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The völkisch movement (German: völkische Bewegung, "folkish movement") was the German interpretation of a populist movement, with a romantic focus on folklore and the "organic", i.e.: a "naturally grown community in unity", characterised by the one-body-metaphor (Volkskörper) for the entire population during a period from the late 19th century up until the Nazi era.
The term völkisch (pronounced [ˈfœlkɪʃ]) derives from the German word Volk (cognate with the English "folk"), corresponding to "ethnic group" of a population and people, with connotations in German of "people-powered". According to the historian James Webb, the word also has "overtones of 'nation', 'race' and 'tribe'". The term völkisch has no direct English equivalent, but it could be rendered as "ethnonationalistic", "racial-nationalistic" or "ethno-racialist".
The völkisch "movement" was not a unified movement but "a cauldron of beliefs, fears and hopes that found expression in various movements and were often articulated in an emotional tone", Petteri Pietikäinen observed in tracing völkisch influences on Carl Gustav Jung. The völkisch movement was "arguably the largest group" in the conservative revolutionary movement in Germany. However, like "conservative-revolutionary" or "fascist", völkisch is a complex term ("schillernder Begriff"). In a narrow definition it can be used to designate only groups that consider human beings essentially preformed by blood, i.e. by inherited characteristics.
The defining idea, which the völkisch movement revolved around, was that of a Volkstum (literally "folkdom", with a meaning similar to a combination of the terms "folklore" and "ethnicity"). Volkstümlich would be "populist", or "popular", in this context.
The völkisch movement had its origins in Romantic nationalism, as it was expressed by early Romantics such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation published during the Napoleonic Wars, from 1808 onwards, especially the eighth address, “What is a Volk, in the higher sense of the term, and what is love of the fatherland?", where he answered his question of what could warrant the noble individual's striving "and his belief in the eternity and the immortality of his work", by replying that it could only be that "particular spiritual nature of the human environment out of which he himself, with all of his thought and action ... has arisen, namely the people from which he is descended and among which he has been formed and grown into that which he is".[unreliable source?]
The movement combined sentimental patriotic interest in German folklore, local history and a "back-to-the-land" anti-urban populism with many parallels in the writings of William Morris. "In part this ideology was a revolt against modernity", Nicholls remarked. The dream was for a self-sufficient life lived with a mystical relation to the land; it was a reaction to the cultural alienation of the Industrial revolution and the "progressive" liberalism of the later 19th century and its urbane materialist banality. Similar feelings were expressed in the US during the 1930s by the populist writers grouped as the Southern Agrarians.
The völkisch movement, as it evolved, sometimes combined the arcane and esoteric aspects of folkloric occultism alongside "racial adoration" and, in some circles, a type of anti-Semitism linked to exclusionary ethnic nationalism. Many völkisch movements included anti-communist, anti-immigration, anti-capitalist and anti-Parliamentarian ideas. Over time, völkisch ideas of "national community" (Volksgemeinschaft) came more and more to exclude Jews.
A number of the völkisch-populist movements that had evolved during the late 19th century in the German Empire, under the impress of National Romanticism, developed along propagandistic lines after the German defeat in World War I, and the word "the people" (Volk) became increasingly politicized.
The same word Volk was used as a flag for new forms of ethnic nationalism, as well as by international socialist parties as a synonym for the proletariat in the German lands. From the left, elements of the folk-culture spread to the parties of the middle classes. But whereas Volk could mean "proletariat" among the left, it meant more particularly "race" among the center and right.
Although the primary interest of the Germanic mystical movement was the revival of native pagan traditions and customs (often set in the context of a quasi-theosophical esotericism), a marked preoccupation with purity of race came to motivate its more politically oriented offshoots, such as the Germanenorden (the Germanic or Teutonic Order), a secret society founded at Berlin in 1912 which required its candidates to prove that they had no "non-Aryan" bloodlines and required from each a promise to maintain purity of his stock in marriage. Local groups of the sect met to celebrate the summer solstice, an important neopagan festivity in völkisch circles (and later in Nazi Germany), and more regularly to read the Eddas as well as some of the German mystics. This branch of the völkisch movement quickly developed a hyper-nationalist sentiment and allied itself with anti-semitism, then rising. One of the most important völkisch organizations after World War 1 was the Deutschvölkischer Schutz- und Trutzbund.
Another völkisch movement of the same time was the Tatkreis.
George Mosse examined völkisch literature in 1966 and identified some of the more "respectable" and centrist channels through which these sensibilities flowed: school texts that transmitted a Romantic view of a "pure" Germanic past, the nature-oriented German Youth Movement, and novels with an ideally ruthless völkisch hero, such as Hermann Löns' Der Wehrwolf (1910).
Not all folkloric societies with connections to Romantic nationalism were located in Germany. The Völkisch movement was a force as well in Austria. While the community of Monte Verità ('Mount Truth') which emerged in 1900 at Ascona, Switzerland, is described by the Swiss art critic Harald Szeemann as "the southernmost outpost of a far-reaching Nordic lifestyle-reform, that is, alternative movement". It embraced a mix of anarchism, libertarian communism and various forms of artistic bohemianism and neopaganism.
The völkisch ideologies were influential in the development of Nazism. Indeed, Joseph Goebbels publicly asserted in the 1927 Nuremberg rally that if the populist (völkisch) movement had understood power and how to bring thousands out in the streets, it would have gained political power on 9 November 1918 (the outbreak of the SPD-led German Revolution of 1918–1919, end of the German monarchy). Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf (My Struggle): "the basic ideas of the National-Socialist movement are populist (völkisch) and the populist (völkisch) ideas are National-Socialist." Nazi racial understanding was couched in völkisch terms, when Eugen Fischer delivered his inaugural address as Nazi rector, The Conception of the Völkisch state in the view of biology (29 July 1933). The Thule Society was founded on 17 August 1918 by Rudolf von Sebottendorff with the original name of Studiengruppe für Germanisches Altertum (Study Group for Germanic Antiquity), and disseminated anti-republican and anti-Semitic propaganda. Karl Harrer, the Thule member most directly involved in the creation of the DAP in 1919, was sidelined at the end of the year when Hitler drafted regulations against conspiratorial circles, and the Thule Society was dissolved a few years later. The völkisch circles handed down one significant legacy to the Nazis: In 1919, Thule member Friedrich Krohn designed the original version of the Nazi swastika.
In January 1919, the Thule Society was instrumental in the foundation of the Deutsche Arbeiter-Partei (German Workers' Party, or DAP), which later became the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), commonly called the Nazi Party. Thule members or visiting guests that would later join the Nazi Party included Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckart and Karl Harrer. Notably Adolf Hitler never was a member of the Thule Society and Rudolf Hess and Alfred Rosenberg were only visiting guests of the Thule Society in the early years before they came to prominence in the Nazi movement. The Münchener Beobachter (Munich Observer), owned by Sebottendorff, was the press organ of another small nationalist party and later became the Völkischer Beobachter (People's Observer). The Thule Society had no members from the top echelons of the party and Nazi officials were forbidden any involvement in secret societies so the connection of völkisch ideologies with the NSDAP can be overstated. According to Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, an imaginative mythology has grown up around the supposed influence of the Thule-Gesellschaft within the Nazi Party.