The End of History and the Last Man
For seven critical days at the end of July 1914, and the beginning of August, there were huge nationalistic demonstrations before the Foreign Office and the Kaiser's residence; when the latter returned to Berlin from Potsdam on July 31, his motorcade was swamped by crowds clamoring for war. It was in that atmosphere that critical decisions leading to war were taken. These scenes were repeated that week in Paris, Petrograd, London, and Vienna. And much of the exuberance of those crowds reflected the feeling that war meant national unity and citizenship at long last, an overcoming of the divisions between capitalist and proletariat, Protestant and Catholic, farmer and worker, that characterized civil society. As one witness described the feeling among the crowds in Berlin, 'No one knows anybody else. But all are seized by one earnest emotion: War, war, and a sense of togetherness.'
In 1914, Europe had experienced a hundred years of peace since the last major, continent-wide conflict had been settled by the Congress of Vienna. That century had seen the flowering of modern technological civilization as Europe industrialized, bringing in its train extraordinary material prosperity and the emergence of a middle class society. The pro-war demonstrations that took place in the different capitals of Europe in August 1914 can be seen in some measure as rebellions against that middle-class civilization, with its security, prosperity, and lack of challenge. The growing isothymia of everyday life no longer seemed sufficient. On a mass scale, megalothymia reappeared: not the megalothymia of individual princes, but of entire nations that sought recognition of their worth and dignity.
In Germany, above all, the war was seen by many as a revolt against the materialism of the commercial world created by France and that archetype of bourgeois societies, Britain. Germany of course had many specific grievances against the existing order in Europe, from colonial and naval policy to the threat of Russian economic expansion. But in reading German justifications for the war, one is struck by a consistent emphasis on the need for a kind of objectless struggle, a struggle that would have purifying moral effects quite independently of whether Germany gained colonies or won freedom of the seas. The comments of a young German law student on his way to the front in September 1914 were typical: while denouncing war as 'dreadful, unworthy of human beings, stupid, outmoded, and in every sense destructive,' he nonetheless came to the Nietzschean conclusion that 'the decisive issue is surely always one's readiness to sacrifice and not the object of sacrifice.' Pflicht, or duty, was not understood as a matter of enlightened self-interest or contractual obligation; it was an absolute moral value that demonstrated one's inner strength and superiority to materialism and natural determination. It was the beginning of freedom and creativity.
Modern thought raises no barriers to a future nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those brought up in its bosom. Relativism—the doctrine that maintains that all values are merely relative and which attacks all 'privileged perspectives'—must ultimately end up undermining democratic and tolerant values as well. Relativism is not a weapon that can be aimed selectively at the enemies one chooses. It fires indiscriminately, shooting out the legs of not only the 'absolutisms,' dogmas, and certainties of the Western tradition, but that tradition's emphasis on tolerance, diversity, and freedom of thought as well. If nothing can be true absolutely, if all values are culturally determined, then cherished principles like human equality have to go by the wayside as well.
There is no better example of this than the thought of Nietzsche himself. Nietzsche believed that man's awareness that nothing was true was both a threat and an opportunity. It was a threat because, as noted earlier, it undermined the possibility of life 'within a horizon.' But it was also an opportunity, because it permitted total human freedom from prior moral constraints. The ultimate form of human creativity for Nietzsche was not art but the creation of what was highest, new values. His project, once he liberated himself from the shackles of earlier philosophy that believed in the possibility of absolute truth or right, was to 're-value all values,' beginning with those of Christianity. He deliberately sought to undermine belief in human equality, arguing that this was simply a prejudice instilled in us by Christianity. Nietzsche hoped that the principle of equality would give way one day to a morality justifying the domination of the weak by the
strong, and ended up celebrating what amounted to a doctrine of cruelty. He hated societies that were diverse and tolerant, preferring instead those that were intolerant, instinctive, and without remorse—the Indian Chandala caste that tried to breed distinct races of men, or the 'blond beasts of prey' which 'unhesitatingly lay (their) terrible claws upon a populace.' Nietzsche's relationship to German fascism has been debated at great length, and while he can be defended from the narrow charges of being the forefather of National Socialism's simpleminded doctrines, the relationship between his thought and nazism is not accidental. Just as in the case of his follower, Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche's relativism shot out all of the philosophical props holding up Western liberal democracy, and replaced it with a doctrine of strength and domination. Nietzsche believed the era of European nihilism, which he was helping to inaugurate, would lead to 'immense wars' of the spirit, objectless wars whose only purpose was to affirm war itself.