Echoes of Weimar in American Cold War Politics: An Interview with Daniel Bessner

Credit: Cornell University Press

In Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell University Press, 2018), Daniel Bessner tells the story of a previously little-known German sociologist who changed the way we think about the role of intellectuals in American public policy-making. Born into a conservative Lutheran family, Hans Speier turned to Marxism during the early Weimar years. As a student of Karl Mannheim, he spent the 1920s trying to implement a social democratic version of his teacher’s political-pedagogical vision. To this end, Speier worked as a lecturer at the Hochschule für Politik, a college of worker’s education. With the rise of Nazism, Speier’s infatuation with Marxist theory, socialism, and the people waned. Democracy, after all, had put Hitler in charge. When Speier moved to America, he brought the trauma of the crisis of Weimar with him.

For Speier, this crisis was the result of excessive trust placed in an inherently untrustworthy demos. He consequently advocated expert governance as an alternative to broad-based popular rule. Calling on émigré intellectuals to actively involve themselves in American politics, Speier himself went on to occupy important positions during World War II as part of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service and the Office of War Information. He subsequently moved to the head of the newly founded Social Science Division at the Air Force-funded RAND Corporation. From there he advised the U.S. government on questions of propaganda and psychological warfare. To defend democracy against both Nazis and Soviets, Speier argued, the United States had to become more authoritarian. In this way, Speier’s story traces the rise of the American “defense intellectual” as well as the emergence of what has come to be known as the U.S. “military-intellectual complex.”

Katharina Isabel Schmidt