Saturday 20 July 2013

The Godfather of National Socialism: Part Two

Houston Stewart  Chamberlain in his library
The rabid anti-Semitism in Houston Stewart Chamberlain's Foundations of the Nineteenth Century was reassuring to German readers, but it alone cannot explain its appeal. It does not account for the intense devotion of Kaiser Wilhelm who could write: “It was God who sent your book to the German people and you to me.” Emboldened by Chamberlain’s scientific and historical convictions, particularly that Christ was an Aryan the blustering Kaiser was convinced that his special destiny was the racial regeneration of his German subjects. Chamberlain nourished his paranoid fantasies, characterizing him as a man of action “like Siegfried who slew the dragon,” an image from which Wilhelm understood that “the tribe of Judah must be eradicated from German soil once and for all.” This process could be facilitated when Germany which would “rule the world” under the hierarchical direction of an absolute monarch and an aristocratic military elite. In a speech delivered at Bonn University in 1901, the Kaiser revealed how much he was intellectually indebted to Chamberlain when he stressed exclusive nationalism and racial purity. He postulated that the “essence of a nation is that it sets itself apart from the outside world.” Since “the personality of the Reich” was defined “by its particular racial characteristics, its full expression could not occur as long as Germans wasted energy in ‘cosmopolitan reveries.’”  

Prior to the outbreak of war, these forces did challenge his conception of divine right through the rise of secular ideologies, such as liberalism that placed its faith in reason, democratic institutions, and the rule of law, and socialism with its call for equality. It was therefore reassuring for Wilhelm, who subjected his family to nightly readings, to take counsel from Chamberlain’s correspondence and books, which affirmed his own innermost thoughts. Wilhelm repudiated rationalism, with its respect for scepticism, complexity and nuance, conditions that were fundamental to party politics and a democratic society. Chamberlain shared Wilhelm’s contempt for parliament as a “pigsty,” and his belief that members of the opposition with their “one-sided party political tendencies,” who refused to vote for military budget increases, “deserve to be whipped.” Chamberlain’s hostility to England mirrored Wilhelm’s own, because, from his student days, the Crown Prince had wished he could drain the “damned blood from his veins.” England, a “nation of shopkeepers,” which had never given him the respect he believed he deserved, was the “vampire of the Continent” that kept the European nations at each others' throats so that it could profit from their dissension. But a strong Teutonic race guided by a heroic warrior king, whose vision of a Germany included state of the art naval technology, would protect its citizens from two evils: a “Yankified Anglo-Saxonism and a Tartarised Slavdom.” But a re-energized Germany required the eradication of those forces unleashed by modernization that imperilled its power and privileges: liberalism and socialism, elements which resided in the centre to leftist political parties. Since Jews were prominent on the political left, it became convenient for conservatives to link modernism with anti-Semitism. As an ideological proponent for Volkish nationalism, Chamberlain cloaked the crassest prejudices in pseudo-scientific and mystical religious lineaments wrapping it with the appearance of a treatise. By arguing that political conservatism was an expression of racial superiority, he offered a seductive brew to the Kaiser, and to the military and the aristocratic elites, a message which confirmed their own antidemocratic sentiments and accounted for the book’s extraordinary appeal. More than one hundred thousand copies were sold before 1915. 

Wilhelm II
The sense of mission that motivated the Kaiser to eliminate racial impurities that threatened the Volk was expressed in a letter he wrote to Chamberlain “his comrade-in-arms and ally.” In it, he alluded not only to Jews but also to Roman Catholicism in the “struggle for Teutons against Rome, Jerusalem etc.” The anti-Catholicism in Foundations influenced evangelical Protestants to ratchet up their own traditional antipathies into a racially charged affair. The German race was trumpeted to be Protestant and “experts on cranium measurement were pleased to prove the hereditary stupidity of Papists.” The unnamed etc to be excluded were ethnic groups who were deemed inferior, such as the Polish people living in Germany and the unfit, ranging from the criminally insane, or alcoholics to the degenerate city dwellers, all who sapped German virility and war–readiness. What it meant to be German was defined in crude Darwinian tooth-and-claw rhetoric that was well-established prior to a virulent regime that matched vitriol with barbarous actions. 
At the same time, it is important to recognize that Wilhelmine Germany with its often crude and nasty prejudice and Volkish posturing—Nietzsche would have expelled the “anti-Semitic screamers” from the country—was not the institutionalized racism of Nazi Germany. The citizenship law did not revoke the emancipation of Jews by stripping them (or Poles) of their civil rights as citizens for those who already possessed it. The state permitted no pogroms against Jews and there was nothing comparable to the Dreyfus affair in France where mobs threatened to topple a civilian government. Perhaps most importantly, Jews did experience a kind of golden age, where, despite social prejudice, they did flourish in business, the arts and sciences. Given that a de facto quota system existed at Harvard in America until the Second World War, post-secondary education in Germany was relatively open to all Jews. Nonetheless, by the turn of the century, the overheated rhetoric and principal targets that convulsed the Third Reich over thirty years later were rooted in Wilhelmine Germany.   
Through his writings and influence at Bayreuth, Chamberlain contributed to this canker that created what one historian has termed “redemptive anti-Semitism,” the belief that the Jews were the source of all evil. This toxin grew out of the biological fear of racial degeneration because Jews had penetrated deeply into German politics and into the very bloodstream of German society. The only hope for German redemption was the adoption of a German-Christian religion that would anchor and inspire the struggle to the death against the Jews that would lead either to their complete expulsion or possible elimination.  

Hitler with members of the Wagner family
These ideas were grist for the overwrought mind of young Hitler. At Bayreuth in 1923, he dutifully paid his respects to the ailing Chamberlain who, after suffering a stroke, could barely talk to him. But the obsequious Hitler knew how to impress the ideological godfather of his movement, and a few days later, the old man responded by writing to him, extolling him with a fatuous panegyric. Hitler was no fanatic, he wrote later but “the awakener of souls from sleep and lethargy” who “warms the heart.” Two months later, Chamberlain published an article in which he extolled Hitler’s courage for his willingness to take urgent measures against the “pernicious, indeed the deadly influence of Jewry on the life of the German people.” Chamberlain was seriously misguided and obtuse but he astutely recognized Hitler’s capacity as ‘the great simplifier’ for utter ruthlessness. In a private communication during the previous year, Hitler admitted that if he gained power, “the annihilation of the Jews will be my first and foremost task.” Gripped by a paroxysm, Hitler ranted:

As soon as I take power, I shall have gallows erected, in Munich, for example, in the Marienplatz.…Then the Jews will be hanged one after another, and they will stay hanging until they stink. They will stay hanging as long as public health makes possible. As soon as one is untied, the next will take his place and that will continue until the last Jew in Munich is obliterated. Exactly the same thing will happen in the other cities until Germany is cleansed of the last Jew. 

Had Chamberlain been aware of these sentiments, he likely would have endorsed them. He would have also been gratified by the knowledge that when he died in 1927, Hitler attended his funeral while storm troopers served as pallbearers. Moreover, the attendance of a representative from the ex-Kaiser’s entourage allowed his funeral to occasion a symbolic link between different generations, Chamberlain’s writings having been such a seminal influence on each of their worldviews. When the National Socialists trawled German culture in search of intellectual progenitors, Chamberlain was the only writer that did not require extensive editing or distortion. Politically, the old man’s approval provided Hitler and his movement with an intellectual legitimacy they had not previously experienced.

1 comment:

  1. Prior to the outbreak of war, these forces did challenge his conception of divine right through the rise of secular ideologies, such as liberalism that placed its faith in reason, democratic institutions, and the rule of law, and socialism with its call for equality. It was therefore reassuring for Wilhelm, who subjected his family to nightly readings, to take counsel from Chamberlain’s correspondence and books, which affirmed his own innermost thoughts. JN0-348 exam questions