Denis de Rougemont /// Conversation with a Brownshirt
Between 1935 and 1936, the Francophone Swiss intellectual Denis de Rougemont (L’Amour et l’Occident) was a guest lecturer at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt where, in addition to his teaching, he kept a diary of observations—many in the form of dialogues—about life in Nazi Germany.
The following is an excerpt from what would become his Journal d’Allemagne, first published by Gallimard in 1938.
[The SA man has just taken his doctoral exam and still turns up at my seminar from time to time. Since he seems interested in my opinions regarding the regime, I sometimes bring him by the house for a chat.]
HIM: Anything new since our last encounter?
ME: A few observations, wandering your streets here… That’s a pretty “reactionary” thing to do, no? Wandering…
HIM: Well, yes… (Polite silence.)
ME: So let’s get to it. I was saying to you the other day: How can you expect the French not to accuse you of being hungry for war, when they see young Germans showing such enthusiasm for Wehrsport?1 This obsession with wearing boots everywhere (not only on horseback), these uniforms, these daggers hanging from your belts, these fierce processions—in French it all can mean only one thing: war. Think what you like of that judgment, that’s how it is. As I was saying, when French people see young men marching in step, in well-ordered rows, and, above all, just for the fun of it, there’s only one possible explanation, which is that these fellows are getting ready for war.
HIM: No, look, it’s a matter of taste, really, that’s all it is. It’s something we like to do. It doesn’t have anything to do with war, with war against any specific country. Young Germans have always loved marching and singing in groups, for as long as anyone can remember. It’s like the Swiss, for example, they love to shoot rifles. But you’re not about to criticize them for being a danger to their neighbors.
ME: Fine. Granted. And that’s where we left it the other day. The last thing I said to you was: Let’s hope you find a way to make it understood, outside of Germany, that your taste for the trappings of war is no less peaceable than a taste for athletics or, dare I say, art!
HIM: Okay. And now?
ME: Now I believe it’s more serious than that. One thing that strikes me: this word Kampf, struggle, which you read and hear everywhere here, every other minute, in all the newspaper articles, in all the political speeches. I admire your Winterhilfswerk, but I’ve noticed that the red banners strung above the streets and bearing slogans in support of this effort all contain the word Kampf, if not the word Krieg. “Our war is the struggle against cold and hunger.” Of course, I know quite well what you mean by that—you mean: “Other peoples are still engaged in armed conflicts, whereas we—we are struggling to build a world without misery: that’s our war!” But why must your peace take the form of yet another war? Do you really have no other way to rally your fellow citizens than with calls for war, even if it’s a war for peace? Take Briand2 for comparison: when he wanted to rouse French enthusiasm, he “declared Peace” on the entire world.
HIM: But in that case no one but the French believed him. And it certainly didn’t trouble the Comité des Forges.3 Let’s be serious. First of all, there’s a simple explanation for this abuse of the word Kampf: the Führer himself introduced it into our everyday speech with his famous autobiography. But leave that aside. The truth is, we have an heroic conception of life. Everything hinges on that.
ME: Now we’re getting somewhere. I’m not going to object to your conception of the world insofar as it claims to be heroic (young Russians, by the way, make similar claims for their world-view). I’d be quite happy if French or Swiss or Belgian youths showed a bit more heroism themselves and, for example, less devotion to the cinema or the “athletic” prowess of professional cyclists. Only it seems we have two radically different notions of what heroism is. You put on your boots and do military drills in the countryside. Fine, that’s all very straightforward. My version is somewhat more complicated to explain… also perhaps to accomplish. I have to fight, too, against a certain economic and cultural regime, against a mass of antediluvian political prejudices that hamper public life and poison thought. I, too, have to struggle against all these impulses, whether from the left or the right, in order to move forward, in order to leave these old sentimental specters behind, in order to remain the master of my own thoughts and actions in the midst of the widespread—and sterile—agitation of these times. We have an order to build. And that seems to me a far more urgent calling than to go play war games in the suburban forests. A more dangerous one, too.
HIM: Certainly. But don’t forget we’ve already been through our revolution. Now we have another problem to resolve. The spiritual side is taken care of… officially, at least… but what are we going to do with our physical energy? And it’s even more serious than that. You see, we can’t escape these specters, as you called them: the veteran warriors right beside us. The ordeal they went through was tremendous, they’ve been to the limits of experience, lived through something so extreme… and nothing can take the place of that for us. We’re ashamed to look them in the eye. We don’t feel we’ve ever gone all the way ourselves, pushed our strength to the breaking point. Yet there’s a deep instinct in every man, that calls him to submit to such an ordeal, to put his capacities to the ultimate test. How can it be satisfied?
ME: Ten years ago I might have told you… sport.
HIM: That’s something. It’s not enough, though. It’s not serious. The opponent isn’t a real opponent, the way he is in war. We need to feel confronted by a truly dangerous enemy, in order to have a reason to engage the full force of our virility. That’s not something that can be denied, pure and simple, in the name of “pacifism,” in the name of some theory or other…
ME: Let’s grant, then, that your Wehrsport really does develop your virility. Where will that lead you, if not to war?
HIM: Maybe that’s what’s necessary…
ME: But that isn’t what you were saying just now! Look, I’m probably going to shock you a bit here. What I object to in your “maybe that’s what’s necessary,” isn’t the cynicism of the remark but rather its appalling idealism. War these days is in no way an appeal to virility. We’re not in the time of Frederick the Great anymore. Nowadays war doesn’t provide an education in physical violence, it’s a machine for killing other men, systematically and from a great distance. It’s a mechanical massacre, period. That’s it. And all for the benefit of the commercial arms trade, as you well know. I don’t understand your envy for the Veterans of the Great War. They were subjected to an awful and useless ordeal. They were victims of a frightful accident. There’s nothing human about such an ordeal, it has no value for the normal life of man. And they were the first to say so! It’s a mutilation. It’s a cosmic catastrophe, like an avalanche burying some village in the Alps—tell me, what glory, what benefit do you think the survivors draw from that?! Are you really going to unleash a brand new avalanche, on purpose, just in order to live through it? In order to have that “heroic experience,” that admirable Erlebnis that amounts to escaping with half your limbs from an incident of idiotic devastation?
HIM: And what’s your solution then? Write pacifist articles, hang around in cafés, make some money, theorize about the new world order? It’s not as though you French are especially realistic.
ME: You know I’m not a “pacifist.” I recognize the reality and necessity of human conflicts. But there are other solutions than war. Putting forward all our differences, all our contrasts, even the most radical of them, asserting ourselves as Frenchmen opposite you Germans, that might lead to an open struggle, sure, but not necessarily to material destruction. Quite the contrary: we personalists, for instance, have too great a need for natural differences and antipathies to want to wipe them out. We’re federalists, which is to say we want all differences to exalt in their mutual antipathy, and thereby create fertile tensions. Civilization and culture are born of and live by this kind of tension. Or take the example of a painting: you don’t reach harmony just by mixing all the colors together. Rather you have to place a stroke of bright red next to some violent green in order to get the whole thing “singing.”
HIM: You do have a knack for aesthetic composition! But I’m telling you, you lack a sense of reality. You’re still a disciple of Rousseau, more than you care to believe! In human reality, the glorification of one identity in the face of another ends in war, there’s no way around it.
ME: In your reality there’s no way around it! Because you place all these conflicts in the rigid frame of the nation-state. The nation, as you conceive it, becomes a danger as soon as it’s strong and well-armed. Which is why in my opinion your “army sports” are a threat to peace, whether you want them to be or not, because they’re in service to the State.
HIM: Come on! They’re for our spiritual education, that’s all. We have no reason to seek war with France, you know that. What would we have to gain from it?
ME: Indeed. But war with Russia?
HIM: Not the same. Listen, you have to be ready for anything, even if there’s still Poland between the two of us. But more than anything else, we need strength, inner strength, to insure our ability to defend the regime.
ME: Let’s come back to the problem of war itself. How do you propose to resolve this matter, that man’s darker, more brutal forces must be put to use? Simple: you prepare for war. And when I tell you that’s a danger to all of Europe, you deny it, with a sincerity I do not mean to question but which I can’t manage to comprehend. I’m probably still too much of a rationalist, is it?
HIM: I don’t deny the difficulty. But aren’t their difficulties, too, in your “federalist” system? And, anyway, you’re leaving aside this necessity in man, to engage the world physically…
ME: We’re not leaving that aside. We just want to create some other domain for him to engage with than modern warfare. What we do deny is that war is ever the right solution, given the instruments currently at its disposal. We want a creative struggle, not a destructive one. That’s the whole effort of civilization: to turn unavoidable conflicts into fertile soil, and not to end up eliminating one of the antagonists. I know civilization is a dirty word over here, but we aren’t going to reject civilization on the grounds that, according to you, German Jews have made a caricature of it. These struggles must become spiritual struggles, as they were for Rimbaud when he said that “Spiritual combat is every bit as brutal as battle among men.”
HIM: And for those who aren’t so refined as you’d like? What’s your plan for the great mass of men who don’t understand violence except in its physical forms? Are you at least going to reserve some real, concrete territory for them, a country where those who want to will be able to… what’s the French for sich austoben?
ME: S’en donner à cœur joie! Let loose, you might say, have the time of your life—or death, more likely… Fine by me, as long as you leave us out of it. But I’ll give you a more serious answer in just one word: it’s a matter of education. In our view, educating people doesn’t mean stuffing their skulls with useless information—or, for that matter, practical information. Even less so does it mean grooming them for brutality. Educating people means giving them a way to transfer their natural violence into domains where it might prove fertile.
HIM: I wish you the best of luck!
(Translated from the French by Louis Cancelmi)
- Wehrsport here refers to a spectrum of activities related to war and soldiering—marching, rope-climbing, hand-to-hand combat, grenade throwing competitions—meant to promote and develop martial values. ↩
- Aristide Briand, Prime Minister of France during the 3rd Republic and co-laureate of the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize, co-authored the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, whose signatories renounced the use of war and called for the peaceful settlement of international disputes. ↩
- An organization of iron and steel industrialists in France, which during the interwar period supported nationalist right wing and fascist movements. ↩