The Heritage of Authoritarianism and the Authoritarian Revolt

Activity: Lecture / PresentationAcademic


The Heritage of Authoritarianism and the Authoritarian Revolt

In 2017 a scientific edition of Hitler's Mein Kampf appeared with thousands footnotes on the sources of the author’s ideas. This semantic genealogy has been welcomed as an attractive way to explain Europe’s most evil book to its citizens. Mein Kampf was for decades kept out of the public sphere, and it was the first time since 1945 that Hitler was allowed to speak again in public. Remarkably though, the editors did not explain modern readers the enormous appeal of this book among their predecessors. It was as if they simply could not belief anyone would still be attracted to war and racism after reading such an unattractive book. Yet it is not Hitler’s mindscape which should interest us, but that of his millions of followers who did share his racial utopia of a strong, purified nation, and the offering their lives for the largest genocide and the biggest war in history. And as they mourned for decades after the war, it was not because of the Holocaust, but because of the loss of their leader.
My keynote deals with the attraction of fascism from a post-war perspective of Nazism as the complete negation of humanism and liberal democracy. If this negative legacy of authoritarianism centred around Auschwitz and the Holocaust as the crucial founding myth of the postwar project of European unification, how should we explain then the current Authoritarian Revolt of the New Right? Could it be that Mein Kampf would not be only a book of history, but still has a message to address to its readers?
As to this, I draw attention to the complex relationship of past motives and present meanings of the heritage of authoritarianism. For it is not only Mein Kampf but also the sources which inspired Hitler, such as Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918-1922), the geopolitical work of Carl Schmitt and other thinkers of the Konservative Revolution, which promotes a new authoritarian project to turn decadent democracies into strong states, united in a crusade against the enemies of western civilization. And thus we may ask why the modernity of fascism is hardly recognised thus far by progressives, and why exactly this attraction of authoritarianism has made us blind for some uneasy continuities of the Third Reich's ‘makeability’ and Ordnungswahn.
In postwar Europe, Nazism’s ‘difficult heritage’ has been almost completely tabooed as a force of evil, a negative heritage which was there, but not allowed to enter public space, to speak about, or to mention without an authorised scientific or artistic intervention. For European memory was built on the ‘house of the dead’ (Tony Judt) with Auschwitz-Birkenau as the ultimate mnemonic icon of ‘dark heritage’. Yet notions like dark or difficult heritage mainly show how the legacy of authoritarian regimes is mostly gazed from a humanist perspective as a return to barbarism. Not only does such narrative frames prevent us to explain the historic attraction of fascism and communism, it also neglects that instead of dark or difficult most heritage of authoritarianism is (silently) appropriated as modernism. We may therefore better look to new historical explanations which point, on the one hand, to the modernity of fascism (and communism), and on the other, to a continuous obsession with purity and degeneration. This is in my view the ‘fatal attraction’ of authoritarian modernism, and which confronts us with the uncomfortable possibility that Nazism still 'speaks' to younger generations.

Rob van der Laarse
University of Amsterdam, May 2018

Period12 May 2018
Event title19th Annual Cambridge Heritage Research Symposium 2018: Heritage and Authoritarianism
Event typeConference
Conference number19
LocationAmsterdam, NetherlandsShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational