Whatever one thinks of the parallel to the present, it’s striking to reflect for a moment on just how much of the 20th century’s political thought was forged in the crucible of Weimar: Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer personally witnessed the downfall. Their ideas are, in one way or another, responses and reactions to that experience. The ruminations of the Weimar exiles that washed up on America’s shores were not isolated to academia or the opinion columns either, but have directly shaped US policy: the story of Leo Strauss’s influence on the neoconservative movement that birthed the Iraq War is fairly well known.
Less well known, but a figure with perhaps even more direct influence on American foreign policy thinking, is Strauss’s fellow exile and close friend, the sociologist Hans Speier, who is now subject of Daniel Bessner’s new book, Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual. Speier is obscure compared to the other exiled luminaries, but his legacy is very much still with us.
Early in the Cold War, he had a hand in the foundation of the RAND Corporation, MIT’s Center for International Studies, and the Ford Foundation’s Center for Behavioral Studies. In short, he played a major role in the creation of what’s been called “the military-industrial-intellectual complex”: the network of private and quasi-private think tanks that make up our largely unaccountable foreign policy establishment — what vulgar, perfervid minds today might call the “the deep state.”
In fact, far from being historical marginalia, Democracy in Exile is directly relevant to a number of contemporary debates, not just about foreign policy but on the nature of politics itself. To list just some of the salient questions raised by Bessner’s book: What is the role of intellectuals and ideas in politics? How are ideas institutionalized? How should democracies fight propaganda and psychological warfare coming from authoritarian nations? Should policy deliberation take place in public forums or in expert councils of state? How should the technocratic elite be made accountable to the democratic will? And finally, is there a true democratic public sphere, or is politics just manipulation, force, and fraud all the way down?
Speier’s relative obscurity makes him a better subject for purely historical study than his more famous contemporaries. Often it’s the less prominent names that express an era’s characteristic thoughts most clearly. As George Herbert Palmer wrote,
The tendencies of an age appear more distinctly in its writers of inferior rank than in those of commanding genius. These latter tell of past and future as well as of the years in which they live. They are for all time. But on the sensitive, responsive souls, of less creative power, current ideals record themselves with clearness.
Speier’s coming-of-age tale, the story of how the traumas and aspirations of his time crystallized in one “sensitive soul,” is also shot through with considerable pathos.
Like many young intellectuals this century and last, Speier started out as a Marxist. The early 1920s in Germany were a hopeful time to be a socialist: the end of World War I and the fall of the Hohenzollern monarchy saw the establishment of a democratic republic with the SPD, the Social Democratic Party, as the chief party in the ruling coalition. Speier, the son of a rather conservative middle-class Protestant family, decided to throw himself wholeheartedly into the new democratic life of the Weimar Republic. His approach to politics was influenced by his mentor and professor Karl Mannheim, the founder of the sociology of knowledge and one of the giants of the Weimar academic scene. While orthodox Marxists tended to believe that intellectuals were associated with one economic interest or another, Mannheim believed that the intelligentsia were not fully a part of any class and could freely move between them. Their déclassé position, combined with the power of abstract thought and imagination, allowed them to synthesize the beliefs of the various social classes and interests.
But unlike his master, who thought that intellectuals should abstain from partisan organizations, Speier reasoned that a committed socialist had to “use his powers where they work best: as a journalist, a scientist, a politician, through educational work, or within the [workers’] organization.” Nonetheless, he quickly grew frustrated with the “embourgeoisement” and bureaucratization of the SPD as they attempted to broaden their coalition and govern. When he turned his attention to educating the masses directly on their historical duty, “he became convinced that they could not be educated effectively.” With the far right ascendant, he began to abandon socialism and just worry for the fate of liberal democracy.
In the early 1930s, as the Nazis stormed from victory to victory and a minority government started to rule by decree, Speier found a darker master who would also guide his thought to the rest of his life: the jurist Carl Schmitt, who would become infamous for his Nazi membership and his legal justifications for Hitler’s political murders of his rivals in the Night of the Long Knives. Politics, Schmitt thought, revolved around the “friend-enemy” distinction: the friend is who you can live with, but the enemy is an existential threat. Schmitt writes in the political sphere, “Each participant is in a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent's way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one's own form of existence.”
Not unlike Mannheim’s elegant theories in their bold reductions, Schmitt’s lapidary formulas are bracing — and seductive: “The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes that much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend-enemy.” Ultimately, at the center of Schmitt’s paradigm of the political is the possibility of violence: “The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy.” Speier’s review “affirmed […] the friend-enemy distinction,” according to Bessner: “In 1932, he believed this dichotomy explained the relationship between social democrats and political extremists. Seventeen years later, he would use the friend-enemy framework to understand the U.S.-Soviet rivalry.”
Schmitt’s other major contribution to political theory would also inform Speier’s outlook. For Schmitt, sovereignty was the ability to decide on “the state of exception,” that is to say sovereignty is defined by the ability to decide a state of emergency exists and to suspend the normal legal order. In World War II and the Cold War, Speier would adopt a similar logic of crisis that permitted “temporary” undemocratic measures to be undertaken by the state to save the democracy itself.
By September 1933, after the Nazis had taken power, declared their own state of emergency, ended civil liberties, shut down the institute that Speier worked at, and proscribed rival parties, Speier, an SPD member with a Jewish wife, decided to flee to the United States. He found a welcome in the community of intellectual émigrés coalescing around the New School for Social Research. American social scientists were excited to hear from the favorite student of the great Mannheim. But he clashed with the Frankfurt School’s Max Horkheimer, who believed that exiles should stay aloof from their new country and that “the Nazi victory made clear that in the current historical moment the forces of reaction had triumphed over the forces of progressivism, and therefore the best an intellectual could do was develop a critique of the present society.” Speier, on the contrary, believed that the émigrés needed to lend their abilities to the fight against fascism and should “contribute […] his small share to the culture of his new country.”
Speier quickly applied his bitter Weimar experience and his hard-edged ideas about politics to the American scene. Sounding a Schmittian tone, he inveighed against liberal gullibility and lack of realism about the cutthroat nature of politics, a naïveté he believed allowed the victory of fascism:
In the depths of his heart a liberal cannot but conscientiously object to politics in general, since politics involves illiberal coercion and double- crossing. Men without a conscience have thus been given a chance to rule, and they have seized upon it, using coercion and fraud.
Instead of reaching the public, Speier now thought that it is “the primary task of the social scientist […] to give advice to the statesman.” Where the people were concerned, elites should ignore public opinion in favor of their own counsels; propaganda, not enlightenment, would be the order of the day — only in exceptional circumstances for limited time periods, of course. To the tenderhearted who objected that such methods were not proper to a true democracy, Speier called this the “fallacy of misplaced righteousness” and reminded them of Weimar, where democrats had failed. With war looming on the horizon, Speier believed “democracies in modern wars will have to adopt dictatorial devices of political organization, at least for a time.”
When war came, Speier was prepared. As an analyst for the US government, Speier developed an almost uncanny ability to predict the contents of German radio broadcasts and Hitler’s speeches. While he and his colleagues dressed up their work in scientistic, quantitative jargon to pass muster in the bureaucratic atmosphere of the day, Speier was always a humanist at heart; his analysis was mostly based on his own experience and astute judgment, rather than quantitative models. This qualitative approach, which Speier would insist upon into the Cold War, differentiated him from the growing intellectual dogma that only statistical or highly formal methods were valid for the policy maker.
Late in the war, he would begin to produce anti-Nazi propaganda for the Allies, directing campaigns to demoralize the retreating German armies and convince the home front the war was lost. While some idealistic propaganda operators believed that in “strategy of truth,” where true facts of the war should be broadcast into Germany, Speier “felt free to employ any device, any ruse de guerre, which would speed the collapse of Germany and save Allied lives.” It’s difficult to disagree with Speier on that account.
After the war, Speier stayed true to his belief that when the emergency had ceased, the anti-democratic rule of propaganda should stop with it. He believed the Allies should reinstitute the more-or-less free exchange of opinion in occupied Germany, lest the population grow leery of democracy’s promises. But his outlook permanently changed once the Soviets acquired the atomic bomb.
The nuclear standoff required Speier to advocate for a nearly constant state of emergency. The stakes of nuclear war meant that the fickle public had to be ignored by the governing class. “To guarantee that U.S. elites had access to experts, Speier dedicated himself to constructing new types of national security research institutions that existed outside the traditional structures of the U.S. state,” writes Bessner. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the state of exception had become the rule. And so in the late 1940s, Speier became the first head of the Social Sciences Division at the newly formed RAND Corporation, the think tank set up by the Douglas Aircraft Company to provide defense policy advice to the US government.
But it was to the masses and not the elites that Speier’s theories would be tested on. In the early 1950s, Speier reasoned that since the communists had not accomplished totalitarian control of East Germany yet and there was widespread discontent, the West should embark on a massive propaganda campaign to engender a popular revolt there. His ideas were adopted, and in June 1953 they bore fruit: there was an uprising in the GDR, spurred on by a Western information campaign. But as Bessner writes, it turned out to be an “event U.S. policymakers did not anticipate, nor even, it turned out desire.” Eisenhower declined to back the revolt, and it was crushed by Soviet troops. (It should be briefly noted at this point how similar Speier’s psychological warfare theory, with its emphasis on public irrationality and deception, is to Soviet “active measures” techniques, which were employed by the Russian state against the United States in the 2016 election.)
Speier’s influence waned as the Cold War’s primary theater of operations shifted to the Third World. But many of the “best and the brightest,” the defense intellectuals who guided US foreign policy into so many dangerous and deleterious places, were nurtured in the institutions Speier helped to establish. For example, proponents of the Vietnam War, like Lucian Pye and Walt Rostow, launched their careers from MIT’s Center for International Studies.
Daniel Bessner, quite rationally, believes the practical upshot of the Speier saga is to ensure that defense experts are held accountable through democratic mechanisms. He points to the story of Paul Wolfowitz, the defense intellectual who bears a considerable responsibility for the Iraq War, and how he never suffered any serious professional consequence for what was — at best — a catastrophic series of misjudgments, and that’s a generous assessment of the intellectual malfeasance involved. But in his own account, Bessner points out two cases of what democratic oversight looks like in practice: one when anti–New Deal conservative representatives in the House used their committee powers to tamper with his work against the Nazis during wartime as a means to frustrate Roosevelt’s initiatives, and second, when one Speier’s employee at the Social Science Division caused a political firestorm in the Senate for proposing the thought experiment of a “strategic surrender” to the Soviet Union. Speier’s cynical conclusions about the democratic will have a bit more to them than we’d sometimes like to admit. Following the politics of public opinion does not necessarily result in a totalitarian nightmare — it is more often just petty, ignoble, and shortsighted.
Speier’s Weimar-informed view of politics is also more correct than liberals would like to admit. When facing down fascists, one needs to occasionally resort to coercion or trickery. Allowing extremists to take advantage of democratic institutions in order to bring about their downfall is just political malpractice, and sometimes I think that the people who allow opportunities for the alt-right to get its message out in the name of pluralism and free expression, are, at best, committing what Speier brilliantly called “the fallacy of misplaced righteousness.”
As a resurgent left begins to think what its foreign policy should look like, Daniel Bessner’s sympathetic, yet critical, book on Hans Speier is an important study to consider. Speier’s experience in Weimar lead him to rational and honest conclusions, shaped by what seemed like unsentimental, realistic assessments of the world. His judgments based on that experience were often astute. Later, his judgment failed him — circumstances changed, as they always do. His actions taken as a whole, based on ethical motives, had consequences that were destructive, both to the United States and the world. The central irony feels tragic: Speier’s best efforts to save democracy ended up undermining it. None of us can be certain our ideas won’t suffer a similar fate.
John Ganz is the executive editor at Genius and has written for the Washington Post and The Baffler.