Military history

THE STRANGE LIFE AND WORKS OF H. S. CHAMBERLAIN

Among the zealous members of the Gobineau Society in Germany was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose life and works constitute one of the most fascinating ironies in the inexorable course of history which led to the rise and fall of the Third Reich.

This son of an English admiral, nephew of a British field marshal, Sir Neville Chamberlain, and of two British generals, and eventually son-in-law of Richard Wagner, was born at Portsmouth in 1855. He was destined for the British Army or Navy, but his delicate health made such a calling out of the question and he was educated in France and Geneva, where French became his first language. Between the ages of fifteen and nineteen fate brought him into touch with two Germans and thereafter he was drawn irresistibly toward Germany, of which he ultimately became a citizen and one of the foremost thinkers and in whose language he wrote all of his many books, several of which had an almost blinding influence on Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler and countless lesser Germans.

In 1870, when he was fifteen, Chamberlain landed in the hands of a remarkable tutor, Otto Kuntze, a Prussian of the Prussians, who for four years imprinted on his receptive mind and sensitive soul the glories of militant, conquering Prussia and also—apparently unmindful of the contrasts—of such artists and poets as Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller and Wagner. At nineteen Chamberlain fell madly in love with Anna Horst, also a Prussian, ten years his senior and, like him, highly neurotic. In 1882, at the age of twenty-seven, he journeyed from Geneva, where he had been immersed for three years in studies of philosophy, natural history, physics, chemistry and medicine, to Bayreuth. There he met Wagner who, as he says, became the sun of his life, and Cosima, the composer’s wife, to whom he would remain passionately and slavishly devoted all the rest of his days. From 1885, when he went with Anna Horst, who had become his wife, to live for four years in Dresden, he became a German in thought and in language, moving on to Vienna in 1889 for a decade and finally in 1909 to Bayreuth, where he dwelt until his death in 1927. He divorced his idolized Prussian wife in 1905, when she was sixty and even more mentally and physically ill than he (the separation was so painful that he said it almost drove him mad) and three years later he married Eva Wagner and settled down near Wahnfried, where he could be near his wife’s mother, the revered, strong-willed Cosima.

Hypersensitive and neurotic and subject to frequent nervous breakdowns, Chamberlain was given to seeing demons who, by his own account, drove him on relentlessly to seek new fields of study and get on with his prodigious writings. One vision after another forced him to change from biology to botany to the fine arts, to music, to philosophy, to biography to history. Once, in 1896, when he was returning from Italy, the presence of a demon became so forceful that he got off the train at Gardone, shut himself up in a hotel room for eight days and, abandoning some work on music that he had contemplated, wrote feverishly on a biological thesis until he had the germ of the theme that would dominate all of his later works: race and history.

Whatever its blemishes, his mind had a vast sweep ranging over the fields of literature, music, biology, botany, religion, history and politics. There was, as Jean Réal26 has pointed out, a profound unity of inspiration in all his published works and they had a remarkable coherence. Since he felt himself goaded on by demons, his books (on Wagner, Goethe, Kant, Christianity and race) were written in the grip of a terrible fever, a veritable trance, a state of self-induced intoxication, so that, as he says in his autobiography, Lebenswege, he was often unable to recognize them as his own work, because they surpassed his expectations. Minds more balanced than his have subsequently demolished his theories of race and much of his history, and to such a French scholar of Germanism as Edmond Vermeil Chamberlain’s ideas were essentially “shoddy.” Yet to the anti-Nazi German biographer of Hitler, Konrad Heiden, who deplored the influence of his racial teachings, Chamberlain “was one of the most astonishing talents in the history of the German mind, a mine of knowledge and profound ideas.”

The book which most profoundly influenced that mind, which sent Wilhelm II into ecstasies and provided the Nazis with their racial aberrations, was Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (Grundlagen des Neunzehnten Jahrhunderts) a work of some twelve hundred pages which Chamberlain, again possessed of one of his “demons,” wrote in nineteen months between April 1, 1897, and October 31, 1898, in Vienna, and which was published in 1899.

As with Gobineau, whom he admired, Chamberlain found the key to history, indeed the basis of civilization, to be race. To explain the nineteenth century, that is, the contemporary world, one had to consider first what it had been bequeathed from ancient times. Three things, said Chamberlain: Greek philosophy and art, Roman law and the personality of Christ. There were also three legatees: the Jews and the Germans, the “two pure races,” and the half-breed Latins of the Mediterranean—“a chaos of peoples,” he called them. The Germans alone deserved such a splendid heritage. They had, it is true, come into history late, not until the thirteenth century. But even before that, in destroying the Roman Empire, they had proved their worth. “It is not true,” he says, “that the Teutonic barbarian conjured up the so-called ‘Night of the Middle Ages’; this night followed rather upon the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the raceless chaos of humanity which the dying Roman Empire had nurtured; but for the Teuton, everlasting night would have settled upon the world.” At the time he was writing he saw in the Teuton the only hope of the world.

Chamberlain included among the “Teutons” the Celts and the Slavs, though the Teutons were the most important element. However, he is quite woolly in his definitions and at one point declares that “whoever behaves as a Teuton is a Teuton whatever his racial origin.” Perhaps here he was thinking of his own non-German origin. Whatever he was, the Teuton, according to Chamberlain, was “the soul of our culture. The importance of each nation as a living power today is dependent upon the proportion of genuinely Teutonic blood in its population … True history begins at the moment when the Teuton, with his masterful hand, lays his grip upon the legacy of antiquity.”

And the Jews? The longest chapter in Foundations is devoted to them. As we have seen, Chamberlain claimed that the Jews and the Teutons were the only pure races left in the West. And in this chapter he condemns “stupid and revolting anti-Semitism.” The Jews, he says, are not “inferior” to the Teuton, merely “different.” They have their own grandeur; they realize the “sacred duty” of man to guard the purity of race. And yet as he proceeds to analyze the Jews, Chamberlain slips into the very vulgar anti-Semitism which he condemns in others and which leads, in the end, to the obscenities of Julius Streicher’s caricatures of the Jews in Der Stuermer in Hitler’s time. Indeed a good deal of the “philosophical” basis of Nazi anti-Semitism stems from this chapter.

The preposterousness of Chamberlain’s views is quickly evident. He has declared that the personality of Christ is one of the three great bequests of antiquity to modern civilization. He then sets out to “prove” that Jesus was not a Jew. His Galilean origins, his inability to utter correctly the Aramaic gutturals, are to Chamberlain “clear signs” that Jesus had “a large proportion of non-Semitic blood.” He then makes a typically flat statement: “Whoever claimed that Jesus was a Jew was either being stupid or telling a lie…. Jesus was not a Jew.”

What was he then? Chamberlain answers: Probably an Aryan! If not entirely by blood, then unmistakably by reason of his moral and religious teaching, so opposed to the “materialism and abstract formalism” of the Jewish religion. It was natural then—or at least it was to Chamberlain—that Christ should become “the God of the young Indo-European peoples overflowing with life,” and above all the God of the Teuton, because “no other people was so well equipped as the Teutonic to hear this divine voice.”

There follows what purports to be a detailed history of the Jewish race from the time of the mixture of the Semite or Bedouin of the desert with the roundheaded Hittite, who had a “Jewish nose,” and finally with the Amontes, who were Aryans. Unfortunately the Aryan mixture—the Amorites, he says, were tall, blond, magnificent—came too late to really improve the “corrupt” Hebrew strain. From then on the Englishman, contradicting his whole theory of the purity of the Jewish race, finds the Jews becoming a “negative” race, “a bastardy,” so that the Aryans were justified in “denying” Israel. In fact, he condemns the Aryans for giving the Jews “a halo of false glory.” He then finds the Jews “lamentably lacking in true religion.”

Finally, for Chamberlain the way of salvation lies in the Teutons and their culture, and of the Teutons the Germans are the highest-endowed, for they have inherited the best qualities of the Greeks and the Indo-Aryans. This gives them the right to be masters of the world. “God builds today upon the Germans alone,” he wrote in another place. “This is the knowledge, the certain truth, that has filled my soul for years.”

   Publication of Foundations of the Nineteenth Century created something of a sensation and brought this strange Englishman sudden fame in Germany. Despite its frequent eloquence and its distinguished style—for Chamberlain was a dedicated artist—the book was not easy reading. But it was soon taken up by the upper classes, who seem to have found in it just what they wanted to believe. Within ten years it had gone through eight editions and sold 60,000 copies and by the time of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 it had reached a sale of 100,000. It flourished again in the Nazi time and I remember an announcement of its twenty-fourth edition in 1938, by which time it had sold more than a quarter of a million copies.

Among its first and most enthusiastic readers was Kaiser Wilhelm II. He invited Chamberlain to his palace at Potsdam and on their very first meeting a friendship was formed that lasted to the end of the author’s life in 1927. An extensive correspondence between the two followed. Some of the forty-three letters which Chamberlain addressed to the Emperor (Wilhelm answered twenty-three of them) were lengthy essays which the ruler used in several of his bombastic speeches and statements. “It was God who sent your book to the German people, and you personally to me,” the Kaiser wrote in one of his first letters. Chamberlain’s obsequiousness, his exaggerated flattery, in these letters can be nauseating. “Your Majesty and your subjects,” he wrote, “have been born in a holy shrine,” and he informed Wilhelm that he had placed his portrait in his study opposite one of Christ by Leonardo so that while he worked he often paced up and down between the countenance of his Savior and his sovereign.

His servility did not prevent Chamberlain from continually proffering advice to the headstrong, flamboyant monarch. In 1908 the popular opposition to Wilhelm had reached such a climax that the Reichstag censored him for his disastrous intervention in foreign affairs. But Chamberlain advised the Emperor that public opinion was made by idiots and traitors and not to mind it, whereupon Wilhelm replied that the two of them would stand together—“You wield your pen; I my tongue (and) my broad sword.”

And always the Englishman reminded the Emperor of Germany’s mission and its destiny. “Once Germany has achieved the power,” he wrote after the outbreak of the First World War, “—and we may confidently expect her to achieve it—she must immediately begin to carry out a scientific policy of genius. Augustus undertook a systematic transformation of the world, and Germany must do the same … Equipped with offensive and defensive weapons, organized as firmly and flawlessly as the Army, superior to all in art, science, technology, industry, commerce, finance, in every field, in short; teacher, helmsman, and pioneer of the world, every man at his post, every man giving his utmost for the holy cause—thus Germany … will conquer the world by inner superiority.”

For preaching such a glorious mission for his adopted country (he became a naturalized German citizen in 1916, halfway through the war) Chamberlain received from the Kaiser the Iron Cross.

   But it was on the Third Reich, which did not arrive until six years after his death but whose coming he foresaw, that this Englishman’s influence was the greatest. His racial theories and his burning sense of the destiny of the Germans and Germany were taken over by the Nazis, who acclaimed him as one of their prophets. During the Hitler regime books, pamphlets and articles poured from the presses extolling the “spiritual founder” of National Socialist Germany. Rosenberg, as one of Hitler’s mentors, often tried to impart his enthusiasm for the English philosopher to the Fuehrer. It is likely that Hitler first learned of Chamberlain’s writings before he left Vienna, for they were popular among the Pan-German and anti-Semitic groups whose literature he devoured so avidly in those early days. Probably too he read some of Chamberlain’s chauvinistic articles during the war. In Mein Kampf he expresses the regret that Chamberlain’s observations were not more heeded during the Second Reich.

Chamberlain was one of the first intellectuals in Germany to see a great future for Hitler—and new opportunities for the Germans if they followed him. Hitler had met him in Bayreuth in 1923, and though ill, half paralyzed, and disillusioned by Germany’s defeat and the fall of the Hohenzollern Empire—the collapse of all his hopes and prophecies!—Chamberlain was swept off his feet by the eloquent young Austrian. “You have mighty things to do,” he wrote Hitler on the following day, “… My faith in Germanism had not wavered an instant, though my hope—I confess—was at a low ebb. With one stroke you have transformed the state of my soul. That in the hour of her deepest need Germany gives birth to a Hitler proves her vitality; as do the influences that emanate from him; for these two things—personality and influence—belong together … May God protect you!”

This was at a time when Adolf Hitler, with his Charlie Chaplin mustache, his rowdy manners and his violent, outlandish extremism, was still considered a joke by most Germans. He had few followers then. But the hypnotic magnetism of his personality worked like a charm on the aging, ill philosopher and renewed his faith in the people he had chosen to join and exalt. Chamberlain became a member of the budding Nazi Party and so far as his health would permit began to write for its obscure publications. One of his articles, published in 1924, hailed Hitler, who was then in jail, as destined by God to lead the German people. Destiny had beckoned Wilhelm II, but he had failed; now there was Adolf Hitler. This remarkable Englishman’s seventieth birthday, on September 5, 1925, was celebrated with five columns of encomiums in the Nazi Voelkischer Beobachter, which hailed his Foundations as the “gospel of the Nazi movement,” and he went to his grave sixteen months later—on January 11, 1927—with high hope that all he had preached and prophesied would yet come true under the divine guidance of this new German Messiah.

Aside from a prince representing Wilhelm II, who could not return to German soil, Hitler was the only public figure at Chamberlain’s funeral. In reporting the death of the Englishman the Voelkischer Beobachter said that the German people had lost “one of the great armorers whose weapons have not yet found in our day their fullest use.” Not the half-paralyzed old man, dying, not even Hitler, nor anyone else in Germany, could have foreseen in that bleak January month of 1927, when the fortunes of the Nazi Party were at their lowest ebb, how soon, how very soon, those weapons which the transplanted Englishman had forged would be put to their fullest use, and with what fearful consequences.27

   Yet Adolf Hitler had a mystical sense of his personal mission on earth in those days, and even before. “From millions of men … one man must step forward,” he wrote in Mein Kampf (the italics are his), “who with apodictic force will form granite principles from the wavering idea-world of the broad masses and take up the struggle for their sole correctness, until from the shifting waves of a free thought-world there will arise a brazen cliff of solid unity in faith and will.”28

He left no doubt in the minds of readers that he already considered himself that one man. Mein Kampf is sprinkled with little essays on the role of the genius who is picked by Providence to lead a great people, even though they may not at first understand him or recognize his worth, out of their troubles to further greatness. The reader is aware that Hitler is referring to himself and his present situation. He is not yet recognized by the world for what he is sure he is, but that has always been the fate of geniuses—in the beginning. “It nearly always takes some stimulus to bring the genius on the scene,” he remarks. “The world then resists and does not want to believe that the type, which apparently is identical with it, is suddenly a very different being; a process which is repeated with every eminent son of man … The spark of a genius,” he declares, “exists in the brain of the truly creative man from the hour of his birth. True genius is always inborn and never cultivated, let alone learned.”29

Specifically, he thought, the great men who shaped history were a blend of the practical politician and the thinker. “At long intervals in human history it may occasionally happen that the politician is wedded to the theoretician. The more profound this fusion, the greater are the obstacles opposing the work of the politician. He no longer works for necessities which will be understood by the first good shopkeeper, but for aims which only the fewest comprehend. Therefore his life is torn between love and hate. The protest of the present, which does not understand him, struggles with the recognition of posterity—for which he also works. For the greater a man’s works are for the future, the less the present can comprehend them; the harder his fight …”30

These lines were written in 1924, when few understood what this man, then in prison and discredited by the failure of his comic-opera putsch, had in mind to do. But Hitler had no doubts himself. Whether he actually read Hegel or not is a matter of dispute. But it is clear from his writings and speeches that he had some acquaintance with the philosopher’s ideas, if only through discussions with his early mentors Rosenberg, Eckart and Hess. One way or another Hegel’s famous lectures at the University of Berlin must have caught his attention, as did numerous dictums of Nietzsche. We have seen briefly* that Hegel developed a theory of “heroes” which had great appeal to the German mind. In one of-the Berlin lectures he discussed how the “will of the world spirit” is carried out by “world-historical individuals.”

They may be called Heroes, inasmuch as they have derived their purposes and their vocation, not from the calm regular course of things, sanctioned by the existing order; but from a concealed fount, from that inner Spirit, still hidden beneath the surface, which impinges on the outer world as on a shell and bursts it into pieces. Such were Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon. They were practical, political men. But at the same time they were thinking men, who had an insight into the requirements of the time—what was ripe for development. This was the very Truth for their age, for their world … It was theirs to know this nascent principle, the necessary, directly sequent step in progress, which their world was to take; to make this their aim, and to expend their energy in promoting it. World-historical men—the Heroes of an epoch—must therefore be recognized as its clear-sighted ones; their deeds, their words are the best of their time.31

Note the similarities between this and the above quotation from Mein Kampf. The fusion of the politician and the thinker—that is what produces a hero, a “world-historical figure,” an Alexander, a Caesar, a Napoleon. If there was in him, as Hitler had now come to believe, the same fusion, might he not aspire to their ranks?

In Hitler’s utterances there runs the theme that the supreme leader is above the morals of ordinary man. Hegel and Nietzsche thought so too. We have seen Hegel’s argument that “the private virtues” and “irrelevant moral claims” must not stand in the way of the great rulers, nor must one be squeamish if the heroes, in fulfilling their destiny, trample or “crush to pieces” many an innocent flower. Nietzsche, with his grotesque exaggeration, goes much further.

The strong men, the masters, regain the pure conscience of a beast of prey; monsters filled with joy, they can return from a fearful succession of murder, arson, rape and torture with the same joy in their hearts, the same contentment in their souls as if they had indulged in some student’s rag … When a man is capable of commanding, when he is by nature a “Master,” when he is violent in act and gesture, of what importance are treaties to him? … To judge morality properly, it must be replaced by two concepts borrowed from zoology: the taming of a beast and the breeding of a specific species.32

Such teachings, carried to their extremity by Nietzsche and applauded by a host of lesser Germans, seem to have exerted a strong appeal on Hitler.* A genius with a mission was above the law; he could not be bound by “bourgeois” morals. Thus, when his time for action came, Hitler could justify the most ruthless and cold-blooded deeds, the suppression of personal freedom, the brutal practice of slave labor, the depravities of the concentration camp, the massacre of his own followers in June 1934, the killing of war prisoners and the mass slaughter of the Jews.

   When Hitler emerged from Landsberg prison five days before Christmas, 1924, he found a situation which would have led almost any other man to retire from public life. The Nazi Party and its press were banned; the former leaders were feuding and falling away. He himself was forbidden to speak in public. What was worse, he faced deportation to his native Austria; the Bavarian state police had strongly recommended it in a report to the Ministry of the Interior. Even many of his old comrades agreed with the general opinion that Hitler was finished, that now he would fade away into oblivion as had so many other provincial politicians who had enjoyed a brief moment of notoriety during the strife-ridden years when it seemed that the Republic would totter.*

But the Republic had weathered the storms. It was beginning to thrive. While Hitler was in prison a financial wizard by the name of Dr. Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht had been called in to stabilize the currency, and he had succeeded. The ruinous inflation was over. The burden of reparations was eased by the Dawes Plan. Capital began to flow in from America. The economy was rapidly recovering. Stresemann was succeeding in his policy of reconciliation with the Allies. The French were getting out of the Ruhr. A security pact was being discussed which would pave the way for a general European settlement (Locarno) and bring Germany into the League of Nations. For the first time since the defeat, after six years of tension, turmoil and depression, the German people were beginning to have a normal life. Two weeks before Hitler was released from Landsberg, the Social Democrats—the “November criminals,” as he called them—had increased their vote by 30 per cent (to nearly eight million) in a general election in which they had championed the Republic. The Nazis, in league with northern racial groups under the name of theNational Socialist German Freedom movement, had seen their vote fall from nearly two million in May 1924 to less than a million in December. Nazism appeared to be a dying cause. It had mushroomed on the country’s misfortunes; now that the nation’s outlook was suddenly bright it was rapidly withering away. Or so most Germans and foreign observers believed.

But not Adolf Hitler. He was not easily discouraged. And he knew how to wait. As he picked up the threads of his life in the little two-room apartment on the top floor of 41 Thierschstrasse in Munich during the winter months of 1925 and then, when summer came, in various inns on the Obersalzberg above Berchtesgaden, the contemplation of the misfortunes of the immediate past and the eclipse of the present, served only to strengthen his resolve. Behind the prison gates he had had time to range over in his mind not only his own past and its triumphs and mistakes, but the tumultuous past of his German people and its triumphs and errors. He saw both more clearly now. And there was born in him anew a burning sense of mission—for himself and for Germany—from which all doubts were excluded. In this exalted spirit he finished dictating the torrent of words that would go into Volume One of Mein Kampf and went on immediately to Volume Two. The blueprint of what the Almighty had called upon him to do in this cataclysmic world and the philosophy, the Weltanschauung, that would sustain it were set down in cold print for all to ponder. That philosophy, however demented, had roots, as we have seen, deep in German life. The blueprint may have seemed preposterous to most twentieth-century minds, even in Germany. But it too possessed a certain logic. It held forth a vision. It offered, though few saw this at the time, a continuation of German history. It pointed the way toward a glorious German destiny.

* “It is useless,” he wrote at the end of the second volume, “to reopen wounds that seem scarcely healed; … useless to speak of guilt regarding men who in the bottom of their hearts, perhaps, were all devoted to their nation with equal love, and who only missed or failed to understand the common road.” For a man so vindictive as Hitler, this showed unexpected tolerance of those who had crushed his rebellion and jailed him; or, in view of what happened later to Kahr and others who crossed him, it was perhaps more a display of will power—an ability to restrain himself momentarily for tactical reasons. At any rate, he refrained from recrimination.

* Like most writers, Hitler had his difficulties with the income tax collector—at least, as we shall see, until he became the dictator of Germany.

* The italics are mine.

* The italics are Hitler’s.

* The italics are Hitler’s.

* “Without my imprisonment,” Hitler remarked long afterward, “Mein Kampf would never have been written. That period gave me the chance of deepening various notions for which I then had only an instinctive feeling … It’s from this time, too, that my conviction dates—a thing that many of my supporters never understood—that we could no longer win power by force. The state had had time to consolidate itself, and it had the weapons.” (Hitler’s Secret Conversations, p. 235.) The remark was made to some of his cronies at headquarters on the Russian front on the night of February 3–4, 1942.

* In a sense the German working class made a similar trade. To combat socialism Bismarck put through between 1883 and 1889 a program for social security far beyond anything known in other countries. It included compulsory insurance for workers against old age, sickness, accident and incapacity, and though organized by the State it was financed by employers and employees. It cannot be said that it stopped the rise of the Social Democrats or the trade unions, but it did have a profound influence on the working class in that it gradually made them value security over political freedom and caused them to see in the State, however conservative, a benefactor and a protector. Hitler, as we shall see, took full advantage of this state of mind. In this, as in other matters, he learned much from Bismarck. “I studied Bismarck’s socialist legislation,” Hitler remarks in Mein Kampf (p. 155), “in its intention, struggle and success.”

* “I have often felt,” Goethe once said, “a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people, which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality. A comparison of the German people with other peoples arouses a painful feeling, which I try to overcome in every possible way.” (Conversation with H. Luden on December 13, 1813, in Goethes Gespraeche, Auswahl Biedermann; quoted by Wilhelm Roepke in The Solution of the German Problem, p. 131.)

* Women, whom Nietzsche never had, he consigned to a distinctly inferior status, as did the Nazis, who decreed that their place was in the kitchen and their chief role in life to beget children for German warriors. Nietzsche put the idea this way: “Man shall be trained for war and woman for the procreation of the warrior. All else is folly.” He went further. In Thus Spake Zarathustra he exclaims: “Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip!”—which prompted Bertrand Russell to quip, “Nine women out of ten would have got the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women …”

* My own recollection is confirmed by Otto Tolischus in his They Wanted War, p. 11.

* Though not in France.

* See above, p. 98.

* See above, pp. 86–87, for quotations from Mein Kampf.

* As late as 1929, Professor M. A. Gerothwohl, the editor of Lord D’Abernon’s diaries, wrote a footnote to the ambassador’s account of the Beer Hall Putsch in which, after mention of Hitler’s being sentenced to prison, he added: “He was finally released after six months and bound over for the rest of his sentence, thereafter fading into oblivion.” Lord D’Abernon was the British ambassador in Berlin from 1920 to 1926 and worked with great skill to strengthen the Weimar Republic.

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