Strangers in the Looking Glass: The Contested Jesus in Jewish-Christian Scholarship in Nineteenth-Century Germany

This is a slightly revised version of the term paper I wrote for a seminar on the history of Christian, Jewish and Muslim relations in Europe. Here I attempt an ecumenical approach to a perennial controversy between Jewish scholars and Church historians, specifically how the figure of Jesus was transfigured by a dialectic of scholarly exchange and religious polemic into the politically charged symbol of Judaism’s and Christianity’s initiation into a higher stage of religious consciousness distinguished by universalist and nondogamatic principles. Such a mission, however, belied, and was effectively undermined by, the numerous expressions of particular confessional and political agendas latent in nineteenth-century liberal theology.


Nineteenth-century German scholarship was the prime site for advances in the historical-critical approach to biblical criticism—a paradigm shift from “sacred history” to the “history of religion” as such.1  As the impetus to historical investigation drove parallel developments in both liberal Protestant theology and the nascent discipline of Wissenschaft des Judentums, or Jewish Studies, one might have expected a mutually constructive dialogue to emerge between interlocutors of both faiths. The historical approaches employed by the Wissenschaft des Judentums in its interpretation of Jewish history and tradition by early Jewish Studies emerged from a productive and critical debate with Protestant Biblical criticism. However, as an examination of the discussions about the life of Jesus and, by extension, the origins of Christianity itself testifies, the noetic structure of academic theology conspicuously retained the major contours of religious apologetics even as it attempted to bring the former in line with historical method.

Recent scholarship offers an array of interpretive frameworks through which to assess the nature of a “German-Jewish dialogue,” the assumed existence of which Gershom Scholem violently dismissed after the Second World War.2  The present paper, however, aims at neither the reconstruction of a composite image of the Jew as projected through the German Protestant mentalité3  nor a comprehensive account of the continuities between religious anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism, for which Uriel Tal’s work is still instructive.4  Instead, I limit the analysis to the field of scholarship. This discourse—in which Jews were active, not merely reactive, voices—operated by its own laws and could develop an internal dynamic which referred beyond the concrete conditions of interconfessional relations in the wider society without also canceling them. At the same time, however, although formally emancipated, and increasingly successful in the spheres of culture and industry, the de facto unequal status of the Jews qua a religious minority was not merely articulated, but rather was ontologically prior to scholarly discourse. As the scholarly controversy over Jesus’ relationship to Judaism demonstrates, traditional theological claims to exclusive truths, albeit updated in their methodologies, continued to supply the overriding criteria by which academic theology was produced and received.

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Current historiography rightly attributes an inherent apologetic impulse to the academic study of Judaism—in the broad sense that practitioners consistently framed their inquiries within the exigent priorities of emancipation. The question as to “what continued to be religiously obligatory, as opposed to what had derived from their legal and social position in German society” and thus was amenable to modification as a result of a greater degree of integration, acquired existential import—in this context the Wissenschaft des Judentums mediated its reform program by documenting the process of emendation and adaptation that had allowed Jews to preserve their religious tradition in different contexts.5  Jewish motivations were multivalent, but the contributions to the field of Leben-Jesu-Forschung clearly displayed both polemical and apologetic thrusts, simultaneously staking their claims to independence and originality while also reaffirming their desire for reconciliation and integration. Walter Homolka surveys the history of modern German-Jewish critical engagement with Jesus’ Jewish background in terms of its dual functions: the need to reconcile civic equality with the retention of Jewish identity, which gained in importance with the opportunities entailed in the Enlightenment and the consequent obsolescence of the Christian state.6  At the same time, it would be categorically misapprehending the political agenda of the Wissenschaft des Judentums to reduce its research to a mere epiphenomenon of assimilation or cultural mimesis (i.e., “christianization”). The revisionist trend represented by Heschel and Wiese has made impressive strides in documenting the ways in which Jewish scholars proposed an agenda according to ideological desiderata which did not automatically defer to the dictates of assimilation. Whereas German Christians expected Jewish emancipation to pari passu dissolve those “barriers that had hitherto prevented Jews from completely assimilating to their environment,” Jews took emancipation to be “an incentive to continue to cultivate Jewish uniqueness.”7 

By interpreting Judaism as primarily a historical phenomenon open to scholarly analysis, the Wissenschaft des Judentums shifted the locus of religion in two vital ways. Firstly, practitioners substituted the criteria of “scientific” inquiry for rabbinic, namely Talmudic, teachings; a putatively objective method of textual criticism detached from normative theological claims, logically entailed not only that the Talmud and other canonical texts be revisited as historical sources without reference to fixed dogmatic interpretations, but in addition that all extant sources, including non-Hebrew and gentile, be opened up to critical investigation.8  Secondly, as Harvey Hill notes, by overriding rabbinic monopoly on textual exegesis, historical scholars gave their educated lay audiences sanction to reinterpret scripture according to their present needs.9  For Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), the biblical text was not so much a monolithic, hermetic repository of vital truths as a record of their ongoing reinterpretation and reformulation by successive generations of Jews.10  Geiger’s greatest contribution, according to Ken Koltun-Fromm, was to stress the perpetual character of this process of reinterpretation, one in which modem Jews could themselves participate as individuals “through creatively rereading texts and their translations.”11

In some ways Jewish Studies continued to argue, albeit in a modern register, in the mode established by traditional Jewish polemics, a genre that had established themes and motifs since antiquity. As long as the Jewish community was still an autonomous and segregated body, such discussions transpired internally, with only very intermittent exchange with Christian interlocutors. But as “Jews and Christians increasingly wrote in the shared vernacular, read each other’s theological writings, and made the figure of Jesus into the signifier through which they gave voice to their views of each other’s religion,”12  Geiger’s work constituted a significant departure from previous interpretations in several respects. Among the Jewish theologians who, stimulated by a concurrent resurgence of interest in Second Temple Judaism, revived research into the historical and religious background, Abraham Geiger’s work constituted the most forceful intervention into the question of a “Jewish Jesus,” that is, a thinker endogenous to the prevailing Jewish traditions of his day. Geiger’s engagement with the figure of Jesus represented the culmination of a revisionist agenda which he had developed throughout his career. Published while still enrolled in university, Geiger’s revised doctoral dissertation, Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume augenommen? (1833), established his reputation in the field of Oriental studies. Applying his knowledge of rabbinic literature to the Qur’an, he traced the modifications of biblical stories not to heretical Christian transmission but to Midrashic and Talmudic texts, thereby rendering the holy book of Islam a repository of fundamentally Jewish teachings.13  Significantly, the academic faction with which Geiger was most closely aligned was the Tübingen School which formed around David Friedrich Strauss and Ferdinand Christian Baur. Prescinding from a priori speculative theology and supernatural explanations, these scholars inaugurated the historical-critical method in Protestant theology, deconstructing in the process the fixed, synthetic status of the New Testament canon. Even as he disputed the validity of their specific findings, their methods largely informed the rubrics of Geiger’s exegesis.14

Abraham_Geiger_by_Lesser_Ury Abraham Geiger (1810-1874)

Needless to add at this point, while Geiger’s historical intervention was gladly welcomed by Reform Jews for making more tenable the argument for Jewish-Christian propinquity in civil society,15  his hopes of initiating a constructive dialogue with Christian scholars came to little avail. Although Geiger received frequent acknowledgements in their notes, they otherwise incorporated his findings only selectively; neither his apologia for Pharisaism nor his updated portrayal of Jesus’ Judaism made many inroads in scholarly Protestant circles in his lifetime. In hindsight, theologians typically reverted to a traditional abject construct of Judaism, resuming the pattern of Jewish antiquity as a permanently unsuccessful movement.The context for Geiger’s account of Jesus and Christian origins was established in his major work on the original text and transmission of the Bible, Urschrift und Übersetzungen der Bibel (1857), along with supporting articles, Geiger reconfigured the contours of Second Temple Judaism. The exact steps taken in this exegesis are delineated in detail elsewhere and need not detain us here. However, for the purposes which interest us, suffice it to recapitulate briefly and schematically those conclusions which he directly utilized towards his research on Jesus. In the Urschrift he identified the two prevailing religious parties within Second Temple Judaism; the Sadducees represented the interests of aristocratic priestly elite then aligned with the dominant political families in the Kingdoms of Judea and Samaria; the Pharisees, conversely, were the populists and liberal reformers of their day, prototypes of the very Reform Jews for whom Geiger endeavored to accrue historical support for their religious legitimacy. With this object in mind, Geiger further developed his argument in his three volumes on Das Judentum und seine Geschichte (1865-71). Here he recast Jesus as an observant Jew embedded in the nexus of disputes between the aforementioned factions. Relocating Jesus within the economy of Judaism itself, identifying him as eminently a rabbi who owed the entirety of his intellectual debt to Hillel, the preeminent representative of progressive Pharisaism, was quite subversive because it presented an alternative to the majority religion’s ontological mythology and soteriology. The Pharisees had long served as a formal semiotic expression of “Late Judaism” [Spätjudentum], a term which encapsulated the view that Judaism following the period of the prophets that ended with Ezra had entered a state of inexorable decline; in conformity with the cosmology of Christian supersessionism, Jesus arrived on the scene and qualitatively transcended the superannuated religion that had made his arrival a necessity. In resituating early Christianity as an internal development—that is, endogenous to conflicts within Judaism and among the apostles—by extension he criticized the transfiguration of a deeply Jewish Jesus into a messianic, divine entity as corruptions of pure Jewish teachings.

Prosaic facts such as institutional barriers and the automatic rejection of rabbinic sources as biased and unhistorical (which produced a persistent lacuna in the requisite knowledge for an independently informed critique of Jewish scholarship) are illuminating of the circumstances under which the Wissenschaft des Judentums labored, but it seems that the impasse goes beyond these factors and was manifested in several other decisive aspects of these two theological configurations. Liberal Protestantism assigned itself dual imperatives which stood at some tension with each other: despite having jettisoned most supernatural or dogmatic aspects of Christian doctrine, a consistently empirical application of the historical method was preempted by an overriding commitment to suspend Jesus’ personality from his historical context. Jesus, the central figure of their religion, defined the outer limit of their historical inquiries. Heschel has critically assessed the contemporary reception with reference to the theological stakes implied in the historicization of Jesus, even as the unique essence of Jesus’ divine personality, radically detached from his Jewish context, remained the ultima ratio of their concerns. Liberal theology in nineteenth-century Germany advanced two hermeneutic goals that, in actuality, tended to pull against each other: a directive to recover the historicity of Jesus’ life on one hand, and a renewed insistence on the essentially ahistorical, sui generis spirituality of Jesus’ character, a priority which preemptively negated the relevance of the former.16  The reason for this omission is not that the evidence had been assessed and the case dismissed, but that the textual basis for a stable representation of Jesus had been fragmented in ways that have precluded the enquiry.

David-Friedrich-StraussDavid Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874)

To return to Strauss, his Das Leben Jesu initiated a contentious debate—ultimately to the detriment of his professional career—over the mythic structures which shaped much of the New Testament narrative, in the process largely eclipsing earlier rationalist and supernaturalist explanations. In place of the historical validity of the Gospel accounts, which he concluded was untenable, Strauss substituted a typology of myth according to which the idea of Jesus emerged as the projection of Old Testament messianic hopes onto a contemporary figure. The process of oral transmission and the progression of ideas resulted in the development of myths and legends which find their final form in the gospels; individual authorship was thus sublated into a Hegelian concept of progressive unfolding of an ideal in stages of representation. Faced with the uncertainty of the traditional narrative, Strauss opted for the transposition of theology to a philosophical formula whereby the concrete person of Jesus was replaced by a Christological ideal inherent in the totality of humanity.17  While Strauss had effectively committed heresy in the view of many clergymen, his arguments also invited more nuanced responses. To Strauss’s ironic, negative reading of myth—which amounted to a falsification of obscure historical events—thinkers like Christian Hermann Weisse opposed a positive hermeneutics of mythology. The latter proposed in his two-volume Evangelische Geschichte (1838) that the subjective experience the details of Jesus’ ineffable personhood were not liable to philosophical abstraction or historical criticism.18  Such an appraisal of Jesus drew crucially on early Romantic idealist aesthetics as well as late Romantic theories of intellectual property that had been gaining in currency by way of the cult of aesthetic genius, according to which Jesus’ ideas superseded contingent historical developments—whether broad religious tendencies within Second Temple Judaism or the conflicts which transpired in the apostolic period.19  This reversal of predicates from an exclusive divine object to a phenomenology of spirit active in a distinct but subjective sense of personhood constituted the normative core of religion, obviating the “final dilemma” adumbrated in Strauss’ treatment, the bifurcation “of the Christian revelation into esoteric meaning and exoteric representation.”20 

In this apotheosis an ahistorical symbolic universe explicitly entered liberal Protestant Christology and imbued their subject with a sui generis spirituality which seemed to escape the conventional distinctions between faith and history. It was this latter approach which resonated more strongly with succeeding generations of Protestant theologians. The implicit problem inadvertently raised by Strauss and his interlocutors, the implications of which were extended by others to its logical conclusion, was the possibility, by abstracting a mythography of Christ from his historical background, for Protestant theologians to elide Judaism’s essential role in the Christian soteriology, indeed in the entire salvation history of the West.21  This, however, remained a latent tendency rather than a fully or consistently articulated position during the period under examination. Although the repudiation of any organic relationship between the Old and New Testaments goes back at least as far as Friedrich Schleiermacher, his hermeneutic carried little purchase at the time, and the most recent survey of evangelical Protestant theology during the period under examination draws the conclusion that most adherents, not least among them Strauss and Harnack, continued to maintain some theological continuity between the Jewish and Christian biblical narratives (even when their individual political stances regarding the “Jewish question” diverged).22  The seemingly irresolvable caesura between the limited conception of the Christ myth as a reification of the Jewish Volksgeist and the countervailing idea of Christ’s immanence constituted the conceptual point of departure.

What this digression serves to illustrate is that while the challenges emanating from Jewish academic studies provided additional impetus to actively deny Jesus’ Jewish character against the historical record, it was far from being the original or a priori reason for the continued appeal of this construct; the desideratum of Jesus’ singularity had preceded modern Jewry’s entry into this arena. The necessity of such a recourse only further intensified around the turn of the century, the same time that Adolf von Harnack began delivering his lectures. The developing trends in higher criticism, comparative philology and related fields elegantly summarized by Jan T. Romein subjected the Bible to the same critical scrutiny applied to other ancient texts, in the course of which the entire Judeo-Christian narrative was exposed as derivative. The contributions of a new school of Oriental studies [Orientalistik], heedless of the constraints of theology and classical humanism, did much to dissolve the centrality of both Greco-Roman antiquity and Judeo-Christianity as absolute terms of comparison for civilization. In an ironic twist of biography, Protestant Hebraist scholar Franz Delitzsch’s son Friedrich, a leading Assyriologist who was, as it turned out, motivated in large part by anti-Semitic prejudice, effectively overturned the edifice of canonical truth and revelation upon which his father’s legacy rested.23  The accumulated body of knowledge

assembled by the various sciences…had shaken theology to the core, so much so that the resulting crisis could only be resolved by the emergence of a radically new approach, one more in keeping with the holistic tendency of the age.24 

P_1Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)

Harnack’s lectures on “Das Wesen des Christentums” (1900) provided a partial answer to Geiger’s arguments, but it was also part of a continuing dialogue with the problems introduced by Strauss.25  In the course of negotiating a via media between the pitfalls of biblical literalism and speculative philosophy, Harnack accepted much of the historical criticisms of the gospels, but he nevertheless maintained the particularity of Jesus’ person, shifting the object of his theological method as directed toward the appropriation of Jesus’ message to humanity in faith. Whether Harnack’s epistemology implied the necessary obsolescence of Judaism in modern society is still a point of contention. Wiese argues in the affirmative,26  whereas Wolfram Kinzig finds no evidence in Harnack’s ouevre for the claim that, because Harnack and his students understood the purpose of Jewry as providing “witness for the correctness of the Christian faith” through their suffering, they necessarily believed that after emancipation and the acquisition of full civil rights Jews had lost their “right to existence” [Existenzberechtigung].27 Against the backdrop of this gradual epistemic crisis, the literal and self-sufficient biblical narrative of humanity’s creation, fall and ultimate redemption through Christ had been eclipsed. While the vague delineation of the Jewish background for Jesus’ ministry and teachings remained de rigeur, the relativization of the historical Jesus tended to render this connection increasingly abstract.

Jewish scholars, at any rate, proved unwilling to elide the evident contradictions between Christian dogma and historical criticism. Harnack’s lectures elicited an extended response from, among others, Leo Baeck, who castigated Harnack for neglecting Jewish contributions to the field of Leben-Jesu-Forschung. More importantly, Baeck continually reaffirmed the existence of intrinsically spiritual and universalist, ethical and faith-based precepts endemic to the history of progressive Judaism. As a rhetorical counterpoint, he turned the accusations of legalism and superstition against post-apostolic Christianity.28 

As the preceding discussion suggests, the inherent tension which, in retrospect, the preoccupation with Jesus served to highlight yet obscure at the same time—stemmed from the underlying structural affinity in theological premises between liberal Judaism and liberal Protestantism. Liberal Judaism adopted from its counterpart the operative distinction between a universal prophetic and ethical religion on the one hand and a religion based on a set of revealed practices and commandments on the other, investing the former with the essence of true religion. It is suggestive, as Homolka observes, that Jewish scholars attacked Pauline Christianity’s tendency towards dogma in effectively the same terms employed by liberal Protestants to reassert freedom from such: for all their express differences, “here Jewish critiques…and liberal Protestant theology were joint in opposition to the established, authoritative interpretation of Christianity in Catholicism and conservative Protestantism.”29 

Not altogether surprisingly, this was a fact which conservative opponents within Judaism more readily apprehended. Rabbi Joseph Wohlgemuth, head of the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, had already apprised the correspondences between liberal Judaism and liberal Protestantism, much to the prejudice of the former. In promoting the Reformed position that the civil and ceremonial laws stipulated in Mosaic law were no longer binding, liberal Judaism had adopted Protestant valuations prejudicial to Judaism’s theonomist tradition and had even consecrated the very same principles of faith which indirectly made Talmudic Judaism the abject of true religion, parallel to the negative stereotypes of Liberal Protestantism.30 

Heschel recognizes that the colonial subject in this scenario could manipulate the discursive categories operative in Christian scholarship which reproduced a colonial relationship to Germany’s own religious minority, in order to construct an affirmative “counterhistory” of Judaism. Yet to her credit, she does not apply subaltern theory casually or uncritically but rather acknowledge that such projects in “reversing the theological gaze” were imbricated with inherent epistemological difficulties. To the extent that revisionists retained certain premises rather than denying their prescriptive value altogether—Jewish academic scholarship reinscribed the mutually constitutive dependence of the Jewish subject on Christian theology in the new narrative, making the former’s claim to legitimacy contingent upon the success of the latter.31  Precisely because they were entering a field of discourse that had already been determined and monopolized by the initial challenge to Jewish self-understanding, Jewish scholars were “forced to operate within the Liberal Protestant categories, e.g., to defend Judaism against the charges of ‘legalism’ and ‘particularism,’ instead of naturally formulating their own standard to evaluate Jewish history and tradition,” thereby obviating a strictly scholarly contribution to rabbinic Judaism.32  Effectively stripped of its critical core, the critique of anti-Jewish stereotypes in Christian scholarship, in terms of its wider impact, become apologetic after all, its authors’ intentions notwithstanding.

Even Geiger could not completely resolve this ambivalence in his own work. If, despite failing to overturn deep-set prejudices, Geiger, in the course of his revisionist exercise, counterposed an alternative rendition of Jewish religion, in the process “demonstrating the false bases of [German Christians theologians’] accounts of Judaism,”33  he did so in large measure by incorporating at least some of their theological postulates and critiques. When Geiger set out in Das Judentum und seine Geschichte and Allgemeine Einleitung in die Wissenschaft des Judentums to extract the essence of Judaism, he started with an ideal definition of true religion, derived from prevalent nineteenth-century romantic terms: “revelation,” as he defined it, referred to a form of religious genius realized in the spirit eternal striving for communion with the Ideal as manifested in the universal brotherhood of mankind.34  In this construction, Judaism, in its pure, progressive form, was paradigmatic of this sublime religious consciousness and, needless to add, was quite suggestive of contemporary liberal Protestant self-understanding.

And Geiger, for his part, was not reticent about drawing explicit parallels to those aspects of Protestantism which he found admirable and a fortiori, living testament to those essentially dynamic and adaptable elements of Judaism which had been retained in the transmission of Jesus’ teachings. For example, he held the question of priestly prerogative which exercised the Sadducees and Pharisees as anticipatory of the conflict between Puritans and Episcopalians in England.35  In a similarly vein, in his 1863 essay, “Sadducäer und Pharisäer,” he extrapolated Pharisaism from a particular group within Jewish antiquity to a universal tendency operative in world history. In reasserting the primacy of “revelation” mediated only through open interpretation of Scripture—over and above the claims of priestly authority and tradition as instituted in the Roman Catholic Church—the Protestant Reformation represented, in Geiger’s teleology, the recapitulation of Pharisaim’s victory over the superannuated Sadducees of their day.36 

Judaism was, for Geiger, at bottom “a set of moral universal truths that continually reappear in Jewish history.”37  The principle of progressive Judaism which reemerged from the albatross of Christian oppression was the foreordained consequence of Pharisaism’s survival through the centuries, and the task of the historian was to trace the lineaments of this nascent ideal as it manifested itself across the ages. At the same time, the studied omission of terms constitutive of pre-modern Jewish religious—torah, covenant, law and commandments—served the larger purpose of extricating Judaism from the limiting “Christian supersessionist framework” and restoring its status “as a world-historic phenomenon.”38  It followed that, in order to sustain the teleology of progressive Judaism, Geiger was compelled to discount, with minor exceptions, the prodigious cultural achievements of Judaism from the post-Talmudic era up to the present era.39 

This is not simply to restate in different terms the older thesis of conscious, unreflected imitation, but rather to posit a model of parallel convergence, each side animated by respective intramural concerns to maintain the relevance and vitality of their faith in the context of a post-confessional age. Such tensions between assimilationist and dissimilatory imperatives critically shaped the early agenda of the Wissenschaft des Judentums.

The desire to win Judaism the dignity and recognition it needed for emancipation was in tension with the methodological assumptions of “science.” The ideology’s predication of rights upon regeneration had been based on Aufklärung assumptions…that Judaism, as a fundamentally moral religion, promoted the cause of humanity and this qualified the Jews for emancipation….The new ideal of Wissenschaft brought with it the idealist and romantic notion that each people’s (Volk) culture was both inviolable and developed according to an innate logic and dynamic….The founders of the Wissenschaft des Judentums thus faced a crucial problem. Could they reconcile this romantic assumption with the Aufklärung idea of regeneration to meet the needs of emancipation. Could they assimilate these new methods to the needs of the ideology’s quid pro quo? The urgency of the problem cannot be underestimated, for it reiterated…the ideology’s fundamental paradox of the relationship between universalism and particularism, between separation and integration.40 

LiebermannMax Liebermann, Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel (1879)

The strategy formulated by Geiger and like-minded colleagues, as we have seen, was radical in its apparent simplicity: they engaged in a form of “reverse supersessionism” which assimilated Christianity into the Jewish narrative. Protestant theologians of this period can be faulted for not checking the biases that underlay their scholarship, but it is difficult to imagine an alternative scenario in which Geiger’s intervention would not have put them on the defensive. The sum of his arguments bore profound implications for the mutual dependency of Jewish and Christian self-conceptions. It followed that, if Jesus’ teachings were neither original nor revelatory in a divinely-inspired sense but rather emanated from within a rabbinic Judaism, while the religious innovations of post-apostolic Christianity were only so many dubious accretions of Hellenic, pagan syncretism, then the former retained its universal significance and progressive mission while the latter was consigned to the status of a superfluous and conservative deviation. Before emancipation, when both religious communities could attend to their own intramural affairs within a segregated confessional framework, Jews and Christians could find refuge in independent salvation histories. But, while granting that Jewish scholarship worked under additional strictures, in the common arena of secular, civil society, the insistence on universality was not conducive to the sort of civil entente implied in secular pluralism—a provision which liberal German Protestants in the Imperial era struggled to accommodate to the normative claims of progressive Christianity.41 

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Describing the relationship between the Wissenschaft des Judentums and liberal Protestant scholarship as one of elective affinity points up one of the key difficulties in defining Jewish apologetics by fixing its anterior boundary with its counterpart. The historical irony is that the relationship between liberal Jewish and liberal Protestant scholarship often grew more tense the more the former approximated the latter’s theological claims. The spiritual similitude that obtained in this polemical debate was overdetermined by complex apologetic interests, such that each party felt compelled to stress the differences between them with increasing clarity. With that said, Wiese follows Jürgen Habermas’s normative definition of “discourse” as the formation of consensus predicated on a preexisting mutual, symmetrical relation between equal partners without prior claims to exclusivity; by these criteria, then, it would seem that Judaism’s subordinate position vis-à-vis the majority Protestant culture precluded a sustained dialogue between the Wissenschaft des Judentums and Protestant scholarship.42 

However, at the risk of courting a mildly “postmodernist” conclusion, even accepting that, to the extent that it existed at all, an acceptance [Wahrnehmung] of Jewish contributions to theological research proceeded fitfully and belatedly—it does not follow that this fact can be made to bear the burden of explanatory power that is sometimes assigned to it. Heschel, in particular, probably overdraws the motivational continuity between contemporary Protestant reception of Jewish Studies and subsequent efforts to purge Jesus of any Jewish derivation by resort to racial distinctions—a project which reached its consummation in the active collaboration of the Deutsche Christen with the Nazi regime.43  Kinzig, distrustful of “teleological theories of anti-Semitism that posit the ‘Final Solution’ [Endelösung] as the direct culmination” of recent anti-Semitism or historical traditions of anti-Judaism, avers that there is still the acute risk of always reading later interpellations of German anti-Semitism back into an earlier and different discourse, “of overestimating its significance within its own time.”44  Kinzig, after reviewing the historiography on Christian-Jewish relations, has outlined an alternative hermeneutical framework which avoids a rigid schema of anti-Judaism/anti-Semitism versus philosemitism in favor of a shifting continuum of relative proximity or distance to Jews.45  While further study than is possible within the parameters of this paper is necessary to test this hypothesis, my preliminary conclusion is that the dialectic between proximity and distance more accurately describes the patent disinterest in contemporary Jewry evinced by most Protestant theologians. Such an approach also offers the key to a more differentiated range of motives behind the superficial engagement with the Wissenschaft des Judentums.



1. George S. Williamson, The Longing for Myth in Germany: Religion and Aesthetic Culture from Romanticism to Nietzsche (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2004), 25-35.
2. Gershom Scholem, “Against the Myth of the German-Jewish Dialogue,” in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, ed. Werner J. Dannhauser (New York: Schocken , 1976), 61-64.
3. Wolfgang Heinrichs, “Das Judenbild vom Juden in der protestantischen Judenmission des Deutschen Kaiserreichs,” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 44.3 (September 1992), 196-198. See also the full-length study, Wolfgang Heinrichs, Das Judenbild im Protestantismus des Deutschen Kaiserreichs. Ein Beitrag zur Mentalitätsgeschichte des deutschen Bürgertums in der Krise der Moderne. Gießen: Brunnen, 2004.
4. Uriel Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany: Religion, Politics and Ideology in the Second Reich, 1870-1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), 110-112, 177.
5. Harvey Hill, “The Science of Reform: Abraham Geiger and the Wissenschaft des Judentum,” Modern Judaism 27.3 (October 2007), 329-330.
6. Walter Homolka, “Jesus der Jude: Die jüdische Leben-Jesu-Forschung von Abraham Geiger bis Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich,” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 60.1 (March 2008), 64.<a title=”Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.”
7. Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany, 304-305.
8. David Sorkin, The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840 (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1999), 136.
9. Hill, “Science of Reform,” 334.<a title=”Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.”
10. Ken Koltun-Fromm, Abraham Geiger’s Liberal Judaism: Personal Meaning and Religious Authority (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 41-47.
11. Koltun-Fromm, Abraham Geiger’s Liberal Judaism, 62.
12. Susannah Heschel, “Abraham Geiger and the 19th-Century Failure of Jewish-Christian Relations.” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 16.1 (2003), 22.
13. Susannah Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 51-62.
14. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 106-126.
15. Homolka, “Jesus der Jude,” 65.
16. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 128-129, 137-146.
17. Robert L. Knetsch, “Tracing the Path of the Bifurcation between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith,” 5-15; Williamson, Longing for Myth in Germany, 160-165.
18. Williamson, Longing for Myth in Germany, 167-177.
19. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 129.
20. Williamson, Longing for Myth in Germany, 176.
21. Williamson, Longing for Myth in Germany, 178.
22. Klaus Beckmann, Die fremde Wurzel: Altes Testament und Judentum in der 19. Jahrhunderts. Forschungen zur Kirchen und Dogmengeschichte 85. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002.
23. Jan T. Romein, The Watershed of Two Eras: Europe in 1900 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1978), 484-485; Suzanne Marchand, “German Orientalism and the Decline of the West,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145.4 (December 2001), 468-469.
24. Romein, Watershed of Two Eras, 483.
25. Knetsch, “Tracing the Path,” 15-24.
26. Christian Wiese, Challenging Colonial Discourse: Jewish Studies and Protestant Theology in Wilhelmine Germany. Trans. Barbara Harshav. Studies in European Judaism 10 (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill AV), 26-27, 159-169.
27. Wolfram Kinzig, Harnack, Marcion und das Judentum: Nebst einer kommentierten Edition des Briefwechsels Adolf von Harnacks mit Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Arbeiten zur Kirchen- und Theologiegeschichte 13 (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2004), 34.
28. Homolka, “Jesus der Jude,” 66-67.
29. Homolka, “Jesus der Jude,” 68.
30. Wiese, Challenging Colonial Discourse, 198-202.
31. Heschel, “Abraham Geiger and the 19th-Century Failure of Jewish-Christian Relations.” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 16.1 (2003): 66-67.
32. Wiese, Challenging Colonial Discourse, 26-27, 440.
33. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 14-15.
34. Hill, “Science of Reform,” 332-333.
35. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 95.
36. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, 103-105.
37. Koltun-Fromm, Abraham Geiger’s Liberal Judaism, 25.
38. Judith Frishman, “The Pitfalls of Counterhistory: Abraham Geiger and Samuel Hirsch on Rabbinic Judaism,” in Jüdische Existenz in der Moderne: Abraham Geiger und die Wissenschaft des Judentums, eds. Christian Wiese, Walter Homolka and Thomas Brechenmacher. Studia Judaica 57 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), 343.
39. Frishman, “The Pitfalls of Counterhistory,” 344-347.
40. Sorkin, Transformation of German Jewry, 134-135.
41. Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany, 31-32.
42. Wiese, Challenging Colonial Discourse, 26-27, 439-440.
43. Heschel, “Failure of Jewish-Christian Relations,” 30-33. The Aryanization of Jesus is the subject of her other book: Susannah Heschel The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).
44. Kinzig, Harnack, Marcion und das Judentum, 204-205.
45. Kinzig, “Closeness and Distance: Towards a New Description of Jewish-Christian Relations,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 10 (2003), 287-289.

Liberal Hegemony by Imperialist Means: The Origins of “Social Imperialism”in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Review)

Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. New York: Berghahn Books, 2008. Monographs in German History 23. x + 237 pp.



Classical liberalism has often appeared to historians as the precocious but unwanted child of German politics, having experienced a false start in 1848-49 but thereafter undergoing a protracted phase of stunted development. According to this narrative, liberalism only reached maturity after World War II, when it was no longer beholden to prevailing authoritarian institutions. Rather conveniently, claims of their marginal influence on Germany’s political culture also served latter-day efforts to absolve liberals of any active role in the state sanction of racist, imperialist or militarist policies that in retrospect forefeited the sanction of their progressive-minded successors. This theoretical lacuna was arguably the byproduct of the post-war impulse to reconstruct liberalism anew for the West German state, in the process recuperating its legacy from the accretions of that country’s decidedly illiberal history. As Wolfgang J. Mommsen reflected in 1991, this generation of historians was

guided by the conviction that the new German parliamentary democracy could survive only if the conventional authoritarian and antiliberal interpretation of German history were to give way to a new democratic interpretation of Germany’s recent past. Among this generation, there was little doubt that historiography had a definite political function to fulfill, and that the option of taking refuge in objective historical scholarship that was aloof from present-day politics was not open to them. Besides, they gradually came to believe that traditional political historiography in the Rankean tradition was no longer sufficient to properly account for the manifold factors that had contributed to the unfortunate course of German history and had eventually culminated in the rise of National Socialism in a country with a rich, highly developed culture.1 

Taking inspiration from the contemporary (and singular) Anglo-American model, the guiding principle of this historiography was a value-positive notion of democracy requiring the affirmation of values consonant with a robust and active civic sphere such as was absent during the Weimar era.

Confronted with the actual record of liberal support for the state’s imperial and military ventures, many historians would take recourse to a semantic exercise, according to which liberalism and specific practices like imperialism are presented as categorical opposites. Under this typology, liberals’ successive “capitulations” to imperialism, by definition, precluded or negated an authentic commitment to liberalism. This sort of tautology rested on the twin constructions to “liberalism” and “imperialism” as abstract, ideal types,2 notwithstanding contrary evidence that imperialism emanated naturally from the desideratum of national integration, which liberals across most of Europe had championed long before conservatives arrived at similar conclusions. The hermeneutic trick of acknowledging liberalism’s entanglement with nationalism and imperialism only in order to permanently and a priori demarcate this affinity as a later and equivocal development, a regrettable, though circumscribed, lapse bearing no essential or sustained connection to the core liberal program—the expansion of liberty in the personal, civic and economic spheres; the checking of traditional authority with constitutional and/or parliamentary forms of governance—is as unconvincing as the adjacent attempt to cleanly delineate between liberalism’s early cosmopolitan phase and its late diversion into national-chauvinistic streams.

0,,18277179_401,00Caricature de Bismarck. La conférence de Berlin (© AKG)

Coming from another direction, mutatis mutandis, German overseas expansionism presents a similar difficulty, in that the most seasoned historians, even specialists in foreign policy, have struggled to assimilate this phenomenon. Conceptually, historians often proceed with the assumption that colonialism is a historically significant process solely in the limited application to formal empires. Within such an interpretive framework Germany’s peculiar circumstances conspired to reduce imperialism to epiphenomenal status in the historiography. Because the German experience in state-driven, formal imperialism both had a later start than the western European powers and was terminated early when those same powers divested the newly inaugurated Republic of its overseas holdings under the terms of Versailles, the colonial project easily resists systematic integration within the broader nation-building narrative. Because of the sharp chronological rupture in 1919, very little links prewar imperialism intuitively with the later push for Lebensraum in eastern Europe, except perhaps by opposition—Germany being relegated, in the absence of colonies, to a Volk ohne Raum.  And within that period itself the colonies yielded scarce material dividends, whether in the form of raw resources, markets or the projection of military power. The colonies remained, on balance, largely unproductive enterprises maintained largely by state subsidy, and, counter to Bismarck’s original design, opened the door to additional confrontations with Imperials powers that ultimately undermined its geopolitical position in Europe. And as the First World War, Germany’s naval buildup proved insufficient to guarantee the protection of its overseas holdings against Britain and France’s preeminent global profile. Adopting a post-colonial perspective, as indeed Jürgen Zimmerer recently urged,3 can broaden our perspective to includehe transmission of colonial models within wider (geographic and chronological) processes and thereby place Germany’s short-term failures in perspective.

When determining the relative balance of forces weighing on Germany’s decision to build an overseas empire, historians generally fall under either one of two overarching schools of interpretation: those of the so-called “neo-Rankean” tendency, who, assuming the operative independence of Staatsräson, assign priority to the dictates of foreign policy (Außenpolitik); and those, drawing heavily from the methods of the Bielefeld School, who emphasize how politicians acted primarily on considerations of domestic policy (Innenpolitik). AJP Taylor4 and, in updated form, Klaus Hildebrand5 situtating their analyses within the framework of international diplomacy, argued that Bismarck’s Kolonialpolitik was essentially just an extension of his preexisting continental strategy, the chief imperative of was to isolate Britain in Europe. Other scholars attest that the cumulative pressures of industrialization and concomitant demands for raw materials and captive markets, trade rivalries and tariff wars, chronic overproduction and economic depression gave the underlying impetus to colonial expansion. The strong version of this thesis posits further that imperialism in the context of these crises fit into a pre-meditated, overarching strategy of social control, according to which state support for colonial ventures constituted an proto-Keynesian mode of positive intervention in the economy with the goal of controlling cyclical overproduction, staving the appeal of socialist reforms, and diverting proletarian discontent into the maintenance of the status quo. The locus classicus of this instrumentalist reading is Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s Bismarck und der Imperialismus (1969),6 which bequeathed the theory of “social imperialism” to the historical profession’s explanatory repertoire.

bismarck“The Socialist Jack in the Box,” Punch (September 28, 1878). © Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Despite diametrically opposed starting points, both interpretive emphases cast the policy shift as a practically reactive one, lacking in any broader vision beyond either maintaining parity with the other European powers or staving the growth of the socialist movement. In other words, it had shallow ideological roots. However, as diplomacy-based history fell out of favor with a generation of scholars focused on the social forces which shaped policy formulations, it is the latter approach, the default departure point for successive inquiries (critical or otherwise),  which claims our attention in the present review. Emphasizing interaction between foreign and domestic policy—and the further understanding that the latter can shape the scope and direction of the former to a considerable degree—crucially forced German scholars to ask questions about structural continuities that they would have been  ill-equipped to answer within the confines of the traditional political-chronological historiography.

However, an exclusive focus on top-down mechanisms of negative integration will render at best partial and possibly distorted explanations for what was in fact a fairly complex phenomenon. Granted that Germany operated under greater internal and external constraints than Western countries, did its imperial project arise from proximate factors or did there precede a deeper consensus on national goals among various segments of the ruling class? What follows is an aggregate of the most common issues marshaled against the “social imperialism” paradigm.

In the first instance, the proposition of a Sammlungspolitik—whereby agrarian and industrial interests enacted a strategic alliance of necessity to contain the mutual proletarian threat—overestimates the ability and/or willingness of heterogeneous interests to aggregate and to reconcile fundamentally conflicting visions of political economy.7 It was arguably not until the Social Democrats’ electoral breakthroughs in 1912 that socialism superseded “Jewish liberalism” as the principal threat for such organizations as the Agrarian League, who remained committed to preserving the traditional prerogatives and perquisites of their estate.8 Even within the liberal camp disagreements persisted between the adherents of free trade doctrine and those who leaned increasingly towards state protectionism—one of several disputes which eventually ruptured into party splits after unification. Such programmatic differences, which broke down roughly along the two main branches of industry, who diverged on the questions of tariffs and monopoly, are given secondary status in Fitzpatrick’s rubric, who prefers to subsume them under the “teleology” of imperialism, which supplied “the basis for a pan-liberal discourse of German national progress.”9 

More to the point, even if the various constituent branches of the Sammlung were able to suspend their differences for the purposes of regulating domestic pressures, this really only applies to the various initiatives underwritten after 1897 by Chancellor Bülow, Admiral Tirpitz and Prussian Minister of Finance Miquel to engineer political consensus on issues of trade and naval defense. Problems arise when one proceeds to ante-date a continuous and cohesive strategy much earlier than this. Wehler, in reading these motivations back into Bismarck’s colonial policy of the 1880s, stresses continuity of vision past the point of credibility. Bismarck’s overall attitude towards the colonies was distinctly pragmatic and instrumentalist; when their commercial and diplomatic benefits failed to materialize to his satisfaction, he promptly factored them out of his foreign policy considerations after 1886. This rather narrow remit stands in stark contrast to what Winfried Baumgart regarded as the general aimlessness of Weltpolitik under Wilhelm II.10 Bülow, more often than not, allowed his programmatic commitment to the political capital of prestige to override more sober considerations of material interests, which basically reversed Bismarck’s priorities, predicated as they were on the short-term necessity of maintaining the solvency of commercial acquisitions,11  combined with the expediency of consolidating the support of a majority-liberal government by co-opting their pro-colonial platform.12 

Finally, for the amount of exposition which the theory demands, it is notable, and not a little ironic, that “social imperialism” actually explains very little about the central phenomenon which it purports to describe, that is, imperialism as such. Considering that the colonies continued to be a contentious issue for both the Catholic Centre Party and the Social Democrats, and that the socialists continued to register record gains at the ballot and extract substantive gains for their working-class constituencies—it is fair to question whether social imperialism actually achieved its prescribed goals. Geoff Eley, the perennial gadfly of historiographical orthodoxy, argued this point most forcefully in 1976 when he emphasized the considerable disparity between intention and implementation. It is one thing to explicate the motives of influential policy-makers, but quite another, in terms of the sort of evidence required, to extrapolate in any unilinear fashion the actual effect of social imperialism on various social groups: one simply presumes the predominantly conservative function of imperialism in the Kaiserreich. Yet imperialism and its putative antecedent nationalism do not automatically presuppose each other, and their integrative utility has yet to be sufficiently tested. To return to Eley, who has long occupied himself with the diffuse effects of ideology in the social and political spheres, rather than prematurely ceding the hegemonic function of imperialism, we might do better to examine the variable contexts in which the protean appeal of nationalism might serve as a point of opposition to, as well as support for, imperialism:

For we cannot understand the particular forms of the social imperialist nexus in Wilhelmine Germany…unless we differentiate within the underlying consensus between variants of social imperialist strategy, between competing attempts to link the acquisition of empire to domestic policy. The nation-state in its imperialist guise was the inescapable context within which all political action necessarily took place: it determined the range of possibilities against which the left as much as the right were compelled to define their positions. To understand the full complexity of this relationship…it is necessary to recover the original meaning of social imperialism and to revise the terms of the discussion accordingly.13 

FitzpatrickLiberalMatthew P. Fitzpatrick advances our understanding on this particular front; he builds upon these preceding critiques whilst making some original contributions of his own to the discussion in Liberal Imperialism in Germany, mainly by reinstating imperialism as a fundamental topos of the liberal agenda between the abortive Frankfurt Assembly of 1848-9 and the 1884-5 Berlin Conference, which inaugurated an era of state-driven colonial expansion. This interim period is widely characterized as a time of liberal retreat from the political stage, but as Fitzpatrick strongly argues, is was also when liberal writers elaborated and disseminated a coherent colonial program that would solve as the solvent of national unification. By identifying themselves in the public eye with the vanguard of Germany’s material and geographic aggrandizement, the liberal Wirtsschaftsbürgertum hoped to substitute their narrative permanently for rival claims by the nascent socialist movement, as well as by the recalcitrant Catholics and conservatives. They presumed to supply that

single unifying concept that could synecdochically represent the aspirations of an increasingly dominant bürgerliche Gesellschaft. Operating as a nescent nationalist-liberalism’s mythopoeic engine, imperialism…offered a unifying concept and a means of defining the German nation and the German people from within, by reference to its role abroad.12 

The idea of a mutually constitutive nexus between imperialist activity at the non-European margins and the various systems of self-representation and identity construction within European states—between periphery and metropole—owes itself largely to postcolonial methodology. Fitzpatrick avails himself extensively of the insights bequeathed by Said, Fanon and, most substantially, Homi K. Bhabha, who has updated Ernst Renan’s observation that, before its incarnation in a political entity, nationhood must be articulated in discourse and superimposed on actually disparate societies. Nationalism is premised on, and preceded by, “the obligation to forget past and present social ruptures, differences and divides tather than any profound, totalizing or nation necessitating bond,” and the implicit contingency of this demand was more pronounced, more transparent in Germany, where the liberals envisioned the nation-state as an agency through which to organize interests that, at least in the shorter term, “had a limited, even negative impact on other segments of German society.”15 (Informed as its by the so-called “linguistic turn” in history, how much one enjoys this book depends to some extent one’s level of tolerance for the repetition of anodyne phrases like “mythopoesis,” “praxis,” “meta-narrative,” “alterity,” “discursive,” “textual production.”)

The most revelatory aspect of this book relates to the ways in which the author, somewhat indirectly, rehabilitates or normalizes the exceptional relationship of German liberals to the forces of modernization which were presently unsettling traditional socioeconomic relations. The author bases his most substantial critiques on a reframing of the putative domestic effects of imperialism. Liberal theorists indeed regularly prescribed overseas expansion as a comprehensive solution to the Sozialfrage, which was, however, formulated in a quite difficult context than that outlined by Wehler and others.

A sustained reevaluation of the programmatic texts circulated by organizations like the Colonisations-Verein and authors like Friedrich Fabri during this period supports the idea that liberals before the late 1880s approached the socio-economic strains of industrialization (and the consequent growth of a precarious underclass) as an opportunity to facilitate the restructuring of German society along bourgeois lines and, in doing so, render the appeal of social revolution redundant. They typically delivered a neo-Malthusian diagnosis—that is, recasting social inequality in terms of demographic imbalances—and accordingly recommended that the surplus transitional workforce emigrate abroad to achieve the twofold strategy of relieving material and geographic concentration at home and expanding German trade and industry abroad.16  It follows from liberals’ policy recommendations that the pursuit of colonies cannot be reduced to a narrow expression of particular class interests (although this was certainly one of its functions); while they explicitly ruled out social revolution and wealth redistribution, such reservations did not preclude an openness to proactive solutions to the “social question,” which puts them quite at odds with the ascribed cynical and defensive ploy to distract workers from their interests and stave off reforms. In this they were quintessential mid-century liberals; their motives were far from altruistic, yet they implied an unreflected belief that a liberal, bourgeois society could comprehend the diverse (read: divergent) interests of a rapidly developing nation. Per Fitzpatrick’s characterization, “it was a confident assertion of bourgeois liberal imperialism as a truly national, that is trans-social, discourse that would be instrumental in bringing about social integration…through a generalized prosperity created through imperialist economics.”17 

250px-Friedrich_Fabri_Bild_1

Where the present study is found entirely lacking—and where the outer empirical limits of discourse analysis are readily exposed—is in Fitzpatrick’s reluctance (as telegraphed in the book’s subtitle) to extend his argument past 1884 into the period of formal empire, to test liberal theory against colonial practice. The aim of substantiating any substantial link—personal, institutional or ideological—to the colonial enterprise falls by the wayside. As J. Laurence Hare remarks in his review,

Fitzpatrick might have cast his gaze a few years beyond the end of his study to ask how idealized notions of liberal imperialism informed the actual colonial policies of the German Empire….[or] explained why the grandiose visions of liberal imperialism failed to materialize after 1884. That he neglects to do either denies us the last bit of evidence proving the hegemony of liberal notions of empire.18 

The fact that imperialism was embedded in liberals’ self-image does not necessarily imply that the shift from theory to the field of praxis was altogether free of contradictions. The most compelling line of argument is to accept that liberal paeans to empire as a conduit for expanding markets and active citizenship quickly become inadequate as an explanation when measured against the consistently brutal record of colonial administrations (which, the reader should be reminded, was not a feature peculiar to Germany). The obvious case in point would be the atrocities perpetrated against the Herero and Nama tribes in German Southwest Africa (modern-day Namibia), as well as, to a somewhat lesser extent, the suppression of the Maji Maji Rebellion in German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania). A burgeoning body of scholarship has reframed the exterminationist logic of the war, rendered explicit in Commander Lothar von Trotha’s proclamation of 1904, as prefiguring the Holocaust—a thesis reaffirmed most explicitly by Shelly Baranowski in Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler (2010).19  Since the immediate elimination of the entire population never constituted an end in itself as the Nazis conceived it for the Jews, however, a more substantial comparison would focus on the broader structural similarities between colonial policy in Africa and colonial policy in Eastern Europe.20  Granted that, per Isabel Hull’s thesis, the prosecution of the African campaigns emanated in large part from standard military doctrines and practices embedded in a tradition of “total war,” the nature of the atrocities begs the more fundamental question of the second half of the nineteenth century as to how latently racist beliefs, shared as fully by liberals as by conservatives, could be mobilized to such destructive effect.20 

1f37a3cf822deef5d54af9849f2f2ff0Chr. Fetzer: Rassenanatom. Untersuchungen an 17 Hottentottenköpfen: Lichtdruck der Hofkunstanstalt, Stuttgart c.1907.

Care must be taken to avoid reifying the concept of ideological hegemony; the entire point of a “metanarrative” is that it is superimposed on an actual sequence of events that may produce outcomes of varying degrees of acceptability to any single group. More to the point, it is difficult to conceive of a modern, industrialized European nation-state where the hegemony formula is less applicable than modern Germany. Whereas one might expound, in very qualified terms, about the hegemony of Whig ideology in Britain (this was, after all, the century in which Macaulay articulated the “Whig interpretation of history”) or of republicanism in France (the legacy of which every regime up through Louis Napoleon had to accommodate rather than suppress altogether), in Germany, by comparison, regional, confessional and class divisions were far more pronounced and powerfully structured political culture up through 1933. With that said, Fitzpatrick’s Liberal Imperialism in Germany marks an important departure from most other studies by establishing the degree to which liberals not only participated in but articulated the terms of debate around imperialism in the years before 1871, where most others would choose the founding of the Kaiserreich as the starting point for their inquiries into imperialism’s impetus, and thus laying emphasis on entrenching traditional and conservative elites. If we are no closer to understanding the deeply destructive dynamics underpinning imperialism in practice, then at least we will come away with a better appreciation for the initiative taken by German liberals in keeping the issue on the national agenda.



1. Wolfgang J. Mommsen, “The Return of the Western Tradition. German Historiography since 1945,” German Historical Institute, Washington DC, Occasional Paper 4 (1991), p. 13 http://www.ghi-dc.org/publications/ghipubs/op/op04.pdf.
2. Lothar Gall, “‘Sündenfall’ des liberalen Denkens oder Krise des bürgerlich-liberalen Bewegung?” in Liberalismus und imperialistischer Staat: Der Imperialismus als Problem luberaler Parteien in Deutschland 1890-1914, eds. Karl Holl and Günther List (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975), pp. 148-58.
3. Jürgen Zimmerer, “Colonialism and Genocide,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Imperial Germany, ed. Matthew Jeffries, 448-449 (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2015).
4. AJP Taylor, Germany’s First Bid for Colonies 1884-1885: A Move in Bismarck’s European Policy (New York: WW Norton & Co., 1970).
5. Klaus Hildebrand, Deutsche Außenpolitik 1871-1918. Enzyklopädie Deutscher Geschichte, Bd. II (München: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1989; Das vergangene Reich: Deutsche Außenpolitik von Bismarck biz Hitler 1871-1945 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1995).
6. Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Bismarck und der Imperialismus (Köln: Kiepenhauer & Witsch, 1969).
7. Ian L. D. Forbes, “Social Imperialism and Wilhelmine Germany,” The Historical Journal 22.2 (1979), 334-40.
8. Hans-Jürgen Puhle, Agrarische Interessenpolitik und preussischer Konservatismus (Hannover: Verlag für Literatur und Zeitgeschehen, 1967), pp. 158-64, 185-9.
10. Winfried Baumgart, “German Imperialism in Historical Perspective,” in Germans in the Tropics: Essays in German Colonial History, eds. Arthur J. Knoll and Lewis H. Gann (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), pp. 151-155.
11. P. M. Kennedy, “German Colonial Expansion. Has the ‘Manipulated Social Imperialism’ Been Ante-dated?”,” Past and Present 54 (1972), p. 139-140.
12. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. Monographs in German History 23 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), pp. 121-128.
13. Geoff Eley, “Defining Social Imperialism: Use and Abuse of an Idea,” Social History 3 (October 1976), p. 269.
14. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. Monographs in German History 23 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), p. 208.
15. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. Monographs in German History 23 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), p. 12.
16. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. Monographs in German History 23 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), pp. 85-86,144-145.
17. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick, Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. Monographs in German History 23 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), p. 146.
18. J. Laurence Hare, Review of Fitzpatrick, Matthew P., Liberal Imperialism in Germany: Expansionism and Nationalism, 1848-1884. H-Net Reviews. July, 2012 .
19. Shelley Baranowski, Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
20. Helmut Walser Smith, The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 197-201.

Völkisch Ideology in Imperial Germany: An Overview

This is an excerpted section from the Honors thesis I wrote in my senior year at college, reproduced with minor edits and accompanying images. Following on earlier lines of argument, my thesis argues for a closer, more critical if still empathetic investigation of the intellectual affinities between völkisch ideology and anarcho-socialist Gustav Landauer’s political philosophy of the Volk. It is the most accessible chapter, requiring no prior familiarity with the person of Landauer, nor with the specifics of Imperial Germany’s political history. Making this research accessible to a wider English-speaking readership will, I hope, offer a useful perspective on a long-standing historical controversy as well as a corrective to the glut of ahistorical neo-völkisch material available online.


 

odalmagirminsulWolfgang Willrich: Title page for Odal magazine (1935).

A shorthand definition for völkisch ideology would be that of an exclusionary, chauvinist strain of ethno-racial nationalism, with the emphasis on an integral, pristine Volk community constituted in the bonds of blood, culture and roots to the land. In practice, it is nearly impossible to bracket off the history of völkisch ideology from one’s operative interpretive framework for the history of modern Germany writ large, nor is it immediately obvious what the epistemological value of such a dissociative approach would be—especially when the poisonous and destructive influence of völkisch propaganda after World War I speaks for itself. Indeed, in conventional understanding the völkisch movement is often synecdochized with National Socialism, whereby the former’s ideological coherence and political bearing power is usually gauged according to the core criteria of the latter, its ontologically purest historical expression. From this perspective, an interpretive framework is constructed in which the German Right, over an extended period of time, appear, in a manner almost organic, to coalesce into a single, cohesive frame of reference, while secondary divergences in this value system necessarily recede further into the background. This imposes an inevitable but still unfortunate encumbrance on historical enquiry; for those intending to study earlier periods on their own terms, this conflation inevitably obscures more than it clarifies.

This paper is not the place to reprise the perennial debate over National Socialism’s intellectual genealogy or its relationship to the course of the country’s political development—and still less to rehabilitate the legitimacy of the völkisch worldview as a valid mode of social critique. On the contrary, it is my intention to outline a research focus going beyond the historical fixation and definitional template offered by historical fascism; this will restore some specificity and agency to the emergence of völkisch ideology and assist us in appreciating the multiple discursive forms in which people could express their affinity with the Volk.

♦        ♦         ♦

The conventional scholarship of völkisch nationalism can be classed under an older tradition of intellectual history which deals with ideas as autonomous transmissions from selected individuals and their writings—transmissions whose forms, independent of contemporary reception, precede the material and institutional factors which help give expression to them. This approach goes hand-in-hand with the Sonderweg thesis, first elaborated in the 1960s. A product of Historische Sozialwissenschaft’s interest in sociological modernization theory, this master narrative of German exceptionalism postulated deep structural deficits in Germany’s social development. The “special path” taken by Germany in the 19th century in contrast to Western liberal democracies—a fact once emphasized as much by its partisans as by its detractors—had left it with the legacy of an underdeveloped civil society, the entrenchment of authoritarian institutions, an uneven process of economic modernization and an at best only grudging and tentative acceptance of the parliamentary process.

71sw9drzwHLGeorge Mosse’s classic account of völkisch ideology remains the standard English-language entry in this school of interpretation. He traces the genesis of völkisch thought to the anti-liberal and/or anti-democratic reaction of Romanticism following the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, and to the subsequent socio-economic dislocations and convulsions of industrial capitalism. Delayed political unification following 1815 and 1848 encouraged heightened expectations which would only be met by Bismarck, but the interim consequence of these deferred dreams was to shift national aspirations into the realm of idealism, where spiritual and cultural unity were elevated into a transcendental sine qua non for Germany’s rebirth. His formulations in the first chapter, in which he delineates the core elements of the belief system that would remain basically unchanged through the 19th century up to the Nazi era, are representative of his concerns:

The intellectual and ideological character of Volkish thought was a direct product of the romantic movement of nineteenth-century Europe. Like romanticism, Volkish ideas showed a distinct tendency toward the irrational and emotional….A further and more basic impetus was given to the romantically inspired Volkish movement by the turmoil that accompanied the social, economic, and political transformation of Europe.1

And further on, he reinstated the essentially retrograde nature of so-called völkisch thought when he reminded his readers that

it was an ideology which stood for opposed to the progress and modernization that transformed nineteenth-century Europe. It used and amplified romanticism to provide an alternative to modernity, to the developing industrial and urban civilization which seemed to rob man of his individual, creative self while cutting him loose from a social order that was seemingly exhausted and lacking vitality.2

The rejection of the Enlightenment’s salubrious effects, in short, was the original sin of Germany, political unification under Prussia’s aegis its “mark of Cain” (or of Bismarck, as it were). National Socialism was fatefully inscribed in the historical failure of liberalism, compounded by the conservative reaction to the cumulative shocks of modernization. Exercised by a sense of déjà vu in the 1960s, Fritz Stern, whose later Failure of German Illiberalism (1972) is a classic summation of this thesis,3 adopted a similar tack in the well-researched Politics of German Despair (1961), where he traces the obsessive disavowal of modernity and rationality in favor of a “Germanic ideology” in the tracts of the cranky but nevertheless popular Paul de Largarde, Julius Langbehn and Moeller van den Bruck. Although he is generous enough to admit that such sentiments are not exclusive to Germany but are part-and-parcel of “a general Western phenomenon that preceded and has outlived national socialism,”4 he still proceeds under the assumption that these three individuals and their diagnoses of modern culture were indicative of social trends that would critically anticipate the ascendency of National Socialism.5

Roderick Stackelberg’s Idealism Debased represented a more sophisticated exercise in intellectual history. He delineated the gradual vulgarization of the once distinguished tradition of German idealism in three thinkers—Heinrich von Stein, Friedrich Lange and Houston Stewart Chamberlain—into völkisch commonplace. So it superficially mirrors the structure of Stern’s work and can be considered a sort of companion piece to it, but Stackelberg set more realistic expectations for his monograph. He expressly precluded a crude model of causality and delimits his analysis to only one aspect of völkisch ideology, that is, its idealism. Stackelberg adopts a nuanced dialectical argument whereby, in contrast to Stern’s radical, anti-establishment figures, Stackelberg states his interest in explaining how his deeply conservative and elitist subjects could contribute to the aura of “respectability” of the Nazi movement, which ostensibly evoked the dangers of a revolutionary, mass politics.

The ideological antecedents of National Socialism are not to be found in doctrines of social or political revolution or in preachments of spontaneity, amorality, self-indulgence, decadence, or anarchism, but rather in the intellectual reaction to such “permissive” and excessively democratic precepts. The works of Lienhard and Chamberlain represent the triumph of squeamishness, of resentment, of purism and moral intolerance, of the need for rigid control and total order. It is precisely in such n atmosphere of moral absolutes that the ends could be viewed as justifying any means….The ideological road to National Socialism was paved not by Nietzschean self-awareness and self-overcoming, but by völkisch self-congratulation.6

Much of value can still be extracted from the older literature, provided one employs it judiciously. But if we are to do more than document the output of idiosyncratic minds, it is first incumbent upon us to account for some of the ways in which the völkisch label is made to carry the weight of explanatory importance which it cannot bear. In properly assessing the persistent discrepancies in this historiography, it bears emphasizing that history—though this is rarely obvious to contemporaries—is characterized at least as much, if not moreso, by discontinuities as by continuities.

Firstly, such arguments posit an uninterrupted continuity of a disembodied intellectual tradition. The völkisch ideology—however one cares to define it—is given a free-floating power unto itself without respecting either the autonomy of historical actors to set their own agenda or contingencies of political struggle; with regards to the latter, if, for the sake of argument, we entertain the notion of decisive divergences in German politics, is it not worth questioning whether they might have shorter-term causes? Under this construction a plurality of tendencies dispersed over a wide time-span is neatly collapsed into an uninterrupted and linear continuum of thought—in which internal differences of principles either quietly recede into the background or are otherwise reduced to the status of mere epiphenomena. The emergence of a völkisch ideology is abstracted from the multi-dimensional processes of institutional development.

Secondly, when moving into a critical exposition of völkisch movements these histories often relapse into descriptive surveys of any and all remotely right-wing beliefs, however fringe and tangential. Along with other extreme segments, such as the Pan-Germans and the various tendencies of anti-Semites, völkisch thinkers and activists become assimilated into an amorphously defined reservoir of dangerous right-wing ideas whose efficacy only the later radicalizations will eventually allow to be tapped. This enables us to recognize the appearance of discrete characteristics subsumed under a post hoc typology without explaining how and why they configure together in specific historical situations.

This historiography is also distinguished by a deterministic teleological narrative which presupposes a normative course of development for Western liberal democracy and capitalism. This follows from a prescriptive one-to-one equation of “liberal” and “bourgeois”—whereby the former necessitates the successful gestation of the latter. In practice this presentist mode of interpretation argues backwards from the successful (by what independent standard?) examples of England and France to explain Germany’s development in terms of omissions and deviations.7 But history obeys no necessary, internal logic, and it most certainly has no prior obligation to the fulfillment of some ideal bürgerliche Gesellschaft—a monolithic ideological conceit that, moreover, was constituted from fields of contradiction effectively obscuring the story of systemic gender, class and racial exclusion. The tendency to pathologize chauvinist tendencies in Germany can be partially explained by an impulse to exorcise the inner demons of the Enlightenment project.

Finally, these authors furnish no ontologically useful distinction between a völkisch ideology and a völkisch movement proper, and as a consequence what should be discrete categories flow in and out each other. This definitional slippage is pervasive and, again, betrays unclear thinking.

b6953389c4bdcc55f4d93f3c1c270bf4Franz Stassen: Odin am Weltenesche hangenden. Illustration for Die Edda: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen by Hans von Wolzogen (1920)

Although the post-Sonderweg school, by foreshortening the vanishing point into a crisis of modernity, was ill-equipped to substitute a tenable continuity thesis explaining the Third Reich,8 by now the intervening critiques have laid to rest most of the operative methodological assumptions regarding the material and socio-political basis for Imperial Germany’s march to authoritarianism. This has facilitated the emergence of a more self-critical variant of the Sonderweg thesis, whose analytic core, with modified contents, has been fortified by recent research into persistent irregularities in state and class-formation.9 Such critical reevaluation, however, has not penetrated, to the same extent, into intellectual histories of the German Right where the appeal of deep cultural constants remains active, and attentiveness to specific causalities, to the practical realization of ideas in particular contexts, or to the concretely contextualized efficacy of intellectual influences in politics is still preemptively undermined by the deep narrative structures of their accounts.10 The causal centering of dominating cultural tropes too often flattens the heterogeneous and contradictory possibilities of the intellectual landscape in which a distinctively völkisch discourse first emerged into a smooth continuum with the post-war situation.

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From the preceding discussion the hermeneutic necessity of a historically and ideologically delimited conception of völkisch discourse becomes clearer. On the first count, fortunately, a number of scholars have more recently contributed, directly and indirectly, to a more precise periodization of the völkisch phenomenon. This scholarship also breaks new ground in its emphasis. In the 1970s and 1980s, the greater share of research on völkisch nationalism concentrated on organizations that were, per the interpretation of the Sonderweg school, manipulated in such a way as to cement an authoritarian status quo.11 The result was to demote the importance of ideology, particularly its capacity to destabilize, and to relegate nationalism generally to the status of a historical atavism. These authors break decisively with this tradition: not only is ideology taken seriously but it is conceptually emplotted as an integral part of both modernization and modernist cultural movements.

Beginning with The Peculiarities of German History (1984),12 co-written by David Blackbourn, Geoff Eley has positioned himself at the forefront of efforts to revise the Sonderweg thesis and to overhaul the entire conceptual apparatus supporting it.13 Occupying himself in making the discussion of “modernity” relevant to the context of Wilhelmine Germany, he has staked out his specialty in expanding the understanding of political participation in this period.14 His book, Reshaping the German Right,15 while it deals with the emergence of radical nationalism in general and not völkisch nationalism per se (the categories overlap extensively but are not strictly interchangeable), has been hugely instructive in organizing my own thoughts about the völkisch movement proper.

The organizing premise of Jost Hermand’s useful study of völkisch utopianism, Der Alte Traum vom Neuen Reich, translated into English in 1992, initially invites heavy skepticism.6578528-1 The asseveration here is that liberal and leftist historians, in denying the progressive elements implicit in the “idea of the national community”—the former reducing patriotism to a set of abstract constitutional or civic prescriptions, the latter questioning the social legitimacy of the nation-state itself—have ceded the rhetorical advantage to their right-leaning colleagues. The risk of diverting collective appeals into chauvinist channels is, in his estimate, too real not to recoup some of the concept’s positive value from the ideological bankruptcy of rightist-authoritarian manipulation.16 Certainly, as a post-war reflex, the commitment to a rationalist and progressive politics as a prophylactic against any relapse into anti-modernist obscurantism or nationalist apologetics—argued most forcefully by Jürgen Habermas—was historically limited and bound to prejudice readings of Germany’s past. But Hermand’s line of argument, made from good intentions, rests on a very weak ontological basis, insofar as it presupposes the concept of “nation” as a self-evident and fixed category without critically examining its historically determined constructedness.17 Notwithstanding this caveat, he has devised a useful typology for organizing the shifting registers in which the Volksgemeinschft has historically been invoked and frustrated.

The most recent empirical research into the völkisch movement has unsurprisingly come out of Germany. Uwe Puschner’s richly documented, if undertheorized, Die völkische Bewegung im wilhelminischen Reich (2001) submits the twofold thesis that 1) it is more instructive to speak of a definitive caesura between two distinct völkisch movements around World War I, and that 2) to understand what changes transpired with the Nazis, it is vitally instructive to start with the turn-of-the-century roots of the organized völkisch movement.18 More historically delimited treatments of this subject are meager compared to the preponderance of both specialized studies and general surveys of the authoritative tradition of völkisch thought, which embraces a markedly broader timeframe. Puschner implies that this accepted approach tends to overlay a semblance of continuity that may not actually obtain throughout the intervening periods of time—and, conversely, the organized movement itself supplied the missing link between disaffected and isolated intellectuals and the mass political phenomenon that manifested in the post-war era. He departs from the stand-alone “history of ideas,” in acknowledgement of the fact that, unless one extends the analysis beyond the contributions of individuals to the prodigious publications, one is at a loss to gain a purchase on the real breadth and diversity which at its inception characterized the völkisch movement—which is better conceived as an inherently fragmented and widely dispersed network or Sammelbewegung of organizations with overlapping memberships.19 Puschner organizes the triad of language, race and religion under his central chapter headings, though these function more as rubrics than guiding concepts. The pamphlets, brochures, tracts and, above all, the newspapers—all of which comprise the main corpus of sources—created the forum in which the völkisch worldview was actively discussed, formulated and disseminated among a considerable readership. With certain methodological qualifications in mind,20 this approach enables the historian, despite gaps in the record, to carve out both a more continuous timeframe in which to integrate these numerous and heterogeneous organizations. Together with a co-edited volume of independent essays, the Handbuch zur “völkischen Bewegung” 1870-1918, the paucity of closely integrated argument or guiding conceptual framework makes this compendium more valuable as an encyclopedia than as a synthetic study situated properly within the historiography.

Useful as a partial corrective to Puschner’s exhaustively compilatory methodology is Die Völkischen in Deutschland (2008), in which Stefan Breuer, with a sociologist’s skilled precision, locates the distinctively völkisch politics within the associational networks of pressure groups, political parties and activist Bünde. Dispensing with the deep cultural sociology of backwardness which was one of the more undertheorized components of previous histories of the völkisch movement, Breuer situates the prima facie nostalgia for a harmonious national community within a discursive field necessarily shaped by the terms and consequences of Germany’s unfolding modernization. The repudiation of some liberal and progressive (not to mention socialist) values here was not by that virtue categorically anti-modern or romantic; indeed, the radicalism of the völkisch movement, which ultimately abandoned the traditional value system of conservatism, was intensified precisely by their ambiguous, dynamic confrontation with the crises of modernity.21

This scholarship opens up new directions in mapping out the background of the völkisch phenomenon, starting with a history of the term itself. “It’s all the name.” Trite, perhaps, but no less true for all that when considering the etymology of völkisch and the distinctions therein. What follows on my part is no mere semantic parsing but rather an attempt to take seriously historical actors’ claims to take command of their own language, to mobilize and give new meaning to old terms. The adjectival völkisch is, to put it banally, a derivative of Volk. Its coinage at the beginning of the 19th century was roughly concurrent with the liberationist appeals to the Volk, but it did not enter into common usage until 1875, when, upon the Germanist Hermann von Pfister-Schwaighusen’s recommendation for a substitute for the anodyne and vacuous word “national,” it acquired a firm fixture in the radical nationalist lexicon.22

But to elide these varying usages at the outset of the struggle of national liberation and unification is not only catachrestic but moreover constitutes something like an epistemological impropriety. Historicist notions of cultural exchange, assimilation and related continuities could exist comfortably enough within the oraganicist framework of early Romantic nationalism, as Brian Vick has demonstrated.23 It should be clear by now that Volk did not yet accrue all the vaguely sinister mystical and transcendental connotations which Mosse attributed to the word.24 Günter Hartung catalogues the various associations contained in the term, from

Volk as synonym for different groups of people, for the collectivity of non-ruling strata (‘gemeines Volk’), for the inhabitants of a territory or the subjects of a state (‘Staatsvolk’), up to the ethnically specific term for a natural collective of people of common extraction and language (‘deutsches Volk’).25

None of these definitions can be disengaged from the semantics of “nation,” but at least in this opening period the term differs little from how liberal nationalists throughout most of the 19th century appealed to “the people.” In point of fact, one particularly constructive development of late has been to at least partially reintegrate the German experience into the wider political transformation initiated by the French Revolution. The tendency now is to update the point of divergence from the nebulous Romantic wave to 1848-9—specifically, the breakdown of the Frankfurt Assembly deliberations.

Philipp Veit: Germania (1848)

Hermand convincingly demonstrates, for example, that much of the nationalist propaganda of the early-to-mid-19th century fell into a generally democratic-republican cadence with distinctly populist overtones, projecting its animus more against the corrupt, archaic institutions and practices of their own aristocratic elite than against external foes.26 While this more democratic strain of nationalism exhausted itself by the time of unification and was henceforth recuperated by the acquiescent National Liberals, its real significance lies in confirming that Germans neither were hermetically sealed off from the Enlightenment debate nor had collectively dispelled its associated values once and for all after the Metternich restoration. This is also the view of Lawrence Birken, who in his exegesis makes the provocative argument that völkisch nationalism was articulated as a reassertion—in the face of Bismarck’s kleindeutsch solution, calculated in the interests of dynastic survival and affiliated traditional elites—of popular sovereignty within the großdeutsch framework of a nation-state, the stolen hope of the 1848 generation.27 Most recently, that this liberal answer to the “national question” never completely went out of currency is evidenced by the renewed appeal of Anschluß— a concern conventionally thought exclusive to the far-right in this period—among Weimar republicans, who sought to buff up the historical credentials of German democracy.28 Meanwhile rediscovery of such continuities has prompted much-needed reevaluations of liberalism’s trajectory in modern Germany over the last decade. Eric Kurlander, for example has amply documented the failure of German liberalism to reckon with a legacy to which prescriptions for ethnic homogeneity were endogenous.29 The oppositional thrust of völkisch nationalism as it manifested itself post-unification, then, can be read “not as a repudiation but an intensification of Enlightenment, and thus of Western values.”30 Eley anticipated this finding when he offered up the Navy League as a corrective to the narrow sociological interpretation of populist politics; its membership comprised largely of the rising bourgeoisie, who retained at least a formal affinity with the earlier liberal tradition in their discourse.31

This excursion has been necessary in order to better appreciate the novelty of the Wilhelmine experience; and I say “Wilhelmine” specifically, because, as Eley’s investigations show, radical nationalism, as an organized political response, constituted a principally elective and autonomous ideological tendency empowered by a conjuncture of centrifugal contingencies precipitated by the post-1890 breakdown of the Bismarckian political order.32 The immediate prompt in this process was the forcible retirement of Bismarck from the chancellorship, but more decisive in the long-term were the admission of Social Democrats into parliamentary politics and the disintegration of a once stable centrist bloc. The centrifugal momentum opened up a previously sequestered political space to competing claims to national identity and the interests of the German Volk—often in ways which militated against a purely instrumentalist interpretation of the sort of unilateral, hegemonic and top-down “integrationism” which the German state aimed for and diverted the articulation of “national identity” onto ideologically contested terrain. While select contingents of the radical-nationalist camp at times served as effective auxiliaries to a state-directed “integrationist” project, this was not, in the final analysis, their prescribed role, and multiple groups just as often competed with each other and the government on the same contested terrain of national identities.33 In the interest of breaking from the strictures of idealist or instrumentalist determinism, then, Eley is willing to give radical nationalists some voice in self-identification; in other words,

to respect the relative independence of ideology…It is vital to recognize that membership of the nationale Verbände had its own internal logic for activists. It was conceived by them as an autonomous sphere of political engagement. It cannot be reduced to the functional requirements of the so-called ‘ruling strata’ and their ‘strategies of stabilization’….It is vital…to consider radical-nationalist ideology on its own terms…as a mode of commitment which articulated a series of antagonisms within the existing political structures of Wilhelmine Germany’s ruling bloc….The radical nationalists were constituted as a distinctive political grouping not by their similar social origins, but by a shared political experience and its ideological formation.34

This applies mutatis mutandis for the völkisch movement, an expansive subset of the radical-nationalists. Specifically, this insistence on the primacy of ideology in organizing political affinities points to the implicit chronology underlying Puschner’s book. As he convincingly documents, what would develop into a full-fledged ideological movement had its origins in more-or-less independent initiatives—it was principally through open forums like the journals and newspapers that participants debated and articulated something like a common voice. The movement for language purification, which had its formal inception in 1885 with the founding of the Allgemeine Deutsche Sprachverein, only by the turn of the century had sufficiently expanded the scope of its original programme from education to agitate on an explicitly völkisch platform, aided by organs like Heimdall (1896-1910), and the more radical Alldeutsche Sprach- und Schriftverein, which had its origins in the Berlin chapter of the Sprachverein, expelled for denouncing the organization as out of touch with the völkisch currents of its day.35 In this sense, associations devoted to promoting the purity of the German language provided some of the key impulses to a more general völkisch worldview, and they continue to provide historians with a means for tracing out the ways in which that worldview shifted and changed as the century drew to a close.

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We are now better equipped to excavate the variable meanings embedded in the word völkisch. An effort is made in what follows to give a coherent summary breakdown of those beliefs that can in fact be classed as völkisch ideology. Even “ideology” or “worldview,” while provisionally acceptable, still implies a coherent, unified set of beliefs shared equally by all, when in actuality the ideas it gave voice to were more diffuse than those terms would imply and so cannot be assimilated into a body of thought. For our purposes, when not referring to specific ideas, in most cases we will instead of speak of a völkisch “discourse.” The term does not completely escape the aura of an invented expedient, but it does more clearly suggest an ongoing discussion, the terms of which were always subject to change; active participants were at liberty to reformulate their premises in accordance with their self-determined priorities.

Any generalizations at this point will necessarily remain preliminary—and likewise so must the answer as to Landauer’s place in this ideological complex await the conclusion of this study. Of course, the overriding importance of the völkisch phenomenon does not exhaust itself in the reconstruction of a specific worldview. But some common constituent patterns of thought in the völkisch discourse may be drawn out of the preceding discussion. I believe a proper definition of historical völkisch ideology can be achieved by the comprehension of four of its chief ideas, each interdependent of the other. These are by no means exhaustive, but they should satisfy the distinguishing criteria for a heuristically useful comparative baseline: 1) pan-Germanism, 2) racial determinism, 3) the appeal to a national myth, and 4) a renewed emphasis on activism.

Pan-Germanism. This term refers, quite simply, to an expansive definition of German nationality which transcended borders, going beyond rhetoric of solidarity to demand territorial revision. However pan-Germanists chose to articulate this unity, it was not merely a descriptive account of cultural ties but had a normative component as well; the discovery of compatriots abroad implied in turn a moral, if not explicitly political, obligation. If we take seriously the above-mentioned continuity of völkisch nationalism with its abortive liberal legacy, then it becomes less surprising that Bismarck’s Germany could hardly satisfy radical nationalist aspirations, which usually found expression in the reiteration of something approximating the democratic großdeutsch solution. What was specifically völkisch in this strain of radical nationalism was a persistently ambivalent attitude towards the German state; insofar as it united a significant swath of Germans, the Kaiserreich elicited the appreciation of nationalists across the spectrum, but in most völkisch formulations, as an existing political unit, it represented at best a transitional entity, a mere promissory note for the eventual consolidation of an all-encompassing ethnic state. In point of fact, its historical significance, putting aside temporarily the particular criteria deployed, lies in directly contravening the prevailing orthodoxy of civic or constitutional nationalism, circumscribed in the last resort by the formal limits of the separate nation-states. The pan-German formula, from its beginning in Paul de Lagarde’s Deutsche Schriften, was thus an implicit—often explicit—repudiation of canonical historicism, which posited the state as the central object of teleological history; in the emergent Volksgeschichte, the state was relegated to a function of the eternal national myth.36 The potentially destabilizing nature of völkisch nationalism arguably comes into sharper focus if one turns from the Kaiserreich to Austria, where the lingering chimera of Anschluß and the perceived precariousness of their minority status within the polyglot Habsburg Empire stimulated pan-German aspirations among Austrian Germans. Indeed, if Hartung is correct, Deutschnationalismus underwent its initial stirrings in Austria, where a growing affinity for Imperial Germany was nevertheless checked by dependency on the Habsburg status quo for stability.37

The trajectory of the Sprachbewegung is illustrative of the wider movement towards an explicitly imperialist platform that went beyond appeals to mere cultural solidarity. The Allgemein Deutschen Sprachverein (ADS) was founded in 1885 to promote the preservation of a more pure and authentic German language. Spokespersons for the radical-nationalist camp of the ADS were Adolf Reinecke and the aforementioned Pfister-Schwaighusen, who came together in 1890 to found Heimdall. This organ represented an exemplary early effort to build bridges between disparate groups on the far right margins of the movement; Heimdall indeed became the principal mouthpiece for an expansion of the original mission of the language movement. The Muttersprache was the main solvent of völkisch belonging, a transcendent bond which served as the pretext for a more emphatically pan-German orientation. This common linguistic bond should prefigure the unified, homogeneous ethnic state of the state; to this noble end it was the filial duty of the Volk to cultivate and preserve the “mother tongue” in its pristine form.38 Language, in any case, was not the exclusive designation of the Volk: Reinecke and his associates advanced a racial-supremacist discourse which privileged the German Volk as the natural aristocracy of mankind, a position withheld from them by the onus of foreign influence.39

Title heading for Odin, Year 1, No. 38 (July 1899)

This expanded mandate provided the opening for a schism in the ADS. The Berlin chapter was expelled from the central organization after criticizing it for remaining aloof from the untapped potential to grow into a genuine völkisch movement. Pfister-Schwaighusen also denounced the ADS on similar grounds for being out of touch with the popular völkisch currents of the day.40 The Alldeutsche Sprach- und Schriftverein (ASS), which sprang from the erstwhile Berlin chapter on the instigation of Reinecke, expanded on their criticism of the ADS in their founding statement to ascribe insufficient enthusiasm for either the German script or racial purification. What distinguished this breakaway faction was their holistic framework, intertwining language and race in such a way as to render so-called half-measures ineffectual. Whoever fought for the dearest property of the Volk, its language, must ipso facto cultivate a higher conception of their pure German inheritance. The corruption of the German tongue was symptomatic of the deeper decline in the current Volksgeist. A revival of the original language, a legacy of their ancient forebears, was thus imperative in effecting a commensurate renewal of the Volk.41 The ASS was not constrained by national borders in their expansive conception of the German Volk, envisioning something approximate to the Großdeutschland idea, welcoming not only the obligatory Austrians but also Swiss, Tyrolean and Baltic Germans into their embrace. In the estimation of Reinecke and his associates the German Reich in its current manifestation was not coterminous with the true expanse of the German Volk.42 This dissatisfaction with the mere shell of the ideal nation-state informed their particularly intensive cooperation with like-minded Vereine in Austria-Hungary, where the longing for an Anschluß of the sort promulgated by Schönerer held strong.43

At this point one should interject that, crucially, although the protagonists of this movement arrived quite naturally at racialist ideology, such ideas were not an inherent feature of its founding mission; although engaging in the discourse of race, the term was not defined in so narrowly biological terms but rather encompassed a broader range of cultural, linguistic and spiritual associations. Some of the core premises motivating the movement for language purification nevertheless shaded into the more virulent and chauvinistic tenor adopted by the ASS, for whom the crusade for language purification began to assume perceptible racial dimensions. Various initiatives to revive a living connection to the spiritual essence of the German ancestors came close to treating the German tongue as an analogous racial construct with the attendant biological connotations.

Racial Determinism. The example of the language movement suggests that race was contrived in large part to resolve the implicit elasticity of a völkisch identity deriving from a shared language or culture. From a historical perspective, race, as a social construct, is doubly difficult to reference consistently when overlaid by the variable definitions assigned to it in the past. As Hartung reminds us, the term was notoriously arbitrary and indeterminate in its contemporary usage; not only was there no prevailing scientific consensus on race, the central tenets of racism were already firmly established when völkisch theorists were borrowing selectively from scientific findings to support their own constructed paradigms.44

Anti-Semitism, for our purposes, was the practical manifestation of völkisch racism, though by itself the predominance of anti-Jewish prejudice within the radical nationalist milieu does not imply a necessary relationship. Whether its adherents chose to define völkisch ideology positively (in affirmation of the special qualities of the Volk) or negatively (in denigration of those excluded from and/or threatening the Volk) xenophobia and anti-Semitism remained constitutive elements of the worldview. But as a broader phenomenon it cannot be reduced to a single, exclusive cause like that of anti-Semitism, which was still in the process of elaboration as the movement was coalescing. 137584471368ba45_l As Puschner suggests, the multiplicity of individuals and groups credited with the dubious legacy as original founders of the völkisch movement reflects the diversity and indeterminacy of the contemporary organizations and leaders themselves and, by extension, the futility of isolating an original, stable concept of race inspiring the whole movement.45 Although the normative equation of anti-Semitism and völkisch identity was ubiquitous in the movement, especially with reference to Aryan clauses in party programs, some prominent spokesmen strenuously reproached the single-minded emphasis of the political parties and activist groups as being of limited strategic value, recklessly short-sighted and reductive of the fuller meaning of völkisch identity.46 Indeed, other scholars have argued that the anti-Semitic movement and the völkisch movement proper initially developed independently of each other and only converged by the end of the 1880s;47 seen in this context, the underlying impetus of the völkisch movement, after the initial surge of anti-Semitic agitation had faltered by the end of the 1870s, was to recuperate anti-Semitism within a more comprehensive and systematic ideological framework. In point of fact, the anti-Semitic parties throughout this era, such as those founded on the initiative of Adolf Stoecker and Friedrich Naumann, based as they were on narrow class, confessional or regional constituencies, provide a rather more obvious example of “social functionalism” (including its limits) than the later constituted völkisch nationalists, who operated on a consciously ideological platform.48 At this point “racialist” ideas were focused more on positive self-identification than negative “othering,” though the latter was inevitably a concomitant of the former. The reaffirmation and revival of Volk consciousness was the chief consideration in the völkisch discourse when the movement was just starting out and idealist or cultural constructions of race still maintained a foothold against the incipient gridlock of deterministic pseudo-scientific designations. The primary function of anti-Semitism, then, was less to prescribe a deliberate policy program for the Jews than to serve as a discursive aid, a rhetorical foil to the völkisch ideal-type. Anti-Semitism arguably remained a secondary, but necessary, consideration to the quasi-sacral mystification of race, which further served the purpose not only of distinguishing völkisch thought more definitively from the narrowly national purview or single-issue anti-Semitic agitation, but also—and this is crucial—of divorcing itself from the idealist precepts of the 19th century.49

In the völkisch discourse, therefore, we are concerned with two constructions of race—the idealist and the naturalist. While in actuality the dichotomy was rarely so explicit as I present it—like much of völkisch ideology racialism was a gradient phenomenon—it is important to account for the dialectical tension underlying these two perspectives. Scientific racism, the more familiar of the two, insisted on the immutability and fixity of inherited racial traits. In the scholarship on racism, especially in the German context, it has become axiomatic that the increasing elaboration of race into a biological category signaled an inauspicious paradigm shift from this earlier discourse; it thereby acquired a binding force that sealed off the path of cultural assimilation—a pseudoscientific legitimation over which common values held no opposing claim.

Idealist racism, even in its most vulgarized form, shares with the namesake philosophy a belief that the inner spiritual life of the individual exercises a metaphysical power not deriving from the natural laws. Several holdouts maintained an older, more spiritually determined ontology of Volk, which, if it did not outright obviate race, obtained as a distinct quality; otherwise, they simply resorted to relativizing race beyond all usefulness as a classification by compounding with it less tangible qualities like language, spirit, soul and civilization. Friedrich Lienhard, while accepting the premise of different races, held fast to an idealist notion of race—that is, giving priority to an affective and elective affinity of the individual with the Volk over ascriptive determinism—characteristically considering even the scientific trappings of the approach too much of a concession to the pervasive materialism of the times.50 Although Lienhard often expressed anti-Semitic sentiments, he allowed for the theoretical compatibility of “Jewish idealism” and considered anti-Semitism inessential to the self-cultivated identification with and love for one’s own Volk. In his opinion anti-Semitism was simply the negative obverse of völkisch renewal, a stance which informed his exaggerated estimate of the Jews’ baleful influence on German society; his injunction to proactively “be German in blood and spirit and, by extension, in politics and culture, feeling and action” was the best prophylactic against the ravages of modernity, the “true anti-Semitism.”51 Bernhard Förster also exemplifies the ambiguity of idealist anti-Semitism, His Antisemitischen Correspondenz contains a typical expression of giving the rhetorical benefit of the doubt to Jews:

“Every Jew, who surrenders himself with love and conviction to a spiritual inclination, which is un-Jewish in its essence, ceases at that moment to be a Jew ….[This also extends to] Aryan scientific research, art, living for the Volk and the community…whoever devotes himself to such activity with their whole heart and with true love is no longer a Jew.”52

Although in light of what came later one is inclined to give some credit to such attitudes, such idealism still retained a coercive thrust. Even here racial and spiritual-cultural constructions were ontologically imbricated; if they were disinclined to reduce race to biological heredity, idealist racists rather essentialized race in terms of collective values and mindsets. From this ascriptive determination of idealist anti-Semitism followed an intensification of the dictates of assimilation. As Stackelberg gravely reminds us, “Idealist anti-Semitism, an ostensibly benevolent bias…prepared the soil in which, under different conditions, more extreme forms of anti-Semitism could flourish.”53 Still, because a Jew could shed his quintessentially Jewish mentality more easily than his Blut, idealist racism, even as it blurred the line between ostensibly discrete categories, maintained at least a theoretical emphasis on individual agency and moral improvement which distinguished it from biological determinism.

Fritz Erler: Land detail of a mural painting (1913).

All things considered, however, any descriptive determination of völkisch racism which relies on such an analytical distinction will fail to explain adequately why either formulation, by itself, should have manifested such destructive implications in the future. Puschner’s research shows that völkisch thinking was driven by abstraction, idealism, and mysticism, not strictly by biological precepts; this is evident in the majority view of the movement that religious unification and purity would help regenerate the race.54 The real innovation, as Mosse had originally discerned, was actually to ontologically fuse these two interpretations into a metaphysics of race which neutralized both any charitable idealist interpretation and any claim to scientific objectivity; inherited racial traits were, according to this ontology, simply outward reflections of essential and inherent spiritual qualities.55 From here it was a logical step to extrapolate perceived racial differences onto the historical stage, the objectification of an existential struggle of values between Germans and, principally, the Jews.

Myth. With reference to the mythological structure of the race narrative, such intimations of decay and degeneration almost invariably were suffused with a poetics of collective redemption or salvation. Almost all völkisch activists and writers of the prewar period, in fact, were tacitly aware that, if they wished to avoid the fatal pitfalls of an ironclad racial determinism, the fate of the mythical Volk necessarily rested on an affirmative fiction. Such language reveals the extent to which religious modes of thinking retained their vitality in the discourse of myth, despite the unpropitious climate of what appeared to contemporaries to be a progressively secular, rational European society. Although the subjects of his monograph on the German “longing for myth” rest largely outside the chronological and biographical scope of this paper, George Williamson traces the evolution of “mythical narratives that attempted to explain the historical relationships of old and new mythologies to modern society.”56 He finds the origins of this discourse in both a neohumanist appreciation for ancient Greek culture and a Romantic desire for religious renewal in the face of increasing secularization. For Williamson, this quest for common myths, which he defines as “a coherent system of narratives that legitimated the religious and political traditions of a polis,” reflected “the persistence of confessional and theological modes of thought in the modern era”; indeed, the practice of myth-making was part and parcel of “the emergence of the public sphere, national identity, and the formation of collective memory” in modern Germany.57 Instead, he argues, the “longing for myth” reflected the pervasive experience of “dislocation and disorientation” precipitated by industrialization, revolution, and the dissolution of community values in the abstract conception of secular society, compounded by the fragmentation of German society “along confessional, social, and territorial lines”; the splintering of traditional social and cultural bonds gave rise to the desire for an “aesthetic-religious imagery” that would “unite modern society just as Greek mythology had supposedly once united the polis.”58

Im-Tempel-Der-Zweieinheit-Fidus-Hugo-Höppener-1914Fidus (aka Hugo Höppener): Im Tempel der Zweieinheit (1914)

The völkisch quest for an integrative Mythos was an immanent aspect of the ambiguous experience of modernity. Breuer frames his study explicitly within the conceptual framework of “reflexive modernization,” which detects certain entailments of critique and dissatisfaction always already inscribed in the very transition to an industrial society. Where an initial stage of modernity may be characterized by the assertion of powerful ordering principles increasingly implemented through the agency of a state, accompanied by the dream of society’s eventual cohesion and ultimately realized integration, the second stage is predicated around growing uncertainty and skepticism involving instability, complexity, ambivalence, and necessary incompletion. Thus a key manifestation of the advent of “reflexive modernity” at the turn of the twentieth century was the holistic desire for “re-integration,” a “synthetic-harmonizing pattern of thought,” through which its exponents hoped a lost wholeness might be regained.59 In the first place, then, the discourse of myth drew its relevance from the recognition that cultural cohesion was necessary for the articulation of public society. The völkisch project of myth-making thus gained impetus from the paradox of two countervailing trends integral to the nineteenth-century process of secularization: the relegation of religious practice from the public to the private sphere, that is, the transposition of spirituality into individual conscience; and the reflexive desire to diffuse religious modalities into the realms of aesthetic and political culture, that is, to reconstitute an public religion, whereby the consummation of complete harmony between the individual and the national community was to be mediated through a unified, exoteric system of symbols and narratives.

It needs to be emphasized, however, that in the völkisch worldview the state, as an external product of history, had no internal point of reference besides the Volk and so could not act as the sole repository of a lasting national mythology of its own. Myth, as distinct from a manufactured legend, was reducible neither to an antiquarian construct nor a crude function of propaganda—though it usually entailed these partial meanings as well. Rather, in its völkisch articulations, myth, as a form of collective memory, emanated from the autochthonous subconscious of the Volk, buried beneath the cumulative accidents of history. As such it should be postulated that, pace Williamson, völkisch conceptions of myth consciously ran counter to the uncritical distinction between positivistic history and falsifying myth; rather, myth formed the irreducible substrate of the Volk’s historical consciousness. And in a fragmented and rootless society, these narratives were the only recourse available to the völkisch revival, whose vectors could point simultaneously to the lost mythology of Germanic antiquity and to a new mythical era.

Importantly, as a constructive narrative, its truth value was not fixed in itself but suggestive and contingent upon the collective capacity for the German Volk to fully apprehend its eternal quest for self-realization. Because the Volk was a dynamic entity, the political content of its myths was never fixed but could always be reinterpreted according to its changing needs; the vital and operational nature of a mythical past, by stimulating the natural instincts of the Volk, thus formed the basis for present action. A specifically German national myth gained in importance over the course of the nineteenth century and rather ominously encouraged völkisch enthusiasts to think of German history as a distinct passage from catastrophe to redemption.

fa27Ludwig Fahrenkrog: Der Tempel des Schweigens (1920)

Such fantastical and idealized historical constructions formed the backdrop for a litany of simultaneously utopian and dystopian narratives. Psychologically, the movement seems to have been generated by a combination of nearly eschatological hopes—raised by the Reich’s new world power—and apocalyptical fears—of biological, political, cultural, moral, and economic devastation. Around the turn of the century there was a feeling of entering into an age of collective paralysis, and the proliferation of völkisch groups can be restated in temporal terms as the direct response to a diffuse longing for a new age. The hysterical tenor of the commentary is so disproportionate to the actual conditions of contemporary German society that one seems at a loss to diagnose the source of this reaction in a remotely objective manner, but suffice it to say, the response can usually be traced back to an pervasive disillusionment with the situation in Imperial Germany, in which the initial surge of patriotic fervor attending unification was promptly deflated by the onset of new crises in the social, economic and political spheres. Dire critiques of contemporary society went as far back as the so-called forefather of völkisch thought, Paul de Lagarde,59 but all the perceived symptoms of modernity—a grab-bag of rampant materialism, liberalism, partisanship, socialism, urbanization, etc.—seemed to intensify under the auspices of Wilhem II’s rule.61

The publication of these jeremiads, in both fictional and polemical format, is the main subject of Hermand’s study. One can only imagine how even a cursory review of this literary dross must test the limits of endurance, and this material would be of marginal historical value if not for Hermand’s ambitious attempt to read the shifting mood of the times in these texts, united in diagnosing the causes and symptoms of societal decline but whose prescriptions for reformation are highly contested. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of the output of dystopian and utopian writings crowded the transitional period between the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, that threshold in which the discrepancies between the immediate preceding years of Germany’s subjugation and degeneracy and a seemingly imminent future auguring purification and renewal seemed to play out as dramatically on the political scene as on the page.62 By comparison, the relatively stable pre-1914 era should have been less given to apocalyptic forecasts. But, tellingly—and again confirming Eley’s original timeline—even the still quite conservative reign of Wilhelm II produced its own counterreaction in the unambiguously “proto-fascist” “Volkish Opposition.”

Exercised by what they saw as the creeping inertia of an overly moderate regime complacent in the face of its manifest destiny, these nationalists propagandized for an explicitly authoritarian and expansionist political program. The plots of futuristic dystopias gave full vent to the chauvinistic and elitist tendencies of ruling class interests, offering dire panoramas of Germany’s fate, delivered by internal elements into the hands of their foreign enemies. The leveling tendencies of democratization, racial mongrelization and socialism could only checked by reasserting the heroic claims of the Volk culminating in the apotheosis of an imperialist Greater Germany, usually led under the banner of a truly national Führer—demonstrating the anti-dynastic sympathies of most pan-German utopias.63

Antisemitic pamphlet published by the Deutschvölkischer Schutz- und Trutzbund (1919)

Activism. That neither dystopian nor utopian thinking attained an absolute, exclusive claim on the discourse at any particular moment—on the contrary, such narratives only acquired their full rhetorical power from the internal tension between these elements—is indicative of another, if not the crucial defining point underpinning the völkisch project: that is to say, the emphasis laid on activism. The collective agency of the Volk not only acted upon the dynamic tension between dystopian and utopian thought, but more fundamentally modified the fatalism implicit in racial determinism into a dialectical impulse which Mosse traced back to publisher Eugen Diederichs’ “idealism of deeds.”64 This typically entailed more active engagement with contemporary social and political questions. The imperative of an active intervention into the socio-political sphere marked a clear departure from an earlier generation of Romantic thinkers, whose abstinence from modernity (Welt- und Zeitablehnung) and aesthetic escapism (Welterflüchtung) were logical corollaries of a more pure, rarefied tradition of idealism.

Puschner and Breuer both offer a great deal of material on the internal leadership, ideas, institutions, networks but comparatively little on the diffusion and impact of völkisch ideas on the politics, culture, and society of Wilhelmine Germany and its opinion-shaping institutions. Despite the extensive research, including some numbers on subscriptions to journals and memberships in organizations, figures on the total number of Germans who were involved in the völkisch movement before World War I must, by Puschner’s estimation, remain speculative. Hermand’s survey of völkisch literature suffers from a similar deficiency in conclusive quantitative data, in that he furnishes no figures on the number of copies printed or sold; the actual impact of these dreadful novels, likewise, is a matter of speculation. One can safely, however, assume “that broad sections of the German people were confronted and came in contact with völkisch ideas.”65 This is due mainly to the völkisch movement’s eminently modern character as a dispersed network of activists with overlapping memberships, which probably went a long way to ensuring its dynamic capacity for “agitation and propaganda, as well as infiltration and networking.”66 The Heimatschutzbewegung provides a textbook example of how the movement linked up with more mainstream, reformist causes to appropriate their ideas and integrate them within their distinctly racial worldview (Puschner deploys the metaphor of Trittbrettfahrer [“free-rider”] to characterize this strategy).67 They also potentially provided a prime outlet for “entryist” tactics, that is, insinuating völkisch slogans and tropes into the broader moderate discourse.

It is less certain from the present studies whether this diffuse influence translated into sustained political gains during the Wilhelmine period—along with Breuer, I am inclined to answer in the negative. The obverse of the völkisch movement’s extended reach is the outstanding fact that it never coalesced into any kind of unified, centralized umbrella organization and in point of fact was inherently fragmented and philosophically opposed to any kind of unity or centralization.68 The modern völkisch movement, such that it was, emerged out of a very specific context—the demographic, economic and social instability of the Wilhelmine period. And in all likelihood, had it not been for the outbreak of World War I and the consequent radicalization of nationalist tendencies, along with the threatening profile of the far-left (despite its swift suppression by the early 1920s), in the long term it would have disintegrated or otherwise “have faded into marginality.”69 But alas.



1. George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964), 13.
2. Mosse, Crisis of German Ideology, 16-17.
3. Fritz Stern, The Failure of Illiberalism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972).
4. Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1961), xv.
5. As a rule it is poor form to presume about the motivations of individual historians, but in the case of Mosse and Stern it would be remiss not to suggest provisionally whether, as German-Jewish exiles of liberal, assimilated background, their generation’s personal proximity to the traumatic events of the 1930 and 1940s, might have obviated the critical distance necessary for their research.
6. Roderick Stackelberg, Idealism Debased: From Völkisch Ideology to National Socialism (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1981), 160.
7. Geoff Eley, “German History and the Contradictions of Modernity: The Bourgeoisie, the State, and the Mastery of Reform,” in Society, Culture, and the State in Germany 1870-1930, ed. Geoff Eley. Social History, Popular Culture, and Politics in Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 83-90.
8. Helmut Walser Smith, “When the Sonderweg Debate Left Us,” in Revisiting Imperial Germany: Continuing Debates and New Perspectives, eds. Cornelius Torp and Sven Oliver Müller (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011), 25-31.
9. Jürgen Kocka, “Asymmetrical Historical Comparison: The Case of the German Sonderweg,” History and Theory 38.1 (February 1999), 45-46.
10. Recent examples include Thomas Rohkrämer, A Single Communal Faith? The German Right from Conservatism to National Socialism. Monographs in German History 20 (New York: Berghahn Book, 2007); Wolf Lepenies, The Seduction of Culture in German History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).
11. See Uwe Lohalm, Völkischer Radikalismus. Die Geschichte des Deutschvölkischen Schutz- und Trutz-Bundes 1919-1923 (Hamburg: Leibniz-Verlag, 1970); Roger Chickering, We Men Who Feel Most German: A Cultural Study of the Pan-German League, 1886-1914 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1984).
12. Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Politics and Society and Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).
13. Geoff Eley, “Introduction 1: Is There a History of the Kaiserreich?” in Society, Culture, and the State, 1-15; Geoff Eley and James Retallack, “Introduction,” in Wilhelminism and Its Legacies: German Modernities, Imperialism, and the Meanings of Reform, 1890—1930, eds. Geoff Eley and James Retallack (New York: Berghahn Books, 2003), 1-15.
14. Geoff Eley, “Making a Place in the Nation: Meanings of ‘Citizenship’ in Wilhelmine Germany,” in Wilhelminism, 16-33.
15. Geoff Eley, The Reshaping of the German Right: Radical Nationalism and Political Change after Bismarck (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980).
16. Jost Hermand, Old Dreams of a New Reich: Völkisch Utopias and National Socialism, trans. Paul Levesque and Stefan Soldovieri (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992), xi-xiii.
17. See John Breuilly, “Theories of Nationalism and the Critical Approach to German History,” in Revisiting Imperial Germany, 68-70; Geoff Eley, Ronald Griger Suny, eds., Becoming National: A Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
18. Uwe Puschner, Die völkischen Bewegung im wilhelminischen Reich: Sprache – Rasse – Religion (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2001), 12-13.
19. Puschner, Die völkischen Bewegung, 51.
20. Puschner, Die völkischen Bewegung, 22-23. As Puschner admits upfront, in some cases, publication holdings were fragmentary; some newspapers could only be reconstructed secondhand through bibliographies or contemporary reviews. Properly tracing and attributing authorship sometimes presented an additional challenge.
21. Stefan Breuer, Die Völkischen in Deutschland: Kaiserreich und Weimarer Republik (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2008), 12-22.
22. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 28. And in point of fact, Uwe Puschner considers Pfister-Schwaighusen and his colleague Adolf Reinecke the closest to founding fathers that the modern völkisch movement had, which opened its first front on the terrain of Sprachpurismus.
23. Brian Vick, “The Origins of the Volk: Notion of Cultural Purity and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Germany,” German Studies Review 36.2 (May 2003), 242-248.
24. Mosse, Crisis of German Ideology, 14-17.
25. Günter Hartung, “Völkische Ideologie,” in Handbuch zur “Völkischen Bewegung” 1871-1918. eds. Uwe Puschner, Walter Schmitz and Justus H. Ulbricht (Munich: De Gruyter Saur, 2012), 23.
26. Hermand, Old Dreams, 5-21.
27. Lawrence Birken, “Volkish Nationalism in Perspective,” The History Teacher 27.2 (February 1994), 133.
28. See Erin R. Hochman, “Ein Volk, ein Reich, eine Republik: Großdeutsch National and Democratic Politics in the Weimar and First Austrian Republics,” German History 32.1 (March 2014), 29-52.
29. See Eric Kurlander, The Price of Exclusion: Ethnicity, National Identity, and the Decline of German Liberalism, 1898-1933. Monographs in German History 10 (New York: Berghan Books, 2006), 2, 4-5.
30. Birken, “Volkish Nationalism in Perspective,” 133.
31. Eley, Reshaping of the German Right, 198-200.
32. Eley, Reshaping of the German Right, 165-166.
33. Eley, Reshaping of the German Right, 176-178.
34. Eley, Reshaping of the German Right, 166-167.
35. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 29-39.
36. Gergeley Romsics, The Memory of the Habsburg Empire in German, Austrian and Hungarian Right-Wing Historiography and Political Thinking, 1918-1941, trans. Thomas Cooper (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 83-89.
37. Hartung, “Völkische Ideologie,” 25-26.
38. Quoted in Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 33.
39. Quoted in Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 35.
40. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 35.
41. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 36.
42. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 36-37.
43. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 38.
44. Hartung, “Völkische Ideologie,” 36-37.
45. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 50.
46. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 51-52.
47. Breuer, Die Völkischen in Deutschland, 23-24; Hartung, “Völkische Ideologie”, 27-28.
48. Hartung, “Völkische Ideologie,” 29.
49. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 66-67.
50. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 71-72; Stackelberg, Idealism Debased, 89-92.
51. Quoted in Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 56.
52. Quoted in Breuer, Die Völkischen in Deutschland, 45.
53. Stackelberg, Idealism Debased, 91-92.
54. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 204.
55. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 204.
56. George S. Williamson, The Longing for Myth in Germany: Religion and Aesthetic Culture from Romanticism to Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 11.
57. Williamson, Longing for Myth, 7.
58. Williamson, Longing for Myth, 298-299.
59. Breuer, Die Völkischen in Deutschland, 13-20.
60. Stern, Politics of Cultural Despair, 3-82.
61. Rudiger vom Bruch, “Wilhelminismus – Zum Wandel von Milieu und politischer Kultur,” in Handbuch zur “Völkischen Bewegung”, 3-21.
62. Hermand, Old Dreams, 102-115, 131-143, 158-182.
63. Hermand, Old Dreams, 38-41.
64. Mosse, Crisis of German Ideology, 60.
65. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 286.
66. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 286.
67. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 151.
68. Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, 285-288; Breuer, Die Völkischen in Deutschland, 140-144.
69. Breuer, Die Völkischen in Deutschland, 144.

Peukert et al. on Weimar as Case Study for Pathologies of “Modernity” (Review)

Detlev J. K. Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. Translated by Richard Deveson. New York: Hill & Wang, 1992. xviii + 334 pp.

The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, written by Detlev J. K. Peukert (1950-1990) and translated from the original 1987 German in 1992, represented a fitting, if premature, capstone for a prodigious output of work in the then maturing fields of Alltagsgeschichte  and Widerstandsgeschichte in the context of the the Third Reich, documenting in great detail the effect of Nazi social policies on “ordinary” Germans and persecuted minorities, as well as Communist resistance to the regime. A promising career of further insightful and provocative contributions to the field was unfortunately cut short by the ravages of AIDS, and if the book presently under discussion is any indication, we were robbed of a critical and stimulating perspective in the ensuing debates over the relative balance and interplay of regressive and progressive tendencies in modern German society—a debate Peukert himself was partially responsible for instigating.

One of the book’s central arguments—certainly its most convincing—is that Weimar represented one of the first, if not the very first, modern welfare state. Granted that some of the specific social provisions had precedents in the Kaiserreich (i.e., Bismarck’s unemployment insurance program), but the Weimar constitution’s scope was hugely expanded not only quantitatively but also qualitatively, as it extended into universal education, public housing, unemployment benefits. Crucially, however, this welfare state had its inception during a decade of economic stagnation, or even contraction in some sectors, seriously restricted its room to maneuver, particularly in its capacity to distribute state funds, upon which the precariouslegitimacy of the so-called “trade union state” was ultimately incumbent.1 In other words, bereft of a founding mythology on which to stake its political survival and dependent on the qualified support of an intact bureaucracy and military, the Republic could only promise to hand out smaller pieces of the pie. To give just one salient example of this quid pro quo, the continuation of hyper-inflationary policies, initially implemented by the old regime to sustain wartime production, gave the newly instated Zentralarbeitsgemeinschaft agreement, with its mechanisms of labor arbitration and union representation, an extended artificial lease on life which promptly was quickly revoked under the conditions enacted by the Dawes Plan of 1924. As a consequence of currency stabilization, capitalists had to shift rising production costs from the world market back onto workers, precipitating protracted wage struggles, while economic rationalization and international competition meant that long-term unemployment became a structural feature of the later political landscape, reaching levels of around 50% in some industries towards the end of the Republic.

This study signaled a wider turn in twentieth-century German historiography that ramified beyond the specific arguments put forth about the Weimar period. In a signal departure from a school of social history which emphasized the outsize influence of preindustrial elites, retention of antidemocratic institutions and structural lag in key economic sectors in Germany, in other words the “persistence of the old regime,” as the title of Arno J. Mayer’s book on the same topic, generalized across Europe, puts it2—and that Nazism constituted the continuation and culmination of this legacy—Peukert contends that the Third Reich in a certain sense embodied the same internal contradictions of modernity under which its predecessor collapsed. Nazism emerges from this reading, then, not simply as an atavistic episode, a clinical mass psychotic reaction against modernity, but rather as an eminently 20th-century phenomenon—a dynamic movement uniquely primed to harness the potential of an expanded government sphere in the age of mass politics. This concern is neatly encapsulated in the unifying theme of totalitarianism, a concept to which he refers regularly to tie together several discrete strands of political thinking in this decade-and-a-half. The promulgation at the outset of World War I of a chimerical Burgfrieden, which promised the abeyance of domestic conflict, and the attendant attempt of the conservative-military complex to place “war socialism” on a permanent corporatist footing were derailed by the adverse outcome of the war and its domestic aftershocks. Yet they offered models of “chauvinistic integration under the hegemony of the military-conservative complex that was eventually to reach its fatal culmination in the era of totalitarianism.”3 The combined circumstances of a disintegrating military front, domestic upheaval and imposed peace terms dictated that the Weimar constitution, rather than emerging more or less “organically” out of a homegrown tradition of liberal and/or republican political theory, would take the form of a transparent “compromise document,” devised to accommodate the competing interests of an complex class society with established parliamentary institutions, yet

it was her very modernity that made Germany susceptible to the temptation to avoid resolving her internal conflicts within a social-liberal constitutional and political system, and instead to displace the pressure externally, resorting to an aggressive, authoritarian, nationalistic system dominated by a military-industrial complex.4

But it is in the following excursion into the realm of social reform that our author reveals most clearly his indebtedness to Foucauldian and Weberian modes of analysis—whereby ostensibly progressive reform, administered via a sophisticated bureaucratic state apparatus, accordingly takes on an increasingly sinister and coercive cast of “social engineering.”5 His thesis here is essentially an expansion on arguments first made in adumbrated form in an influential 1981 essay, “Die Genesis der ‘Endlösung’ aus dem Geist der Wissenschaft” (reproduced in English in 1993), in which he related the (internal) logic of Nazi atrocities back to a technocratic vision of positivistic social improvement. The gradual perfection of society by means of public education, state intervention and scientific endeavor had been an article of faith among progressive reformers since the Enlightenment, but the acute stresses of the modern era set in motion a “fatally racist dynamic” within scientific disciplines whereby the normative value of individual wellbeing was divided into qualitative categories and subordinated to the collective health of the body politic (Volkskörper). Criteria of life and death relative to the perpetuation of the race are subject to public negotiation.6 Geoff Eley basically endorses this viewpoint as follows, with clear references to Foucault:

The ambivalence of reform and the difficulties of assimilating the actual “modernizing” initiatives of the turn of the century to the progressive or liberal-democratic normativity…concerns the dynamics of disciplinary power…the framing and application to the “social body” of new knowledges of science and ambitions of control….it was precisely the most striking manifestations of modern scientific and technocratic ambition in the sphere of social policy that laid the way for Nazi excess….[Eugenics] convened biomedical knowledge, public health, and racial thought on the ground of social policy, and it was there that not only the politics of the family and motherhood but also the most progressive achievements of the Weimar welfare state were completely embedded.7

In a sense, this sort of argument will not sound unfamiliar to those acquainted with the assertions of Critical Theory from Adorno and Horkheimer through to a slew of post-modernists who boldly claim that the totalitarian excesses of the twentieth century represented the apotheosis of the Enlightenment project. But it was only by the early 1980s that trained historians began to examine these ideas more systematically in their particular contexts. Peukert, along with his like-minded colleagues, dealt a substantial blow to uncritical versions of the Sonderweg thesis, along with the adjacent notion that humane ideals must correspond in a linear fashion to “progressive” or modernizing trends. Far from “normalizing” Nazism, these critiques implied that there is nothing normatively stable nor innocuous about the modernization process as such.

Peukert’s thesis, however, has drawn a fair amount of criticism in turn. In the first place, Peukert, in the attempt to draw substantive continuity from Weimar-era reforms to the “racial hygiene” program implemented by the Nazis, from domestic eugenics policies culminating in mass extermination, assigns a greater coherence and unity to the welfare project than is supported by the evidence. Arguably, public opinion towards social welfare in the republican period proved too fractious, its implementation too inconsistent—to provide a popular mandate for its radical extension into family planning, public health, and youth education by racial criteria. As David Crew, who has reconstructed contemporary debates over the proper scale and scope of social welfare in his full-length study Germans on Welfare: From Weimar to Hitler (1998), argues in a separate essay, the welfare state had more proximate causes in the exigent demands of post-war reconstruction and, far from winning adherents to positivist designs for holistic reform, it constituted an arena in which myriad ideological, cultural and material interests to compete for control over limited state funds, leaving little space for disinterested experts to carve out a policy.8 “The discourse on welfare at the end of Weimar was dominated by a mounting ideological backlash against the utopian ambitions of the welfare state, not,” pace Peukert, “by eugenic reformulations of this utopia.”9 Given how prominently themes of conflict, contingency and compromise shape the rest of the book, it strikes the reader as odd that our author should choose to deemphasize these same elements at this particular juncture. More recent forays into the subject of social policy in modern Germany, such as Michelle Mouton’s From Nurturing the Nation to Purifying the Volk: Weimar and Nazi Family Policy, 1918-1945, improve upon Peukert’s speculations precisely to the extent that they foreground not only the divergent responses of various social groups to state mandates under both governments but also the quite dramatic departures themselves taken by the Nazis in state policy design.10 It is for this very reason that Peukert, in conflating the motives and agendas of diverse institutional agents, understates the important fact, which he himself concedes, that eugenicists and various related proponents of “racial science” exerted practically zero influence on policy at either the federal or local level before the Nazi’s capture of the state.

Furthermore, the analytical reorientation towards the institutional practices and discursive politics attendant to bureaucracies and medical-scientific professions almost inevitably prejudiced sympathetic scholars towards both the initial phase of domestic sterilization and euthanasia programmes (most notoriously, the Aktion T4 initiative) and the organization of the extermination camps proper—at the expense of any necessary link between these discrete events. Without treading too deeply into the functionalist vs. intentionalist debate, suffice it to say that the regime of regulated terror which prevailed in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Sobibor and elsewhere was the late development of a campaign of annihilation up to that point carried out largely by improvised conventional and archaic means. Any account of the Holocaust which neglects to connect the later and earlier stages of total war will necessarily leave out part of the explanation. As elsewhere, Peukert arguably searched for continuity in the short-term while missing deeper-set developments.

Along these lines, Helmut Walser Smith, while also appreciative of Peukert’s particular insights, is on the whole skeptical towards the very framing itself of the central questions guiding the research, in that he isolates potentially eliminationist tendencies in Germany from their contemporary, transnational contexts.11 This shift in emphasis not only obscures a common European legacy embedded in colonial policy and racist doctrine, but it further begs the question as to which conditions should have allowed the theoretical positions laid out by scientific racism to realize themselves so fully in one country and not in others. It is this very line of interpretation which he credits, by way of painterly metaphor, for foreshortening the “vanishing point” of German history from 1933 to 1941, shifting the register from the root causes of political authoritarianism to the theory and application of eliminationist racism without tracing “historically profound roots” which made such proposals possible in logistical terms but, more importantly, morally conceivable in light of previous standards of human solidarity.12

While some readers may thus find some of his more general conclusions overdrawn and excessively abstract, Peukert’s study did the salutary service of revising established paradigms and throwing up challenges to scholarly consensus that still powerfully shape Holocaust studies—though many of his points about Weimar itself are uncontroversial now. From a Marxist perspective, there is a further argument to be made for how, under Weimar’s less-than-propitious circumstances, party politics devolved into a crude form of clientelism, exposing the hollow, internal contradictions of both progressive capitalism and liberal democracy, though its implications are not fully articulated. Likewise, eugenic selection as a comprehensive strategy for controlling welfare costs is a provocative and strikingly plausible proposition;13 as uninformed and alarmist as talk of “death panels” in the specific context of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was, there is, unfortunately, very real precedent for such procedures. The book has much to recommend it for, say, a college seminar on the period, where it is guaranteed to generate debate. While it doesn’t offer a similarly synoptic view of the period offered by Eric Weitz’s, Jost Hermand’s or Peter Gay’s more general survey texts, it presents for that same reason a much more focused, streamlined argument. Peukert’s decision to regularly summarize the main takeaways from a particular section in enumerated form helps to maintain the overall flow and readability of the text.

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1. Detlev J. K. Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, trans. Richard Deveson (New York: Hill & Wang, 1992), 118-128, 130-146.
2. Arno J. Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981).
3. Peukert, Weimar Republic, 24.
4. Peukert, Weimar Republic, 51.
5. Peukert, Weimar Republic, 134-136.
6. Detlev J. K. Peukert, “The Genesis of the ‘Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science,” in Reevaluating the Third Reich, eds. Thomas Childers and Jane Caplan (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1993), 234-252.
7. Geoff Eley, “German History and the Contradictions of Modernity: The Bourgeoisie, the State, and the Mastery of Reform,” in Society, Culture, and the State in Germany 1870-1930, ed. Geoff Eley (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 101.
8. David Crew, “The Ambiguities of Modernity: Welfare and the German State from Wilhelm to Hitler,” in Society, Culture, and the State in Germany 1870-1930, ed. Geoff Eley (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 325-328.
9. Crew, “Ambiguities of Modernity,” 341-342.
10. Michelle Mouton, From Nurturing the Nation to Purifying the Volk: Weimar and Nazi Family Policy, 1918-1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
11. Helmut Walser Smith, The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 192.
12. Smith, Continuities of German History, 1-12.
13. Peukert, Weimar Republic, 139-140, 145-146.