The Roots of Nazism

The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich

by George L. Mosse
Grosset & Dunlap, 373 pp., $5.95

For most people who have not lived in Germany, the essence of Nazism remain a riddle. Americans, Russians, Frenchmen, and the British usually try to interpret it in terms of militarism, anti-Semitism, extreme nationalism, and imperialism. All these were elements in Nazism, yet they existed in other counries as well. I suspect that some of the obstacles to understanding are linguistic in character; for whenever one tries to describe and analyze what was unique in Nazism—the voelkisch ideology, the blood and soil doctrine, the whole Nordic hero myth—one runs into a language barrier and comunication breaks down. The very word voelkisch, for instance, is untranslatable, and not only in English. (In Russian it was rendered for a long time as narodnicheski, i.e., populist. One can easily imagine the resulting political confusion.) A courageous effort has been made from time to time to explain in English what Nazi doctrine was all about, but the result was either utterly confusing or downright comic, and the topic was, after all, not in the least funny.

Now for the first time a successful attempt has been made to explain in English in an intelligent way this intangible (and untranslatable) part of Nazi doctrine, 1964 is undoubtedly the best vintage year yet for works on modern German historiography, and Professor Mosse’s book is among the most important of these. Masterly in presenting the ideology of Nazism, it shows convincingly that the doctrine of Hitler’s movement was neither a mere propaganda trick nor the outpouring of a small group of unbalanced minds. On the contrary, Nazism is based on a body of intellectual doctrine that goes back for at least a century. Whereas Marxism is considered to be a movement with deep historical and intellectual roots, Nazism is usually thought of as a temporary aberration in the history of a nation. It is to Mosse’s great credit that he shows this is simply not so.

Attempts to examine the roots of Nazism have been undertaken before; during the second World War Rohan Butler tried to trace Nazism back to certain authoritarian and chauvinistic trends in German history. (So, of course, did Peter Viereck, and a few others.) Valuable as these books were, they did not really touch the core of the problem, because manifestations of extreme nationalism could without difficulty be discovered in the history of other nations as well. What made Germany different was not its chauvinism but its voelkisch tradition, and this is the subject of Professor Mosse’s book.

This tradition of thought goes back to the romantic era with its heavy emphasis on sentiment (rather than intellect), on nature and landscape, on history and on rootedness. Like Novalis it contrasted the heroic (and happy) middle ages with the degeneracy wrought by modern times. The golden age, in this view, had existed in the distant past, and it was never quite to be recaptured in the future, for the industrial revolution had uprooted the folk, and rural …

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