The Weimar Mind: A Prehistory of the Surveillance State?

The Weimar Mind: A Prehistory of the Surveillance State?

In its account of the intellectual foundations of the Cold War, Udi Greenberg’s The Weimar Century offers an unlikely origin story for our post-9/11 order.

Henry Kissinger, one of the most famous students of Carl J. Friedrich, with Ronald Reagan, 1981

The Weimar Century:
German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War

by Udi Greenberg
Princeton University Press, 2015, 288 pp.


When justifying the NSA’s massive surveillance program after the Edward Snowden leaks, President Obama reminded the American people of the two promises he had made upon entering office: “to keep the American people safe . . . and to uphold the Constitution.” By appealing to the Constitution, Obama was expressing his commitment to privacy rights and the observance of civil liberties. The president then immediately pointed out the tension that exists between “keeping the American people safe” and defending their liberties. As he put it, “It’s important for everybody to understand—and I think the American people understand—that there are some tradeoffs involved. . . . [The NSA] helps us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments . . . involved . . . [were] worth us doing.”

Obama’s own liberal constituents—not to mention a vocal minority of his opponents on the right—doubt that this “tradeoff” is worth the cost. The Snowden affair only offers further proof, they argue, that on surveillance issues, Obama is no better than George W. Bush.

What are the origins of the paradoxical idea that it is justified to violate the liberties of individuals in the name of defending the liberal-democratic state? A fairly standard response is that NSA surveillance programs are an extension of a Cold War ideology that has replaced anticommunism with anti-terrorism—a defense of “liberalism” pursued through illiberal means. This is the premise of a recent Dissent article by legal scholar Mark Tushnet, which shows how the National Security State—created “to combat the threat to U.S. interests posed by the Soviet Union”—eventually transformed, with the rise of international terrorism, into the present-day National Surveillance State.

Yet this line of argument only raises more questions. If today’s surveillance state is only the resurrection of U.S. Cold War ideology, what, in turn, are the origins of that ideology? And how did it gain such traction?

These are the questions historian Udi Greenberg sets out to answer in his fantastic new study, The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War. While Greenberg’s book concludes in the 1960s, his articulation of the intellectual foundations of the Cold War bears an uncanny resemblance to the ideological orientation of certain U.S. policies since 9/11.

Greenberg’s account rests on a provocative thesis: that U.S. Cold War ideology had its roots in political and legal doctrines designed to defend the Weimar Republic (which lasted from 1919 to 1933) against its communist and fascist enemies. Having come of intellectual age in the doomed republic, many of Weimar’s most prominent minds were forced to flee across the Atlantic upon Hitler’s rise to power. But even as these German émigrés’ national context changed, their principal enemy (especially after the defeat of Nazism) remained the same: communism. With little difficulty, these scholars were able to reconfigure their ideas, as the Cold War dawned, for an America in the throes of the Red Scare. And in the process, they “made ‘the American Century’ their own. In short, they made it also ‘the Weimar Century.’”

The doctrines espoused by these émigrés, Greenberg maintains, contained oppressive and illiberal measures—often rooted in Protestant and Catholic theology—that were justified in the name of protecting the fledgling Republic. Surprisingly, Greenberg does not spell out exactly what he means by Cold War ideology. However, the case studies he offers seem to suggest five components: an elitist conception of government; a “realist” perspective on international law; the idea of America as defender of Judeo-Christian civilization; an aggressive pursuit of modernization and industrialization (which led to disaster in South Korea, among other places); and finally, a malleable view of democracy that in the name of liberal values banned communist parties (for example, in Germany) or overthrew them (like in Latin America).

Greenberg hones in on five specific German émigrés: Carl J. Friedrich, Ernst Fraenkel, Waldemar Gurian, Karl Loewenstein, and Hans Morgenthau. Highly educated and multilingual, these émigrés shot up the academic ranks and quickly established themselves at the most prestigious American universities. Along the way they became valuable assets to a new superpower in demand of geopolitical expertise.

As the Cold War grew increasingly global, the émigrés’ influence extended far beyond the United States. Four of these academics played key advisory roles in the political formation of the Federal Republic of Germany, officially established in 1949. (Here Greenberg offers his readers an intellectual variant on the so-called “pizza effect,” wherein some element of a nation’s culture is more fully embraced elsewhere, only to be re-imported back to the nation of its origin.) But their Weimar-inspired ideas—typically elitist and authoritarian—were also extended to drastically different political contexts in Asia and Latin America.

Of the five figures Greenberg concentrates on, the two most well-known are Hans Morgenthau and Carl J. Friedrich. Morgenthau, curiously, proves to be The Weimar Century’s lone hero for having resisted American Cold War ideology; Friedrich—along with the book’s other protagonists—is judged critically for shaping its development.

Friedrich (1901–1984) is probably best remembered today for his influential interpretation of totalitarianism. In the 1920s, he studied political economy at the University of Heidelberg. There he subscribed to a school of thought which held that only an educated elite trained in the ways of democracy could bring stability to the tumultuous Weimar Republic. Heidelberg thus served as a training ground for educating the German elite in the ways of heavy-handed political centrism. Not surprisingly the young Friedrich played a key role in helping establish—with Rockefeller Foundation assistance—the Heidelberg-based German Academic Exchange (DAAD) in 1924. It was the first modern student exchange program whose mission was to forge, in Greenberg’s words, “an international Western, democratic, elite identity.”

Friedrich was a rare bird. As a Calvinist Protestant, he was one of the few of his ilk to support the Weimar Republic; most German Protestants during the interwar period, says Greenberg, were attracted to far-right nationalist parties. Instead Friedrich embraced republicanism, in a novel theological turn, as the full realization of Calvinist teachings.

Yet as Greenberg demonstrates, Friedrich fell far short of championing popular democracy. “Ordinary” people, he believed, were prone to mass movements and the shenanigans of charismatic leaders. As in the Calvinist communities of old, it was the educated and responsible elites—not the capricious masses—who would “defy extremist politics to act in the broader interest of society.” The vision of education and democracy Friedrich carried to the United States was rooted in a theology of predestined elites. In defending the United States, the elites were actually protecting Christendom, or the “Judeo-Christian” as Friedrich came to describe it.

Greenberg’s portrait of Friedrich highlights one of the central insights of his book: that Protestant and Catholic theologies anchored many of the political ideas the Weimar émigrés carried from Germany to the United States. Whereas those who articulated such theologies were originally concerned with protecting their respective faith communities in Germany, a more universal notion of defending Judeo-Christian civilization against extremism emerged after World War II. This comes out most clearly in Greenberg’s chapter on the largely forgotten Catholic political theorist Waldemar Gurian, who articulated a theory of totalitarianism in which the liberal-democratic Weimar Republic would protect the German Catholic community by destroying its fascist and communist enemies. Only after having reached U.S. shores did Gurian—who established the Review of Politics in 1939 and taught at the University of Notre Dame—start making reference to the defense of the larger Judeo-Christian tradition.

In 1926, Friedrich was appointed a lecturer at Harvard and ten years later became a professor of government there. He quickly became one of the most influential professors at Harvard, where, according to Greenberg, he sought to implement his top-down vision of education. He played a leading role, for instance, in the establishment of Harvard’s Graduate School of Public Administration and School of Overseas Administration, programs that brought policymakers and academics together, Greenberg stresses, to train Harvard students in the service of the U.S. government (including the intelligence and military branches). Friedrich also mentored two younger émigré students who would go onto to have very influential political careers: Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Now politically mobilized for the Cold War, Harvard—under Friedrich’s influence—became an elite training ground for government experts who sought to defend the republic against the red masses. Rockefeller Foundation support and a rebooted DAAD allowed Friedrich to ship his elitist view of education back to Germany. Harvard, in Greenberg’s telling, became the new Heidelberg.

Greenberg’s explanation of the origins and reception of Friedrich’s ideas, like his book as a whole, is a brilliant case study in the ways ideas cross borders and take on new life. His interpretation of Hans Morgenthau, however, raises more questions than it answers.

Greenberg strangely tries to rescue Morgenthau, the godfather of international relations realism theory, from the very criticisms he directs at Friedrich. The basic reason is that Morgenthau—whose political philosophy Greenberg again traces back to Weimar—eventually came to challenge U.S. Cold War policies, especially in Vietnam. But the inconsistency here remains startling, since Morgenthau’s political logic rests on the same intellectual foundations as those of the thinkers Greenberg criticizes throughout The Weimar Century.

The young Morgenthau (1904–1980) left Europe in 1937 having already written three books on political and legal theory. After short teaching stints in Brooklyn and Kansas City, Missouri, Morgenthau received an appointment at the University of Chicago. There, he would pen his most famous book, Politics Among Nations, in 1948—a work that, according to Greenberg, made Morgenthau “the highest intellectual authority on international relations in the United States.” Cold warriors seized on Politics Among Nations to argue that “universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states” (Morgenthau’s words) and that international law was nothing more than a ruse powerful nations used to pursue their selfish political interests.

In Morgenthau’s defense, Greenberg argues that the book’s popularity among anticommunist crusaders stemmed from their fundamental misunderstanding of it. Had they read Morgenthau’s book more carefully, argues Greenberg, U.S. policymakers would have been much more sensitive to the moral restraints on power that Morgenthau endorsed. Thus, in Greenberg’s telling, despite supporting U.S. opposition to the Soviet Union and China, Morgenthau rejected America’s anticommunist adventures, most notably the Vietnam War.

In order to defend this argument Greenberg must square it with the content of Politics Among Nations—a book that underwent seven editions—not to mention Morgenthau’s myriad other writings where his thinking wavers. Greenberg makes his case by focusing on Morgenthau’s early writings from the Weimar Republic. At this time Morgenthau had developed close ties with a number of socialist legal theorists. Under their influence Morgenthau defended the view that “international law and pursuing national power . . . could potentially go hand in hand.” In Greenberg’s view, Morgenthau ultimately sought to establish a third way between a realist and idealist conception of international law.

Hitler’s rise to power doomed Morgenthau’s tension-riddled vision of international politics from seeing the light of day. Even as the success of Politics Among Nations gave Morgenthau’s theory a new life in the United States, he was ultimately left disappointed by a one-sided realist interpretation of his book. But is Greenberg justified in leaving Morgenthau off the hook for this widespread interpretation?

Here, The Weimar Century is not so convincing. Greenberg acknowledges, for instance, the voluminous scholarly literature suggesting that Morgenthau’s political realism is heavily indebted to the political thought of Carl Schmitt—the so-called “crown jurist of the Third Reich.” The relationship between Schmitt and Morgenthau is much debated; Greenberg’s effort to downplay it, or qualify its significance, rests on the idea that the moral concerns of Morgenthau’s thought offset the ideas he absorbed from Schmitt (who distinguished himself by his profoundly anti-moral conception of politics, critique of international law, and stress on executive authority). Moreover, Greenberg repeatedly stresses how much Morgenthau despised Schmitt, to emphasize the intellectual gulf that separated the two.

Even if some of his arguments here are misplaced, Greenberg’s chapter on Morgenthau nevertheless demonstrates one of the strengths of The Weimar Century as a whole. Of all the thinkers Greenberg discusses, it is actually the work of Morgenthau that has been targeted by scholars seeking answers for the intellectual origins of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy. Greenberg offers valuable context on the unsavory origins of his thought. He also brings attention to the work of other émigré scholars, often skipped over, who played a similarly crucial role in the formation of American Cold War ideology.

Greenberg is clear that his study is limited to the Cold War era. Yet he has helped, if unintentionally, deepen our understanding of the contradictions of contemporary liberalism, extending their lineage far beyond the postwar era. In this sense The Weimar Century provides one clue to grasping the intellectual origins of Bush’s foreign policy, the elitist and paternalistic overtones justifying the NSA, and the attempt to export democracy to foreign lands. Greenberg is careful to avoid making these types of contemporary judgments. The reader, however, walks away feeling that that the Weimar Century not only lives on but now reigns.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a doctoral student in the history department at Columbia University. He is writing a dissertation on Raymond Aron and the critique of American ideology.