Kurt Riezler, 1882-1955

"Kurt Riezler, 1882-1955," Social Research, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring 1956).  Reprinted in What Is Political Philosophy?


In this work Riezler attempted to clarify the character that foreign politics had taken on during the long period of peace among the great European powers after 1871. He traced that character to the nature of foreign politics on the one hand, and the particular conditions of the period on the other. The most massive political fact was the conflict among nations: each nation concerned with self-preservation and expansion, and driven by unlimited selfishness. But national conflict was not the fundamental conflict. Nationalism was challenged by cosmopolitanism. Both nationalist and cosmopolitan tendencies were growing in force, and so was their irreconcilable hostility. Riezler faced the question whether peace among nations or war among nations is according to nature. He saw this alternative: either the nation is the highest form of human association, with the consequence that there is “eternal, absolute enmity’ ‘ among the nations, with friend- ship among nations being enmity postponed or common enmity to other nations; or else humankind as a whole stands above the nations, assigning them their role and place and legitimately limiting their aspirations.

He decided without hesitation in favor of nationalism. The conflict of ideas, he argued, reflects the conflict of living forces; the question of the truth of an idea is therefore the question of its power. He held that we have only to look around us in order to realize that the thoughts and sentiments of the nations are dominated by the national idea, not by the cosmopolitan idea. And history teaches us that while nationalism and the nation state are of fairly recent origin, their earlier equivalents were always more powerful than cosmopolitanism. Riezler was not impressed by the cosmopolitan professions of faith–of which there was no scarcity. He was certain that if these professions were put to the test, even the socialist workers would go with their countries. Nor was he impressed by the belief that if the nations only knew one another better, through seeing more of one another, enmity among them would cease: increase of acquaintance does not necessarily improve feeling.