Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” — Part II: German Uses 1875 – 1925

The first post in this series examined Zeev Sternhell’s claim that Nietzsche “probably invented” the term Gegenaufklärung and noted that (1) Nietzsche’s one use of the term is difficult to reconcile with the subsequent usage of the term that we now associate with Isaiah Berlin and (2) the term had been used by others before Nietzsche, though — once again — in ways that diverge markedly from the current meaning of the term. This post is concerned with Sternhell’s claim that the term “was in common usage in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century.”1  Once again, evidence in support of Sternhell’s claim turns out to be surprisingly elusive. An Ngram of occurrences of the term between 1880 and 2000 indicates that occurrences of the term in the Ngram database are quite rare prior to the 1920s and it is only after the 1960s that the term began to enjoy what little currency it seems to have (it is worth stressing that, even at its peak of popularity, this is hardly a frequently-used term).


Extending the search to include the phrase “gegen Aufklärung” (“against Enlightenment”) turns up a few earlier occurrences of the phrase (which is hardly surprising), but does little to alter the general picture.2   

It might, of course, be argued that the problem lies, not with Sternhell’s assertion, but rather with the corpus of texts searched by the Ngram Viewer.  It is possible that Gegenaufklärung was a commonplace in works that, for one reason or another, did not wind up in library collections and, hence, were not part of the corpus of texts searched by the Ngram. It is also conceivable that, while the term entered into common usage during the last decades of the nineteenth century, this was not immediately reflected in printed works. There are, however,  reasons to be skeptical about both of these arguments. To understand why, we need to consider two questions that, by assuming that the term was in “common usage”, Sternhell does not seem to have addressed: just who might have been using this term? And how would they have been using it?

What Gegenaufklärer?  Whose Gegenaufklärung?

Since its been a while since my last post on this issue (the delay can be partly attributed to my not appreciating just how puzzling the German usage of the term seems to be), let us review what Sternhell has to say about the term:

The term Gegen-Aufklärung was probably invented by Nietzsche, and was in common usage in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century. It was no accident that Nietzsche invented this term in order to define the thought of Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner, for its creation reflected not only his understanding of the intellectual trends of his time but also the fact that it was in the “Nietzsche years” that the Anti-Enlightenment gained momentum and became a veritable intellectual torrent. It was at that time that the antirationalist and antiuniversalist revolution of the end of the eighteenth century came down into the street, adapted to the needs of a society that within a few decades had changed as never before(The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition 3)

Two different claims are run together here: the first involves the history of the term Gegenaufklärung while the second is concerned with the history of “intellectual trends” at the close of the nineteenth century and their impact on the politics of the period. Sternhell would appear to take it for granted that the alleged “intellectual torrent” of “antirationalist and antiuniversalist” thought was responsible for the alleged (albeit, it would seem, undetectable) popularity of the term Gegenaufklärung. But just how  was this supposed to happen?

One conjecture would be that the denizens of the European “street” took up the term as a way of characterizing their “antirationalist and antiuniversalist” program and, since they employed this term in broadsheets, political pamphlets, and other documents that were never archived in libraries, this sudden upsurge in the use of the term was never recorded by Google’s scanners. It only but a moment’s reflection to see that this story is somewhat implausible. Google has, in fact, scanned a fair number of German periodicals and, even if we assume that all of the texts written by our self-described Gegenaufklärer somehow vanished, it is difficult to see how this “intellectual torrent” could have passed unnoticed (and unmentioned). Further,  even if we cling to the unlikely assumption that this Gegenaufklärung occurred without anyone recording it, Sternhell’s account is still plagued by the difficulty of explaining what any of this has to do with Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, after all, was hardly a friend of “the street”: he dedicated the first edition of Human, All Too Human  to Voltaire in an attempt to play off an “aristocratic enlightenment” against the “democratic enlightenment” that he associated with Rousseau and the French Revolution.3   So, in the lack of evidence to the contrary, it would seem unlikely that the term Gegenaufklärung was being used at this point by individuals as a way of characterizing their own beliefs.

As an alternative hypothesis we might conjecture that Gegenaufklärung was used, not as a self-description, but instead as a term employed by third parties to designate (a) the “antirationalist and antiuniversalist” beliefs that flooded “the European street,” (b) the more pervasive anti-Enlightenment temper of the times, or (c) anti-Enlightenment sentiments associated with other periods (i.e., the way in which Isaiah Berlin used the term). This account, while somewhat more plausible than the first, still faces the nagging difficulty of explaining why so few examples of this usage are being recorded on the Ngram. We could try to save the hypothesis by conjecturing that there was a lag between the appearance of this “torrent” of anti-Enlightenment thought and the use of the term Gegenaufklärung to designate this general movement. But while this may rescue the hypothesis, it requires us to abandon Sternhell’s claim that Gegenaufklärung was in “common usage” by the close of the nineteenth century. And, of course, this revised version of our alternative hypothesis is hard to reconcile with a lag in the usage of the term Gegenaufklärung that stretches into the 1960s: we would need to see some at least some examples of the term being used in the last couple of decades of the nineteenth century or the first decades of the twentieth and that these usages anticipate the connotations that the term later took on.   A search that is restricted to the period between 1875-1926 Google turns up a mere seventeen uses of the term Gegenaufklärung.  While this helps answer the question of who was using the term — namely, next to nobody — it still leaves our second question unanswered: how was the term being used?  Fortunately, since there are only seventeen uses, it is easy enough to look at them and see what we can find.  Unfortunately, what we find is rather rather confusing.

Misplaced Citations

Poking around in the texts that Google links to the Ngram results yields at least one surprise: two of the examples turn out to fall outside the period that we are searching.

In the first case, the passage in question, though published in an 1878 issue of the Zeitschrift für das Privat- und öffentliche Recht der Gegenwart, turns out to be a quotation from 1841 text.4 Hiller The focus here would appear to be on the rules for determining criminal intent (though I should caution that I am no expert of nineteenth-century German jurisprudence) and, in this context, Gegenaufklärung might best be translated as “counter explanation” (cf. similar usage of the term, in the previous post in this series, in connection with a rejoinder to an article about customs involving bell-ringing).

The other misplaced text appears in what Google alleges to be an 1890 issue of the Neue Rundschau.  All Google lets us see is the following snippet (and, why, you might well ask, is Google only letting us see a snippet from a text that dates from 1890? —  therein lies a tale …): Neue Rundschau

Though it is difficult to grasp what the author is arguing from the small portion available, the usage appears quite similar to the way in which the term is used today: “Counter-Enlightenment declares itself Enlightenment” — sounds surprisingly current.  There’s a good reason for that:  Google’s metadata is faulty.  Though Google would have us believe that the text dates from 1890, what we in fact are seeing in the snippet is a 1988 article by the Adorno scholar Hauke Brunkhorst.5  There were no issues of the Neue Rundschau published in 1890:  at that point the journal was still calling itself the  Freie Bühne für modernes Leben.  I suspect Google’s error might be traced to the Neue Rundschau’s practice of listing the date of its founding — or rather, the date of the founding of the  Freie Bühne — on its front cover; that date seems to have made its way into Google’s cataloging.

Unexpected Usages

Having eliminated two of our seventeen examples, we can move on to only actual nineteenth-century example contained in our sample: Wilhelm von Scherff’s Die Lehre von Krieg: auf der Grundlage seiner neuzeitlichen Erscheinungsformen (1897):

von Scherff

What is being discussed here has nothing to do with what we would call “counter-Enlightenment” but rather with what those schooled in the military arts term “counter-intelligence.”6

It is only when we move into the twentieth century that we begin to pick up usages that look more like what we would expect to be finding. But there are also quite a few usages that are likely to trip up the casual reader (and this, in part, explains why it has taken so long to get this post finished: these examples are far more puzzling than I’d suspected).

For a prime example, consider the following usage in the journal Hochland in 1906 (to provide some context, I’ve inserted a selection that runs from pp. 230-231 of  the journal — I’ll summarize what seems to be going on below).

Hochland 230 p. 231 HochlandThe Munich journal Hochland  is the sort of place where one might find the counter-Enlighteners that Sternhell expects us to be seeing using the term Gegenaufklärung as a way of announcing their opposition to the Enlightenment. Established in 1903 by the Catholic publicist Carl Muth as a vehicle for an revitalized form Catholicism that — breaking with what Muth saw as the inward piety of ultramontanism — championed a vision of “positive Christianity” that was cross-confessional in its aspirations and wide-ranging in its concerns.  Contributors to the journal included such figures as Max Scheler, Theodor Haecker, Sigrid Unset, and Carl Schmitt.  The journal would later gain fame for its criticisms (which, understandably, tended to be somewhat covert) of the Nazi regime (it was eventually banned in 1940) and because of Muth’s relationship with Hans and Sophie Scholl and others in the White Rose resistance.  But during the teens and twenties it was aggressively nationalist and frequently anti-Semetic  — praise for the work of Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain can be found side by side with woodcuts of robust country folk engaged in healthy activities.7

While it would make sense to characterize Hochland (at least at certain points in its history) as embracing a program that was opposed to the ideals of the Enlightenment, the  one use of the term Gegenaufklärung that Google finds in the journal confounds our expectations.  The extracts reproduced above are from an unsigned article on the “dogmatism of free-thinking” that takes aim at Ernst Haeckel’s theories of  evolution. Arguing that this demonstrates how “free-thinking” has degenerated into a new form of “dogmatism,” the article suggests that Haeckel’s work is an example of “counter-Enlightenment” thinking.   As I noted in an earlier post, this sort of move is not uncommon in nineteenth-century religious critiques of Darwin by Anglophone writers,  though their preferred term to describe what Darwin was peddling was “scientism” rather than “counter-Enlightenment” (though, as we shall see in the next post, the two terms turn out to be connected).

We see a similar use of the term in another Catholic journal, the Historisch-politische Blätter für das katholische Deutschland (1912), though without the complete text it is soemwhat hard to tell what is going on:

Katholische Deutschland

So, at long last, we seem to have located some actual Gegenaufklärer, but they none of them seem to be using the term Gegenaufklärung as a way of characterizing their own position. Following the paradigm that was established at the close of the eighteenth century, the present themselves as  friends of “true enlightenment.”

Finally, Google provides two snippets from the 1917 issue of Deutschlands Erneuerung, the journal of the Pan-German League, a group whose nationalist, imperialist, expansionist, and anti-Semitic policies are precisely what Sternhell might have had in mind when he assumed that Gegenaufklärung had entered into common usage by the close of the century. Once again, it is difficult to be sure what is going on in the snippets Google provides (and I have trouble lining them up with scans of the journal that area available online, which makes me suspect that Google’s metadata may, once again, be misleading):

Deutschlands ErneuerungMy best guess (and I’d be grateful to anyone who wants to offer an alternative reading) is that Gegenaufklärung figures here not as a description of the cause that the League embraces but, rather, as a way of characterizing the program of Wirtschaftliche Aufklärung (“economic enlightenment — or, perhaps, “economic education”?) that it opposes: bourgeois liberties amount to a Gegenaufklärung. The mind boggles: if any journal could be seen as exemplifying the aims of the Gegenaufklärung it would be Deutschlands Erneuerung, but it employs the term, not as a badge of honor, but rather as a pejorative for the positions that others hold.

The Delayed Arrival of the Gegenaufklärung as We Now Know It

It is not until the 1920s that we begin to find uses of Gegenaufklärung that employ the term in the context of discussions of the legacy of eighteenth-century thought.  And they tend to use the term for scholarly, rather than polemical, purposes.  For example, Google offers the following snippet from Franz Oppenheimer and Bertha Spinder-Gysin’s 1922 System der Soziologie :

Oppenheimer Four years later we find the following in the journal Logos: Logos The author’s “if I might say” suggests that the term still has a certain novelty about it, which means that we have probably still not arrived at the point where the term is in “general usage,” but we finally seem to be approaching a point where the term refers to an intellectual movement that is opposed to what we would recognize as “the Enlightenment.” But we are still four decades away from the uptick in usage that we can see in the Ngram that opened this post.

That uptick would seem to be driven by German discussions of Berlin’s work and by Herman Lübbe’s Hochschulreform und Gegenaufklärung, a polemic against the German student movement that argued that the students were engaged in an attempt at “counter-Enlightenment.” I would be inclined to maintain that it is only at this point — some eighty years later than Sternhell suggests — that the term Gegenaufklärung entered into common German usage.

What took it so long? The belated popularity of the term might be explained, in part, by the fact that there was no need for it. Prior to 1965 there were other ways of referring to enemies or the opponents, the simplest of which was just to call them “enemies” or “opponents”:

Enemies and Opponents to 1965

It is not until 1955 that we begin to see Gegenaufklärung consistently supplanting these more familiar phrases (the brief upsurge of Gegenaufklärung around 1945 seems to be driven, in part, by discussions of the need for “counter-education” in postwar Germany) and, over the course of the next decade, it becomes the preferred term for referring, collectively, to the Enlightenment’s enemies.

What, then, are we to make of this substitution? While it may well amount to little more than a distinction without a difference, invoking the existence of something called a “counter-Enlightenment” would appear to imply something more than the trivial observation that the Enlightenment had enemies and opponents. It suggests that these enemies and opponents were engaged in a common cause, that all of them were making arguments that had, at a minimum, some sort of family resemblance. This, after all, is what Sternhell is attempting to argue: not just that the Enlightenment had enemies, but that these enemies are part of a coherent tradition.

On the other hand, the term “counter-Enlightenment” can also serve as a way of designating the historical period that followed in wake of “the Enlightenment.”  We begin to find examples of that usage, in German, in historical studies during the 1920s, when the term begins to be used as a synonym for “Romanticism.” But this less ambitious use of the term does not appear to have caught on. After all, there was already a term that does that particular job quite effectively: namely, “Romanticism” itself. Once again, the only advantage that “counter-Enlightenment” would seem to offer is that it assembles all the opponents of the Enlightenment under a single label.  For reasons that remain to be explored, it was not until the 1960s that a significant number of people seemed to have felt the need to do this.

To be continued …

  1. Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 3.
  2. Beginning the search at 1800 produces a spike for the phrase gegen Aufklärung between 1800-1820, which makes a certain amount of sense but which might also be an artifact of the small number of books from that period that would have been scanned and available for searching.
  3. See Graeme Garrard, “Nietzsche For and Against the Enlightenment.” The Review of Politics 70:4 (2008): 595–608.
  4. Karl Hiller, Zur Versuchslehre des österreichischen Strafrechts,” Zeitschrift für das Privat- und öffentliche Recht der Gegenwart V (1878) : 657-718
  5. Hauke Brunkhorst, ” Die Unverzichtbarkeit der Utopie. Zur Rolle der Intellektuellen in dern Kulturellen Wenden der westdeutschen Republik,” Neue Rundschau, 99:1 (1988) 140-156.  The full quotation reads, “Währed dessen begnügen sich die konservativen Theoretiker der Regierung mit der Theoretisierung der eingenen Theorielosigkeit,(151) indem die zu begründen versuchen, warum Theorien, aslo Erklärunggen und Begründungen, unnütz und schädlich sind. Sie propagieren die allgemeine Abschaffung des Allgemeinen, arbeiten theoretisch am Verfall von Theorie und denken das Denkverbot. Gegenaufklärung verkünden sie als Aufklärung, dem Affekt gegen die Intellektuellen geben sie intellektuelles Gewicht.” 
  6. Wilhelm von Scherff, Die Lehre vom Kriege: auf der Grundlage seiner neuzeitlichen Erscheinnungsformen (Berlin: Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, 1897).
  7. For a discussion of the journal’s early history and its relationship to broader tendencies in Bavarian Catholicism, see Derek Hastings, Catholicism and the Roots of Nazism : Religious Identity and National Socialism (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) 31-32, 39-44.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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4 Responses to Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” — Part II: German Uses 1875 – 1925

  1. Pingback: Fabricating the “Counter-Enlightenment” — Part 1: Nietzsche’s Role | Persistent Enlightenment

  2. Pingback: A Note on a Recently Published Letter from Isaiah Berlin on the “Counter-Enlightenment” | Persistent Enlightenment

  3. Thanks, but I think the cool kids laboring in the vineyards of the Digital Humanities are doing much more interesting work than I am (e.g., see the brilliant article by Dan Edelstein et al. in the April issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas on the Encyclopedia’s citation practices). The Ngram (as I keep stressing) is an incredibly blunt and probably unreliable instrument. I find it useful chiefly as a way of getting a quick and dirty overview and as a way of ruling out certain rash characterizations of usage (e.g., Sternhell’s claim that Gegenaufklärung was “in common usage” by the last decades of the nineteenth century). I’m also somewhat comforted by the fact that it has yet to suggest that certain rash generalizations that I’ve made in the past (e.g., that no one was using the phrase “the Enlightenment” until the close of the nineteenth century) seem — wonder of wonders — to hold up.

  4. Alexandros says:

    Another great series of posts, Professor Schmidt. I am eagerly waiting for the next post.

    It is amazing how Ngrams can provide for such interesting trends [from which one can then extrapolate such intriguing inferences], when combined with (1) deep knowledge and understanding of the timeframe-context, (2) creative queries, and (3) an experienced academic on the keyboard.

    I think that this blog duly deserves the attention of far more than the Enlightenment-aficionados community. “Digital humanities” work at its finest.

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