Riemen founded the Nexus Institute over 30 years ago to bring together high-profile intellectuals from around the world to engage in serious public debate. He believes that the antidemocratic spirit of fascism can be defeated, but only through the spread of humanist education. In his own writing, Riemen calls for European humanist values, cultivating a “domain of culture” to highlight our shared human dignity. It is a liberal antifascism, deeply situated within the Western canon. Like Nietzsche’s dream of transnational, intellectual “good Europeans,” Riemen’s invocation of a European spirit attempts to stand in opposition to the claims white nationalists have made to European culture.
Riemen spoke to Los Angeles Review of Books about the Nexus Institute and his efforts to bring together figures like George Steiner with Susan Sontag, or US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Putin advisor Aleksander Dugin; the importance of using the term “fascism”; and his refusal to seek saints in the intellectual and political figures he admires.
NATASHA LENNARD: How would you describe the work that you do — both through your own books and through the Nexus Institute?
ROB RIEMEN: I consider myself a European intellectual, probably a European humanist intellectual. My great intellectual hero is Thomas Mann. My whole thinking is very much based on what I’ve learned from him, his work, the life he lived, his commitment to the world of politics. The first Mann novel I read, and this was before I studied theology for 10 years at university level, was The Magic Mountain. It’s the story of a young man (he’s 23) who goes on holiday to visit his cousin who’s suffering from tuberculosis in the Vosges, high in the mountains. He ends up there for seven years, reading books and having great conversations.
The Magic Mountain was, in this sense, the founding novel of the Nexus Institute. The institute, in a certain way, involves nothing else besides reading books and having great conversations and debates about the big, urgent, even accursed questions of our time. But at the end of the novel, the protagonist, Hans Castorp, is faced with the start of World War I, and he must go to the front; we do not even know if he will survive. Fortunately, there was no war when I had to finish my prolonged university studies and was confronted with the fact of having to make a living. I had the good fortune, before my studies ended, of meeting Johan Polak, an old Dutch Jewish publisher who, by some miracle, had survived World War II. After the war, and because his family had some serious money, he decided to devote his whole life and everything he had to “protecting everything that Hitler wanted to destroy.”
So, he started an amazing publishing house, Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep. He was an old-school publisher, like Alfred Knopf and Sammy Fisher [of S. Fischer Verlag]. He was friends with Max Brod and Elias Canetti, among others, and published the most beautiful books. He started a bookshop, had an impressive private library, and was one of the founders of the journal European Judaism. He also started hosting little conferences with the (then) young George Steiner.
Steiner became, next to Thomas Mann, the second most important intellectual figure in my life. And a very, very dear friend. Steiner gave the most famous Nexus Lecture, on “The Idea of Europe.” He came to our conferences many times. He, too, was a kind of inspiration for me to keep alive the tradition of European humanism. When I met Johan Polak, I asked him: “Look, you did your thing for European Judaism. Why don’t we start a journal for European humanism?” And he thought that was a wonderful idea. I could find a little bit of money, enough to have the first issue out. And that was at the end of 1991. In 1992, Johan died very suddenly, at 63. Then I realized that, to be able to keep the journal alive, I would have to do more with the idea.
Instead of asking people to write, I realized that I could ask them to come to the Netherlands, and I’d make sure they get on television. It started as a marketing trick. Once it’s on television, the fundraising becomes easier! That took two more years. In 1994, we could open the institute, with a first Nexus Lecture by Edward Said. And in 1996, we held the first Nexus Conference, on “the politics of amnesia,” which featured Michael Ignatieff, Peter Sellars, and Allan Janik, among other major figures.
Three decades later, the Nexus Institute has become a kind of intellectual community, with participants from all over the world — from Sonia Gandhi to Thomas Mann’s daughter, Elisabeth Mann Borgese, to Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Nobel Prize for literature. That’s the story behind the Nexus Institute. When I have any time left, I write my own books.
In terms of your own writing, you gained some attention in recent years for being among the few people advocating that we should describe the current rise in far-right political tendencies and constellations as fascist. And that was years before Trump’s presidency. It’s become almost a tired debate now, whether or not to use the f-word for, say, today’s far-right Republicans. I have also long argued that, yes, we should. But perhaps for different reasons than you offer. Why did it feel important to you, as long ago as 2010, to be talking about fascism? What was the reaction like at the time, and how has that changed?
In 2010, when I saw what was happening in the Netherlands with the rising popularity of Geert Wilders’s far-right Freedom Party, for me there was only one conclusion: we are dealing with the return of fascism. Yet, based on understanding the work of those like Thomas Mann and Albert Camus, why should we be surprised? Because fascism is the antidemocratic spirit par excellence. The essence of democracy is not only voting rights and a free press. Democracy is also based on a certain spirit. And the spirit of fascism is the antispirit. What both Mann and Camus knew is that a democracy has to be based on fundamental moral and spiritual values. At the very moment when those values disappear, and are replaced by instincts such as fear and greed, you get into a mass democracy, which will always develop into resentment, racism, nationalism, and the politics of lies and hatred. In 2010, I told my supervisory board at Nexus: “European humanism can never be just a library or a museum or something like that. It is about fundamental values. And if I’m not allowed to speak out now, then what’s the purpose of having a Nexus Institute?”
So [that year], I published a book, The Eternal Return of Fascism. And I got criticism from all sides here in the Netherlands. The academics and the pundits said: “No, no, you cannot say these things. Where’s your definition of fascism?” Well, I was not that surprised because, first of all, nowadays, there is not much that academics understand. The problem, in general, is that they are so focused on the paradigm of science that they do not understand that the world of the humanities can never work like the sciences. Humanities are a form of hermeneutics, an art of reading. The truth and meaning about our lives and the world we create can never be captured by the scientific paradigm of Descartes, as already Giambattista Vico argued in his famous lecture De nostri temporis studiorum ratione [“On the Study Method of Our Times”] in 1708.
The political class, of course, was very embarrassed. Eventually, I turned out to be right. In 2018, Norton wanted to publish an American edition, and the same thing happened again in the United States. The New York Times asked me to write an op-ed related to my book. In my op-ed, I said: “Well, you have to understand, with Mr. Trump, you have classic contemporary fascism. It’s as simple as that. This is not name calling. Here are all the arguments.” And they didn’t want to publish it. They asked me instead: “Why don’t you write another one?” I thought: “Okay, if there’s something wrong with that piece, then I’ll write another one, but I will make the same argument.” And again, they refused to publish it. Later, one of their columnists explained to me: “You have to understand, it’s against our business model. We, The New York Times, we cannot say that Mr. Trump is a fascist because we may now lose our readers, and we will not have any access to the White House anymore.” Everything, apparently, is based on the business model.
Other arguments I got were, “You cannot say these things because Trump is not violent,” and “You cannot say these things because Trump is not Hitler.” I said, “No, of course he’s not Hitler, but that has nothing to do with whether he’s a fascist or not.” All those years Trump was president, and now we’re dealing with the spread of the Big Lie [that Biden stole the 2020 election]. As for the Big Lie, I’ll put a lot of blame on the pundits, the academics, and all those who kept their mouths shut and wanted to do this trick of, “Well, it’s populism, it’s right-wing populism, it’s authoritarian populism, it is blah, blah, blah populism,” without having the guts to educate Americans about what was actually going on.
Like Umberto Eco, I think it’s worthwhile to address fascism as — borrowing from Wittgenstein — a “family resemblance” concept. As such, we can name constellations, groups, and regimes as “fascist” when they share, in Wittgenstein’s words, “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing,” but they don’t have to all share every single feature of what we might call a fascist trait — nationalism, racism, traditionalism, chauvinism, militarism, etc. — to deserve the name. I also think that, as a speech act, when we call something fascist, we aren’t just describing something, we’re also surely calling for an antifascist response. What should that look like, in your view?
In 1938, Thomas Mann arrived in New York. Originally, he was only scheduled to go to the United States on a tour for his lecture series, The Coming Victory of Democracy, but it became impossible for him to go back to Europe, since he was in exile. He spoke at these old-style American town halls from the East Coast to the West Coast, around 15 places in all, most of the time with an audience of two, three, four thousand people.
I’m still amazed. We are talking about a man in his late sixties, a European with a heavy German accent, and you have two, three, four thousand Americans listening to his lectures. The essence of what he had to say was, “Look, who am I to tell you Americans about democracy? You’re the country of Lincoln, of Walt Whitman, you’re the country of President Roosevelt. But I have a certain experience which I would like to share with you, and which is very important for you to understand. I come from the city of Munich. I was there for more than 30 years. Mr. Hitler was there all the time. I saw the whole thing happening and growing. This fascist movement is growing all over Europe. And what I realized is that the essence of a democracy is its spirit.”
He understood that the spirit of democracy involved people’s enlightenment. That’s why his conclusion was that the essence of democracy is education. The democratic experience is an appeal to “our better angels,” and for that you need education. It’s not just an American phenomenon that we live in a society of “organized stupidity.” Goebbels would be in awe of Tucker Carlson and people like him. The propaganda machine, the conspiracy theories, and the total lack of education — that is how you create a society in which these things can happen. And, again, this is not only about America; we see it here in Europe all the time.
I’m wondering if you could clarify what you mean by “education”? After all, a lot of fascists, contemporary and historical, were extremely well educated. The idea that it’s only through ignorance that people choose fascism — that doesn’t reflect the reality.
It sounds as if I’m now contradicting myself. But I just finished writing a new book, which I hope will come out in the United States this year: Becoming Human Is an Art: Four Etudes. Its second chapter, “On Stupidity and Lies,” is an attack on the ways the educational system inspires stupidity and lies. One could, of course, be a professor, even win a Nobel Prize in whatever, and still be very stupid. So, yes, if we are talking about education, what kind of education are we talking about? George Steiner made the point again and again that the “humanities don’t humanize.” He would tell the story of Hans Frank, who was a great expert on Dante and Donatello. He would play the piano and have a little champagne before making decisions about how to get more people into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. And he wasn’t an exception — that was Steiner’s point.
My counterargument to Steiner is that, while there is no shortcut to becoming a better human being, as I said to him, the whole world of culture is an invitation. Bildung, liberal education as it is called in the United States, will give you the means to have a better understanding of yourself through the world of the arts, opening up your imagination, so that you can have a better understanding of other human beings as well.
Is there any guarantee that it will succeed? No.
Love, too, is an invitation, but you cannot demand that somebody love you. So, the world of culture remains just that — an invitation. If you decline the invitation of love, there definitely will be no love. If you decline the invitation of culture, what are we left with?
I suppose I have a similar question regarding European humanism. Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon described European humanism as “racist humanism” and a “justification for pillage,” and they’re hardly alone. In your books, you refer to a “European spirit” that has been “lost” — but what do you mean? When was it possessed in the first place, through Europe’s 500-plus years of colonialism and conquest?
Well, a little point about Mr. Sartre, who was, until the end of his life, the biggest fan of Stalin and embraced totalitarianism all the time. And, because of that, there was this big fallout with Albert Camus, whom I appreciate much more.
Okay, but Sartre is not the only person to criticize European humanism as an alibi for colonial violence …
Look, Europe has been guilty of many crimes. We can refer to colonialism, we have invented totalitarianism, and the Holocaust happened here in Europe, and not in Africa or elsewhere. But I want to believe in the idea of human dignity. For me, the quintessence of the whole mindset of European humanism is that our identity is not based on what makes me different from you in terms of gender or social background of beliefs, or lack thereof. The idea of identity in European humanism is what we all have in common. And because of that, we can also have faith in the unity of mankind — in the notion that we are all human beings. And so, what is it that we have in common? The fact that we all can live in truth. We all can have compassion. We all can do justice. We all can create beauty. And we should be aware, as Freud reminded us, that we are also human beings full of our instincts and fears and frustrations and hatred and aggression. The only way to handle the animal side of our nature is to develop our spiritual nature.
And that, for me, is European humanism, and it’s a global phenomenon. Yes, it’s difficult not to see the contradiction between this ideal and all the horrors that have happened, and that continue to happen. We have turned the Mediterranean into a graveyard for refugees, for example. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need this ideal, that we don’t need values to guide politics.
Think of it, if you like, in terms of our personal lives. Everybody can look in the mirror and have an idea about themselves and an aspiration about the kind of human being they would like to be. And you always know how difficult it can be to do the right thing, just as we know when we go wrong. Hopefully, at least we know because we still have a consciousness. The same is true for the aspirations of a civilization as a whole.
At one point, you describe Winston Churchill as an “exceptional European.” Was he a man with this European spirit? Perhaps I’m sensitive — I’m from England, and I grew up surrounded by the lionization of Churchill. But the man was a racist imperialist whose policies were in major ways responsible for starving over three million Bengalis to death.
It’s a very legitimate question. In my first book, I included references to Heidegger as a classic philosopher. Some of my friends criticized me for that. Heidegger was a Nazi member. When it comes to Churchill, I only found out after the book had been published that, in 1933, Churchill gave a speech in which he called Mussolini “the genius of our time,” adding that fascism is the way out of our trouble. Even if I’d known that before, I still would’ve included him in the book.
I have read a book about the more than 100 intellectuals who wanted to meet Mussolini — because he was an intellectual, he was an artist, he wrote plays, he knew music, and so on. It’s hard to imagine how they could be so blind, but a lot of intellectuals we still admire now were. I’m also an admirer of [Franklin D.] Roosevelt. Should I be less of an admirer of him because of what he did to the Japanese?
Look, even though I studied theology, I’m not that much interested in saints. Tolstoy must have been a horrible man. But I think he was a great novelist. Dostoevsky was an antisemite, Gogol was crazy, and I can go on and on. It will be very difficult to find, in the world of politics or the arts, people who really did something important who are saints.
To return to Nexus: If the idea of the institute is to provide a space for education and thought that’s perhaps lacking in the university, how do you go about thinking of your programming, where to hold conferences, whom to invite and have in conversation with each other?
Nexus was born out of frustration, and also anger, that the academic world in general is not doing what it’s supposed to do. Again, I have to generalize, but it was Nietzsche who in an 1874 lecture said something along the lines of, “Well, the time of the School of Education and the School of Civilization is over. Your education will be reduced to what is good for the economy and good for the state, and nothing more than that.” In general, that’s still very true. What we do with Nexus is we bring in the big, bold questions. Every conference is organized around a big question — this year’s topic was “The War and the Future.” We’ve had conferences on evil, on the age of anxiety, on the anatomy of loss, and so on. Our speakers sit around a coffee table and can’t see the audience, even though there can be 1,000 people in the audience. And, for more than two hours, the conversation plays out. Sometimes it gets very heated. At a conference a long time ago, for example, Susan Sontag and George Steiner had a very tense debate about the meaning of the arts. There was also a very heated discussion between Slavoj Žižek and Leon Wieseltier.
Five years ago, our conference was titled “The Last Revolution.” It was 100 years since 1917. Trotsky famously said that the Russian Revolution would be the “last revolution.” We had [filmmaker and author] Nelofer Pazira, who grew up in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation. We had [political scientist] Ivan Krastev, we had the current US secretary of state, Antony Blinken. And at the same table we had Aleksander Dugin, the well-known whisperer to Putin.
A lot of people asked me, “Why did you invite Aleksander Dugin? He’s a Russian fascist.” Well, that’s precisely why: I wanted him to have a meaningful conversation with Blinken. I invited him after I asked the advice of Celeste Wallander, who is now part of the Biden administration. She worked as an expert on Russia for Obama. She told me that Dugin is the person to go to if we are to understand what’s going on in the Kremlin. It was a fascinating conference. And strange, thinking of it today.
So, we get all these people together and have our intellectual opera. For me, it is like: “Let the best arguments prevail.” For the audience, the idea behind the Nexus Institute is to make sure you get a migraine because the things are a little bit more difficult and complicated than you originally thought.
Now, is there a return on our investment in the short term? No. But I dare to believe that if you can touch a few people and they feel inspired by it, if they keep talking about it, well, maybe you can cause some change. That’s what I hope. We don’t get a diploma, we don’t get a grade, we don’t get a salary for it, but we want to make people think.
Natasha Lennard is a columnist at The Intercept, teaches critical journalism at The New School, and is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (2019).
Featured image: Abbott Handerson Thayer. Flower Studies, ca. 1886. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, gift of John Gellatly, 1929. www.si.edu, CC0. Accessed December 14, 2022.