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The Apocalypse in Germany

The Apocalypse In Germany

The Apocalypse in Germany. Klaus Vondung with Stephen D. Ricks, trans. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000.


Apocalyptic thought is not restricted to the realm of religion but is a more general phenomenon: it is concerned with fear of, or hope for, a definite catastrophe or the end of the world. The expected catastrophe, however, is at the same time the starting point for a new world. In Western countries, we usually and appropriately see the phenomenon through the eyes of the Christian and Jewish traditions that form the background of Western visions of apocalypse. Specific for these traditions is the view that man’s salvation, in the form of a New Heaven and a New Earth, embodying true justice, will replace the current reality. But there are lots of “secular”, namely political, social, or literary variants of an expectation of a new world. Recently the neo-Marxist thinkers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri offered a version of socio-political apocalypse, imagining an ontological transformation of mankind after the “multitude” as a new revolutionary “subject” has overcome the power of the “empire”. Klaus Vondung’s monumental study, The Apocalypse in Germany, traces such visions in German history, treating them both as “Western” and more specifically in their German forms.

This book is not the first one to bring apocalyptic thought in Germany into focus. Some fifty years before its publication, the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, now one of the most famous Catholic thinkers of the 20th century, published a study entitled Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (Apocalypse of the German Spirit). This book discusses and criticizes in three extensive volumes apocalyptic expressions in modern German philosophy, theology, and poetry, from Lessing, Kant, Goethe, Hegel, Wagner and Nietzsche up to Scheler, Heidegger or Karl Barth (including also Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky as non-Germans). Balthasar understood apocalypse as an eschatological revelation whereby eschatology “can be defined as the teaching of the relationship of the soul to its eternal fate, whose achievement (fulfillment, alignment) is its apocalypse.”[1] His book finally is a theological study predicated on a Christian apocalyptic belief. Today it counts as a “classic” in this field of scholarship. Nevertheless, Vondung is convinced that Balthasar neglected crucial aspects of the phenomenon (7 n16). Here I present Vondung’s explanations and give a short critical discussion of the book, which might well be considered as a study no less “classical” in stature than Balthasar’s work.

Klaus Vondung’s book was first released in 1988 in German. It appeared in a decade in which the public sphere in Germany was shaped to a considerable extent by the idea that Western society and Western policies have come to meet a catastrophe of one or the other sort. Against the background of a diffused fear of an atomic war as a consequence of renewed nuclear armament in European countries, of a growing appreciation of an ecological crisis that would necessarily follow an irresponsible economic exploitation of the planet, and of the impression that nuclear energy finally is out of reliable human control – an experience seemingly proven by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 – “no future” was a slogan that expressed the self-understanding and feelings of several groups and organizations in German society of that time.

In the introduction of his book, Vondung specifically takes up this historical situation to outline the leading question of the study. His elucidations start with the observation that German discussions of the perceived or expected catastrophe time and again use apocalyptic images and characterize the forthcoming end time explicitly as “apocalypse” (3), a word that Vondung discovered in numerous articles and books as well as in play titles. This observation leads the author to the question of what it means “when an event, past or future, or the world situation as a whole is interpreted apocalyptically” (3). Vondung regards the apocalyptic idiom as a common Western phenomenon but claims that “the apocalyptic tone” “is sounded particularly loudly and often in Germany” (3).

The study is subdivided into four parts. The four parts comprise 24 chapters in total.

In Part One (“Approaches”, 9–64), Vondung unfolds the conceptual and theoretical principles that constitute the framework of the exhaustive interpretations that follow. Though the study focuses on modern intellectual history, particularly on German intellectual history from the late eighteenth century to date, he also asks whether the ancient religious concept of apocalypse can be applied legitimately to modern texts at all. Vondung gives a positive answer to this basic question by revealing structural equivalences and correspondences between ancient apocalyptic texts of the Jewish and the early Christian tradition (Book of Daniel, Revelation of John and others) on the one hand, and modern German literary texts on the other. Thus he extracts “a kind of typology of the elements that relates to structure, content, style, and form that are characteristic of apocalyptic texts” (13).

He regards the endeavor to develop an apocalyptic ideal type attained by an abstracting comparison of ancient and modern texts as “unhistorical” (14). Therefore, a study of various apocalyptic texts from different times and places needs additional inquiries into the specific historical circumstances that brought out the respective texts. Hence, Vondung, throughout the book, repeatedly takes a look at the historical backgrounds of the texts he deals with, clarifying thereby another important feature of apocalyptic thought: that there exist not only “typological similarities . . . between the old and new apocalyptic texts”, but also “between their respective historical contexts” (16), a claim that, despite appearances, does not contradict the fact that each historical event is unique.

The analogy of texts and historical situation–ancient and modern–points to the argument that the apocalyptic texts typically are answers to existential challenges. Vondung demonstrates that apocalyptic texts are specific interpretations of certain experiences. Seen in this light, the apocalypse is a complex of symbols signifying experiences that can be determined and characterized only by interpreting the meaning of the symbols (see for instance chapter 5, “Symbols and Experiences” (50-64), as well as pp. 69, 84, 201). From this point of view, the history of apocalyptic thought reveals an equivalence of apocalyptic symbols and correlating experiences that allows an insight into the apocalyptic mind and the human psyche more generally. In the subsequent parts of his study, Vondung pursues the path that the apocalyptic mind has taken in modern Germany by way of presenting multifaceted and nuanced interpretations of numerous apocalyptic texts.

In referring to the equivalence of symbols and experiences, Vondung takes up a concept developed by Eric Voegelin (see e.g. Voegelin’s essay “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History”, published in Volume 12 of the Collected Works) whose relevant works are occasionally quoted. Vondung, who was born in 1941, studied with Voegelin at the University of Munich in the 1960s. In the 1970s he became a professor of German studies and the study of literature. Today he is professor emeritus of the University of Siegen. Many of Vondung’s works demonstrate Voegelin’s influence, not least with respect to the topics of these works, which repeatedly draw upon Voegelinian concepts and themes. He also edited Volumes 2 and 3 of Voegelin’s Collected Works (University of Missouri Press). In contrast to Voegelin himself, as well as most of his German students, Vondung deals with his subject matters not as a political scientist but as a literary scholar.

Vondung is not only very familiar with German literary history, from which the study of the apocalypse in Germany obviously benefits immensely, but he also remains independent in his use of Voegelin’s insights, free from any pressure to represent a certain paradigm of political science. For Vondung, Voegelin’s reflections and concepts simply serve as suggestions and useful instruments for a literary analysis of apocalyptic texts. These suggestions and instruments help Vondung to develop a differentiated concept of the apocalypse.

Vondung emphasizes the dualistic character of apocalyptic thought in his examination of Biblical texts and the drama “Die Wandlung” (“Transfiguration”, published in 1917) by writer and politician Ernst Toller (1893-1939):

“Chief among the features of structure and content in the apocalypse is the clear-cut dualism that characterizes the scenario, the persons, the evaluations, and the images and symbols. The dualism that exists between the old and the new world is of a qualitative nature: the old world is deficient, full of sorrow, pain, and death, while the new is perfect, a world of happiness, joy, and life. Dualism is of a moral nature: the old world is corrupt and evil, the new pure and good. Dualism determines the structure of the action and has a temporal plane: it constitutes a ‘before’ and ‘after’ between which there is no link, but only the radical transition of ‘transformation’, the comprehensive renewal through the destruction of the old. Dualism affects persons: in the old Jewish and Christian apocalypses God or the Messiah brings about the renewal. Together with his angels and the pious who have been true to him, he represents the new world and its qualities. Representatives of the old world are the devil and the powers connected with him, the opponents of the faithful. In Toller’s drama the young man Friedrich leads despairing men to transformation. He is a messianic figure; he suffers through war and social misery like a passion, at the end of which he dies and is reborn. He thus transforms himself into the ‘New Man’, who knowingly anticipates the new world, unmasks the representatives of the old world as ‘men who bring dishonor on the name of God’, and brings about the new birth of mankind (14).”

For Vondung, “dualism determines the images and symbols” (14) of these texts. Thus, Babylon serves as symbol of the old wicked world versus the New Jerusalem as a symbol of the new world to come.

Vondung’s notion of apocalypse refers to both religious and non-religious “secular” texts and contexts, which prompts him to ask whether modern apocalyptic texts are kind of “secularized” religious texts (36–49). The question leads him to discuss the theory of secularization and to reflect on different conceptions of history. Vondung distances himself from the concept of secularization. In the light of the concept of experience, the theory of secularization may have its merits and it may not be useless, but for Vondung its significance remains limited because there seems to exist no clear cut difference between a religious and secular experience as is suggested by the concept of secularization. Vondung prefers to speak about an existential tension between deficiency and fulfillment that finds its expression in apocalyptic texts, no matter whether they belong to religious or non-religious contexts.

Varieties of Apocalypse in Germany

Above all, apocalyptic thought is concerned with history. Thus it is appropriate that Part Two of the book (65–209) addresses “The Apocalyptic View of History”. This part is divided into two sections. In the first one of these (“Structures”, chaps 5–7), Vondung presents from a more systematic point of view the apocalyptic search for meaning in history. Here he introduces the concept of an apocalyptic “inversion of beginning and end in history” (77). This means that in apocalyptic conceptions of history, the historical course of events tends to be interpreted as a “history of disaster” (76) because of the nonappearance of the awaited saving event (i.e., coming of the Messiah in the Jewish context, and the second coming of Jesus Christ in the Christian context). This disastrous history runs up to a definite end that is at the same time the beginning of the new world. Seen from this simultaneous end and beginning, all previous history becomes meaningless. What counts is the end, which is the starting point of the new world, the beginning salvation. For Vondung, this vision tends to an annihilation of history (78) (“history” in a conventional sense of the word) that might finally result in “a categorical condemnation of reality” (202) a view which Vondung, in a subsequent chapter, attributes e.g. to the communist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977).

In the second section of Part Two (“Movements”, chaps 8–13), Vondung presents nationalism and utopian communism as German apocalyptic movements on the basis of a number of interpretations of more or less political texts. His exposition of nationalism ranges from theological speculations of the 18th century (and their precursors) through to the time of the Napoleonic Wars and up to the National Socialist rule. His description of the socialist “Spirit of Utopia” concentrates on the 20th century.

Vondung’s analysis in this section refers back to his more general analysis of concepts of history in Part One of the book (120-122). Apocalyptic visions of history contrast with the Augustinian understanding of history in which the existential tension of man between deficiency and fulfillment cannot be eliminated in this world (saeculum) (40 f.). This means that fulfillment belongs to the Hereafter and cannot be made a temporal “project.” Vondung distinguishes this Augustinian vision from two alternative and originally Christian models of history: the apocalyptic viewpoint of history and another way of seeing history that he calls an economy of salvation (the text has “divine economy”, but a more accurate translation of the German “Heilsökonomie” seems to be “economy of salvation”).

Unlike the Augustinian approach, these understandings of history take a meaning of human history for granted, but they do so in different ways. For the apocalyptic viewpoint the meaning of history is marked by a fundamental break that will bring about a total transformation of human affairs or of the world as a whole, while the economy of salvation vision holds that history finally is a progressive succession of historical stages that aim at a state of fulfillment (e.g. in a “Third Realm”). The former envisages a fundamental break while the latter envisages a more evolutionary movement of history.

Many of the apocalyptic texts presented show features of both of these types. It is important for Vondung to emphasize that this is not a contradiction: both perspectives “are like two sides of a coin, . . .  one can change into the other, and . . . both sides can even join in a dialectical relationship” (121). With that said, it is no wonder that we find in the subsequent discussions mention of authors like Hegel, whose outlines of history are, as Vondung explicitly notes, not apocalyptic (110) but who in Vondung’s eyes had nevertheless an influence on apocalyptic thought in Germany. Hegel is important because of the central role that the concept of “Geist” (spirit) plays not only in his philosophy, but how typically German this idea is and how it is emblematic for German apocalyptic thought. It is the idea of spirit that inspired many of the German apocalyptic thinkers since the 19th century, and it is this idea that is to be found in more or less apocalyptic concepts like “Volksgeist” or “Geist von 1914,” as well as in the socialist utopian spirit (193) – all apocalyptic symbols that represent the coming of a new world. Vondung also shows that the “particularly ‘German’ concept” (134) of “Bildung” (education, learning) stood in closest connection to the notion of “Geist”. This explains why apocalyptic movements turned out to be Protestant middle class phenomena. The idea of “Bildung” always was a bourgeois idea so that the social basis of the apocalypse in Germany (the social field of apocalyptic consciousness) was located in the middle class (142-153).

Based on this insight, Vondung considers a variety of apocalyptic movements and thinkers, including Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Ernst Moritz Arndt, nationalist university professors, clerics, and writers who in the times of the First World War wrote enthusiastic texts about the German mission for the realization of a new world, and 20th century socialist writers and activists like Johannes R. Becher, Gustav Landauer, Kurt Hiller, Bloch and many others. What for Vondung makes the German concept of spirit an apocalyptic symbol is not least that spirit was more and more seen as an independent mover of history, a force that realizes a historical mission or plan. This notion of “Geist” was one of a reified entity that stood for an unavoidable historical fate (194).

However, National Socialism is not related to “Geist,” which Vondung discusses in chapter 12. National Socialism undoubtedly was an apocalyptic movement in the succession of apocalyptic nationalism, but the role that spirit played for nationalism now was replaced by the idea of race (169). Though in 1930s Germany the formula of “German spirit” was still in use, in the National Socialist context it became “an empty formula that had lost every rational connection to reality” (180).

Aesthetics of Apocalypse

Vondung continues his interpretations in Part Three of the book (211–360), which concentrates on the “Aesthetics of the Apocalypse.” He follows the traces that apocalyptic thought left behind in artistic, and mainly literary creations. In the first of two sections of Part Three, Vondung discusses aesthetic “Forms” of apocalyptic thought, addressing in separate chapters apocalyptic images, style, and rhetoric. Apocalyptic images reflect the dualistic character of apocalypse. We find images of “darkness and light, sleep and wakefulness, fading and blooming, rigidity and movement, glowing fires and embers, death and birth” (225). Vondung presents numerous examples of such dualisms from antiquity (217–219) and modern times, thus once again confirming the equivalences between the ancient and modern apocalyptic thought.

Vondung examines poems written by expressionists like Georg Heym (1887-1912), Alfred Lichtenstein (1889-1914), as well as writings of contemporary German authors like Matthias Horx (born 1955), and considers them as analogies and variations in the imagery of the apocalypse in Germany. Another equivalence comes to the fore with a view to the dramatic form of apocalyptic texts. Vondung demonstrates how these texts, though not dramas, show “a tendency to dramatic style” (241), a style Vondung even detects in a text like Karl Marx’s “Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Law” (241–244).

From the observations concerning the dramatic style of apocalyptic texts it is just a small step to an analysis of the rhetorical character of these texts (256–274). Vondung is in the first place not so much interested in the rhetorical figures in a technical sense that can be found in apocalyptic texts but in the practical intentions that underlie these texts. He claims that apocalyptic texts now and again aim at consolation. That is the case particularly with the ancient Jewish and Christian texts (262-265), which appeal to an audience or reading public that is not “master of the situation,” but victim of alien powers. But modern apocalyptic texts seem to have motivational and legitimizing effects in mind. These “activist” texts can be understood as fomenting texts, and Vondung invokes examples of German war poetry and speeches from the times of the Napoleonic Wars (Arndt, Fichte) as well as from the First World War (273).

Representations of Apocalypse

Against the background of the interpretations in the first section of Part Three, Vondung discusses “Representations” of apocalyptic aesthetics in the second section. Here he focuses on apocalyptic authors and artists of the fin de siècle, the expressionist movement, the avant-garde, Dadaism, and other tendencies, and points at their being fascinated by “brutality and gruesomeness,” by “death and destruction” (296), a fascination that contrasts with the apocalyptic vision of the “New Man”. Vondung correlates all the artistic expressions in question, from Richard Wagner, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Alfred Kubin, Hermann Bahr, Gustav Sack, Kurt Pinthus, Gottfried Benn, Ernst Jünger etc., to the specific historical circumstances in the time before and after World War I.

After all the examples of visions of doom and violence from the period before the Great War, it is in a way surprising that Vondung arrives at the result that many of the artists who imagined the coming end of mankind before 1914 did not wish for a real war (292) even though they anticipated it. This demonstrates the paradoxical contact with reality that seems to be idiosyncratic of all the apocalyptic utterances. It is thereby not surprising that after the experiences of the massacres and destruction brought by the Great War, the apocalyptic energies in Germany were by no means exhausted. Vondung demonstrates this in particular with the examples of Johannes R. Becher and Ernst Jünger (with reference to Jünger’s book Der Arbeiter, published in 1932), both representatives of the collectivist apocalyptic visions of the interwar period, one from the political left, one from the political right (308-320).

Apocalypse Since World War Two

After the Second World War, the apocalyptic mind was alive as well, which Vondung demonstrates in the last two chapters of his book (chaps 23 and 24). These chapters constitute Part Four of the book (”The Existential Apocalypse”, 361–417). Chapter 22 focuses on the apocalyptic “rebellion against the boundaries of human existence, especially against death” (370), illustrated by recourses to biblical as well as modern examples. In this systematic chapter, Vondung compares apocalyptic thought to Gnosis and Gnosticism, showing similarities and differences of the concepts (372–374) and thus once more specifying the notion of apocalypse.

After that the author addresses post-World War II apocalyptic activism, not least by means of the example of German left-wing terrorism of the 1970’s. Vondung here gives a concise description of the existential apocalypse of the leaders of the “Red Army Fraction” (“Rote Armee Fraktion,” RAF) terrorists, and states that this is a common element between Nazism and the RAF (391). Finally, Vondung unveils apocalyptic aspects of visions of an atomic war. By reaching this conclusion, Vondung returns to the starting-point of his book, the political and spiritual crisis of the 1980s that prompted his investigation into apocalyptic visions. The apocalyptic fear of an atomic catastrophe reinforces Vondung’s earlier observation that after World War II the apocalypse in Germany assumed time and again the character of a “negative Utopia” (343). Vondung completes his discussion of the visions of a nuclear end of the world by a look at the apocalyptic ideas of German postmodernists who for Vondung represent a “desire for ‘disrealization’ (Entrealisierung)” (410).

At the end of his thorough examination of the apocalypse in Germany, Vondung recalls his distinction between three views of history, the apocalyptic and progressive on the one side, and the Augustinian view on the other side, for an answer to a self-imposed question: Where do we stand? (414). And his answer to that question is definite: it is an Augustinian answer that calls for resistance to apocalyptic and progressive dreams. It is worth quoting some of the last sentences of the book in full:

“It is true that history is an open process and, as a whole, not an object of experience; whether it has a meaning as a whole thus remains concealed to us, who ourselves are a part of this process. But there are experiences of meaning in history that illuminate the process of reality from within. It is true that the history of mankind is, like our own lives, moving from a beginning to an end; this movement is structured by the tension between deficiency and fulfillment, and to it belongs the urge to transcend it and to imagine a condition of complete fulfillment. But this condition is reached neither by regression to the ‘first’ nor by the forced leap to the ‘last’. As long as we are in motion between beginning and end, there are experiences of plenitude only in the ‘middle’, as ‘miracles’ of the present moment . . . . This moment of fulfillment is not the apocalyptic moment, in which time is destroyed forever, since it remains harnessed between the first and the last. There is a ‘middle’ only between the beginning and the end (416).”


Vondung’s book offers a fascinating insight into the provinces of the German mind. And there can be little doubt that his interpretations by and large are convincing. Particularly fruitful seem to be his conceptual considerations, the subtle distinctions in the notion of apocalypse, and the comparison with other concepts like “Millenarianism,” “Utopia” or “Gnosis.” Vondung’s definitive work can undoubtedly be used as tool for the interpretation of texts from other cultural contexts. Especially noteworthy is Vondung’s care with respect to the practical dimension of apocalyptic thought, including its practical effects. With the exception of his interpretation of German post war left-wing terrorism, he does not suggest that the apocalyptic visions were causal for this or that action or policy in Germany. In other words: the apocalyptic mind does not explain certain actions, and apocalyptic utterances are not presented as causes for this or that policy.

On the contrary, Vondung occasionally points at the ineffectiveness of apocalyptical constructions in developing practical political policy (151–153, 166). But at the same time this raises the question of the practical character of literary productions and leaves unresolved the relation between apocalyptic texts on one side and decisions or deeds in the case of those writers who have also been political actors (like Gustav Landauer or Joseph Goebbels) on the other side. But these questions lead into the field of psychology, which is not the field in which Vondung is working.

Of course, a demanding and comprehensive study like this one opens a lot of opportunities for critique, be it in principle or in detail. Given the compelling evidence of Vondung’s reflections, every objection would have to present profound arguments. It is not the place here to present detailed critical considerations but it may be appropriate to make some short critical remarks.

Vondung’s readings of Hegel seem to be particularly problematic. This has to be emphasized precisely because Hegel again and again is presented as a thinker who is mainly responsible for aberrations in German intellectual history since the 19th century. Contrary to the image of Hegel propagated by scholars like Karl R. Popper and Eric Voegelin, it has to be recalled that Hegel’s concept of “Geist” surely does not claim spirit as an obscure reified entity. Even a cursory reading of the relevant texts shows that “Geist” for Hegel finally is a product of meaningful interaction and cannot be abstracted from human activity. Furthermore, Hegel’s “Germanic Empire” (110) is in no way identical with the German national state (see 116–118). The Deutsches Reich was founded forty years after Hegel’s death, and whatever subsequent Hegelians (especially so called “Right Hegelians” or “Bismarck Hegelians” like Adolf Lasson) may have constructed, Hegel cannot be made responsible for every statement of them. Besides, Hegel never spoke of an “end point of a well-ordered historical process” (115), contrary to the myths about his philosophy of history. And finally, it may be mentioned that Hegel (despite the recent study of Leonard Wheat) never expounded his understanding of dialectic with recourse to a “dialectic triad” of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

Another more fundamental question about Vondung’s study concerns his central thesis that apocalyptic thought was a distinct part of German intellectual history (and still is a specifically German phenomenon), although he explicitly states, “Germans do not possess a monopoly on an apocalyptic worldview” (6). The thesis shall not be questioned categorically because he provides evidence for it. But it would be more convincing if Vondung would have had presented, at least in a short chapter, some comparative materials and interpretations. In omitting doing so, the thesis retains a somewhat apodictic character. Vondung’s point of view here reveals an affinity to the thesis of a German “Sonderweg” (“separate path”) in Western history. This thesis, once popular in historical scholarship, repeatedly came under attack in recent times. Seen in this light, one could also question Vondung’s position concerning the exceptional role of apocalyptic thought in Germany (as contrasted with other countries).

The English translation of Vondung’s book was published in 2000. Compared to the time of its original publication, the world had changed a lot, so that the question may arise whether the author should have revised one or the other passage of the book, or incorporated new materials and references (e.g. Islamist terrorism, Hardt and Negri). Actually, the translation differs from the original only in very view sentences in the Introduction. But whatever the reasons for not revising the book, there can be no doubt that there was (and still is) no need for changes in the substantial arguments or in the selection of texts which Vondung interprets. The book remains an impressive and outstanding study on the concept of apocalypse and of German intellectual history that is of interest not only to those concerned with German history and literature but to all those who want to learn about the knotty and sometimes weird history of Western thought, in which apocalyptic thinking played its part.



[1](vol. I, 4; translation by Henry Karlson, this sentence from Balthasar’s book is to be found in Karlson’s useful “brief examination” of the book at [19th Feb. 2014]).


Excerpt of the book is available in two parts: part one and part two.

Michael Henkel

Michael Henkel is a Political Scientist and Lecturer at the Catholic University Freiburg in Germany. He is author of Praxis und Politik - Michael Oakeshott im Dialog (Mohr Siebeck, 2013).

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