Paving The Way For Hitler’s Rise: The Religion of Nazi Germany
Back in the 18th century, before Germany was Germany, it was a land of superstition and pseudo-scientific spiritualism. Occultism was rampant as intellectuals rebelled against the French Age of Reason which, in their view, sacrificed a people’s spiritual core to the god of sterile rationalism. Influential philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder extolled the merits of the Germanic cultural inheritance and urged his countrymen to take pride in their own language and customs. He spoke of the folk-nation, the volk, which encompassed the traditions and the national spirit or “soul” of the race. This nationalism based on race would be a motivating concept in the Germanic people’s drive for territorial unity—for the creation of Germany.
At the turn of the century, Professor Johann Gottlieb Fichte picked up where other apostles of Germanic statism, like Immanuel Kant, Novalis and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel, had left off. His Sketch of a Critique of all Revelation (1792) asserted that, “It is the state alone that unites an indeterminate multitude of human beings into an enclosed whole, into a totality.” In The Closed Commercial State (1800), he advocated government control of production, trade and agriculture right down to a citizen’s choice of vocation. The state would be self-sufficient, conquering other lands to procure resources as needed. Foreigners would be expelled and Germans living abroad emigrated back. Here was National Socialism transcribed, a century before Hitler.
Prussia’s military defeat by Napoleon in 1806 didn’t dampen the conviction that German culture was superior to the French but merely heightened the call to purify the German land of foreign language and customs, for only genuine members of the volk possessed the spirit of the volk, and only they would sacrifice themselves to the nation’s welfare. Joseph Gorres contributed his doctrine of unity based upon race and blood, and Schelling expounded on the organic nature of the state, the embodiment of volk science, art and religion. The individual was illusion, the state all, he declared. Schleiermacher agreed: nationality was God manifesting itself on the Earth. Prussian society was placed on military footing, the new universities charged with promoting patriotism, and the army modernized, in the effort to throw off French hegemony.
And so it was. The 1815 defeat of Napoleon left Prussia in a dominant position among the German principalities. Adam Heinrich Muller said that the state was “…itself a person, a free whole…” and that through the totalitarian collective the German achieved immortality; the state was the only religion the German needed. But the great determinant of the state’s power was economic might, and this required national unity.
Fichte died in 1814 and Hegel took his chair at the University of Berlin. Like Muller, he saw the state as a conscious and divine entity, the medium by which the world-spirit advanced. As the wellspring of the divine will, the state could do no wrong, then. His influence was deep and diffuse. (Marx extracted much of his historical materialism and communism from Hegel, replacing world-spirit with economic environment and state with class).
It was no surprise that the 1848 democracy movements, which rooted government in the rights of the individual, were ill-received by the German people for they espoused views alien to their, by then, established thinking. Richard Wagner denounced the Frenchman’s democracy and the un-German culture of the Jew. Wagner’s friend Count Arthur de Gobineau laid out the case for the superiority of the white race, and of the Aryan over the other whites. Darwin’s theory of 1859 provided the scientific gloss. They painted the German as the wellspring of human progression, struggling against the biological/cultural decadence of the West. In Wagner’s operas Norse heroes and gods portrayed the mythology of the race. Here was true religion for the pagan volk. Gobineau took upon himself the office of high priest of Odin, Thor and Frey.
About the same time, Nietzsche was writing that the goal of life was not happiness, as the decadent West thought, but power. Power was the highest virtue. Truth was established by power. Might was right. He hated Christianity which elevated the weak and contemptible. What was needed was a race of supermen who would dictate their own morality. Understandably, he referred to himself as a Wagnerian (Hitler would also be infatuated with Wagner).
The long awaited German unity came with Bismarck. As Frederick had melded Prussia into a socialized unity, so Bismarck united and Prussianized all of Germany, confounding Austria with adroit political maneuvering before crushing her and her confederates with that great facilitator of diplomacy, the Prussian Army. Liberal forces that might have resisted his unconstitutional seizure of power within Germany crumbled under the weight of his political and military successes (as they would bow to Hitler’s power politics). After the defeat of the French at Sedan in 1871, Prussian hegemony over Germany was absolute and the German unity achieved—the German god-state.
And it became powerful, this new god. Although German industrialization had lagged Britain by about a century, by 1900 German industrial output had surpassed all other European countries. It now had the means to project its power internationally.
Meanwhile, at the University of Berlin, Treitschke was expounding the glories of the state and of war. He praised Machiavelli who “sacrifices right and virtue to a great idea, the might and unity of his people.” For twenty years, he instilled these doctrines into the youth of Germany, echoing his predecessors.
Ludwig Schemann succeeded Gobineau as the apostle of Germanic biological superiority and Wagner’s son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain carried the baton for racial purity. He called for German science, German philosophy, German religion, and so on. The Socialist leader, Ferdinand Lassalle, revealed that tribe’s leanings: “The state is a unity of individuals in a moral whole, a unity which increases a million-fold the powers of all the particular persons who are included in the union; this unity multiplies a million-fold the powers which would be at the disposal of them all as individuals.” “We must forge our wills together into a single hammer, and must lay this hammer in the hands of a man whose intelligence, character, and goodwill we have the necessary confidence, in order that he may be able to strike with his hammer!” This longed-for Fuhrer of Germanity arrived with the ascent of Wilhelm II to the throne in 1888. The new emperor referred to his friend Chamberlain as, “my spiritual midwife”.
German scientists like Ludwig Woltmann endeavored to prove the superiority of the Aryan race and historians like Karl Lamprecht preached pan-Germanism to the youth. From the University of Berlin, socialist Eugen Duhring continued the call for a controlled economy and a nation of pure blood Germans. Laws were introduced to reduce Jewish influence and antisemitism became an instrument to raise folk consciousness. Adolf Stocker carried Duhring’s university-tenured antisemitism to the masses. Tirpitz’s aggressive foreign policy drove France, Russia and England into the Triple Alliance, setting the board for the First World War.
Snippets of German thinking surface during the war. General Friedrich von Bernhardi expressed the view that war decides right and wrong because the victor is proved to be biologically superior. Chancellor Bulow justified Germany’s violation of Belgian and Luxembourgian neutrality by declaring, “I feel no embarrassment in saying here publically that for Germany right can never be a governing consideration.” Diplomacy contradicted the natural laws of development that favored advanced races, after all; war was the way of superior peoples, progress demanded it. After decades of racist and nationalist grounding, and of economic and military triumph, the German people demanded it too.
The liberal Friedrich Naumann opined that the allies’ hostility towards Germany stemmed from the consciousness of their own inability to match the German social organization where all citizens—scientists, doctors, teachers, clergy, artists—were melded into one socialist unity. Only the German had the spirit to surrender his individuality to the collective. Of the French and British, “They do not want this disciplined soul, they do not want it because that would be death and surrender of their own soul.” The allied peoples were by nature democrats, while the Germans were spiritually wired for the higher order of socialism. Thomas Mann agreed, the west hated German kultur because they knew the German was destined to subdue its inferiors.
Once again, as in 1806, the loss of the war did nothing to shake this belief in German preeminence. The myth circulated, and was widely believed, that they had lost, not because of the superiority of the enemy, but because the German state had been betrayed by non-Aryans living in its midst. The way forward was clear: the army must be rebuilt, national storehouses constructed to defeat the blockade, and the traitorous Jew and other racial impurities neutralized.
Between the wars, radical leftists sought to bring Germany under the aegis of international communism but the socialist president Ebert used the Freikorps to crush them; not even the socialists wanted to be ruled by the Kremlin. (In retrospect, given the Gehenna that Rosa Luxemburg’s allies were to make of Russia, one can’t be optimistic that things would have turned out better for Germany had the Spartacist’s prevailed over the Nazis).
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