"Völkisch" Writers and National Socialism

A Study of Right-Wing Political Culture in Germany, 1890–1960

by Guy Tourlamain (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 384 Pages
Open Access


This book provides a view of literary life under the Nazis, highlighting the ambiguities, rivalries and conflicts that determined the cultural climate of that period and beyond. Focusing on a group of writers – in particular, Hans Grimm, Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer, Wilhelm Schäfer, Emil Strauß, Börries Freiherr von Münchhausen and Rudolf Binding – it examines the continuities in völkisch-nationalist thought in Germany from c. 1890 into the post-war period and the ways in which völkisch-nationalists identified themselves in opposition to four successive German regimes: the Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich and the Federal Republic. Although their work predated Hitler’s National Socialist movement, their contribution to preparing the cultural climate for the rise of Nazism ensured them continued prominence in the Third Reich. Those who survived into the post-war era continued to represent the völkisch-nationalist worldview in the West German public sphere, opposing both the Soviet and liberal-democratic models for Germany’s future. While not uncontroversial, they were able to achieve significant publishing success, suggesting that a demand existed for their works among the German public, stimulating debate about the nature of the recent past and its effect on Germany’s cultural and political identity and position in the world.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: ‘Wegbereiter’ for the Nazis? Völkisch-Nationalist Writers in Germany, 1870–1933
  • Chapter 2: Völkisch Writers and National Socialist Kulturpolitik
  • Chapter 3: The German Literature Academy: Control Mechanism or Cauldron of Dissent?
  • Chapter 4: Beyond the Literature Academy
  • Chapter 5: Völkisch-Nationalism in the Post-War Era
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Acknowledgements

This book would not have been possible without the help of many people. I owe particular thanks to Anthony Nicholls at St Antony’s College, Oxford, who, with his knowledge of German history, patiently guided me through my doctoral thesis, the starting point for this work. I would also like to thank Axel Schildt and Uwe Lohalm at the Forschungsstelle für Zeitgeschichte in Hamburg, Christoph Kleßmann of the Institut für zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam and Siegfried Lokatis at the University of Potsdam, all of whom have given me the benefit of their advice. Peter Pulzer and Jeremy Noakes examined the original thesis, provided rigorous criticism and generous suggestions. Similarly, my thanks go to the editors of the Cultural History and Literary Imagination book series at Peter Lang, David Midgley and Christian Emden, for their careful reading of the text and comments based on their very considerable knowledge of the field. Yoav Alon, John Appleby, Frank Druffner, Jocasta Gardner, Randall Hansen, Bernhard Fulda and Zoe Waxman all read chapters at various stages. I am extremely grateful for their insights; any remaining flaws are my own.

I am also grateful to the staff of numerous libraries and archives in Germany, in particular the staff of the Forschungsstelle für Zeitgeschichte in Hamburg and the German Federal Archives in Berlin. Above all, without the help of the staff of the German Literature Archive in Marbach am Neckar this book would never have been completed.

One of the greatest challenges for such a project is that of funding. I am therefore extremely grateful to the Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F.V.S., whose award of a ‘Hanseatic Scholarship for Britons’ allowed me to spend two years studying in Hamburg and Berlin. I would also like to thank the Deutsche Schillergesellschaft Marbach, which provided me with a ‘Marbach Stipendium’ and two postdoctoral grants in order that I might carry out research at the German Literature Archive in Marbach am Neckar. Finally, a visiting research fellowship at the SFB 640 ‘Repräsentationen ← vii | viii → sozialer Ordnungen im Wandel’ at the Humboldt University in Berlin in the autumn of 2011 provided much needed resources and writing time.

Colleagues at Liverpool Hope University were also sources of advice and support, in particular John Appleby, Rachel Cowgill, Patrice Haynes, Jan Jobling, Terry and John Phillips and Fiona Pogson. The list of remaining friends who have kept me going is long. I thank them all! Steven and Jake gave me hospitality for a summer in San Francisco, where sections of the book were written; discussions with James Hanvey, Frank Gehring, Katharine Gilmartin, Philip Kennedy, Christian Könne and Kevin Kornegay provided feedback, encouragement and stimulus; John Worthen and Cornelia Rumpf-Worthen provided meals and a desk for the final phase. Finally this work would not have been possible without the support of Stefan Kirmse, who accompanied its production over many years.

I would like to thank all my family, but in particular, my uncle, Gordon Tourlamain, and his late wife Pauline, for both their moral and financial support, which made it possible to embark on this project in the first place.

I dedicate this book to my parents, John and Moyra Tourlamain.

← viii | ix → Abbreviations


Albert-Langen Verlag


Alldeutscher Verband


Bundesarchiv, Berlin


Deutsche Arbeitsfront


Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund


Deutschnationaler Handlungsgehilfen Verband


Deutschnationale Volkspartei


Deutsche Volkspartei


Deutschvölkischer Schutz- und Trutz-Bund


Forschungsstelle für Zeitgeschichte, Hamburg


Georg-Müller Verlag


Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt


Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur


Langen-Müller Verlag


Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei


Parteiamtliche Prüfungskommission zum Schutz des NS-Schrifttums


Reichsverband deutscher Schriftsteller




Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda




Schutzverband deutscher Schriftsteller

Note on Translations

Unless otherwise stated, all translations from German texts are my own. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 → Introduction

Im Gedicht bewahrt

eines Volkes Gedächtnis

seiner Besten Vermächtnis.

Im Gedicht späht

eines Volkes Gesicht

nach zukünftigem Licht.

Im Gedicht spricht

eines Volkes Gewissen sich selber Gericht.


In 1817, a group of German students assembled at Wartburg Castle and burned books they believed were poisoning the true culture of the German Volk.2 On 10th May 1933, students once again committed ‘un-German’ books to the flames in university towns across the newly established Third Reich. The motivation in both cases was to protect the German Geist. In 1933, the students acted according to clearly articulated principles, which stated that the roots of language and the written word lay in the Volk.3 Books and the printed word were not just ideological tools, but concrete expressions of the German Geist, which determined the Volk. As such, they were central to its cultivation and preservation, and an integral part of the continuing quest for a national identity and culture.

← 1 | 2 → This book is concerned with the role of the written word in the articulation and dissemination of völkisch-nationalism in Germany between 1890 and around 1960, and with the writers who produced it. Focusing on Hans Grimm and Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer in particular, but including too their colleagues, friends and associates (for example Wilhelm Schäfer, Emil Strauß, Börries Freiherr von Münchhausen, Agnes Miegel and Rudolf Binding), it examines the ways in which völkisch-nationalists identified themselves in opposition to four successive German regimes: the Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich and the Federal Republic. These writers were not the products of Hitler’s National Socialist movement but were established in their own right as spokespeople of the nationalist right before 1933. Their contribution to preparing the cultural climate for the rise of Nazism ensured them continued prominence in the Third Reich, but their relationship with the Nazi government was often ambiguous.

At different stages in their careers all the writers dealt with in this book produced autobiographies or works – novels, plays, poetry and non-fiction – commenting on the political and social upheavals they lived through. Grimm and Kolbenheyer also wrote lengthy commentaries seeking to explain Germany’s situation after 1945;4 they provided a völkisch-nationalist interpretation of German history and politics, and the importance of ‘German’ literature in a national society. This book also considers the formal and informal networks to which these writers belonged: networks providing a framework for the articulation and dissemination of a racist and nationalist worldview which, they stressed, differed from that represented by National Socialism.

The ambiguous relationship that developed between the völkisch-nationalist writers in question and the Nazi regime is central to understanding their position after 1945. Their conviction – established before 1933 – that, as the representatives of German national literature, ← 2 | 3 → they had both a right and a duty to pronounce on the country’s future direction remained unaltered after 1945; indeed, in several cases this conviction increased in response to the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). They opposed both the soviet and liberal-democratic models for Germany’s future. While far from uncontroversial, they achieved significant publishing success, suggesting that a demand existed for their works among the German public. Their lectures were well attended and they received attention in the national as well as regional and local press, stimulating debate about the nature of the recent past and its effect on Germany’s cultural and political identity and position in the world. The efforts of these writers to make German nationalism relevant to post-war Germany were significant for the process of cultural transformation in the 1950s, exacerbating the contradictions and tensions between modernisation and restoration in Germany’s changing social climate.

Völkisch-nationalist ideas provided a reference point from which the writers in question reacted to specific social and political contexts. Inevitably, the historical conditions in which their ideas were applied in turn affected their articulation, but the lines of ideological continuity in the development of völkisch-nationalist thought from the late nineteenth century into the 1950s are clear. It was an ideology used both to explain Germany’s problems and as the basis for a proposed solution. Its principal impetus was not, as might initially be concluded, anti-modern; rather it was an attempt, in the light of an ideology which identified a Germany defined by the Volk, and focused on definitions of Germany and the German people according to history, language and, most significantly, blood, to change the course toward modernity on which Germany appeared set after 1870. 1933 did not, therefore, mark a break in the völkisch literary tradition; instead this literature mirrored right-wing ideologies developed in the face of successive challenges to traditional German social structures. These challenges allowed völkisch-nationalist writers to find readers for works that sought to build a new sense of national community, works that the Nazis sought to instrumentalise for their own ends.5

← 3 | 4 → Following German unification in 1871, the question of what constituted the nation and who belonged to it remained of fundamental importance for German nationalists. It was a political ideology that claimed authority not from institutional power but directly from the German people. The belief that völkisch-nationalism was a ‘movement’ was important for its adherents; it reassured them that the diverse activities of the numerous völkisch groups and organisations contributed to something larger.

The idea of a völkisch movement has also proved useful to historians. Nonetheless, völkisch-nationalist circles lacked institutional unity and it might be argued that to speak of a ‘völkisch movement’ is overstating the case. Instead of a single, organised political force, an uncoordinated collection of völkisch groups and individuals emerged. Their common ground was limited to agreement that the German nation should be based on the concept of the German Volk, defined in racial terms. In spite of successive attempts by völkisch-nationalists to bring about a greater degree of institutional unity, this was never a movement of associated writers and academics, or a cohesive programme for political or social reform. Ideological cohesion depended to a large extent on the printed word.6 In addition to the journals, newspapers and magazines produced by völkisch organisations, books were vital in articulating and disseminating völkisch-nationalist ideas. They also contributed to the formation of an ideology in a state of constant development.

While some academic literature exists on völkisch-nationalism in the Kaiserreich and the Weimar Republic, a close ideological association with Nazism has made it easy to dismiss völkisch writers as the literary precursors and representatives of National Socialism.7 Such a view, however, among ← 4 | 5 → other things, fails to recognise the personal and political differences that also developed between these writers and the Nazis and overlooks their cultural significance both before 1933 and after the Second World War.

The history of völkisch-nationalism can be traced back beyond 1871, although the term völkisch was only applied from the early twentieth century.8 Among a number of figures prominent in nineteenth-century German cultural life, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Paul de Lagarde and Julius Langbehn all contributed to the intellectual context in which a nationalist ideology based on the idea of a racially defined German Volk became increasingly attractive to significant sections of the German population, particularly members of the middle classes who felt threatened by social change. Alongside cultural journals and enterprises, the numerous patriotic and nationalist organisations in Germany were particularly important in the dissemination of such an idea, providing a readership for völkisch literature. These organisations, in turn, increasingly adopted its racial worldview, often, but not always, linked to anti-Semitism.

Since 1945 it has not been possible to deal with the history of the German right without addressing the question of National Socialism.9 The search for the underlying roots of the Third Reich and the acquiescence of the German population under Hitler has led to a number of approaches, ideological, sociological and cultural as well as political. A large number of works have been produced that seek to identify the moment at which fascism first became a possibility in Germany, how it developed, and why it eventually gained a hold on German life in the form of National Socialism.10 Völkisch-nationalism has inevitably been examined ← 5 | 6 → as a pre-Nazi or proto-fascist phenomenon in the context of Germany’s response to modernity at the end of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries. Until relatively recently, however, little attention has been paid to the differences on the far right in Germany under the Nazis, or to the continued activities of adherents to völkisch thought after 1945.11

The question of the modern in the context of the far right in Germany has posed scholars of both history and literature with a challenge. The aesthetic expressions of the far right in Germany, compared for example with the relationship between Italian Fascism and futurism, tended to draw on conservative traditions in an effort to defend ‘German’ culture from the challenges of the internationalism identified in more avant-garde movements. The Nazis’ failure to establish a monolithic cultural or literary sphere is well established. Nonetheless, the ongoing scholarly emphasis has been on the place of literary life within the power-structures of the regime and the instrumentalisation of the written word in the name of National Socialism. Reflecting on the implications of this for modern ← 6 | 7 → German culture, Ketelsen has suggested that it has allowed ‘Nazi’ literature to be viewed as somehow other to subsequent German literary developments, which have therefore been able to identify their antecedents in the ‘good’ German literature of exile or inner-emigration. This has been possible because of the prominence of Blut-und-Boden romanticism, which did indeed harness the völkisch tradition to the Nazi cause.12 As a result, in the literary context ‘Nazi’ has frequently been viewed as synonymous with völkisch and anti-modern, allowing for a contrast with the ‘modern’ literature of the Weimar Republic and post-Second World War period.13

It is too straightforward to present the literature of völkisch-nationalism solely as the basis of National-Socialist literary expression. Due to the lack of original literature emerging from Nazi ranks, völkisch works became the serious literary representation of the regime almost by default. But the attitude of their writers towards the Nazi government often remained ambiguous, necessitating a differentiated approach on the part of historians. By describing them as ‘National Socialist’ or ‘Pre-National Socialist’, the significance of these works for the period in which they were written has been rendered negligible beyond the context of the Third Reich. Yet, during the Weimar Republic völkisch writers contributed to broader right-wing opposition to republicanism and democracy. That this helped prepare the ground for the Nazis does not mean that the regime after 1933 was the goal of the writers in question. And even pledges of support for the Third Reich as the Nazis took power did not signal the end of the story; in many cases, the position of völkisch-nationalist writers turned out to be very different from the one ← 7 | 8 → they had imagined for themselves.14 Likewise membership of the NSDAP did not necessarily mean that a writer placed himself or herself unequivocally at the Party’s disposal. These categories were relatively arbitrary in the development of a writer’s relationship with the regime. Strauß, for example, was a member of the NSDAP, but less politically active than Grimm. While neither can be credited with outright opposition to the regime, both were critical in private and, at times, also in public. In the 1930s, völkisch-nationalist writers increasingly resorted to expressing their ideas in correspondence and dialogue with each other. An examination of Grimm’s papers, for example, produces a picture of a more intricate web of interlocking ideological networks and associations than has usually been acknowledged.15

It is noteworthy, moreover, that not only did the völkisch-nationalist writers examined here take their own work seriously, but it was also recognised as the serious literary representation of the right by the German public from the Kaiserreich to 1945. There was a market for their work and they were honoured with literary prizes and membership of literary institutions before 1933. These writers were part of mainstream literary life in Germany in the early twentieth century; they all engaged with the literary world as producers of more than just ‘Unterhaltungsromane’ or ‘Trivialliteratur’. The large print-runs of their work are also a reminder that, while they and the Nazis shared a common racist ideology, völkisch sentiment needs to be recognised as a response to deeply ingrained social and political concerns in Germany. It was not a product of National Socialism.16

In promoting greater understanding of the internal dynamics of the völkisch phenomenon, Uwe Puschner provides analysis based round three pillars: language, race, and religion.17 Using these central elements, which he describes as the ‘weltanschauliche Dreiheit’ of the völkisch movement, ← 8 | 9 → Puschner identifies its ‘spiritual’ roots and tracks the efforts of völkisch-nationalists to lay the foundations of their ideology. Highlighting the existence of contradiction in völkisch-nationalism before 1918, he moves beyond the examinations of the esoteric side of völkisch ideology offered by Nicholas Goodrick Clark and Rüdiger Sünner through an examination of ideological dialogue on the right in the Imperial period.18

Stefan Breuer takes a broader view that also discusses representatives of völkisch thought in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. He points out that concentrating on the Weltanschauung of völkisch-nationalism, or focusing on its religious or esoteric tendencies, runs the risk of an unbalanced account favouring the margins of the German right and tending to neglect the widespread acceptance of völkisch ideas among mainstream sections of the population, particularly the professional middle classes. He also argues against an identification of völkisch-nationalism with biological racism, suggesting that it closes down the possibility of including categories such as Geist, Seele or Gestalt.19

Yet the work of völkisch-nationalist writers reveals an understanding of the latter categories as among the inherited characteristics of the Volk; both its physical and ‘spiritual’ attributes were transferred through the blood. In this way, biological racism lay at the heart of völkisch thought; in the same way it was also intrinsic to Nazi racial theory. Similarly, while nationalism and racism did not always coincide in Germany, völkisch thought rested on both phenomena, hence the adoption of the hyphenated term völkisch-nationalism here. The common understanding of the Volk in the period under consideration was fundamentally based on the idea of an ethnically related people; the nation-state when fully developed would encompass the whole German race.20


X, 384
ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2014 (August)
Hans Grimm Wilhelm Schäfer Börries Freiherr von Münchhausen Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer rise of Nazism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 384 pp.

Biographical notes

Guy Tourlamain (Author)

Guy Tourlamain received his DPhil. from Oxford University in 2007. He also spent time as a visiting student at the University of Gießen, University of Hamburg and Humboldt University in Berlin as well as undertaking postdoctoral research at the German Literature Archive in Marbach am Neckar. From 2007 to 2012 he was Lecturer in Modern History at Liverpool Hope University. He currently lives and works in Bonn.


Title: "Völkisch" Writers and National Socialism
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399 pages