Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Not-So-Occult Foundations of Nazism


The Latin verb occultare (occulto, -are, -avi, -atum) means to conceal or hide. In English, "the Occult" refers to spiritual teachings and practices that are (at least in their details) concealed from public view and only available to the initiated, that is, teachings that are esoteric as opposed to exoteric. In popular usage, references to Occultism conjure up in the mind things mysterious and unexplainable, and, most importantly, things that are different from our ordinary experience of reality. Occult things, in the popular sense, are not normal, rather they are aberrational.

It seems that there is something comforting in the idea that the Nazis came to power with the aid of "Occult" forces, and/or that the racist and antisemitic ideas at the core of Nazism arose from small, secretive Occult groups lurking on the fringes of society. This reassures us that Nazism was just a terrible aberration appearing suddenly out of nowhere, or, more precisely, that the origins of this aberration were themselves also aberrational. (Why, look, it's aberrations all the way down!) The appeal of this comforting explanation has led to the great popularity of books, articles, websites, and made-for-cable schlockumentaries on the subjects of "Nazi Occultism", "Nazi Pagans" and so forth.

The problem is that, like many comforting explanations, this is a lie. There was nothing hidden or secret or "Occult" (or Pagan) about the roots of Nazism. Virulently racist and antisemitic ideas were extremely popular in mainstream German society (and throughout Europe and also in the United States) long before the Nazi party ever existed, and these ideas were expressed openly and, indeed, proudly. No secret cults were needed for formulating the racial theories that paved the way for the Final Solution, nor was there anything "esoteric" about how these ideas were spread, or how those who supported these ideas came to power.

The non-occult origins of Nazism are personified in the man who was hailed by the Nazi's themselves as the author of their "gospel": Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Not only was Chamberlain lauded in the official Nazi press and even in Hitler's own Mein Kampf, he had also been a friend and trusted advisor to the leader of the Second Reich, Kaiser Wilhelm II. And the book that the Nazis embraced as their "gospel" also won high praise from less likely fans, such as Theodore Roosevelt and George Bernard Shaw.

Chamberlain's "Foundations"

In the year 1900, Houston Stewart Chamberlain published Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. The book was an instant best-seller, and it's previously little known author became an overnight sensation.

Although an Englishman by birth (b. 1855 in Portsmouth), Chamberlain spent most of his life on the Continent. His earliest published works (on both biology and literature) were in French, but starting in 1888 he published mostly in German, the language in which he wrote Die Grundlagen des Neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (which was only translated into Chamberlain's native language a full decade later).

Chamberlain was a true polymath who studied botany, history, astronomy, physiology, languages, literature, music and philosophy with equal ease and enthusiasm. He was strongly influenced by Kant, Wagner, and Nietzsche, but it was the racialist theorizing of French aristocrat Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (author of An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, first published in 1853) that was to play the decisive role in shaping Chamberlain's own thinking. Although Gobineau is also considered an important figure in the intellectual genealogy of Nazism in his own right, he never achieved the level of popular success and influence that Chamberlain did, and Gobineau's racism was deficient in one crucial way: he was not an antisemite.

I will say more about the actual content of Foundations below (especially in the section on "Key Ideas of Nazism"). For now it is important to emphasize the great success and acclaim of the book. It went through numerous printings and sold 60,000 copies in the first 10 years after it was published. It was translated into English in 1910 and was favorably reviewed in a number of publications, including the London Times Literary Supplement, in which Chamberlain was hailed as "Kant in the 20th Century", and the anonymous reviewer stated that "we wholly believe that Mr. Chamberlain has the root of the matter in him."

An early fan of Chamberlain's Foundations was the Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm was so impressed with the book that he invited the author to meet with him privately at his palace in Potsdam in 1901. That first meeting was the beginning of a lasting and close friendship between the two men. The Kaiser declared to Chamberlain: "God sent your book to the German people, just as he sent you personally to me." The author was no less profuse in praising his Emperor: "May you save our German Volk, our Germanentum, for God has sent you as our helper!" Chamberlain urged the Kaiser to forge a renewed Germany that was "racially aware" and that would "rule the world." The two exchanged dozens of letters, and material from Chamberlain's letters often ended up in the Kaiser's speeches.

For many years after WWII historians had been (not merely woefully, but willfully, it now appears) ignorant of the depth and breadth of Kaiser Wilhelm's antisemitism. This started to change only in 1987 (over four decades after the fall of the Third Reich) with the publication of John C. G. Röhl's book-length study The Kaiser and his Court, in which Röhl devotes the concluding chapter to the subject of "Kaiser Wilhelm II and German Anti-Semitism." But today there continues to be little appreciation of just how significant a role Wilhelmenian antisemitism played in preparing the way for the Final Solution.

Wilhelmenian Racism and Antisemitism

As early as 1888, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II was already referring to the doctors attending his father, who would soon be dead of throat cancer, as judenlümmel, a standard antisemitic slur meaning "Jewish louts". Moreover, Wilhelm suspected these Jewish doctors of "racial hatred" ("Rassenhaß") against Germans. [link, auf Deutsch] This means that a year before Adolf Hitler was born, the man who was about to become Kaiser was not only already giving voice to paranoid accusations of Jewish plots against the German Reich, but was articulating his antisemitism in explicitly racial terms.

John C. G. Röhl writes, in his The Kaiser & His Court: "When Wilhelm acceded to the throne in 1888, anti-semites from Paris to Vienna crowed: 'All those who are truly Christian-German are devoted with their entire soul to Kaiser Wilhelm II and cheer him along the paths that he has chosen to go.'" According to Röhl, the infamous Austrian antisemite Georg Ritter von Schönerer was especially adulatory toward Wilhelm: "Germans had only one hope of salvation from the Jewish yoke, he [von Schönerer ] declared, and that hope was Kaiser Wilhelm II." [p. 202]

Röhl also writes: "By the mid-1890s, Kaiser Wilhelm II had adopted a thoroughgoing racism as a central element of his Weltanshauung and lost no chance of proclaiming the need for a pure and exclusive Germanic race." But Wilhelm was a little unsure about just where to focus his racism. In this, however, Wilhelm was displaying a common trait of racists, who often have long lists of "enemies". The Kaiser's enemies list included not just the Jews, but both the Slavs and the English as well. Wilhelm also had a lifelong obsession with the Asiatic "yellow peril," and he even proudly claims to have invented that term (a claim that is probably true). [pp. 202-203]

But by the late 1890s Wilhelm was focusing increasingly on the Jews: "Wilhelm's visceral anti-semitism of the the 1880s resurfaced .... From around the turn of the century, under Chamberlain's influence, and unnerved by the rising tide of democracy and socialism at home and Germany's increasingly exposed position internationally, Wilhelm II gave voice ever more openly to antisemtic convictions." [pp. 204-205] During this time, Röhl characterizes Wilhelm's attitude as "wavering between pogrom antisemitism and extermination antisemitism." That is, Röhl, probably the world's leading expert on Kaiser Wilhelm II, claims that, "under Chamberlain's influence," the Second Reich was already moving in the direction of "extermination antisemitism" while Adolf Hilter was still ein Schuljunge.

After the war, Wilhelm focused his embittered rage not on the Allied Powers who had defeated Germany on the battlefield, but on the "internal enemy": the Jews. In 1919, the deposed Kaiser wrote "Kein Deutscher darf das je vergessen noch ruhen, bis diese Parasiten von deutschem Boden vertilgt und ausgerottet sind! Dieser Giftpilz an der deutschen Eiche." ("No German can ever forget or rest until these parasites have been destroyed and exterminated from German soil.") He even speculated as to the best method to accomplish this wished for extermination: "ich glaube, das beste wäre Gas." ("I think gas would be best.") Wilhelm wrote these words in his own hand in a letter to General August von Mackensen (link). In the same letter Wilhelm called for a "regular international all-worlds pogrom à la Russe". In other words, Wilhelm had stopped his "wavering" and had now fully succumbed to the mentality that would eventually lead to the "final solution" to the Jewish problem.

"Key Ideas" of Nazism

Now lets look a little more closely at the substance of Chamberlain's book, Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Richard Evans (Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge) in his 2004 study The Coming of the Third Reich investigates the various writers and thinkers who helped to shape the racist and antisemitic ideological core of National Socialism. Evans singles out Chamberlain for particular attention:
"It was Chamberlain who had the greatest impact, however, with his book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1900. In this vaporous and mystical work Chamberlain portrayed history in terms of a struggle for supremacy between the Germanic and Jewish races, the only two racial groups that retained their original purity in a world of miscegenation. Against the heroic and cultured Germans were pitted the ruthless and mechanistic Jews, whom Chamberlain thus elevated into a cosmic threat to human society rather than simply dismissing them as a marginal or inferior group. Linked to the racial struggle was a religious one, and Chamberlain devoted a good deal of effort to trying to prove that Christianity was essentially Germanic and that Jesus, despite all the evidence, had not been Jewish at all. Chamberlain's work impressed many of his readers with its appeal to science in support of its arguments; his most important contribution in this respect was to fuse antisemitism and racism with Social Darwinism . . . . Here were assembled already, therefore, some of the key ideas that were later to be taken up by the Nazis."
[pp. 33-34]
Below are five of these "key ideas" of Nazism, referred to above by Richard Evans, to be found in Foundations:

(1) Human history can only be understood in terms of race, and, in particular, in terms of the struggle of the Teutonic race.
"The leitmotiv which runs through the whole book is the assertion of the superiority of the Teuton family to all the other races of the world." [Introduction by "Lord Redesdale", aka David Mitford]

(2) The races of humanity are not equal.
"[T]he most learned gentlemen in Europe have solemnly protocolled the fact that all the races bear an equal share in the development of culture . . . . It provokes a smile! But crimes against history are really too serious to be punished merely by being laughed at; the sound common sense of all intelligent men must step in and put a stop to this." [Chapter Six: Entrance of the Germanic People Into History]

(3) Aryans constitute the "Master Race", and they should rule over all other races.
"Physically and mentally the Aryans are pre-eminent among all peoples; for that reason they are by right, as the Stagirite [Aristotle] expresses it, the lords of the world." [Chapter Six: Entrance of the Germanic People Into History]

(4) Jews, as a race, constitute the great, internal enemy of the Aryans.
"The Indo-European, moved by ideal motives, opened the gates in friendship: the Jew rushed in like an enemy, stormed all positions and planted the flag of his, to us, alien nature — I will not say on the ruins, but on the breaches of our genuine individuality." [Chapter Five: The Entrance of the Jews Into Western History]

(5) Jesus was Aryan, and Christianity is the natural religion of Aryan people.
"He won from the old human nature a new youth, and thus became the God of the young, vigorous Indo-Europeans, and under the sign of His cross there slowly arose upon the ruins of the old world a new culture -- a culture at which we have still to toil long and laboriously until some day in the distant future it may deserve the appellation 'Christ-like' . . . . Whoever wishes to see the revelation of Christ must passionately tear this darkest of veils from his eyes. His advent is not the perfecting of the Jewish religion but its negation." [Chapter Three: The Revelation of Christ]

Very Strange Bedfellows

Wilhelm II wasn't the only high profile fan that Houston Stewart Chamberlain had. When Foundations was translated into English in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt wrote a review that began and ended with praise for the author, although in between there was a significant amount of often quite pointed criticism, as the following passage shows:
"A witty English critic once remarked of Mitford that he had all the qualifications of an historian—violent partiality and extreme wrath. Mr. Chamberlain certainly possesses these qualifications in excess, and, combined with a queer vein of the erratic in his temperament, they almost completely offset the value of his extraordinary erudition . . . . Mr. Chamberlain's thesis is that the nineteenth century, and therefore the twentieth and all future centuries, depend for everything in them worth mentioning and preserving upon the Teutonic branch of the Aryan race. He holds that there is no such thing as a general progress of mankind, that progress is only for those whom he calls the Teutons, and that when they mix with or are intruded upon by alien and, as he regards them, lower races, the result is fatal. Much that he says regarding the prevalent loose and sloppy talk about the general progress of humanity, the equality and identity of races, and the like, is not only perfectly true, but is emphatically worth considering by a generation accustomed, as its forefathers for the preceding generations were accustomed, to accept as true and useful thoroughly pernicious doctrines taught by well-meaning and feeble-minded sentimentalists; but Mr. Chamberlain himself is quite as fantastic an extremist as any of those whom he derides, and an extremist whose doctrines are based upon foolish hatred is even more unlovely than an extremist whose doctrines are based upon foolish benevolence. Mr. Chamberlain's hatreds cover a wide gamut. They include Jews, Darwinists, the Roman Catholic Church, the people of southern Europe, Peruvians, Semites, and an odd variety of literary men and historians. To this sufficiently incongruous collection of antipathies he adds a much smaller selection of violent attachments, ranging from imaginary primitive Teutons and Aryans to Immanuel Kant, and Indian theology, metaphysics, and philosophy—he draws sharp distinctions between all three, and I merely use them to indicate his admiration for the Indian habit of thought, an admiration which goes hand in hand with and accentuates his violent hatred for what most sane people regard as the far nobler thought contained, for instance, in the Old Testament. He continually contradicts himself, or at least uses words in such diametrically opposite senses as to convey the effect of contradiction; and so it would be possible to choose phrases of his which contradict what is here said; but I think that I give a correct impression of his teaching as a whole."
But despite these reservations, Roosevelt began his review by calling Foundations "a noteworthy book in more ways than one" and ended his review on a very positive note:
"Yet, after all is said, a man who can write such a really beautiful and solemn appreciation of true Christianity, of true acceptance of Christ's teachings and personality, as Mr. Chamberlain has done, a man who can sketch as vividly as he has sketched the fundamental facts of the Roman empire in the first three centuries of our era, a man who can warn us as clearly as he has warned about some of the pressing dangers which threaten our social fabric because of indulgence in a morbid and false sentimentality, a man, in short, who has produced in this one book materials for half a dozen excellent books on utterly diverse subjects, represents an influence to be reckoned with and seriously to be taken into account."
George Bernard Shaw (social reformer, playwright, and founder of the London School of Economics) also wrote a review of Foundations. Shaw began his review like this: "This very notable book should be read by all good Fabians." The Fabian Society is a group (still in existence) that advocates moderate, non-revolutionary, Socialism. Among its illustrious members have been H.G. Wells, Annie Besant, Virginia Wolf, and Emmeline Pankhurst, as well as Labor Party stalwarts such as Harold Wilson, Tony Benn, and Tony Blair

Why did George Bernard Shaw believe that "all good Fabians" should read Chamberlain's book? Because, in Shaw's own words, "it is a masterpiece of really scientific history. It does not make confusion: it clears it away." Shaw ends his review by writing, "Meanwhile, as this book has produced a great effect in Germany, where 60,000 copies are in circulation, and is certain to stir up thought here, whoever has not read it will be rather out of it in political and sociological discussions for some time to come." Shaw would also later write that "the greatest Protestant Manifesto ever written, as far as I know, is Houston Stewart Chamberlain's Foundations of the Nineteenth Century: everybody capable of it should read it."

As the reaction of the moderate Socialist George Bernard Shaw demonstrates, Houston Stewart Chamberlain's antisemitism was, apparently, socially acceptable in the early 20th century. And the reaction of the Progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt demonstrates that this acceptability still held even for those who explicitly recognized Chamberlain's antisemitism for what it was and rejected it in no uncertain terms. The importance of this acceptance must be underscored. Although to the average 21st century reader, Foundations sounds like an unhinged antisemitic rant, its author genuinely hoped to reach out to and influence well-educated, serious minded, socially conscious individuals. The reactions of Shaw and Roosevelt demonstrate that he achieved some real success in doing so.

Another "strange bedfellow" is Chamberlain's longtime close friend, Adolf von Harnack, a highly influential Protestant theologian and church historian. For those familiar with modern theological trends, it is worth noting that Harnack made significant contributions to both the Higher Criticism and the Social Gospel as well as to liberal theology generally. In doing this Harnack had helped to lay the theological groundwork for what the Nazis would come to call "Positive Christianity," concerning which the official Nazi Party Program, adopted in 1920, states:
"We demand freedom for all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not endanger its existence or conflict with the customs and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The party as such represents the standpoint of a positive Christianity, without tying itself to a particular confession. It fights the spirit of Jewish materialism within us and without us, and is convinced that a lasting recovery of our Volk can only take place from within, on the basis of the principle: public need comes before private greed.”
Point 24, Party Program, National Socialist Workers Party of Germany
The friendship between the liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack and Houston Stewart Chamberlain is far from aberrational, as shown by George Bernard Shaw's exclamation (quoted above) that the book viewed by the Nazi's as their "gospel" was viewed by Shaw as "the greatest Protestant Manifesto ever written"! In fact the affinity between Nazism and Protestantism, and liberal Protestantism in particular, is far deeper and stronger than is generally recognized. This (very) dark side Protestantism also manifests itself in America's own unique contribution to fascism: the Ku Klux Klan. Another example is that of the Calvinist Afrikaaners of South Africa and their (now long departed) Apartheid system.

Modern liberal Protestantism, and especially the Higher Criticism and the Social Gospel, were both crucial to the version of Christianity preferred by the Nazis. The Higher Criticism, especially as it was formulated by Harnack, gave the green light to the Nazi agenda of purging Christianity of all Jewish influences and associations. For example, one of Harnack's criticisms of Luther was that he had not seen clear to dispense with the Old Testament: "What an unburdening of Christianity and its doctrine it would have been if Luther had taken this step!" [Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, p. 134, trans. by John Steely and Lyle Bierma, Durham, 1999 (orig. 1920).] Because of his decades long association with Chamberlain, Harnack was well aware of the appeal that such an approach had to hard-core antisemites, although Harnack himself was probably no antisemite, and even criticized, in a friendly way, Chamberlain for his excessive antipathy toward Jews.

"Only When Jews Bleed, Are We Liberated"

In the years following Germany's disastrous defeat in WWI, Chamberlain's health and spirits declined precipitously. But then in the fall of 1923, at the age of sixty-eight and increasingly frail, the author received a visitor who was at the time almost precisely half his age. Chamberlain instantly realized that he was now in the living presence of the great leader who would fulfill the grand vision of Foundations. And the name of this Führer was Adolf Hilter. The day after their first meeting, Chamberlain wrote to Hitler: "You have great things to do . . . . With one stroke you have transformed the state of my soul. That in the hour of her deepest need Germany gives birth to a Hitler proves her vitality." That letter was written on October 7, 1923. Just one month later Adolf Hitler would stage his infamous Beer Hall Putsch, at which he declared, somewhat prematurely as it turned out, "The National Revolution has begun!"

The 1923 Putsch failed, but Hitler made use of his (brief) time in prison to start writing Mein Kampf, in which he made a point of praising Houston Stewart Chamberlain by name. In 1925, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, Chamberlain was proclaimed in the official Nazi press as "the author of the gospel of the Nazi movement," in an editorial written by Alfred Rosenberg, the principle theoretician of Nazi racial science. Rosenberg wrote his own sequel to Chamberlain's work and called it The Myth of the Twentieth Century, which went on to be the second best selling book in Germany under the Third Reich (right after Mein Kampf). In 1927, Chamberlain died. Neither Theodore Roosevelt nor George Bernard Shaw attended the funeral, but Adolf Hilter did.

The year after Chamberlain died, the Nazi Party won only 2.6% of the vote in the national elections of 1928. But just two years later, in the depths of the ever deepening Great Depression, the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) not only broke out of single digits for the first time, but rocketed to almost 20% of the popular vote to become the second largest party in the Reichstag. By 1930 Nazism was a genuine mass movement with millions in its ranks. The streets of Weimar Germany now rang out with the refrain from The Storm Trooper's Song:
"So stand our Storm Columns, for racial fight prepared.
Only when Jews bleed, are we liberated.
No more negotiation; it's no help, not even slight.
Beside our Adolf Hitler we're courageous in a fight."
Pitched street battles, especially between rival Communist and Nazi paramilitaries, were resulting in a mounting toll of killed and seriously injured. The Nazis, as they grew in numbers and influence, were now manifesting on an ever expanding scale yet another "key idea" already spelled out in Chamberlain's Foundations: the glorification of violence and "struggle".

In a section under the heading "Progress and Degeneration", Chamberlain approvingly quotes from John Fiske's work The Destiny of Man:
"It is the wholesale destruction of life, which has heretofore characterised evolution ever since life began, through which the higher forms of organic existence have been produced"
However, Chamberlain then changes his tone when it comes to what Fiske says next:
"as evolution advances, the struggle for existence ceases to be a determining factor ... this elimination of strife is a fact of utterly unparalleled grandeur; words cannot do justice to such a fact."
At this point Chamberlain plainly states that he "must beg to differ" with Fiske for the following reason:
"For what is to become of our soul, which we acquired with such honest pains? We were just informed that the struggle for existence had 'produced' the soul: will it henceforth arise without a cause? ... And why, if the struggle has already produced something so splendid, should it now cease? Surely not from sickly, sentimental horror of bloodshed. 'Death in battle,' said Corporal Trim, and thereby he snapped his fingers — 'death in battle I do not fear this much! but elsewhere I should hide from it in every crevice.' And though it is, under Professor Fiske's guidance, a 'joy to see how we have at last gained such glorious heights,' yet I can imagine and hope for something much more glorious still than what the present offers, and I shall never admit that the cessation of the struggle would mean an advance ...."

We have seen in the above that the "key ideas" of Nazism, including especially those ideas that led to the Final Solution, had long before been worked out at some length by Houston Stewart Chamberlain in his book Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Both Adolf Hitler and the chief Nazi "race theorist" Alfred Rosenberg publicly and enthusiastically acknowledged their intellectual debt to Chamberlain and his book. Moreover, modern scholars of the Third Reich have also acknowledged this obvious close connection between Chamberlain and Nazism, including Richard Evans, Michael Mann, John C. G. Röhl, Roger Griffin, Richard Steigmann-Gall, and others.

It has also been shown that Chamberlain's Foundations was both well known and widely popular, including among many readers one would not automatically suspect to find in the same company as Hitler and Rosenberg, such as George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Roosevelt, and Adolf von Harnack. Of particular interest is the reception of Chamberlain's ideas by Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose own racism and antisemitism were a match for Chamberlain's, and who demonstrated that even before the founding of the Nazi Party, the long arc of European antisemitism was already undergoing a decisive transformation from mere "pogrom antisemitism" to full-fledged "extermination antisemitism".

One is left with no other alternative but to conclude that the roots of Nazism are hidden in plain sight. In other words, they are not hidden at all. Nevertheless, many insist on looking in the dark corners of the "Occult" fringes of fin de siècle European society for the origins and sources of Nazi ideology. Multiple possible explanations could be produced for this self-imposed obscurantism, but all such explanations must amount to the same thing: a willfull denial of reality has led to the fabrication of revisionist "historical" narratives whose only goal is to misdirect us away from the simple truth.

[An earlier version of this article appeared in the Lamas, 2011, edition of Pagan Friends Webzine: link. SCROLL DOWN for links to related posts from this blog.]

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