The Influence of the Populist Volkisch Movement in Nazi Germany’s Fascist Development
The Völkischen was a German national conservative movement that rose in prominence during the Weimar Republic.
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Völkisch movement was a German ethno-nationalist movement active from the late 19th century through to the Nazi era, with remnants in the Federal Republic of Germany afterwards. Erected on the idea of “blood and soil”, inspired by the one-body-metaphor (Volkskörper, “ethnic body”; literally “body of the people”), and by the idea of naturally grown communities in unity, it was characterized by organicism, racialism, populism, agrarianism, romantic nationalism and – as a consequence of a growing exclusive and ethnic connotation – by antisemitism from the 1900s onward. Völkisch nationalists generally considered the Jews to be an “alien people” who belonged to a different Volk (“race” or “folk”) from the Germans.
The Völkisch movement was not a homogeneous set of beliefs, but rather a “variegated sub-culture” that rose in opposition to the socio-cultural changes of modernity. The “only denominator common” to all Völkisch theorists was the idea of a national rebirth, inspired by the traditions of the Ancient Germans which had been “reconstructed” on a romantic basis by the adherents of the philosophy. This rebirth would have been achieved by either “Germanizing” Christianity – an Abrahamic and “Semitic” religion that spread into Europe from the Near East – or by rejecting any Christian heritage that existed in Germany in order to revive pre-Christian Germanic paganism. In a narrow definition, the term is used to designate only groups that consider human beings essentially preformed by blood, or by inherited characteristics.
The Völkischen are often encompassed in a wider Conservative Revolution by scholars, a German national conservative movement that rose in prominence during the Weimar Republic (1918–1933).
During the period of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis believed in and enforced a definition of the German Volk which excluded Jews, the Romani people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and other “foreign elements” living in Germany. Their policies led to these “undesirables” being rounded up and murdered in large numbers, in what became known as The Holocaust.
Translation and Definition
The adjective Völkisch is derived from the German word Volk (cognate with the English “folk”), which has overtones of “nation”, “race” or “tribe”. While Völkisch has no direct English equivalent, it could be loosely translated as “ethno-nationalist”, “ethnic-chauvinist”, “ethnic-popular”, or, closer to its original meaning, as “bio-mystical racialist”.
If Völkisch writers used terms like Nordische Rasse (“Nordic race”) and Germanentum (“Germanic peoples”), their concept of Volk could, however, also be more flexible, and understood as a Gemeinsame Sprache (“common language”), or as an Ausdruck einer Landschaftsseele (“expression of a landscape’s soul”), in the words of geographer Ewald Banse.
The defining idea which the Völkisch movement revolved around was that of a Volkstum, literally the “folkdom” or the “culture of the Volk“. Other associated German words include Volksboden (the “Volk’s essential substrate”), Volksgeist (the “spirit of the Volk“), Volksgemeinschaft (the “community of the Volk“), as well as Volkstümlich (“folksy” or “traditional”) and Volkstümlichkeit (the “popular celebration of the Volkstum“).
The Völkisch movement was not unified but rather “a cauldron of beliefs, fears and hopes that found expression in various movements and were often articulated in an emotional tone”. According to historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Völkisch denoted the “national collectivity inspired by a common creative energy, feelings and sense of individuality. These metaphysical qualities were supposed to define the unique cultural essence of the German people.” Journalist Peter Ross Range writes that “Völkisch is very hard to define and almost untranslatable into English. The word has been rendered as popular, populist, people’s, racial, racist, ethnic-chauvinist, nationalistic, communitarian (for Germans only), conservative, traditional, Nordic, romantic – and it means, in fact, all of those. The völkisch political ideology ranged from a sense of German superiority to a spiritual resistance to ‘the evils of industrialization and the atomization of modern man,’ wrote scholar David Jablonsky. But its central component, as Harold J. Gordon, Jr., noted, was always racism”.
Völkisch thinkers tended to idealize the myth of an “original nation”, that still could be found at that time in the rural regions of Germany, a form of “primitive democracy freely subjected to their natural elites.” The notion of “people” (Volk) subsequently turned into the idea of a “racial essence”, and Völkisch thinkers referred to the term as a birth-giving and quasi-eternal entity—in the same way as they would write on “the Nature”—rather than a sociological category.
The movement combined sentimental patriotic interest in German folklore, local history and a “back-to-the-land” anti-urban populism with many parallels in the writings of William Morris. “In part this ideology was a revolt against modernity”, Nicholls remarked. As they sought to overcome what they felt was the malaise of a scientistic and rationalistic modernity, Völkisch authors imagined a spiritual solution in a Volk‘s essence perceived as authentic, intuitive, even “primitive”, in the sense of an alignment with a primordial and cosmic order.
Origins in the 19th Century
The Völkisch movement emerged in the late 19th century, drawing inspiration from German Romanticism and the history of the Holy Roman Empire, and what many saw as its harmonious hierarchical order. The delayed unification of the German-speaking peoples under a single German Reich in the 19th century is cited as conducive to the emergence of the Völkisch movement.
Despite the previous lower-class connotation associated to the word Volk, the Völkisch movement saw the term with a noble overtone suggesting a German ascendancy over other peoples. Thinkers led by Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882), Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1854–1936), Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855–1927), Ludwig Woltmann (1871–1907) and Alexis Carrel (1873–1944) were inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in advocating a “race struggle” and a hygienist vision of the world. They had conceptualized a racialist and hierarchical definition of the peoples of the world where Aryans (or Germans) had to be at the summit of the white race. The purity of the bio-mystical and primordial nation theorized by the Völkisch thinkers then began to be seen as having been corrupted by foreign elements, Jewish in particular.
Before World War I
The same word Volk was used as a flag for new forms of ethnic nationalism, as well as by international socialist parties as a synonym for the proletariat in the German lands. From the left, elements of the folk-culture spread to the parties of the middle classes.
Although the primary interest of the Germanic mystical movement was the revival of native pagan traditions and customs (often set in the context of a quasi-theosophical esotericism), a marked preoccupation with purity of race came to motivate its more politically oriented offshoots, such as the Germanenorden (the Germanic or Teutonic Order), a secret society founded at Berlin in 1912 which required its candidates to prove that they had no “non-Aryan” bloodlines and required from each a promise to maintain purity of his stock in marriage. Local groups of the sect met to celebrate the summer solstice, an important neopagan festivity in völkisch circles (and later in Nazi Germany), and more regularly to read the Eddas as well as some of the German mystics.
Not all folkloric societies with connections to Romantic nationalism were located in Germany. The Völkisch movement was a force as well in Austria. Meanwhile, the community of Monte Verità (‘Mount Truth’) which emerged in 1900 at Ascona, Switzerland is described by the Swiss art critic Harald Szeemann as “the southernmost outpost of a far-reaching Nordic lifestyle-reform, that is, alternative movement”.
The political agitation and uncertainty that followed World War I nourished a fertile background for the renewed success of various Völkish sects that were abundant in Berlin at the time, but if the Völkisch movement became significant by the number of groups during the Weimar Republic, they were not so by the number of adherents. A few Völkische authors tried to revive what they believed to be a true German faith (Deutschglaube), by resurrecting the cult of the ancient Germanic gods. Various occult movements such as ariosophy were connected to Völkisch theories, and artistic circles were largely present among the Völkischen, like the painters Ludwig Fahrenkrog (1867-1952) and Fidus (1868-1948). By May 1924, essayist Wilhelm Stapel perceived the movement as capable of embracing and reconciling the whole nation: in his view, Völkisch had an idea to spread instead of a party programme and were led by heroes — not by “calculating politicians”. Scholar Petteri Pietikäinen also observed Völkisch influences on Carl Gustav Jung.
Influence on Nazism
The völkisch ideologies were influential in the development of Nazism. Indeed, Joseph Goebbels publicly asserted in the 1927 Nuremberg rally that if the populist (völkisch) movement had understood power and how to bring thousands out in the streets, it would have gained political power on 9 November 1918 (the outbreak of the SPD-led German Revolution of 1918–1919, end of the German monarchy). Nazi racial understanding was couched in völkisch terms, as when Eugen Fischer delivered his inaugural address as Nazi rector, The Conception of the Völkisch state in the view of biology (29 July 1933). Karl Harrer, the Thule Society member most directly involved in the creation of the DAP in 1919, was sidelined at the end of the year when Hitler drafted regulations against conspiratorial circles, and the Thule Society was dissolved a few years later. The völkisch circles handed down one significant legacy to the Nazis: In 1919, Thule Society member Friedrich Krohn designed the original version of the Nazi swastika.
In January 1919, the Thule Society was instrumental in the foundation of the German Workers’ Party (DAP), which later became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), commonly called the Nazi Party. Thule Society members or visiting guests of the Thule Society who would later join the Nazi Party included Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckart and Karl Harrer. Notably, Adolf Hitler was never a member of the Thule Society and Rudolf Hess and Alfred Rosenberg were only visiting guests of the Thule Society in the early years before they came to prominence in the Nazi movement. After being appointed Chairman of the NSDAP in 1921, Hitler moved to sever the party’s link with the Thule Society, expelling Harrer in the process; the Society subsequently fell into decline and was dissolved in 1925.
- Camus & Lebourg 2017, pp. 16–18.
- Longerich, Peter (15 April 2010). Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews. OUP Oxford.
- Joseph W. Bendersky (2000). A History of Nazi Germany: 1919-1945. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 34.
- Dohe 2016, p. 36.
- Koehne 2014, p. 760: “As Roger Griffin has argued, a “striking feature of the sub-culture … was just how prolific and variegated it was … [T]he only denominator common to all was the myth of national rebirth. A number of historians have suggested that the leaders of the NSDAP adhered either to paganism or to an ‘Aryanized’ Christian faith. Uwe Puschner has noted that two major “religious concepts and camps” existed in the völkisch movement beginning around 1900. One camp advocated an ‘Aryanized’ German-Christianity, the other a ‘revival of the pre-Christian religion of the ancient Germans.’ Yet Puschner argues, at the same time, that ‘völkisch schemes of religion’ formed a spectrum: from attempts ‘to germanize Christianity, to a decisive rejection of Christianity and the creation of new Germanic religions.'”
- Hans Jürgen Lutzhöft (1971). Der Nordische Gedanke in Deutschland 1920–1940 (Stuttgart. Ernst Klett Verlag), p. 19.
- Dupeux, Louis (1992). La Révolution conservatrice allemande sous la République de Weimar (in French). Kimé.
- François 2009.
- Christopher Hutton (2005). Race and the Third Reich: Linguistics, Racial Anthropology and Genetics in the Dialectic of Volk. Polity. pp. 93, 105, 150. ISBN 978-0-7456-3177-6.
- James Webb. 1976. The Occult Establishment. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court., pp. 276–277
- Ullrich, Volker (2016). Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939. Translated by Jefferson Chase. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
- Georg Schmidt-Rohr: Die Sprache als Bildnerin. 1932.
- Ewald Banse. Landschaft und Seele. München 1928, p. 469.
- Brüggemeier, Franz-Josef; Cioc, Mark; Zeller, Thomas (2005). How Green Were the Nazis?: Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich. Ohio University Press. p. 259.
- Poewe, Karla; Hexham, Irving (2009). “The Völkisch Modernist Beginnings of National Socialism: Its Intrusion into the Church and Its Antisemitic Consequence”. Religion Compass. 3 (4): 676–696.
- “volkstümlich | translate German to English: Cambridge Dictionary”. dictionary.cambridge.org. Retrieved 1 November 2019.
- Petteri Pietikäinen, “The Volk and Its Unconscious: Jung, Hauer and the ‘German Revolution'”. Journal of Contemporary History 35.4 (October 2000: 523–539), p. 524
- Goodrick-Clarke 1985, p. 3.
- Peter Ross Range (2016), 1924: The Year That Made Hitler, New York: Little, Brown and Company. p. 27.
- Dupeux, Louis (1992). La Révolution conservatrice allemande sous la République de Weimar (in French). Kimé. pp. 115–125.
- A. J. Nicholls, reviewing George L. Mosse, The Crisis in German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich, in The English Historical Review 82 No. 325 (October 1967), p. 860. Mosse was characterised as “the foremost historian of völkisch ideology” by Petteri Pietikäinen 2000:524 note 6.
- George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1966) sees this in the context of a broader revolt against modernity, contrasting healthy rural life with the debased materialism of city culture.
- “The Swastika and the Nazis”. Intelinet.org.
- Austrian manifestations were surveyed by Rudolf G. Ardelt, Zwischen Demoktratie und Faschismus: Deutschnationales Gedankengut in Österreich, 1919-1930 (Vienna and Salzburg) 1972, not translated into English.
- Heidi Paris and Peter Gente (1982). Monte Verita: A Mountain for Minorities. Translated by Hedwig Pachter, Semiotext, the German Issue IV(2):1.
- Lutzhöft, Hans-Jürgen (1971). Der Nordische Gedanke in Deutschland 1920-1940 (in German). Klett. p. 19.
- Boutin, Christophe (1992). Politique et tradition: Julius Evola dans le siècle, 1898–1974 (in French). Editions Kimé. pp. 264–265.
- Goodrick-Clarke 1985, p. 15.
- Wilhelm Stapel, “Das Elementare in der völkischen Bewegung”, Deutsches Volkstum, 5 May 1924, pp. 213–15.
- Dietrich Orlow (23 June 2010). The Nazi Party 1919-1945: A Complete History. Enigma Books. p. 135.
- Franz Weidenreich in Science, New Series, 104, No. 2704 (October 1946:399).
- Goodrick-Clarke 1985, pp. 150, 221.
- Hitler, Adolf (1943). Mein Kampf. Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 496.
- Goodrick-Clarke 1985, pp. 149, 201.
- Goodrick-Clarke 1985, p. 221.
- Camus, Jean-Yves; Lebourg, Nicolas (2017). Far-Right Politics in Europe. Harvard University Press.
- Dohe, Carrie B. (2016). Jung’s Wandering Archetype: Race and religion in analytical psychology. Routledge.
- François, Stéphane (2009). “Qu’est ce que la Révolution Conservatrice ?”. Fragments sur les Temps Présents (in French). Retrieved 23 July 2019.
- Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas (1985). The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology (1992 ed.). New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-3060-7.
- Koehne, Samuel (2014). “Were the National Socialists a Völkisch Party? Paganism, Christianity, and the Nazi Christmas”. Central European History. 47 (4): 760–790.
- Kurlander, Eric (2002). “The Rise of Völkisch-Nationalism and the Decline of German Liberalism: A Comparison of Liberal Political Cultures in Schleswig-Holstein and Silesia 1912-1924”. European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire. 9 (1): 23–36.
- Mosse, George L. (1964). The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins Of The Third Reich. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
- Obermair, Hannes (2020). “Großdeutschland ruft!” Südtiroler NS-Optionspropaganda und völkische Sozialisation – “La Grande Germania chiamaǃ” La propaganda nazionalsocialista sulle Opzioni in Alto Adige e la socializzazione ‘völkisch’ (in German and Italian). Tyrol Castle: South Tyrolean Museum of History.
- Stern, Fritz (1961). The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (1974 ed.). University of California Press.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 02.08.2004, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.