economy do not favour democracy or human rights.

In 2016 middle-class voters in the Philippines overwhelmingly chose Rodrigo Duterte as the country’s president, at least partly because he brazenly flaunted his expertise in the extrajudicial killing of criminals.

Modi’s assault on Muslims – already India’s most depressed and demoralized minority – may seem wholly gratuitous. But it was an electorally bountiful pogrom; it brought him a landslide victory just three months later, and now seems to have been an initiation rite for a ‘New India’ defined by individual self-interest.

This is why Modi only superficially resembles the European and Japanese demagogues of the early twentieth century who responded to the many crises of capitalism and democracy by merging corporate and political power, and embarking on massive state projects explicitly negating the axioms of liberal individualism. He and his fellow strongmen, supervising bloody purges of economically enervated and unproductive people, and consecrated by big election victories, are exponents of the dog-eat-dog politics and economy of the early twenty-first century.

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The crony-capitalist regimes of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand and Vladimir Putin in Russia were inaugurated by ferocious offensives against ethnic minorities. Erdogan is trying to consolidate support by renewing attacks on the Kurds, among other ‘traitors’. Even in the United States, a figure like Trump became a presidential candidate with the help of repeated threats to Mexicans and Muslims. All these figures trying feverishly to define a national community today actually attest to a decline of the historical form of the nation state. The social contract has weakened everywhere under the pressure of globalization. Much ultra-nationalist rhetoric verifies that the political entity entrusted universally since the French Revolution with the exercise of sovereign power is increasingly unable to resolve internal conflicts over distribution or to effect compromises between ethnic and racial communities.

This crisis of a flailing universal – the nation state – is signalled most clearly by the upsurge of particularist identities in even Europe and America. The black man called Barack Obama once wrote of the ‘trap’ of American life for victims of discrimination like himself; he wrote of being forced to withdraw ‘into a smaller and smaller coil of rage’, into ‘the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat’, and then inviting, ‘should you refuse this defeat and lash out’, the epithets ‘Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.’ Young members of racial and ethnic minorities, who awakened politically through the internet during the great economic crisis, try to protect their threatened dignity by insisting on being recognized as different. Conscious of a global audience, they also demand redress, if not reparations, from reigning white elites for racial injuries inflicted on their ancestors. In 2016 a spate of recorded killings by police of unarmed African-Americans provoked even some of the most wealthy musicians and athletes in the United States (Beyoncé, Serena Williams) into a politics of defiant gestures that was last witnessed in the 1970s.

At the same time, many elites in post-Enlightenment democracies try to resurrect their romantic national myths: the French presidential candidate (and former president) Nicolas Sarkozy wants all immigrants in France to acknowledge the Gauls as their ancestors. The British prime minister, Theresa May, warns that ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’. Politicians can find no rational ground to deny the political and moral claims of minorities or the economic benefits of immigration. It is easier to retreat, as England’s Brexit campaign showed, into fantasies of past power and glory, and splendid isolation; and there are enough vendors of a clash of civilizations peddling magical cosmic solutions to neuroses whose source lies in profound inequalities at home. These included the chief advocate of the clash of civilizations theory. Samuel Huntington fretted in his last book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004), about the destruction of white American culture by Hispanic immigration – a theme taken up vigorously by Donald Trump promising to make America great again.

Thus, in the very places where secular modernity arose, with ideas that were then universally established – individualism (against the significance of social relations), the cult of efficiency and utility (against the ethic of honour), and the normalization of self-interest – the mythic Volk has reappeared as a spur to solidarity and action against real and imagined enemies.

But nationalism is, more than ever before, a mystification, if not a dangerous fraud with its promise of making a country ‘great again’ and its demonization of the ‘other’; it conceals the real conditions of existence, and the true origins of suffering, even as it seeks to replicate the comforting balm of transcendental ideals within a bleak earthly horizon. Its political resurgence shows that ressentiment – in this case, of people who feel left behind by the globalized economy or contemptuously ignored by its slick overlords and cheerleaders in politics, business and the media – remains the default metaphysics of the modern world since Rousseau first defined it. And its most menacing expression in the age of individualism may well be the violent anarchism of the disinherited and the superfluous.

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