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Max Weber Diagnosed His Time and Ours

A Political Ethic for a Disenchanted Era

At the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, June 28, 1919 ARCHIVIO GBB / CONTRASTO / REDUX

In early 1919, Germany risked becoming a failed state. Total war had morphed into a civil war that pitted revolutionaries against reactionaries, internationalists against nationalists, and civilians against soldiers. Munich was the bloodiest arena: over a few short months, the city was ruled by a Bavarian king, a socialist prime minister, and a Soviet republic. The first was overthrown, the second murdered, and supporters of the third slaughtered. “Everything is wretched, and everything is bloody,” Victor Klemperer, a professor at the University of Munich, wrote in his diary, “and you always want to laugh and cry at once.”

These events framed the much-anticipated lecture “Politics as a Vocation” that Klemperer’s colleague Max Weber gave that same year. One hundred years later, there are few better texts to serve as a guide for the increasingly wretched and violent events now unfolding in our own time and place. In particular, Weber’s discussion of the charismatic politician, as well as his distinction between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility, has perhaps even greater relevance in our own era than in his. 

A CREATIVE REVOLUTIONARY FORCE

When Weber arrived in Munich in 1918, he was known as “the myth of Heidelberg.” He had earned the moniker at the famed medieval university where, several years earlier, his promising teaching career abruptly ended when he suffered a nervous breakdown. As he slowly recovered, Weber returned to his research in law and history, shaping his path-breaking works The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Economy and Society. His professional rigor and personal rectitude deeply impressed both friends and critics. The economist Joseph Schumpeter marveled over Weber’s “profound influence”; the existential philosopher Karl Jaspers found in Weber “a man who devoted his thought to everything in the reach of human experience”; and the sociologist Robert Michels announced that Weber was “the up-and-coming man of Germany, the savior in its hour of need.”

That hour of need tolled in 1914. Fifty years old at the outbreak of war, Weber

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