Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Christa Lundberg on Early Modern Philosophical Letters

Christa Lundberg is a PhD candidate in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Her dissertation explores humanist religious scholarship and its critics in early sixteenth-century France. She recently spoke with Pranav Jain about her article “The Making of a Philosopher: The Contemplative Letters of Charles de Bovelles,” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April, 82.2).

Pranav Jain: In some places, you interpret Bovelles’s letters through silences. In other words, your argument builds both upon what Bovelles says and what he leaves unsaid. What are some of the challenges of interpreting early modern letters in this way and how did you navigate them while reading Bovelles’s correspondence? 

Christa Lund: My interest in Bovelles’s silences began with frustration. We know little about Bovelles’s everyday life or what he did besides writing philosophical treatises. It was therefore especially disappointing to find that his surviving letters provide so little personal detail. One example that I mention in the article is that Bovelles manages to write a letter during a visit to Brussels without indicating what he is doing there, where he plans to go next, or how he experienced the city. As I read the letters more closely, however, my frustration turned into fascination and determination to understand the purpose of these strange letters.

The main challenge of thinking about the ‘unsaid’ in letters is, of course, to explain why anything particular should have been said besides what is on the page. In this case, I had to ask whether it was simply my expectations and desires, as a historian, that created the impression that something was lacking. My strategy was twofold. First, I looked for external comparisons—I compared Bovelles’s letters with those of his contemporaries and thought carefully about the role of genre. Second, I paid close attention to Bovelles’s own statements about what he did not write about in letters. He admitted, even celebrated, a practice of excluding ‘mundane news’ that would ‘soon expire.’ In other words, there were deliberate silences in Bovelles’s letters.

PJ: In the article, you ask whether Bovelles’s letters can be seen as “essays with an added greeting.” Are there any other sixteenth-century thinkers whose letters can be described as such? If so, how do their letters relate to the methods you see at work in Bovelles’s correspondence? 

CL: The accusation that philosophical or scientific letters were not actually letters has been around since antiquity. In some cases, readers might doubt that these texts were actually sent as letters. Of course, this suspicion can be raised against all published epistles. But the problem with philosophical letters appears to be more fundamental: we feel that these texts are not communicative or personal enough to qualify as letters.

Many kinds of essayistic letters were nevertheless published in the sixteenth century. One fascinating example is the collections of medical letters studied by Ian Maclean and Nancy Siraisi. Learned physicians shared their erudition and experience in the form of letters—some of these were clearly intended for publication and could be described as essays. This is a very good parallel with Bovelles’s project of sharing ideas with a wider philosophical community. My impression is that the philosophical letter was a less popular genre than the medical letter. One plausible explanation has to do with the readership of learned books outside the university. While physicians were a well-defined audience for medical letter collections, there was no real equivalent for philosophical books.

The full story of sixteenth-century philosophical letters remains, however, to be written. First of all, we would need an inventory of relevant collections. I have just learned about Camilla Erculiani’s Letters on Natural Philosophy (1584), which will appear in a new edition and English translation this year. While Erculiani’s letters originate in a very different context from those of Bovelles, the two authors seem to share a tendency to move seamlessly between natural philosophy and theology. I look forward to being able to read them side by side!

PJ: Apart from the ones you have already outlined in the article, what might be some other implications of your argument for how we think about the early modern republic of letters? 

CL: First, a disclaimer: Bovelles was not an important player in the early modern republic of letters. He did not exchange letters with Erasmus or other key nodes in the growing international network of scholars. Neither did he express a desire to be part of the kind of community whose ideals are so vividly invoked in Anthony Grafton’s essay “A Sketch Map of a Lost Continent: The Republic of Letters”: the free exchange of ideas and fostering of scholarly and religious tolerance. Nevertheless, I think that Bovelles’s correspondence is useful for thinking about the communities that helped connect and power the republic of letters in the early sixteenth century.

One of my main aims in this article was to illuminate how Bovelles’s letters reflected his education at the Collège de Cardinal Lemoine in Paris. Many of his letters discuss topics picked from the curriculum in Arts philosophy, especially the courses in natural philosophy and mathematics. Furthermore, a large part of Bovelles’s correspondents were alumni of the same educational institution. Together, these factors point toward the central role of the University as the starting point of Bovelles’s epistolary community. In this case, therefore, the University appears as a kind of substrate to one corner of the early modern republic of letters.

After leaving the University of Paris, Bovelles became a canon in the cathedral of Noyon. His correspondence also reflects the role of a growing ecclesiastical and monastic network. Bovelles increasingly exchanged letters with canons, friars, and monks. In the 1530s, the Celestine order assisted Bovelles by carrying messages from him to members of the order, as Jean-Claude Margolin noted in Lettres et poèmes de Charles de Bovelles (2011). The Church and monastic orders helped provide an infrastructure for connectivity.

Bovelles’s community thus offers an occasion to think about the roots of the republic of letters. It suggests that, in early sixteenth-century France, the essentially medieval institutions of the University and the Church still played an important role in shaping scholarly networks.

Pranav Jain is a PhD student at Yale University working on early modern Britain, and a contributing editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: Drawing from Charles de Bovelles, Quae hoc volumine continentur: Liber de intellectu…. de geometricis supplementis (Paris: H. Estienne, 1511), 60v.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Alessandro Nannini on the Psychologization of the Soul in the German Enlightenment

Alessandro Nannini received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Palermo, Italy (2015) and has since been a research fellow and member of research groups at several universities and research centers in Italy, Germany, France, Bulgaria and Romania. Currently, he is a research fellow at the University of Bucharest, Romania. His research focuses on intellectual history and aesthetics in the Early Modern Age, with particular regard to the German Enlightenment. He is interviewed by contributing editor Albert J. Hawks about his article, “At the Bottom of the Soul: The Psychologization of the ‘Fundus Animae’ between Leibniz and Sulzer” that appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 82.1).

Albert Hawks: I want to start out with a really basic, big picture type question. I always wonder when I’m reading a new article how the author came to the subject (my own work seems like a combination of random factors, interest, and luck). As someone outside of your field, I have no idea how one comes to write about the fundus animae. How did you find this critical moment in intellectual history? What was the process of discovery?

Alessandro Nannini: I started to study the philosophy of Baumgarten and of the German Enlightenment for my PhD dissertation several years ago. I was mainly interested in the links between aesthetics and empirical psychology, so my attention was immediately drawn to the concept of the fundus animae, which features both in Baumgarten’s Metaphysica (1739) and Aesthetica (1750-1758).

At the same time, much scholarly literature used to credit Baumgarten with its coinage, or at least with its introduction in the German Enlightenment. So, with my attention alerted but without any specific aim, I started excavating the sources around Baumgarten—in particular the Pietist background as well as the psychological tradition—and I soon discovered a few significant occurrences of fundus animae prior to Baumgarten’s Metaphysica. They were especially present in the texts of the Israel Gottlieb Canz, a Lutheran theologian and philosopher influenced by both Leibniz and Wolff. These occurrences had never been recorded in the secondary literature, although Canz already understood the ground of the soul in a psychological sense, which increased still further my interest.

At this point, I started to look at the general history of the idea and noticed that there was a gap in the period between Leibniz and Baumgarten. The gap regarded precisely the moment in which the exchanges between metaphysical and mystical concepts had been more frequent and fruitful in the establishment of two momentous disciplines such as psychology and aesthetics. As a detailed analysis of these exchanges is still a major desideratum of research, I was convinced to devote a whole study on the fundus animae, bringing to light some totally neglected sources within a wider context, in a way that could be of some utility to those interested in this period from different perspectives.

AH: In your article, you trace the evolution of the fundus animae along a winding path from theology to poetry to ethics and eventually psychology. One of the things I found myself wondering about is the extent of connectivity between, for example, Wolff and the concept’s theological roots. It seems that the fundus animae leavened into the collective consciousness and, from there, was utilized by later fields. In other words, the connections are somewhat subconscious. To what extent is this the case? And how accurate would it be to say that these separate fields are using a semantically similar but conceptually different term? 

AN: I can understand that the number of fields in which the idea emerges could give the impression that the fundus animae is just a common heritage, with few, if any, horizontal connections between the different domains. However, I think this impression is misleading.

At the beginning of the German Enlightenment, the notion of the “ground of the soul” was used by Leibniz and by Thomasius, both of whom were terminologically influenced by the seventeenth-century French moralistics and mystics. In this case, the concepts are certainly semantically similar and conceptually different: while in Leibniz the fundus animae signifies an image of the soul drawing all its ideas from itself (from its “ground”), Thomasius refers to it in the context of political prudence (aiming at the necessity for a good politician to read others’ most hidden intentions from outer gestures). Now, my thesis is that these two quite different perspectives, along with the mystical heritage, contribute to the emergence of a fully new psychological sense of the term. It is in the light of this new concept that the older strands of thought find an important convergence. The aim of my essay is precisely to reconstruct how and why at a certain point these strands started to interact with one another producing a new conceptual cohesion under the aegis of psychology.

More specifically, I maintain that the psychologization of the notion of fundus animae in the Leibnizian tradition was fostered by the new appraisal of the Thomasian tradition concerning cardiognostics made by Wolff. Wolff uses the term abyssus mentis not in the context of the spontaneity of the soul (as in Leibniz and Bilfinger), but in the discussion about the possibility of reading others’ minds, which was made famous in Germany by Thomasius with a book mentioning the “recesses of the heart” (Verborgene des Herzens) in its very title. Wolff was therefore aware of Thomasius’s use of the term “Verborgene des Herzens” and decided to take up the concept, in the Latin form of abyssus mentis (Grund und Abgrund des Gemüthes in Hagen’s German translation) in direct connection with Thomasius’s problem.

While Wolff thus appropriates the idea of a “cardiognostics”, the framework changes since Wolff intends to deal with the abyssus mentis no longer in political prudence like Thomasius but in psychology, encouraging his followers to delve further into the issue from this perspective. Wolff himself does not provide more precise indications, at least up to his late Ethica; yet, when an author influenced by Wolff such as Canz adopts the concept (in the form of abyssus animae/animi; fundus animae), he does so with the epistemological toolbox of Leibniz’s and Wolff’s psychology, that is, through clear and confused, and obscure ideas, thus welding together for the first time the fundus animae and the domain of indistinctness (later of obscurity alone), and making of fundus animae an epistemic concept. In this way, the fundus animae becomes a significant way to refer to the unconscious, which finds a significant development via the two disciplines dealing with the lower powers of the mind, that is psychology and the newly born aesthetics.

What made the reconstruction of this process challenging is the fact that the authors considered were reluctant to state their sources, often coming from different disciplines, hence my attempt was in a sense to lay bare the hidden interactions the authors left unspoken. In this way, the links between the various strands, at least from Canz onwards, are subconscious only in the sense that they are implicit, but they were certainly conscious at the time and now require a conceptual work to be acknowledged again in all their cogency and breadth.

AH: The concept of the fundus animae originates in this mystical, unknowable interiority of the soul. In your article, you demonstrate its evolution into a secular, psychological concept, the “dark basement.” How did this evolution effect the unknowability component of the concept? To what extent would it still be characterized as obscure? Or does it, through conceptual breakthrough, come to be seen as a known entity?

AN: Interesting question. The fundus animae is certainly a way to refer to an unknowable region of the soul. The fact is that what is acknowledged as unknowable can be conceptualized in different ways in different contexts. Therefore, in a sense, the conceptualization of the unknowable is knowable: what we get to know, however, is not the “content” of the fundus animae, but the way in which this “unknowable” is conceived—something about the Weltanschauung of the authors who intended to make sense by referring to it through certain images or metaphors.

Beyond this methodological plane, the necessity to assume the presence of a “ground of the soul” in an Enlightenment context originates from the disquieting awareness of a number of apparently inexplicable events and circumstances, ranging from the relationship with the divine to the artistic inspiration, from the assimilation of habits to psychopathological conditions. In a context more and more characterized by the impact of the Scientific Revolution, where the “openness” of the Renaissance consciousness—openness to the influence of stars, angels, demons, the world spirit, etc.—is no longer widely accepted, the need emerges to situate the source of such unaccountable events in the soul itself. The knowability of the fundus animae is in this manner always a posteriori, always belated with regard to the events it tries to make sense of, as Minerva’s owl, because it testifies to the attempt to rationalize and locate in the subject the dimension of the mysterious that, one way or another, always pervades our life. 

AH: Your article ends with describing the concept of the fundus animae as major breakthrough in the history of the unconscious. While it takes us beyond the scope of this article, would you be willing to briefly characterize how this moment goes on to impact psychological concepts of the unconscious in later intellectual history? Does this concept still have an influence today?

AN: The ground of the soul undoubtedly remains a significant theme for many late eighteenth-century thinkers, and is also taken up by Kant, while Herder makes of it one of the main axes of his thought, not to speak about the importance it plays for the aesthetics of genius in the Romantic age. Aesthetics itself, in the original sense of “inferior gnoseology,” becomes possible precisely following the conceptual elaboration of the lower fringes of the soul that the discussion about fundus animae has made possible within Wolffianism.

More than for direct influences on single authors, however, I think that the psychological idea of fundus animae is essential for the conceptualization of the unconscious—of the unconscious as opposed to the conscious and not of the unconscious in a Freudian fashion—because it, for the first time in a clear way, brings to the fore the necessity of locating the dimension of the subliminal in a specific seat within the soul, a seat that was unknown to the Aristotelian model of the soul and that was borrowed, after a process of adaptation, from Medieval mystics. This shift greatly contributes to bestowing epistemological dignity to the matter of the unconscious and helps us become more aware of the entanglement of very different lines of thought in its emergence. When Sulzer at the end of the 1750s sees in the depths of the soul the most cutting-edge domain of empirical psychology, it is clear that the merit of this interest greatly depends on the psychologization of the concept of fundus animae in the previous decades, which will preserve its importance for the legitimation of this field of study even when the problem of the unconscious will be taken up outside of the theoretical framework of German rationalism and under different names.

Albert Hawks, Jr. is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he is a fellow with the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. He holds an M.Div. and S.T.M. from Yale University.

Featured Image: Johannes Itten, “Linienrhythmus,” 1919.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Elissa Mailänder on Bigamy and Nazi Pronatalism

Elissa Mailänder is an Associate professor of contemporary history at Sciences Po, Center for History (CHSP) in Paris. After receiving her PhD in history at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) and the University of Erfurt, she worked at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen, the Centre interdisciplinaires d’études et de recherches sur l’Allemagne and EHESS in Paris. A historian of everyday life and of Nazism, Mailänder focuses on perpetrator history and the structures, mechanisms, and dynamics of violence in Nazi society to draw out their material, social, and cultural dimensions. She recently spoke with Yanara Schmacks about her article “Masters of Sex? Nazism, Bigamy, and a University Professor’s Fight with Society and the State (1930–1970),” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 82.1).

Yanara Schmacks: Your article introduces the case of Otto M., a Kiel-based university professor who specialized in phytopathology and pharmacognosy during the Third Reich and in postwar West Germany. M. had an openly bigamous relationship and lived in a shared household with his wife and another woman whom he considered his “second wife” in a “community marriage.” He had children with both women and justified his lifestyle with reference to Nazi pronatalism and eugenic principles, framing himself as a “prodigious father” contributing to the Volk. How are M.’s case and the trajectory it took illustrative of the unique and often contradictory National Socialist sex and gender politics? How is it situated within the völkisch ideology favored by leading Nazi figures like Heinrich Himmler and myths about a Germanic past?

Elissa Mailänder: At first glance, the polygamous professor reads like a tremendously eccentric curiosity. Yet a closer look reveals that this man believed that, by fathering and rearing many racially “pure” and “healthy” children, he was acting in a “morally righteous” way in a distinctly völkisch sense. This adjective, so difficult to translate, refers to a rather quirky current of thought that developed in German-speaking countries at the end of the 19th century, gaining particular traction after World War I. Covering trends like the escape from metropolitan urban life to reconnect with nature, nutritional awareness, and naturopathic medicine, followers of this eclectic movement shared an undemocratic, ethnic conception of national community that further exalted its presumed Germanic roots. Most importantly, the völkisch logic rejected foreign influences and racial differences as threats to an allegedly pure Germanic race. Cleverly, the Nazis then drew upon this ethno-racist and eugenic ideologyfrom the 1920s,reinforcing asense of belonging via inclusionary racism and declaring the family as the biological stock of an ethnically defined People’s Community (Volksgemeinschaft).

German motherhood became a major political component of Nazism, at first as a demographic “weapon” in a larger combat against rival ethnic populations (Jews and Slavs), ideological enemies (Bolsheviks, political opponents), and internal “threats” to racial purity, such as Germans perceived as socially awkward or genetically “damaged.” Secondly, as the rise of the modern welfare state had already sufficiently proven, motherhood was also a convenient tool to monitor and motivate the German people, as it allowed Nazism to present itself as promoting a society of benevolence and beneficence.  Since the very beginning, the Nazi government encouraged “racially” German couples to have large families, via financial incentives such as the marriage loans instituted in the summer of 1933 or awards like the Cross of Honor of the German Mother launched in 1938. From 1933-34 onwards, Nazi women’s organizations took over the existing provision of advice and training to mothers, while the NS-Frauenschaft (National Socialist Women’s League) and the Deutsches Frauenwerk soon became key players within the wider field of Nazi organizations concerned with race and welfare. In a bitter rivalry with male-dominated Nazi organizations, the leaders of the National Socialist Women’s League (NSF) tried to monopolize the field of training and advice to mothers, because Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the leader of the NSF, knew all too well about the political capital of motherhood: training mothers and housewives targeted a wider female public, far beyond party membership. It therefore offered a fabulous opportunity to transform ordinary women into racially conscious rulers of the family.

The professor and his wife, however, belonged to a public that was differently attuned ideologically. It seems that M. and his wife, both academics with PhDs, had been seduced by völkisch ideas when they were university students; both perceived eugenic family-building as their duty. While Nazi politics paid considerable attention to motherhood, professor M. claimed his full rights as a father and patriarch. Yet by inviting another woman to join their household and have children with professor M., the couple certainly made an unusually bold choice that did not please everyone. The case illustrates how some colleagues and registrars struggled to accept the validity of this arrangement and particularly the legitimacy of his children born out of wedlock. Others, most importantly academic superiors and judges, backed the professor, at least during the Third Reich. Yet despite this divided reception, people generally tolerated M.’s lifestyle. After all, many high-ranking Nazi officials such as Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and Martin Bormann fathered children with their mistresses, although none openly engaged in polygamy. Nazism had a sexist approach to gender and sexuality, granting “Aryan” men multiple legal advantages (divorce law) and informal concessions (from “traditional” sexual promiscuity to sexual violence). Professor M. is a telling illustration of “Aryan arrogance” (Claudia Koonz) paired with male entitlement.

YS: Taking a closer look at M.’s unconventional personal and family life, which was characterized by open bigamy, you argue for the explanatory power of Alltagsgeschichte, an approach to history pioneered by Alf Lüdtke that focuses on everyday life experiences. In what ways does Alltagsgeschichte enhance our understanding of Nazism? And how is the more recent attention in Holocaust studies to the intimate and family lives of historical actors specifically illuminating in this context?

EM: The notion of everyday life, or Alltag, is a lens that allows us to look at the transformation of seemingly banal men and women into active proponents of Nazism. Drawing on Karl Marx, Alf Lüdtke developed the concept of “appropriation” (Aneignung) to describe a diverse, formative, and “sensual” interpretation of lived reality—discourses, practices, and compulsions—by historical actors. From this perspective, social norms do not appear as implicit, but as something that individuals must first reify and then enact in ways that are not always logical or consistent. Hence, it is the often ambiguous and contradictory social practices of ordinary citizens, rather than their political motivations, that explain broad support for or assimilation within a dictatorial regime. This micro-historical approach to the everyday necessitates not only a reduction in scale to the level of the individual, but also a highly nuanced understanding of their everyday lives and agency.

The private life in Nazi society, as opposed to the public and professional one, has gained analytical traction in historiography over the past decade, only for historians to realize that even in a fascist dictatorship, there was no such thing as an Orwellian nightmare of total invasion of the private sphere. In their recent studies, Nicholas Stargardt and Janosch Steuwer demonstrated how comfortably Austrians and Germans “nested” within their family lives, creating parallel private worlds. Most individuals attempted to lead ordinary lives, even under exceptionally harsh circumstances. Some even understood their withdrawal into the private sphere as a sort of inner emigration, not recognizing that within a dictatorship and genocidal regime, the private is resolutely political. In other words, mass dictatorships cannot be understood within a simple framework of coercion or norms imposed by a regime. Although individual actions and gestures of (private) withdrawal or non-conformity cannot be dismissed, simply coping with Nazism, even reluctantly, or keeping political action to a minimum, tacitly implied support and contributed to the power and stability of the regime.

Everyday conformism is ambivalent, meandering through a broad spectrum of coercion and consent. Yet it has a considerable social impact and political meaning, as it helps create a new political culture. With Mothers in the Fatherland, Claudia Koonz was really onto something in the 1980s. Child rearing under Nazism was, as we have seen, a core political activity that made Austrian and German mothers into indispensable political agents. Although we now know a lot about the ideological underpinnings of the motherhood training and housekeeping courses for mothers-to-be, we still lack information about how women translated this training and other political incentives into everyday family life. Unfortunately, oral history interviews were only conducted with women professionally engaged in the Nazi movement, whereas systematic analysis of ego-documents (diaries, letters, photo albums, housekeeping books etc.) by ordinary German women remain a lacuna. Which is why German motherhood and childrearing during Nazism, as an experience and social practice, curiously count among the least explored topics.

If we adopt an integrated  perspective on the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust—I deliberately do not want to use the term “comparative”—we ought to ask: who had an “everyday”?Everyday life is not a given. According to anthropologist Gerald Sider, having an everyday life requires “a reasonable grounded expectation of a livable tomorrow” – that is, money to pay rent and food, health, and a decently positive projection into the future. German families, even during the harsh Allied bombing raids in 1943-45, still possessed a functioning infrastructure with female fire brigades and soldiers who rescued people from burning houses and rubble, as well as bunkers that offered shelter, food, and medical support. By contrast, Jews in hiding, refugees or people detained in concentration camps or on death marches did not have much coherence or predictability in their lives. Historian Natalia Aleksiun has shown how difficult and volatile the daily struggle for survival was for Jews hiding in Nazi-occupied Eastern Galicia. Marginalized women were particularly susceptible to abuse of their sexuality (rape, sexual exploitation, forced pregnancy) and of their maternal responsibility (forced abortion, suicide, infanticide), be it in the ghettos and camps, in resistance groups or in hiding and escape. In addition, motherhood and reproductive capacities made women doubly vulnerable. Crying babies and toddlers represented a particular liability, not only for the people in hideouts but also for their gentile hosts. In addition, the lack of food and hygiene made the survival of newborns and mothers particularly precarious. Hence, while the privileged and distinctly völkisch approach to German motherhood is crucial to understanding the allure of Nazism, we also need to look at the brutal implications for those excluded from this ethno-racist community. In Nazi society—and, as a matter of fact, in any segregated society—inclusionary and exclusionary racism are two sides of the same coin.

YS: Going beyond the immediate scope of your article and moving into the present, it seems striking how far-right movements today stylize themselves as defenders of the conventional family, fighting against “genderism” and “alternative” family constellations. Do you think this development marks a transformation of right-wing sexual politics, or are there similar sexually transgressive strands in the current right that we do not pay enough attention to?

EM: Professor M.’s polygamous arrangement was not all that revolutionary; as the pater familias, he still held all the cards. What I wanted to highlight in my article is that this family setting cannot be simply explained by male domination or oppressive patriarchy, as the women and mothers of his children had their reasons for participating as well. They granted him his patriarchal dividends, at least at the beginning; for a couple of years, they shared his values and actively participated in this bigamous arrangement where two women shared a household, until it became too complicated and they wanted to separate. Ultimately, his wives perceived their role as modern German mothers of his nine children as a female privilege. Then and now, right-wing or völkisch feminisms do exist. Journalist and intellectual Sophie Rogge-Börner (1878-1955) and best-selling author Johanna Haarer (1900-1988) come to mind; both were strong voices for a “Nazi style” gender-equality suffused with Nordic mythology, antisemitism, and exalted motherhood in a race-based society. Motherhood and a certain “healthy” German lifestyle became key tropes and markers of identity – in some cases, even a powerful fantasy of potency.

Here is where we can indeed draw some parallels to postwar anti-feminist conservative women’s movements that advocated against equal rights between men and women in a diverse, multiethnic society. Be it Phyllis Schlafly (1924-2016) in the United States or Ellen Kositza in contemporary Germany, both draw their political credibility and stamina from their prodigious motherhood and role as exemplary family caretakers.Kositza, a West German woman in her forties and wife of the popular ideologist of the new right, Götz Kubitschek, now lives in Schnellroda, in the depths of Thuringia, where she runs a self-sufficient estate and looks after her seven children. Yet neither Schlafly nor Kositza embodies the traditional model of a stay-at-home wife, as they both work(ed) full time as political lobbyists. Kositza, who holds a college degree in philosophy and literature, manages the far-right Antaios publishing house, a blog, and her own YouTube show. As educated, middle-class women, neither Schlafly nor Kositza has much in common with the workaday and family lives of women with migration backgrounds, women of color, or white mothers of precarious working-class families. Instead, as female members of the dominant mainstream society, they voice white women’s demands and privileges in a still segregated society, be it the United States of the 1970s or contemporary Germany. In other words, they defend a particular kind of white nationalist patriarchy, much as Nazi feminists did.  Only by reflecting upon their positionality and by placing them within a larger social and political web of power relations can we grasp their obstinate defense of ethno-cultural privileges.

Unsurprisingly, current far-right movements remain utterly conservative when it comes to gender. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and other far-right movements might have opened up to gays and lesbians, but only if they share cisgender traditional values and forcefully oppose gender-queerness. The publicist and agent provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos (born in 1984) and the high-profile AfD politician Alice Weidel (born in 1979) self-identify as right-wing homosexuals, which does not prevent them from advocating for traditional family values or buying into homophobic narratives. By opposing cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity, as well as transgender identities, they share certain guiding principles with their heteronormative political fellows. If we understand ‘queer’ not solely as a synonym for gay but also as a way of asking questions about what goes against the norm, then being gay or lesbian does not make a person necessarily gender subversive or free from patriarchal precepts.Sociologist Raewyn Connell coined the compelling concept of a “very straight gay,” as gay men and women can, indeed, lead a double life, hypercorrect the presumed contradiction with traditional gender values, and therefore incarnate conservative misogynic homo- and transphobic masculinities or femininities. As historians, wetend to essentialize our historical subjects and their agency by holding on to static binaries (man/woman, gay/straight, transgender/cisgender, etc.) and by locking the people we study into categories: victims, perpetrators, oppressed women, dominating men etc.  The pressing questions then are: how can we conceptualize the asymmetries of power relations without congealing identities? How can we examine the dark and compromising sides when it comes to femininities or queerness? How can we recognize contradictions and multiple affiliations in our historical analysis? 

Yanara Schmacks is a PhD candidate in Modern European History at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Her article “‘Motherhood is Beautiful’: Maternalism in the West German New Women’s Movement between Eroticization and Ecological Protest” was published in Central European History. Her paper “‘Only Mothers Can Be True Revolutionaries’: The Politicization of Motherhood in 1980s West German Psychoanalysis” is forthcoming in Psychoanalysis and History. She is working on a dissertation project that explores the politics of motherhood in the three German states from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

Featured Image: Decorative Paper from page 5 of The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope. 2 vol. (1717). Courtesy of the British Library.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Jeffrey Dymond on Machiavelli’s Debt to Polybius

Jeffrey Dymond is a PhD candidate in History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He works on Renaissance humanism and on early modern European intellectual history more generally. He is interviewed by contributing editor Max Norman about his article, “Human Character and the Formation of the State: Reconsidering Machiavelli and Polybius 6” that appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 82.1).

Max Norman: Your article attempts to bring some clarity to a long-standing debate on the sources of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, in particular the potential use of the Hellenistic Greek historian Polybius as a source in Book 1, Chapter 2. But before we get to that: The central idea of Book 6 of Polybius’s Histories is anacyclosis. Can you explain this term?

Jeffrey Dymond: Anacyclosis is a Greek term that signifies cyclical movement.  Polybius uses it to describe what he sees as the natural tendency for political constitutions to change in a cyclical pattern. Behind the idea is Polybius’s belief that human beings possess certain psychological dispositions that, when interacting with particular historical circumstances, lead to cyclical change For example, the dispersion and violence of the natural state of human beings elicits a psychological response in them that, in turn, results in the institution of a monarchy. Later, the interaction between the particular attributes of monarchical government and Polybius’s psychological apparatus will create the conditions first for tyranny and then, through the same process, aristocracy. Eventually, and again following the same process, aristocracy will degenerate into oligarchy, before being replaced by a democracy that will then become an ochlocracy, or mob rule. The cycle then comes to completion when ochlocracy, which resembles the dispersion and violence of the natural state, is replaced by a new monarchy. 

Anacyclosis works through two types of change. First is degeneration, when monarchy descends into tyranny and aristocracy into oligarchy; the second is alteration,when tyranny, a species of one-man rule, becomes aristocracy, a form of government of the few. Degeneration is caused by the corrupt behavior on the part of the rulers, which Polybius believes will eventually happen if they are unchecked in the exercise of political power–something that is likely to be granted to them, Polybius holds, after a period of virtuous rule. Alteration, on the other hand, comes about as a response to corruption, leading to change. It is important to note that here circumstantial factors shape the response, but that they are circumstances that will be repeated in every cycle. So, for example, the nature of tyrannical corruption is most upsetting (according to Polybius) to a group of noble and virtuous individuals who then lead a rebellion against the tyrant, later becoming the aristocracy.  The same process can be seen when oligarchy is replaced by democracy: a leader emerges among the people who then collectively move them to dispose of the oligarchs and institute a democracy. A new aristocracy isn’t created because the few are implicated in the corruption of the oligarchy, and a new monarchy isn’t established because the people remember the degeneration of monarchy into tyranny. The final alteration—from ochlocracy to monarchy—unfolds the way it does because it resembles the natural state that had, at the beginning, created the first monarchy. With this new monarchy, the cycle then commences again. 

All of the circumstantial attributes of the cycle notwithstanding, the motor of anacyclosis is the fact that every leader will, eventually, on account of the supreme power conceded to them as reward for their earlier virtuous government, become tyrannical and self-aggrandizing. The problem, in short, is that human psychology is structured in such a way that vice grows out of virtue. Polybius does, however, present his readers with a way to escape the cycle, and that is the mixed constitution. The mixed constitution, by imposing limits on absolute political authority, will stop (or at least slow down) the cycle by taking away the primary cause of corruption: the unchecked political power awarded to people on account of their virtue. But the institution of the mixed constitution requires foresight and affirmative action, since, otherwise, the cycle will continue. Polybius’s explanation of anacyclosis and its causes in Book 6 intends to equip prospective legislators with the means to do just that.

MN: You reconstruct a prevailing interpretation of Book 6 of Polybius’s Histories in early sixteenth-century Florence, against which you read the Discourses to demonstrate the ways in which Machiavelli was simultaneously indebted to the Greek historian but original in his reading. Methodologically, how did you reconstruct something like a ‘standard reading’ of Book 6? How widely-held do you believe this interpretation to be?

JD: Reconstructing this interpretation mainly involved looking at the ways early modern readers of Book 6 incorporated the text into their own works. A particularity of this case, though, is that the text had just recently been re-introduced, meaning that reconstructing a commonly held reading did not involve a long process of excavating a great and complicated tradition of interpretation: it went back only a couple of decades before the Discourses and, crucially, to a group of Florentines who also happened to be in Machiavelli’s circle. Over time, of course, alternative readings emerged, but this one I believe was quite prominent since there is evidence, as I note in the article with the examples of Paolo Paruta, Jean Bodin and François Hotman, that it spread to other parts of Europe. An interesting point to consider for how this particular reading spread is that the man responsible for the first Latin translation, Janus Lascaris, travelled widely in Europe. After leaving Florence in the late fifteenth century, he moved to France, where he helped establish the Royal Library at Blois and corresponded with famous French humanists such as Guillaume Budé. He then spent his later years in Venice as a representative of the French monarchy, before moving to Rome, during which time he continued to travel across Italy and to Florence in particular.  Lascaris was an acquaintance of both Bernardo Rucellai and Machiavelli, so any input they received from Lascaris that helped to shape their readings of Polybius could also have been given to others in France and then later in Venice and Rome. In other words, Lascaris’ position as a highly mobile first translator of Book 6 could help explain the early prominence and diffusion of a particular reading of it.

MN: In what ways was Machiavelli’s thought in the Discourses influenced by Polybius? How was his reading of Book 6 different from his contemporaries?

JD: The most straightforward way to see the influence of Polybius in the Discourses is in the ways his psychological apparatus helps explain certain arguments made by Machiavelli that are often otherwise perplexing. For example, a commonplace in the Discourses is that the great (the grandi) in any state aim to oppress the other, while the people (the popolo) seek not to be oppressed.  But there are also several instances in the Discourses where Machiavelli seems to suggest that the popolo are just as capable of oppressing as the grandi. A prominent instance of this is in D.I.37, where Machiavelli addresses the Agrarian Laws in Rome. Here he states that after the popolo in Rome acquired access to all the city’s magistracies, and no longer possessed a lower political standing than the grandi, they also began to exhibit grandi-like ambition. This suggests that Machiavelli’s claims about the popolo and the grandi rest on a general account of human psychology, which holds  certain instincts to be dependent on the particular condition an individual finds themselves at a certain time. I argue that Machiavelli  extracted this psychological apparatus from Polybius 6, and that it can explain what kinds of behaviors Machiavelli attributes to each group on account of their condition (e.g. the vulnerable seeking protection, the great dominance), how and why changing circumstances yield different behaviors, and finally the sequences of events that could cause these changing circumstances.

With respect to the relation between Machiavelli’s reading of Polybius and that of his contemporaries, Machiavelli’s was for the most part rather conventional in this respect. However, one notable difference between them is that among Machiavelli’s contemporaries, Polybius was frequently mentioned alongside Aristotle. For example, Donato Giannotti and Bartolomeo Cavalcanti, two humanists mentioned in the article, integrate Polybius’s psychology with material from Aristotle’s Politics, and especially material from Book 5’s discussion of revolutions and constitutional change, suggesting that they viewed the two works as to some extent complementary.  Machiavelli does not at all. This could suggest some tension between Machiavelli’s Polybius and that of his peers.  It also makes the lack of reference to the Politics in D.I.2 even more conspicuous.

MN: To what extent does Machiavelli’s Polybian theory of politics and its relationship to human psychology in the Discourses align with his positions in his more widely-read book, The Prince?

JD: Although there is no explicit mention of Book 6 in The Prince, some of Machiavelli’s recommendations there are compatible with the way he puts Polybius to use in the Discourses. Chapter 9 of The Prince, for example, makes the same statement about the differing dispositions of the nobles and the people, with the more powerful nobles more likely to dominate, and the less powerful people more likely to seek protection. Because I argue that Polybius 6 had been known in Florence, and in Machiavelli’s circle, since at least a decade before the composition of The Prince, it is more likely than not that Machiavelli’s Polybian thoughts would be consistent throughout his works, since they do not depend on a singular event from which he would have been made aware of Book 6’s argument. Much of J.H. Hexter’s argument in his famous article on the question of Machiavelli and Polybius hinges on dating a meeting between Machiavelli and Lascaris; on my account, though, Machiavelli did not require such a meeting in order to know Book 6.

MN: What was the influence of this reading of Polybius on later political theory in Italy and beyond?

JD: This reading of Polybius was very influential on later political theory and especially on the evolution of constitutional thinking. On the basis of his psychological theory, Polybius—and his early modern readers—endorse a kind of mixed constitution, in which political power is distributed between different centers in order to restrain each other’s worst tendencies by mandating cooperation. The idea of constitutional mixing was of course present in Europe before the re-introduction of Polybius and had been an important part of Aristotelian political thought since the thirteenth century.  This Aristotelian form of mixing is quite different, however: it aimed to produce virtuous “middling” or “moderate” outcomes by creating a government composed of members of different classes. For the Polybians, on the other hand, the aim of a mixed constitution was balance, not moderation. The notion of a “separation of powers” so central to the US Constitution is more indebted to the Polybian idea of mixed government than the Aristotelian. But this idea did leave the Polybians open to the charge that their proposed mixed governments risk creating multiple bodies with multiple heads, with each part of the constitution using its constitutional authority to create partisans from among the citizenry. Perhaps somewhat ironically, this view would frequently be expressed by people who endorsed Polybius’s psychological apparatus, arguing that the needed balance can only be maintained in stable circumstances. If circumstances change, like, for example, in the case of a war, then one of the constitution’s parts could leverage its position to gain the upper hand, destroying the balance between them. This is was such an important concern, in fact, that this argument would be frequently deployed in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in support of a kind of pacifist republicanism, which saw war and imperial expansion as the means by which the executive parts of mixed constitutions can swell up and upset the constitution’s balance in their favor. In the decades after Machiavelli, though, the risk of Polybian mixed constitutionalism degenerating into “two bodies, two heads” would feature prominently in the emergent discourse of sovereignty. Polybius’ psychological apparatus, I would suggest, helped to shape the conceptual problem to which ideas of sovereignty were a response.

Max Norman studied comparative literature and classics in America and England, and now writes often on art and literature for magazines in both countries.

Featured Image: A statue of Niccolò Machiavelli in the arcade of Florence’s Uffizi museum. Courtesy of Elan Ruskin/flickr.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Sven Reichardt on Fascism as a Process-Concept

Sven Reichardt is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Konstanz. He works on the history of global fascism, on social movements, and civil societies in the 20th century as well as on the history of war, civil war, and terrorism. For issue 82.1 of the Journal of the History of Ideas, he contributed an article titled “Fascism’s Stages: Imperial Violence, Entanglement, and Processualization,” which describes the radicalizing practice of the Italian, German, and Japanese regimes in the 1930s and conceptualizes fascism as a global phenomenon.

Contributing editor Jonas Knatz interviewed Reichardt about the interpretation of fascism as a political process-concept and the relevance of such a concept for contemporary debates about fascism as historical analogy.


Jonas Knatz: In your article, you argue that fascism “cannot be defined as a static entity or a catalogue of ideas” but “must be understood as a political process-concept.” (88) With reference to scholarship on National Socialism as an empire and by analyzing fascist warfare and imperial settler policies, the essay shows fascism as a radicalizing process in which the Italian, German, and Japanese regimes of the 1930s engaged in both inter-imperial collaboration and competition that successively radicalized the ideas of a “grand-area imperialism.” Additionally, in line with Anson Rabinbach, you conceptualize fascism as a “political Haltung” (ethos), a commitment to subscribe to an often-incoherent worldview characterized by a “conglomerate of nationalist, racist, anti-socialist, right-wing populist, anti-feminist or male chauvinist, and imperialist” ideas. (89) What is the connection between this political Haltung and the process of radicalization? And what are the advantages of understanding fascism as a political process-concept?

Sven Reichardt: Fascism has often been defined as something static. Whether with the help of a list of characteristics or one-sentence definitions: again and again, this made auxiliary constructions such as “para-fascist,” “proto-fascist,” or “semi-fascist” necessary. In the long run, this is a tiring game of deciding between “not yet,” “almost” and “already fascist,” but it can be overcome or at least mitigated by using a process-term. Fascism as a movement, acting within a democratic system, should be understood as fundamentally different from a state carrying out a genocide in the exceptional situation of the Second World War. Moreover, a process-concept can better capture the inherent radicalization dynamics of fascism, because fascism had a tendency to dissolve boundaries through its polycratic power structures. This is true at both the national and the global level, as both competition within national parties and among fascist regimes led to the violent dissolution of fascism’s boundaries. This tendency to transgress boundaries can be better understood as a habitus or Haltung than as an ideology—even though these two notions cannot, of course, be neatly separated.

JK: The presidency of Donald Trump sparked a wide-ranging debate about the applicability of the label of fascism to cotemporary politics in general and the US in particular, which gained even more steam after the Capitol riots on January 6. Michael Wildt tweeted that one could see “modern fascism” on this day, while Robert Paxton overcame his previous hesitation to call Trump a fascist and argued that “the label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.”  Previously, others had been more reluctant about the precision of the term fascism, seeing the fascism debate as a distraction from a debate about the structural causes that paved Trump’s way into office or reflecting more generally on the political consequences of historical analogies. How can understanding fascism as a “political process-concept” contribute to these debates?

SR: Most historians emphasize the differences between Trumpism and interwar fascism. The constitutional structure of the United States is more stable than that of young democracies during the interwar period. Economically, the contemporary United States has been in a much better position (at least before the Corona crisis) than the Weimar Republic ever was. In foreign policy, the US is also less isolated; it is still well-integrated and internationally respected. Left- and right-wing extremism lead a primarily extra-parliamentary existence. In one respect in particular, today’s right-wing populism differs (at least quantitatively) from the anti-system protest of the interwar period: despite the storming of the Capitol, it is not a primarily violent movement, unlike the interwar fascist movements that were shaped by World War I and the bloody street battles with socialists. Undoubtedly, there are numerous instances of violence in the present; consider the hundreds of right-wing extremists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan supporters who converged on the small college town of Charlottesville, VA in August 2017 and turned violent on a massive scale. In the US, the propagators of violence among “white supremacists,” such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and alt-right ideologue Richard B. Spencer, have had a significant boost since Trump’s election. But brutality and militancy were far more widespread in the interwar period, and the legacy of World War I continued to operate in the virulent interwar paramilitarism. Murder rates, anger, and the general acceptance of violence were also significantly greater in the interwar period.

I do see parallels between the past and the present in how society has become divided, marked by hatred and attitudes of “unconditionality” (Unbedingtheit) that, in the case of the Weimar Republic, destroyed democracy. In the US, we have witnessed the formation of antagonistic camps. This is at least true of racism and the political-cultural divide between the metropole and the provinces. In the present, there is a renewed upsurge of nationalism and populism in international politics, from de-tabooed political language to the rise of targeted assassinations of individual politicians by right-wing extremists, or the emergence of a heavy-handed police state.

Presumably, liberal democracy will be further weakened by the Covid-19 crisis, because well before 2020, liberalism, prosperity, freedom of movement, the standing of democratic parties, consensus politics, and social justice had already come under massive pressure from a new authoritarianism. Jürgen Habermas‘ thesis that right-wing populism forms the “breeding group for a new fascism” is worth considering. The Viennese historian of Eastern Europe Philipp Ther prophesies in Der Spiegel that “existential crises like the current pandemic have strengthened xenophobic nationalists and right-wing radicals” several times in history. As is well known, there are no simple, automatic repetitions in history. However, a “Fortress Europe” already seems to manifest itself against asylum seekers. Non-European migrations to Europe will continue to be limited in the future. It is an entirely open question whether crisis-ridden Europe, in the face of tendencies toward re-nationalization since the 2010s, the recently adopted entry barriers by individual nations, and the massive prospects for over-indebtedness and recession, will continue to hold together.

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Candidate at New York University’s History Department. He works on a conceptual history of the automation of work and Modern European Intellectual History more generally.

Featured Image: Luigi Russolo, La Rivolta, 1911

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Dagmar Herzog & Stefanos Geroulanos on the Afterli(v)es of Fascisms

Dagmar Herzog is Distinguished Professor of History and the Daniel Rose Faculty Scholar at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She has published extensively on the histories of sexuality and gender, psychoanalysis, theology and religion, Jewish-Christian relations and Holocaust memory, and she has edited anthologies on sexuality in the Third Reich, sexuality in twentieth-century Austria, and the Holocaust. Her most recent books include Unlearning Eugenics. Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe, and Cold War Freud: Psychoanalysis in an Age of Catastrophes. With Chelsea Schields, she has coedited The Routledge Companion to Sexuality and Colonialism, forthcoming 2021. For issue 82.1 of the Journal of the History of Ideas, she has served as guest editor of a cluster of articles on ‘Fascisms and Their Afterli(v)es’.

Stefanos Geroulanos is Professor of History at New York University and a Co-Executive Editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas. He is working on a book on conceptions of human prehistory since 1800 and a shorter book on Napoleon and the institution of the Civil Code in France. His most recent books include The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe (with Todd Meyers) and Power and Time (edited with Natasha Wheatley and Dan Edelstein). With Herzog, he recently co-edited and introduced the important collection of essays by Anson Rabinbach, Staging the Third Reich.

Herzog and Geroulanos spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about “Fascisms and Their Afterli(v)es: An Introduction,” the introduction to the cluster of articles on fascism in the current issue of the JHI


Nuala P. Caomhánach: In your introduction, you refer to the opportunism of fascism to take advantage of the slipperiness and unstable status of truth. If fascism is a process moving between ideas, actions, and truths that mutate in unexpected ways, becoming redundant, deniable, and recycled, are you suggesting that the plasticity of historical “facts” destabilizes the field of intellectual history and is forcing it to move outside of conservative methodologies? Put another way, is this a reckoning for the field of intellectual history with fascisms’ amorphous and plastic ability to absorb and disregard ideas? Indeed, does the discomfort and “peculiar resistance to thinking [about] fascism together with ideas” reflect on the limitation of intellectual history (and the disciple of history itself) to integrate fascism, as opposed to anomalize it as a deviation from the centre, all the while up until today, it is still a viable alternative vision of modernity for ordinary people “on the ground”? 

Dagmar Herzog & Stefanos Geroulanos: Yes. There is a conventional way of interpreting fascism as this stable body of racialist, statist, tyrannical, and hierarchical ideas. It has sustained intellectual history with endlessly replicable and important-sounding questions like “was Heidegger a Nazi? Discuss!” (now updated to “is Trump a fascist? Discuss!”) and with attention to the obvious anti-democratic ethos of fascism, the Führerprinzip and so on. Intellectual historians have also often sustained it, not so much by anomalizing fascism but by replicating the conventional approach in a pedagogy that focuses on particular thinkers, big concepts, rigid ideologies, and historical overviews. 

Part of our purpose was to foreground process-ideas and translations of ideas that do not allow for such comforting discretions and do not simply identify fascism with 1930s Italy, Germany, and some other “maybes.” Scholars of fascist culture have long shown the complexity, contradictoriness, and syntheses generated by fascist ideas, the ways these ideas clothe everything from dull everydayness to management rhetoric to international competition to regeneration plans. To look at this in intellectual history means we need a better understanding of what ideas are, how they do not reside high up in some clouds, to be observed at a distance from the rest of some “reality,” how they are woven into everything from self-justification to fantasy. The recognition that ideas are meshed in such a way as to mangle and “regenerate” what fascists understand as life—this should help intellectual history more broadly, as truth isn’t something that simply exists and falls as fascism’s first casualty; this is a good place to start. 

NPC: Wilhelm Reich and Hannah Arendt set the stage for the reader to your thought-provoking challenge to scholars, “[I]f ideas mattered, how did they matter?” Reich and Arendt seem to offer an evolutionary argument over whether fascism is innate human nature or inherent nurture.  What advantage does reframing “ideology and form of rule” within a global context offer when analyzing fascism to move beyond this type of nature/nurture argument? How would a global context provide a more stable footing on which to think about fascism “across the 1945 line” when by its very nature fascism is unstable?

DH & SG: Just as one cannot simply end fascism’s history in 1945—Elisabeth Åsbrink shows well how fascist networks mutated fascist ideas afterward, to the point of treating overt racism as uncouth in order to better perpetuate it—one really cannot begin with a checklist that starts from famous tenets. That’s just virtuous self-distancing from evil. So if instead you are looking at the pleasures fascisms offer their followers, the construction of enemies internal and external, the practices and disavowals of violence (see here Matías Grinchpun’s study of Holocaust revisionism and its influence in Argentina), the (mendacious but always again seductive) promises of racial and social regeneration and war—all these are shared, albeit not with the same gusto or in the same ways. This is part of our point: there’s no prototype and copies, rather, there are particular ways in which the general dispositions that fascisms learn from one another (and from their stumbles) serve them to pursue highly similar projects. So it matters to look at the global dimension, and also to think of fascism as a dynamic potentiality and forcefield rather than persisting via any simple replication or “survival.” 

NPC: I was struck by the cluster of essays moving between the macro- and micro-scales adding richness and depth to our understanding and analysis of fascism. You offer an entry way into the kinds of actions undertaken, the processes set in motion by these said actions, and “what institutional and legal structures are created, what truths are devised.” In what ways will these approaches offer a way to move beyond “the ambiguous fit between the contents of those ideas and their most devastating effects,” particularly when thinking about institutional gaslighting, legal and governmental corruption and white-washing?

DH & SG: As you say, essays move from the micro (Elissa Mailänder on a Nazi chemistry professor’s bigamous home life) to the macro (Sven Reichardt’s study links ideas, movements, imperial processes, and annihilationism in the intertwined development of Italian, Japanese, and German state practices). We think that intellectual history can make its mark by considering fascist thought as it belongs in the in-between these two—between the structural, broad levels and the everyday behaviors. If we look at ideas as mutable, lived, at times theorized, as ambiguously perched, at times less than effective, at others as guiding lights, we can begin to explain regimes, practices, worldviews, and behaviors that have eluded historians. 

After the Second World War, ideologies were blamed in order to absolve individuals, including large groups who did more than simply participate and even did so enthusiastically. Our intent is to go the opposite direction—not to let liberals use a limited notion of ideology to proclaim themselves safe from it, and not to let historians turn that same limited notion into a generalized failure to account for all sorts of problems ranging from “everyday life” to violent enthusiasm, or even the diverse particulars of fascist intellectuals. Instead, we think of ideas as the connective tissue between these different levels or orders, and—leaving aside the frame specific to fascism—between power, violence, justification, and behavior. 

Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic– as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Featured Image: The City Rises, Umberto Boccioni, 1910.