nazism & marxism
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Can you talk about what these two ideologies, Marxism and Nazism, have in common, in terms of their apocalyptic sense?

Cohn is a Fellow of the British Academy and Professor Emeritus at Sussex University.

(more about Cohn)

Both Nazism and Communism had an ideology which was ostensibly scientific, because the Nazis even believed that their racist doctrine had a scientific basis. They even tried to prove it by measuring skulls and God knows what else. And the Communists, of course, believed that their idea of the progress of history was based on scientific analysis. They claimed to be able to foretell the future, the fate of the class struggle. They were always wrong, most notably in Germany in the 1930s. They were always wrong. But they did believe that they had the key, a scientific key to the understanding of past and even future history. So both were, in effect, pseudo-scientific ideologies. But both share an apocalyptic view, and more than that, a millenarian view, because they both look forward to a final struggle, a great judgment visited upon an evil world, out of which will emerge a purified world. [And it] is this fantasy of a purified world, a cleansed world, which is so enormously pernicious and which has brought so much catastrophe upon us in this present century.

In the 20th century, those of us who are not Communists or Nazis, people who (in the broad sense of the word) belong to the liberal, democratic tradition, find something very strange in these creeds. And the more they look at them, the stranger they appear. One has to remember, they wouldn't have appeared strange in the Middle Ages, because the basic apocalyptic fantasy was everywhere. ... What is new, as compared to the Middle Ages, is that whereas at that time the Last Judgment was to be carried out by God, and to be brought about on this earth by the returning Christ, but after that everything was to be off this earth--in heaven, in hell, in another sphere, and beyond history, beyond time--what has happened now in this century is that the Last Judgment has been something which has been wrought on this earth by human beings against human beings, which is quite a different matter, and far bloodier. ...



How is Marxism an apocalyptic world view?

Edwards serves as President of St. Olaf College and has written many books and articles on Martin Luther.

(more about Edwards)

Apocalypse always is an attempt to take an individual circumstance and put it into a large history, a universal history. Marxism does the same thing. It starts with feudalism, moves into the [era of the] bourgeoisie, then into the proletarian utopia. And so it's a secular form of apocalypse, because you can read when this transition is supposed to occur from one to the next, and you can identify who the good guys are and the bad guys. And as apocalypse always does, it has the appropriate roles for everyone to play, and brings them all together in a universal drama which is going to reach a culmination in some utopia, either the Kingdom of God or the perfect socialist state.

Wasn't Marx anti-religious? It's interesting that he draws on religious rhetoric.

Yes. Marx is very anti-religion, but he cannot escape the fact that religion provides the images and the vehicles by which he expresses his ideas. He's strongly influenced by Christianity and by Judaism. And he borrows heavily from these, even as he rejects the notion that there's a God. ...


Campion teaches History at Queens' College in Cambridge and History and Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

(more about Campion)

When we look at Marxism and Marx's theory of history, we can draw connections which go right back to the Book of Daniel. The standard version of Marx's theory of history is based on four great periods of history, the fourth of which is capitalism (in other words, Marx's version of the Roman Catholic Church). And the overthrow of capitalism will then lead to the return of the great golden age of communism. ... To look at Marx's four stages of history superficially, you wouldn't think that there was a connection with the Book of Daniel. But ... when Marx divided history into four epochs, he was deeply influenced by Hegel, the main German philosopher at the beginning of the 19th century. And Hegel was working within a tradition in Germany in which it was standard to divide history into four great phases. And that tradition was established in Reformation Germany by Thomas Muenzter, directly reading from the Book of Daniel. ... So Marx's theory of history, even though it was fleshed out with enormous numbers of facts, was essentially taken from Jewish apocalyptic tradition.

Perhaps it was central to Marxism's appeal that on the one hand Marx, in his incredibly detailed scholarship, promoted himself as a scientist, and so his followers came to accept his forecast of the future revolution as a scientific one, and therefore destined to happen. ... It was perhaps the fact that his work was presented in such a scientific manner, and hence so accessible to 19th and 20th century people, plus the fact that he'd used, from ancient millenarian tradition, this Jewish apocalyptic prophecy of the golden age, perhaps it was the fact that he brought those two together, which is one reason for Marxism's amazing appeal.

Can you describe his sense of an apocalyptic vision that happens on earth instead of in heaven?

The communist prophecy was of the kingdom of humanity on earth, an earthly paradise. It dispensed with God altogether. What had happened over previous centuries was that people had just eventually become disillusioned with the prophecies that Christ was going to return. They were fed up with waiting for divine intervention. And the idea developed that it was essentially up to people themselves to work for a better and more just world. And when they'd done that, then Jesus would return. And eventually, the early 19th century socialists gave up on Jesus and God altogether, and said, "Look, the creation of the earthly paradise, of a just and equal society, is a good and a noble end in itself. It has to be done." And Marx then gave this view the stamp of his apparently scientific work in history, and of his reworking of the "four empires" model and Jewish apocalyptic theory. ... Marx believed that when the workers rose up, when socialism was established, then essentially the degenerate processes of history would come to an end and the earthly paradise would be established. And you know, we have the words of the Internationale, the Communist anthem: This is our last and final struggle. After then, there would be no more struggles. All would be peace.

How did that secular apocalyptic notion play itself out in revolution?

Around the beginning of the 20th century, just before the First World War, most Marxists thought that the coming of socialism was somehow inevitable. They could just sit back and let it happen. And this is the origin of social democracy, socialism achieved through parliamentary means and gradual legislation. The innovation of Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks was to come along and say, "No, we've got to force the pace of history." I mean, Lenin was essentially a religious evangelist, an atheist one perhaps, but a religious evangelist nonetheless. And he said, "Look, we've got to leap into the next stage of history." He pushed the Russian Revolution into Communism, with I think what many people would now agree were disastrous consequences.

russians marching

russians marching

Lenin believed that he could actually create a paradise on earth. [It] was going to be a paradise in which there was total equality. There was no private property, no money. The land was held in common. The factories were owned by the workers. And he believed that this would mean an end to war and an end to suffering, and as Marx had put it, an end to the alienation of humanity from nature. So just as Christians who had talked about the Fall and the alienation of humanity from God had seen the restoration of that human contact with God as essential to the coming age, Marx and Lenin turned that around and somehow they were talking about humanity becoming one with nature again. That was their goal. And it was essentially, albeit an atheist one, a religious goal.


There are two great secular apocalyptic traditions in the West in the 20th century. One is Marxism. The other is Nazism. And the Nazis, too, went back and wanted to find a usable history, a usable past. And they looked for turning points that led ultimately to the Third Reich, the third empire, and the thousand year empire (which is a very apocalyptic idea). And in looking back, one of the key elements (and a tragic element) was Martin Luther's anti-Jewish writings. Because in 1938, on Luther's birthday, Nazis and their supporters went throughout Germany and broke Jewish shops, destroyed Jewish synagogues. [It] was the "night of broken glass," the Kristallnacht. And that same day, one of the Nazi bishops published a treatise with excerpts, some of the most horrible excerpts from Luther's anti-Jewish writings. And in the preface, he said, "At the time the western democracies are criticizing us for the treatment of the Jews, it is time for the Germans to hear from that great German hero, Martin Luther, the great warner of his people against the Jews." And the irony once again of apocalypse and using history is that those anti-Jewish writings had not been published, except in critical editions of Luther's works, for several centuries. They're revived and excerpted in 1938, as one tool of showing that the Third Reich has arrived and the thousand year reign had begun. And the Jews were the enemies of that reign. ... It was ironic and tragic that the Nazis used Luther this way--first with their secular apocalypse. They didn't believe in Christianity. Second, Lutheran Christians and Christians generally had been ignoring Luther's anti-Jewish writings for several centuries. These are being misused in order to support an apocalyptic view that Luther himself would have condemned, and that led, of course, to the Holocaust.

What was Hitler's apocalyptic vision?

The apocalyptic view that Hitler worked with was based on the notion that the Aryan race was the proper race to bring in this thousand year reign. And the enemy of the Aryan race, for Hitler, was the Jews. And so in order to realize his vision, he had to get rid of the Jews. And that, of course, is what he attempted to do in the Holocaust.

What language did he use? In Mein Kampf he says he's carrying out the Lord's work. Hitler is not a religious man, and yet he refers to religious rhetoric. Why?

Adolf Hitler was one of the great leaders of the 20th century. Not great in the sense that he was good, but great in that he was able to tell a story which captured the imagination and excited people and moved them forward in his own particular program. And in this image, in this rhetoric, in this story that captured people, there was both the apocalyptic notion of the thousand year reign, but there also were the enemies that had to be overcome in order to bring that reign about. And those enemies, of course, were the Jews. And religious language is the language of the West to explain these over-arching goals and to mobilize people. And so even secular ideologies cannot escape religious rhetoric in order to mobilize, inspire, and impel people to act. Hitler would talk about things like "the Lord's work." Hitler would talk about history as if it were a personal force that drives things on. Hitler could use images of the devil or of Satan, at least in a metaphorical sense. The notion of opponents, and opponents with almost superhuman power. The Jews, in Hitler's vision, were given powers that no human beings have. That made them so satanic, and the struggle against them so righteous, in his particular vision. ... By offering this vision in which the Jews are no longer human beings but are almost a supernatural force opposed to the progress of history, by making the Jews more than human or less than human, it allowed people to treat them as less than human, and give them the justification that they were doing the Lord's work themselves. Even though they found it distasteful, they felt it was necessary to bring about that which was far better.

What was the logic of the Third Reich?

Hitler did produce a historical logic for his Third Reich. He said that the German empire established by the Kaisers was the second Reich, and that the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne was the first Reich. But really what he was really doing was evoking this idea which was this deep current in European millenarian thought, that the coming of the third age was imminent and inevitable, and that it was going to be a glorious age of peace and harmony. Of course, in Hitler's case it was only going to be an age of peace and harmony for some people. ...

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