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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.1 (2002) 151-171
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Eric Voegelin on Nazi Political Extremism
Clifford F. Porter
Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) is not as well known among historians as he is among political theorists, yet he has had a continuing influence on both German Social Democrat and Christian Democrat political leaders. His early life is very much a reflection of both the intellectual developments and the chaos of Germany and Austria between the wars. Voegelin's analysis of Nazism is worth revisiting by historians because it delineated the Nazi rationale for the Holocaust in the early 1930s, even if the Nazis themselves had yet to move towards mass murder early in the regime. Voegelin was not prescient enough to predict the extent of the Holocaust, but he understood that the ideological rationale of Nazi violence was unlimited. Furthermore, his description of political extremism as Gnosticism in 1952 is valid for explaining why an individual might support the Nazis and then voluntarily commit extraordinarily vicious acts to try to realize the dream-world of the Third Reich.
The political, economic, and social chaos in Austria after World War I was the catalyst for the young Eric Voegelin's studies of the essence of ideologies and the ideologists who promoted them from both the left and right wing. As National Socialism grew, so did his experiences with and understanding of extremist political ideologies. Contemporary intellectual debates between neo-Kantian and existentialist methodology, however, did not help penetrate to the essential causes of political extremism. His experiences in America in the mid-1920s were essential for his development away from what he characterized as narrow methodological provincialism to an empiricism open to philosophic questions, including spiritual questions. By 1938 he had theorized that ideologies were political secular religions that substituted the state for divine reality.
Because of this interpretation, Voegelin's approach to totalitarianism has been characterized as an outdated ersatz religion model, better suited for the Cold War. 1 The ersatz religion model worked reasonably well to describe similarities [End Page 151] the National Socialist movement had with religions, but Voegelin recognized that it did not penetrate to the essence of ideologies. His understanding of ideologies matured after World War II into his theory that ideologies were Gnostic quests for absolute certainty that caused alienation from reality.
Voegelin thought that the search for certainty ultimately required excluding any evidence to the contrary of the ideology; therefore, ideologies limited the individual's view of human reality to the immediate world. Furthermore, although ideologies are founded on a kernel of truth—e.g., proletarians are sometimes oppressed—ideologists become quickly alienated from reality as a consequence of their own quest for certainty about meaning in existence. The consequences of alienation are that ideologists pursue the perceived immanent good and try to eliminate the perceived immanent evil, thereby rationalizing criminality and even murder. Violence is inherent to extremist political ideologies.
Background and Influences: Weber, Kraus, University, and America
Eric Voegelin was born in 1901 and grew up in Vienna. After the war Austria was convulsed by political and social crises ranging from attempted reactionary and Communist coups to constant food shortages. In the first post-war election Voegelin's political and social inclinations led him to vote for the Social Democratic Party (SDP), but he was aggravated by the uncompromising Marxist rhetoric of the SDP leadership. In this atmosphere Voegelin began his long journey toward understanding ideologies, but first he had to work through many different political and philosophic problems before he arrived at an adequate understanding. The intellectuals that influenced him during this long process were diverse, but they shared a hostility to ideologies.
The first important academic influence on Voegelin was Max Weber. 2 Weber encouraged intellektuelle Rechtschaffenheit (intellectual honesty) with others and especially with oneself. Weber insisted on following an ethic of responsibility for one's actions (Verantwortungsethik), rather than making apologies for following an ethic of good intentions (Gesinnungsethik). The latter, Weber feared, was often used to justify bad consequences of well-intended actions. 3 These simple...