Darwin and Nietzsche were the common spiritual and intellectual source for the mean-spirited and bellicose ideological assault on progress, liberalism, and democracy that fired the late-nineteenth-century campaign to preserve or rejuvenate the traditional order. Presensitized for this retreat from modernity, prominent fin-de-siècle aesthetes, engages literati, polemical publicists, academic sociologists, and last but not least, conservative and reactionary politicians became both consumers and disseminators of the untried action-ideas.Oscar Wilde and Stefan George were perhaps most representative of the aristocratizing aesthetes whose rush into dandyism or retreat into cultural monasticism was part of the outburst against bourgeois philistinism and social levelling. Their yearning for a return to an aristocratic past and their aversion to the invasive democracy of their day were shared by Thomas Mann and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whose nostalgia for the presumably superior sensibilities of a bygone cultivated society was part of their claim to privileged social space and position in the present. Although they were all of burgher or bourgeois descent, they extolled ultra-patrician values and poses, thereby reflecting and advancing the rediscovery and reaffirmation of the merits and necessities of elitism. Theirs was not simply an aesthetic and unpolitical posture precisely because they knowingly contributed to the exaltation of societal hierarchy at a time when this exaltation was being used to do battle against both liberty and equality. At any rate, they may be said to have condoned this partisan attack by not explicitly distancing themselves from it.Maurice Barrès, Paul Bourget, and Gabriele D'Annunzio were not nearly so self-effacing. They were not only conspicuous and active militants of antidemocratic elitism, but they meant their literary works to convert the reader to their strident persuasion. Their polemical statements and their novels promoted the cult of the superior self and nation, in which the Church performed the holy sacraments. Barrès, Bourget, and D'Annunzio were purposeful practitioners of the irruptive politics of nostalgia that called for the restoration of enlightened absolutism, hierarchical society. and elite culture in the energizing fires of war.

~ Arno J. Mayer