Friday, February 5, 2010

Karla Poewe's "New Religions and the Nazis" reviewed by Richard Steigmann-Gall (Nazis & Christians & Pagans, Part Five)

Below is Richard Steignmann-Gall's review of Karla Poewe's New Religions and the Nazis. Poewe's book first appeared in 2006, published by Routledge. Steigmann-Gall's review was posted to H-NET in May of 2007.

Published by (May 2007)

Karla Poewe. _New Religions and the Nazis_. New York: Routledge,
2006. xii + 218 pp. Table of contents. EUR 65.00 (cloth), ISBN
0-415-29024-4; EUR 18.95 (paper), ISBN 0-415-29025-2.

Reviewed for H-German by Richard Steigmann-Gall, Department of History,
Kent State University

Many a Slip Twixt Cup and Lip

This volume seeks to explore the "contribution of new religions to the
emergence of Nazi ideology in the 1920s and 1930s" (p. i). Its author,
Karla Poewe, has set for herself a prodigious goal; to demonstrate that
"leading cultural figures such as Jakob Wilhelm Hauer, Mathilde
Ludendorff" and other fringe religious figures in the Weimar Republic
"wanted to shape the cultural milieu of politics, religion, theology,
Indo-Aryan metaphysics, literature and Darwinian science into a new
genuinely German faith-based political community. Instead what emerged
was a totalitarian political regime known as National Socialism, with an
anti-Semitic worldview" (p. i). In other words, she seeks not only to
explore the milieu of pagan-Germanic "Faithlers" within the Third Reich,
a small group about whom a great deal is already known, but to
demonstrate that they _invented_ Nazism as an ideology. Elsewhere
Poewe puts this ambition more plainly: "Although the book concentrates
on [Jakob Wilhelm] Hauer, it shows more broadly how young intellectuals
and founders of new religions shaped the ideology and organizations
of an emergent National Socialist state" (p. 10). Any lingering ambiguity
as to her scholarly goal is put to rest when she contends that Hauer and
others of his ilk "not only intended to destroy 'womanish' Christianity so
that a new knowledge might emerge but they were instrumental in creating
that new knowledge. We know it as Nazism" (p. 14).

Even as the argument for taking ideology seriously in the Third Reich gains
increasing traction, the Nazi _Weltanschauung_ is conventionally deemed
far too amorphous to have its precise intellectual genealogy or antecedents
reliably traced. In this regard, scholars frequently contrast National Socialism
to Marxism, which was notable for a series of programmatic writings that
established a much more delineated set of tenets and beliefs upon which
a Marxist politics could reliably be founded. Not so Nazism, or the larger
phenomenon of fascism for that matter. _Mein Kampf_ is arguably the
closest thing to a Nazi version of _Das Kapital_ in the sense of a
foundational text, and while Alan Bullock tendency of discounting Nazi
ideology is deservedly on the wane,[1] Hitler's writing is so meandering
and uninterested in defining its terms that it defies answers to the question
of precisely where its author obtained his core beliefs. An older generation
of scholarship interested in Nazi ideology thought in terms of "proto-Nazis"
or "pre-fascists," an approach that has been problematized since its
conception. It is not for nothing, therefore, that in spite of an environment
more favorable to the ideological, no current scholarly trend considers (or
reconsiders) the "intellectual origins of Nazism."

Karla Poewe claims to find those origins. She does this by delineating, in
the first half of the book, the worldviews of Hauer and others responsible
for establishing "Deutsche Glaube," a variety of paganist thinking that
found a window of opportunity in the marketplace of Weimar culture and
attempted to take advantage of the new Third Reich to further its religious
ambitions. The second half of the book concerns itself more with
developments on the ground. Poewe seeks in this section to demonstrate
that leading members of the party subscribed to these views by teasing
out the web of associations in which this circle traveled. In this way she
attempts to demonstrate that it was not just a set of loosely-defined ideas,
but social connection that belies Hauer's status as the true locus of Nazi

Poewe's book demonstrates that Hauer was an important figure in the
paganist milieu, an individual who could periodically rely upon a few
contacts in some high places in the Nazi state. This part of the analysis,
although not particularly original, nonetheless demonstrates effectively that
Hauer could occasionally draw on some associates within the party to his
own benefit. The book also demonstrates that he clearly attempted to
position himself as a man of consequence and import in the emergent
_völkisch_ movement. More than that, ample evidence is offered, primarily
through correspondence and letters, that Hauer was a man of great
ambition, one in the middle of a loose cohort of ideologues who hoped to
bring about a cultural and political revolution. Poewe can be convincing in
her critique of others' works on this topic, most especially that of Margarete
Dierk, who published in 1986 the only political biography of Hauer, but who
was herself the product of a Nazified university system. The book's
arguments pursue a series of other scholars as well, with varying
degrees of success. In particular, the analysis is somewhat less
convincing in taking on Werner Ustorf's portrayal of Hauer as Christian
incomplete in his apostasy (p. 26). Whether or to what degree he remained
a nominal Christian can admittedly not be a very good indicator of his
inner state of mind, a point that Poewe makes effectively. But that
conclusion only raises the problem of whether Hauer's pronouncements
can be a more useful guide.

The last point is particularly germane in this case, because any author
who treats this topic has a great deal of explaining to do when it comes
to Hauer's frequently contradictory utterances. Hauer was not simply a
stereotypical, Janus-faced Nazi politician speaking out of both sides of
his mouth for the sake of expediency. The problem is much more
fundamental than that. In Poewe's analysis, two issues are most central:
first, that true antisemitism must also be anti-Christian; second, that
Hauer, as an alleged founder of Nazi ideology, was therefore both.
Unfortunately, the book's own evidence shows that he was highly
inconsistent and even contradictory, on both counts. Although the
usual rantings against the Church and Christian religion to be expected
from paganistic "Faithlers" are cited, the book also demonstrates
that Hauer still felt protective of the religion he allegedly rejected. In his
search for a new religion, he describes how "nearer [!] I came to
the person of Jesus" (p. 65). Elsewhere, Poewe's analysis itself
contends that "Hauer did not like the church because most of its clerics
were non-Christians" (p. 57). She also demonstrates that Hauer was not
consistently antisemitic. At one point, we are treated to Hauer's defense
of a Jew banned from a public lecture (p. 59). On another occasion Poewe
herself admits: "Yet Hauer did not regard himself as anti-Semitic. Nor did
all of his followers" (p. 95). Surely this is not
a simple matter of detail for someone we are told was a foundational author
of the Nazi worldview.

The ways in which Poewe's intepretations try to reconcile such
inconsistencies are rather remarkable. Regarding Hauer's
poorly-developed sense of Jew-hatred, Poewe asks: "Can one live a
lie not knowing that one is doing so? I think the answer is yes" (p. 95).
It would be hard to find a definition of historical method that can carry
the burden of such a formulation. On other occasions, the author tries to
explain away such inconsistencies by arguing that Hauer's
correspondence was intended to hide his "true" feelings when Nazism
was still just a movement, that he was not always "on the level" regarding
correspondence on his political views (p. 28). At one point she states:
"His view that German Faith should become the essence of National
Socialism ... was not openly expressed until the end of 1933" (p. 35).
If we take this argument _prima facie_, on the presumption that it was
too dangerous for Hauer to "unfurl his true colors" sooner, by what
method can we reliably determine when his "real" views are being
expressed? Poewe not only diminishes her ability to rely upon his
political and religious utterances when she claims they are "genuine,"
but also fatally undermines her main ambition of demonstrating that
Hauer helped form the basis of Nazi thinking. Not only would a "true
Nazi" uphold his views and his party membership publicly during
the Weimar Republic, neither of which Hauer did, such individuals were
also much more consistent in their basic ideological views. In her
defense, Poewe admits that her book is "not a smoothly written history"
(p. 16).

The biggest problem of all, however, is that the author simply never
demonstrates that Hauer took a hand in shaping Nazi ideology. He was
a fellow-traveler, intent on riding the coattails of Nazi success and, like
a great many "little Führers" swimming in Hitler's wake, attempting to
claim some of the glory. Proof of Hauer's place in Nazism rests far
too much on assertions made by Hauer, such as his profession that
"[t]he German Faith Movement has today become a movement that has
penetrated the whole of our _Volk_" (p. 75). Poewe excels at
demonstrating Hauer's sense of grandiosity, but her efforts to prove he
was of any real import feel contorted. For instance, she explains Hauer's
poor relations with most Nazis in the following terms: "[H]e did not like
the NSDAP because most of its followers were not National Socialists"
(p. 57). This reduces a definition of "true" National Socialism to whatever
it is Hauer felt was true. The attempt to make the NSDAP something
other than Nazi--and Hauer a "truer" exemplar of Nazism than its own
institutional incarnation--is reiterated elsewhere, as, for instance, when
explaining Hauer's late entry into the party because of its commitment
to "positive Christianity" (p. 47), even as elsewhere her own evidence
demonstrates Hauer's ambivalent attitude toward Christianity.

To demonstrate Hauer's importance to Nazism effectively, scholars would
do well to demonstrate that Hitler had read his work, or better yet made
him a part of his circle. Powe demonstrates only that Hauer wrote to Hitler,
briefly admitting that Hitler never wrote back. Instead of hard proof of
Hauer's ideological influence on the Nazi movement, the reader is offered
pseudo-syllogistic reasoning. Hauer knew Nazis like Werner Best; Werner
Best was an important Nazi; therefore, Hauer was an important Nazi.
Such an approach is untenable at a basic methodological level. Poewe
seems to anticipate the weakness of her own case by ending her book
on a much softer note than she began it: "I am not sure whether new
religions ... preserve western liberal democracies. In Weimar they did
not" (p. 174). But a demonstration that pagans did not get in the way of
Nazism is still a far cry from demonstrating they caused it. This book
shows us that they were hangers-on, intent to appear relevant but ultimately
rejected by the very forces Poewe seeks to show they invented.


[1]. See Neil Gregor, _How to Read Hitler_ (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).

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This post is part of the series on "Nazis & Christians & Pagans":
[1] Nazis and Christians and Pagans, Oh My! (Part One)
[2] Christian Nazi Quote-fest (Part Two)
[3] Fascism, Islam, and Freedom of Expression (Part Three)
[4] "Hitler was not an occultist": Mitch Horowitz is right but his sourcing is all wrong (Part Four)
[5] Karla Poewe's "New Religions and the Nazis" reviewed by Richard Steigmann-Gall (Part Five)
[6] Rosenberg, Chamberlain, Harnack (Part Six)

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