Hans Blumenberg: ‘Vergleichsverbot’

Joe Paul Kroll completed his PhD thesis, A Human End to History? Hans Blumenberg, Karl Löwith and Carl Schmitt on Secularization and Modernity, in 2010 at Princeton University. This post and original translation is his first post on Chakira.

Hans Blumenberg wrote enough during his lifetime to keep his editors, archivists, publishers, translators and not least readers occupied for decades to come. Having retired from academia with a sense of relief in the early 1980s, Blumenberg’s writing took two principal forms: work on the ‘big books’ on the one hand, short essays, vignettes rather, on the other. Blumenberg’s fancy might be taken by a quotation pulled from his vast archive on index cards – literary correspondences being a favorite source –, by events recounted in biographies, by arresting turns of phrase in the works of Husserl, Wittgenstein or Heidegger and, of course, by metaphors wherever he came upon them. The result is sometimes inspiring, sometimes confusing and vague, and sometimes, as in the case below, somewhat awkward. I will leave readers to draw their own conclusions, adding only that it does offer a potentially unsettling perspective on Blumenberg’s own attitude to Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a topic on which he could be pointed as well as judicious almost to a fault. But as ever, Blumenberg is hard to pin down.

Many of these vignettes were published in the 1980s and 90s in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The piece translated here originally appeared in the former, where it formed part of a series in which Blumenberg applied the technique described above to a deliberately incomplete series of philosophical, historical and literary concepts. It was subsequently reprinted in 1998 as one of 106 pieces in a collection entitled Begriffe in Geschichten.

Postscript, August 2014: Reconsidering the bibliographic evidence, it seems that I was wrong to state that this particular piece had been published in the FAZ in Blumenberg’s lifetime. This was true only of 21 of the 106 Begriffe in Geschichten (sometimes it is worth reading jacket copy carefully). I also failed to remark upon what, in retrospect, seems an obvious and in any case a crucial point: that the comparison between Hitler and Napoleon is one which Blumenberg did not draw in Arbeit am Mythos. To have done so would have complicated (to say the least) his reading of Goethe’s apothegm, nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse. This problem has recently been discussed by Angus Nicholls and Felix Heidenreich in their afterword to a recent publication from Blumenberg’s Nachlass entitled Präfiguration. Arbeit am politischen Mythos (2014), which contains a chapter dropped from Arbeit am Mythos.

* * * * *

Hans Blumenberg: ‘Vergleichsverbot’

The interdiction on making comparisons with Hitler is a recent achievement. The almost fearful adherence thereto – a perverted form of contact anxiety – contains as its positive aspect the magical assurance that the singular and excessive [event] occurred a long time ago, and that anything on a lower plane bespoke ‘moderation’, something that could be dealt with. That is the apotropaic side of the interdiction, and it should not be dismissed lightly.

There is another [side to it]: The choice of candidates for comparison, once it has been admitted, is uncertain. The comparison which Hitler himself feared as the devil fears holy water thus became a tribute to the reticence owed a new and finally secure political friendship. Let it not be thought that I am merely homing in on the closest target at hand just because the comparison beckons. The only comparison that Hitler himself truly feared was that with Napoleon. When he, like the latter, found himself in the Russian winter, the sight of what was intended as an exhibition of trophies – Napoleonic standards recovered from the Berezina river – caused him to flee in panic, before the show’s initiators even realized what they had done. Unbeknownst to him, Hitler’s brusque departure from the Berlin Zeughaus allowed him to evade one of the best-prepared attempts on his life. To avoid the unpleasant aspects of responsibility, Hitler did not require, as Napoleon did, the disguise as the secretary of one of his most highly decorated generals. It had become easier to evade visibility: subtler flights were embarked upon.

The prehistory of the comparison with Napoleon dates back to 1937. When Napoleon abandoned his army in the midst of its Russian disaster in order to deal with ‘more important matters’ in Paris, he disguised himself as the secretary of the ennobled General Caulaincourt. The latter’s secret notes concerning the flight were discovered by chance amidst the ruins of his chateau, destroyed during the First World War, and were published in 1937, with no concern for censorship, in German translation as Unter Vier Augen mit Napoleon. The book struck a chord in a manner for which, at the time, there was no rational explanation; once there was, it had reached such distribution that there was no way of preventing its effect. After the German winter outside Moscow and Leningrad, it was known what it might have ‘signified’ five years previously. It became, at a delay, the book of the day. When it had passed the censor, no-one thought that it might become the reading matter by which the initiated recognized each other, by familiarity with which one ‘revealed’ oneself.

Napoleon’s memory was subject to a peculiar taboo. His dictum: A man like me cares the devil for the death of a million men – such cynicism still fell on the ground of a century to which the ‘genius’ seemed to bear the legitimacy to demand even the most extreme tribute. Napoleon, moreover, left behind not only the army of the dead of his Grande Armée, but also the even larger army of veterans and invalids, for whom his name vouchsafed that their sacrifice had not been in vain, although this commander had twice abandoned his troops in ignominious flight. When, in 1946, the merciless book by the Dutch historian Jacques Presser appeared in Amsterdam and Brussels, it did not become the subject of conversation, and its German publication 30 years later did not sit well with a new friendship whose truths were still to be uncovered on one side only. Did anyone take the name of Rodion Raskolnikov seriously in any but a literary way, presuming, with reference to Napoleon’s ‘right to kill’, to reduce the old pawnbroker to a louse, fit to be squashed by anyone claiming to have in mind a sufficiently grand purpose for her money to even the balance? The genius’ legitimation to commit murder, the comparison to vermin – only germs are missing from the terminology, later to stand for Hitler’s real and metaphorical obsession with infection –, all that forms part of the repertoire of murder for a ‘higher purpose’. But had Napoleon committed murder? He took the chance. In a ‘grand history’, which desired the means to stay ‘grand’, that was to be of as little account as the hecatombs of the Great Revolution.

Source: Hans Blumenberg, Begriffe in Geschichten. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998, pp. 221-223. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll.

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2 Responses to Hans Blumenberg: ‘Vergleichsverbot’

  1. Hannes says:

    Are you working on a translation of Begriffe in Geschichten? I would be very interested to learn when it will come out!

    • Joe says:

      Thanks for your encouraging feedback. No, I’m not working on a complete translation at this time. But I would very much like to do so if I could find someone to publish it as an authorized translation.

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