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  • Aaron Wootton

The Garbled Philosophy of German Nationalism

In 1819 the Burschenschaften—student fraternity houses which espoused nationalism and liberalism—were banned by resolution of the Confederate Diet as part of a wider effort to extinguish a lust for revolution that was fomenting in Germany. The pretext for the restrictions, which came to be known as the Carlsbad Decrees, was the murder of Russian consul general August von Kotzebue, who was stabbed to death in his own living room by Jena fraternity member Karl Ludwig Sand. ‘Here, you traitor of the fatherland!’ the young revolutionary cried, sinking his dagger into his victim’s heart and then turning it on himself.

Sand botched his suicide attempt, but was gifted martyrdom the following year when he was executed for his crime. His death elevated him to the echelon of political sainthood in the nationalist movement mainly due to the notoriety of Kotzebue who, as well as being consul to Russia, was also a prolific playwright and journalist. The Prussian nobleman feared the political fanaticism which spewed across Europe following the French revolution and used his considerable literary talent to counter liberal and nationalist sentiments, attacking the German universities and fraternities for being hotbeds of dangerous political zealotry in his weekly newspaper and drawing ire for his plays which were seen by the nationalists as ‘excus[ing] aristocratic corruption [and] thereby buttressing the absolutist state’. The Jena radicals' objections were cultural and philosophical as well as political. According to them, Kotzebue's dramas confirmed him as the ‘archservant of the false, female era’ because of their allegedly immoral and superficial nature which played out in his sympathetic depictions of sinful women played by histrionic actresses who ‘manipulat[ed] the sympathies of his audiences.’ii

The Burschenschaftler expressed their intense dislike of Kotzebue when they gathered in their hundreds at the Wartburg castle and burned his book, History of the German Empire, along with other literature deemed offensive to the German cause. The book burning was part of a larger celebration commemorating the three-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five theses. The Wartburg castle was chosen as a venue for the festivities because it served as his refuge following Emperor Charles V's formal declaration of him as a heretic. During his hideout at the castle Luther translated the New Testament into the German vernacular, adding and excising words to service his revolt against the Catholic Church – an act which made him a luminary in German nationalist circles.

Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will in particular seemed to have a tangible effect on the minds of the Burschenschaftler. In his 1525 work Luther argued that man's will was not free. He asserted that when God redeems a person, he also redeems their will through the process of sanctification. That is, until the individual loses his faith. According to Luther, since man has no free will, his sin will not take away from his righteousness, only a loss of faith will. This contention was at odds with the Catholic position which holds that sin can lose a man his justification, a notion that is expressed in the Catechism which, quoting James 2:26, affirms that ‘faith apart from works is dead’.iii

Luther’s theological determinism gave philosophers like Jakob Fries a license to radicalise. Fries, who was chair of theoretical philosophy at Jena, maintained that ‘many abominable acts, no matter how ill conceived or mistaken they might be from the standpoint of pure justice (Gerechtigkeit), were justified from the standpoint of morality (sittlichkeit) so long as they stemmed from conviction and a willingness to sacrifice oneself to a higher cause.’iv Fries’ contemporary Karl Follen, a poet, essayist and veteran of the Napoleonic wars, took this exegesis further, openly advocating political violence and tyrannicide. Follen submitted that the only truly Christian society was a republican democracy and ‘in order to achieve this political-theological end [...] any act was justified—even murder—so long as it sprang from pure conviction.’v

Both Fries and Follen were instrumental in the rise the Burschenschaft, and both had a direct influence on Sand. As Fries and Follen debated the implications of an unconditioned will Sand absorbed their ideas, leaning towards the more theological Follen, and after a long and tortuous inner struggle in which the young revolutionary wrestled over the two heavyweights’ conceptions, Sand emerged with a sunny confidence in his conviction that the ‘the wicked man, the traitor and seducer of youth, A. v. K., must be [struck] down,’vi and that he, in answer to his liberated will, was the man to do it.


Luther’s philosophies and actions created a form of elasticised Christianity that was vulnerable to corruption, and ultimately led to Kotzebue's death. But before the reformer's theology reached Sand another wringer it had to pass through was the Enlightenment. This age of philosophical revolution led to the ‘Masonic convergence’ of Christianity and Judaism in what became known as Enlightened Christianity, a cult which Sand was baptised into via his parents.

The Enlightenment affected traditional Judaism as well as Christianity, as Jews ‘converted from the darkness of the Talmud’vii and began to adopt Haskalah, a formalised version of Enlightened Judaism. German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was a central figure in the Jewish enlightenment. According to Catholic author E. Michael Jones Mendelssohn did ‘to the Kahal and the Talmud what Luther had done to the Catholic Church’.viii The Masonic syncretism that Mendelssohnpropeled found an intellectual breeding ground in the salons of Berlin. Unlike the lodges, the salons were ran by women, often Jewish, who held tradition in contempt. The Jews and Christians that frequented the salons put down their white roses and kippahs and conversed in humanistic terms, but by setting aside their historical ethnic customs and cleaving to an alien ideology that was based on the occult traditions of the renaissance and an aversion to authority, an inevitable loosening of the morals ensued. To Jewish

historian Heinrich Graetz this was a regrettable development. Graetz claimed that ‘if the enemies of the Jews had designed to break the power of Israel, they could have discovered no more effectual means than infecting Jewish women with the moral depravity.’

This period of sexual and theological free love started a wave of conversions of Jews to ‘enlightened’ Christianity, coming ‘largely as a result of the fact that the Enlightenment had demonstrated the “darkness” of the Talmud.’xi This was a critical juncture that called for improvisation. Enlightenment reformer David Friedländer proposed a prescription which came to be known as ‘dry baptism’. This entailed Jews becoming Christians in name only. By stipulating such a modus operandi Friedländer was merely making ‘an explicit proposal based on the implicit assumptions he had imbibed in Berlin’s salons.’xii In an act reminiscent of Martin Luther, Friedländer’s open letter proposal was sent to the leading Protestant provost of Berlin, Wilhelm Teller. His sendschreiben suggested that many Jews were ready for a ‘dry baptism’ and would join the Lutheran Church ‘if it enabled Jews to enter on the basis of shared moral values, without having to recognize the divinity of Christ and without formally undergoing baptism.Friedländer argued that ‘the Mosaic rituals were largely obsolete’ and proposed as a softener that ‘Judaism would abandon some of its purely ceremonial features.’xiii Jewish reformer

This was too much even for an Enlightenment reformer like Teller. In fact, the Protestant reaction in general was hysterically negative. Cries of ‘judaizing’ erupted from the Lutheran elites. On the other hand, Israeli journalist Amos Elon asserts that Jewish voices were ‘calmer and, at least in Berlin, tacitly supportive’.xiv Despite his flagrance, Friedländer was elected head of the Jewish community in Berlin and was also later deemed worthy of consultation when the Prussian government sought to improve circumstances for Polish Jews. To Jones, Friedländer’s proposal ‘seemed like a plausible solution since the Lutherans were on their way to abandoning historical Christianity as avidly as the Jews were abandoning the Talmud and Kahal.’ Jones cites the omission of the trinity ‘and other inconvenient Christian dogmas’ by liberal theologians such as Teller in their reworked catechisms. However, the Enlightened Christians were not yet ready to admit to themselves and the public what they were involved in, hence Friedländer ‘ruined the idea by formulating it so boldly.’xv

The Masonic fantasy cultivated by the salonnières through their patrons ended when Napoleon arrived in Jena ‘like the Zeitgeist on horseback’. Napoleon ‘imposed the Enlightenment by force on the German people.’ However the French emperor’s defeat in the 1813 Wars of Liberation provoked an unexpected reaction. The Jews, in their zealous support of Napoleon, had become synonymous with the wrong kind of revolution and hence were targeted in the Hep-Hep riots of 1819. The riots seemed to many Jews a return to the Middle Ages, not least because the rioters cry of ‘Hep, Hep, Jude verreck!’ hearkened back to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. ‘In reality,’ Jones writes, ‘the riots were only the beginning of an increasingly violent anti-revolutionary reaction which would culminate in the most violent counter-revolutionary reaction of all, the Nazi reaction to Bolshevism.’ xvi


One philosophical stream that provided infill for the philosophical crater left by the Enlightenment was Romanticism. This new philosophy which glorified the past offered ‘an attractive alternative to the social geometry of the French Revolution.’xvii Sometimes crudely whitewashed as a return to Catholic absolutism, Romanticism usually meant something else, especially to the Germans whose souls had been captured by Protestantism.

Jones posits that the ‘analytic spirit set loose by revolution’xviii jumped into another host and created racial nationalism despite the emergence of Romanticism. However it was the hitching of Enlightenment rationalism onto Romanticism which seemed to provide the material out of which a new revolutionary movement arose. The weakening of the Catholic Church in Germany was also key to the success of the movement. The Protestant animus which prevented Germany from returning to the universality of Catholicism meant that the more malleable Lutheran church would enable the emergence of a new social dimension where race and biology would eclipse all else.

Despite many Protestant theologians rejecting the tenets of the French revolution, their inability to anchor themselves to an immutable hierarchy like that wielded by the Catholic Church meant Germany would lapse into the idolatry of folkdom. Lacking authoritative leadership, and animated by the heretical cry of sola fide, German nationalism rose out of the ashes of the Enlightenment. The confused mixture of Classicism and Romanticism which now channeled the revolutionary spirit in Prussia infected not only ethnic Germans but Jews as well. As a result of the new zeitgeist German and Jewish nationalism germinated side-by-side. In this strange new paradigm German nationalists found themselves uttering policy that would soon become known as political Zionism. German-nationalist figures such as philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, for example, who was supportive of the French Revolution up until Napoleon’s conquering of German territories, proposed a Jewish exodus to the Holy Land as the only answer to the ‘Jewish question’.

Fichte was extraordinary professor of Philosophy at the University of Jena, an institution which seemed to serve the same purpose for German nationalism as the salons did for Masonic syncretism. A decade

after Fichte was dismissed from his role for alleged atheism fellow nationalist Friedrich Ludwig Jahn helped form the Urburschenschaft (original fraternity) at the university. He was known as Turnvater Jahn—roughly ‘father of gymnastics’—for his introduction of gymnastics as a form of physical education. However Jahn’s Turnplätze were not merely meant to be a place for students to take exercise—the open air gyms were purposed to form a paramilitary faction of young nationalists in the mold of the guerilla fighters who resisted Napoleon in Spain.

Jahn was in many ways a caricature of German nationalism. He channeled the ultra-masculine vitalism of the volk, often robing himself in bearskins and at one stage even living in a cave. He was to German nationalism what Luther was to Christianity. Whereas the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and Fichte dealt in recondite metaphysics, Luther and Jahn spoke directly to the German people in a vernacular and locution they understood. In this self-consciously direct syle, adopted because of its divergence from what was seen as the effete French spoken by the aristocrats, Jahn identified ‘the trinity of Junkers, priests and Jews’xix as the three main enemies of the German people. Like Fichte, Jahn is viewed as a kind of portent to National Socialism. His German supremacy was absolute; he counted the French, Poles, negroes and Gypsies among the list of peoples that spelled Germany’s misfortune. For Jahn, support of revolutions abroad was verboten, as was German emigration which ‘make the Germans everywhere and nowhere.’xx An advocate of Martin Luther, Jahn saw the reformer as a crucial symbol of German nationalism for his rejection of papal power. Luther’s translation of the bible was to Jahn an integral building block for German unification and it was under the influence of Jahn that the members of the Burschenschaft would burn the books of their enemies at the 1817 Wartburg festival in an act that would foreshadow the violence to come.

Many authors blame the rise of racial thinking and anti-Semitism on a return to medievalism, citing a dangerous, fundamentalist form of Christianity. Jewish-Zionist historian Hans Kohn, in an article outlining Jahn’s idolisation of Deutsches Volkstum, only mentions Jahn’s anti-Semitism in relation to his Christianity.xxi Fellow Jew Amos Elon, in The Pity of it All, rightly describes the new nationalism as a homogeneity-worshiping movement that was ‘linked to Christianity’ and ‘aspired to a mystical union between tribe and state’xxii. However missing in Elon’s analysis is the fact that the new nationalism was also virulently anti-Catholic, and furthermore that the genetic factor was more concurrent with Judaism, as expressed in the scriptures when the pharisees’ pride at being ‘the seed of Abraham’ is admonished first by John the baptist, who told them that ‘God is able of […] stones to raise up children to Abraham’xxiii and later by Jesus in his Woes of the Pharisees diatribe.

This genetic pride which Jewish leaders harboured in the time of Jesus finds its modern incarnation in Zionism, and was also an animating factor in German nationalism. Conversely the universalism held by the Catholic Church arises out of the utter genetic indifference expressed in the Gospel admonishments of the prideful Jews as well as The Great Commission to spread the word to all nations. However the removal of the Bible from an authoritative institution such as the Church, paired with the Romantic preference for individualism over tradition, created the perfect atmosphere for figures like Jahn to emerge out of. For Jahn the most important thing about Christianity was that it was German, not that it was Christian, hence his rejection of the universalism of the Church and his view of the Germans as the chosen people of God vis-a-vis the Jews.

Contrary to the contentions of Elon and Kohn, Romantic historian Jules Michelet viewed the structure and doctrines of the Catholic Church—what he called its ‘machinism’—as a manifestation of rationalism. He decried the hierarchical system which ‘though its doctrine of election seems democratic, is actually aristocratic by the complexity of its doctrines and the small number of men capable of understanding them.’xxiv He reproved Christianity in general for putting an ‘enormous distance between man and his animal nature’xxv, seeing in the Christianised peasantry’s repeated reversion back to legend and folklore a modest backlash. He attributed this small and unacknowledged revolt to a phenomena that he termed la génie populaire. Michelet’s theory hypothesised that when Christians heralded the donkey in their Christmas celebrations they were in fact rebelling against a Church which ‘condemned natural instinct’ and ‘postulated as the condition for salvation the abstract formulas of a metaphysical science.’

Michelet’s anti-clericalism was typical of the Romantics who by rejecting the cerebral ideations of the Enlightenment threw the baby out with the bathwater by dismissing Catholicism which is both intellectual and devotional. Cultural historian Arthur Mitzman notes that Michelet’s own position ‘had powerful religious overtones’. This was characteristic of the socialism of the time which ‘usually considered itself a replacement of Christianity’.

In opposition to the rationalism spread by revolutionary France the Romantic philosophy proposed more of an emphasis on the psychology and feeling of the individual. Religious ceremonies and ritual were cast as aristocratic and spiritually bereft. In Germany the romantics protested ‘against the bureaucratic Kleinstaaterei held in place by the Napoleonic invasion and against the unimaginative rationalism that characterized both the old and the new oppressors.’ Such was the vacuum left by the Enlightenment, however, the Romantic reaction encompassed ‘aspirations alternately egoistic and altruistic’:

Sometimes these aspirations were cast in the ideological mold of patriotic idealism (associated with the heroism of national revolutions), sometimes in that of a demonic exaltation of the self, sometimes in that of a mystical community of humanity with nature, and sometimes one of these was mixed with another.xxvi

This inconstancy meant that the chaotic movement would come full circle and materialistic modes consistent with Enlightenment thinking would inadvertently rear up. Although there existed a Catholic-Romantic strain which idealised the Middle Ages, it was the relentless individualism of characters like Jahn and their mystical-nationalism that would make the most waves in a post-reformation, post-Enlightenment Germany. ‘Romanticism,’ Mitzman writes, ‘after its initial reactionary phase, had a highly ambivalent relationship to the enlightenment tradition.’ Mitzman identifies how French social romanticism ‘prepar[ed] the elite mentalities for [the Revolutions of] 1848’ suggesting ‘an interdependence of romanticism and the French revolutionary tradition in the first half of the nineteenth century.’

This melding of Romanticism and the Enlightenment is an aspect that is often overlooked. For example, Conservative poet and professor of history Peter Viereck in Metapolitics—for decades the only English-language study of Jahn—is quick to point out the undeniable fact that Jahn’s ideas were steeped in Romanticism, but slow to connect the dots to the emerging natural sciences when it comes to Jahn’s ‘appeal for biological volk purity.’ When Jahn writes that ‘Animal hybrids have no genuine power of propagation, and hybrid peoples have just as little posterity’xxvii his mysticism makes way to the mechanistic language of modern science as propagated by the Enlightenment. This is because Jahn was heavily influenced by the French Revolution. Before Jahn was a German nationalist he was a Prussian supremacist. When he penned Deutches Volkstum his enthusiasm shifted: ‘the emphasis was no longer on the activization of the citizen in a society founded on law and no longer on the loyalty of the subject to his hereditary monarch, but on the originality of a deep-rooted creative force, the German Volk.’xxviii However the influence of the Enlightenment was not completely eclipsed. It resurfaced in the sometimes biological rhetoric, but also in Jahn’s revolutionary plans to reform German geography which, Viereck admits, 'smack[ed] of the departements of the French Revolution.'

Jahn’s turn from provincial Prussian patriotism to German unification was also geopolitical. Like many of his fellow Romantics his admiration for the French Revolution ended when Napoleon arrived at Prussian borders. Jahn witnessed first hand the traumatic Prussian defeat at the battle of Jena, and saw a unified Germany as the only bulwark against the seemingly unstoppable forces of Napoleon’s empire. ‘Jena was the vision of Damascus converting many thousands of provincialist Sauls into nationalist Pauls,’ writes Viereck.xxix However, the dream of unification would have to wait half a century, and the bid for a grand scale politicisation of mystical-nationalism a further fifty years, when a Führer strong enough to put it into place emerged in the form of Adolf Hitler.

Hitler took the idea of volkstum to its logical conclusion. The leader of the Nazi Party was raised Catholic, but rejected his childhood faith for German Christianity. To serve the Reich Hitler and the Nazi Party promoted non-denominational positive Christianity which mixed the ideological tenets of the party, such as the idea of racial purity, with Christianity. Similar to the Enlightened Christians and Jews, the new German Christianity rejected many of the solemn tenets that made up the faith, such as the divinity of Jesus, as well as any element deemed too Jewish – a caveat which made the whole Old Testament verboten. Jesus became an Aryan fighter toiling against Jewish corruption. This revision of Jesus’ genetics was necessary for the rise of Nazism and, unlike the Catholic Church which sees the post-Messiah Jew as a theological incarnation, foreclosing temptations towards racial hatred, the Nazis cast them in a deterministic light. According to the Church a Jew can convert and become a Christian, however in Jahn and Hitler’s mystical nationalism, a Jew can never make himself into a German.

Like Jahn, Hitler was a great admirer of Luther. During one of his transcribed ‘Table Talk’ monologues he is quoted as remarking that ‘Luther had the merit of rising against the Pope and the organisation of the Church’ in what was ‘the first of the great revolutions.’ Mirroring Jahn’s rhetoric the German Führer pays homage to the recalcitrant once-monk, thanking him for his translation of the Bible which ‘replaced our dialects by the great German language!’xxx Hitler looked to the Church of England as a model for what could be for Germany. He was consistent in his desire for a unified Protestant Reich Church to unite the German people and serve the aspirations of the party which would filter its designs down to the people via a mutated version of the God they worshiped more and more desultorily. The plan was to co-opt the historical power Christianity held in Germany by infusing it with Nazi machinations, however this failed due to the resistance of the Confessing Church movement which took to defending the theological autonomy of the churches against Hitler’s advances.

After Hitler failed to unite the Protestant churches under the banner of the Third Reich his views on Christianity ruptured, and his opining on the subject became laced with hostility. Another reason for this shift in tone is the rise of Social Darwinism, which turned out to be a much more effective vector for the Nazi ideology than Christianity. Like the other Eugenics movements that had begun springing up around the globe following the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species Hitler’s mystical nationalism now had fresh garb in scientific rationalism. Racial inequality had supposedly been scientifically proven by the likes of Darwin’s half-cousin, Sir Francis Galton. Hitler, instead of mounting just one of the revolutionary beasts, mastered the art of riding two at once – one called Romanticism and the other the Enlightenment. Where Christianity failed as a unifying force, science would prevail, and as the West reeled from Darwin’s theories and the decline of religion Hitler, like Napoleon, would catch hold of the chains of the zeitgeist.


iWikipedia Contributors, Karl Ludwig Sand, December 18, 2007, iiGeorge S. Williamson, What Killed August von Kotzebue? The Temptations of Virtue and the Political Theology of German Nationalism, 1789–1819 (The University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 937-942.

iiiCatholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II (Washington: United States Catholic Conference), paragraph 1815.

ivWilliamson, What Killed August von Kotzebue?, p. 124-125.

vWilliamson, What Killed August von Kotzebue?, p. 133.

viWilliamson, What Killed August von Kotzebue?, p. 135.

viiE. Michael Jones, The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit: and Its Impact on World History (South Bend, Ind.: Fidelity Press, 2008), p. 567.

viiiJones, The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit, p. 567.

ixJones, The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit, p. 567.

xJones, The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit, p. 568.

xiJones, The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit, p. 568.

xiiJones, The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit, p. 568.

xiiiAmos Elon, The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2002), p. 73-74.

xivElon, The Pity of It All, p. 75.

xvJones, The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit, p. 568.

xviJones, The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit, p. 568.

xviiJones, The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit, p. 569.

xviiiJones, The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit, p. 570.

xixHorst Ueberhorst, Zurück zu Jahn?: gab es kein besseres Vorwärts? (Bochum: Universitätsverlag, 1969), Google Translate, trans., p. 189, note 161.

xxDieter Langewiesche, Nation, Nationalismus, Nationalstaat. In Deutschland und Europa (Munich: C.H. Beck Verlag, 2000), Google Translate, trans., p. 122.

xxiHans Kohn, Father Jahn’s Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949)

xxiiElon, The Pity of It All, p. 97.

xxiiiThe Douay-Rheimes Bible, Matthew. 3:9.

xxivArthur Mitzman, Michelet and Social Romanticism: Religion, Revolution, Nature. Journal of the History of Ideas 57, no. 4 (Pennsylvania: Univeristy of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), p. 675.

xxvMitzman, Michelet and Social Romanticism, p. 676.

xxviMitzman, Michelet and Social Romanticism, p. 680.

xxviiPeter Viereck, Metapolitics, From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler (New York: Routledge, 2003) p. 67.

xxviiiKohn, Father Jahn’s Nationalism, p. 421.

xxixViereck, Metapolitics, p. 68.

xxxAdolf Hitler, Hitler's table talk, 1941-1944 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 9.


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