The standpoint of the nihil est reflects the belief that nothing exists or velle nihil, to will the nothing. Nihilism is oftentimes also attached with pessimism, in that whatever makes life meaningful either does not exist or cannot be obtained. The Schopenhauerian school of thought claims that it is the inherent dissatisfaction with life that leads to the lack of meaning of human lives, while Nietzschean thought would ascertain that dissolution of faith in God, or, atheism, and an empty belief in oneself undercuts the meaning of life. For the purpose of this paper, German nihilism, Russian nihilism, and their impact on two forms of destruction — militarism and terrorism will be reflected upon in the time period of the 18th and 19th century.
German Nihilism and Militarism
Leo Strauss in his essay “German Nihilism” argues that its wills to destroy specifically the present world in its modernistic state of civilization, and its potentialities. But this does not necessarily have a clear end goal for the post-destruction/ post-war world. As far as German Nihilism goes, it was argued that the present official form of German National Socialism, is an experiment only (Heinemann 81), given that German society was unstable and did not espouse to a totalitarian expression of being. On the other hand, It must, however, be understood from the outset that National Socialism is only the most famous form of German nihilism; its lowest, most provincial, most unenlightened and most dishonourable form (Strauss 5). Defining nihilism in the motherland to only have a political genus of National Socialism does not encapsulate the other impacts towards civilization, its traditions, and its influence of militarism. While looking at the aforementioned outlook of the destruction of the modern civilization in favour of what specifically, it can be ascertained that military virtues and heroic nihilism are the end goal. Hermann Rauschning, once briefly a member of the Nazi movement says —
“War is a destructive business. And if war is considered more noble than peace, if war, and not peace, is considered the aim, the aim is for all practical purposes nothing other than destruction. There is reason for believing that the business of destroying, and killing, and torturing is a source of an almost disinterested pleasure to the Nazis as such, that they derive a genuine pleasure from the aspect of the strong and ruthless who subjugate, exploit, and torture the weak and helpless” (Strauss, 17)
Interestingly, it was Rauschning himself who predicted that the German revolution would face self-dissolution (Heinemann 84), given that war was unmasked in its absolute self-destructive form in order to attain world domination by the Nazis, had to face the consequences of the absurdity of war themselves. The roots of this ideology lie in the militaristic outlook of Germany, where their version of nihilism asserts that courage is the only virtue left in an era of decline of the West. In this context, it was argued in a Hegelian sense that the will of the Führer as the expression of the historical destiny of the German people thus replaces “Ideas/ science, and the specious freedom, academic or otherwise, by which objective rationalism has duped the West (Rosen 271). The Enlightenment wave and the consequences of Romanticism morphed into a nihilistic state of wanting to purify Germany of these influences since they were contradictory when it came to the idea of modern ideals. The confluence of militarism and nihilism is brought about by the relationship between the two; militarism is the father of nihilism, one teaches the other about self-sacrifice and denial. The virtue of courage as a military characteristic was described as an act of self-sacrifice rather than a reward. In doing so, German philosophers flipped the switch and regarded commonplace attitudes contemptuous, and over-emphasized military virtues.
Russian Nihilism and Terrorism
Nihilism in the 18th century Russia, although a borrowed concept from Germany, had its own interpretation and way of reaching the masses. The concept of Nihilism was introduced in a literary work named Fathers and Sons by Turganev, specifically in a self-proclaimed Nihilist character of the novel, Bazarov. Interestingly, even though the author sets out to lampoon Bazarov’s characteristics, the same was celebrated and adopted as desirable attitudes of every radical, right-thinking person. Russian Nihilism, however, did not imply a negation of meaning or knowledge/science; it was specifically targeted at politics and society, resembling the Tsarist autocracy, the belief systems and attitudes of the older generations, and religious orthodoxy, to name a few (Petrov 74). The historical roots of this ideology were often debated next to realism, with Pisarev preferring himself to be associated with the latter. The difference, however, between the two was in their rejection of specific concepts — Although realism, like nihilism, implies the rejection of metaphysics, sophistry, sentimentalism and aestheticism, it may, however, harbour a more positive and objective approach to reality, in contrast to nihilism and its connotations of subjectivism and nothingness (Petrov 81). Nihilism, rather than just an intellectual and philosophical outlook, became a lifestyle among the youngsters of Russia which symbolically also captured the spirit of this generation that grew up reading Turgenev and Dobrolyubov. They were anti-authority and in solidarity with the underprivileged.
Although circulated as unofficial doctrines and literary works, a Nihilist Doctrine called the “theory of the economy of the intellectual force” written by Pushkin constituted the purest form of Nihilism: Renouncing pleasure for the sake of saving the world; it is the rejection of the past in the name of building the future, and in its extreme sense, a doctrine of fanatical asceticism and self-mortification (Szamuely 241). This context here is important given that the revolution that young nihilists espoused for was dominated by the principle of Utilitarianism for mankind; the sole criterion of value judgement of any action or thought of the human mind was its direct contribution to the material well-being of mankind. Taken quite literally, this meant that any activity that would contribute to the feeding and clothing of people was worth doing and important. If intellectual material was one way of influencing the masses, destruction through revolutionary means was another. Sergei Nechayev is a name often associated with terrorism and endless ruthless destruction. Nechayev’s Catechism justifies terrorist activities as paving the way for destruction on a wider scale–a Revolution. The assassination of Czar Alexander II and the murder of a fellow student Ivan Ivonov solidifies the roots of the revolution that was to follow.
The German aim is to attain a world-wide Totalitarian Empire, and it uses any means to achieve its end goal. In this process, it is willing to annihilate everything that points towards decent living, perhaps even looking at it as a hindrance.It aims to satisfy the hunger of wanting to stay in power and gain a disinterested and sadistic pleasure from achieving this goal. But by choosing Hitler to command and execute military rule in order to ascertain imperial rule, the German nation’s criticism of modern civilization could only help them to an extent. The excessive use of brute force to conquer instead of vanquishing the opposing forces and impatience to right the wrongs thrust upon them in the course of history lost them their claim to world domination.
The philosophical essence of Russian nihilism lies in the negation of deformation for the sake of affirmation — of that which has not yet become (Petrov 93). It aimed at the destruction for a different purpose altogether; the attainment of a much fantasized universal utopia was the ultimate goal. Freedom maximization rather than dominance, and terrorism was seen as a fervent solution to firstly overthrowing the aristocratic rule that was prevalent, and secondly to redefine social realities. The pitfall of this aim was the constant tussle within the movement — a Pisarev’s school of thought in contrast to a Bakunin’s doctrine, and so on. For the better part of both Nazi Germany’s uprising and the Russian Revolution’s inception, the worshipping of the banner named destruction is what thwarted the civic society into a spirit of nationalism.
● Heinemann, F. H. “Nihilism in Germany.” Philosophy 15.57 (1940): 80–84.
● Metz, Thaddeus. “The Meaning of Life.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 3 June 2013, plato.stanford.edu/entries/life-meaning/.
● Nechayev, Sergey. “The Revolutionary Catechism.” The Revolutionary Catechism by Sergey Nechayev 1869, www.marxists.org/subject/anarchism/nechayev/catechism.htm.
● Petrov, Kristian. “‘Strike out, right and left!’: a conceptual-historical analysis of 1860s Russian nihilism and its notion of negation.” Studies in East European Thought 71.2 (2019): 73–97.
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● Szamuely, Tibor. The Russian Tradition. McGraw-Hill, 1974.