AEven those who have not read Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov often know the parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which the enlightened and atheistic Ivan tells his pious brother Alyosha. It is set in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. As the pyres burn, a figure walks through the marketplace, healing a blind man and bringing a child to life. It quickly becomes clear that this is about the returned Christ. When the Grand Inquisitor heard of this, he had him arrested as a heretic. On the evening before Christ is to be executed, the Grand Inquisitor comes to his cell for interrogation. The Grand Inquisitor wants to know why he came and disturbed the order that the church had established. And reveals to him the secret of her power: she is no longer in league with him, Christ, but with the devil. “The whole misfortune of Europe stems from that,” Helmut Lethen quotes in “The Summer of the Grand Inquisitor” from a letter by Dostoyevsky from 1870 that the “Roman Church lost Christ and then decided to get by without Christ.”
Lethen’s book traces the parable’s afterlife through twentieth-century thought and literature, through the experiences of violence and loss of meaning that marked the era. He spent two summers reading the Russian classics and The Great Depressives, with Dostoyevsky, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Michel Houellebecq. And yet, as he states right at the beginning, the result is “not a fatalistic book”. This is mainly due to the calm distance that Lethen not only maintains towards some of the authors whom he has dealt with over and over again throughout his intellectual life, but also with which he incorporates his own memories and experiences into his writing. Even if the subtitle suggests something else: The book does not consistently offer a fascination story of evil. Rather, it is about the fascination with the great ideological struggles that roiled the past century.
The prelude leads into the fin de siècle period, in which the Grand Inquisitor passage found its “first resonance space” and, under the impression of religious and social crises, became an instrument for diagnosing modernity. As early as 1881, a year after the novel was published, the legend was translated into English by the occultist writer Helena Blavatsky and published in the Journal of the Theosophical Society. In German, Lethen counts no fewer than thirty separate editions between 1914 and 1964. Especially in the course of this half-century, the parable has been read as what is at the center of his interest for Lethen: as a “rule of rule” dedicated to the “justification of violent architecture”.
Lethen starts with Max Weber’s speech “Politics as a profession”, with which he addressed the impression of the Munich Soviet Republic in January 1919 with the distinction between ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility “against the moral passion of the insurgents” and before the well-meaning attitude turned into violence warns. Weber’s insight that “whoever gets involved with politics, that is, with power and violence as means, makes a pact with diabolical powers” is the matrix along which Lethen’s differentiated considerations unfold. In Georg Lukács he finds traces of an “ethics of goodness” based on Dostoyevsky, while Helmuth Plessner defines the “dirty line” of politics on the edge of moral scruples in the “Limits of Community” with the Grand Inquisitor.