Jacques Bénet & Benjamin Fondane
On Religion, Modern Politics, and the Executions of Otto Planetta and the Christ
In the summer of 1939, Jacques Bénet, a young Catholic scholar, published in the French literary and philosophical magazine Cahiers du Sud a bleak appraisal of the West. Europe, he thundered, had abandoned Christianity. In the latter’s absence had arisen pale substitutes, the pseudo-Christian ideologies of liberalism, socialism and civic nationalism—and in reaction to these had now emerged the anti-Christian neo-paganism of the Nazis. None of the former, he warned, could resist the latter. All secular systems of belief intended to ensure that certain Christian virtues, such as charity, solidarity, or mercy, could hold together a social order in the absence of belief in a transcendent God, had failed. Torn apart by rival post-Christian ideologies, France would soon be at war with Germany, in a conflict that would be comparable in destructive intensity only to the universal flood of Genesis.
A volley of critique was fired back at Bénet; the Cahiers du Sud published half-a-dozen responses appended to his essay. Respondents rejected Bénet’s sweeping anti-modernism, of which the exoteric content was hopeless pessimism and the esoteric content generally understood to be Catholic integrism. The most thoughtful rejoinder came from Benjamin Fondane, the Jewish Romanian philosopher and poet. Fondane argued that, for all its inadequacies, or rather precisely because of them, modernity is a horizon in which an authentic spiritual life, refusing secular false certainties, remains possible. Both the totalitarianisms that promised new futures—Nazism and Communism—and the integrism that sought a return to a medieval moral order appeared to Fondane as idolatrous appeals to “History.” For all his insistence on religion, therefore, Bénet, like his modernist opponents, seemed to Fondane to accept the fundamentally irreligious principle that human beings on their own power can bring, or had brought about in the past, a society adequate to our desperate need for God.
In a recent essay for Athwart on Fondane’s philosophy of aesthetics and poetry, Aaron Cummings touches on Fondane’s rejection of “any ideological schema for history” such as “Hiterlism or Stalinism.” He notes that Fondane promoted an existentialist emphasis on individual poetic—and, we may add, philosophical and religious—“interiority,” which, however, must not be seen as “an abdication of social responsibility.” As a critic of inequality sympathetic to the economic program of the socialist left, Fondane also insisted on individual freedom, not for its own sake, but as the precondition of an authentic religious life. His qualified defense of France’s liberal democracy, and call to arms against its enemies, refuses typical understandings of this form of regime—and the modernity from which it issues—as essentially secular.
Bénet is today an obscure figure, and Fondane, although increasingly familiar to anglophone readers, is rarely appreciated as a political thinker. Their debate, however, held on the eve of the Second World War, invites us to reconsider the foundations and affordances of our era and regime. These appear, from Fondane’s perspective, less as the triumphant or heretical self-assertion of secular reason than as the site from which, stripped of any worldly assurance, we can call out to God.
Twenty-four years old in 1939, and having just finished his degree in the study of medieval manuscripts, Bénet exemplified an enduring human—or rather, young male—type: a romantic conservative whose admiration for the past, longing for order, and spirituality make him, in practice, a nihilist and foe of his own society. Or, perhaps, it is the nihilism, the desire to see the world burn, that is primary in this temperament, and the dream of a lost social-spiritual whole rather a moral gloss by which that hunger for destruction can be imagined by its bearers as a healthy-minded contempt for modernity.
Bénet began his essay by condemning democracy as “Christian ideas gone mad,” a reference to G.K. Chesterton’s famous description of modernity, “full of old Christian virtues gone mad.” For Bénet, the political movements that divided interwar France were various deformations of Christianity, secular heresies that tried to hold onto certain aspects of the Christian worldview while rejecting its center, Christ. Refusing Christianity’s “moral code that demanded saints,” liberals had tried to create a “realist” political order that accomodated self-interest, cowardice, and immorality, which they disguised as bourgeois virtues and renamed industry, tolerance, and liberty. Their perversion of Christianity supported the class interest of economic elites, and was opposed by a rising socialist movement, whose own demands for justice and fraternity were in fact expressions of envious “hatred.”
Civic spirit was incapable of overcoming these divisions of class and ideology, Bénet warned. During the Revolution, the French state had separated itself from religion, grounding its legitimacy in nothing more than national will. But such a nation-state could not command the ultimate loyalty of its citizens: “why should I put this goddess, France, above my own singular life, if behind her there is nothing?” Patriotism, oriented toward the earthly, mortal state, was no substitute for religion oriented toward God, and could not compel obedience and sacrifice without reference to Him.
Liberalism, socialism, and civic nationalism, in Bénet’s account, are no more than perversions of Christianity. They arose together out of the common matrix of post-Enlightenment modernity, as Westerners broke apart the organic structures of medieval society and attempted to replace its fundamental orientation to God with the aim of progressively realizing human potential in history. It was their failure that inspired the rise of Nazism. After the First World War, Germany, like France, had been plagued by class war and an incompetent regime: “one must try to imagine the thoughts of a man like Hitler faced with Germany as it was in 1925: six thousand suicides a year, indescribable poverty juxtaposed with merciless wealth. . . this was what Hitler saw in this West that we still described as Christian.”
For Bénet, Hitler saw, as Nietzsche had seen before him, that modern political ideologies are putrescent forms of Christianity. He swept them away to introduce a “neo-paganism . . . that is now triumphing, with so much insolence.” Recognizing liberalism, socialism and civic nationalism as impotent, Hitler promoted strength, violence and cruelty. In a brutally evocative passage, Bénet contrasted the meek, impotent Christian spirit, deprived of any transcendental justification in the era of secular modernity, with the “new Gospel” of the Nazis. He compared the Crucifixion with the execution of Otto Planetta, the Nazi who assassinated Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dolfuß in 1934: “How did Christ die?” In weakness and desolation, Bénet answered, “sobbing on the cross. How did Planetta die? Shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’”
Although he saw Nazism as a kind of “blond beast” unencumbered by the weaknesses of a post-Christian ethic lacking faith in Christ and divided among competing ideologies, Bénet predicted that the Third Reich would not necessarily triumph over its liberal-democratic foes. Soon, he warned, a new “war of religion” would befall Europe, setting the Nazi neo-pagans against Christianity’s heretical heirs, “for whom the Cross is only a symbol, the meaning of which they have lost.” This struggle will see victory for neither side, but rather the destruction of the West.
Bénet’s vision was compelling, but also abounding in contradictions and revolting claims. He condemned economic inequality, but also striking workers. He denounced Nazi antisemitism while insisting that there will always be a “Jewish question” in the West. He seemed to consider that medieval Christians, even at their most violent and barbarous, had done nothing wrong, justifying the Fourth Crusade’s brutal sack of Constantinople as a high-minded effort to bring Eastern Christianity “back into obedience to Rome.” In contrast, when he condemned Franco’s regime, it was on the grounds that the generalissimo had brought “lice-ridden Arabs,” (i.e., his Moroccan soldiers) to fight in Spain. Here too, in his inconsequent critiques of, or grotesque justifications for, atrocities committed in the name of Catholicism, Bénet embodied a certain strain of Christian reaction that seems oblivious to the Sermon on the Mount.
In his response to Bénet, Fondane made no case for capitalist liberal democracy as an inherently desirable regime, or for optimism about the future of the West. Indeed, apparently extending Bénet’s critique of modernity, Fondane insisted that the Nazis revealed the violence that had always been inherent in modern political aspirations to achieve a rational, progressive social order. Any political agenda of improving humanity beyond the measure of our sinful nature, any aspiration to purity and reasonableness on this earth, carries bearers into intolerant violence: “when we decide that it is unworthy of man to have small vices, and we abolish the legal right to drink alcohol, then drunkenness and gangsterism grip the nation. . . When we create a League of Nations to abolish war forever, we witness an unprecedented violation of treaties, oaths and basic rights, in preparation for total war.”
Fondane’s argument had two aspects. On the one hand, in their avowedly cynical diplomacy and merciless war-making, the Nazis showed that modern hopes of eliminating violence from international politics had been nothing more than impotent moralizing that, in its very weakness, had incited unlimited belligerency. On the other hand, in their “purification” of Germany from “decadent” and ”dangerous” minorities, the Nazis revealed that such moralizing agendas, when not self-defeating in their impotent idealism, become systematically murderous.
Those opposed to the Third Reich, Fondane urged, should not “complain about the ‘immorality’ of the National Socialist Caliban,” since it was in fact the desire to moralize politics that had brought about National Socialism. Rather, they should blame the “presumption of the humanist Prospero who had believed—and what is worse, still believes—that it is possible for him to introduce Reason into History.” We must, he insisted, “kill this Caliban,” the monstrous foe of Nazism, but we must also rid ourselves of his father, Prospero.
Fondane and Bénet would seem to agree that Nazism is only a symptom of modernity’s dangerous humanist aspirations, in which immoderate visions of progress, unchecked by any reverence for something greater than humanity, become, either in their failure or in their success, pure violence. Unlike Bénet, however, Fondane identified the “humanist Prospero,” the source of our woes, not with our supposedly God-less era of history, but with the specifically modern ambition to bend “history” to human “reason.” For Fondane, this historicist form of politics—historicist in the sense that it takes history as the medium of human evolution (or decline) and object of our political aims—is opposed to our religious nature, that is, our inherent longing for God. We can only hearken to the latter once “history has ceased to be intelligible for us,” once we no longer attempt to bring about an increasingly perfect, rational, peaceable society in the future, and instead accept both our limited capacity to act within (or even understand the course of) history and our desperate need for a trans-historical God.
Historicism includes not only the progressive error (common to liberalism and socialism) of trying to make the future rational, but also a regressive error of trying to return to a past in which society was rightly ordered. Bénet, Fondane suggested, wished to return to the Middle Ages, “an era of torturers and victims,” in which his own “reason,” his vision of the good, could be “assured victory through violence.” This ambition of imposing reason on history, in fact, is only an inverted form of modern politics, and ends, like it, in persecutory bloodshed. It “conflates God and the world,” trying to achieve in this life the spiritual unity that human beings can only find beyond it. In doing so, Fondane insisted, an apparently religious politics loses sight of the heart of the Bible: “a suffering, miserable, powerless God shamefully dead on a wooden cross.”
For Fondane, Christ’s words on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” reveal that God, in His own experience of suffering on our behalf, recognized, legitimated and consecrated the bewildered, lonely search for meaning that characterizes our life. We are constantly tempted to discover in, or impose upon, the human world of conventional answers an intelligible order adequate to this search, and even to call that order “religion.” It is the virtue of honesty, or humility—or perhaps only the desperation of utter brokenness—to acknowledge that there is no such order, that religion rather begins where we renounce the possibility of finding or making such earthly order, and, in that desert, call upon God.
Here modernity is not a site from which we must flee in order to bring about an appropriate form of religion—such a flight would in fact only be another expression of the modern Prospero’s irreligious ambition of achieving reason in history. Rather, modernity, if we live it in a humble spirit, can be the “where,” the site of powerless bafflement, from which the religious life undertakes its journey.
Living—and, when necessary, defending—modernity in this way, as a kind of martyrdom, is from Fondane’s vantage, the only way we can defeat the Prospero of historicism and the Caliban of totalitarianism. An anti-modern integrism, Fondane warned, only seems to oppose the latter. He argued that Bénet, who contrasted the tears of the dying Christ with the enthusiastic “Heil Hitler!” of Planetta, really offered nothing but another version of the latter’s self-assured loyalty to a human collectivity. He shouted, “Heil Jehovah!” championing his own political project of making history conform to a vision of moral order. Fidelity to Christ’s final words means, Fondane insisted, abandoning every such project.
Although they seemed divided by irreconcilable differences in their conceptions of politics, philosophy, and religion, Bénet and Fondane were soon on the same side. The following year, both fought in the French army against the Nazi invasion. Both were taken prisoner, and both fled their German captors. During the Nazi occupation of France, each achieved a kind of heroism—Bénet as a member of the resistance, and Fondane as a martyr. In 1944, Fondane and his sister Lina were arrested. His friends, including the Romanian fascist sympathizer Emil Cioran, managed to convince the Nazis to release him, but could not do the same for her. Fondane chose to be deported to Auschwitz with his sister, where they were both murdered. Each risked his life to fight fascism on the battlefield, and Fondane laid his down so that his sister would not face her death alone.
The regime of liberal democracy and the era of modernity have strange defenders: reactionaries who wish history contained some holistic society ordered towards the good, and religious seekers who refuse every semblance of such an order that history has or will offer. Apparently separated from each other by temperament and worldview, they seem no less estranged from the self-conceptions of secular liberalism, leftism, or civic nationalism—the post-Christian ideologies that supposedly animate our form of politics. But they are, on closer inspection, neither such foes of each other nor of our modern world. Both finally choose Christ over Planetta, to weep rather than cry “Heil!”
Featured image: Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban dancing on the island shore from The Tempest in painting by Johann Heinrich Ramberg via Wikimedia Commons.
Blake Smith, a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, is a historian of modern France and translator of francophone fiction.