The Volk and Other Ideological Influences on National Socialism
While Nazi ideology drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including (but not limited to) political theory, economics, philosophy, geopolitics, eugenics, religion, literature, and history, the Volkish movement is particularly worth examining. A combination of folklore, occultism, romanticism, and ethnic nationalism, Volkish thought could be considered the corner stone at the ideological foundation of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party under Adolf Hitler. Here I will look more closely at the Volkish movement and how its main components manifested themselves in Nazi goals and practices.
The intellectual character of the Volkish movement was a direct consequence of the romantic movement of nineteenth-century Europe, and like romanticism, Volkish thought favored the irrational and emotional, focusing mainly on man and the world. The movement arose from the turmoil that “accompanied the social, economic, and political transformation of Europe” during and after the industrialization and modernization characteristic of the nineteenth century. Industrial society drove the population to seek “deeper meaning in life than the transitory reality of their present condition”, since the demands of such a society tended to increase “the individual’s feeling of isolation.” Considering these origins, one can view Volkism as a backlash to the modernizing world.
Above all else the Volk valued rural rootedness, a concept that allowed an almost spiritual communion between the Germanic landscape, its people, and the cosmos. Since the Volk did not extend universally but rather was limited to a particular national unit, the movement set the groundwork for intense nationalism in the following decades, making the connection between landscape and people an exclusive experience. As Friedrich Ratzel made explicit in 1896, Volkism’s “awakening of a feeling for nature [was] ‘only a sign of the increased reacquaintance with our country, that is to say with ourselves as a Volk. For how could you divorce from the very being [of nature] a Volk which for half a thousand years has worked, lived, and suffered on the same soil.’” Appreciation of nature was transformed into a nationalistic ideal that soon went beyond a mere respect for the landscape. Volkish philosophers advocated the return to medieval traditions and practices, to regress from modernity and reinstate the feudal system with a master-apprentice-based way of life. To Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, an influential Volkish thinker, the bourgeoisie and proletariat were “disruptive element[s] that had challenged the ‘genuine’ estates” of old. These classes were composed “mainly of merchants and industrialists who had no close connection with nature”, and animosity toward the city and its inhabitants “was an integral part of the rise of Volkish thought.”
Indeed, the longing for a return to feudal society manifested itself in the Volkish literature. Books such as Der Wehrwolf, “the most famous German peasant novel” written by Hermann Löns, extolled not only the peasant lifestyle but the use of brute force in order to defend Volkish ideals. As George Mosse describes it, “The story of the peasants who defended themselves against the bandits and marauders of the Thirty Years’ War may well have been intended to illustrate the heroic Volkish personality defending the true order against the inroads of a materialistic and industrial society.” The glorification of violence in defense of the Volk is a foreboding indicator of the vehement nationalism characteristic of the Third Reich.
“Uprootedness” served as a contrast to rural rootedness. In Volkish thought, having no root “stigmatized a person as being deprived of the life force and thus lacking a properly functioning soul.” From the Volkish perspective, the Jewish people was by its very nature restless, and since it occupied no specific territory it “was consequently doomed to rootlessness”, an existence contrary and irreconcilable with the Volkish way of life. Rootedness “conveyed the sense of man’s correspondence with the landscape through his soul and thus with the Volk, which embodied the life spirit of the cosmos.” It was thought that without the Volk a person had no spiritual value or purpose. Since the Jewish population tended to dominate the large cities, Volkish thinkers considered Jews as inhabiting an artificial domain disconnected with any spirituality and in contrast to idyllic rootedness. The city fused elements that the Volk disliked most: the proletariat, industry, life in continuous motion, and separation from nature. Urban dislocation embodied “an ominous colossus which was endangering the realm of the Volk.” As previously mentioned, to the Volk the city and all its components were irreconcilable with Volkish ideology. This conflict would have tragic ramifications for the Jewish population, whom the Volk considered embodiments of all that stood in the way of a Volkish utopia.
- Der Wehrwolf, Hermann Löns, 1910
- Der Büttnerbauer (The Peasant from Büttner), Wilhelm von Polenz, 1895
- Land und Leute (Places and People), Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, 1857-63
- Rembrandt als Erzieher (Rembrandt as Educator), Julius Langbehn, 1890
- Paul de Lagarde, 1827-1891
- Julius Langbehn, 1851-1907
Other Influential Persons, Works, and Theories
- Houston Stewart Chamberlain, 1855-1927
- Dietrich Eckart, 1868-1923
- Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, 1816-1882
- Karl Haushofer, 1869-1946
- Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900
- Heinrich Gotthard von Treitschke, 1834-1896
- Richard Wagner, 1813-1883
- Germania, Tacitus, ca. 56 – ca. 117
- The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics by Edwin Black
- The German Volk -- Leftist, Fascist, Nazist
- National Socialism
- Ideology of National Socialism
- Wagner's Ride of the Valkyrie
- Mosse, George L. The Crisis of German Ideology. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964.