Reviews Revisited: Klaus Epstein on Fritz Valjavec

One of the great benefits of journal archives such as JSTOR and Project Muse is that it is possible, while searching for a particular article, to stumble across something that you didn’t know existed. In a way, it’s a bit like going into the library to find a book and coming away with a few better ones.

A few years ago, I was trying to tracking down a reference to an article by Klaus Epstein and, in the process, came across his 1963 review of Fritz Valjavec’s Geschichte der abendländischen Aufklärung.1 For those unfamiliar with Epstein’s work, he is best known as the author of The Genesis of German Conservatism (1966), a wide-ranging study of German thought between 1770 and 1806 that remains an essential guide to the late Enlightenment. His career was cut short when he was killed, at the age of 40, in an auto accident. While he had been a quite productive scholar, his early death made everything he wrote all the more precious, so I eagerly read the review. If there’s ever a hall of fame for scholarly reviews, it should be among the first ones to be inducted.

Valjavec had been the director of the Munich Institute for the Study of South Eastern Europe and his posthumously published overview of the Enlightenment would become one of those texts that, I suspect, is cited much more frequently than it is actually read. Epstein opened his review with a sentence that lets the reader know that, before things are finished, there is going to be quite a bit of blood on the floor.

The History of the Enlightenment is a work which shows amazing – though evidently somewhat erratic and arbitrary – erudition in most European languages; its chief fault is that it frequently degenerates into a catalogue-like accumulation of miscellaneous information without much – and least of all new – interpretation.

A page of careful summary follows (aspiring reviewers should watch and learn: be sure to cover the territory before you strike the final blow) and then, in the final paragraph, the verdict — which begins in a deceptively tentative mode, but gathers force as it proceeds – is delivered:

The basic flaw of the volume, if it is a flaw, is the lack of a distinctive point of view, whether intellectually or morally. Valjavec had an eclectic mind which was better at absorbing different opinions than choosing between them; the best way to avoid choice is merely to accumulate materials in the name of objective scholarship. The reader never knows where the author really stands; this particular reviewer would have liked to see a more explicit appreciation of the great enlightenment legacy of humanitarianism, reformism, reasonableness, cosmopolitanism, and pacifism. But any point of view is better than none; authors and readers should choose between a defense of the age, like Peter Gay’s Voltaire: The Poet as Realist, or an attack upon it, like Carl Becker’s Heavenly City, or an explicit and differentiated middle position. They should avoid mere blandness, however disguised as encyclopedic erudition, when dealing with a movement that is far from merely historic but strikes at the basic cords of the “human condition” even today.

The reader (well, this reader anyway) might pause to wonder whether it is really obligatory for studies of the Enlightenment to praise or blame it. What is it about the Enlightenment that compels us to treat it as if we are still its contemporaries and leads us to think that we need to take sides? Isn’t this the essence of what Foucault once described as “the blackmail of the Enlightenment”? But, as it turns out, this isn’t really Epstein’s point. He grants the possibility of “an explicit and differentiated middle position” (which, I suppose, means something like “this part is good, but that part is not”) and, in any case, what needs to be avoided would seem (at first glance) to amount to nothing more than the sort of overwhelming, deadening blandness that he finds in Valjavec.

But — and this is where the peculiar genius of the review lies — it turns out there are more serious problems than Valjavec’s blandness. The second sentence in the passage quoted above has far-reaching implications. Valvajec’s mind was “better at absorbing different opinions than choosing between them” and it is this inability to choose that goes a long way towards explaining why the “flaw” that Epstein notes at the outset is, indeed, a flaw. For it turns out to be a moral flaw, rather than an intellectual one. The brief opening paragraph of the review closed with a sentence that – seemingly tossed out as an aside – lingers uneasily over the rest of the review. Epstein notes that Valjavec’s work had been published posthumously and goes on to observe that the “accompanying biographical panegyric” by the book’s editor “is interesting in summarizing Vljavec’s scholarly achievements while leaving his political affiliation from 1933 to 1945 unmentioned.”

That’s it. Nothing more. But it turns out to be enough.

Epstein’s contemporaries may have been wondered what the failure of Valjavec’s book on the Enlightenment to take a stand, either morally or intellectually, vis à vis its subject matter might have to do with the stand that Valjavec might have taken in the years between 1933 and 1945. Forty years later, the German historians Gerhard Seewan, Michael Fahlbusch, and Norbert Spannenburger filled in the missing biographical details.2 Valjavec took up his post at the Munich Institute in 1935 and, in the years that followed, worked hard to transform it into a center for “combative scholarship” that provided ideological support for National Socialist ethnic policies. Crossing the (admittedly murky) line that separates rank opportunism from outright complicity, he was sent to Russia in the summer of 1941, where he lent linguistic and clerical support to the Einsatzgruppe operating in the area.

Hence the force of the charge that Epstein was leveling. It is not just that Valjavec was unable to take a stand, for or against, the Enlightenment. Epstein’s problem with Geschichte der abendländischen Aufklärung is that the book was the result of that same plodding thoroughness that, twenty years before, its author had used to assemble materials on the various ethnic groups who had the misfortune to dwell in lands occupied by the Third Reich. Readers of Geschichte der abendländischen Aufklärung, Epstein seems to be suggesting, might want to keep this in mind.  Good books can, of course, be written by bad authors.  But one of the questions that has continued to haunt me after reading Epstein’s review is whether there might be certain works that, whatever their  merits, were the work of authors whose failings should never be forgotten.

  1. Klaus Epstein, “Review: The Enlightenment,” The Review of Politics 25, no. 3 (July 1963): 401–403.
  2. See their essays in Mathias Beer and Gerhard Seewann, eds., Südostforschung Im Schatten Des Dritten Reiches: Institutionen, Inhalte, Personen (1920-1960), Südosteuropäische Arbeiten ;; 119; (München: R. Oldenbourg, 2004).

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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