The Anarcho-Authoritarian H.L. Mencken

For anyone familiar with the antics of America’s critics during the latter parts of the Cold War and after 9/11, it will come as little surprise that H.L. Mencken (recently dubbed “the premier social critic of the first half of the 20th century” by the New York Times) bet on the other side during World War I, as Fred Siegel writes in The Weekly Standard:


During the course of the war he was censored by the Sunpapers, but wrote three revealing articles for the Atlantic. The first, “The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet,” celebrated Nietzsche as the inspiration for the new Germany, which was “contemptuous of weakness.” Germany, as he admired it, was a “hard” nation with no patience for politics because it was governed by the superior men of its “superbly efficient ruling caste.” “Germany,” he concluded, “becomes Nietzsche; Nietzsche becomes Germany.” Mencken approvingly quotes Nietzsche to the effect that “the weak and the botched must perish. . . . I tell you that a good war hallows every cause.”

The second Atlantic article, based on Mencken’s own reporting from the Eastern front in 1917, was a piece of hero worship that exalted General Erich Ludendorff as Germany’s “national messiah.” Mencken treasured the kaiser, but he thought Ludendorff was worth “40 Kaisers,” and was the man to lead German Kultur in its total war against Anglo-Saxon civilization. According to Mencken, the general’s greatness was to be found in the way that he had stamped out people’s individuality so that “the whole energy of the German people [could] be concentrated on the war.”

The third, and most intriguing, essay–“After Germany’s Conquest of the United States”–talked about the benefits to America of being ruled by the hard men of a superior Kultur. Known only because of the exchange of letters between Mencken and the editor of the Atlantic, the article was withdrawn and never published. Interestingly, despite Mencken’s extraordinary efforts to document his own life, the manuscript, according to Vincent Fitzpatrick, curator of the Mencken collection, cannot be found. Mencken’s reputation, it seems, was saved by wartime self-censorship–in Boston, home of the Atlantic.

Mencken had genuine cause for bitterness during World War I, when the excesses of zealous Americanism left him fearful for the safety of his family. But neither Rodgers nor his other biographers have noted the context of that hostility. While Mencken was touting the genius of Teutonic militarism, German saboteurs blew up the munitions depot at Black Tom Island off Manhattan. That strike, until 9/11 the most violent action by a hostile force in the history of the city of New York, caused $40 million of damage, sinking the island and its contents into the sea. The Kaiser’s plans to invade America might never have come off, but Germany plotted to bring Mexico into the war against the United States.

The Sage of Baltimore needs to be placed in a broader intellectual context. The man who is still selectively celebrated by people like Rodgers, as if he were nothing more or less than an American iconoclast, was one of a number of anti democratic thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of them, like D.H. Lawrence, were proto-fascists; others, like H.G. Wells, were apologists for Stalin. But they all denounced democracy in the name of vitalism, eugenics, and a caste system run by an elite of superior men.

Part of the reason it’s so hard to make sense of Mencken is that he was, paradoxically, an anarcho-authoritarian. He agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union on the importance of free speech. But while that organization, under the influence of principled men such as Felix Frankfurter, argued for such freedoms on the grounds that “a marketplace of ideas” (to use Justice Holmes’s term) was the best method of arriving at the truth, Mencken supported it in order to shield superior men like himself from being hobbled by the little people. For the same reason, Mencken was a near anarchist when it came to America, but an authoritarian when it came to the iron rule of the Kaiser and General Ludendorff. We are more familiar with anarcho-Stalinists such as William Kunstler, who had a parallel attitude toward the United States and the Soviet empire, but it was Mencken who blazed the trail down which Kunstler and his ilk would travel.


Read the whole thing.

(Via Clive Davis.)

Update: Sissy Willis looks at modern-day anarcho-authoritarians in action.

Another Update: Liberty Corner has some thoughts about Siegel’s “Anarcho-Authoritarian” phrase.


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