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Chamberlain, Houston Stewart

german wagner race cultural

Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who was born into a family of English military officers on September 9, 1855, became a widely recognized advocate of race inequality and Aryan superiority in his adopted country of Germany. In his writings he built his enthusiasm for German cultural and intellectual achievements into an eclectic theory of the superiority of the “Teutonic” race, a category that he used synonymously with “Aryan” and “Germanic.” After initial university studies in the biological sciences, he developed a career as an independent author of widely disseminated essays and biographical treatises on German cultural, philosophical, historical, political, and religious themes. In the latter half of his life, Chamberlain developed a close association with family members and admirers of the antiSemitic opera composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883). Chamberlain’s writings were widely admired in conservative German political circles, and he became an early supporter of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Indeed, he is often considered an important intellectual and ideological precursor of the Nazi movement.

Chamberlain’s education had two elements that developed into the primary themes of his writings. Because he suffered from poor health and abhorred the regimentation of English schools, his early education took place largely under private tutors. Long tours of continental Europe provided the first of his major themes: a deep admiration for the artistic and musical achievements associated with Italy and Germany. The other major theme of his writing developed out of his university training at the University of Geneva (1879–1884), where he studied the biological sciences (botany, zoology, and physiology). His professors included Carl Vogt, an outspoken proponent both of Darwinism and of the intellectual inferiority of women and non-European races. Chamberlain never completed the requirements for his doctorate in botany. Nonetheless, he pursued his biological research further, and in 1897 he published a treatiseon sap flowin plants that he had written under the supervision of the botanist Julius Wiesner in Vienna, where he resided from 1889 to 1908.

These two themes of cultural glory and scientific investigation combined to form the structure of his arguments about race. He knew the work of other theorists of Aryan superiority, such as Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882) and Ernest Renan (1823–1892), but he developed his own views independently. He never began his arguments with a simple assertion of the superiority of the Germanic race. Instead, he claimed to reach that conclusion based on what appeared to be the evidence provided by broad-ranging references to earlier texts, documents, and cultural objects. He supported his racial theories with a loose definition of the privileged Germanic, Teutonic, or Aryan groups. Italians, for example, could sometimes count as Teutonic because of the influence of Germanic tribes and aristocrats in Italy over many centuries.

The most significant personal and intellectual encounter of Chamberlain’s life and career was with the operas and writings of Wagner, who was himself an anti-Semite. His single personal meeting with the composer, at the Bayreuth Festival in 1882, led to a correspondence with Wagner’s widow, Cosima. In 1892 he published a short study of Wagner’s operas. On the basis of that work, and on Cosima’s recommendation, the Munich publisher Friedrich Bruck-mann commissioned him to write a full-scale biographical study of Wagner, which was published in 1896. He took Wagner’s daughter Eva as his second wife in 1908, the same year that he took up residence in the Wagner household.

Bruckmann was pleased with the success of the biography of Wagner, and he contracted Chamberlain to write a comprehensive study of the culture of the nineteenth century intended for a broad audience. The resulting book, Foundations of the Nineteenth Century , was published to wide notice in 1899. More than 100,000 copies were sold by 1915. A massive brief for “racial purity,” this book undergirded the messages of such works as Charles Carroll’s The Negro a Beast (1900), and Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905). Chamberlain argued that the creative forces of the Aryan-Teutonic race allowed German culture to triumph over the European “racial chaos” that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. HethussawGermansasthetrue defenders of Christianity and a counterweight to the invidious, “alien” influence of the Jews. He believed that Germans always displayed an intuitive, ‘regenerative’ creativity that justified their cultural and racial superiority. He defended this claim in further biographical studies of major German figures, including the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1905) and the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1912).

Throughout his wide-ranging writings, Chamberlain pursued a concept for which he drew support both from the arts and from the biological sciences: the Gestalt . In Chamberlain’s mind, both living organisms in their environments and broadly conceived systems of creative ideas (e.g., Wagner’s operas, Goethe’s literature, Kant’s philosophy, or German Protestant Christianity) all carried the wholeness of Gestalt , or an integrated formal order within a dynamic system. For Chamberlain, no boundary existed between the methods and insights of the natural sciences and those of the arts and humanities. These opinions also made him ambivalent about Darwinism, which he considered destructive of the necessary religious order.

During his later career, Chamberlain polemically supported Germany in its political and military conflicts. During World War I, for example, he wrote vigorous pro-German propaganda. In the final years of his life, which he spent in poor health at the Wagner household in Bayreuth, his work inspired the admiration of several important Nazi figures, including the party propagandist Alfred Rosenberg and Adolf Hitler himself. He died on January 9, 1927, and Hitler attended his funeral.

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