German Nihilism

"German Nihilism," Interpretation, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Spring 1999).  Corrections to "German Nihilism," Interpretation, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Fall 2000).  Talk given on February 26, 1941 at the New School for Social Research.


What is nihilism? And how far can nihilism be said to be a specifically German phenomenon? I am not able to answer these questions; I can merely try to elaborate them a little. For the phenomenon which I am going to discuss, is much too complex, and much too little explored, to permit of an adequate description within the short time at my disposal. I cannot do more than to scratch its surface.

When we hear at the present time the expression “German nihilism,” most of us naturally think at once of National Socialism. It must however be understood from the outset that National Socialism is only the most famous* form of German nihilism—its lowest, most provincial, most unenlightened and most dishonourable form. It is probable that its very vulgarity accounts for its great, if appalling, successes. These successes may be followed by failures, and ultimately by complete defeat. Yet the defeat of National Socialism will not necessarily mean the end of German nihilism. For that nihilism has deeper roots than the preachings of Hitler, Germany’s defeat in the Worid War and all that. To explain German nihilism, I propose to proceed in the following way. I shall first explain the ultimate motive which is underlying German nihilism- this motive is not in itself nihilistic. I shall then describe the situation in which that
non-nihilistic motive led to nihilistic aspirations. Finally, I shall attempt to give such a définition of nihilism as is not assailable from the point of view of the non-nihilistic motive in question, and on the basis of that definition,’ to describe German nihilism somewhat more fully.

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