Ludwig Derleth was a strange figure, a man who wore only black, carried a mask of Napoleon wherever he went, ate exclusively by himself, and refused to speak to more than one person at a time. He hovered on the fringes of successive esoteric intellectual societies in early-twentieth-century Germany, most prominently the Munich Cosmic Circle and the circle around Stefan George, before leaving the country and, after exploring a religious vocation in Rome, ultimately dying in obscurity in Switzerland.
If he is little known today, however, like many of the members of these esoteric circles his influence appears disproportionate to his memory. In his younger days—as a letter from his own pen reveals—Hans Urs von Balthasar kept a mask of Derleth on the wall of his study, and the Jesuit theologian Erich Przywara cites Derleth as an influence on his own thinking. Though Balthasar later became disenchanted with Derleth’s “integralism”, he continued begrudgingly to respect the man as the immoderate formulator of a “Genghis Khan Catholicism”.
Derleth produced only two substantial works: the “Proklamationen” (“Proclamations”), a brief series of aphoristic pronouncements urging a draconic and warlike renewal of Catholicism executed in two somewhat different editions in 1904 and 1919, and the Frankish Koran, an enormous epic stretching to thousands of pages in its final form. In this post I present some very rough translations from the 1919 edition of the former, and a pdf of the complete German text, which is not otherwise available online.
To the modern reader, the “Proklamationen” appear as a disconcerting inverted image of the liberal Catholicism that has grown to dominate much of the mainstream of Catholic practice. Derleth’s Catholicism is a Christianity composed of all those things—and only those things—that this tendency excludes. Where liberal Catholics focus only on the Gospel’s consoling words to the detriment of whatever is uncomfortable, Derleth focuses monomaniacally on the images of contradiction, division, and pitiless regimentation, making of the Church a structure of domination that demands absolute obedience to “Christus Imperator Maximus”—a strange figure, “no god of war, but war itself”, that blurs disconcertingly into the images of human world-conquerors like Napoleon and Alexander. Where liberal Catholics prize comprehensibility, Derleth writes in a language that fuses the Bible with Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, slipping at points into Latin, hyperbolically archaic, grandiose, and baroque—at times barely comprehensible—in an attempt to revive a “dark-religious” feeling of mystery.
Yet if Derleth demands total submission to Christ’s “supreme power”, it would still be a mistake to read the “Proklamationen”, as Richard Faber has done, as proto-Nazi. The objective of the boundless despotism of Christ appears as the abolition of all the worldly despotisms that can mirror it only poorly. At the same time that revolutionary politics is depicted as the surging “dark powers of Typhon”, Christ himself is made into an archetype of insurrection, the Marseillaise mingling discordantly with the Te Deum. Derleth’s cry against the politics of the masses remains fundamentally, and paradoxically, modernist—a contradiction that touches absurdity in his demand for a “Levée en masse pour l’élite”.
For the Jesuit Fr. Przywara, Derleth stood as the “black-Nietzschean” end-point of a tradition of annihilationist obedience flowing from St. Ignatius of Loyola. This is a tendency that intersects with political currents of dissidence on left and right. A good friend has highlighted the turn of the revolutionary communist Guy Lardreau towards radical Catholicism. The revolutionary function of discipline and obedience is one of the most obvious missing pieces of liberal politics, which organises itself through an atomic and aimless freedom. It finds its archetype—as leftist thinkers from Sorel to Gramsci have equally suggested—in the political form of the Church. Derleth appears as perhaps the purest and most direct distillation of this conceptual identity.
Derleth’s text is infused, however, with a sentiment of history drawing to its end—not in the apocalyptic sense of Luther, but in wearied exhaustion. The explosive language of the “Proklamationen” speaks, in this light, of an interior desperation: a search for anybody who can at last awaken in themselves the “final historical movement”. Derleth himself, of course, was frustrated in his search for an imaginary Church more despotic and more Roman than any before. Yet his continuous signals of contradiction, his relentless insistence on the most discomfiting and radical parts of the Christ narrative, are evocative—and may lead us to re-evaluate the precise function of religion and Catholicism as an impulse to new politics.