I probably owed my invitation to give a guest lecture on Nietzsche and the Nazis at the annual conference in Sils-Maria in October 1988 to Papa. He had introduced me to Dr. Roemer, the chief librarian at the public library in Karlsruhe, who maintained a summer home in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland and was a member of the foundation funding the maintenance of the “Nietzsche-Haus” in Sils-Maria as well as the annual conference. It was Roemer who suggested me as a speaker to the organizing committee of the annual conference. The fact that Papa was a major contributor to Dr. Roemer’s favorite causes could not have been entirely irrelevant. On August 11th, 1988, I wrote in my journal:
The “pilgrimage” to Sils-Maria: at least two ways of looking at it. On the one hand, it seems to perfectly illustrate Nietzsche’s insight that the (his) greatest achievements were unplanned. It beautifully caps my long preoccupation with Nietzsche, making all that effort worthwhile. Here is the kind of help from Papa that I do not need to reject, because it doesn’t jeopardize my autonomy or integrity. Or does it? That is the other view. Have I come all this way finally to reveal myself as an impostor benefiting from his father’s connections? Have I at a crucial moment failed to remain true to myself, to my resolve to make it (or not to make it) on my own, on my merits? It depends on my level of confidence. When it is high, the contingent quality of how I got to Sils-Maria seems like the smile of fortune, a fated event, the confirmation that I have led my life right, the reward for my long years of integrity. When it is low it feels like I have slipped into opportunism, as if I were conning my way to Sils-Maria in a way that deserves to be punished by my unmasking as a fraud.
Another way of putting it: If my previous refusals to accept Papa’s help stem from fear of failure, of disappointing his expectations, does my willingness to accept this help signify a new confidence, a recognition that now I am ready, that now I won’t fail, or is it the aberration, the lapse from integrity, that will prove that my fears have been all-too-well grounded?
I was quite nervous while preparing for this high-profile assignment, as recorded in my journal in August:
Life is a series of challenges, each of which successively feels like the greatest one has ever faced and each of which later come to be seen as minor hurdles.
So it was in this case. My presentation was a great success, as immediately reported by phone to Papa by Dr. Roemer. I shared the stage with Wolfgang Müller-Lauter, perhaps the foremost Nietzsche scholar in Germany at the time, and later a fellow-contributor to the collection, Nietzsche, Godfather of Fascism? (Princeton University Press, 2002). Müller-Lauter, one of the editors of Nietzsche-Studien, the leading journal in the field, asked me to submit my manuscript to that prestigious journal, but one of his co-editors felt the time was not yet ripe in Germany for such a sweeping denazification of a philosopher still reviled for his attack on Christianity (and in the case of East Germany, his attack on socialism). To me it seemed clear that for his West German critics, at least, Nietzsche served as a convenient scapegoat to cover up the embarrassing fact that so many German Christians had not only supported Nazism, but had played a leading role in Hitler’s rise to power.
Returning to Karlsruhe from my Swiss excursion, I arrived just in time for my sister Stella’s 45th birthday celebration. It was, as usual in Karlsruhe, an occasion for a culinary feast with plentiful libations of excellent Russian vodka and fine German wines. The news of my well-received presentation in Sils-Maria had preceded me, and Papa made indirect reference to my talk in his customary Tischrede (dinner speech), in which he addressed his sons and daughters: “Wenn ihr Erfolg habt, das gibt mir auch Kraft (when you have success it gives me strength, too).”
My three sisters, half playfully, wanted to hear the Nietzschean perspective on the Stackelberg family and our extravagant revelries. Perhaps they expected a Nietzschean stamp of approval for such splendid Dionysian excess. I didn’t rise to the occasion at the time, but later gave it some thought. In my journal, I recorded die nicht gehaltene Rede (the speech not given). Loosely paraphrased, I would have liked to have said something like this: Papa has emphasized the harmony in our family. I would like to emphasize its variety. All of us have something to offer, but it’s not the same thing. Therefore let us show forbearance toward each other. This gave me the chance to cite one of my favorite Nietzsche quotes: “Denn eines schickt sich durchaus nicht für zweie (for one thing absolutely will not do for two [persons]).“ What could I say on the subject of Nietzsche and the Stackelbergs? That only striving for material goods could not be the purpose of life—this belief I shared with Nietzsche, but a birthday celebration did not seem the appropriate venue for such a confession. “Money and property are means and not ends” was a silly platitude.
Of course I was glad that I had not given this rather sanctimonious response to Papa’s wonderfully amicable Tischrede, even if it did reflect my personal views. At the UCLA seminar with Robert Wohl the previous summer, “consumerism” had been a hot topic of discussion. The term had never meant much to me beyond designating an activity—buying what we need or want—in which we all necessarily engage. After the seminar I began to understand how it could constitute an ideology and a way of life: consumption as fulfillment and as a diversion from engagement in politics, the realm in which all the important decisions affecting our lives are made. Later, in my journal, I tried to analyze the socializing function of consumerism:
When I go into the Home Club [a now defunct “ big-box” store] and look at the bathroom “vanities” (marvelous use of the word!), the thought of having written a letter to the editor protesting the American invasion of Panama [under President George H. W. Bush in December 1989] strikes me as absurd and embarrassing. How could I get so upset when life is so bountiful and pleasant? And furthermore, wasn’t I trying to have my cake and eat it, too, by indulging in moral posturing while enjoying the benefits of the policies I was protesting? And I end by feeling that by buying a new bathroom vanity I compromise my integrity—which is probably a good sign, because I could just stop writing letters to the editor.
Consumerism, or its absence, was probably the greatest difference between Papa’s and Mama’s lifestyles. 1989 was to be the year that Sally would first meet both of them. “I’ll be nervous when I meet your father,” Sally said presciently; “you’ll be nervous when I meet your mother.” We left Spokane by car in the second week of June, driving to Minneapolis, where we stayed with Sally’s friend from Madison days, Beverly and her husband Michael. From Minneapolis I flew to Germany for a two-week Stackelberg family excursion to Estonia on the 125th anniversary of the founding of the family association in 1864.
Accompanying us to Tallinn, which the Germans used to call Reval, was Countess Nina Stauffenberg, the widow of the hero of the July 20th 1944 military revolt. Her mother had been a Stackelberg.
Of course we took the opportunity to visit our old family estates. Hallinap had become a kolchos (collective farm) and was in good condition.
Röal, where my father had been born, was in very poor condition. The basement had been used as a pigsty during the Soviet period.
The Stackelberg family townhouse in Tallinn was in good condition and now served as the home of the Economics Ministry of Estonia.
The Ritterschaftshaus (House of the Nobility) on the Domberg (Cathedral Mount) in Tallinn was well preserved as well. This is where the governing council of Estonia under the Russian Empire convened. Now it was used mainly for social occasions.
Sally drove my car on to Boston, leaving it with Trina before joining me in Germany at the end of June 1989. Among other destinations, we traveled to Bavaria, visiting my wartime homes in Ried and at the Elmhof, before visiting relatives in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Old Frau Neuner, with whom we had shared a house during the war, was still alive and remembered us Stackelbergs well. It was my first trip back to Ried since the early 1960s, when Sweety Degenfeld had taken me through Ried on our way to Hinterhör after Tempy’s wedding in Bad Nauheim.
I had hoped to scale the Benediktenwand in the summer of 1989, the mountain we had so often ascended in our childhood, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Instead we spent several days holed up in what had been Lautenbacher’s restaurant during the war, but now was a comfortable motel, with easy access to the Franz Mark museum in nearby Kochel. Frau Neuner laughed. “Damals hat man in Sindelfingen über die blauen Pferse nur gelacht (at the time people only laughed at the Blue Horses). Today they are considered great art. At the time he wasn’t popular at all. Today streets are named after him.”
On our return we visited Mama in Vermont, with side trips to Burke Mountain and the Shelburne Museum in Burlington.
On the drive back to Spokane we stopped to see Olaf and Cora in Kent, Ohio, before heading back across the Great Plains as I had done so often in the past. This time, however we also stopped off at Glacier National Park in Montana.
In the late 1980s Allan Bloom’s (1930-1992) The Closing of the American Mind (1987) was all the rage among conservatives. At Gonzaga one of its predictable champions was my colleague, the political scientist Mike Leiserson, whose ingrained conservatism I had underestimated for years, to the extent of referring my friends from CASA (the Central American Solidarity Committee) to Leiserson, who taught a course on constitutional law, for help and advice when they faced legal troubles for civil disobedience.
I am liberated by knowing where Mike Leiserson stands. Only now I can appreciate how “befangen” (inhibited?) I was by the assumption that Mike was on our side.
Less predictably, the AVP, Fr. Peter Ely, was also a fan of Bloom’s book, although that should not have surprised me, as he, too, had made a shift to the political right in the Reagan years. I remember the interview he gave in the Spokesman-Review in the early 1980s, when he in effect welcomed the recession for bringing people back to “the Lord”! I needed to read the book, if only to see what all the fuss was about. Bloom predictably attacked leftist professors, but his attack was somewhat tempered by a countervailing urge to dismiss Marxism as an outdated and irrelevant doctrine. Instead, his book was more specifically aimed at post-modernism, increasingly fashionable in academia in those years and hence the bigger threat to traditional thinking. Nietzsche and Heidegger were his chief targets. Apparently he considered them agents of the left, which was indeed where many self-styled post-structuralists and deconstructionists located themselves on the political spectrum, notwithstanding their conspicuous rejection of the ”logocentric” Enlightenment tradition of rationality or any kind of political activism, for that matter. Bloom was a disciple of the philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973), who believed that Plato and the other Greek seers had written their works in a code only decipherable by and comprehensible to an educated ruling elite. Bloom, who like Strauss taught at the University of Chicago, did not go quite so far in his opposition to democracy, but he did believe that the new cult of post-modernism was closing the American mind to absolute truths.
The paradoxically exhilarating effect of reading Bloom’s monstrous attacks on Nietzsche and Marx: He is so obviously wrong that the effect of his attacks is to confirm how right [Nietzsche and Marx] are!
Bloom unwittingly attesting to the validity and pervasiveness of relativism in the use of his title: The Closing of the American Mind. The need to provide alternatives—the alternative supposedly lacking is the “aristocratic” one—is itself an argument of “relativism.” According to Bloom the American mind is closing to the eternal verities, the truths contained in the great books. What he really wants to do is close American minds to other alternatives, except the authoritarian one, but given the validity and attractiveness of a relativism and democracy that even he can’t deny, he couches his argument in relativist language [the language of competing alternatives].
1989 was, of course, the year that the Berlin Wall came down, East European regimes were toppled in a series of popular revolts, and Mikhail Gorbachev plowed ahead in his futile efforts to reform and stabilise the Soviet system in Russia. In November 1988 I had gotten some hint of the turmoil ahead when I was asked to participate in a panel discussion at Gonzaga with Pavel Kuznetsov, head of Radio Moscow broadcasts to the US (and Chris Peck, one of the editors of the Spokesman-Review):
Soviet official sounding very much like a defector in his criticisms and denunciations of the Soviet system. A strategy to ingratiate himself with the American public, or “genuine” cynicism? In either case, most unattractive. It helped me to understand what dissidents mean when they say that the Soviet bureaucracy is not truly socialist.
Just as you can’t have a successful republic without republicans or a functioning democracy without democrats (people who believe in democracy), you can’t have socialism without socialists! But I hadn’t given up hope. On Veterans’ Day 1989 I wrote:
The breakdown of communism as the perfect opportunity for a democratic socialism. Judging by “really existing socialism,” what people resent is not socialism as such, but the obligation, the pressure, to accept officially propagated doctrines. The resistance is similar to the hostility that any kind of effort at intellectual domination—thought control—elicits, for instance the imposition of religious dogmas or mandatory patriotism.
It seems that at least now we have to grant that the communists did have good reason to be afraid of the “idea” of freedom!
Of course, I couldn’t close my eyes to the corruption of communism in practice:
What communism has accomplished: a greater concern for the interests of the disadvantaged, excluded, and oppressed. By the nature of things, regimes dedicated to representing the weaker elements in society against the naturally stronger will be dictatorial. This circumstance provides great opportunity for the abuse of power by people for whom the exercise of power becomes an end in itself.
Sally and I followed the upheavals in Eastern Europe with very mixed emotions. On the one hand we hoped the collapse of the East European regimes would lead to a socialist form of democracy; on the other hand, they resembled counterrevolutions by the opponents of any form of socialism more than successful revolutions. They were certainly celebrated as cold war victories in the West. I tried to remain optimistic, but it was hard, as attested by this journal entry in January 1990:
What’s going on in Eastern Europe, especially the Soviet Union, may be viewed as an effort to develop a socialist system whose mechanisms of socialization are “natural,” not manifestly coercive. A system in which people will voluntarily adopt socialist values; a society in which the institutions will automatically or unconsciously reward socialist behavior and exclude anti-socialist ideas as out-of-bounds, “extremist,” “unrepresentative,” “radical.” It takes tremendous confidence to undertake such an experiment. The “people” are finally to be involved in the establishment of socialism. The risk is, of course, that the people will establish something quite different.
The crucial question, it seemed to me, was whether “Gorbachev’s reforms [are] a loss of confidence in socialism or a sign of confidence.”
How Gorbachev represents confidence in socialism: he has deliberately relinquished control and granted autonomy to individual agents—while not relinquishing the goals of socialism, a decent life for all, the kind of society that capitalism has never yet produced. He is taking great risks. Those who suspect Gorbachev of cunning and chicanery are really afraid of the new power the ideal of socialism may develop in a context of political freedom.
This led me to ponder
why it is so difficult to predict the future on the basis of history (aside from its dialectical quality—i.e., we know contradictions, even unexpected ones, will develop): history is concerned with motives that explain retrospectively and do not provide a basis for future behavior. Conscious recognition of unconscious motives transforms (or may transform) what was habitual into controllable behavior. Thus previous unconscious behavior cannot be used as a basis for prediction.
In my mind I was hatching a project that I never completed, or even properly pursued:
Book on the 20th century: rise of the masses, yes, but events can’t be simplistically blamed on the masses. Rather it is elite attempts to channel and use mass energies that are to blame. The right-left conflict does provide the overall framework for understanding the century. Gorbachev as figure on the left and symbol of transition on left—from class-based politics to humanist-ecological perspective. Revolt of minorities not as revolt of the underclass but seizing of opportunities by would-be dominant elites.
While the prospects of socialism were steadily declining across the world in 1989-1990, in our professional lives Sally and I were enjoying increasing success. Sally, who had published her dissertation as a book, was tenured and promoted at Eastern Washington University, while I was finally promoted to professorial rank, which now also included a sizable boost in pay. For the first time in my life I no longer had any financial worries. I was also elected president of the Faculty Assembly and in May 1990 received the Burlington Northern Scholar-of-the-Year award. At age fifty-five it seemed as if I had reached the pinnacle of my career. I was somewhat nonplussed by my change in outlook:
For many years I could not conceive of success as a serious option: it seemed an exception, a rarity, not the norm. Now it is difficult for me to take failure seriously.
Meanwhile, Nick had graduated from West Valley High School in June 1989 and after a summer in Irasburg was off to college at the University of Washington in the fall. Having failed to pre-register, he was forced to scramble for the few open classes that remained. I returned from Seattle with a new appreciation for my position at GU.
Reflections on Nick finding all the classes he needs closed at the University of Washington. How heartless and callous this intellectually vibrant, overcrowded, ruthlessly competitive campus can be. Returning to Gonzaga and appreciating the peacefulness, slow pace, and underpopulation of the campus. This is an elite education we are offering: not necessarily intellectually more stimulating or challenging, but an education in isolation from the masses. It is to the University of Washington as the country club is to the airport or factory. It is the right to learn without being pushed and shoved and beaten out. The right or privilege not to stand in line. The College Handbook certainly has it right: “less competitive.” Almost idyllic, in fact.
In November 1989 the full consequences of US support for right-wing state terror in Central America became apparent. A death squad of the Salvadoran military invaded the campus of the Jesuit university in San Salvador and murdered six priests, their cook, and her sixteen-year-old daughter in cold-blooded execution style. As president of the Faculty Assembly I gave the main address at the packed memorial service in the Gonzaga Student Chapel. But for those of us who had hoped that this monstrous atrocity would finally bring about a change in American policy, the months that followed would prove disappointing. The election of Reagan’s vice president, George W. H. Bush, in 1988 had left Reagan’s imperialistic policies essentially unchanged, although no one at the time could have foreseen that they would not only continue, but would even intensify in the twenty-first century.