Evangelist of Race

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Houston Stewart Chamberlain is usually mentioned in a page or two among the many books on German nationalist and racist precursors of National Socialism. Geoffrey G. Field has written the first full-length English biography of the alienated Briton who became a convert to the cause of German national superiority. Field’s superb study is a thorough analysis of Chamberlain the man, his ideas, and his great influence. His biography is exhaustively researched and exceptionally well-written. It is filled with fascinating information, fine insights, and balanced judgments. The book is as much a study of the social and cultural history of the German right wing from 1880 to 1927 as it is of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Field set out to illuminate Chamberlain’s life and work in the larger context of German history and the Western world. The successful result is a model of the intellectual biography.

Chamberlain’s life was an intriguing story of how an uprooted upper-class Englishman rejected the outlook and institutions of his native Britain and adopted Germany as his new land. The early death of his mother, the absence of his father, and bad experiences in English boarding schools resulted in an unhappy childhood for Chamberlain. By the late 1870’s, he settled in Germany, and during World War I, he renounced his British nationality and became a German citizen. Field points out that Chamberlain’s passion for all things German was a response to problems of identity and feelings of insecurity and rootlessness. In the 1870’s, Chamberlain planned a career in botany at the University of Geneva, but the sustained strain of scientific work proved too much for his delicate physical and emotional constitution. He became a dilettante in music, philosophy, and anthropology.

By 1880, Chamberlain’s conversion to the art and thought of Richard Wagner gave the English expatriate a new passion for existence and a sense of mission. Though he had never met Wagner in person, he soon became the foremost popularizer of Wagner’s music and one of the founders of the Wagner cult. In addition, Chamberlain discovered and developed the nationalist, racist, anti-Semitic, and antimodernist ideas of the composer. He saw himself as an apostle of Wagner’s struggle for a heroic Germany purged of Judaism and materialism. He also copied Wagner’s rambling but pseudolearned and dramatic style.

In 1888, Chamberlain met Cosima Wagner, the composer’s widow, who had herself adopted the ultranationalist views of her husband. Chamberlain and Cosima Wagner founded the Bayreuth operatic festivals. Bayreuth was to become the shrine of the Wagner cult. It served as a focus of the völkish movements in Germany.

By 1890, Chamberlain linked the ideas of Wagner with the broader currents of the German chauvinism of the time. He became an exponent of race and an opponent of liberalism and modern capitalism. Field does well to point out that Chamberlain was not an original thinker but rather an effective synthesizer and popularizer. From Arthur de Gobineau and other racial theorists, Chamberlain developed the doctrine of Aryan racial superiority. He also acquired a pseudoscientific basis for his ideas. From Gobineau and others, Chamberlain developed the idea that race was the key to an understanding of history and culture. He believed that the Germans embodied the purest and finest repository of Aryan qualities. This provided him with a justification for a German mission of racial purification and world hegemony. As was true for most right-wing German nationalists, Chamberlain viewed the Jews as the major enemy of Aryan Germandom. They represented the soulless materialism of the nineteenth century: decadence, modernism, and liberalism. They were Wagner’s “plastic demon” in human form, retaining their racial character while trying to infiltrate society by marrying their daughters to Aryans. The historic struggle between Aryan and Jew, light and darkness, would determine the fate of the human race. Chamberlain saw his lifelong mission as one of evengelizing the Germans for their sacred role as master race in the salvation of civilization itself.

These basic ideas were expanded and synthesized in the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which appeared in 1899. This was a two-volume work of more than a thousand pages. Field does an excellent job of elucidating Chamberlain’s claim to fame. Though the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century was a badly organized book, filled with inconsistencies and written in a rambling style, its major arguments were discernible. Race and racial struggle were the key to history. The Aryan creativity of Greece and...

(The entire section is 1918 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XVIII, July, 1981, p. 1597.

The Economist. CCLXXXI, November 7, 1981, p. 115.

History: Reviews of New Books. IX, August, 1981, p. 218.

Library Journal. CVI, March 1, 1981, p. 551.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, September 24, 1981, p. 33.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 4, 1981, p. 997.