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Armin Mohler unveils history as an ever-present, enigmatic force, urging us to confront its complexity and leave our mark upon its canvas.

These remarks first appeared in German in Die Zukunft der Vergangenheit: Lebendige Geschichte, klagende Historiker, ed. Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner (Munich: Herder, 1975). This translation is from the French version, ‘Devant l’histoire: Quelques remarques non systématiques,’ trans. Paul Kornprobst, Nouvelle École, 27–8 (autumn–winter 1975), pp. 190–92.

We tend to want to say that a man who attaches a special importance to history feels ill at ease in the present, that he seeks to return in his dreams to those eras he prefers, and that he is, for these reasons, a ‘conservative.’ To denote this attitude, which is beginning to look like an epidemic, the term ‘nostalgia’ has been coined. Nostalgia is a phenomenon with many facets on which it is no simple matter to pass judgment, but it does not seem to depend upon fundamental intellectual attitudes. Some conservatives are nostalgic and some are not, while innumerable non-conservatives prove intensely nostalgic. In any case, nostalgia is not a constitutive element of conservatism, and that a man is or is not nostalgic does not permit us to say that he is or is not conservative.

1. History Is Nearby

Most misunderstandings of history are due to our considering it to be distant in time. Of course, history is not immediately perceptible, but it is part of the present nonetheless. We may conceive our relationship to it on the model of holography, introduced by Dennis Gabor in 1948. This is a novel kind of ‘photography’ which is able to capture both the contours and the obverse of an object, while our eye can perceive only its front. A man with no sense of history is like one who looks in a mirror: he sees himself as if he lies on a surface, with all the distortions and omissions that involves. To have a sense of history means not to rest content with only this dimension. And—sticking to the image we have taken for our example—to look into history means to hold a second mirror behind one’s head, or a whole system of mirrors, in order to see oneself from every side—and thereby to achieve a distance from oneself.

2. History Is Not a Classroom

The profit we take from history is generally of a moral order. We extol those examples we seek to equal. It is claimed that history helps us to avoid errors others have committed. And so on. Historians have lavishly mocked the immediately educative effects claimed for history. The successors of great men are generally few in number, but errors tiresomely proliferate. If history does have an educative effect, the least to be said is that this effect does not manifest directly.

3. History Allows for Verifiable Observation

History has the power to discipline, in that it fulfils the same function as experimentation in the natural sciences: history affords our only opportunity to make verifiable observations at the human level, just as experimentation offers at the level of nature. Observation has become easier since the philosopher has voluntarily retired to a modest position as the secretary of interdisciplinary dialogues. Logic can draw its conclusions, of course, but only in the abstract. Things that we try to distinguish within the human domain, such as ‘nature,’ ‘soul’ (Seele) and ‘mind’ (Geist), are so intimately enmeshed that logic can hardly discern them. What can I say about a thing, a person, a human event that is truly verifiable? I can say what it was, what it has become, and what changes have intervened. There may be differences of opinion regarding the details. Regarding broad outlines, consensus is possible.

4. Verifiability Is Not Everything

Whoever notes the narrow limits of verifiable observation exposes himself to the suspicion of wanting to devalue any observation that goes beyond these limits. But it would be senseless to behave in this way: this would mean that every attempt to return to the sources, every project of grand scope ought to be limited accordingly, and that the creative force in man ought to be allowed to wither. History fulfils a particular function in the sphere of human action: that is all that ‘verifiability’ means. And to call this function ‘compensatory’ would be to minimize it: for the experience of history can have two contrary and radically opposite effects.

5. In History We Experience the Complex

To say that the ‘conservative’ feels history to be an absurdity would be another of those impermissible simplifications, as in the case of nostalgia. Certain writers have used the metaphor of the ‘in-signifier’ (l’in-signifiant) to denote something that shines through every historical event: that is, the fact of experience that history always represents a surplus with respect to the interpretative frameworks our thinking tries to attribute to it. The fundamental experience according to which ‘the world is not divisible’—that is, that man’s thinking can never coincide with reality—reaches an intensity in the historical dimension that we might compare to the ‘stereo effect.’ History is a school of humility: every attempt at monocausal (or even di- or tricausal) explanation breaks against it and reminds us of the complex character of every reality. This need not worry us, still less defeat us. On the contrary: in a way that is difficult to define (and impossible to explain by rational motives), this can urge us to a stronger affirmation. By realizing how complex the world is, we experience, in a way, a second birth.

6. In History We Experience Form

‘To give a meaning to what is meaningless’ is another formula we ought to distrust. It hides a rather shallow psychology. It is true that the world has no meaning and that, since man cannot live without a meaning—alright then—he invents one for himself. But the relation we must have with history is still more essential. This ‘second birth’ does not end with the experience of the world’s complexity—it also requires our impulse to confront the complex (Benn or Motherlant would say ‘chaos’) with a form, a configuration. What moves us deeply in history is that man is always seeking, in response to precisely this experience of a complex reality, and even in the most desperate situations, to leave some trace of himself behind. Even if this is only a scratch on such a dense reality—as Malraux said somewhere with that brilliant coolness that was so natural to him.


A man of the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) would say: ‘That’s not much.’ To which we can only respond: ‘But it is.’

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Racial Civil War
Dr. Armin Mohler

Armin Mohler (1920–2003) was a Swiss historian, writer, and political theorist celebrated for his influential contributions to the conservative and New Right movements. Hailing from Basel, Switzerland, he studied history, philosophy, and literature at prestigious universities. Although his early associations raised controversy, Mohler emerged as a leading figure in the post-war conservative scene, advocating for traditional values and critiquing liberal democracy and modernity. His works, such as The Conservative Revolution in Germany, ignited essential debates on the European New Right’s significance in contemporary politics and culture.

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