Gramsci vs. Klemperer


I recently picked Victor Klemperer’s diary from his experiences living as a jew in nazi Germany out of the bookshelf and skimmed through some selected parts.

One of the most interesting parts from the early days is his brief but passioned description of how the german institutions fell quite resistanceless against the nazi party takeover, (from Friday March 10th, 1933, roughly translated from a Norwegian edition):

Day by day, always the same. Commissaries appointed, local governments dismissed, swastikas everywhere, houses occupied, people shot, newspapers forbidden etc., etc. Yesterday “on orders of the NS-party” – meaning no longer in the government’s name – the dramatist Karl Wolff was fired, today the entire government of Saxony and so on. Shaking up, revolution, party dictatorship. And all counter forces have suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth. This total collapse of a power that recently existed, no, this total dissolvement (just like 1918), upsets med terribly. Que sais-je?[1]

This reminds me of others who in more recent times have posed the question of how this could have happened – the nazi takeover, the war, the holocaust – in Germany, by many considered at the time the epicenter of European culture, science and education. How come the institutions fell so swiftly?

This again brought me to Gramsci’s concept of “War of position” which he regarded as “the most important question of political theory that the post-war period has posed, and the most difficult to solve correctly”. [2]

Just before this paragraph comes Gramsci’s famous description of civil society:

In the East the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the state tottered, a sturdy structure of civil society was immediately revealed. The State was just a forward trench; behind it stood a succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements.

This is the background for the need of a “War of position”, instead of a “War of manoeuvre” (frontal attack) in the western countries. Different state and civil society organizations represented a series of bulwarks against a challenge to the existing hegemony in western societies.

Was Gramsci basically wrong, as the German institutions and German society fell so swiftly for nazisms growth, or are there other explanations?

The simple, and well accepted answer, neturally is that the Weimar institutions were exeptionally weak. In that sense, the way they fell for the nazis were a confirmation of Gramscis thesis. But how about the deeper cultural strains in german society?

Perhaps a part of the explanation of this can be found in the discussions regarding Michael Haneke’s film Der Weisse Band (The White Ribbon) from 2009.

The film takes place in a small German village just before the outbreak of WW1, and it describes how a traditional strict patriarchal and authoritarian upbringing translates into brutality and violence among the children.

Could the strict and authoritarian Preussian culture that permeated much of German society at least until the end of WW1 have somewhat primed this society and its institutions for fascism?

It is hardly the complete picture. There are many reasons nazism grew and resonated in German society – economic crises, a disastrous split on the left, inherent racism, elements of human psychology etc., and there also was resistance, in some instances successful (at least temporarily) against nazism, but the traditional patriarchal culture of following orders and submitting to power, is also a piece of this mosaic.

[1] Klemperer, Victor (1999) Jeg skal vitne til siste stund. Dagbøker fra Hitler-Tyskland 1933-1945. Gyldendal. s. 9

[2] Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Lawrence and Wisthart. pp. 238


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