Updated: Dec 18, 2020
The Germans are a young people, they are the people of the dark forest. In the dark forest, the trees are old as time and crowd together to hold out the light. Walk through the forest and see light cutting a small channel and, framed in a dab of light, there is an ancient beast, complete with strong limbs and muscles that a village blacksmith would struggle to encompass. The old dark forest is a home for a young people, a barbarian people.
We are all familiar with conservatives who complain that we have reached the end of civilisation. Our manners have decayed and our women swear and trail their underwear across the Internet. The barbarian is unmoved. The barbarian does not understand what these men—holding cocktail blinis and exotic lattes—mean; he hears some chatter, just like the chatter of women. It does not smell of anything, it does not have the weight of blood. Yet these men are also of the political right.
German nihilism: it came out of the forest, you heard it calling in the distance. It was calling for blood, it usually is. The nihilists knew, as long ago as 1923, that the global techno-liberal machine had won. The German nihilists saw the future as described in Brave New World, itself an exaggerated description of the 1930s: pills for informal sex, pills for when you feel sad, and pretty moving pictures to keep the deep thoughts away—and the family, the darkest of all forests, replaced by a central centre for genetic manufacture.
This was the triumph of civilisation. The Greeks were civilised: when they saw an innovation in another people, they adopted it. This is the rational mode of action. The English, having conquered the world, did the same. The scientist is the great cosmopolitan; he knows his science is the same in Russia or Afghanistan or Colombia. His artistic equivalent, the refined intellectual, samples all the world on an equal basis; every tribe has fascinating religions and customs we can learn from. The civilised dream is the universal technical empire; the empire of science H. G. Wells imagined. Any man with intelligence can join the global elite: one world, so polite and organised and completely willing to sacrifice the particular to the universal.
In the arts, the people of the universal cosmopolis become great ironists. It is impossible to take anything seriously anymore, technology has solved our problems and tragedy is gone. The civilised person becomes an old survivor; he jealously guards his longevity, knowing there is nothing more beyond the material world. The English and the Jews are the most civilised men, the most ironic and long-lived—and the most materialistic. They are very clever, very ironic, very old: they are very civilised.
The barbarian in the forest is young; he is young culturally, if not genetically. He is not compliant; he would rather die than give up the rites of his tribe, even if those rites are untrue in the universal sense. He is brutal; he drives a black stake into a man. It does not matter to him. He is blood and sense and instinct. He comes from the forest to smash, and he does so sincerely. The clever cosmopolitan priests laugh, even as he burns their temples. It is an amusement.
The German nihilist says: better to die, better to slam the door, than live in the stupor of civilisation. If science and reason have taken away every feeling and custom we will still have…pain. This creature, pain, was always waiting in the forest. It was always black and great and real. Civilisation has stolen everything real and obliterated the continuity of meaning. Better to die than to live an abbreviated life of cleverness and irony. These are two sides to the right: the barbarian and the civilised. The civilised man laments decay, even as he sustains the civilisation that works for decay. The barbarian is a forest intrusion: young, uncomplicated, cruel, and—real.