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"Völkisch" Writers and National Socialism

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


Guy Tourlamain

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.
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← 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

← 9 | 10 → Breuer is, however, right to warn that an overemphasis on the irrational, mystical, romantic and culturally pessimistic elements can lead to a failure to recognise the optimism that the völkisch ideology engendered in its adherents, and the faith in (pseudo-) scientific approaches to the world it also encouraged.21 The last is illustrated, for example, in the interest many völkisch-nationalists demonstrated in eugenics and racial hygiene.22 Thus, völkisch-nationalism should not be viewed as anti-modern, but, Breuer argues, as a search for a solution to the negative aspects of modernity, in particular the social fragmentation it engendered. This provides him with the basis for his approach to the völkisch phenomenon, which, he argues, had at its core a desire for harmony or wholeness. Thomas Rohkrämer’s understanding of the development of the German right and the roots of Nazism is similar. He emphasises ‘the growing desire for a single communal faith in Germany’ that was addressed for many in the völkisch ideal of a Volksgemeinschaft.23 He suggests that this ideal, fundamental to German nationalism, was seized on by large sections of the population by 1933 in response to the increasingly polarised political and social realities in which they lived. This search for harmony or communal unity cannot, however, be viewed as exclusive to the völkisch right. It has been identified across the spectrum of ideological and intellectual movements in Germany in the early twentieth century; Peter Gay’s work on the Weimar Republic points out that a desire to achieve wholeness underlay the idealism of a range of groups, from the youth movements to the Bauhaus.24

These works all recognise völkisch-nationalism as a product of the far right during the Kaiserreich. Discussion of its continued development and ongoing impact after 1918, however, is complicated by scholarly discussions of the concept of the ‘conservative revolution’, which has dominated the ← 10 | 11 → historiography of the nationalist right in Germany in the years after 1918. This concept has proved confusing.25 One of the first uses of the term was in an essay by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, ‘Das Schrifttum als geistiger Raum der Nation’, in 1927.26 While Hofmannsthal described something that was more profound than most anti-democratic, nationalist thought in the Weimar Republic, his description of the ‘conservative revolution’ does point to one way in which the far right, as opposed to more traditional conservatives, understood their own ideological position: they saw themselves as the vanguard in Germany, striving for the renewal of the nation, reflecting the revolutionary idealism of radical nationalist ideologies in the 1920s, including völkisch-nationalism.

The first post-1945 instance in which the ‘conservative revolution’ was examined is Armin Mohler’s dissertation, submitted at the University of Basle in 1949 and published the following year.27 Mohler’s application of the term encompassed five distinct groups within German nationalism: the Völkische, the Nationalrevolutionäre, the Jungkonservative, the Bündische and the Landvolkbewegung. In a revised edition of his work published in 1989, the last two categories were removed. His goal was to identify the anti-democratic, anti-liberal movements in Germany, separating them from both National Socialism and traditional reactionary conservatism. In distancing them from the National Socialists in particular, he displays what Ketelsen refers to as ‘rettende Intentionen’.28 Mohler’s own biography makes ← 11 | 12 → his intention to rescue the writers from the Nazi label unsurprising. Born in Switzerland in 1920, in 1942 he volunteered for the German army. Following differences of opinion with his Nazi superiors, he flirted with both the extreme left and the extreme right, before returning to Switzerland to take up his studies in Basle. By the time his dissertation was published in 1950 he had returned to southern Germany, where he worked as the private secretary of Ernst Jünger, one of the writers he sought to ‘rescue’.29 Nonetheless, his efforts to create a more differentiated view of the German right are not without foundation. Such a view does not, however, lead to exoneration of those it highlights from their contributions to the environment in which the Nazis were able to flourish. Neither does it, in most cases, reflect any moral outrage on their part at Nazi racism, but instead the elitist attitudes of many nationalists towards the mass nature of the Nazi movement.

Since the appearance of Mohler’s work there has been a tendency to apply the term ‘conservative revolution’ in the Weimar period to denote a right-wing discourse in which certain themes formed a core. These have included the concepts of the Führerprinzip and the Volksgemeinschaft as the basis for the German nation.30 The assertion that these ideas should be distinguished from ‘old-style’ nationalist ideologies, with the implication that they represent a reaction to the outcome of the First World War, was, however, convincingly challenged in the 1960s by historians like Fritz Stern and George Mosse.31 More recently, Jost Hermand has also demonstrated an ideological continuity on the right from the Kaiserreich to the Weimar Republic based on these ideas.32

← 12 | 13 → In the light of the drawbacks identified by these scholars, in Anatomie der konservativen Revolution Stefan Breuer investigates whether a common core existed between intellectuals typically categorised as ‘conservative revolutionaries’, concluding that the term is inadequate as an umbrella for radical nationalism in the Weimar Republic.33 Most works on the ‘conservative revolution’ have emphasised the concept as representing new developments in right-wing, nationalist thought in the Weimar Republic.34 Nonetheless, a greater degree of differentiation is still needed between a fundamentally new ideology, and the application of older ideas to new contexts. Roger Woods recognises the existence of a ‘conservative revolution’ that was a counter-movement to the French Revolution, opposing liberalism, socialism, democracy and internationalism. Thus defined, it extended back into the early nineteenth century.35 He argues that the switch ‘away from a call for clarity over political aims towards anti-programmatic activism and the idea of a strong leader is one of the major developments in their [conservative revolutionaries’] thought in the Weimar Republic.’36 This does not, however, sufficiently differentiate a clear ‘conservative revolutionary’ way of thinking from the völkisch-nationalists discussed in this book. The call for a strong leader was a principle also evident in the antipathy of völkisch-nationalists to the parliamentary system in the Kaiserreich.37 And in the republican context of the Weimar system, nationalists of all shades emphasised this alternative to parliamentary democracy more strongly. Germany’s defeat in the First World War also gave their nationalism new momentum, while the 1918 revolution made radical change seem both necessary and more possible than it had been ← 13 | 14 → during the Kaiserreich. Their responses to the Weimar Republic still rested, however, on ideas established before 1914.

The concept of the ‘conservative revolution’ is also linked to the idea of ‘reactionary modernism’ put forward by Jeffrey Herf. He formulates this as the reconciliation of the nationalist neo-romanticism of the nineteenth century with modern technology in the Weimar Republic. The use of metaphors, familiar words and expressions, he argues, ‘had the effect of converting technology from a component of alien, western Zivilisation into an organic part of German Kultur.’38 Thus, according to Herf, the anti-modernist nature of German nationalism, which he blames on its separation from the Enlightenment, was overcome by some ‘conservative revolutionaries’ after 1918. Herf is right to challenge the assumption that right-wing thought was intrinsically anti-modern. At the same time he accepts the same assumption for the earlier nationalists, among whom he includes the völkisch movement.39 In fact, the paradox he identifies in ‘reactionary modernism’ was also evident in völkisch-nationalism, which rejected the Enlightenment and rationalism, but accepted the scientific and technological progress of modernity. In particular, völkisch-nationalists sought to justify their racial theories through pseudo-scientific, social-Darwinist ideas. Moreover, the colonial empire that was, for example, advocated by the Alldeutscher Verband and which is central to Grimm’s novels required the modern battleships demanded by the Navy League. Technology also featured in their novels. Gustav Frenssen’s best-known protagonist, the farmer Jörn Uhl, ended his days as an engineer working on the construction of the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal, in the eyes of German nationalists a proud symbol of Germany’s position among the most advanced nations of the world.40

Already in the Kaiserreich, völkisch-nationalists represented a growing demand for active, even revolutionary change. As a result, they were part of what Jeremy Noakes identifies as the ‘new right’ in Imperial Germany. ← 14 | 15 → In the face of the weakness of the traditional conservative parties, traditional conservatives sought to harness the ‘new right’, adopting its rhetoric while seeking to maintain their own hold on power. In doing so they gave legitimacy to values based on the idea of the Volk, which increasingly set the ideological terms of the German right in general.41 Eley identifies two stages in the development of the ‘new right’, the first between about 1890 and 1908, in which it developed an anti-parliamentary, radical nationalist discourse in opposition to the established ruling groups. This was followed by the unexpected readmission of the ‘new right’ into the right-wing mainstream that began in 1907–1908 and increased after the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911 and the success of the SPD in the Reichstag election in 1912. This was the start of a radicalisation that, he suggests, continued through the ‘double trauma’ of defeat and revolution in 1918 and on into the early 1920s. Nonetheless, this radicalisation remained an ideological achievement, which failed to create sufficient social and institutional cohesion to turn it into political power.42 This was only achieved by the Nazis after 1928, in the process, as Noakes observes, highlighting the bourgeois character of the ‘new right’, in spite of its radical rhetoric.43

Overall, the term ‘conservative revolution’ is inadequate to describe the writers examined in this book. As applied by scholars, it does not sufficiently describe the continuities which can be traced through the radical, revolutionary nature of their ideology in the Kaiserreich, its violently oppositional character in the Weimar Republic, and its challenging stance regarding the Third Reich. Presenting a different approach to providing a framework to describe the far right, Werner Mittenzwei’s extensive study of the Literature Section of the Prussian Academy of Arts recognises the ideological continuity from the Kaiserreich to the Weimar Republic. Instead of ‘conservative revolution’, Mittenzwei uses the term Nationalkonservative ← 15 | 16 → (national conservatives). With respect to Hans Grimm and his closest associates, he also suggests that they were bound together more by their aversion to artistic modernism than their political points of view.44 Nonetheless, Grimm and Kolbenheyer, in particular, consistently identified themselves as political writers. Others, like Wilhelm Schäfer, were more inclined to draw a line between literature and politics. Even Schäfer, however, described his most successful work Die dreizehn Bücher der deutschen Seele as politically motivated under the exceptional circumstances of the early Weimar Republic.45 Moreover, the cooperation of these writers with each other during the 1930s was a response to the institutional frameworks created by the Nazis in the politics of culture.

The political character of their ideology has led Rolf Geißler to endorse the dichotomy between the aesthetic and the political using the term völkisch-national. Völkisch, he suggests, refers to the aesthetic vision of a Volksgemeinschaft and the defining qualities of the Volk’s blood; ‘national’ refers to the political characteristics of the nation, incorporated in the authoritarian state.46 Nonetheless, the hyphenation of the terms völkisch and nationalist does not reflect the writers’ own view of their ideological position, but remains an academic construct to describe the nature of a complex ideology. It is used as such in this book, which recognises that categorisation in this instance requires uncovering similarities and acknowledging the overlapping character of the many nationalist groups and organisations, and the influence they exercised over each other. The völkisch-nationalist worldview presents the challenge of finding a formula that reflects the fluid boundaries of ideological positions operating in broader social contexts, and the often paradoxical nature of an ideological standpoint that appealed to both emotion and reason.

← 16 | 17 → Conscious of the breadth and disparities in völkisch circles, therefore, this book defines völkisch or völkisch-nationalist broadly as an ideology that was carried beyond straightforward identification with the German ‘nation’ by a belief and emphasis on a racially defined Volk as the basis for society. Puschner’s description of the völkisch movement as a ‘Gesamtbewegung’ with ‘weltanschaulicher Breite’ provides the basis for understanding the phenomenon here.47 This broad definition also draws on the work of George Mosse, who employs the word ‘volkish’ in his works to designate any ideology or worldview that had the idea of the German Volk at its centre.48 Such a broad approach is also used by Hermand to significant effect in his discussion of völkisch utopias in Germany from the Kaiserreich to the end of the Third Reich.49

Following a background chapter on the history of völkisch-nationalist thought from the nineteenth century, this book examines the enthusiasm with which völkisch writers greeted the Third Reich, their vision for Germany’s future and their subsequent disillusionment, by exploring their involvement in the cultural and literary life of these years and their efforts to address the history of the Nazi regime after 1945.

The First World War was a defining event for the writers that provide the focus of this book, the experience binding them together during the Weimar Republic. In many ways, the outbreak of war in 1914 was the high point of Wilhelmine völkisch-nationalism: the war was expected to cleanse German society of degeneracy so that a völkisch state could be built on the undoubted German victory. The war did not substantially change the nature of the ideology, but defeat gave it new momentum and focus. During the 1920s, völkisch writers renewed their pre-war opposition to socialism and democracy, which they now identified as the foreign driving forces of the Weimar Republic. Their works provided a völkisch analysis of Germany’s situation and attempted to overcome the loss of national dignity caused by the demeaning conditions of the Versailles Treaty. As an alternative to the degeneration they perceived in Weimar society, and ← 17 | 18 → to artistic modernism in particular, völkisch-nationalists continued to promote the idea of an organic social order, the Volksgemeinschaft (community of the Volk), which can be traced back to the German Romantics.50 Far from calling for a return of the monarchy, they called for a new leader, a Führer, who would bring the rebirth of German society. Believing that the true expression of the German spirit was threatened by the spread of literary modernism and political republicanism, they also engaged with the emerging NSDAP.

Chapter 2 considers National Socialism in a völkisch context both before and after 1933. It turns to those in charge of propaganda and the cultural sphere and addresses völkisch responses to the institutional climate established in the Third Reich against the backdrop of rivalry for domination of the cultural sphere between Joseph Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg. Here the rudimentary nature of Nazi politics of literature becomes clear. When the Second World War broke out, the institutions concerned with literature were still defining their roles. As Jan-Pieter Barbian has demonstrated, there was never a cohesive Literaturpolitik in the Third Reich.51 A lack of institutional transparency, as well as rivalries and personal differences among leading Nazis led to frequent conflicts. The relationship between völkisch-nationalist writers and the institutions that governed the literary sphere, moreover, was tense at best. While the Nazis needed these writers to provide the regime with literary representation, a significant number refused to subjugate themselves and their work to the propaganda apparatus. The networks, formal and informal, that grew up between these writers were significant; they not only provided a forum for their ideas but also a framework for communication, mutual endorsement and activity independent of the regime in the Third Reich. Their treatment in this ← 18 | 19 → chapter, therefore, provides the context for the examination of the authors’ history during the Third Reich in the chapters that follow.

Chapter 3 focuses on the transformation of the Literature Section in the Prussian Academy of Arts into the German Literature Academy and its impotence in the Third Reich. It charts the divisions between writers with political ambitions and more idealistic völkisch-nationalists. Demonstrating the increasing dissatisfaction of the latter with the position of the Academy, it argues that, while outwardly powerless, the institution actually provided them with a context for contact and communication, enabling them to share their disaffection. Its failure generated considerable antipathy to the Nazi regime among völkisch-nationalists. This was manifested most immediately in the ‘Munich Consensus’, a bloc of six writers that developed in the Academy and became the basis for an informal network of independent nationalists in the literary world in the 1930s. This group consisted of Hans Grimm, Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer, Rudolf G. Binding, Börries Freiherr von Münchhausen, Wilhelm Schäfer and Emil Strauß.

The ways in which völkisch-nationalist independence was maintained outside the framework of the German Literature Academy are the subject of Chapter 4. The activities in völkisch literary circles described here helped sustain völkisch-nationalist networks in the Third Reich. Particular attention is therefore paid to Hans Grimm’s Lippoldsberger Dichtertreffen, held at the writer’s home each year between 1934 and 1939, and again each year after 1949, and to the history during the Third Reich of the most significant völkisch-nationalist publisher in Germany, the Langen-Müller Verlag in Munich. Its unsuccessful struggle for independence in these years mirrors that of völkisch-nationalists in general to establish themselves as a separate estate in German society. The journal Das innere Reich provides a further example of a forum through which the writers in question sought to communicate their ideas to a wider public. The examinations of contributions to Das Innere Reich carried out by Horst Denkler in 1976 and Marion Mallmann in 1978 highlight the difficulties scholars have had in assessing the literature of the Third Reich.52 ← 19 | 20 → This chapter places the journal in the völkisch-nationalist context. The difficulties experienced by Das innere Reich in the late 1930s only came to an end with the solution presented by the Second World War. After 1939, its editors were increasingly able to reconcile their goals with those of the Nazis through support for the war, viewed as a fight to the death that would end either in a glorious resolution of the evils that had plagued German society since 1918, or final defeat for Germany.

The determination among völkisch-nationalist writers to promote the idea of a racially defined Germany continued to motivate their activities after the Second World War, when they increasingly linked it to the idea of a united Europe with Germany at its centre. Chapter 5 therefore examines the post-war era in the late 1940s and 1950s. Contrary to the anti-fascist rhetoric in the socialist East, in West Germany the cultural change that accompanied the establishment of a liberal, democratic West German state after 1945 was initially accompanied by an ambiguous approach to the Nazi past. Many Germans resisted the cultural transition initiated by the Allied occupation powers. Over a hundred significant nationalist parties, groups and cultural organisations emerged between 1945 and 1960. For their members the völkisch-nationalist message of racial and national rebirth offered cultural orientation in the face of physical and political dislocation and social upheaval.

Following the Second World War, a number of völkisch-nationalist writers who had been prominent in the Third Reich were able to revive their careers. Hans Sarkowicz estimates that only one-sixth of the recipients of literary prizes, honours and awards under the supervision of Goebbels’ Reich Chamber of Literature published nothing at all after the War.53 Chapter 5 therefore also addresses the contribution made by völkisch-nationalist writers to the survival and development of German nationalism in West Germany after 1945. Analysing the political and social conditions ← 20 | 21 → in which they were able to achieve success in the 1950s, it assesses the extent to which they contributed to the formation of Germany’s post-war identity. In particular, it focuses on the surviving members of the ‘Munich Consensus’: Hans Grimm, Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer, Wilhelm Schäfer and Emil Strauß. Using the works, correspondence and articles in the press written by this group of writers, this chapter discusses their attempts to deny a share in responsibility for Nazi crimes by emphasising that Nazism did not represent true German nationalism. It demonstrates how they sought to revive a nationalist ideology as the basis for the new Germany, and juxtaposes these efforts with their attempts to relativise the history of the Third Reich. In this way, this chapter offers a perspective on the way in which nationalism in Germany was affected by the legacy of the Third Reich and the nature of right-wing thought between 1945 and 1960. ← 21 | 22 →


1 Will Vesper, quoted in Hans Grimm, Über mich selbst und über meine Arbeit (Lippoldsberg: Klosterhaus-Verlag, 1975), p. 179.

2 George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (New York: Schocken, 1964), p. 5.

3 Twelve Points of the Deutsche Studentenschaft, 13th April 1933, in H. Michaelis and E. Schraepler (eds), Ursachen und Folgen vom deutschen Zusammenbruch 1918 und 1945 bis zur staatlichen Neuordnung Deutschlands in der Gegenwart (Berlin: H. Wendler, 1964), vol. IX, pp. 486–488.

4 Hans Grimm, Die Erzbischofschrift: Antwort eines Deutschen (Göttingen: Plesse-Verlag, 1950); Hans Grimm, Warum – Woher – Aber wohin? Vor, unter und nach der geschichtlichen Erscheinung Hitler (Lippoldsberg: Klosterhaus-Verlag, 1954); Hans Grimm, Über mich selbst; Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer, Sebastian Karst: Über sein Leben und über seine Zeit, 3 vols (Gartenberg bei Wolfratshausen: Kolbenheyer-Gesellschaft, 1955, 1957, 1958).

5 Helmut Vallery, ‘Völkisch-nationalsozialistische Erzählliteratur’, in H. Glaser and A. von Bormann (eds), Deutsche Literatur, eine Sozialgeschichte – Band 9: Weimarer Republik – Drittes Reich: Avantgardismus, Parteilichkeit, Exil, 1918–1945 (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1989), pp. 144–154.

6 Uwe Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung im wilhelminischen Kaiserreich: Sprache, Rasse, Religion (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2001), pp. 143–145.

7 See, for example Ernst Loewy, Literatur unterm Hakenkreuz: Das Dritte Reich und seine Dichtung. Eine Dokumentation (Frankfurt am Main: Hain, 1966), p. 11; Ralf Schnell, ‘Was ist “Nationalsozialistische Dichtung”?’ in Jörg Thuneke (ed.), Leid der Worte: Panorama des literarischen Nationalsozialismus (Bonn: Bouvier, 1987), pp. 28–45; Jürgen Hillesheim and Elisabeth Michael, Lexikon nationalsozialistischer Dichter: Biographien – Analysen – Bibliographien (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1993), p. 7.

8 Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, p. 14.

9 Stefan Breuer, Die Völkischen in Deutschland (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2008), pp. 7–8.

10 The specificity of Germany’s development, or Sonderweg, in the century preceding 1933 has been the subject of involved discussion. Eley emphasises the role of the ‘Fischer Controversy’, ‘about the nature of German imperialism and its aims in the First World War’, in pushing young German historians in the mid-1960s to direct their attention ‘to the problem of continuity and the place of Nazism in the longer historical experience between Bismarck and Hitler’: Geoff Eley, Reshaping the German Right: Radical Nationalism and Political Change after Bismarck (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 2–3. The weaknesses of the Sonderweg idea have been extensively discussed in Blackbourn and Eley, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984) pp. 2–6 and Jürgen Kocka, ‘Asymmetrical Historical Comparison: The Case of the German Sonderweg’, History and Theory 38 (1999), No. 1, p. 41. From the 1950s, a number of historians also began to consider the roots of National Socialism through the history of ideas, ideologies and cultural developments. See, for example, Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology; Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961); Kurt Sontheimer, Antidemokratisches Denken in der Weimarer Republik: Die politischen Ideen des deutschen Nationalismus zwischen 1918 und 1933 (Munich, revised edition: dtv, 1978); Hans Kohn, The Mind of Germany (London: Macmillan, 1966).

11 Among the exceptions are Werner Mittenzwei, Der Untergang einer Akademie oder die Mentalität des ewigen Deutschen (Berlin: Aufbau, 1992). For the post-1945 period see Kurt Tauber, Beyond Eagle and Swastika: German Nationalism since 1945 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967); Rand C. Lewis, A Nazi Legacy: Right-Wing Extremism in Postwar Germany (New York: Praeger, 1991).

12 Uwe-K. Ketelsen, ‘NS-Literatur und Modernität’, in Wulf Koepke and Michael Winkler (eds), Deutschsprachige Exilliteratur: Studien zu ihrer Bestimmung im Kontext der Epoche 1930 bis 1960 (Bonn: Bouvier, 1984), pp. 37–55.

13 See, for example Ernst Loewy, Literatur unterm Hakenkreuz, p. 11; Ralf Schnell, ‘Was ist “Nationalsozialistische Dichtung”?’ in Thuneke (ed.), Leid der Worte, pp. 28–45; Jürgen Hillesheim and Elisabeth Michael, Lexikon nationalsozialistischer Dichter, p. 7; Klaus Vondung, Völkisch-nationale und nationalsozialistische Literaturtheorie (Munich: List, 1973), p. 10; Klaus Vondung, ‘Der literarische Nationalsozialismus. Ideologische, politische und sozialhistorische Wirkungszusammenhänge’, in Denkler and Prümm (eds), Die deutsche Literatur im Dritten Reich: Themen – Traditionen –Wirkungen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1976), pp. 51–52.

14 Vondung, ‘Der literarische Nationalsozialismus’, pp. 60–61.

15 Grimm’s extensive Nachlaß is held in the German Literature Archive (DLA) in Marbach am Neckar and has provided a significant amount of the archival material on which this study is based. I am grateful to the German Literature Archive and the German Schiller Society for a number of scholarships to support my exploration of Grimm’s papers.

16 Vallery, ‘Völkisch-nationalsozialistische Erzählliteratur’, pp. 144–154.

17 Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, pp. 14–18.

18 Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890–1935 (Wellingborough: Aquarian, 1985); Rüdiger Sünner, Schwarze Sonne: Entfesselung und Missbrauch der Mythen in Nationalsozialismus und rechter Esoterik (Freiburg: Herder, 1999).

19 Breuer, Die Völkischen in Deutschland, pp. 9–12.

20 See for example: Guy Tourlamain, ‘Resisting Change: Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer and “Sudeten German” Identity in West Germany after the Second World War’, Transtext(e)s Transcultures, No. 4 (2008), pp. 130–145.

21 Breuer, Die Völkischen in Deutschland, pp. 9–12.

22 Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany, 1900–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), chapter one.

23 Thomas Rohkrämer, A Single Communal Faith: The German Right from Conservatism to National Socialism (Oxford: Berghahn, 2007), p. 1.

24 Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), p. 81.

25 Both Breuer and Woods take this as the starting point for their examinations of the ‘conservative revolution’. See Stefan Breuer, Anatomie der konservativen Revolution (Darmstadt, 2nd revised edition: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1995), p. 1; Roger Woods, The Conservative Revolution in the Weimar Republic (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996), p. 72.

26 Detlev W. Schumann, ‘Gedanken zu Hofmannsthals Begriff der “Konservativen Revolution”’, PMLA, 54, No. 3 (September 1939), pp. 855–899.

27 Armin Mohler, Die konservative Revolution in Deutschland, 1918–1932: Ein Handbuch (Stuttgart: Vorwerk, 1950; Revised edition: Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1989).

28 Uwe-Karsten Ketelsen, Völkisch-nationale und nationalsozialistische Literatur in Deutschland, 1890–1945 (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1976), p. 47. See also Woods, The Conservative Revolution, p. 113.

29 Waldemar Gurion, ‘Conservative Revolution in Germany’, The Review of Politics, 13, No. 3 (July 1951), p. 395; E. Rosenbaum, ‘Die Konservative Revolution in Deutschland, 1918–1932: Grundriss ihrer Weltanschauungen’, International Affairs 27, No. 2 (April 1951), pp. 240–241.

30 For example: Klemens von Klemperer, Germany’s new Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1957); Kurt Sontheimer, Antidemokratisches Denken, p. 144.

31 Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair; George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology.

32 Jost Hermand, Der alte Traum vom neuen Reich. Völkische Utopien und Nationalsozialismus (Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1988).

33 Breuer, Anatomie der konservativen Revolution, pp. 5–6 and passim.

34 See, for example, Panajotis Kondylis, Konservatismus (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1986), pp. 469–493.

35 Woods, The Conservative Revolution, p. 1.

36 Ibid. pp. 73–74.

37 See, for example, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (1899; edition used: Munich: Bruckmann, 1935) pp. 25–26; 348–350; Paul de Lagarde, ‘Konservativ’ (essay written in 1853, reproduced in Schriften für das deutsche Volk, Munich: Deutsche Buchgemeinschaft, 1934), p. 21.

38 Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 1.

39 Ibid., p. 15.

40 Gustav Frenssen, Jörn Uhl (Berlin: Grote, 1901).

41 Jeremy Noakes, ‘German Conservatives and the Third Reich: an ambiguous relationship’, in Martin Blinkhorn (ed.), Fascists and Conservatives. The radical right and the establishment in twentieth-century Europe (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990), p. 72.

42 Geoff Eley, ‘Conservatives and radical nationalists in Germany: the production of fascist potentials, 1912–1928’, in Martin Blinkhorn (ed.), Fascists and Conservatives, p. 62.

43 Noakes, ‘German Conservatives’, pp. 73–74.

44 Werner Mittenzwei, Der Untergang einer Akademie, p. 84 and passim.

45 Wilhelm Schäfer, Mein Lebenswerk. Dankrede bei der Verleihung des Rheinischen Literaturpreises in Köln am 13. November 1937 (Munich: Langen-Müller, 1938), pp. 4–5.

46 Rolf Geißler, ‘Dichter und Dichtung des Nationalsozialismus’, in H. Kunisch (ed.), Handbuch der deutschen Gegenwartsliteratur (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1965), p. 721.

47 Puschner, Die völkische Bewegung, p. 264.

48 Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology, p. 1.

49 Hermand, Der alte Traum, pp. 12–15 and passim.

50 See, for example: Umut Özkirimli, Theories of Nationalism. A Critical Introduction (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 15–19, 52–53; E. Kedourie, Nationalism (4th edition: Oxford: Blackwell 1994), p. 1; Jost Hermand, Der alte Traum vom neuen Reich, pp. 11–12; Detlev W. Schumann, ‘Gedanken zu Hofmannsthals Begriff der “Konservativen Revolution”’, pp. 856–858.

51 Jan-Pieter Barbian, Literaturpolitik im ‘Dritten Reich’: Institutionen, Betätigungsfelder (Frankfurt am Main: Buchhändler-Vereinigung, 1993).

52 Horst Denkler, ‘Janusköpfig. Zur ideologischen Physiognomie der Zeitschrift “Das innere Reich” (1934–1944)’, in Denkler and Prümm (eds), Die deutsche Literatur im Dritten Reich, pp. 382–405; Marion Mallmann, ‘Das innere Reich’: Analyse einer konservativen Kulturzeitschrift im Dritten Reich (Bonn: Bouvier, 1978).

53 Hans Sarkowicz, ‘Die literarischen Apologeten des Dritten Reiches zur Rezeption der vom Nationalsozialismus geförderten Autoren nach 1945’, in Thunecke (ed.), Leid der Worte, p. 436.