June 30, 2017 by James Tennant
Back in the 18th century, before Germany was Germany, it was a land of superstition and pseudo-scientific spiritualism. Occultism was rampant as intellectuals rebelled against the French Age of Reason which, in their view, sacrificed a people’s spiritual core to the god of sterile rationalism. Influential philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder extolled the merits of the Germanic cultural inheritance and urged his countrymen to take pride in their own language and customs. He spoke of the folk-nation, the volk, which encompassed the traditions and the national spirit or “soul” of the race. This nationalism based on race would be a motivating concept in the Germanic people’s drive for territorial unity—for the creation of Germany.
At the turn of the century, Professor Johann Gottlieb Fichte picked up where other apostles of Germanic statism, like Immanuel Kant, Novalis and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel, had left off. His Sketch of a Critique of all Revelation (1792) asserted that, “It is the state alone that unites an indeterminate multitude of human beings into an enclosed whole, into a totality.” In The Closed Commercial State (1800), he advocated government control of production, trade and agriculture right down to a citizen’s choice of vocation. The state would be self-sufficient, conquering other lands to procure resources as needed. Foreigners would be expelled and Germans living abroad emigrated back. Here was National Socialism transcribed, a century before Hitler.
Prussia’s military defeat by Napoleon in 1806 didn’t dampen the conviction that German culture was superior to the French but merely heightened the call to purify the German land of foreign language and customs, for only genuine members of the volk possessed the spirit of the volk, and only they would sacrifice themselves to the nation’s welfare. Joseph Gorres contributed his doctrine of unity based upon race and blood, and Schelling expounded on the organic nature of the state, the embodiment of volk science, art and religion. The individual was illusion, the state all, he declared. Schleiermacher agreed: nationality was God manifesting itself on the Earth. Prussian society was placed on military footing, the new universities charged with promoting patriotism, and the army modernized, in the effort to throw off French hegemony.
And so it was. The 1815 defeat of Napoleon left Prussia in a dominant position among the German principalities. Adam Heinrich Muller said that the state was “…itself a person, a free whole…” and that through the totalitarian collective the German achieved immortality; the state was the only religion the German needed. But the great determinant of the state’s power was economic might, and this required national unity.
Fichte died in 1814 and Hegel took his chair at the University of Berlin. Like Muller, he saw the state as a conscious and divine entity, the medium by which the world-spirit advanced. As the wellspring of the divine will, the state could do no wrong, then. His influence was deep and diffuse. (Marx extracted much of his historical materialism and communism from Hegel, replacing world-spirit with economic environment and state with class).
It was no surprise that the 1848 democracy movements, which rooted government in the rights of the individual, were ill-received by the German people for they espoused views alien to their, by then, established thinking. Richard Wagner denounced the Frenchman’s democracy and the un-German culture of the Jew. Wagner’s friend Count Arthur de Gobineau laid out the case for the superiority of the white race, and of the Aryan over the other whites. Darwin’s theory of 1859 provided the scientific gloss. They painted the German as the wellspring of human progression, struggling against the biological/cultural decadence of the West. In Wagner’s operas Norse heroes and gods portrayed the mythology of the race. Here was true religion for the pagan volk. Gobineau took upon himself the office of high priest of Odin, Thor and Frey.
About the same time, Nietzsche was writing that the goal of life was not happiness, as the decadent West thought, but power. Power was the highest virtue. Truth was established by power. Might was right. He hated Christianity which elevated the weak and contemptible. What was needed was a race of supermen who would dictate their own morality. Understandably, he referred to himself as a Wagnerian (Hitler would also be infatuated with Wagner).
The long awaited German unity came with Bismarck. As Frederick had melded Prussia into a socialized unity, so Bismarck united and Prussianized all of Germany, confounding Austria with adroit political maneuvering before crushing her and her confederates with that great facilitator of diplomacy, the Prussian Army. Liberal forces that might have resisted his unconstitutional seizure of power within Germany crumbled under the weight of his political and military successes (as they would bow to Hitler’s power politics). After the defeat of the French at Sedan in 1871, Prussian hegemony over Germany was absolute and the German unity achieved—the German god-state.
And it became powerful, this new god. Although German industrialization had lagged Britain by about a century, by 1900 German industrial output had surpassed all other European countries. It now had the means to project its power internationally.
Meanwhile, at the University of Berlin, Treitschke was expounding the glories of the state and of war. He praised Machiavelli who “sacrifices right and virtue to a great idea, the might and unity of his people.” For twenty years, he instilled these doctrines into the youth of Germany, echoing his predecessors.
Ludwig Schemann succeeded Gobineau as the apostle of Germanic biological superiority and Wagner’s son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain carried the baton for racial purity. He called for German science, German philosophy, German religion, and so on. The Socialist leader, Ferdinand Lassalle, revealed that tribe’s leanings: “The state is a unity of individuals in a moral whole, a unity which increases a million-fold the powers of all the particular persons who are included in the union; this unity multiplies a million-fold the powers which would be at the disposal of them all as individuals.” “We must forge our wills together into a single hammer, and must lay this hammer in the hands of a man whose intelligence, character, and goodwill we have the necessary confidence, in order that he may be able to strike with his hammer!” This longed-for Fuhrer of Germanity arrived with the ascent of Wilhelm II to the throne in 1888. The new emperor referred to his friend Chamberlain as, “my spiritual midwife”.
German scientists like Ludwig Woltmann endeavored to prove the superiority of the Aryan race and historians like Karl Lamprecht preached pan-Germanism to the youth. From the University of Berlin, socialist Eugen Duhring continued the call for a controlled economy and a nation of pure blood Germans. Laws were introduced to reduce Jewish influence and antisemitism became an instrument to raise folk consciousness. Adolf Stocker carried Duhring’s university-tenured antisemitism to the masses. Tirpitz’s aggressive foreign policy drove France, Russia and England into the Triple Alliance, setting the board for the First World War.
Snippets of German thinking surface during the war. General Friedrich von Bernhardi expressed the view that war decides right and wrong because the victor is proved to be biologically superior. Chancellor Bulow justified Germany’s violation of Belgian and Luxembourgian neutrality by declaring, “I feel no embarrassment in saying here publically that for Germany right can never be a governing consideration.” Diplomacy contradicted the natural laws of development that favored advanced races, after all; war was the way of superior peoples, progress demanded it. After decades of racist and nationalist grounding, and of economic and military triumph, the German people demanded it too.
The liberal Friedrich Naumann opined that the allies’ hostility towards Germany stemmed from the consciousness of their own inability to match the German social organization where all citizens—scientists, doctors, teachers, clergy, artists—were melded into one socialist unity. Only the German had the spirit to surrender his individuality to the collective. Of the French and British, “They do not want this disciplined soul, they do not want it because that would be death and surrender of their own soul.” The allied peoples were by nature democrats, while the Germans were spiritually wired for the higher order of socialism. Thomas Mann agreed, the west hated German kultur because they knew the German was destined to subdue its inferiors.
Once again, as in 1806, the loss of the war did nothing to shake this belief in German preeminence. The myth circulated, and was widely believed, that they had lost, not because of the superiority of the enemy, but because the German state had been betrayed by non-Aryans living in its midst. The way forward was clear: the army must be rebuilt, national storehouses constructed to defeat the blockade, and the traitorous Jew and other racial impurities neutralized.
Between the wars, radical leftists sought to bring Germany under the aegis of international communism but the socialist president Ebert used the Freikorps to crush them; not even the socialists wanted to be ruled by the Kremlin. (In retrospect, given the Gehenna that Rosa Luxemburg’s allies were to make of Russia, one can’t be optimistic that things would have turned out better for Germany had the Spartacist’s prevailed over the Nazis).
In these difficult years, many nationalist parties formed, promising to help workers survive the economic chaos and to reverse the injustice of the peace. Their platforms were based on socialism, and mysticism married with antisemitism. One of these, the German Workers Party was formed in 1919 and became the National-Socialist German Workers Party, or NAZI party, the following year. The Nazi platform promised gainful employment, welfare benefits, free education and the end to the privations of Versailles.
In 1923 Hitler and Ludendorff lead an armed insurrection in Bavaria but the putsch was defeated and Hitler sent to prison. There he wrote Mein Kampf, rehashing the philosophies we have been reviewing: Aryan exceptionalism, antisemitism, socialism, militarism, the need for lebensraum, social Darwinism, etc. The book became a bestseller in Germany well before Hitler’s ascent to power.
The popular narrative is that the nefarious Nazis overcame the more benevolent elements of German society through deceit and brigandage. That is partially so, but, as we’ve seen, many of the philosophical elements that drove the Nazis were common among the intelligentsia and general population. Walther Rathenau, a secular Jewish politician murdered by Freikorps men in 1922, said, “The Germanic ideal, which held fast for a thousand years in the face of the assault of Christianity, is violently shaken by mechanization,” and, like the German Romantics, lamented that “the age does not feel, but reasons.” He subscribed to the popular theory that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” during the first war. A second was needed to correct the outcome. “All politics are economic politics, war-preparedness.” As foreign minister, he signed a treaty with Russia in 1922 which allowed Germany to circumvent the Versailles limitations by training her army in Russia.
A later outspoken opponent of Nazism, at war’s end Thomas Mann defended the anti-democratic German state and the superiority of the German race.
In his Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler captured the German mindset when he rejected “the mendacious habits of human morals which are due to weakness” and hailed the human beast of prey. He lauded the German’s “unbounded necessity to serve” and noted that “no ‘cause’, no leader, no caricature of one even, is so sure of unconditional following” than in Germany. “The idea of socialism in its deepest meaning: will to power, struggle for the happiness not of the individual, but of the whole.”
So Germany started to build an army clandestinely, as it had done after the 1806 defeat, and made ready to right the outcome of the previous war. Gustav Stresemann’s government worked miracles to rebuilt Germany economically and politically in readiness.
As the Weimar Republic crumbled, sexual morality plummeted and the birth rate tumbled. Its opponents rejoiced that the nation was throwing off Christian mores, allowing the true German spirit to emerge. The youth, impatient with the pace of democracy, were enthusiastic consumers of nationalist sloganing and rushed to join their ranks. As Spengler declared, “The legions of Caesar are awakening once again.” All Germany needed was a leader of the volk, a Fuhrer, to replace Wilhelm II.
In 1930 President Hindenburg appointed the Conservative Heinrich Bruning chancellor in the hopes he could guide Germany through the turmoil of the Great Depression. But his austerity measures (implemented via Presidential decree, since he could never gain sufficient support in the Reichstag) aggravated the situation and drove more Germans to the Nazi party in desperation. Finally, in 1932, Hindenburg sacked Bruning and replaced him with Franz von Papen believing he could secure the backing of Hitler and form a majority government. In the subsequent election, the Nazis supplanted the Social Democrats as the largest party in the Reichstag, strengthening Hitler’s hand. On Jan 30, 1933, after all political maneuvering had failed to establish a stable government, Hindenburg was forced to appoint Hitler chancellor. The following year Hindenburg died, leaving Hitler dictator. The Nazification of society (Gleichschaltung) could now proceed full bore. Martin Heidegger celebrated with the other intellectuals and the people flooded the Party with membership applications. Their god-state had been reborn.
What strikes one about all this is how unoriginal Nazi philosophy turned out to be. Nazi antisemitism was really German antisemitism, a blight that had been around for centuries, preached in her universities by its famous scholars, diffused through popular media, absorbed and bequeathed to others by the general population. The economic and social collectivism, the militarism, was long established. The belief in the sovereign state, in Aryan racial superiority, the volk, anti-Christianism and pagan mysticism, the right to acquire lebensraum—all these had been set in place, awaiting the coming of the new Fuhrer. Even the Nazi swastika was old news, worn by many German soldiers in the First World War.
The Germans were ripe for Nazism. Early in the Nazi rule, Jews were arrested arbitrarily and thrown into concentration camps where they were brutalized, sometimes unto death, to terrorize them and their fellows into surrendering their properties and leaving Germany. The population’s reaction to this barbarism is revealing. In Before Auschwitz, author Kim Wunschmann notes that Nazi persecution was often aided by individual members of the public since the police force lacked the resources to operate so broadly. When Vienna’s Jews were being rounded up, she notes that they “experienced little or no solidarity from the general public”. Jewish women waiting outside the prison where their men had been illegally incarcerated were “harassed by a mocking crowd.”
Even after being released from the Nazi gulag, the stigma of the criminal clung to the victim because, “the popular opinion was reproduced that imprisonment—whether in a jail or in a concentration camp—was the deserved punishment of a delinquent person.” In the late thirties when the Jews and other non-volk individuals were being erased from the German collective, “This ‘cleansing’, this removal of ‘community aliens’ (Gemeinschaftsfremde) from the people’s community, won the approval of wide sections of the German population.” Wunschmann tells how, when Ruth Abraham’s future father-in-law was released from Dachau, people regarded the man “with the bald head and the terrified posture, who bore the external sign of a prisoner,” with contempt, mocking and threatening him.
This attitude could be displayed, “…even to a member of the persecuted minority, even to someone whose own son was imprisoned, the camps could still appear as ‘penal institutions for those who had committed crimes and therefore deserved punishment’.” Such was the collectivized people’s deep-seated reverence for governmental authority, and concordance with its abhorrent racial philosophy, that the regime’s actions were widely supported.
So, the reason why Hitler was so successful in installing the Nazi regime was not, at root, because of the cleverness of his propagandists or the persuasiveness of his brownshirts. He was successful because he affirmed in the German people what they already believed.
The popular understanding is that the second war could have been prevented, and Nazism avoided, if the terms of Versailles had been less draconian. But cast against this perception is the realization that, in a substantial way, the Germans needed World War Two to affirm their worldview or, as it turned out, to be disavowed of such.
Rather than a warning to guard against political usurpers, the history of Germany provides an illustration of the fate of those who willingly surrender their liberty to, and seek their rest in, the collectivist god-state.