Peter Viereck, Poet and Conservative

Peter Viereck, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet whose main calling was history and the teaching of it (at Mount Holyoke), is often linked with the conservative movement in 20th century American politics.

Here is an excerpt from an obituary in the Guardian in 2006–in which the writer, Geoffrey Hodgson, notes that not all American conservatives thought Viereck was a conservative:

Peter Viereck, who has died aged 89, was one of the very few American writers – perhaps the only one -to win Pulitzer prizes for both history and poetry. He taught history, and in particular Russian history, for almost 40 years at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. In later years he poured forth long, complex poems that grappled with the largest metaphysical questions.

His greatest achievement, however, was written when he was just 25 years old, and originally titled Metapolitics: From the German Romantics to Hitler (1941). In it he traced the origins of Nazi thought to the German romanticism of Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche and beyond. He uncovered anti-Semitism, state-worship, and the romantic cult of the folksoul not only in obscure 19th-century wild men such as Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and Julius Langbehn, and in crazy toadies to Adolf Hitler such as Alfred Rosenberg, but also in figures such as Wagner, Nietzsche and Stefan George. But he also pointed out that even those romantic intellectuals – including Wagner, Nietzsche and George – tempted by extreme nationalism ended by rejecting it.

Viereck was hailed as one of modern American conservatism’s founders – though not by many conservatives. In 2005, a contributor to the arch-conservative magazine National Review pointed out indignantly that Viereck denounced Senator Joe McCarthy – the 1950s red-baiter – and voted for the 1952 and 1956 Democrat presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, both, to true conservatives, marks of a dangerous liberal tendency.

Yet Viereck’s Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Revolt (1949), was a pioneering work. Viereck claimed as his heroes such then unfashionable role models as Edmund Burke, Walter Bagehot and Prince Metternich, and proposed a moderate conservatism as a safe road between fascism and communism.

As a recent article on Salon.com [March 11, 2010, author Mike Madden], Fox’s Glenn Beck is, like the National Review in its remarks on Viereck, fond of Joseph McCarthy (and seemingly not fond of people who object[ed] to JM):

“It was Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy, who shined the spotlight on the Communist Party again,” Beck said rhapsodically. “McCarthy later led a Senate committee investigation into inefficiencies in the government. Critics accused him of falsely identifying Communists, and smearing their names.” Those pesky critics! Beck then brought up, for some reason, the Cold War “domino theory,” that if one nation went Communist, so would its neighbors. “Kind of feels like that now, doesn’t it?” he asked.

What a fascinating deployment of the word “inefficiencies”; McCarthy was just investigating inefficiencies when he was asking about fellow-travelers. Who knew?

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One Response to “Peter Viereck, Poet and Conservative”

  1. Quotations From Peter Viereck « Politics and Language Says:

    […] From Peter Viereck March 31, 2010 — O. In a recent post, we briefly discussed Peter […]


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