The Lies over Eric Voegelin’s Relationship with Nazism
David Dyzenhaus’s essay in Aeon, “Democracy or apocalypse,” was written under the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though the author is not interested in that war at all. Instead, he uses Putin’s ideological justification for the aggression of de-Nazifying the country to Nazify and racialize Eric Voegelin so as to condemn him. The… The post The Lies over Eric Voegelin’s Relationship with Nazism appeared first on VoegelinView.




David Dyzenhaus’s essay in Aeon, “Democracy or apocalypse,” was written under the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though the author is not interested in that war at all. Instead, he uses Putin’s ideological justification for the aggression of de-Nazifying the country to Nazify and racialize Eric Voegelin so as to condemn him. The reason for this attempt as an intellectual character assassination is unclear but seems somehow connected with the author’s admiration of Hans Kelsen. As an internationally renowned legal scholar, Kelsen was Voegelin’s teacher and doctoral adviser at the University of Vienna in 1920, but after graduating from Kelsen’s tutelage Voegelin had significant breaks with teacher and became critical of Kelsen legal philosophy.
Before teaching political science at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu from 1970 to 2020, I was aware of the scholarly disagreements between Kelsen and Voegelin from when I was a doctral student of Voegelin at the Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität in Munich in 1967 to when I joined the Hoover Institution at Stanford University as a junior Research Fellow in 1969. I have a forthcoming article, “The Kelsen-Voegelin-Controversies,”[1] in which I describe and analyze the major intellectual differences that began to emerge after Voegelin received his doctorate in jurisprudence. These controversies became intensified after Voegelin undertook a research journey in the U.S. from 1924 to 1926, followed by a stay in Paris, both funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
On this American research expedition, Voegelin took classes from John Dewey at Columbia, Alfred North Whitehead at Harvard, and John R. Commons at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. These two American years radically changed his understanding of politics. Instead of continuing to identify the realm of politics with the institutional framework of the state, as was common in all German-speaking countries at that time – and as Kelsen certainly taught – Voegelin discovered the communal and spiritual narratives of meaning that had anchored American political life before and since the constitutional founding of the Republic. Later, he published his first book in Germany, The Form of the American Mind (1928), which covers the whole range of meaning narratives absent from the institutional and legal reductionism that defined the German Staatslehre.
The chapters on “George Santayana” and “Puritan Mysticism” give an early hint at some of the intellectual interests Voegelin was going to pursue later. Kelsen became aware of some of them when he had to read Ueber die Form des Amerikanischen Geistes, which was part of the writings Voegelin submitted to support the request for his Habilitation for teaching at the university in 1928. The fact that Kelsen was not even mentioned in the first book by his former student seemed to further the breakage between the two. Kelsen vetoed Voegelin’s attempt to be allowed in his course offering subject matters that deviated from the legal core of Staatslehre, which was the German version of political theory. However, Kelsen insisted that Voegelin remain a teacher of the core law courses of the University of Vienna.
When Voegelin was studying and widely travelling in the United States he was directly confronted with the reality of American racism. This racism was part of the historical formation of the country and was manifested in admittedly white supremacist record vis-à-vis the indigenous peoples and enslaved African Americans. Ken Burns has recently reminded the public with his six-part series on PBS on “The U.S. and the Holocaust” of this legacy which still haunts American culture and politics today.
In the two books Voegelin published in Germany in the ominous year 1933 that dealt with race, American racism was not covered. In 1936 the reviewer of the Frankfurt School’s journal in the Paris exile (Zeitschrift fuer Sozialforschung) praised one of the books, The History of the Race Idea, pointing that “Voegelin presents on only 160 pages an abundance of clear thoughts and honest research—contrary to the usual literature in this area.” Hannah Arendt extends in her Origins of Totalitarianism (1952) this praise to the other book, Race and State, which she claims to be “the best account of race thinking in the pattern of a history of ideas.” Yet during his entire American life after his emigration in 1938, during his final years at Stanford from 1969 to 1985, and during the eleven years of his Munich tenure from 1958 to 1969, Voegelin never touched on the disturbing topic of anti-Black racism in the United States. I have two answers for this silence, yet they have nothing to do with Dyzenhaus’s charge of Voegelin having become a Nazi which is demonstrably false and a scholar of Dyzenhaus’s note should know better than the lie about Voegelin’s non-existent affiliation with Nazism. But before moving to that question, I want to deal with one of the major confrontations between Kelsen and Voegelin, namely Kelsen’s understanding of the state and its legally constrained functions concerning its role in the body politic.
This controversy between Kelsen and Voegelin began in 1920 when Voegelin started his dissertation and Kelsen drafted the constitution for an Austria that had lost its sovereign, the final Habsburg emperor. I have dealt with this contested issue at length in the abovementioned article, but I want to refer at least to one major aspect of such controversy. Contrary to others, Voegelin did not care for Kelsen’s draft or final version of the constitution because, in both of them, the place for the legitimating authority was left vacant. Unlike the American founders who introduced the Constitution with the opening phrase “We the People of the United States,” there was no reference to the people as the new sovereign in Kelsen’s text. It was a headless conglomerate that invited the political contestations that finally led to a civil war-like paralysis in 1933/34 and the creation of an authoritarian regime within a generation of its adoption.
Voegelin described this crisis in his book The Authoritarian State (1936), of which the subtitle defines the text as “An Essay on the Problem of the Austrian State.” The book was a frontal attack on Kelsen’s constitutional accomplishment and a defense of the authoritarian regime that took over until it was terminated by Nazi Germany’s annexation in April of 1938. Voegelin supported this regime when Austria’s fate was openly threatened of being crushed by Mussolini’s Fascist Italy or Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Voegelin wanted to preserve Austrian sovereignty even if it meant accepting an authoritarian regime so long as it sought to preserve said sovereignty. Yet he had also started writing an essay about the ideological background of the three totalitarian regimes that dominated European politics during the wars, namely the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. This essay, as suggested in its title, Die politischen Religionen (“The political Religions”), is concerned with the deep connections between millennial, gnostic, and other eschatological movements that influenced European politics throughout history. It was published in Vienna after the annexation in April 1938 and republished in 1939 in Stockholm with a preface already written while in exile. It demonstrates the Voegelin, despite his dance with authoritarianism, was an anti-totalitarian he recognized the global ambitions of totalitarian politics which would erase all national and local sovereignty.
Let me now return to the major charge of Dyzenhaus’s attack on Voegelin: that he had been a Nazi and a racist. Voegelin wasn’t Jewish, but most of his friends in Vienna were and all went into exile in the United States The correspondence between them in exile was extensive but never dealt with the racism that surrounded them in their new society. Why was the reality of American racism not discussed by those who had fled from a racist Nazi Germany and a racist Austria that welcomed Hitler as a returning hero in 1938?  It was not only the invisibility syndrome that Ralph Ellison magnificently described in his novel Invisible Man (1952) that Jewish and non-Jewish refugees from Europe shared with white Americans when it came to the non-recognition of African Americans as equal human beings. Additionally, the European intellectual refugees had internalized the anthropological color code that Immanuel Kant and David Hume, and numerous French and other European philosophers and scientists had established in the eighteenth century.
According to this code, white European people were at the top of the hierarchical ranking of humanity and all people of color were placed below them. Since Africans came – as Kant, Herder, Hegel and others had proclaimed – from a continent without culture and therefore belonged to nature, educated European refugees treated African Americans often worse than they were treated by, in this sense, under-educated white Americans. Voegelin was no exception to the European refugee rule that applied to non-Jews and Jews, including writers and university teachers in all disciplines. Additionally, his long tenure at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge made him uncritically accept the behavioral milieu and soft racism of the American South of the pre-Civil Rights era.
While living and teaching in Baton Rouge between the 1940s and World War II, Voegelin wrote a History of Political Ideas – posthumously published in 8 volumes in his Collected Works. This History became the backdrop for the lectures he gave at the University of Chicago in 1951 – published as The New Science of Politics in 1953. He did not return to the project of the “History of Political Ideas” but began his voluminous philosophy of history enterprise, Order and History. Kelsen was unaware of the intellectual work that had contributed to The New Science of Politics and, as his negative review in 1954 indicates, he would not have spent any time finding out. Kelsen didn’t care to learn from Voegelin, he wanted to bury Voegelin’s reputation as a rebuffed teacher and mentor.
Whether he would have been interested in the five volumes of Order and History published from 1956 to 1987 is a moot question. It is certain that he did not read the first three volumes published in 1956/57. Such lack of interest is understandable since, by then, Voegelin had not only left behind neo-Kantian positivism but positivism in general became his main target in the social sciences. He certainly was aware that positivism also defined the core of Kelsen’s epistemology and his aversion to any of the spiritual and transcendent metanarratives of meaning that Voegelin had become interested in. Voegelin was preoccupied with making sense of the historical foundations of Western civilization by critically reading and interpreting the texts of ancient Israel, the Greek philosophers, and the dissident Jewish community which became Christianity. In the process of mapping these territories, he accepted Karl Jaspers’ notion of a civilizational Axial Age. He began to study the cosmological empires and mythical metanarratives of meaning that preceded the Axial Age and included a study of them in the fourth volume of Order and History. As a result, Kelsen’s doctoral student had not only abandoned the study of law but also overcame the intellectual and especially civilizational narrowness of Western jurisprudence. Voegelin was the individual who expanded his horizons rather than narrowed it as Kelsen had done.
Until this day, the circle of Kelsen admirers has not forgiven one of his early doctoral students for this critical abandonment. The essay by Dyzenhaus is an illustration of that same biased attitude that then veers into lies and character assassinations. The author claims that we should think of “the state in a value-neutral fashion as it manifests itself in any social or political context. He [Kelsen]deliberately excludes moral, political, and social considerations from his attempt to construct a scientific account of the legal order as a system of norms, a theory of the authority of the modern legal state.” This restatement of Kelsen’s epistemological positivism is the crux of Dyzenhaus’s inability of making sense of modern political societies. The ideological coloring of legal “norms” was – and is – not merely a privileged characteristic of Communist and Fascist states. The illiberal subversion of established constitutional norms in contemporary Western societies, including the United States, confirms how unfashionable the “value-neutral fashion” has become.
One last question must be answered now which I have put off in order to provide a richer intellectual background and it has to do with the libelous suggestion by Dyzenhaus that Voegelin was a Nazi or at least a Nazi sympathizer. When I first read this incredible remark, I envisioned the response of some of Voegelin’s Jewish Viennese friends whom I met in Munich and Stanford: Friedrich Engel-Janosi, Aron Gurwitsch, and Gregor Sebba. They would have burst out in laughter at such an idiotic statement. The comment by the author about Voegelin not having to leave Vienna does not really deserve a response, yet since he has raised this libelous charge and questioned Mark Lilla’s account of Voegelin’s escape, let me ask the simple question: If Voegelin was not threatened with arrest, why did he leave? I am sure Dyzenhaus will come up with all kinds of false explanations to serve his hatred of Voegelin, even if none of them will change the fact that he left and was followed a short time later by his wife. While Voegelin’s sister and father were Nazis, Voegelin was unequivocally not. In fact, Voegelin had a rousing confrontation with his father about his father’s support for the Nazis before he left for Switzerland and never saw him again. Voegelin ended his relationship with his father because of his constant and consistent opposition to Nazism. That, in and of itself, reveals Voegelin’s ultimate stance and commitment to anti-Nazism.


[1] Manfred Henningsen, “The Kelsen-Voegelin-Controversies,” The Political Science Reviewer 47, no.1, 2023.

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