In The Outlaws (1930), Ernst von Salomon retraces his madcap political adventure shortly after the Great War. His literary persona became emblematic of the German Conservative Revolution and the work became a prophecy for the lost generations. His lesson: nihilism can be conquered by a passion stronger than the torments of History. The outlaw thus finds his salvation in the warrior experience that precedes the elevation of the spirit.
The Outlaws opens with a quote by Franz Schauweker: “In life, blood and knowledge must agree. Then the spirit rises.” That is the entire lesson of the work, which contrasts knowledge and experience and concludes by discovering that these two opposites inevitably attract. Then a question is posed: must we let these two attractions cancel each other, striking and destroying each other, and the one who experiences them as well; or must the tension be resolved in creation and thought.
A lover distraught by a Germany in tatters, spurned by history at the twilight of the First World War in which he was too young to participate, Ernst von Salomon embodied the Revolutionary Conservative passion in action when he chose to participate within the Freikorps in order to continue the fight. But if Dominique Venner could describe this mythic epic as a nihilistic adventure, the irrational stubbornness of Salomon appeared as an authentic quest for meaning which he pursued throughout his entire journey as warrior and then militant. Despite the surrounding disarray and the lack of purpose from which some hot heads seemed to suffer, the dropout Salomon always expressed the instinct to reconquer a cherished nation. In his eyes, only revolution could return Germany’s former splendor, which he had been taught to die for.
The Troubled Revolutionary
Ernst von Salomon was just 16 years old when the armistice was signed on November 11th 1918, an age of razor sharp follies, ideas, and passions which prevent resignation. If confusion is the first feeling that the author confesses at the start of The Outlaws, hope soon follows and it’s this permanent tension between these two contrary inclinations that creates the relentless struggle between reason and life. As the life of the author, at the start of his work, seems to only sustain the pursuit of his ideal, which he doubtlessly already perceived as a mirage even though he refused to abandon it. Thus he admits: “We were ready to act under the impulse of our feelings alone; and it didn’t matter if we could prove the righteousness of our acts. The accomplishment of the act is what matters these days.” It’s not reason, it’s not ideas that guide the enamored lover of Germany, vexed by a humiliating peace, but a sentimental rage that he cannot control. Thus the revolutionary instinct arises, the essentially destructive instinct whose sole objective is to overthrow the established order, including the internal, spiritual, and moral order of the one guided by it. He challenges the world by challenging himself to test himself before pretending to know.
Movement before anything else, action from every angle appeared as the only way of salvation, the sole conviction of this frustrated generation was that nothing good could arise in the era of parliamentarianism and the ruling bourgeoisie. Maybe he doesn’t understand it yet, but what matters is the struggle against the immobility of systematic thought, whether liberal or Marxist. And if we speak of salvation, it doesn’t solely mean collective salvation through the restoration of German grandeur. War, then defeat and the conditions of the peace are morally destroyed the individual as well. So movement is the condition for the survival of everyone, a vital attempt to rediscover meaning: “In the attack we hope to find deliverance, a supreme exaltation of our forces; we hope to be firm in the conviction of being up to our destiny, we hope to feel the true values of the world in us. We march, nourished by no other certitudes than those that could be worthy for our country.” Lines that join those from Battle as an Inner Experience by Ernst Jünger and show the extent of the spirit of revenge that motivated and shaped warrior instead of soldiers, free men rather than replaceable parts.
It’s the expression of an impatient folly, a lover’s folly. Refusing immobility, ceaselessly putting oneself in peril as one questions himself, is the sign that the nationalist revolution rejects the Platonic love of an idea. Because the beloved nation has been lost, it should be conquered again, by occupying the borders, not by seducing it. Yet a moment comes where action no longer suffices to nourish hope. Exalted violence can destroy the one who endures it and the once who exercises it alike. The author avows, “We have ignited a pyre that not only burns inanimate objects, it burns our hopes, our aspirations, but also the laws of the bourgeoisie, the values of the civilized world, it burns everything, the last remnants of the vocabulary and beliefs in the things and ideas of this time, all this dusty junk that still lingered in our hearts.” The ideal annihilates, the idealist tends towards nihilism. Fate is increasingly obvious, obligating the warrior to reconsider his aspirations, or to die from having used up all that resided in his heart. In order to survive, it is necessary to project a new ideal, to cut an alternative from the tarnished banner that one brandishes without believing in it. Movement becomes an empty shell that demands only to be filled by a production of the spirit, experience is useless without knowledge. It is no longer a question of moving to survive, but of knowing how to move, towards what goal. Then, revolutionary passion, remembering that it was born from reaction, proposes an audacious conservative goal.
Intellectual and Violent: The Outpouring of the Spirit
The permanent tangle of individual and collective considerations in the work creates the perfect psychological portrait of the revolutionary, of the militant in the strict sense (ie military methods). But in the political struggle of the immediate after war era, the young Ernst von Salomon firstly revealed himself to himself, intellectual and violent, rather than advancing an idea. From the start, the political will of the author and his accomplices was at best a quest, a will to find points of reference in the fog of the surrounding crisis, more than a real inclination. But if simple reflection was not the beginning of this quest, it’s a sign that the German ideal of the nascent Conservative Revolution was not purely philosophical. It was more encompassing, more total: it’s a “worldview” (Weltanschauung), certainly impregnated with philosophy, guided by intellect, but also concretely experienced, visceral. This worldview nourishes will as much as thought and expresses itself sentimentally in lyrical, dreamlike, suggestive, or allegorical terms that defy jargon and rationalist concepts. The emblematic style of the German Conservative Revolution that we find in the prose of Ernst Jünger or Carl Schmitt aims to suggest, touch, project rather than simply expose. The outlaw that Salomon embodies is not a man of the drawing room. With him, experience comes before knowledge. The young man’s feelings precede his intellectual formation and metapolitical consciousness. It’s only through writing that he seeks the truth of eternal values in the extremes of lived experience, in order to transform experience into knowledge. Thus the work takes its meaning in order to raise it to another level, to raise it to the rank of a tool accessible to all.
Here one finds a magnificent expression of the paradox of Revolutionary Conservative thought, modern among the anti-moderns in that it proposes to turn modernity against itself, but also and especially in that it can seem to accord priority to action, the driving impulse comes from the domain of the senses, and not from the domain of ideas. What is not experienced is only bourgeois equivocation, as one of Ernst von Salomon’s comrades says about a book by Walter Rathenau – assassinated with the complicity of our author by Organization Consul- entitled In Days To Come, inspiring this terse comment: “So many sparks and so little dynamite.” Salomon himself admits to feeling shipwrecked, when he swears with spite that the considerations of high politics have made the Freikorps useful idiots in the service of foreign interests. And the will to act towards and against everything in a permanent headlong rush only seems to spare those who, like von Salomon, are capable of sublimating action into thought and extracting a little truth from it, clarifying a worldview, proposing a goal. Revolutionary folly, the irrational and anarchic impulse, channeled like so, moderated by conservative instinct, calls for a much greater wisdom and an indispensable effort of conceptualization.
But Salomon would not find this equilibrium, though he had the intuition, until his release from prison. Still too fevered, too extreme in his will to act at any price, until the crime, until a damnation that he didn’t even seem to fear. The outlaws were the outcasts thrown into the arms of the devil by the blows of history, exclusion would destroy the weakest of them, and reinforce the others in a besieged citadel. A bit before his death, more than 40 years after the publication of the Outlaws, he confessed to having really questioned the meaning of his action during his second imprisonment, after which he fully espoused the Conservative Revolutionary Movement by initiating the “revolution of the spirit,” already mentioned and presented in his work in embryonic form. Namely a task of redefining concepts, like the French encyclopédistes of the 18th century, presumed precursors of the French Revolution. But as if the tension between knowledge and experience was fundamentally insurmountable, history would confront this task, this knowledge, with the experience of politics and cause to it languish through the ideological and political deviation of National-Socialism.