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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 rootedness with all its virtues had given way to urban dislocation—with all its vices. Heritage (“blood”) was of the greatest importance, and the stress was on the basic differences between races and peoples. This was coupled with the idea of the superiority of the German (Nordic) race over all others—first developed, incidentally, by two non-Germans, Gobineau, who laid the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) foundations, and H. S. Chamberlain, the renegade Englishman who popularized them in the philosophical jargon of the day. There were a great many other minor thinkers who established a whole “system” on this basis—but the Schemanns, Woltmans, Ammons, etc., are now forgotten even in their native country and there is not much point in resurrecting them for the benefit of the American reader. All that need be said is that in their view voelkisch stood for the union of the people with a transcendental essence, which might also be called “nature” or “mythos.” It was fused with man’s innermost nature, the source of his creativity and the depth of his feeling. The voelkisch thinkers were all anti-modern, anti-industrial, anti-big city, and of course anti-Jewish, for the Jew stood for modernity with all its destructiveness: were the Jews not among the pioneers of finance capitalism in Germany, especially after 1870? And had they not gained access to many positions in German cultural life? (Their influence, needless to say, was often greatly exaggerated. They were said to have, among other things, a stranglehold on German literature; but in the German bestseller lists of the first part; of the twentieth century, among the eighty books which sold 800,000 copies or more, there is not one by a Jewish author.)

This voelkisch Weltanschauung was a closed system with a firm grip on successive generations of Germans, especially students and teachers. Various crackpot schools had their heyday—astrologers, occultists, preachers of Nordic body culture, and apostles of extreme nature mysticism. Even the top Nazi leaders were not immune—Himmler believed he was a reincarnation of Henry the Fowler. But the main body of this doctrine was formulated in philosophical and quasi-scientific terms among respectable academic circles, and gained wide currency in rightwing circles and political parties. This was the chief source of inspiration for mest leaders of Nazism too, and it undoubtedly helped greatly to pave the way for the victory of Hitler’s party.

The growth of voelkisch thought into a political movement, the mainsprings of its impact, and its gradual transformation into a real way of life for at least one section of the German people, is described, for the first time in any language, in this excellent book. The author has scanned not only all the political manifestos but also the belles lettres produced by and for the movement, and has used much unpublished material in German archives which adds substantially to our understanding of the origins of the voelkisch movement.

The Crisis of German Ideology is a milestone in the study of National Socialism. It is at the same time a some-what controversial book. There are some unwarranted generalizations, occasionally a faulty perspective, and criticisms that are sometimes too sweeping and indiscriminate. Professor Mosse argues, for instance, that voelkisch thought in 1932-3 was so widespread and dynamic that even if Nazism had not taken the lead, another such group stood ready to do so. But this is not so: the Nazis were the only voelkisch group who had any grasp of the mechanics of political power; the others were Ultra-Conservatives divorced from the masses, or simply faddists. It was only the genius of Adolf Hitler—as Mosse notes elsewhere in his book—which wedded the voelkisch flight from reality to political discipline and efficient organization. He should have added that Hitler, who drew much of his inspiration from the Voelkische, had the lowest possible opinion of them as a political force, and in Mein Kampf wrote about them with great contempt.

Most authors are inclined at times to exaggerate the importance of their chosen subject, and Professor Mosse has not always resisted this temptation. According to the picture that emerges from his book, German Jews were already socially isolated before the first World War as a result of the spread of voelkisch thought among the German middle class. He quotes one report which asserts that it was then highly unusual for German and Jewish pupils to share the same table at school. I do not know about school tables, but there are statistics about intermarriage, which was about seven or eight times higher in Berlin than in New York. Influential as the voelkisch doctrine was, it did not by itself become a political force, nor did it extend beyond a vocal minority. The many millions who chose Hitler in 1933 did so for a great variety of reasons, of which the Nordic mythology was certainly not the most important.

Sometimes Professor Mosse casts his net too wide in tracing voelkisch influences. Certain grievances of the Voelkische and some aspects of their critique of modern industrial civilization were neither specifically German nor althogether unjustified. They were shared by a variety of thinkers from Rousseau to Tolstoy, and from Thoreau to D.H. Lawrence. One has the feeling that, but for their Jewish origin, Martin Buber and Simone Weil and some others would have been in severe trouble as voelkisch fellow travelers. Perhaps Mosse also slightly overshoots the mark in his criticism of German historians who claim that the ideological evolution which led to National Socialism was not typically German, and that other countries also had such movements. That many German historians try to play down the role of the predecessors of Nazism goes without saying, but Mosse’s counter argument that in France “the young people rallied to the cause of the left,” whereas their German contemporaries became voelkisch, is, stated this way, quite untenable. Gobineau, after all, had a far greater impact in nineteenth-century France than in Germany; towards the turn of the century anti-Semitism was certainly as prevalent in Paris as in Germany. It is too easily forgotten now that sixty years ago “race thought” was widespread even in England and America. A recent writer has recalled that the majority of late-Victorian English and American historians accepted the view that the “Anglo-Saxon race” had not only a manifest destiny but also a unique capacity to rule; Seeley and Sir Henry Maine should be consulted by those who doubt this. After the First World War, the impact of the famous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was, for a while, greater in Britain than in Germany; the idea of a Jewish world conspiracy influenced even Winston Churchill at one point. All this is now happily forgotten by all but our elder contemporaries and a few historians, but it should be remembered from time to time.

Racialist thought admittedly never grew such deep roots in France and England because in the last resort it did not fit into the pattern of French rationalism or British pragmatism. (The Romantic school, in a similar way, was more deeply rooted in Germany than in any other country.) But it did exist and was not entirely confined to the right wing either. The fact that racialist thought eventually prevailed in Germany cannot be explained solely in ideological terms. It had to do with the economic crisis, and a number of other political, social, and economic trends which contributed to the rise of rightwing racialist movements common to many European countries. These movements, as Dr. Pulzer’s book describes them, were composed of ex-servicemen—particularly ex-officers unable to adjust themselves to civilian routine—of axed officials of Empires no longer on the map, debt-ridden peasants, students and teachers. In general, they were those whose social and economic position had been destroyed, or was being threatened. Germany was much the most prone to succumb to this infection, but both the virus and the conditions for its spread existed elsewhere.

Dr. Pulzer, who is known to a wider public as one of Britian’s leading psephologists, in a somewhat more specialized monograph traces the theoretical background of modern anti-Semitism back to its beginnings in the second half of the nineteenth century. His book to some degree overlaps Mosse’s, but mainly it breaks fresh ground, especially in the section on Austria. There have been many studies of German anti-Semitism, but hardly any of anti-Semitism in Austria, though before the First World War it was far more widespread and virulent there. The Germans in Austria, in contrast to those in Germany, faced a most serious nationality problem; they were, in fact, a minority. Once an undisputed master race, they were now involved in a losing struggle against the other contenders for power; in this situation, racial hate and national resentment reached a high pitch—and much of it came to be directed against the Jews, despite the fact that the Jews were among the most faithful German Kulturtraeger. While Mosse is mainly interested in the history of ideas, Pulzer approaches the problem as a political scientist. Above all he is interested in the impact of anti-Semitic ideas on the everyday politics of the two Empires. His book, too, is a valuable contribution to the historiography of modern Germany; it is full of fascinating facts and figures and information about, for instance, the social composition of the pan-German associations. (One Josef Schneider, of Vienna, is described as a Personaleinkommensteurschaetzungscommissionsmitgliedersatzmann, i.e., a deputy member of the commission assessing the amount of income tax to be paid by individuals.) Pulzer explains the victory of Nazism, rightly I believe, as the triumph of the South-German-Austrian voelkisch ideology over the classical nationalism and chauvinism of Prussia and the North; and he argues that anti-Semitism flourished in Austria because of the failure of Weimar Liberalism to provide adequate answers to both the Empire’s economic needs and the clash of nationalities. Private enterprise, constitutionalism, religious tolerance were a source of weakness, not of strength.

Neither of these two books discusses what may broadly be called the “Jewish problem” in Central Europe between 1870 and 1933. This problem assumed different forms in various countries: in Berlin and Vienna it consisted mainly in the emergence of a strong Jewish middle class, very heavily represented in such fields as trade and commerce, journalism, the law, medicine. It is idle to ignore the fact that Jewish emancipation during the first half of the nineteenth century created serious social problems. Even though these tensions in themselves do not explain modern German and Austrian anti-Semitism, their existence was well known not only to anti-Semitic authors but also to the early Zionist writers. Of late it has become somewhat unfashionable to mention it, but there was anti-Semitism long before Hitler, and individual psychopathology cannot entirely explain it. Is a satisfactory analysis of racialist thought and policy possible without a consideration of the situation of the Jews in these places at the time?

Much of this review has been taken up by critical reflections, but it is only sterile and insignificant writing that never excites dissent. These excellent books, indispensable for any serious student of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, will provoke not only assent and criticism but, above all, discussion, which is much needed and long overdue.

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