Modern history



Towards the end of 1889, a Berlin primary school headmaster, Hermann Ahlwardt, was facing the prospect of financial ruin. Born in 1846 into an impoverished family in Pomerania, he found the income he earned in his lowly position in the Prussian educational hierarchy too little to cover his considerable daily living expenses. In desperation, he committed a crime that seemed almost deliberately calculated to shock the sensibilities of his superiors: he stole money from the funds collected to pay for the children’s Christmas party at his school. Soon enough, his misdemeanour was discovered and he was dismissed from his post. This deprived him of his last remaining source of income. Many people would have been crushed by these disasters and overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and remorse. But not Hermann Ahlwardt. ‘The headmaster’, as he soon came to be known by the general public, decided to go onto the offensive. Looking around for someone to blame for his misfortunes, his attention quickly focused on the Jews.44

Germany’s Jewish community at this time was a highly acculturated, successful group distinguished from other Germans mainly by its religion.45 In the course of the nineteenth century, civil disabilities attaching to non-Christians in the German states had gradually been removed, much as formal religious discrimination in other countries had been abolished - for example, in Britain through Catholic Emancipation in 1829. The last remaining legal impediments to full and equal legal rights were swept away with German unification in 1871. Now that civil marriage had been introduced in place of religious ceremonies all over Germany, the number of intermarriages between Jews and Christians began to grow rapidly. In Breslau, for instance, there were 35 Jewish-Christian marriages for every 100 purely Jewish marriages by 1915, compared with only 9 in the late 1870s. Very few of the Christian partners in such marriages came from the families of converted Jews themselves, and the marriages were scattered right across the social scale. In 1904, 19 per cent of Jewish men in Berlin and 13 per cent of Jewish women married Christian partners. In Düsseldorf, a quarter of all Jews who married had Christian partners in the mid-1900s, rising to a third by 1914. By the eve of the First World War, there were 38 intermarriages for every 100 purely Jewish marriages; in Hamburg the figure was as high as 73. Jews also began to convert to Christianity in growing numbers; 11,000 converted in the first seventy years of the nineteenth century and 11,500 in the remaining three decades. Between 1880 and 1919, some 20,000 German Jews were baptized. Success was slowly dissolving the identity of the Jewish community as an enclosed religious group.46

The 600,000 or so practising Jews who lived in the German Empire were a tiny religious minority in an overwhelmingly Christian society, constituting around 1 per cent of the population as a whole. Excluded for centuries from traditional sources of wealth such as landowning, they remained outside the ranks of the Reich’s establishment as informal social discrimination continued to deny them a place in key institutions such as the army, the universities and the top ranks of the civil service; indeed, their access to such institutions actually declined in the 1890s and 1900s.47 Converted Jews suffered sufficiently from everyday antisemitism for many of them to change their names to something more Christian-sounding.48 As many as 100,000 German Jews reacted to discrimination in the nineteenth century by emigrating, notably to the United States; but most stayed, particularly as the economy began to boom towards the end of the century. Those who remained were concentrated in the larger towns and cities, with a quarter of Germany’s Jews living in Berlin by 1910, and nearly a third by 1933. Within these cities they clustered into particular districts; nearly half of Hamburg’s Jews lived in the two middle-class precincts of Harvestehude and Rotherbaum in 1885, nearly two-thirds of Frankfurt’s Jews in four of the city’s fourteen precincts in 1900; 70 per cent of Berlin’s Jews lived in five central and western districts, most of them overwhelmingly middle class, by 1925. Even in the cities with the largest Jewish populations - Berlin, Breslau and Frankfurt - they constituted a very tiny minority, making up no more than 4.3 per cent, 6.4 per cent and 7.1 per cent of the population respectively in 1871.49

Many Jews found a place in business and the professions. Alongside the great banking family of the Rothschilds there emerged many other important Jewish-owned finance houses, such as the banking firm of Bleichröder, to whom Bismarck entrusted his personal finances.50 New types of retailing such as the department stores, of which there were about 200 in Germany before the First World War, often had Jewish owners such as the Tietz family or the Wertheim brothers.51 Jewish men were particularly well represented in medicine, the law, science and research, university teaching, journalism and the arts.52 The Jewish community was turning slowly from an ostracized religious minority into one ethnic group among many in an increasingly multi-cultural society, alongside other minorities like Poles, Danes, Alsatians, Sorbs and the rest. Like the other groups, it had its own increasingly secular representative institutions, notably the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith, founded in 1893. Unlike most of the other groups, however, it was generally economically successful, and, rather than having their own political party, its members tended to join, and sometimes take leading positions in, mainstream political parties, particularly on the left and in the centre of the political spectrum. Most Jews identified strongly with German nationalism, and if the liberal parties were particularly attractive to them, this was not least because of their unequivocal support for the creation of a German nation-state.53 By and large, then, the Jewish story in the late nineteenth century was a success story, and Jews were associated above all with the most modern and progressive developments in society, culture and the economy.54

It was developments such as these that made the Jews the target for disgruntled and unscrupulous agitators like Hermann Ahlwardt. For the disaffected and the unsuccessful, those who felt pushed aside by the Juggernaut of industrialization and yearned for a simpler, more ordered, more secure, more hierarchical society such as they imagined had existed in the not-too-distant past, the Jews symbolized cultural, financial and social modernity. Nowhere was this more the case than in Ahlwardt’s adopted city of Berlin. In 1873, the city’s economy was dealt a hammer-blow when the frantic round of spending and investing that had accompanied the euphoria of the Reich’s foundation came to an abrupt end. A worldwide economic depression, sparked by the failure of railway investments in the United States, brought widespread bankruptcies and business failures in Germany. Small businesses and workshops were particularly badly hit. In their incomprehension of the wider forces that were destroying their livelihood, those most severely affected found it easy to believe the claims of Catholic and conservative journalists that Jewish financiers were to blame.

As the depression went on, the journalists were joined by the court preacher Adolf Stocker. A man of humble origin who embarked on a crusade to win back the working classes from the influence of Social Democracy, Stocker founded a Christian Social Party that fought elections in the 1880s on an explicitly antisemitic platform. The new cause was aided by Max Libermann von Sonnenberg, who helped organize a national petition for the removal of Jews from public positions in 1880. Particularly extreme was Ernst Henrici, whose rhetoric was so vehement that it caused riots in the Pomeranian town of Neustettin, culminating in the burning of the local synagogue. It was towards this movement that Hermann Ahlwardt gravitated in the late 1880s, avenging his disgrace with a book blaming his financial misfortunes on the machinations of Jewish money-lenders and suggesting that Jews were all-powerful in German society. Unfortunately for him, the evidence he provided for his claims, in the shape of documents showing the German government to be in the pay of the Jewish banker Gerson von Bleichröder, turned out to have been written by Ahlwardt himself, and he was sentenced to four months in prison. No sooner was he released than he produced another set of sensational and equally unfounded claims, this time declaring that a Jewish arms manufacturer had supplied the army with rifles that were deliberately faulty, in order to further a Franco-Jewish conspiracy to undermine German military effectiveness. Predictably enough, these claims earned Ahlwardt another prison sentence, this time of five months.55

But he never served it. For in the meantime he had succeeded in persuading the peasant farmers of a deeply rural constituency in Brandenburg to elect him to the Reichstag. Travelling round their farms, he told them that their misfortunes, brought on them in fact by a world depression in agricultural prices, had been caused by the Jews, a distant and to them obscure religious minority who lived far away in the big towns and financial centres of Europe and the Reich. A seat in the Reichstag gave Ahlwardt parliamentary immunity. His success testified to the appeal of such demagogy to rural voters, and indeed other antisemites such as the Hessian librarian Otto Böckel succeeded in getting elected as well, not least by offering the peasants concrete measures such as co-operative organizations in order to get over their economic difficulties. By the early 1890s the threat of such antisemites to the electoral hegemony of the German Conservative Party in rural districts was perceived to be so serious that the party itself, alarmed by a government policy that seemed likely to damage farming interests still further, voted onto its programme a demand for the combating of the ‘widely obtruding and decomposing Jewish influence on our popular life’ at its Tivoli conference in 1893.56

This proved in the end to be a turning-point in the fortunes of Germany’s motley collection of political antisemites. Although a serious attempt was made by another antisemitic agitator, Theodor Fritsch, to bring the various strands of political antisemitism together and direct the movement’s appeal towards the economically discontented urban lower middle class, the egotism of figures like Böckel prevented any real union from taking place, and the antisemites were riven by internecine disputes. Fritsch’s influence was to be exerted in another way. He continued to publish innumerable popular antisemitic tracts which were widely read, right up to and beyond his death in September 1933, by which time he was sitting in the Reichstag as a representative of the Nazi Party. Throughout the prewar years, however, he remained a marginal political figure. By the early 1900s, the antisemites had been undermined by the effective coalition of the Berlin Christian Social movement with the Conservative Party, and stymied in Catholic areas by the willingness of the Centre Party to engage in a similar kind of antisemitic rhetoric. Mavericks such as Böckel and Ahlwardt lost their seats, and their parties, together with the urban-based organizations of antisemites such as Fritzsch, faded away into nothingness. Ahlwardt himself alienated even other antisemites with the violence of his language. He left for the United States for a while, and on his return devoted himself to combating the evils of Freemasonry. In 1909 he was in prison again, this time for blackmail; evidently his continuing financial difficulties had driven him to attempt even more directly criminal solutions than before. He finally died, somewhat anticlimactically, in a traffic accident, in 1914.57


Ahlwardt was an extreme but in some ways not untypical representative of a new kind of antisemitism that was emerging in Germany and elsewhere in Europe towards the end of the nineteenth century. Traditional antisemitism focused on the non-Christian religion of the Jews, and derived its political power from biblical sanction. The New Testament blamed the Jews for Christ’s death, condemning them to perpetual obloquy by declaring that they had willingly agreed to let Christ’s blood be upon them and their descendants. As a non-Christian minority in a society governed by Christian beliefs and Christian institutions, the Jews were obvious and easy targets for popular hatred in times of crisis such as the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, when rampaging mobs all over Europe blamed the Jews for the mortality that afflicted so many of the population, and took their revenge in countless acts of violence and destruction. It was no accident that the history of modern antisemitism in Germany began with the court preacher Adolf Stocker. Christian hostility to the Jews provided a crucial launch-pad for modern antisemitism, not least because it often harboured a strong element of racial prejudice itself and was subsumed into racial antisemitism in a variety of ways. But by the late nineteenth century it was becoming increasingly out of date, at least in its purest, most traditional form, particularly as the Jews were ceasing to be an easily identifiable religious minority and were beginning to convert and marry into Christian society at an increasing pace. Searching for a scapegoat for their economic difficulties in the 1870s, lower-middle-class demagogues and scribblers turned to the Jews, not as a religious but a racial minority, and began to advocate not the total assimilation of Jews into German society, but their total exclusion from it.58

The credit for this turn, if credit is the right word, is generally given to the obscure writer Wilhelm Marr, whose pamphlet The Victory of Jewdom over Germandom Viewed from a Non-confessional Standpoint, published in 1873, was the first to insist that, as he put it in a later work: ‘There must be no question here of parading religious prejudices when it is a question of race and when the difference lies in the “blood”’.59 Borrowing from the fashionable theories of the French racist Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, Marr contrasted Jews not with Christians but with Germans, insisting that the two were distinct races. The Jews, he declared, had gained the upper hand in the racial struggle, and were virtually running the country; no wonder, then, that honest German artisans and small businessmen were suffering. Marr went on to invent the word ‘antisemitism’ and, in 1879, to found the League of Antisemites, the world’s first organization with this word in its title. It was dedicated, as he said, to reducing the Jewish influence on German life. His writing struck an apocalyptically pessimistic note. In his ‘Testament’ he proclaimed that: ‘The Jewish question is the axis around which the wheel of world history revolves,’ going on to record gloomily his view that: ‘All our social, commercial, and industrial developments are built on a Jewish world view.’60

The roots of Marr’s despair were personal as much as anything else. Constantly in financial difficulties, he was badly hit by the financial troubles of the 1870s. His second wife, who was Jewish, supported him financially until her death in 1874; his third wife, whom he divorced after a brief and disastrous relationship, was half-Jewish, and he blamed her in part for his lack of money, since he had to pay her substantial sums to bring up their child. Marr concluded from this - boldly elevating his personal experience into a general rule of world history - that racial purity was admirable, racial mixing a recipe for calamity. Given these very personal roots of his antisemitism, it is not surprising that Marr did not become closely involved in active politics; the League of Antisemites was a failure, and he refused to support the antisemitic parties because he considered them too conservative.61 But he was quickly joined as a propagandist of the new racial antisemitism by a range of other writers. The revolutionary Eugen Dühring, for example, equated capitalism with the Jews and argued that socialism had to be aimed chiefly at removing the Jews from financial and political influence. The nationalist historian Heinrich von Treitschke argued that the Jews were undermining German culture, and popularized the phrase ‘the Jews are our misfortune’, words that would become a slogan for many antisemites in the following years, including the Nazis. Writers such as these were far from marginal figures of the sort represented by Hermann Ahlwardt. Eugen Dühring, for example, exerted a sufficiently powerful attraction over the socialist movement for Friedrich Engels to pen his famous tract the Anti-Dühring in a successful attempt to combat its influence within the socialist labour movement in 1878. Heinrich von Treitschke’s history was one of the most widely read of all German histories in the nineteenth century, and his diatribes against what he saw as Jewish materialism and dishonesty aroused a massive reaction amongst his fellow-professors in Berlin, including the classicist Theodor Mommsen, the pathologist Rudolf Virchow and the historian Gustav von Droysen, who joined with many other German academics in condemning their colleague’s ‘racial hatred and fanaticism’ in unequivocal terms.62

Such reactions were a reminder that for all the rapidly growing influence of antisemitic writers, the vast majority of respectable opinion in Germany, left and right, middle class and working class, remained opposed to racism of this kind. Attempts to get the German people to swallow antisemitic ideas whole met with little success. The German working class in particular, and its main political representative, the Social Democratic Party (the largest political organization in Germany, with more seats in the Reichstag than any other party after 1912, and the highest number of votes in national elections long before that), was resolutely opposed to antisemitism, which it regarded as backward and undemocratic. Even ordinary rank-and-file party members rejected its slogans of hatred. As one worker was heard to remark by a police agent listening out for political talk in the pubs and bars of Hamburg in 1898:

National feeling must not degenerate into one nation setting itself above another. Worse still, if one regards the Jews as a subordinate race, and thus fights the race. Can the Jews help it if they descend from another lineage? They have always been an oppressed people, hence their scattering (over the world). For the Social Democrat it’s self-evident that he wants the equality of everyone with a human spirit. The Jew’s not the worst by a long way.63

Other workers on other occasions were heard to pour scorn on the antisemites, condemn antisemitic violence and support the Jewish desire for civil equality. Such views were entirely typical of workers in the labour movement milieu before 1914.64

The worst the Social Democrats could be accused of was not taking seriously enough the threat posed by antisemitism, and of allowing a few antisemitic stereotypes to creep into a small number of cartoons printed in their entertainment magazines.65 In some areas, the Social Democrats and antisemites supported each other in electoral run-offs, but this did not imply approval of each other’s principles, merely a desire to make temporary common cause as parties of protest against established elites.66 In a few backward small towns and villages, mainly in the deeply rural east, medieval accusations of ritual murder were occasionally brought against local Jews and won some popular support, even arousing protest demonstrations on occasion. Not one of them was ever proved by the courts. Small businessmen, shopkeepers, artisans and peasant farmers were more inclined to overt antisemitism than most, continuing a tradition of organized popular antisemitism that can be traced back at least as far as the 1848 Revolution in some areas, though not in its modern, racist form.67 But among the educated middle classes, non-Jewish businessmen and professionals for the most part worked quite happily with Jewish colleagues, whose representation in the liberal political parties was sufficiently strong to prevent these from taking on board any of the central arguments or attitudes of the antisemites. The antisemitic parties remained a fringe, protest phenomenon and largely disappeared shortly after the turn of the century.

Nevertheless, their decline and fall was to some extent deceptive. One of the reasons for their disappearance lay in the adoption of antisemitic ideas by the mainstream parties whose constituents included the economically imperilled lower-middle-class groups to which the antisemites had originally appealed - the Conservatives and the Centre Party. The Conservatives built on the antisemitic policies contained in their 1893 Tivoli programme and continued to demand the reduction of what they thought of as the subversive influence of Jews in public life. Their antisemitic prejudices appealed to significant groups in Protestant rural society in north Germany and to the artisans, shopkeepers and small businessmen represented in the party’s Christian-social wing. For the much larger, though under the Reich arguably less influential, Centre Party, the Jews, or rather a distorted and polemical image of them, symbolized liberalism, socialism, modernity - all the things the Church rejected. Such a view appealed to large numbers of peasants and artisans in the party, and was spread by autonomous protest groups amongst the Catholic peasantry whose ideas were not dissimilar to those of Otto Böckel; it was also shared by much of the Church hierarchy, for much the same reason. In the Vatican, religious and racial antisemitism merged in some of the anti-Jewish diatribes published by clerical writers in a few of the more hardline Ultramontane newspapers and magazines.68

Moreover, antisemitic prejudice was powerful enough in the higher reaches of society, the court, the civil service, the army and the universities to constitute a permanent reminder to Jews that they were less than equal members of the German nation.69 The antisemites succeeded in placing ‘the Jewish question’ on the political agenda, so that at no time was Jewish participation in key social institutions not a matter for discussion and debate. Yet this was all relatively low-level, even by the standards of the time. A historian once speculated on what would happen if a time-traveller from 1945 arrived back in Europe just before the First World War, and told an intelligent and well-informed contemporary that within thirty years a European nation would make a systematic attempt to kill all the Jews of Europe and exterminate nearly six million in the process. If the time-traveller invited the contemporary to guess which nation it would be, the chances were that he would have pointed to France, where the Dreyfus affair had recently led to a massive outbreak of virulent popular antisemitism. Or it might be Russia, where the Tsarist ‘Black Hundreds’ had been massacring large numbers of Jews in the wake of the failed Revolution of 1905.70 That Germany, with its highly acculturated Jewish community and its comparative lack of overt or violent political antisemitism, would be the nation to launch this exterminatory campaign would hardly have occurred to him. Antisemitic politics were still very much on the fringe. But some of the antisemites’ propaganda claims were beginning to gain a hearing in the political mainstream - for example, the idea that something called the ‘Jewish spirit’ was somehow ‘subversive’, or that Jews had supposedly ‘excessive’ influence in areas of society such as journalism and the law. Moreover, the antisemitic parties had introduced a new, rabble-rousing, demagogic style of politics that had freed itself from the customary restraints of political decorum. This, too, remained on the fringes, but, here again, it had now become possible to utter in parliamentary sessions and electoral meetings hatreds and prejudices that in the mid-nineteenth century would have been deemed utterly inappropriate in public discourse.71

What the 1880s and early 1890s were essentially witnessing, in addition to this domestication of antisemitism, was the assembling, on the fringes of political and intellectual life, of many of the ingredients that would later go into the potent and eclectic ideological brew of National Socialism. A key role in this process was played by antisemitic writers like the popular novelist Julius Langbehn, whose book Rembrandt as Educator (published in 1890) declared the Dutch artist Rembrandt to be a classic north German racial type, and pleaded for German art to return to its racial roots, a cultural imperative that would later be taken up with great enthusiasm by the Nazis. These authors developed a new language of vehemence and violence in their diatribes against the Jews. The Jews, for Langbehn, were a ‘poison for us and will have to be treated as such’; ‘the Jews are only a passing plague and a cholera’, as he put it in 1892. Langbehn’s book went through forty reprints in little over a year and continued to be a best-seller long after, combining scurrilous attacks on what its author called ‘Jews and idiots, Jews and scoundrels, Jews and whores, Jews and professors, Jews and Berliners’ with a call for the restoration of a hierarchical society led by a ‘secret Kaiser’ who would one day emerge from the shadows to restore Germany to its former glory.72

Such ideas were taken up and elaborated by the circle that gathered around the widow of the composer Richard Wagner at Bayreuth. Wagner had made his home in this north Bavarian town until his death in 1883 and his epic music-dramas were played every year in the opera house he had had constructed specially for the purpose. They were designed not least to propagate pseudo-Germanic national myths, in which heroic figures from Nordic legend were to serve as model leaders for the German future. Wagner himself had already been a cultural antisemite in the early 1850s, arguing in his notorious book Judaism in Music that the ‘Jewish spirit’ was inimical to musical profundity. His remedy was for the complete assimilation of Jews into German culture, and the replacement of the Jewish religion, indeed all religion, by secular aesthetic impulses of the sort he poured into his own music-dramas. But towards the end of his life his views took on an increasingly racist tone under the influence of his second wife, Cosima, daughter of the composer Franz Liszt. By the end of the 1870s she was recording in her diaries that Wagner, whose outlook on civilization was distinctly pessimistic by this time, had read Wilhelm Marr’s antisemitic tract of 1873 and broadly agreed with it. As a consequence of this shift in his position, Wagner no longer desired the assimilation of the Jews into German society, but their exclusion from it. In 1881, discussing Lessing’s classic play Nathan the Wise and a disastrous fire in the Vienna Ring Theatre, in which more than four hundred people, many of them Jewish, had died, Cosima noted that her husband said ‘in a vehement quip that all Jews should burn in a performance of “Nathan” ’.73

After Wagner’s death, his widow turned Bayreuth into a kind of shrine, at which a band of dedicated followers would cultivate the dead Master’s sacred memory. The views of the circle she gathered round her at Bayreuth were rabidly antisemitic. The Wagner circle did its best to interpret the composer’s operas as pitting Nordic heroes against Jewish villains, although his music was of course capable of being interpreted in many other ways as well. Among its leading figures were Ludwig Schemann, a private scholar who translated Gobineau’s treatise on racial inequality into German in 1898, and the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain, born in 1855, who married one of Wagner’s daughters and in due course published an admiring biography of the great man. While Cosima and her friends propagated their ideas through the periodical publication the Bayreuth Papers, Schemann went round the country addressing antisemitic meetings and founding a variety of radical racist organizations, most notably the Gobineau Society in 1894. None of them was particularly successful. But Schemann’s championing of the French racial theorist still did a great deal to bring Gobineau’s term ‘Aryan’ into vogue amongst German racists. Originally used to denote the common ancestors of the speakers of Germanic languages such as English and German, the term soon acquired a contemporary usage, as Gobineau put forward his argument that racial survival could only be guaranteed by racial purity, such as was supposedly preserved in the German or ‘Aryan’ peasantry, and that racial intermingling spelled cultural and political decline.74

It was Chamberlain who had the greatest impact, however, with his book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1900. In this vaporous and mystical work Chamberlain portrayed history in terms of a struggle for supremacy between the Germanic and Jewish races, the only two racial groups that retained their original purity in a world of miscegenation. Against the heroic and cultured Germans were pitted the ruthless and mechanistic Jews, whom Chamberlain thus elevated into a cosmic threat to human society rather than simply dismissing them as a marginal or inferior group. Linked to the racial struggle was a religious one, and Chamberlain devoted a good deal of effort to trying to prove that Christianity was essentially Germanic and that Jesus, despite all the evidence, had not been Jewish at all. Chamberlain’s work impressed many of his readers with its appeal to science in support of its arguments; his most important contribution in this respect was to fuse antisemitism and racism with Social Darwinism. The English scientist Charles Darwin had maintained that the animal and plant kingdoms were subject to a law of natural selection in which the fittest survived and the weakest or least well adapted went to the wall, thus guaranteeing the improvement of the species. Social Darwinists applied this model to the human race as well.75 Here were assembled already, therefore, some of the key ideas that were later to be taken up by the Nazis.


Chamberlain was not alone in putting forward such views. A variety of authors, scientists and others contributed to the emergence in the 1890s of a new, tough, selectionist variant of Social Darwinism, one that emphasized not peaceful evolution but the struggle for survival. A characteristic representative of this school of thought was the anthropologist Ludwig Woltmann, who argued in 1900 that the Aryan or German race represented the height of human evolution and was thus superior to all others. Therefore, he claimed, the ‘Germanic race has been selected to dominate the earth’.76 But other races, he claimed, were preventing this from happening. The Germans, in the view of some, needed more ‘living-space’ —the German word was Lebensraum— and it would have to be acquired at the expense of others, most likely the Slavs. This was not because the country was literally overcrowded - there was no evidence for that - but because those who advanced such views were taking the idea of territoriality from the animal kingdom and applying it to human society. Alarmed by the growth of Germany’s burgeoning cities, they sought the restoration of a rural ideal in which German settlers would lord it over ‘inferior’ Slav peasants, just as they had done, so historians were beginning to tell them, in East Central Europe in the Middle Ages.77 Such visions of international politics as an arena of struggle between different races for supremacy or survival had become common currency in Germany’s political elite by the time of the First World War. Men such as War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn, Naval Secretary Alfred von Tirpitz, Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg’s adviser Kurt Riezler, and Chief of the Imperial Naval Cabinet Georg Alexander von Müller, all saw war as a means of preserving or asserting the German race against the Latins and the Slavs. War, as General Friedrich von Bernhardi famously put it in a book published in 1912, was a ‘biological necessity’: ‘Without war, inferior or decaying races would easily choke the growth of healthy budding elements, and a universal decadence would follow.’ Foreign policy was no longer to be conducted between states, but between races. Here was one beginning of the downgrading of the importance of the state that was to play such an important role in Nazi foreign policy.78

Success in war, an increasing preoccupation among Germany’s leaders and politicians from the centre to the right after the turn of the century, also (for some) demanded the undertaking of positive steps to bring about the improvement of the race. One aspect of the selectionist turn in Social Darwinism during the 1890s was to put greater emphasis than before on ‘negative selection’. It was all very well improving the race by better housing, health care nutrition, hygiene and sanitation and similar policies, some argued. But this would do little to counteract the influence of society’s abandonment of the principle of the struggle for survival by caring for the weak, the unhealthy and the inadequate. Such a policy, argued some medical scientists, whose views were reinforced by the emergence of the fledgling science of genetics, was bringing about the increasing degeneracy of the human race. It had to be counteracted by a scientific approach to breeding that would reduce or eliminate the weak and improve and multiply the strong. Among those who argued along these lines was Wilhelm Schallmayer, whose essay advocating a eugenic approach to social policy won first prize in a national competition organized by the industrialist Alfred Krupp in 1900. Alfred Ploetz was yet another medical man who thought that the height of human evolution so far had been reached by the Germans. He suggested that inferior specimens should be sent to the front if a war came, so that the unfit would be eliminated first. Most widely read of all was Ernst Haeckel, whose popularization of Darwinian ideas, The Riddle of the World, became a runaway best-seller when it was published in 1899.79

It would be a mistake to see such views as forming a coherent or unified ideology, however, still less one that pointed forward in a straight line to Nazism. Schallmayer, for instance, was not antisemitic, and he vehemently rejected any idea of the superiority of the ‘Aryan’ race. Nor was Woltmann hostile towards Jews, and his fundamentally positive attitude towards the French Revolution (whose leaders, he somewhat implausibly claimed, were racially Germanic, like all great historical figures) was far from congenial to the Nazis. For his part, Haeckel certainly argued that capital punishment should be used on a large scale to eliminate criminals from the chain of heredity. He also advocated the killing of the mentally ill through the use of chemical injections and electrocution. Haeckel was a racist, too, and pronounced the verdict that no woolly-haired race had ever achieved anything of historical importance. But on the other hand he thought that war would be a eugenic catastrophe because it would kill off the best and bravest young men in the country. As a consequence, Haeckel’s disciples, organized in the self-styled ‘Monist League’, became pacifists, rejecting the idea of war altogether - not a doctrine that would endear them to the Nazis. Many of them would suffer dearly for their principles when war finally came in 1914.80

The nearest any of this came to prefiguring Nazi ideology was in the writings of Ploetz, who spiced his theories with a strong dose of antisemitism and collaborated with Nordic supremacist groups. Still, before the First World War there seems little evidence that Ploetz himself considered the ‘Aryan’ race superior to others, although one of his closest collaborators, Fritz Lenz, certainly did. Ploetz took a ruthlessly meritocratic line on eugenic planning, arguing, for example, that a panel of doctors should attend all births and determine whether the baby was fit to survive or should be killed as weak and inadequate. The Darwinist Alexander Tille openly advocated the killing of the mentally and physically unfit, and agreed with Ploetz and Schallmayer that children’s illnesses should be left untreated so that the weak could be eliminated from the chain of heredity. In 1905 Ploetz and his sometime brother-in-law, the like-minded Ernst Rüdin, founded the Racial Hygiene Society to propagate their views. It rapidly gained influence in the medical and welfare professions. Gobineau had been in many ways a conservative, and thought that the eugenic ideal was embodied in the aristocracy. These German thinkers took a far tougher and potentially more revolutionary line, often regarding hereditary traits as largely independent of social class.81

By the eve of the First World War, their ideas had spread in one form or another to areas such as medicine, social work, criminology and the law. Social deviants such as prostitutes, alcoholics, petty thieves, vagrants and the like were increasingly regarded as hereditarily tainted, and calls amongst experts for such people to be forcibly sterilized had become too loud to escape attention. Such was the influence of these ideas on the welfare establishment that even the Social Democrats could take seriously the proposal of Alfred Grotjahn to link housing and welfare improvements with the compulsory sterilization of the insane, the ‘workshy’ and the alcoholic.82 Developments such as these reflected the growing influence of the medical profession over rapidly growing specialisms such as criminology and social work. The triumphs of German medical science in discovering the bacilli that caused diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis in the nineteenth century had given it unparalleled intellectual prestige as well as inadvertently furnishing antisemites with a whole new language in which to express their hatred and fear of the Jews. As a result, it had brought about a widespread medicalization of society, in which ordinary people, including an increasing proportion of the working class, had begun to adopt hygienic practices such as washing regularly, disinfecting bathrooms, boiling drinking water and so on. The concept of hygiene began to spread from medicine to other areas of life, including not only ‘social hygiene’ but also, crucially, ‘racial hygiene’.

To be sure, for all the discussion and debate over these issues, the effect that such ideas had on government policies and their implementation before 1914 was not very great. Beyond the scientific establishment, propagandists for the breeding of a blond, Aryan super-race such as the self-styled Lanz von Liebenfels, editor of Ostara: Newspaper for Blond People, appealed only to an underworld of extremist politics and tiny, eccentric political sects.83 Nevertheless, despite all these qualifications, the emergence of these ideas, together with the increasing role they played in public debate, was a significant element in the origins of Nazi ideology. Several fundamental principles united virtually everyone in this motley crowd of scientists, doctors and propagandists for racial hygiene. The first was that heredity played a significant role in determining human character and behaviour. The second, which followed on from this, was that society, led by the state, should manage the population in order to increase national efficiency. The ‘fit’ had to be persuaded, or forced, to breed more, the ‘unfit’ to breed less. Thirdly, however these terms were understood, the racial hygiene movement introduced an ominously rational and scientific categorization of people into those who were ‘valuable’ to the nation and those who were not. ‘Low quality’ - the German term was minderwertig, literally, ‘worth-less’—became a stock term used by social workers and medical men for many kinds of social deviant before the First World War. By labelling people in this way, the race hygienists opened the way towards the control, the abuse and finally the extermination of the ‘valueless’ by the state, through measures such as forcible sterilization and even execution, which some of them at least were already advocating before 1914. Finally, such a technocratically rationalistic approach to population management presupposed an entirely secular, instrumental approach to morality. Christian precepts such as the sanctity of marriage and parenthood, or the equal value of every being endowed with an immortal soul, were thrown out of the window. Whatever else such ideas were, they were not traditional or backward-looking. Indeed, some of their proponents, such as Woltmann and Schallmayer, thought of themselves as being on the left rather than the right of the political spectrum, although their ideas were shared by very few of the Social Democrats. Fundamentally, racial hygiene was born of a new drive for society to be governed by scientific principles irrespective of all other considerations. It represented a new variant of German nationalism, one which was never likely to be shared by conservatives or reactionaries, or endorsed by the Christian Churches or indeed by any form of organized or established religion.84

Both antisemitism and racial hygiene were to be key components of Nazi ideology. They were both part of a general secularization of thought in the late nineteenth century, aspects of a far wider rebellion against what increasing numbers of writers and thinkers were coming to see as the stolid and stultifying complacency of the liberal, bourgeois attitudes that had dominated Germany in the middle part of the century. The self-satisfaction of so many educated and middle-class Germans at the achievement of nationhood in the 1870s was giving way to a variety of dissatisfactions born of a feeling that Germany’s spiritual and political development had come to a halt and needed pushing forward again. These were expressed forcefully by the sociologist Max Weber’s inaugural lecture, in which he dubbed the unification of 1871 a ‘youthful prank’ of the German nation.85 The most influential prophet of such views was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who railed in powerful, punchy prose against the ethical conservatism of his day. In many ways he was a comparable figure to Wagner, whom he hugely admired for much of his life. Like Wagner, he was a complex figure whose work was capable of being interpreted in a wide variety of senses. His writings argued for the individual to be freed from the conventional moral restrictions of the time. They were commonly interpreted before 1914 as a call for personal emancipation. They had a strong influence on a variety of liberal and radical groups, including, for example, the feminist movement, where one of the most imaginative figures, Helene Stocker, penned numerous essays in sub-Nietzschean prose, declaring the master’s message to be that women should be free to develop their own sexuality outside marriage, with the aid of mechanical contraceptives and equal rights for illegitimate children.86

Yet others took a different lesson altogether from the writings of the great philosopher. Nietzsche was a vigorous opponent of antisemitism, he was deeply critical of the vulgar worship of power and success which had resulted (in his view) from the unification of Germany by military force in 1871, and his most famous concepts, such as the ‘will to power’ and the ‘superman’ were intended by him to apply only to the sphere of thought and ideas, not to politics or action. But the power of his prose allowed such phrases to be reduced all too easily to slogans, ripped from their philosophical context and applied in ways of which he would have greatly disapproved. His concept of an ideal human being, freed from moral constraints and triumphing through will-power over the weak, could be appropriated without too much difficulty by those who believed, as he did not, in the breeding of the human race according to racial and eugenic criteria. Central to such interpretations was the influence of his sister Elisabeth Förster, who vulgarized and popularized his ideas, emphasizing their brutal, elitist aspects, and made them palatable to extreme right-wing nationalists. Writers such as Ernst Bertram, Alfred Bäumler and Hans Günther reduced Nietzsche to a prophet of power, and his concept of the superman to a plea for the coming of a great German leader unfettered by moral constraints or Christian theology.87

Others, drawing on German anthropological studies of indigenous societies in New Guinea and other parts of the German colonial empire, took Nietzsche’s spiritual elitism a step further and called for the creation of a new society ruled by a band of brothers, an elite of vigorous young men who would rule the state rather like a medieval knightly brotherhood. In this deeply misogynistic view of the world, women would have no role to play except to breed the elite of the future, a belief shared in less radical ways by many of the eugenicists and racial hygienists. Academic . writers like Heinrich Schurtz propagated the ideology of the band of brothers through a variety of publications, but it had its greatest effect in areas such as the youth movement, in which young, mostly middle-class men devoted themselves to hiking, communing with nature, singing nationalist songs around camp fires and pouring scorn on the staid politics, hypocritical morality and social artificiality of the adult world. Writers such as Hans Blüher, strongly influenced by the youth movement, went to even greater extremes in their plea for the state to be reorganized along anti-democratic lines and led by a close-knit group of heroic men united by homoerotic ties of love and affection. Advocates of such ideas already began to found pseudo-monastic, conspiratorial organizations before the First World War, notably the Germanic Order, established in 1912. In the world of such tiny secular sects, ‘Aryan’ symbolism and ritual played a central role, as their members reclaimed runes and sun-worship as essential signs of Germanness, and adopted the Indian symbol of the swastika as an ‘Aryan’ device, under the influence of the Munich poet Alfred Schuler and the race theorist Lanz von Liebenfels, who flew a swastika flag from his castle in Austria in 1907. Strange though ideas like these were, their influence on many young middle-class men who passed through the youth movement organizations before the First World War should not be underestimated. If nothing else, they contributed to a widespread revolt against bourgeois convention in the generation born in the 1890s and 1900s.88

What such currents of thought emphasized was in sharp contrast to the bourgeois virtues of sobriety and self-restraint, and diametrically opposite to the principles on which liberal nationalism rested, such as freedom of thought, representative government, tolerance for the opinions of others and the fundamental rights of the individual. The great majority of Germans still most probably believed in these things at the turn of the century. Certainly Germany’s most popular political party, the Social Democrats, regarded itself as the guardian of the principles which the German liberals, in their view, had so signally failed to defend. The liberals themselves were still very much a force to be reckoned with, and there were even signs of a modest liberal revival in the last years of peace before 1914.89 But already by this time, serious attempts had begun to weld together some of the ideas of extreme nationalism, antisemitism and the revolt against convention into a new synthesis, and to give it organizational shape. The political maelstrom of radical ideologies out of which Nazism would eventually emerge was already swirling powerfully well before the First World War.90

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