Embracing Democracy

Hermann Broch, Politics and Exile, 1918 to 1951

by Donald L. Wallace (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 268 Pages


Hermann Broch wrote two of the most significant novels of German modernism, The Sleepwalkers and The Death of Virgil, which established his importance to German literature. His writings on democracy, mass delusion and internationalism are more obscure. Embracing Democracy examines the central political, social and psychological tenets of Broch’s concept of «total democracy» as an expression of the synthesis of his European intellectual development – his Viennese Bildung – and his new position as an exile from fascism.
This book chronicles Broch’s experiences from the founding of the Austrian First Republic to his exile in the United States (1918 to 1951). The author traces two seemingly contradictory narratives in Broch’s political consciousness. On the one hand, Broch held an intellectual position in his post-exile political theory that was consistent with the philosophy of history, psychology and epistemology of his Viennese milieu. On the other hand, he significantly reconceived the utility of politics for his theory of value construction, while also becoming more involved in political activism. This book provides new perspectives on the work of Hermann Broch beyond his literary œuvre and offers insights into the development of political theory among exiled European intellectuals in the United States.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Metropolis of Kitsch: The Viennese Sources of Broch’s Politics
  • Chapter 2: Politics of Disengagement, 1918 to 1932
  • Chapter 3: The Sleepwalkers and Modernity
  • Chapter 4: Politics of Engagement, 1936 to 1951
  • Chapter 5: America and Democracy
  • Conclusion: Reconsidering Failure in Hermann Broch’s Exile Narrative
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Like Broch, I believe that ‘humans need other humans’, and I am grateful for all of the help generously given me in the writing of this book. I thank the Naval Academy Research Committee and Reza Malak-Madani and Rae Jean Goodman for their funding and support; the Beinecke Library staff, especially Crista Sammons; and all my colleagues at the Naval Academy who read and commented on chapters at the department Works in Progress, especially Lee Pennington. There are also many people whose professional/intellectual contributions to this book were enormous and are deeply appreciated, but whose personal contribution to the betterment of my life were much greater and are much more significant to me: Mark Thompson, Aaron O’Connell and Sharika Crawford; Richard Ruth, who comes close to being the person Broch wanted to be; David Luft, who remains a primary intellectual and spiritual influence in my life; Hamilton Stapell, who continually reminds me that thoughtfulness and vitality are synonyms, not antonyms; and Laurel Plapp, editor, scholar and friend. Lastly, I thank my partner, Sarah Malena, whose contributions are too numerous to list – so I will simply say thank you, Sarah, for being here. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →


Great is the anguish of the man who becomes aware of his isolation and seeks to escape from his own memory; he is obsessed and outcast […] there awakens within him a doubly strong yearning for a Leader to take him tenderly and lightly by the hand, to set things in order and show him the way. […] Yet even if the Leader were to come the hoped-for miracle would not happen […] it is the breath of the Absolute that sweeps across the world, and from our dim inklings and gropings for truth there will spring up the high-day and holiday assurance with which we shall know that every man has the divine spark in his soul and that our oneness cannot be forfeited; unforfeitable the brotherhood of humble human creatures. […] ‘Do thyself no harm! For we are all here!’1

If Hermann Broch has a legacy in the twenty-first century, it is still almost fully dependent on his literary work. Yet, the letters and essays found in his Nachlass clearly show that politics held the central position in his intellectual activity during the last two decades of his life. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Broch worked continually on defining the problems of Western mass political culture, such as the failures of democracy and the dangers of fascism, and theorizing on the possible solutions to the dangers of mass culture, such as international cooperation and legal protection of human life.2 He also fought for the psychological protection of the individual from the pressures of mass culture and what he described as mass culture’s ← 1 | 2 → neurotic flight from death, that is, mass culture’s inability to understand death as a source for value creation.

In the final lines of his novel The Sleepwalkers (quoted above), Broch displayed all the contradictions of his political thought – optimism pessimistically proclaimed, the individual and the absolute, the death of God and the permanence of God, humanism for an inhumane time. And, most central to the thesis of this book, he highlighted the epistemological danger to the individual mind from the mass politics of the modern world. In tracing Broch’s life from its roots in fin-de-siècle Vienna to his exile from National Socialist terror in the United States, this book charts the development of his ethical and aesthetic thought into an active political program for post-fascist democracy. It is the story of how he became conscious of the importance of politics as an intellectual undertaking. He did not manifest this new awareness through a simple shift from literature to political theory nor did he reject his pre-exilic intellectual worldview for a new post-exilic one. The model for ethical creativity that he developed in turn-of-the-century Vienna, in fact, contained the liberalism, humanism and ego-based psychology central to his political turn. This is the story of how Broch merged his central European Bildung with the political demands of exile.

The book surveys, in terms of political engagement, his experiences from the founding of the Austrian First Republic to his exile in the United States (1918 to 1951). The book posits two seemingly contradictory narratives in terms of Broch’s political consciousness – uniformity and change. On the one hand, Broch held an intellectual position in his post-exilic political theory that was consistent with the philosophy of history, psychology and epistemology of his Viennese milieu. On the other hand, he significantly reconceived the utility of politics to his theory of value construction, while also moving from disengagement to engagement in terms of political activism. The two narratives show that Broch’s cultural criticism in his Viennese environment was idealistic and that such a position allowed him to relegate politics to a mundane and avoidable level. In particular, he lacked a political understanding of the enduring force of mass political action and nationalism. If one were to identify a political stance in his pre-exilic period, it would only appear as a vague democratic impulse, which really ← 2 | 3 → only referred to the centrality of the individual to ethical and aesthetic social activity. This stance developed out of the context of nineteenth-century liberalism and the Enlightenment. In the Austrian First Republic Broch merged his democratic impulse with Social Democracy as he recognized that the economic collapse of the post-war period necessitated a broader interaction between workers and producers.

Additionally, his ethical and aesthetic theory, developed in the late imperial and post-First World War period, heightened for him a sense of empty bourgeois materialism. These ideas formed the basis for his theme of aestheticism and his image of Vienna as a metropolis of kitsch. Such anti-materialism, however, did not push him into an active Marxist position. In fact, I argue in my second chapter that Broch’s anti-bourgeois stance expressed itself through a greater commitment to intellectual elitism and a traditional liberal attraction to aristocratic and cosmopolitan values. The result was that Broch found no political platform that could respond to the changing nature of politics in post-Empire Austria. Political action had in that context coalesced in the masses and centred on the imagery of the nation. Socialism’s political goal of a post-nationalist world order also explains his intellectual affinities to Austro-Marxism in the First Republic. Such internationalism, however, existed only in terms of an aggressive Soviet program for international revolution and, thus, Broch maintained strict boundaries between his activities and those of Social Democracy throughout the First Republic.

Broch did not develop his theory on internationalism during his pre-exilic period. Instead, he sustained a cosmopolitan view on cultural unity that corresponded more directly to the cultural idea of Central Europe, what David Luft refers to as a Cisleithanian cultural identity found in writers like Musil, Broch, Hofmannsthal and Kafka.3 Broch’s cultural identity was, I would argue, even larger than this German-speaking culture of Cisleithania; he demonstrated strong links to Magyar, Polish and German cultural production as well, especially neo-Kantianism. His attraction to ← 3 | 4 → Kant and to neo-Kantianism, however, showed the ultimate difference between his and German cultural identity, that is, Broch’s lack of nationalism. One sees this most readily in the difference between his philosophy of history and that of German idealist novelists and historians.

Fascism challenged Broch’s idealism and his cosmopolitanism. And in exile, he refashioned his cultural criticism into a theory of mass delusion. He promoted his mass psychology as an explanation of mass political aberrations and as an Arbeitsprogramm for establishing a new form of humane democracy. This new political theorizing and activism maintained its anti-national characteristics, as he turned his central European cosmopolitan impulses into a more rigorous platform for international cooperation and the protection of human rights. His political theory of mass delusion placed Broch in line with the extra-national theories of human rights and the protection of human dignity found in the program of the United Nations and organizations like Amnesty International.4 But, as Hannah Arendt argued, the basis for his internationalism as well as his reforms to democratic structures relied on the theoretical acceptance of fundamental and shared human cognition. Such universalism left his ideas on ‘total democracy’ and internationalism too locked into the individual cognitive experience and the closing of value systems. It was completely blind to the real dangers of the violent closing of the public sphere.

Pre-exile, Broch saw pragmatic politics as valueless, an expression of kitsch, because he believed that historical development progressed through individual creative and epistemological change. Such a belief allowed him to reject political ideology and activism in favour of aesthetic creativity. Post-exile, Broch saw pragmatic politics as a duty, a necessity for the maintenance of human freedom and progress. He repackaged his philosophy of history and his theory on ethical free will into a political program of citizen rights and responsibilities. The result, however, was an integration of his cognitive model of ethical creativity (value construction), which continued to operate in a non-political environment, with a public idiom ← 4 | 5 → for citizen duties and state activism. The question Broch failed to answer was how a cognitive basis for humane activity could challenge the development of state power and the forces of nationalism. In the following chapters, I explore the foundation of his intellectual understanding of modernity, his political mentality during the Austrian First Republic, his post-exilic development of political theory and his position in the 1940s American dialogue on democracy and freedom.

For Broch, the challenge for democracy in the context of fascism and world war was to construct democratic institutions that protected and nurtured the source of ethics, the individual. Thus, he challenged European and American limitations to their own democratic principles. He extended his political theory from defining the relationship among democracy, values and the individual to the creation of human rights and the protection of human dignity. Ultimately, he packaged his democratic theory and his commitment to human rights in a program for the protection of life through economic reform, cultural vitality and internationalism. In my discussion, I summarize his views on democracy as a force to combat totalitarianism, the structure of citizenship and the ethical efficiency of the individual in the maintenance of democratic freedom. I outline how Broch’s political theory responded to his intellectual and cultural education in early twentieth-century Vienna and the United States during the 1930s and 1940s.

In particular, I examine how Broch’s value theory reflected the context of a contested view of humanism in the modern world. Positivism and an optimistic view of human progress heralded modern Europe as the culmination of mankind’s cultural and technological ability. With European potential appearing unlimited, bourgeois values and a capitalistic worldview assumed either the burden of spreading civilization or the battle of social Darwinism and its cultural interpretation of the survival of the fittest. Both views supported European expansion throughout the world through militarization and imperialism. By the mid-twentieth century the combination of European self-admiration and self-justified domination of the globe had produced multiple attempts at genocide and two world wars. The ultimate combination of human technological advancement and unchecked visions of superiority was realized in Germany in the early ← 5 | 6 → 1940s. The mechanized murder of European Jewry was blatant evidence of the power of human ingenuity and the emptiness and savagery of the human spirit. It proved to many that the Enlightenment project and its cult of rationality had a dangerous, instrumental side. It was what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called the dialectic of the Enlightenment.5

For Broch, the problem of instrumental reason and the dangers of unmediated rationality had been clear since his youth. As a modernist thinker, he challenged the meaning of ‘real’ and ‘objective’. He felt these terms had been misappropriated by relative value systems whose only claim to ‘objectivity’ or ‘truth’ relied on forcible suppression of other truth claims. In a state of competing relative values, one ends up with a disintegration of values. Nevertheless, he did not abandon the Enlightenment and his belief in the human mind’s capacity to construct an open democratic society. He did not call for the abandonment of liberalism or free markets. Broch, like Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and others, paved the road for post-modernism’s attack on truth and realism through his linguistic arguments about meaning and correspondence in language, but he did not take the post-modern turn.

He argued instead for a recommitment to the understanding of the irrational through science and epistemology. The Enlightenment’s goal of individual autonomy became his solution to the collapse of liberal democracies in Europe. In both Vienna and the United States, he allied himself to a critical humanist stance as he attempted to alleviate the negative aspects of modernity without abandoning the hope for progress and development. The key separation between him and the post-modernists was his sustained optimism versus the post-modernists’ idea of despair. Broch’s modernism and his humanism allowed him to retain the notion of autonomy and thus to retain the possibility of individual action and change.

From a post-modernist point of view, the theories of Broch were a half-hearted journey towards truth. He saw the relativism of modernity. Instead of embracing it and discovering the truths it could reveal about the political structure of power, he chose instead to hide from modernity’s ← 6 | 7 → relativism and to employ its own attributes – reason and human autonomy – to correct and end it. Because of his humanism, contemporary scholarship has often misinterpreted the political aims of his theory or failed to see the ways in which he still has relevance. As seen in the affirmative/critical debate below, Broch’s focus on totality and empowerment has been read as proto-fascist and authoritarian. Since the rise of post-modernism, the humanist stance itself has been relegated to the conservative spectrum.6 Broch’s political theory has for this reason been conceived either as utopian or reactionary. I hope that my book opens a dialogue expressly with post-modernism and challenges the perceptions of naïveté in Broch’s critique of democracy. His thought was not as simple as utopian or conservative when seen from a historical point of view. His thought was leftist and progressive in the context of 1930s (yet not Marxist). From a twenty-first-century point of view, one can argue he supported an epistemology that propagated a power structure designed to oppress and marginalize, because his fundamental idea was a universal law for human knowledge and society. His optimism, however, can also be a source for continued dialogue and individual growth, especially his belief in internationalism and his struggles for protecting human dignity. A historical reconstruction of his intellectual/political maturation also suggests that his ideas have relevance to a modern audience that goes beyond scholars and antiquarians. Broch criticized capitalistic materialism and its empty (anti-humanist) values while he simultaneously highlighted the dangers of a revolutionary challenge to the market system. Such changes opened mass politics to the psychological manipulation of the individual and his/her fears. His work promoted a creative outlet for ethical action without overturning the instruments for stability and the rule of law.

Broch was born in Vienna, Austria on 1 November 1886 and died in New Haven, Connecticut, USA on 30 May 1951. He was a Viennese Jewish exile who in his youth participated in the intellectual world of fin-de-siècle Vienna and in his final years engaged in the intellectual world of New York ← 7 | 8 → and New England. I tie together, through an examination of his political theory, these two distinct experiences. Both of these milieus provide insight into the disparate strands of intellectualism that offered themselves up to Broch as a means for understanding and correcting what he saw as the deficits of modernity. These deficits included the unchecked outbreak of mass hysterical events: fascism, militarism and genocide.

Broch devoted the last decade of his life to developing theoretical bulwarks against totalitarian forms of government. It is hardly surprising that an Austrian Jewish intellectual writing during the 1940s in American exile would devote his abilities to questions of fascism and human rights. What was surprising about his intellectual approach to the problems of modernity, however, was that his solutions represented nineteenth-century ethical formulations. There was no significant shift in the foundations of his ethical value system and ideas on social justice between his Austrian and American periods. Broch remained wedded to the Enlightenment’s notion of individual autonomy, nineteenth-century conceptions of the irrational, a critical approach to positivistic science, as well as the hope for cosmopolitanism as an antidote to national and ethnic identity.


X, 268
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (September)
modernism mass delusion internationalism philosophy psychology
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. X, 268 pp.

Biographical notes

Donald L. Wallace (Author)

Donald L. Wallace is Assistant Professor of History at the United States Naval Academy. He is an intellectual historian of Central Europe with a special interest in European intellectual immigration to the United States in the twentieth century.


Title: Embracing Democracy
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