Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain
In 1899 the Munich publisher Hugo Bruckmann (later to be one of Hitler’s early financial backers) brought out a rambling book of a thousand pages, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (Die Grundlagen des Neunzehnten Jahrhunderts). The author was a forty-four-year-old English expatriate living in Vienna, Houston Stewart Chamberlain. The book was an immediate best seller: as Geoffrey G. Field tells us in his excellent scholarly study of its author, three editions appeared within a year, while a popular edition in 1906 sold over 10,000 copies in ten days. By 1915 sales had exceeded 100,000. Chamberlain became an instant celebrity whose book, as one of his friends told him, was the subject of daily conversation among the cultivated people in Berlin. Few people had up to then heard of Chamberlain: some reviewers suggested that this was a new book by the anonymous author of Rembrandt als Erzieher, a comparable work which had had a similar success in 1890. Others assumed wrongly that Chamberlain was a relation of Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, and even published photos of Austen Chamberlain, Joseph’s son, the future Conservative foreign secretary, on the assumption that he was the author.
Although not a relative of the Chamberlain political dynasty, Houston Chamberlain did have an impeccable upper-class English background and was the son of an admiral and nephew of a field marshal. Professor Field gives an absorbing account of how he became an official propagandist of the Wagner cult at Bayreuth and one of the most virulent exponents of a racialist view of history and of Germany’s mission as a master race. By 1923 he had discovered Hitler and was writing to him: “My faith in Germandom has never wavered for a moment, though my hopes had, I confess, reached a low ebb. At one blow you have transformed the state of my soul. That Germany in its hour of greatest need has given birth to a Hitler is proof of vitality….” And not long before he died in January 1927, Hitler and Goebbels stood near to tears at his bedside.
The life of Houston Stewart Chamberlain is of interest for two reasons. There is the biographical and psychological problem of how this dilettante amateur philosopher, who was described by a German friend as “an extremely charming English individualist,” became sucked into the German völkisch miasma, but there is also the question why his writings, dismissed by the Times Literary Supplement during World War I as “Ravings of a Renegade,” had the success they did. Field has not only written a fascinating biography; he has also made a contribution to the current discussion among historians of Germany whether German society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was an exception in Europe, or whether racialism, anti-Semitism, and all the excesses of ultra-nationalism were endemic in the whole of European society in the age of imperialism.
“I don’t know,” Chamberlain wrote during World War I when he finally renounced his …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.