Monday, May 23, 2005

The "Völkisch" Ideology: An Annotated Reading List

Following the excellent suggestion of J. Francis Lehman, here is the first ever Trans-Int reading list, dedicated, of course, to the "völkisch" or "ethnic national" tradition of German political thought or, more simply put, the "völkisch ideology". As I have said before, the pickings in English are relatively slim and, as you will be able to gather and for obvious enough reasons, they are mostly related in one way or another to those 12 years in German history during which the "völkisch" movement wrought its most disastrous consequences - otherwise known as "The Third Reich". It is a pity that there is virtually nothing (in English, that is) on the ramifications of "völkisch" thought since 1945: not only in Germany, but indeed in European politics and law more generally. As a matter of fact, I am working on such a volume.

I'll say a few words on each of the items listed and provide an Amazon link. Beware that I am reconstructing some of my observations from more or less distant memory, so they will sometimes have a distinctly subjective tinge. The words "highly recommended" beneath an item mean: highly recommended.

Probably, the standard reference in English on "völkisch" thought is George Mosse. Mosse wrote numerous volumes that broach the theme, usually in connection with the Third Reich. Two of the best known are The Crisis of German Ideology : Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich

and The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars Through the Third Reich.

I must say that back in the day when I was reading Mosse, I tended to come away from his books somewhat disappointed. But even if the analysis may leave something to be desired, Mosse's books are packed with revealing details and they are probably the best place to start in English for someone new to the issue of "völkisch" thought.

Perhaps the most eminent German historian of "völkisch" thought and the "völkisch" movement is Wolfgang Wippermann of Berlin's Free University. Unfortunately, there is only one book by Wippermann available in English, but it is a very good one indeed: The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945.

(Highly Recommended)

Co-authored with the equally eminent British historian Michael Burleigh, The Racial State includes a concise historical introduction to "völkisch" thought (Chapter 2: "Barbarous Utopias"). Thereafter it provides a highly detailed documentation and analysis of the ramifications of the "völkisch" ideology in the system and practice of the Third Reich.

Originally written in French, Leon Poliakov's The Aryan Myth is another standard work.

As the sub-title - "A History of Racist and Nationalistic Ideas in Europe" - implies, Poliakov's volume casts its net very wide. Probably too wide. "The Aryan Myth" - i.e. that of the superiority of the so-called "Aryan" or Germanic peoples - is not quite the same thing as the "völkisch" ideology, even if it is true that historically they have tended to go together. It is a major weakness of Poliakov's work that he fails sufficiently to distinguish the two. Moreover, Poliakov has a tendency to see "völkisch" racism at work in virtually any author who happens to have written in the German language and used the terms "Volk" or "Rasse" [race]. Thus, for example, even Kant - one of the great defenders of enlightenment ideals and republican political principles - turns up in his survey. To my mind, this is a serious error and reflects the fact that the notion of "völkisch" racism lacks precision in Poliakov's usage. Nonetheless, as with Mosse's work, Poliakov's is full of interesting details. It is up to the reader to separate the wheat from the chaffe.

One of the oddities and "challenges" of the process of European integration involves the fact that the nations comprising the EU have been founded upon very different notions of nationhood: in some cases, per the "völkisch" tradition, an ethnic notion; in others, a strictly civic one. Despite valiant academic efforts to deny the obvious - notably, by the most widely cited French "specialist" in the matter, Patrick Weil - the contrast is at its starkest precisely in the cases of those two nations that are together fancied the "motor" of European integration: Germany and France. The standard English-language academic text on the matter - it does not deny the obvious, but studies its historical roots and recent ramifications - is Rogers Brubaker's Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany.

A very useful volume, if there is, nonetheless, a weakness in Brubaker's treatment, it is that it is in fact more about citizenship than nationality. In the case of a "civic" conception of nationality, the two are identical. In the case of a "völkisch" conception, they are not. Thus, much of Brubaker's analysis is structured by the distinction between two types of citizenship laws: those constituting the so-called ius sanguinis - or "right of blood" (i.e. if you are born of a citizen of state x, you are a citizen of state x) - and those constituting a so-called ius soli or "right of the soil" (i.e. if you are born on the territory of state x, you are a citizen of state x). Obviously, the application of the ius sanguinis to ascribe citizenship has a certain, let's say, "affinity" with the "völkisch" ideology. But it is not the same thing. A state can very well introduce elements of a ius soli (in 1999, Germany did) and still have its existence as a state founded on "völkisch" principles. Conversely, states can employ elements of a ius sanguinis - in fact, those states most identified with the ius soli (France and the US, for instance) do employ elements of ius sanguinis as well - without having anything to do with "völkisch" principles.

As I have tried to emphasize in my remarks on "völkisch" thought, the "völkisch" ideology is based on fundamentally irrational premises: above all, on the premise of a kind of mystical unity of "cultures" and "peoples" (in a quasi-biological sense). Not surprisingly, then, some of the most fervent partisans of the "völkisch" movement have been genuine nutjobs. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke presents some of the essential references of "esoteric racism" - Guido von List, Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, as well as the father of the contemporary "Anthroposophy" movement (think twice before sending your kids to "Waldorf" schools) Rudolf Steiner - in his brilliant study The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on the Nazi Movement.

(Highly Recommended)