German Pre-war Counterculture and Mysticism: Seeds of Nazism?

Graham Land

4 mins

10 Aug 2018

The rapid industrialisation of Western Europe in the early 1900’s and extreme urbanisation in what became a united Germany had a strong effect on the populace of that region.

Society was becoming very mobile, modern and removed from its formal, largely pastoral existence. Amongst the intellectual classes, expressions of longing for a simpler, more natural lifestyle developed and found their way into the worlds of art, philosophy and literature.

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Many turned away from Christianity in search of more primordial or pagan religions, sometimes with radical or dark philosophical interpretations. Some of this involved looking towards the ‘exotic’ religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism (a mystical branch of Islam).

The philosophical roots of Aryanism

This turning eastward for inspiration goes back to two fathers of German intellectualism, namely Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottfried Herder. Kant was convinced that all European arts came from India and Herder, a romantic nationalist, considered India the birthplace of mankind.

nazi mysticism

Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel expressed white supremacist and anti-Jewish sentiments.

This was an early break from bible-based Judeo-Christian cultural centrism and genealogy, and put the origins of European people somewhere in the mountains of Asia as opposed to the biblical Middle East.

Prominent linguists then served the purpose of taking focus away from Hebrew as the original language and concentrating instead on Sanskrit.

In the case of Herder, the focus was on romantic nationalism and folk traditions, without a mystical bent. For Kant, however, there is a definite presence of racism and anti-Jewish sentiments in some of his writings and lectures.

In his book Physical Geography, he writes, ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites.’ He also lectured that, ‘Every coward is a liar; Jews for example, not only in business, but also in common life.’

It was one of the founders of German Romanticism, Friedrich Schlegel (1772 – 1829), who applied the term Aryan to what they saw as an Indic-Nordic ‘master race’.

Schlegel in fact had a Jewish wife and campaigned for Jewish emancipation in Germany, so the role he plays in this history is somewhat ironic. It was his ideas that ended up influencing many anti-Semitic and Aryan supremacist scholars throughout Europe.

The Proto-Hippies of Ascona

During the first decade of the 20th century, a group of intellectuals, discontented with modern life, went to live in the Swiss-lake village of Ascona, in pursuit of a freer lifestyle that incorporated naturism, theosophy, vegetarianism and nudism.

Among those who spent time at the Monte Verità, or ‘Mountain of Truth’ community in Ascona, were author Herman Hesse, psychoanalysts Otto Gross and C.G. Jung, and philosopher Rudolf Steiner.

aryan mysticism

Men bathing at the Ascona Nature Cure Sanatorium. On the right is Erich Mühsam, a German-Jewish anti-militarist, anarchist poet and playwright.

A monthly journal named Die Tat, which was published by a close associate of the Ascona commune, Eugen Diederichs, featured many articles by one of the chief founders of the Ascona Nature Cure Sanatorium, Rudolph von Laban.

Although Diederichs was never a Nazi and died before the founding of the party, he arguably helped prepare the earth in which the seeds of National Socialism could grow by promoting things like naturism and sun worship, which appealed to farmers and landowners. It was these people in whom the Nazis would find their base of support.

It should be noted that Die Tat was never a racist publication, but it did feature writers who laid some of the foundations for the National Socialist movement; for example an article in 1918, promoted the use of the Swastika as a symbol instead of the cross.

Rudolph von Laban: From Olympics to blacklist

While the Nazis shut down many artistic institutions and denounced various forms of dance and music, Laban was able to continue for some time, probably largely due to his emphasis on ‘German dance’. It was actually Laban who was responsible for the dance portion of the celebrations commemorating the Eleventh Olympic Games in Berlin.

After the opening performance had taken place, Goebbels decided it would not be repeated in connection with the Olympics. Laban’s work was subsequently declared ‘hostile to the state’ and he was placed under house arrest. Labelled a Jew and a homosexual and unable to work, he covertly made his way to Paris and then England, where he then worked as a teacher in dance and movement.

Earlier, Rudolph von Laban had expressed himself (in terms of dance) regarding race: in his 1930 book Der Tanz he states that the white race was beginning to take account of the dance attitude proper to it. In reference to what he observed whilst visiting America, Laban said that ‘Negroes cannot invent dances; what we associate with them are only degenerate versions of white dances.’

These expressions of racial consciousness and German ethnic nationalism most probably put him in some special favour — at least up until the Olympic games — as they were concurrent with the emerging political climate. However, as far as we know, none of the members of Ascona ever joined the Nazis.

Hitler’s mystical mentor

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While the Asconians were a politically and philosophically diverse group of individuals who did not share Hitler’s vision, other German mystics did.

The strongest connection between ‘Aryan mysticism’ and Adolf Hitler may be the figure of Dietrich Eckart (1868 – 1923). A mentor-like influence on Hitler, Eckart was one of the founding members of the German Workers Party, which later became the National Socialist Party.

Originally a playwright and later editor/co-publisher of the anti-Semitic periodical Auf gut Deutsch, he was also a member of the mystical Thule society, along with fellow Nazi brass Rudolf Hess and Alfred Rosenberg.

Like other völkisch groups, the Thules aimed to establish an Aryan identity that would encompass the newly united Germany. Ultimately they wished to prove that the Aryan race came from a lost continent, presumably somewhere in the Arctic. ‘Thule’ was the name given to the northern most land by Greco-Roman geographers.

It was Dietrich Eckart who coined the term Drittes Reich, or the ‘Third Reich’ and it was he to whom Hitler dedicated the first volume of Mein Kampf. Eckart died of a heart attack caused by morphine addiction on 26 December 1923.