18. - 20. 1. 2007


The Beauty and Terror of Lebensphilosophie:
Ludwig Klages, Walter Benjamin, and Alfred Baeumler
Nitzan Lebovic

Archiv des Projektes an der JAN VAN EYCK

Published in: South Central Review 23:1: a special issue about philosophy and theory of Fascism (Spring 2006), pp. 23-39.




During the past two decades interest in Walter Benjamin and fascist aesthetics has extended well beyond the limits of any social and political focus. Strangely, a little investigation shows that this vogue has been fueled by the historical roots of Benjamin’s theory as much as by the discourse he employed-- downplayed by current historians-- a mixture of aesthetic critical theory, ideas about temporality drawn from the philosophy of life, and an alternative philosophy of history. Directly relevant to these connections is a document — unnoticed until now — that registers the interest a high ranking Nazi took in Walter Benjamin, or more concretely, an interest a Nazi Lebensphilosopher took in Benjamin’s own fascination with Lebensphilosophie, the tool the latter believed might help him develop a total critique. The focus of this discussion, where radical politics met a radical critique, belongs to a third party, a relatively hidden site in the history of modern thought: the Lebensphilosophie of Ludwig Klages, the conservative and anti-Semitic popular philosopher, and his dedication to the work of another founder of this neo-Romantic discourse, Johann Jacob Bachofen. Tracing the lineage of Lebensphilosophie leads us to dark corners and antecedents of today’s biopolitics, teaching us a great deal about where and when Benjamin’s total critique collided with the totalitarian struggle for life. Moreover, it teaches us that in so many ways, current political philosophy is still led by the consequences of this collision and its horizon of expectations, “the wagon of catastrophes” as Benjamin calls it in an article dedicated to toys as psycho-cultural archetypes.


1. “We know only we are no more”

In August 1923 Ludwig Klages sent a letter to Carl Albrecht Bernoulli, the Baseler philologist and exponent of Nietzsche, proposing that his correspondent compare psychoanalysis to late Romantic psychology. This was part of a project, heavily influenced by Johann Jakob Bachofen’s Romantic theory of symbols, designed to destroy Sigmund Freud’s theories. Many of these concepts — psychological, metaphysical, aesthetic — turned up again and again in the formal fascist discourse and the radical aesthetic critique of the 1920s-1930s alike. Klages, a philosophical luminary, “the pope of German graphology,” an outspoken anti-Semite, and a principle Lebensphilosopher whom Georg Lukács recognized also as a “pre-Fascist irrationalist,” urged Bernoulli to radicalize the contrast to the Freudian humanistic Geist (spirit, intellect) to “make it more polemical.” If Bernoulli turned to the late Romantic philosophy of Bachofen, said Klages, he would find the antidote to all “mechanistic” depictions of the soul. Klages’s beginning point was rather that “there is no body without a shape [Gestalt]. Every appearance has a shape.” One wonders what image our age would have had of the body and its soul if Klages’s cause had triumphed in World War II. As Ulfried Geuter showed in The Professionalization of Psychology in Nazi Germany, Klages’s Charakterologie was counted among the leading influences on Nazi psychology. Benjamin himself pointed out, in a review of Ernst Jünger’s collection War and Warriors (1930), about those “habitués of the chthonic forces of terror, who carry their volumes of [Ludwig] Klages in their packs.” Letters found in the Klages archive in Marbach prove that plans were afoot to create a whole Nazi leadership school based on Klages’s Lebensphilosophie, graphology and characterology. Hence, the danger was imminent. A thinker of a different sort, Walter Benjamin participated in the Bachofen debate of the mid 1920s, crossing paths with the radical aesthetic ur-models of Bachofen and Klages, investigating closely the same anti-Freudian graphology and Characterology that Klages promoted. Benjamin’s texts, after this debate, are filled with hidden and explicit references to this debate, a fact largely unrecognized in the fertile Benjaminian scene.

Klages’s attack on psychoanalysis and the mastering of types and characters, would not have interested current research as much, if not the impact it had on key progressive theoreticians, or the radical reactionaries on the right wing. Reconsidering the power of Lebensphilosophie, so it seems, forces one also to reassess the power of a discourse that refused to commit to a clear political and ethical position, but engaged with different--often opposite--radical forms, instead. Revived at present from the perspective of biopolitics, one wonders whether these political ambivalences and inherent radicalism are incorporated into the theoretical system and to what extent the theory is aware of its own historical burden.

Klages, one of the principle inspirations for typological psychology, was calling for a new understanding of reality, which he located on the threshold between life and death, existence and nothingness, the individual and the collective: “The great urgency felt today is a result of the mechanization process itself. It is the tragic destiny of authentic knowledge . . . . We know only that we are no more. Somnium narrare vigilantis est (Seneca) .” Klages’s words bespoke an awareness of an existential threat — not to be confused with existential philosophy, which prizes individual choice above all else and could hardly be further from Klages’s ideas. Life, according to Klages, arose out of a fundamental division of body and soul, a rupture and a lost unity of cosmological principles, an erotic nearness (Nähe) to nothingness that cannot be surpassed. Freud’s attempt to recall an individual state of harmony und cognitive unity was destined to fail, according to Klages, who saw the Freudian enterprise as another sign of the modern obsession with narratives of progression and automatization, part of the Jewish faith and inclusive worldview.


2. Lebensphilosophie

The Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie defines Lebensphilosophie as a cluster of concepts of uniquely German provenance, unknown to Anglophone or Francophone cultures. Its principal advocates, according to the editors of the dictionary, make up the school of life-hermeneutics that sprang from Wilhelm Dilthey during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The movement, they argue, developed in a few directions, united by an emphasis on resistance. As an alternative to normative empiricist culture, the movement mostly focused on the relationship between biology (or psychology) and philosophy.

Lebensphilosophie should be considered as the result of early anti-Kantianism. Johann van der Zande has said of these writers that they were “bad Kantians” but not necessarily “bad popular philosophers.” According to van der Zande, the founder of this amorphous movement, Johann August Ernesti, demanded in 1754 the return of life-philosophy to the universities and specifically the philosophy faculties. Johann Georg Heinrich Feder (1740–1821) established an even closer connection between the “philosophy of life” and a “philosophy of action” in 1782. Founded as “a protest in the name of ‘life’” against modern science and universalism, this philosophy of life assigned to the “science of man” the ability to explain the other empirical sciences.

The first journal dedicated to Lebensphilosophie was established during the 1790s, and by the 1830s a few books attested to the presence of the new approach. During the 1820s those affiliated with the Jena Romantics did much to further the aesthetization of Lebensphilosophie, and the most notable work that emerged from this milieu was Friedrich Schlegel’s Vorlesungen über die Philosophie des Lebens (Lectures about the philosophy of life, 1827). Schlegel attacked the systematic philosophy of the day and advocated “einheit der Gesinnung,” or “unity of conviction.” Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Novalis (the pseudonym of Friedrich von Hardenberg), Ignaz Paul Vitalis Troxler and Lorenz Oken can all be considered contributors to a philosophy devoted to critical self-cultivation, often contrasted with the ordained perception of Bildung . After the Romantics it was the contributions of Bachofen, Nietzsche and Dilthey that placed the meta-concept of Ganzheit [wholeness] above all, identifying an organic process in time with an aesthetic vocabulary and a descriptive psychology. Hans-GeorgGadamer, looking back at the process that led from the nineteenth century’s organic and empirical language to Dilthey’s hermeneutics of life, concluded that from then on “life and history” became “the letters of the world.”

Post-Nietzscheanism and the revival of Bachofen made Lebensphilosophie into a hugely popular philosophy during the 1920s; in the words of the neo-Kantian Heinrich Rickert (1863–1936), Lebensphilosophers formulated a comprehensive aesthetic discourse of “naked life” (blossen Leben) during the early and mid 1920s, turning it into the “fashionable philosophical trend of our time.”

The Lebensphilosophie of the early Weimar Republic slowly gained popularity among the educated. Identified from the early 1910s with protests against the elitist Prussian bureaucracy launched by both the green movement and the youth movement, it inspired the Lebensreformbewegung (life reform movement), which advocated nudism and natural therapy as a means to liberating the soul and casting away all formal conventions and false pretensions. During the late 1910s and the early 1920s Lebensphilosophie confronted a severe political and ideological crisis: military defeat had prompted a series of mutinies and gross political disaffection. Philosophers called for a poetic return to the total aestheticism of the nineteenth century and pledged their support for a sweeping counterattack against the conventions of scientific and historical thinking, against industrialization and positivism. At a lecture he gave in 1918, Klages set forth his new calculus: “Images and not objects are the source of inspiration for the soul –– this is the key for the whole teaching of life.” The new philosophy of life permitted all kinds of resistance to institutionalized discourses. Avant-garde thinkers and artists like Klages, the Romantic guru and poet Stefan George and his circle, Alfred Kubin, a founding member of the Expressionist group Blaue Reiter, shared the dream of reviving, in Foucault’s words, a “great circle of nature” based on the “divine All-in-One.”

Georg Lukács paid tribute to Klages as the one responsible for the fascization of Lebensphilosophie, “who actually transformed vitalism into an open combat against reason and culture.” “Klages’s whole philosophy,” Lukács argued, “is only a variation on this one primitive idea. His significance lies in the fact that never before had reason been challenged so openly and radically.” Together with Bergson and Heidegger, Lukács named Klages a founder of modern vitalism. But in contrast to the two and their vitalist time theory, “Klages’s polemics were directed against the future,” which Lukács identifies with time itself.

Klages himself, following the legacy of late Romanticism, identified the Jewish perception of the divine as arriving from “out-of-time” [Ausserzeitlich] and opposing the organic wholeness [Ganzheit] of form [Gestalt]. If Klages is indeed a faithful representative of Lebensphilosophie, he stands at an alternative crossroad between the disciplines and different discourses that occupied the minds of so many thinkers in the German 1920s. The biological metaphor ruled above all.


3. “An acute sense of subversion”

Born in Hannover in 1878, Ludwig Klages lived most of his youth with a younger sister, an authoritative father, and a sentimental aunt. His mother died giving birth to his sister. Pressured by his father, Klages obtained a doctoral degree in industrial chemistry, but soon after meeting the poet Stefan George in Munich, turned to philosophy and the arts. In Munich Klages established the Cosmic Circle with George, Karl Wolfskehl, Albert Verwey, and Alfred Schuler. The circle was dissolved in 1905, after Wolfskehl began to play a part in Zionist initiatives. Turning a deaf ear to Klages and Schuler’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, George took Wolfskehl’s side. Things got so bad that Wolfskehl decided to buy a gun to protect himself against his old friends and mistakenly shot his own leg.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, Klages started to study and teach graphology, physiognomy, and neo-Romantic philosophy of life. Ironically, it was none other than Wolfskehl who introduced Klages to Bachofen’s philosophy and ideas, later so influential on his thinking about life and his reactionary politics.

After gaining fame in Germany as the founder of German graphology and characterology, Klages shifted to more philosophical works. During World War I he constructed a new philosophy of dreams that fused Goethe’s primal image, or Urbild, with modern phenomenology. When the war ended, he produced Vom kosmogenischen Eros (On the cosmogonic Eros, 1922). His resolutely apolitical hermeneutics of organic images found support in widely varying ideological camps. Beginning in the 1910s the editors of the reactionary journal Die Tat had snatched up every article Klages offered them. Soon their moderate rivals, the editors of Münchner neuesten Nachrichten and Vössischen Zeitung, followed suit. In June 1922 Siegfried Kracauer published sections of Vom kosmogenischen Eros in the liberal Frankfurter Zeitung feuilleton, adding a short introduction in which he focused on Klages’s innovative notion of Urbilder, or primal images. In October 1924 Kracauer introduced and published a talk Klages had given on the “Frankfurter Zeitung radio hour.”

Walter Benjamin was among the first to claim that Klages had endowed the soul with mythical powers, which had led him to speak of the soul’s “collective unconscious and image-fantasy” (kollektiven Unbewusstsen and Bildphantasie). Benjamin’s admiration of Klages, which has never been properly explored in intellectual history, lasted for over two decades, and is far better documented than his relationship with Carl Schmitt, which the philosopher Giorgio Agamben stresses.

Though the correspondence between Benjamin and Klages, which has not been fully published, is scanty it gives a clear picture of the contradictory interest the former took in the latter. The many references to Klages begin in the early 1920s and continue to his Arcades Project, proving that for Benjamin Klages’s Lebensphilosophie was utterly essential. When he was twenty-two, Benjamin had traveled to Munich in order to invite Klages to give a lecture to his fellow Free German Students, the liberal branch of Wandervogel. After that first meeting in 1914, a short exchange followed in 1920, when Benjamin praised Klages for his theory of dreams and asked for further references. Klages’s response, still unpublished, mentioned other pieces he had written and included an invitation to meet in Berlin the following spring. Furthermore, the two men were next drawn together by the publication of Kosmogenischen Eros, which opened with a dedication to the theory and history of myths revived by Bachofen. Benjamin read the book with great excitement and wrote to Klages in February 1923 to communicate his enthusiasm.

Benjamindedicatedtwo essays and a few reviews to Bachofen and his Klagesian epigones. In 1926 he reviewed Klages and Bernoulli’s interpretation for the widely read Literarische Welt. Eight years later he published a far more ambitious essay in Nouvelle revue française, setting Bachofen’s contribution and Klages’s reaction in a more general perspective by elaborating the context for both thinkers and their reception. At the center of Bachofen’s project was “the cult of the magical death, theritesof the earth . . . explored by the primitive mentality.” Yet, Benjamin added, his “foregrounding of irrational forces in terms of their metaphysical and civic signification, would one day pique the interest of fascist theorists –– though it would interest Marxist theorists nearly as much thanks to its evocation of a communist society at the dawn of history.” This more critical spirit also affected Benjamin’s treatment of Klages in the essay: while most of his comments were strikingly laudatory, he linked his sometime correspondent to Alfred Baeumler, whom he called one of “ Germany ’s official professors of fascism.” As Yoseph Mali pointed out in an article dedicated to Benjamin’s theorization of Bachofen, during Benjamin’s career the allusions to Bachofen are very consistent. From 1922 to 1934, references to Bachofen always contain the concept of myth, and its contribution to a theory of history, language, and time, mostly seen from the perspective of an absence, or a “destructive character,” characterizing Bachofen “in terms akin to those which he usually applied to himself.”


A silent homage Benjamin consistently paid his master was his scrupulous avoidance of anything resembling Freud’s psychoanalytical narratives. Even when Benjamin identified the connections between Klages’s mythical images and Fascist aesthetics, he still insisted on the great potential of Klagesian thought. In 1934 Benjamin wrote his acclaimed essay “Franz Kafka” and made his preferences very clear: “There are two ways to miss the point of Kafka’s works, one is to interpret them naturally; the other is to interpret them from a supernatural perspective. Both the psychoanalytical and the theological interpretations miss the essential point.” The alternative he proposed was an investigation of the historical consciousness of “creatures ” based on the culturally suppressed — in contrast to individual psychological suppression — and which he related to Bachofen, the Bachofen he knew through Klages: “In his [i.e., Kafka’s] works, the creature appears at the stage which Bachofen has termed the hetaeric stage. The fact that this stage is now forgotten does not mean that it does not extend into the present. On the contrary: it is present by virtue of its oblivion.” Only through this approach could one appreciate the durée that extends from prehistory to everything excluded since then. “ Laws and definite norms remain unwritten in the prehistoric world,” Benjamin explained, noting that Kafka was able to save and represent that forgotten world in his stories through a series of ur-images [Urbilder].

In June 1930 Benjamin wrote to his friend Gershom Scholem about Klages’s Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele (The spirit as the adversary of the soul, 1929 – 32): “ It is without a doubt a great philosophical work, regardless of the context in which the author may be and remain suspect. . . . I would never have imagined that . . . clumsy metaphysical dualism . . . could ever be conjoined with really new and wide-ranging conceptions.”

During the early 1930s Benjamin considered writing a book about the theory of collective unconscious, relying on the insights of Klages and Carl Jung. He was particularly impressed by Klages’s theory of Eros and he liked to point out that Klages had endowed Eros with the ability to form connections between time and space that had a political and social relevance as well as loftier metaphysical implications. Benjamin’s whole notion of Rausch [ecstasy] is taken, in fact, from the work Klages did on the concept beginning in the mid-1910s. So fond of seeing the world through Klagesian spectacles did Benjamin become that in June 1932, replying to a letter in which Gershom Scholem described his experience in Palestine as “Nietzschean,” Benjamin suggested that his friend reconsider his experience in Jerusalem by the light of Klages’s book about “Nietzsche’s psychological achievement.”

As described by Benjamin, Lebensphilosophie in general and Klages in particular suggest a much more radical –– both collective and individual –– theoretical prospect than any other theory, including psychoanalysis and political authoritarianism. One might say that the secret power of Lebensphilosophie lay in its ability to use and abuse history for the sake of life. Benjamin’s fascination with the ideas of figures whose political fortunes deviated from those of his companions tainted his interpretations: Gershom Scholem reflected somewhat uncomfortably, “Benjamin had an acute sense of subversion . . . [connected to] the worldview of reactionary writers.”


4. Radical Life

Ludwig Klages and Alfred Baeumler were the two principal Bachofenians of the early Weimar republic. Both wrote about Bachofen and edited selections from his writings. Yet, while Benjamin failed in his attempts at an academic career and Klages chose the existence of a bohemian outsider, writing dense, almost hermetic books, Baeumler was an established academic.

Alfred Baeumler is known to historians as the father of the Nazified Nietzsche and the Nazi image of heroism. Herbert Schnädelbach wrote, “It is certainly undeniable that the ‘ heroic realism ’ of [Alfred] Baeumler, [Ernst] Krieck and [Alfred] Rosenberg, which was once considered to be the official philosophy of National Socialism, was ‘ inspired ’ by the traditions of life-philosophy.” But Baeumler was much more then just another simple-minded Nazi who reinvigorated heroic realism, like the two other companions Rosenberg and Krieck.

Alfred Baeumler was born in 1887 in Neustadt, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Sudeten. He studied in Berlin and Munich and received his doctorate in Kantian philosophy in 1914, under the direction of Max Dessoir, a well known neo-Kantian of the time and an expert in philosophy of aesthetics . Baeumler’s dissertation was dedicated to the problem of generality [Allgemeingütigkeit] in Kant’s Aesthetics, and opened with a declaration about the “need to overcome the flawed psychology of rationalism, before any further discussion of aesthetics.” Similarly to Klages, Baeumler agreed that the rift between feeling (soul) and consciousness or the intellect (Geist) is a decisive one in modern times. However, in contrast to Klages, Baeumler envisioned a radical political act that would open up new possibilities in both philosophy and the world.

While working on his dissertation he was also on the staff of the feuilleton of the daily Frankfurter Zeitung, the same liberal supplement that Siegfried Kracauer would edit during the 1920s. Baeumler was drafted into the German army, where he served from 1915 to 1918 as an infantryman and later fought in the east with the Freikorps, refusing to put down his weapon even after the formal announcement on the German defeat. Between 1920 and 1922 he worked for the elitist Kantian journal Kant-Studien, directed at the time by the leading neo-Kantian and chairman of the Kant Society, Arthur Liebert. In 1926 Baeumler edited with Manfred Schröter a collection of Bachofen’s texts, published as Der Mythus von Orient und Occident: Eine Metaphysik der alten Welt (The myth of Orient and Occident: a metaphysics of the ancient world). Baeumler’s lengthy introduction to the book made him a celebrated public intellectual in Germany. In 1929 Baeumler was appointed a professor of philosophy and pedagogy at Dresden University, where he would meet, among others, Victor Klemperer. In 1931 he began assisting Alfred Rosenberg in shaping the new ideology of the Nazi party. Baeumler formally became a member of the Nazi party in 1933. In 1934 he was appointed director of the office of science in Rosenberg’s office of culture and pedagogy. His analyses of Bachofen, from the mid 1920s, mark a turn of his career, changing from the neo- Kantianism to Lebensphilosophie. It was accompanied by a growing interest in politics, and potential political uses of both history (myth) and philosophy.

Klages’s popular study of Eros, turned out to be the first in a series of publications that stirred up a broad discussion of Bachofen’s ideas. Two years later, Klages helped Bernoulli publish Johann Jakob Bachofen als Religionsforscher (Johann Jakob Bachofen as a student of religion), a compilation of the writings by Bachofen they considered essential to the revival of interest in his theory of mythical time. In addition to editing the passages, the two men added rich and pointed comments to every page. In 1925 Bernoulli and Klages edited a new edition of Bachofen’s Versuch über die Gräbersymbolik der Alten (Interpretation of ancient mortuary symbols) and in 1926 they published a collection of Bachofen’s writings under the title Johann Jakob Bachofen: Urreligion und antike symbole (Johann Jakob Bachofen: primal religion and ancient symbols).

By 1925 Klages and Bernoulli found themselves competing with the more professional adherents of Bachofen. In one of his last letters to Bernoulli, Klages mentioned a new collection of Bachofen texts, “a work of resentment, administered by the firm of Baeumler and Schröter, who deserve to be rapped on the hand.” Klages planned a large-scale critique of this work, a plan that was never realized.

In many ways, Baeumler’s interpretation of Bachofen, or of the “cults of death and life,” led to more radical political implications than did Klages and Bernoulli’s readings but relied on a more conventional methodology. Baeumler’s growing interest in Bachofen occurred the same year he established his journal, the Handbuch der Philosophie. His carefully contextualized and highly analytical close readings used Bachofen to polarize Western civilization between Orient and Occident: for him, Bachofen had described a “clash of civilizations” that influenced religion, race and cultures. Baeumler’s careful and scholastic interpretation often failed to strike the sparks that fly from the pages Klages and Bernoulli devoted to Bachofen but it was much more coherent and organized. His chronology advanced and analyzed Bachofen’s anthropological research of the death cult, as a metaphysical system of presence and preservation that consecrated myths “as the power of the mood of death” [Macht der Todesstimmung]. “Bachofen,” he wrote, “did not historicize the myth. Quite the contrary: he mythicized history.” True depiction of history, according to this view, could not erase the dead as distanced by either space or time. German Romanticism returned to Greece and Rome, Baeumler argues, in order to save the dead from oblivion. Any opposite attempt, would abide to a cold scientific culture. Therefore, Bachofen’s myth was “reflecting the law- of- life” [spiegelt ein Lebensgesetz] and its constant exchange with the cult of the dead. This unity, in turn, “illustrates the experiences of the people [Volkserlebnisse] in light of its religious belief.” Provoked by Klages’s strong anti- Christian reading of both Bachofen and Nietzsche, Baeumler’s project can be read, to a large extent, as an anti- Klagesian project. Baeumler expresses his resistance to Klages in different forms, mocking all “erotic cosmologies” as overtly aestheticized euphemism for religious contents.

Three years after publishing his popular essays about Bachofen, Baeumler was simultaneously appointed head of the science office at the Center of Nazi Pedagogy and chairman of the department of education at Berlin University, which effectively made him responsible for the “Nazification” of the German academic world. Hans Sluga reported: “On the night of May 10, 1933 . . . there were many students that attended Alfred Baeumler ’ s inaugural speech. . . . Baeumler was in no doubt about the public and symbolic function he was meant to serve, and it was surely for this reason that had arranged for his inaugural lecture to coincide with the day of the book burning.” As Alfred Rosenberg ’ s right hand his influence on the educational programs and the propaganda system of the Nazi state were profound. He was imprisoned by the Allies after the end of the war but continued to publish and debate politics from the pages of the right-wing journals that now turned all their anger against the Stalinist-Bolshevic conspiracy, evoking nary a whimper from the American occupying forces.

All along Baeumler had viewed Bachofen as a possible tool for reviving the long forgotten mythical power of the German soul. Like Bachofen and Nietzsche before him, Baeumler used Theodor Mommsen as the representative figure of scientific historicization: he protested that “Mommsen sees it all as the present, a prosaic nearness, a [negative] critique. In Ranke and Mommsen’s critical science the state was evaluated hastily: this was the course taken by their historical writing.” Baeumler’s antihistoricist approach won considerable praise. Among those impressed by the essay were Thomas Mann and Martin Heidegger. That same year, Baeumler published several articles about Bachofen; one was republished in his intellectual history of “Germanness.”

Of particular interest to Baeumler was Bachofen’s discussion of the mythic ontology of time, which he would put to use in his attacks on the Jewish science of psychoanalysis. Myth, he claimed, was essentially an “absent chronology,” an exclusive collective history without chronology or facts. As a heuristic device, Baeumler contrasted the thinking of Bachofen, whom he identified quite simply as “the prophet,” with that of “the psychologist” –– clearly Freud. “[Bachofen] gazed into the depths of pre-time [Vorzeit]. The psychologist, fearful, greedy, alert, surveys his own time and the surrounding time of previous centuries. . . . Whoever is willing to risk his life, whoever plans great acts, must forget all about psychology.” For Baeumler the revival of myths and of their peculiar chronology inspired a vita activa that transcended linear time and epistemology. No more words to aestheticize a totality of life, but an action to enforce its vitalism on the false cultivated and socialized self.

In 1929 Baeumler published “Korrekturen: Bachofen und Nietzsche,” a comparative study of Bachofen and Nietzsche concluding that Bachofen’s symbolism suited Fascist goals less well than did Nietzsche’s will to power. In 1931 Baeumler joined the cultural organization Alfred Rosenberg was forming under Nazi auspices and became his right hand.

Baeumler rejected Klages and Bernoulli’s interpretation of Bachofen twice: in a review he wrote in 1924 and in his elaborated introduction to Bachofen, Der Mythus von Orient und Occident, eine Metaphysik der Alten Welt (The myth of the Orient and the Occident, a metaphysics of the ancient world), published in 1926. In many ways, the political implications of Baeumler’s interpretation were more radical than Klages’s, but Baeumler relied on a more conventional academic methodology. His carefully contextualized and highly analytical close readings used Bachofen to reveal the incommensurable Oriental and Occidental influences on Western religion, race and culture, revealing a world map divided in two: the lands of the enemies of the Teutonic races and those of their friends. If Baeumler’s interpretation often failed to strike the sparks that fly from the pages Klages and Bernoulli devoted to Bachofen, it was more historical and committed to action than Klages’s radical aestheticism. In Baeumler’s view Bachofen and Klages offered a Romantic theory of history but could not realize it:

Still, in 1926 an olive branch was offered, to which Klages and Bernoulli refused. In a letter Baeumler sent to Bernoulli in 1926, he insisted that a shared foe implied a convergence:

The contrast between your perception of Bachofen and ours goes beyond Bachofen’s oppositions. The number of Philistines is so large, and that of the anti-Philistines so small, that it is truly unfortunate that few determined foes of civic prejudice have entered this polemical conflict. . . . The enemy confronts us both [Der Gegner steht uns wohl beiden gegenüber].

Along with his letter, Baeumler included a copy of the essay on Klages and Bachofen that Walter Benjamin had published in Literarische Welt, marked with a large angry X.


To conclude, in the history of Lebensphilosophie the difference between Klages and Baeumler is a telling one, a gap large enough to envelop every twentieth-century theory of totalitarianism and fascism, but it has been neglected because of the general contempt in which postwar historians and philosophers held right-wing theories. I have tried to show that this approach has also shaped how “progressive” thinkers were and are being read. In Benjamin’s case, his views were framed too quickly within other “progressive” contexts as the psychoanalystical school. The difference between the two reactionary interpreters of Bachofen reflected a new belief that an aesthetic view had to be politicized in order to be realized. It was more a difference of degree than kind that led Baeumler to turn his influence against Klages in 1934 and culminated in 1938 with an informal taboo against the Klages circle. Interestingly, the more radical in political terms was the more moderate in aesthetic terms; conversely, Klages produced a wacky aesthetic which Baeumler –– and Nazi ideology with him –– rejected in favor of action, Tat. Fascinated by the first and frightened by the second, Benjamin plunged into the vocabulary of life as the burning issue of his time. Relating it to the state of intoxication, or Rausch, and animalistic drives — which he found even in children playing with toys — he turned back to Seneca’s writings about drunkenness and their “full perception of earthly life.”

Walter Benjamin, “Spielzeug und Spielen, Randbemerkungen zu einem Monumentalwerk,” in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Hella Tiedemann-Bartels, vol. 3 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1972), pp.129. Benjamin explored in this article a clear opposition between the Freudian “therapeutic” model and the Klagesian-Bachofenic-Nietzschean typology of living temporality. He rejected the first in favor of the second. The psychological dimension of the article supports an analogy between folklorist art and toys as a direct path to collective images [kollektive Gebilde].

Carl Albrecht Bernoulli was the principal disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche’s close friend Franz Overbeck (1837-1905). Of the interpretation of Nietzsche Bernoulli wrote at Overbeck’s behest Lionel Gossman wrote: “Overbeck strove for the rest of his life and beyond it, through the work of his student Carl Albrecht Bernoulli, to preserve a different picture of Nietzsche from that propagated, unfortunately with considerable success, by ‘die Dame Förster,’ as he insisted on calling [Elisabeth Föster Nietzsche].” Lionel Gossman, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonable Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 418.

Herbert Schnädelbach sees Klages as the heir to Nietzsche’s Lebensphilosophie. See Herbert Schnädelbach, Philosophy in Germany 1831–1933, trans. Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 145. Klages’s own followers and admirers often identified him as the day’s leading thinker in the Lebensphilosophie tradition: “Within Germany’s borders, as well as without, Ludwig Klages is known as the most important Lebensphilosopher.” Ernst Hoferichter, “Ein Frischer und Künder des Lebens,” in Herbert Hönel, ed., Ludwig Klages, Erforcher und Künder des Lebens: Festschrift zum 75. Geburtstage des Philosophen am 10. Dezember 1947(Salzburg: Österreichscher Verlag für Bellestristik und Wissenschaft, 1947), p. 11.

Eva Horn, “Der Mensch im Spiegel der Schrift. Graphologie zwischen popular Selbsterforschung und moderner Humanwissenschaft,” in Literatur und Anthropologie, ed. A. Assmann, U. Gaier, and G. Trommsdorf (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2003).

Georg Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, trans. Peter Palmer (London: Merlin, 1980), p. 191.

Ludwig Klages to Carl Albrecht Bernoulli, 14 August 1923, Deutsche Literaturarchiv am Marbach (henceforth DLM), Nachlass Ludwig Klages, Sig. 61.4141, letter no. 33.

Ibid., p. 956.

Ulfried Geuter, The Professionalization of Psychology in Nazi Germany, tr. Richard J. Holems (N.Y: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 94.

Walter Benjamin, “Theories of German Fascism,” in TheWeimar Republic Sourcebook, eds. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, Edward Dimendberg (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of Clifornia Press, 1994), 159-164. Here, p. 164. Originally published as “Theorien des deutschen Faschismus. Zu der Sammelschrift ‘Krieg und Krieger,’” Die Gesselschaft 7:2 (1930), pp. 32-41.

The correspondence between Ludwig Klages and the economist Kurt Seesemann proves such plans in the process of realization, during the late 1930s. However, the plan was blocked once the old institution of the party, Rust and Schacht, lost its power during 1936-1937, and finally when Alfred Rosenberg and Alfred Baeumler turned against the “Klages Circle” publicly, in 1938. Rosenberg’s attack on Klages in the Martin-Luther University and above the major newspapers of the time--first and foremost the Völkischer Beobachter--was undoubtedly the result of a competition between the two principal forces of Lebensphilosophie in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. See Alfred Rosenberg: Gestalt und Leben (Halle/ Saale: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1938): A Lecture given on 27April 1938 at the Martin-Luther-Universität in Halle- Wittenberg. Klages and Seesemann’s correspondence refers explicitly to this confrontation with Rosenberg and Baeumler. For the correspondence, see Kurt Seesemann to Ludwig Klages, 11 February 1935, Deutsche Literaturarchiv am Marbach (henceforth, DLM), Nachlass Ludwig Klages, sig.: 61.12413.

Mitchell G. Ash, Gestlat Psychology in German culture, 1890- 1967 (N.Y: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 12, 300.

Ludwig Klages, Sämmtliche Schriften (Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1964), 4: 409.

“Eros als Schöpfer der Welt…blieb trotz seiner kosmischen Beschafenheit ein Eros der Nähe.” Ludwig Klages, Vom kosmogenischen Eros (Jena: Eugen Diedrichs Verlag, 1930 [1922])., p. 131. Emphasis in the Original.

In 1929 Klages argued that the fundamental basis of the “Jewish faith” or its myth of creation is the determinist and necessary progress towards an aim. Ludwig Klages, Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. II (Bonn: H. Bouvier Verlag, 1969), p. 537. For the “vampire will to power” [dass vampytische Wille zur Macht ] of the “Jewish god” see the second volume, p. 1266.

Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, eds. Joachim Ritter and Karlfried Gründer (Hrsg.) (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1980), s.v. “Lebensbezug,” “Lebenserfahrung,” “Lebensreformen,” “Lebensgefühl,” “Lebenskategorien,” “Lebenskraft,” “Lebenskries,” “Lebensphilosophie.”

Johan van der Zande, “In the Image of Cicero: German Philosophy between Wolff and Kant,” Journal of the History of Ideas 56, no.3 (July 1995): p. 420.

Ibid., p. 430.

The most comprehensive historical study of Lebensphilosophie was written by Gudrun Kühne-Bertram. According to her periodization, it emerged in the period between 1770 and 1830 and was closely related to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. This is why, she argues, Dilthey often mentions the “römische Lebensphilosophie.” Kühne-Bertram, Aus dem Leben- zum Leben: Entstehung, Wesen und Bedeutung populär Lebensphilosophien in der Geistesgeschichte des 10. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt am Main: Lang Verlag, 1987), p. 72.

Wilhelm Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 7, ed. Bernhard Groethuysen (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), p. 291.

Heinrich Rickert, Die Philosophie des Lebens: Darstellung und Kritik der philosophischen Modeströmung unserer Zeit (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr Verlag, 1920).

See, for example, August Messer, Die freideutsche Jugendbewegung (Ihr Verlauf von 1913 bis 1922) ( Langensalza: Beyer & Söhne, 1922), p. 17. For a detailed history of the Lebensreformbewegung see Michael Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty in Germany, A Social History 1890- 1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) and Raymond H. Dominick III, The Environmental Movement in Germany, Prophets & Pioneers, 1871-1971 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).

“Nicht Dinge, sondern Bilder sind beseelt: das ist der Schlüssel zur ganzen Lebenslehre.” DLM, Nachlass Ludwig Klages, Manuskripte, Prosa: “Zur Lebenslehre. Aus einer Vorlesung (summer semester, 1918),” Sig.: 61. 3798.

See Michel Foucault’s essay about Hölderlin and the George circle, in Foucault, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James D. Fabion, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: The New Press, 1998), p. 13. On Stefan George’s close relationship with the cosmic principle and Klages and Schuler’s “Cosmic Circle,” see Robert E. Norton, Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), pp. 292–310. For Klages’s close correspondence with the expressionist Alfred Kubin, see Paul Bishop, “’Mir war der ‘Geist’ immer mehr eine ‘Explodierte Elephatiasis,’ Der Briefwechsel zwischen Alfred Kubin und Ludwig Klages,” in: Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft XLIII (1999), pp.49-95.

Georg Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, trans. Peter Palmer (London: The Merlin Press, 1980), p. 523.

Ibid., p. 524.

Ibid., p. 525.

Hans Eggert Schröder, Ludwig Klages; die Geschichte seines Lebens (Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1972). For the following sketch of Klages’ childhood I have relied heavily on the information in Hans Eggert Schröder, Ludwig Klages, Vol I: Das Jügend, pp.3- 47.

Frankfurter Zeitung, 14 June 1922, feuilleton section, pp. 1–2.

Frankfurter Zeitung, 25 October 1924, feuilleton section, p. 2.

Walter Benjamin to Max Horkheimer, 28 March 1937, in Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1996), 5:490.

There are only few studies that emphasize the relationship between Klages and Benjamin. The earliest is a short and partial article by Werner Fuld, “Walter Benjamin Beiehung zu Ludwig Klages,” Akzente, Zeitschrift für Lieteratur 28 (1981): 274–85. A few others have discussed the importance of the relationship, notably John McCole, Walter Benjamin and the Antinomies of Tradition (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993). Most recently appeared a fascinating theorization by Irving Wohlfarth, “Walter Benjamin and the Idea of a Technological Eros, A Tentative Reading of ‘Zum Planetarium,’” in Benjamin Studien 1, no. 1 (May 2002).

Momme Brodersen, Walter Benjamin: A Biography, trans. Malcolm R. Green and Ingrida Ligers (London: Verso, 1996), p. 64.

Ludwig Klages to Walter Benjamin, 20 December 1920, Nachlass Lduwig Klages, Deutsche Literaturarchiv in Marbach [DLM], sig.: 61.4074.

Walter Benjamin to Ludwig Klages, 28 February 1923, in Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, 2:319

“Ce tableau [de la préhistoire], mettant au première plan les forces irrationnelles dans leur signification métaphysique et civique, devait un jour presenter un intérêt supérieur pour les théoriciens fascists; mais il devait solliciter presque autant les penseurs marxistes par l’évocation d’une société communiste à l’aube de l’histoire.”Walter Benjamin, “Johann Jacob Bachofen,” in Gesammelte Schriften, book 2, 1:220.


The article was originally written for the Nouvelle revue française. In a commentary they affixed to the piece, the editors of Benjamin’s Gesammelte Schriften argued that his ideas on Bachofen were recycled by Benjamin in his writings about Kafka. See Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, book 2, 3:962.

Joseph Mali, “The Reconciliation of Myth: Benjamin’s Homage to Bachofen,” in: Journal of the History of Ideas 60:1 (1999), pp. 165-187. Here, p. 178.

Walter Benjamin, “Theories of German Fascism,” in Weimar Sourcebook, p. 164. “Diese einsichten sind nicht nur durch grössere Materialstudien sondern auch durch neue methodische Überlegungen bedingt.”

Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka,” in Selected Writings, trans. Harry Zohn, eds. Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2:806.

Ibid., pp. 808–9.

Ibid., p. 797.

Walter Benjamin, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, ed. Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, trans. Manfred R. Jacobson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 366–67. “Es ist nun, in welchen Zusammenhängen zuch immer der Verfasser [Klages] einem Suspekt sein und bleiben mag, ohne Zweifel ein grosses Philosophisches Werk. Es wäre völlig müssig, wenn ich Dir etwa hier andeuten wollte, worum es sich handelt. Ich have auch noch keine eigne ‘Stellung ’ zu dem, was darin steht, bezogen. In keinem Fale hätte ich mir vorstellen können, dass ein si hanebüchner metaphysischer Dualismus, wie er bei Klages zugrunde liegt, je sich mit wirklichen neuen und weittragenden Konzeptionen verbinden könne. ” Walter Benjamin to Gershom Scholem, 15 March 1930, in Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, vol. 4, p. 537.

Walter Benjamin to Max Horkheimer, 28 March 1937, in Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, 5:490.

The term was popularized by the George circle and the Cosmic circle. It has appeared already in Klages’s 1914 and 1919 two parts Traumbewusstsein, which Benjamin read carefully. But it is most notably developed in Klages’s Eros work from 1922. In his 3 volumes Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele Klages still used the notion of Rausch or ecstasy but preferred the concept of Entzuckung instead. Benjamincontinued to use the concept of Rausch during the 1930s, in spite of its Nazification.

Walter Benjamin to Gershom Scholem, 1 June 1932, inBenjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, 4: 100.

Gershom Scholem, “Walter Benjamin,” in Neue Rundschau 76, no. 1 (1965), p. 19.

Herbert Schnädelbach,Philosophy in Germany 1831- 1933 (Cambridge University Press, 1984., p. 140.

“Die unvolkommene Psychologie des Rationalismus musste überwunden sein, bevore das Ästhetische seine Stelle fand.” Alfred Baeumler, Das Problem der Allgemeingültigkeit in Kants Ästhetik, Inaugural-Dissertation submitted to the Ludwig-Maximillians-Universität in Munich, defended 9 June 1914 (Munich: Delphin-Verlag, 1915), p.1.

Ludwig Klages to Carl Albrecht Bernoulli, 9 February 1925, DLM, Nachlass Ludwig Klages, Sig. 61.4141, letter no. 46

Alfred Baeumler, Introduction to J.J. Bachofen, Der Mythus von Orient und Occident, eine Metaphysik der Alten Welt, ed. Manfred Schröter (Munich: C.H. Beck’sche Verlag, 1956), p. CC.

Ibid., p. CXC.

“Früher hatte man die Toten begraben und an ihre unmittelbare Gegenwart geglaubt.” Ibid., p. XXXVII.

Ibid., p . CXCII.

Ibid., p. CXCIII.

Hans Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 125.

“Bei Mommsen ist alles Gegenwart, prosaische Nähe, Kritik. Man überschätzt zu leicht den Umstand, dass Ranke und Mommsen der wissenschaflich- kritischen Richtung innerhalf der neueren Geschichtsschreibung angehören.” Alfred Baeumler, Der Mythos von Orient und Occident: Eine Metaphysik der alten Welt (Munich: Beck’sche Verlagshandlung, 1956 [1926]), p. clvii.

Marianne Baeumler, Hubert Brintraeger, Hermann Kurzke, eds., Thomas Mann und Alfred Baeumler: Ein Dokumentation (Würzburg: Königsberf und Neumann Verlag, 1989). See also Frank Edler, “Alfred Bäumler on Hölderlin and the Greeks: Reflections on the Heidegger-Bäumler Relationship,” at http://www.janushead.org/JHspg99/edler.cfm and http://www.janushead.org/2-2/fedler.cfm .

Alfred Baeumler, “Von Winckelmann zu Bachofen, 1926,” in Studien zur Deutschen Geisteschichte (Berlin: Junkerund Dünnhaupt Verlag, 1937), pp. 100–170.

“Wer in Gefahr des Lebens schwebt, wem eine grosse Tat aufregelt ist, wer muss, der vergisst alle Psichologie.” Alfred Baeumler, “Korrekturen: Bachofen und Nietzsche,” inDas Mutterrecht, ed. Heinrichs, p. 147.

Hans Sluga argues that Baeumler transformed to German Fascism only in 1929, next to joining Rosenberg’s organization. But Baeumler’s Lebensphilosophie proves this shift taking place as soon as the early 1920s, a conclusion of his disappointment with his pervious neo- Kantian conviction. See Hans Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 128.

Alfred Baeumler to Carl Albrecht Bernoulli, 8 May 1926, Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich, Nachlass Alfred Baeumler, Mappe 23: Korrespondenz Manfred Schröter.

Walter Benjamin to Albert Salomon, 10 October 1932, in Gesammelte Briefe, vol. 4: 1931-1934 (Frankfurt a.Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1998), p.137.