Crisis is the mother of history. Beginning with Herodotus the urge to write history has been bound up with the need to explain the seemingly inexplicable reversals of fortune suffered by nations and empires. The best histories satisfy that need while still capturing the openness and unpredictability of human action, though the best histories are not always the most memorable. Historians who offer “multicausal explanations”—and use phrases like that—do not last, while those who discover the hidden wellspring of absolutely everything are imitated and attacked but never forgotten.
In the twentieth century, European history writing became a kind of Trümmerliteratur, a look back at the rubble of a civilization that collapsed in 1933…or 1917, or 1789, or further back still. Germans have specialized in this kind of literature of ruins, and not only because so much debris litters the German landscape. In the nineteenth century, historians wanted to imitate Hegel, whose grand philosophical vision wove together every aspect of human culture into a seamless dialectical account of historical progress. After the catastrophe of the First World War the challenge was to transform that story into an apocalyptic one of rupture and decay. Spengler was not alone. He was joined by German philosophers, beginning with Heidegger, who came to see their own intellectual tradition as implicated in the collapse of modern Europe, and to believe that the reorientation of philosophy was a necessary—and perhaps even sufficient—condition of social regeneration. Edmund Husserl spoke for many German thinkers when he declared, in a famous lecture just before the Second World War, that “the ‘crisis of European existence’…becomes understandable and transparent against the background of the teleology of European history that can be discovered philosophically.”
For reasons of its own, America has never cultivated crisis history, despite the apocalyptic streak in our native religious imagination. But when German scholars fleeing Hitler began arriving in the United States in the 1930s, they imported some very large and very dark ideas about the crisis of the age, which then found resonance here. Though the diagnoses of Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno were very different, they all assumed that it was transformations in Western thinking that had prepared the unthinkable, and that a new intellectual path had to be found. So did Eric Voegelin. An Austrian émigré who was on friendly terms with both Arendt and Strauss, Voegelin never acquired a wide public readership in his lifetime, nor did he develop a vast network of students to spread his ideas or apply them to political life. There are Voegelinians, in North America and Europe, and thanks to their efforts the vast project of bringing out The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin is nearly complete. But he was too solitary and idiosyncratic a thinker to leave behind a proper school, which is a good thing. Eric Voegelin was an original, a hothouse flower transplanted from the dark garden of German Geschichte to the land of the open road. A curious fate for an Old…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.