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The Völkisch movement (German: Völkische Bewegung; "Ethnic movement" or "Peoples Movement") was a German ethnic and nationalist movement which was active from the late 19th century until the Nazi era. Erected on the idea of "blood and soil", inspired by the one-body-metaphor (Volkskörper) and the idea of naturally grown communities in unity, it was characterized by organicism, racialism, populism, agrarianism, romantic nationalism and–as a consequence of a growing exclusive and ethnic connotation–by antisemitism from the 1900s onward.
The Völkisch movement was not a homogeneous set of beliefs, but rather a "variegated sub-culture" that rose in opposition to the socio-cultural changes of modernity. The "only denominator common" to all Völkisch theorists was the myth of a "national rebirth", inspired by the (reconstructed) traditions of the Ancient Germans. This rebirth would have been achieved by either "Germanizing" Christianity (an Abrahamic, i.e. Semitic religion that spread into Europe from the Near East) or by rejecting any Christian heritage that existed in Germany in order to revive pre-Christian Germanic paganism. In a narrow definition, the term is used to designate only groups that consider human beings essentially preformed by blood, or by inherited characteristics.
The adjective Völkisch (pronounced [ˈfœlkɪʃ]) is derived from the German word Volk (cognate with the English "folk"), corresponding to the concepts of a "nation", "race" and "tribe". While Völkisch has no direct English equivalent, it could be loosely translated as "ethno-nationalist" or, closer to its original meaning, as "bio-mystical racialist".
But if Völkisch writers used words like Nordische Rasse ("Nordic race") and Germanentum ("Germanic peoples"), their concept of Volk could also be more flexible, and understood as a Gemeinsame Sprache ("common language") or an Ausdruck einer Landschaftsseele ("expression of a landscape's soul"), in the words of geographer Ewald Banse.
The Völkisch movement emerged in the late 19th century, drawing inspiration from German Romanticism and its fascination with a medieval Reich supposedly organised into a harmonious hierarchical order. They idealised the myth of an "original nation", that still could be found at that time in the rural regions of Germany, a form of "primitive democracy freely subjected to their natural elites." The notion of "people" (Volk) subsequently turned into the idea of a "racial essence", and Völkisch thinkers referred to the term as a birth-giving and eternal entity—in the same way as they would write on "the Nature"—rather than a sociological category.
Despite the previous lower-class connotation associated to the word Volk, ideologues from the Völkisch movement successfully loaded the term with a noble overtone suggesting a German superiority over other peoples. Thinkers led by Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882), Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1854–1936), Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855–1927), Ludwig Woltmann (1871–1907) or Alexis Carrel (1873–1944) distorted Darwin's theory of evolution in order to advocate a "race struggle" and a hygienist vision of the world. They had conceptualised a racialist and hierarchical definition of the peoples of the world where Aryans (or Germans) had to be at the summit of the "white race". The purity of the bio-mystical and primordial nation theorised by the Völkisch thinkers then began to be seen as having been corrupted by foreign elements, Jewish in particular.
Peter Ross Range (2016), 1924: The Year That Made Hitler, Little, Brown and Company: NY, US, p. 27.
It was not a unified movement but rather "a cauldron of beliefs, fears and hopes that found expression in various movements and were often articulated in an emotional tone". As they sought to overcome the malaise of a scientistic and rationalistic modernity, Volkisch authors imagined a spiritual solution in a Volk's essence perceived as authentic, intuitive, even "primitive", in the sense of an alignment with a primordial and cosmic order.
The defining idea which the Völkisch movement revolved around was that of a Volkstum, literally the "folkdom" or the "culture of the Volk". Other associated German words include Volksboden (the "Volk's essential substrate"), Volksgeist (the "spirit of the Volk"), Volksgemeinschaft (the "community of the Volk), as well as Volkstümlich ("folksy" or "traditional") and Volkstümlichkeit (the "popular celebration of the Volkstum").
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 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.
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.
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".
The political agitation and uncertainty that followed WWI nourished a fertile background for the renewed success of various Völkish sects that were abundant in Berlin at the time. Although the Völkisch movement became significant by the number of groups during the Weimar Republic, they were not so by the number of adherents. A few Völkische authors tried to revive what they believed to be a true German faith (Deutschglaube), by resurrecting the cult of Ancient Germanic gods. Various occult movements such as ariosophy were connected to Völkisch theories, and artistic circles were largely present among the Völkishen, like the painters Ludwig Fahrenkrog (1867-1952) and Fidus (1868-1948). By May 1924, Wilhelm Stapel perceived the movement as capable of embracing and reconciling the whole nation: in his view, Vökischen had an idea to spread instead of a party programme and were led by heroes, not by "calculating politicians".
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). 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). 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.