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Sleight of hand: a shabby way with texts and history
on December 23, 2004
This book has a sweeping scope that can initially seem impressive. Until you fact-check Viereck's claims, especially his citations. This was no genuine exploration of the origins of Nazi ideas, "the roots of the Nazi mind". This was a polemicist with an extremely conservative cultural, religious and political agenda, smearing with a proto-Nazi tag those aesthetic and cultural movements that he happens to dislike.
Viereck's main target was the romantic movement of the 19th century, especially but not only Richard Wagner. Although Viereck wrote in the manner of a moralist condemning the romantics from on high, his agenda led him into certain failings of his own. His portrayal of "Father Jahn" and other figures bear false witness, and he commits academic sins like altering texts, inventing fictitious works, misleading quotation, and the like.
Basically Viereck's story was that the National Socialist flame was lit by Friedrich Jahn, who supposedly influenced the early German romantics, Fichte, Herder and so on, who then passed the torch to Wagner, who synthesised their evil ideas into a fully-fledged Nazi philosophy with all pieces complete, from Führer-principle to Holocaust, which Hitler then picked up and applied.
This is nonsense. First, the historical Friedrich Jahn was neither a proto-Nazi nor an especially important figure. Viereck truthfully called Jahn a German nationalist, which sounds sinister because of 20th century history, but glossed over the fact that Jahn's nationalism came at a time when the German states were occupied, ruled and plundered by foreign armies under Napoleon. To be a nationalist under those circumstances was to resist tyranny, not promote it.
Viereck elides the fact that Jahn was an outspoken democrat who insisted that French rule should be replaced by a democratic, independent and unified Germany. I feel no defensiveness towards Jahn; though no proto-Nazi he was an antisemite with insufficient other merits to balance that fact. But misrepresentation is irritating.
Viereck greatly exaggerates Jahn's importance. Jahn founded his Turnverein (gymnastics organisation) movement in 1811 and lost control of it with his imprisonment in 1819, and though he remained generally respected until his death in 1852, he exercised precious little influence. I've looked for references to Jahn in the work of the German romantics, and found only a satirical _attack_ on Jahn in an 1823 play by the romantic playwright Joseph von Eichendorff.
Viereck's portrait of the early German romantics defames admirable people, brotherhood-of-man democrats and liberals like Herder. Fichte is less admirable, but is also utterly misrepresented. Even those German Romantics who did lose their liberalism in old age didn't turn to any form of radical rightwingery that could be called proto-Nazi. They reverted to conservative Catholicism and monarchism.
Viereck's attack on Wagner illustrates his method. For example Viereck's first, 1941, edition of this book was the first text to frame Wagner by quoting the concluding words of "Judaism in Music" while - without alerting the reader - omitting Wagner's key words, "for then we shall be one and indivisible", in order to hide the fact that Wagner was calling for assimilation. This deception has been much imitated since.
(Viereck also brings in additional words from another Wagner essay. Several of Viereck's supposed Wagner quotes are actually mosaics assembled by Viereck from fragments of Wagner text. Wagner was undoubtedly a disgusting antisemite; Viereck's damning quotes from Cosima's _Diaries_ are real enough. Though selective; he does not cite passages where Wagner defends Jews from antisemitic attacks, or says he would no longer write against the Jews. And Wagner called for assimilation, unlike some of his contemporaries who really were proto-Nazis.)
Viereck claimed that Wagner's call for the founding of a people's army, in his "The Revolution" essay, was "a dream akin to what Röhm in 1934 envisaged for his Storm Troopers." But Wagner's text called for the army to be under the control of a democratically elected government. Did Viereck really not know the difference between Storm Troopers in a Nazi state, and an army accountable to an elected government?
Viereck also claimed that Wagner invented the Führer-principle. You'll find no such idea in Wagner, since Wagner was a young anarchist who eventually drifted as far right as supporting constitutional monarchy. So Viereck claimed that when Wagner used "a number of other terms, especially 'hero', 'folk-king' and 'Barbarossa'", he really meant "Führer". Viereck pioneered the technique of claiming that if Wagner's words don't support your conspiracy theory, then the words must be in a secret code. Thus anything can be said to mean any old thing, making "proving" a case much easier.
Viereck also invented a Wagner essay called "Heroism", which apparently called for racial purity under a dictatorship. There is no such Wagner essay, nor any Wagner essay that ever called for either racial purity or dictatorship. Wagner's clearest late statement on political systems, "State and Religion", advocated constitutional monarchy, the monarch exercising a symbolic function above politics, while political parties of "men of equal rights" contended for office.
Wagner did write, in an essay called "Heroism and Christianity", that there was no such thing as a German race and that Europeans should get used to racial intermingling, explicitly advocating racial equality "under a universal moral concord, such as only Christianity can bring about."
Is "Heroism and Christianity" related to Viereck's fictitious "Heroism" essay? Hard to say. Still, Viereck, who writes from a rightwing Christian worldview, needed to insist that the late Wagner was anti-Christian, though the essays and _Diaries_ show this is quite untrue. This can have comic results, as when Viereck used an anti-Christian remark by the young Wagner to prove that _Parsifal_, written decades later, must be anti-Christian. It may be that Viereck, with his own agenda, was embarrassed by the words "and Christianity" from Wagner's "Heroism and Christianity" title, so he "disappeared" them, along with the actual content of that essay.
Summary: This book has been tremendously influential, especially in its earlier editions. But it is a sustained piece of academic misrepresentation, and its influence has been pernicious and regrettable.