On Gottlob Frege’s völkisch Political Theology

Frege (1848-1925) as been called ‘the undisputed father of analytic philosophy’ and ‘the most important logician since Aristotle.’ Even if his impact on philosophy were to extend no further than his decisive influence on leading early 20th-century thinkers of the stature of Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap, that alone would assure him a notable place in the history of modern philosophy. But his elucidation of the distinction between sense (Sinn) and reference (Bedeutung), his pioneering, albeit ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reduce arithmetic to logic, and his decisive contribution to the emergence of quantificational logic, among numerous other innovations, elevate him to the highest level of importance in the history of the discipline.

Unfortunately, he was also a Far-Right extremist, committed to eliminationist antisemitism and the destruction of the constitution of the Weimar Republic, and a supporter of the fascist political party, the DVFP, which was then locked in a formal alliance with Hitler’s NSDAP (Nazis). In a paper just published in the journal, Politics, Religion, & Ideology, I develop a detailed critical analysis of one aspect of Frege’s Far-Right thought: his late interest in nationalist political theology. The full text is here (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21567689.2022.2091548), but the following brief excerpt indicates the core of the argument.

“In this paper, I attempt to show that Frege’s interest in theology was rooted not so much in conventionally spiritual concerns as in the decidedly innerweltlich desire to help turn the tide in German politics in favor of the ultranationalist Far Right. His theology was, I claim, a political theology of völkisch, antisemitic, and anti-socialist nationalism.

“The core of the völkisch political theology developed by Frege in the early 1920s can be reconstructed as a cluster of three complex ideas, to each of which I devote a section in what follows. Frege’s first idea (Section I) was that, reeling from its defeat in the First World War and subject to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, German society stood in dire need of a ‘statesman’ or great leader, described by Frege in messianic-eschatological terms, as a saviour-figure to come, who would ‘sweep away the people’ and lead the nation toward ‘deliverance’ in the context of an anticipated confrontation in which the forces of good would defeat the forces of evil. Frege’s second idea (Section II) was that, because the (völkisch-nationalist) statesman’s appeal to national unity and the nobility of self-sacrifice was at a disadvantage when trying to compete with the appeal of the (Social-Democratic) ‘demagogue’ to class antagonism and the ‘wretched’ motive of economic gain, it was the theologian’s duty to support the statesman against the demagogue by championing the ideal of self-sacrifice for the unity and welfare of the Volk against the corrupting lure of self-interest. Finally, his third complex idea (Section III) was that, in contrast to the directly political advocacy pursued by the Christian-Social theologians, like Adolf Stoecker, who Frege accused of conflating religious duties with legal obligations in a way that was insensitive to the specificity of politics in contrast to religion, it would be clarifying to take the prototype of noble self-sacrifice in Christian messianic eschatology, Jesus of Nazareth, and retell his life story as a vindication of ‘the noble side’ of humanity, in order thereby to encourage modern Germans, especially workers, to reject the appeals to self- interest and class antagonism put forward by Social Democracy. From these three complicated ideas, Frege’s core project in political theology took shape. His project – never carried out, but sketched by him a year before his death in 1925 – was to use the life of Jesus narrative, understood in messianic-eschatological terms, to promote popular appreciation of the nobility of self-sacrifice for the good of the nation (that is, the ethnic-German ‘Volk,’ not the country of Germany per se), and in this way to lend support to the emergence of an anticipated völkisch-nationalist great leader against the (supposedly) demagogic appeals to class antagonism that were typical of what he considered to be the ‘cancer’ of Social Democracy in the early Weimar Republic.

“….In the end, we cannot but be appalled by [Frege’s] most basic moral and political commitments: his intense antisemitism, his hostility to equality and democracy, and his embrace of the extremist militancy of the Weimar-era German Far Right. Equally appalling is his complicity with and affiliation to what was at that time an all-too-widely embraced project in political theology: to offer up to the Far Right the possibility it craved of advertising its aims as consistent with the moral and religious responsibilities of individual Germans and the religious communities to which they belonged.”