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Gerhart Niemeyer: Scholar, Teacher, Political Commentator, and Christian Disciple

Gerhart Niemeyer: Scholar, Teacher, Political Commentator, And Christian Disciple

The Loss and Recovery of Truth: Selected Writings. Gerhart Niemeyer with Michael Henry, ed. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2013.


It concentrates the mind in a Johnsonian sense for those of us who knew him to reflect that nearly two decades have passed since the passing of Gerhart Niemeyer in 1997 at the age of 90. For many of his students, their first encounter with him marked a point that would always divide a before from an after. For myself, I can say that I had never before met so deeply serious a human being. His seriousness was neither histrionic nor grim; it was the habitually formed stance of an intellect focused on what was most important, and resistant to any divagation into the trivial or superficial.

To some degree this was surely a product of his experiences: he watched his own country descend into madness and became an exile, first to Spain, then, forced again by political turmoil to flee, to the United States, from which I don’t believe he ever really looked back. The political chaos of the early and mid-20th century drove his inquiries from very early on. He began as a student of international law and his question was how to reconstruct international law so that it could provide genuine order for a world that was increasingly secular and dominated by contending national states motivated by disparate interests and ambitions. He had seen how legal positivism was helpless to explain the collapse of democracy in Weimar Germany or the increasing international disorder of the 1930s. His solution, much indebted to his teacher, Hermann Heller, was a “functional” account of international law that emerged out of the character of international society itself, what he called the “immanent law” effective because already implicit in actual phenomena.

By the mid-1940s Niemeyer seemed to have abandoned this approach, partly because of a sense that the roots of the political crises of the 1930s and 40s suggested much deeper problems, problems that were evident not only in the totalitarian regimes, but in liberalism as well. These problems could only really be understood as the result of ideology and so he became a student of ideology and therefore a historian of political thought. He came to see at the heart of the ideological mass movements of the 20th century a phenomenon that he described in great detail as the “total critique of society.” “Total critique” constituted a rejection of any immanent order in things as they were and insisted that the manifest imperfections of the world must be remedied by wholesale destruction and reconstruction on the basis of abstract theories or ideals. He saw the purist version of this attitude, an existential orientation one might call it, in Marxist-Leninism and so he became one of the most authoritative students of Marxist ideology in North America, an authority the recognition of which resulted in his appointments in the U.S. State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations in the early 1950s. But the roots of this orientation went back much further to both the great and not-so-great figures of the European Enlightenment: Morelly, Meslier, Prudhon, and others, subjects of his magnificent 1971 book, Between Nothingness and Paradise. He was deeply influenced by the thought of his friend Eric Voegelin, who he came to know in the 1940s, and whose work he not only assimilated, but helped to interpret and explain to generations of students, as well as to those who read his articles on Voegelin.

But Niemeyer’s understanding of the existential orientation of total critique was also closely related to his own existential orientation, what he described in a 1958 essay as “the reverent view of politics, the view which sees politics essentially as participation in a transcending order of life.” This view was certainly related to Niemeyer’s Christianity, which he embraced in the U.S. after growing up in a decidedly secular family. That led him not only to personal devotion (and active Christian ministry: he was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church in 1973 and a priest in 1980; in 1993 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church), but to the intellectual treasures of the faith and especially to the thought of the Christian thinker he most admired, St. Augustine. Niemeyer didn’t write much specifically about Augustine, but his presence can be felt increasingly in Niemeyer’s writings right up to the end of his life. Indeed, I think one can say that if Niemeyer began as a theorist of international law and became a political theorist, he ended as a kind of political theologian. What Augustine explained was the crucial relationship between the immanent and the transcendent, the ongoing illuminating relationship between God and man that constituted and gave meaning to history. This was really the only framework in which history as history made sense and all the ideologies of modern times were attempts to preserve the intelligibility of history without God. The result of these missions impossible was the attitude of total critique, the rejection of the past and present in the name of a speculative future. We were—and in many respects still are—surrounded by the wreckage.

In The Loss and Recovery of Truth, Michael Henry has collected a fully representative and beautifully ordered selection of Niemeyer’s writing. The book traverses all of the matters that occupied Niemeyer’s long and consequential life as scholar, teacher, political commentator, and Christian disciple. Seventy-six pieces—all but three are complete articles—are organized into three large parts: Niemeyer the Man, The Loss of Truth, and The Recovery of Truth. The third part is further divided into sections on political theory, education, conservatism, and faith. Perhaps the most striking items in this volume are the eighteen previously unpublished pieces that Henry has discovered among the Niemeyer papers housed in the archives of the University of Notre Dame. This includes all five pieces that comprise the first section, Niemeyer the Man. Included here are a powerful memoir of Niemeyer’s exodus from Nazi Germany and parts of two letters from Niemeyer to his friend and comrade in arms, William F. Buckley, in which he describes his conversion to Christianity. There are also two items related to the hospice movement, which was a particular focus of Niemeyer’s ministry as a priest. These are all things known to those who knew Niemeyer, but in none of his published writings does he discuss them in such detailed and personal terms.

The unpublished pieces also deepen our knowledge of Niemeyer’s conservatism in ways that are particularly relevant today. In “Systems of History and Public Policy” (258-70), an essay that seems to have been written in the late 1960s, he casts a skeptical eye on the government’s attempt to articulate goals for the nation, an idea that smacked of totalitarian attempts to drive countries as if they were vehicles moving towards some destination. Usually the destination is an ideologically constructed utopian future. Niemeyer’s view here is rather close to that of Michael Oakeshott in his distinction between “civil association” and “enterprise association.” In “What Price Politics?” (358-66), written in 1977, he contrasted the character of contemporary American politics—and that of other Western countries—to what he called genuine “historical” existence, which he characterized as a recognition of and willingness to practically face up to political reality. He was particularly concerned with Lyndon Johnson’s simultaneous prosecution of the Vietnam War and the “War on Poverty,” in ways that guaranteed the failure of both and on the continuing unwillingness of successive administrations to face up realistically to the threat posed by Soviet imperialism. He expressed the hope here as on other occasions that the testimony of Soviet dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn might shake us out of our decidedly non-dogmatic yet seemingly resolute slumber. Here “historical” did not refer to any kind of temporal movement, but to the actual conditions facing us in the world as distinct from the “second realities” constructed by ideologies.

The roots of this view are most clearly revealed in two short but quite substantive essays, “Stewardship—Theory and Practice,” (350-57) and “The State and the Citizen” (215-21). Both are undated, but seem to have been written in the early to mid-1980s. Stewardship “expresses an awareness of creatureliness, of being a part in a reality that transcends us in all dimensions” (350). Niemeyer discusses the practical manifestations of this “virtue-like” orientation in terms of statesmanship, in particular that of Ronald Reagan, whose policies he mostly approves. But at the end of the essay, he goes beyond this. After a discussion of Hans Jonas’s “principle of responsibility” as a response to the attitudes of most Western “intellectuals,” Niemeyer circles back to the question of conservatism and concludes:

“[P]ointing to the free market as a universal and definitive solution to the problem of freedom will no longer suffice, particularly in the presence of genetic engineering and the electronic abolition of privacy. The hour calls for strenuous and disciplined thinking, for an enhanced effort to recognize the metaphysical gulf that has separated liberals and conservatives, and for creative concepts of conservative attitudes of responsibility in the midst of a period of unprecedented dynamism.” (357)

These words could have been written this morning and the “strenuous and disciplined thinking” Niemeyer called for are needed now more than ever.

Perhaps even more striking is the other essay, “The State and the Citizen.” Niemeyer begins by telling the story of extraordinary acts of bravery and patriotism that occurred during the First World War and remarks on how unfamiliar, even unthinkable, such expressions seem now (some time during the 1980s). He suggests that the very notion of citizenship has been lost, eaten by a kind of pervasive cynicism and suggests three reasons for this phenomenon: first, the replacement of loyalty to country with sectarian adherence to ideological mass movements; second, the development of nuclear weapons, which make war impossible and thus takes away from states their character as defenders of their people, thus depriving them of much legitimacy; and third, the rise of the welfare state, which makes citizens into the dependents of “mandarin bureaucrats.” The former citizens are now concerned with purely private life and their relationship to government is that of a client relative to a patron, one who hopes to maximize his material take: “loyalty, allegiance, patriotism, and consideration for the whole do not figure at all” (218). To all of this, he then adds a fourth factor—and this is what makes the essay particularly interesting—that has the effect of eroding not just the sense of citizenship, but of responsibility more generally.

It is the effect of bigness in modern culture. There is big government, modern big corporation, big banks, big budgets (who can grasp “billions” and “trillions”?), big machines, including big medical technology (“massive doses”), big farms with big chemicals and big technology. Bigness takes away the awareness of human persons. We are awed, gaping with open mouths, failing to see the whole, to grasp the complexity. To the extent to which it all works, it works impersonally, hugely, incomprehensibly. (219)

The loss of a sense of citizenship is then coterminous with the development of the modern state, and Niemeyer thinks it has affected all of them. His diagnosis is in some ways akin to that of Alasdair MacIntyre, at least in his more recent writings on the modern state, although Niemeyer would reject the elements of Marxism that MacIntyre still accepts. These essays show powerfully the depth of Niemeyer’s own conservatism, which was quite different from the facile versions that have become increasingly dominant in American political debate. None of this led him to counsel despair or withdrawal, but to urge again and again the need for careful, disciplined thinking. Niemeyer participated in the development of conservatism in the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s and during the 1980s was increasingly occupied with calling it back to its theoretical center.

The Loss and Recover of Truth also includes unpublished essays that reveal more of Niemeyer’s theological views; some are quite sharp criticisms of the infection of contemporary Christianity by modern ideology. Most of the volume, however, reprints a generous quantity of Niemeyer’s scholarly articles, especially those that explain the structure of ideologies and their political manifestations. It is very good to have them available alongside an equally generous selection of Niemeyer’s political commentary, especially columns from National Review. This gives one a really exemplary sense of how a gifted political theorist deploys the fruits of his reflection with a view the analysis and explanation of political phenomena, analysis that is at once well-informed, deeply thoughtful, and accessible to the educated lay-reader. The book is also handsome and sturdily constructed, a source to which one can turn often for inspiration and example, and this is as it should be, for Gerhart Niemeyer was always both.


Also available is Rodolfo Hernandez’s review here.

V. Bradley LewisV. Bradley Lewis

V. Bradley Lewis

V. Bradley Lewis is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Catholic University of America and a Remick Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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