Houston S. Chamberlain
Houston S. Chamberlain; drawing by David Levine

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 British nationality and became a German citizen, “whether you can imagine what it means not to have lost a home, but never to have possessed a home, never to have moved in any community where everyone says: ‘He is one of us.’ ” His mother died when he was one year old; he was brought up by a grandmother and maiden aunt who lived in France. The experience of an English boarding school, Cheltenham College, led to a breakdown when he was fourteen. For the rest of his life he lived abroad, in France, in Geneva, in Dresden, in Vienna, and finally, after his second marriage to Eva Wagner, in Bayreuth. He suffered from bad health for most of his life, though he seems to have realized that his various illnesses were by no means straightforward: “I am positively incapable of work,” he wrote to his aunt. “And yet my sufferings are such, and of such a nature, that nobody considers me a sick man, a patient, an invalid. Nobody sympathises with a man who ‘goes to the theatre’! who is told to travel and amuse himself as medicine. I have never for one moment doubted that most ‘people’ look upon me simply as an unmitigated humbug.”

Chamberlain’s early intellectual achievements were as ambiguous as the state of his health. He had hopes of a scientific career as a botanist and started preparing a doctorate on plant chemistry at the University of Geneva. Here, too, a nervous and physical breakdown put an end to his academic ambitions when he was thirty; and again, as a few years earlier, he accurately diagnosed his own condition: “I saw myself—like so many of my English countrymen…—vegetating without any goals in life; in part connoisseurs of art, in part amateur musicians, perhaps occasionally dabbling in botany and geology—a dilettante in the bad sense of the word, namely a dilettante in life, a man without responsibilities, and without any self-imposed obligations. Confronted with this picture I shuddered with horror.”


Chamberlain found his goal in life through the cult of Wagner and Wagnerism, and it was this that made the life of a neurotic expatriate dilettante part of the mainstream of European cultural history at the end of the nineteenth century. His relationship to the Wagner circle and the Wagnerian ideology illustrates how Wagner’s work could be interpreted in wholly different ways. Like many of the Wagnerians of the 1870s and 1880s, Chamberlain became a devotee before he had seen a performance of Wagner’s operas or visited Bayreuth.

One of the weaknesses of Geoffrey Field’s work is that he never makes clear what the extent of Chamberlain’s purely musical interests in fact were. He implies that it was the idea of the “Gesamtkunstwerk,” the notion of the art of the future, rather than Wagner’s music itself, which excited him. Yet perhaps his musical sensibility and knowledge were greater than one would suppose from reading Field’s book: there are, for instance, in his published letters interesting references to conversations with Liszt about Berlioz and the cuts which are justified in the performance of Benvenuto Cellini.

Still, among the founders of the Revue Wagnérienne in Paris, where Chamberlain was the accredited representative of the Richard Wagner Association for two years in 1883-1885—years in which his personal financial speculations were turning to disaster—it was Wagner as a symbol of the avant-garde and of a new advanced stagecraft rather than Wagner the master musician who was the center of admiration. Chamberlain was like other Wagnerians obliged to realize that the ideal of the artwork of the future was often very far from the practice of Bayreuth as preserved with conservative rigor by Cosima Wagner after her husband’s death. One of Chamberlain’s closest friends, at least for a time, was Adolphe Appia, the artist who was to be one of the founders of modern theatrical staging and design. Chamberlain was anxious to persuade Cosima to use some of his experimental ideas, particularly about lighting, to give a new look in the 1890s to productions which were now nearly twenty years old, only to be told by Cosima in characteristic terms, “Appia does not seem to know that the Ring was produced here in 1876, and therefore there is nothing more to be discovered in the field of scenery and production.”

Chamberlain in any case became increasingly concerned with the political and philosophical legacy of Wagner and consequently less interested in the aesthetic concerns of the French Wagnerians. He had not known the Master personally, and first met Cosima in 1888, five years after Wagner’s death, after some of Chamberlain’s essays in the Revue Wagnérienne had met with Frau Wagner’s approval. After that he became more and more involved with the Wagner cult and was a kind of official philosophical spokesman for the Wagner circle. Here at last he had found roots in the Germany he had long admired: and here too he found a political creed which he could whole-heartedly adopt. The Gladstonian liberal views that he had earlier professed, presumably as a protest against his family’s conservatism, were forgotten, and he was now totally committed to the German nationalist ideals which he had already sketched in a letter from Spain when he was still only twenty-one. (It was a letter preserved by his first wife Anna, who published her reminiscences of Chamberlain in 1923 after he had become famous, and who remained an enthusiastic admirer in spite of the callous way in which Chamberlain had treated her over the years culminating in their divorce and his remarriage.)

“My belief that the whole future of Europe—i.e., the civilisation of the world—rests in the hands of Germany, has now grown to a firm conviction,” he had written in 1876. His residence in Dresden and then in Vienna, where the same influences that were to shape Hitler’s Weltanschauung two decades later were already at work, reinforced his beliefs and added other elements, for instance: “We shall have to move soon anyway,” he writes in 1895, “for our house having been sold to a Jew…it will soon be impossible for decent people to live in it…. Already the house being almost quite full of Jews, we have to live in a state of continual warfare with the vermin which is a constant and invariable follower of this chosen people even in its most well-to-do classes.” Although he was anxious to show that he was not what he called “an anti-Semite in the odious sense of the word,” all he seems to have meant by this is that he was not actively involved in any of the specifically political anti-Semitic groups.


His prejudices were reinforced by much of Wagner’s own writing, and he quickly began to give his ideas a pseudo-scientific basis. This derived in part from the ideas of Gobineau, who had influenced Wagner at the end of his life, though Wagner and Chamberlain did not share Gobineau’s pessimism, and thought that humanity might still be redeemed by a return to true German traditions and true German art as exemplified by Wagner’s music dramas and the work of the Bayreuth festival. Chamberlain’s search for spiritual and intellectual roots, his prejudices, and his scientific pretentions were all coming together to enable him to develop the ideology which he was to preach during the last thirty years of his life.

During the 1890s Chamberlain was a propagandist of Bayreuth, engaged among other things in rewriting Wagner’s life under the inspiration of Cosima so as to erase or explain away anything that she thought unsuitable—Wagner’s revolutionary radicalism of 1848, for example, or his treatment of his first wife, or his relations with other women. At the same time he was adopting all the fundamental attitudes of the German völkisch movement of the 1890s—a hatred of modernism as represented by the city and the Jew, a fanatical belief in the need for racial purity, and a conviction that only the Germans could save the world and that to do so they must purify their own German stock and their own German faith. This was the creed which he set out to embody in The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a book which would “give shape to [facts] that are well known and…fashion them so that they might form a living whole in our consciousness.”

This work was not only to show the Germans where their mission lay; it was also a justification of Chamberlain’s whole life: “I believe that the true dilettante is today a cultural necessity, as much for the scholar—enlivening his learning—as for the layman, by enriching his life through living, organised knowledge.”

The Foundations embodied not only Chamberlain’s romantic vision of the history of the West and his preoccupation with racial purity and the need to escape from the “Völkerchaos” which was the source of most evils. It also linked up with his attempts to be a serious scientist and his enthusiasm for organic interpretations and rejection of purely materialist explanations. He was, as one would expect, an admirer of Goethe’s scientific beliefs with their emphasis on unity and organic wholes, and had himself put forward the view that sap in plants moved according to an inherent life force rather than in a purely mechanical manner. Although his writings are full of a crude social Darwinism, he conceived his work as a blow against the materialist view of evolution put forward by Ernst Haeckel, whose rival best seller Die Welträtsel appeared in the same year as the Foundations.

Much of Professor Field’s book is devoted to a careful exposition of the Foundations and of Chamberlain’s later works on Kant and Goethe, originally, it seems, conceived as part of an even vaster work of which the Foundations was but the first volume. Goethe was admired because, as we have seen, he was thought to have valued instinct above reason and synthesis above analysis. Kant was regarded by Chamberlain as a man hostile to Judaism as a faith, and as a thinker who had rescued metaphysics from the clutches of the rationalists and materialists; but he was also, as Chamberlain put it, the philosopher of “un-Jewish and anti-Roman Deutschtum.”

We must be grateful to Geoffrey Field for attempting to make sense of so much pretentious rubbish: The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century must be one of the most unreadable of best sellers, compared with which Langbehn’s Rembrandt als Erzieher seems a work of profound insight and Spengler’s Decline of the West a literary and historical masterpiece. Chamberlain’s work is repetitive and badly organized, full of contradictions and inconsistencies, but it was clearly what a large number of educated Germans wanted to read—not least the Emperor Wilhelm II himself who soon became a devoted admirer and faithful correspondent of Chamberlain. Frau Wagner was at first put out by the success of the Foundations: there was not enough about Richard Wagner in it. But she soon came to see what an asset to the Bayreuth myth Chamberlain was, and in December 1908 he was rewarded with the hand of her youngest daughter Eva, now aged forty-two, who served as her mother’s companion and secretary. The couple were installed in a house opposite Cosima’s Wahnfried. There were, Chamberlain emphasized, parallels to his own situation in the Master’s work: “The Venusberg,” he wrote to Eva referring to his actress friend Lili Petri, “was the last stage in my education before arriving at you.” Eva was his “holy Elizabeth.”

For the rest of his life he was almost an official figure and during World War I he led a chorus not just of anti-British propaganda but of denunciation of corruption and faintheartedness in high places—the result, of course, of Jewish influence. It is characteristic of Chamberlain’s position that Walther Rathenau, one of the most successful financiers and industrialists in Germany, whose own turgid writings owe much to Chamberlain, should have taken Chamberlain’s attacks on himself sufficiently seriously to have sent him copies of his personal accounts and references from the Prussian war minister and the imperial chancellor to defend himself against the charge of being a Jewish profiteer.

Chamberlain’s undoubted influence was the result both of his ability to say disreputable things in a respectable way and of his talent for expressing the crassest prejudices of his contemporaries in a pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-scientific language. As Geoffrey Field puts it:

Chamberlain’s superficial eclectic style and glorification of the German cultural tradition sustained the vanity and deepest prejudices of his readers. Though full of contradictions and at times very obscure, his thoughts were clothed in the right philosophical garments, and had sufficient contact with broader debates going on in philosophy, anthropology and history, to impress readers as being both profound and informed.

Thus his readers apparently went along with his elaborate proof that Jesus was not a Jew, because in a society where anti-Semitism was widespread, the Jewishness of Christ was always a source of embarrassment. Moreover Chamberlain was always able to use his own contradictions to good purpose. He has words of ambivalent praise for the Jews because of the way in which, he believed, they had preserved the purity of their own race while at the same time marrying their daughters to non-Jews so as to increase their dominant influence. He also sometimes writes as though race were a matter of will or choice: “One does not need to have the authentic Hittite nose to be a Jew; the term Jew rather denotes a special way of thinking and feeling.” On the other hand “it is comparatively easy to become a Jew, difficult almost to the point of impossibility to become ‘Teutonic.’ ” Nor are Jews the only danger. For Chamberlain the Roman Catholic church was, like the Jews, a body which represented a universal system which would prevent the emergence of separate racially homogeneous societies. Like the Jews, the Church and especially the Jesuits were ruthlessly seeking world power and thus posed a threat to Germandom.

Chamberlain, like other anti-Semites out to demonstrate their respectability, made the point that he had Jewish friends; and the Foundations was dedicated to Professor Julius Wiesner, a distinguished Viennese Jewish physiologist with whom Chamberlain had studied. Yet one cannot help feeling that Chamberlain’s claim, “I have remarkably many Jews or half-Jews for friends to whom I am very close,” only makes the relentless anti-Semitic tone of his writing all the more distasteful.

Professor Field’s book will not make converts to Houston Chamberlain’s ideas, but at least those readers who cannot face the task of reading Chamberlain’s writings will now know what those ideas were. By trying to make sense of them, Field has turned someone who is often just a name in a list of völkisch propagandists into a real and comprehensible, even if unlikable human being. But above all this is a book which, especially when we remember the direct links between Chamberlain, the Wagners, and Hitler, reminds us how uncertain is the boundary between the respectable and the unthinkable, between the crank and the criminal. Ideas do have consequences. Chamberlain may have not himself envisaged the mass murder of the Jews, but his writings undoubtedly contributed to the intellectual and moral climate in Germany which made the Holocaust possible.

This Issue

September 24, 1981