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"Völkisch" Writers and National Socialism

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

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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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Concluding Remarks

← 346 | 347 → Concluding Remarks

On the death of Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer in 1962, Curt Hohoff wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: ‘Kolbenheyer’s story can be explained through the combination of his origins, education, studies and the literary possibilities of his time. He was a passionately engaged writer and, as a result, he erred in numerous ways; and because he was also a passionate person, he became unmercifully enmeshed in his mistakes.’1 Hohoff, who in his youth in the 1930s had been active in the circles that developed around the LMV, was by this stage far from complimentary about Kolbenheyer’s life and work. He was forced to wrestle with the dilemma that writers like Kolbenheyer and Grimm presented after 1945. Their ideology and literary work had responded to the ethical and political challenges facing their generation, and, as Hohoff notes about Kolbenheyer, in their responses they had drawn on the contexts from which they had come. For Hohoff, the combination of Kolbenheyer’s passion and the circumstances of his time had combined to draw him towards the mistaken conclusions presented in his philosophical works. These conclusions had also found a more primitive echo in the Nazi ideology.

Kolbenheyer was the last survivor of the Munich Consensus. Grimm had died three years before in 1959, Schäfer and Strauß in 1952 and 1960 respectively. Like such contemporaries, Kolbenheyer was not a product of National Socialism. Well established before 1933 as the creator of serious literature, he had gained attention that went far beyond the right-wing margins with which he was increasingly identified after 1945. The presence of his works on the respectable bookshelves of the German Bildungsbürgertum over the previous half-century presented the writers of his many obituaries ← 347 | 348 → with a considerable challenge in explaining why such a writer still needed to be taken seriously.2

This challenge remains for historians seeking to understand the writers discussed in this book. Such writers had lived through four German regimes, providing ideological continuity on the far right from the Kaiserreich of the late nineteenth century down to the FRG. In doing so, they responded to an ongoing sense of threat posed by modern life to German life and culture. The intangible general sense of this threat was projected onto the specific political and social upheavals they experienced. Their responses drew on the völkisch tradition that had informed the consciousness of the middle classes in particular during their youth. Their ideological position provided them with a point of continuity in the face of ongoing change throughout their lives. Their stubborn adherence to racial nationalism was not, however, born of reaction but of revolutionary idealism, which remained unsatisfied to the end of their lives. The failure of the Nazi regime to fulfill their ambitions for a völkisch state, in spite of its initial promise, left them after 1945 struggling to explain their roles in the creation of an ideological climate that had allowed National Socialism to gain a hold in Germany. Rather than accepting the roles they had played, they clung to völkisch-nationalist principles as the as yet unrealised answer to the challenges which Germany continued to face in the modern world.

The relationship between the writers in question and the National Socialist regime was, on the whole, one of critical support by the writers. But it also changed as the years passed. Seeking support in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Nazis courted prominent völkisch authors, encouraging them in what became after 1933 a misguided assumption that they would have a defining role in the formation of the political culture of the Nazi state. The Nazi rhetoric of revolution also provided a rationale that allowed these writers to continue to believe in the possibility of ongoing change after the Nazi seizure of power. 1933 was thus not viewed by them as the end, but only as the start of the völkisch revolution. Nonetheless, by ← 348 | 349 → the end of the decade, most were disillusioned with the form the regime had taken, and more particularly with their own place in it. This did little, however, to undermine their fundamental racial nationalist convictions and their adherence to the idea of a völkisch social order.

It is important to recognise the depth of conviction from which writers like Hans Grimm and Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer were acting. While often caught up in self-regard and a desire for self-aggrandisement, they were not cynical actors on Germany’s literary stage, but responded to the events that influenced the course of German history during their lifetimes, out of a deep conviction that Germany had taken the wrong road following unification in 1871. Seen from a contemporary perspective, and through the lens of the Holocaust, the solutions they proposed seem misguided at best, inhuman at worst. Such a judgement does not, however, mean that they are unworthy of further consideration. To recognise that the men and women studied in this book believed that they were working for a better society is not to endorse their worldview, but it does offer an avenue for understanding how they and many like them arrived at a position in which the Nazi regime appeared a positive step in the right direction. Their subsequent disappointment and disillusionment with the regime also provides insights into their failure to identify their own position with the crimes committed in the name of the German people during the Second World War. These men and women were in many ways typical representatives of a generation that had a fundamental impact on the course of the twentieth century. Highlighting their point of view offers a perspective on an intellectual position shared by many Germans, whose right-wing position, combined in their everyday lives with a sense of continuity in their role in the overall social scheme in Germany, allowed them to retain a perception of moral independence that distanced them from responsibility for the German catastrophe.

The völkisch vision of a society based on estates in which the role of true German writers as representatives of the German spirit and the conscience of the nation would be truly recognised provided the writers examined in this book with their moral framework. Their duty to their Volk was the overriding motivation for their actions throughout their lives. The sense of obligation they expressed also helps explain their literary endeavours; ← 349 | 350 → they believed in themselves as the guardians of German literature against the outside influences perceived to be invading German culture. They were helped to this conclusion by the myth of a German past that looked back to the idea of medieval guilds as a model on which society should be structured, and viewed the producers of literature with particular reverence. Germany in the modern world should once again be the land of Dichter and Denker. By restoring the centrality of the written word in German culture, they hoped to counter the internationalising tendencies they identified in the unprincipled and deconstructive avant-garde writing of the early twentieth century. In their eyes, modernist culture re-emerged as a dangerous influence on the character of the Federal Republic after the Second World War.

On the other hand, as time passed they increasingly understood their own efforts in a broader international context. This became particularly important after the Second World War, when they promoted völkisch principles as the basis for the reconstruction not just of Germany, but Europe as a whole. The future of the ‘white race’ depended, they argued, on the cooperation of the individual European Völker against the Bolshevik threat from the East and American melting-pot culture from the West. This also became fundamental to their defense of Hitler’s foreign policy, which became, in völkisch rhetoric, a far-sighted attempt to preempt the problems Europeans were facing in the 1950s. In many ways, in their efforts to defend the Nazi regime after the War they came closer to wholehearted support of the regime than they had offered when the Nazis were actually in power. This was also partly the result of the process of marginalisation they experienced as the 1950s progressed. As they found themselves pushed towards the far-right margins over the course of the decade, they also found solidarity among the circles of former Nazi functionaries. In this environment, völkisch grievances were fuelled.

As the representatives of an ideology that, in theory at least, rejected reason in favour of lived experience and feeling, they were full of contradictions. This adds to the difficulties which subsequent generations of scholars and commentators have had in pinning völkisch-nationalist writers down. While their contacts with former Nazi officials increased after 1945, in the post-war years they also emphasised their earlier struggle against the ← 350 | 351 → attempts by the Nazi rulers between 1933 and 1945 to subjugate all cultural production to the service of politics and propaganda. Their resistance to the latter should not, however, be viewed as a rejection of the Nazis’ racial ideology, but as the defence of German literature against the instrumentalising tendencies of the regime. Here they remained consistent throughout their lives, and against the backdrop of the rivalries that characterised the institutions of the Nazi government, the maintenance of independent völkisch networks through the Third Reich was in many ways their greatest achievement. Their correspondence and private contacts were vital, but broader frameworks also continued to function, in spite of the Nazis’ attempts to undermine them. The Literature Academy provided a context that brought the Munich Consensus together, even while it was increasingly redundant in the practical government of the literary sphere. Beyond formal institutional structures, moreover, a number of publications, institutions and events continued to provide spaces for the relatively free exchange of ideas, and their dissemination to a wider public. Grimm’s determination to preserve the Langen-Müller Verlag under Pezold, as well as his annual Lippoldsberger Dichtertage, suggest that they were more successful than the Nazis intended, but also demonstrate the constraints within which they were functioning. Moreover, even where the writers involved were ultimately unable to preserve the independence of the LMV, for example, their campaign provided them with a direct cause, giving an outlet for the expressions of both their vision for German literature and the frustrations they experienced as a result of the limitations imposed by the regime.

The völkisch cultural programme was always a political programme; the racial health of the German people would depend on the social structures established to order its existence. Thus völkisch politics promoted the idea that society needed to return to its natural, organic form, appealing to biological theories combined with a mysticism that suggested a metaphysical ordering of human life. True German literature made such things accessible to the German people and enabled their transmission from one generation to the next. This created a shared sense of obligation among völkisch writers; their ongoing efforts to protect and promote the spiritual interests of the German Volk even in the face of considerable opposition were motivated by their conviction that continued action was their duty. ← 351 | 352 → This also provided them after 1945 with a justification of their efforts to work with former members of the Nazi regime to complete the völkisch revolution.

This group of völkisch-nationalist writers also identified themselves against the republican forms adopted in West Germany after 1945. As a result, they were significant for the cultural debates of the time because they contested what Germany was becoming. Cultural change happens slowly and does not always map onto the political terrain. Moreover, popular identities have rarely been successfully imposed from above. Völkisch-nationalist writers tried to present an alternative solution for Germany to the one imposed by the occupying powers. They upheld old conceptions of German greatness and maintained the assertion of racial superiority in their demands not just for independence but also for equality on the world stage. In the light of their post-war success it can be assumed that they found a readership among a people conditioned to national rhetoric under the Nazis. Many ‘normal’ Germans welcomed their works, which were written by familiar names preaching a familiar ideology in the aftermath of war and national defeat. Völkisch-nationalism sought to present a political future that redeemed nationalism from the legacy of the Nazis and made it acceptable to post-war Germany. The successful articulation in West Germany of this ideology elucidates in particular the challenges which post-war Germans faced in ‘confronting the past’ and defining a new identity.

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1 Curt Hohoff, ‘Er hütete das “nationale Plasma” – Zum Tode von Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer’, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 14.4.1962, DLA: Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer, 3: Würdigungen.

2 A large selection of obituaries can be found in DLA: Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer, 3: Würdigungen.