Through his highly influential Foundations of the Nineteenth Century that interpreted the history of the West as a racial struggle, the expatriate Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain provided an ideological blueprint that inspired both Kaiser Wilhelm ΙΙ and Adolf Hitler. By selectively recasting Wagner’s prose to give it a more xenophobic and racist appearance, the “prophet of race” elevated the cachet of the Bayreuth cult. Chamberlain formulated a Germanic worldview without the master’s art and ambiguities, and most surprisingly, without a role for music drama. His writings, the product of descent into the miasma of Volkisch politics—that potent and seductive stew of rural nostalgia, anti-urbanism, racism, anti-intellectualism, ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and Teutonic Christianity with an Aryan Christ—provided an ideological bridge between the Second Empire under Wilhelm ΙΙ and National Socialism of the Third Reich. They also unconsciously reveal how Chamberlain resorted to Gothic tropes and conventions, notably the demonization of the other and the doppelganger, as a mechanism for externalizing his inner tumult by projecting it onto an external enemy—the Jews—and by weaving it into a phantasmagorical history.
A transplanted Englishman whose childhood associations with his country of birth were that of humiliation and chaos, Chamberlain embraced Germany in general and Bayreuth in particular for its order, hierarchical social order and its racial and cultural community. During World War Ι, Chamberlain illustrated the sharp contrast between the two societies when he provided German readers with a retrospective view of his excitement that he experienced when he alighted for the first time on German soil in 1870. In contrast to a philistine Britain with its “chattering parliamentarians and weak-kneed ministers,” stood “heroic Germany...with (its) insuperable power of right and its knightly cadres commanded by immortal heroes.” It would be tempting to dismiss this idealized image of Germany with its disdain for the British political process as wartime propaganda, but this embellished memory does reveal something significant: an adolescent Teutonic fantasy that Chamberlain never outgrew. His life and writing illustrate the clash between external reality and internal frustration that challenges the fantasy of a heroic Germany: a young “idealistic” German by choice, burdened with a fragile constitution that rendered him sickly and prone to mental breakdowns, gained acceptance by producing a prodigious tome that provided the intellectual cachet for National Socialism by offering a stark choice between racial homogeneity and “chaos.”
A scientific career aborted by a breakdown, the heady atmosphere of Bayreuth was just the tonic that breathed new life into Chamberlain. After meeting Cosima Wagner in 1888, he fell under the enchanting spell of Bayreuth, not so much for its Wagnerian musical venue, but for the Bayreuth circle’s vision of itself as the epicentre of Germany’s potential future, one that would eliminate the present political wrangling and class struggles with a mephitic über-nationalist, racist ideology. A combination of the elitist and intolerant atmosphere of Bayreuth and living in Dresden hardened his anti-Semitism to envelop every facet of political, economic and cultural life. In the late 1880s, Chamberlain’s attitude toward Jews was revealed in a particularly vicious letter he wrote to his aunt after the death of the Anglophile liberal Kaiser Frederick ΙΙΙ. Proclaiming that only the Jews lamented his death and assailing him for his disastrous liberal policies, he focused upon the “powerful” Jews “who feed upon [Germans] and suck out—at every grade of society—their very life blood.” The vampiric image of the Jews became a stock feature of anti-Semitic hatred in Wilhelmine Germany.
|Chamberlain and Cosima Wagner|
The ideas of a reactionary fringe movement combined with the conditions in the more heterogeneous Hapsburg Empire under the stolid Franz Joseph fuelled the writings of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. The chaos that emanated from the multi-racial Empire mirrored Chamberlain’s own inner turmoil, and the rigid authoritarianism embedded in the subtext of his work paralleled his own psychic needs for a secure identity that left no room for doubt or ambiguity. In 1878, he experienced humiliation when an article in the Bayreuther Blätter opined that only a German could understand Wagnerian art because he desperately craved acceptance by a people with a culture that revered art and endorsed rigid social and political structures. He rejoined the periphery of the community when he visited Bayreuth, and that was followed by a meeting with Cosima a few years later that invited him into the Wagnerian community and facilitated his need for acceptance and security.
After his marriage to Eva Wagner in 1908 and the retirement of Cosima, Chamberlain increasingly radicalized Bayreuth into an aggressive crusading venue as its publications “became oracles of militantly nationalistic, ardently anti-democratic and viciously anti-Semitic views.” His powerful position enabled him to interpret and adjust Wagner’s writings so that later they could be reshaped to be more compatible with Nazism. His worldview was the outward expression of a psychic craving for political authoritarianism and racial exclusivity. The antithesis was chaos, which he always considered the most dangerous enemy whether it was embodied by throngs of Russians, the “soulless yellow race” or the intellectually inferior and primitive blacks, who he believed were arming themselves for a racial war.
The chaos that was projected onto the external world resided within him. Even the Jew, the Devil incarnate, personified for him that internal chaos when he recognized that “the ‘Jewish peril’ lay not in its people, but in the hearts and minds of Germans themselves, and it was here that the challenge would have to be overcome.” One of the tangled skeins of that inner turmoil was his own self-loathing and guilt. His first wife was the daughter of a converted Jew and those feelings can be decoded from “we were criminal abettors of the Jew…and we were false to that which every, lowest inhabitant of the ghetto considered sacred, the purity of inherited blood.” Although he referred to fighting a war with cannons, it was clear that the main struggle of cleansing the Jewish spirit was internal, but Chamberlain never fathomed how that soul-robbing spirit could be overcome within his being. After he became a national celebrity, he recorded two dreams about Jews, who had kidnapped and were planning to kill him; in the dreams, he experiences ineffable fear and helplessness. Because he was utterly incapable of self-reflection, he could not mine the rich vein from the dreams except the obvious manifest content, which only reinforced his feelings of impotence against the surging undercurrent of fear. It would never have occurred to him to reflect upon whether the Jews represented only an external personification of the turmoil that resided in his psyche. Instead, because his mechanism for coping with his own psychic disturbances precluded any sort of internal exploration, he attempted to contain or defend those fears by obsessively writing, ostensibly because of his conviction that he had a literary mission to fulfil. Intellectual toughness would counteract “an almost pathological human softness.” Underpinning that literary function was a powerful need to still that turbulence expressed in the dreams by re-enacting its antithesis—a Peter Pan fantasy transplanted to the realm of Siegfried—who dons the armour of a Teutonic knight waging a life and death struggle for national glory and order. Historian Roderick Stackelberg, (Idealism Debased: From Völkish Ideology to National Socialism, Kent State Press, 1981) has perceptively commented, “Neurotically addicted to purity and order, he sought to create a nation from which reformist change, social conflict, and political dissent were forever barred, a nation united in collective narcissism.” In the reincarnation of the medieval Manichean world of knights and devils, orthodox believers and dangerous heretics, there could be no alternative to a worldview that demanded unquestioning absolute loyalty to the Volk. The price for this bipolar national and global outlook was—what Chamberlain had hoped for—the eclipse of reason.
The singularity of Foundations was Chamberlain’s selective reading of history overlaid with a blend of scientific empiricism and Romantic mysticism that pandered to the worldview of Germans, particularly privileged Germans. His thesis was simple: the cross- breeding of inferior races with Aryans produced mongrelized peoples whose civilizations collapsed or suffered because of interracial breeding. This catastrophe could only be reversed by restoring the “purity of Aryan blood” through careful selective breeding. Taking his cue from German Romanticism, Chamberlain postulated that there was a Germanic religion “which bestowed infinite vistas upon the German soul,” and that it took priority over rationalism because it revealed inner truths that allowed Germans to determine the meaning of the external world. This was the kind of language that a future demagogue could seize upon to rebuke reasoned argument and empirical evidence if it clashed with his own absolute sense of destiny.
Written in the fin-de-siècle climate of Vienna against a backdrop of German fears of Slavic encirclement and the scuttlebutt of Jewish conspiracies, Chamberlain’s didactic purpose was to demonstrate that mankind could be redeemed provided that a racially conscious Germany was its saviour. With the contemporary, labyrinthine Hapsburg Empire in mind, riven by ethnic and linguistic conflicts, he fastened on the historical precedent of the collapse of the ancient Roman Empire. Centuries of miscegenation had sapped Rome of its vitality and modern “Latins,” the progeny of chaos, remained in thrall to the powerful Roman Catholic Church. The Germans had entered history as saviours when the West was on the verge of disintegration. With their own vitality, they were carriers of the best in the Greek and Roman civilizations, the former with its art and philosophy, the latter with its jurisprudence and engineering prowess.
The special German spirit that permeated Western culture could only be maintained if Germans heeded the lessons of Rome and the Hapsburg Empire with its predominance of “half-caste” Slavs. Both are a reminder that “we have not succeeded in purging our blood of all the poisons of that chaos.” Those poisons, a frequently invoked image, could only be eliminated if a saviour cleansed society of the human embodiments of chaos, ambivalence and degeneracy. These sentiments coincided with those of the young Hitler who would arrive in the ancient city of Vienna less than ten years later.
Chamberlain asserted that the historical agent of that confusion and subsequent degeneracy has been the Jew whose goal was “to put his foot upon the neck of all the nations of the world and be Lord and possessor of the whole Earth.” Before there could be any inspired breakthrough for the Aryan race, it needed to wage a pitiless struggle against the only other pure race, the Jews. Unwilling to concede that Jews comprised a religious community he steadfastly maintained that they were a dangerous and alien race that was responsible for and the beneficiary of the manifold turmoil in the world. All the pitfalls of modernity—predatory capitalism, monopoly enterprise, mobile-unearned wealth and international financial institutions—were assigned to the machinations and extraordinary power of the Jews who collectively were the Devil incarnate. Because the Jew was such a chameleon, his presence was ubiquitous: His physiognomy and form changes...like the priest in his cowl, one doesn’t recognize him; unnoticed he invades all circles. According to Chamberlain’s overwrought verbiage, the Jews would thwart any effort to save humanity. Unless preventive measures were taken “there would be in Europe only a single people of pure race, the Jews, all the rest would be...a people beyond all doubt degenerate physically, mentally and morally.
Unlike the enfeebled “half-caste” Slavs or the “Latins” who were “mongrelized Aryans,” Chamberlain and his successors imputed to the Jews an omnipotence, that possessed attributes at least as powerful as the Aryans. Their strength largely stemmed from their unwillingness to assimilate: daughters could marry outside the Israelite people but not their sons. In this construct, the racial purity of the Jews has given it a “strength and physiognomy” that inspired envy and fear, and for this reason Volkisch thinkers could not afford to ascribe the traditional prejudice when they alluded to the Jew.
Jews demonstrated moral inferiority, cultural barrenness, and lack of religious sensibility. According to Chamberlain, the blond Aryan Jesus Christ could not be Jewish because heathen non-Jewish tribes had inhabited Galilee. More importantly, Christ who exuded compassion, love and honour possessed an Aryan soul. Having stripped the Jews of any spiritual qualities, Chamberlain could herald the birth of a German-Christian religion purged of its Jewish provenance, a breakthrough promising regeneration. Without a trace of ambiguity, he served up a Manichean view of the world: a titanic conflict between the noble, godlike Aryans and the evil, destructive Jews, and elevated it to the central theme in world history “above all others a struggle for life and death.” This abiding conflict was a continuation of the adolescent fantasy of steely-eyed, Teutonic knights waging an apocalyptic war against the forces of evil. Most significantly, he believed that he was offering a panacea that could save Germany, the antidote of racial purity. Vigorous public policies that entailed inbreeding and artificial selection could only improve the blood strain. His ability to meld religion with nationalism was a potent factor in enhancing his appeal. Furthermore, because of his scientific background, he suffused familiar stereotypes with a patina of scholarship; therefore, Foundations became one of the principal texts, if not the Bible of German Volkisch racism.
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