The Aryan Myth: Ideological Backgrounds of the Third Reich
The crisis of the Third Reich was not as radical
a distortion of the German state as it might first appear. The intense
racism, anti-Semitism, and genocidal action that characterizes Hitlers
rule had been building up among the German people for decades. The
acceptance of the German public of Hitler and his government was not
irrational, and is not unexplainable. The Third Reich was a culmination
of centuries of German history.
Since the early 19th century a philosophy of culture with uniquely
German intensity known as the Volk has existed. The German word Volk
means more than its literal translation of people. Volk means the
culture, soul, heritage, and value of a race. In Germany, foreign
occupation and wars of liberation coincided with the wave of Romanticism.
Volkish thought was a product of the Romantic movement. Both Romanticism
and the belief in the Volk showed tendencies toward the irrational
and emotional. Their focus was on Man and the world.
The demands of an increasingly industrial
society, with its new opportunities and restrictions, tended to strengthen
the individuals feeling of isolation (Mosse 13). Germany
was becoming modern and industrial. As people began to feel alone
in their own culture, they began to desire membership of something
larger than themselves. Joining the Volk was a way to intellectually
rebel against this new, modern world. The Volk was an intermediary
between the extremes of individuality and the quest for cosmic identity
(Mosse 15). A large part of the concept of the Volk involved not only
a belonging with other men, but with nature.
Volkism was a Bourgeoisie concept, and its followers
idealized the countryside and rural areas. Through the Volk, a man
was linked to the nature of the landscape he was rooted in. He did
not share his connection with all nature, but only the natural aspects
of his homeland. The features of this land justified the value of
his soul. The German forest is dark, rich, dense, and mystic. Man
was seen not as a vanquisher of nature . . . he was glorified as living
in accordance with nature, at one with its mystical forces (Mosse
The Volk justified the individual through belonging.
Bonds to the soil made a man genuine. As well as the German
landscape, German history was emphasized as a major part of the Volk.
There was a certain nostalgia for medieval times, seen by Germans
as an age of innocence and wisdom. This medieval and rural utopia
symbolized the intrinsic unity of people and landscapes (Mosse
20). Germans tied ancient pagan mythology and Christianity in their
belief in the Volk. Their idealization of the past was not unusual.
The urge to claim your culture is high-born and of glorious ancestry
is universal among human groups (Poliakov 2). But theirs was a powerful
combination of history, land, and ultimately race.
From Volkism to Racism
Glorifying your peoples land and history is a small step away
from believing your race is superior. The Volk amplified Romanticism
as an alternative to modernity (Mosse 17). The Jew in Germany would
come to represent all things modern.
The original Volkish thinkers were, like the Romantics,
abstract and idealistic. They were not applying their ideas to actual
problems in German society. Each race has its own landscape. The Volk
only identified with people of their same German soil. Those not of
that soil were not Volk. The Jews especially were seen as coming from
nowhere. They were foreigners with no connection to the land they
inhabited. As aliens, they were detrimental to the Volk. Their foreign
ideas should thus be excluded to protect the purity of the Volk. Through
Hitler and Nietzsche as well as many other theorists of the time, the
German intelligentsia were convinced that foreigners were subhuman,
and could be righteously exterminated. No longer just an ideal, the
Volk became a goal.
Emancipation of the Jews coincided with the industrialization
of Germany (1869 - 1871). The first crises of the German economy coincided
with the first wave of anti-Semitism. Germans felt that Liberalism,
Socialism, and Communism were the products of modernization by the
Jews (Burleigh 36). In the 19th century the role of a Jew was a city
dweller and moneylender. (Jews had not been allowed to own land under
old laws; Christians were not allowed to lend money under religious
dictates.) A Jew would lend money to a peasant to support him after
a bad harvest. If the peasant could not pay him back, the Jew was
forced to foreclose on him and take his land. The Jew then becomes
the usurper of the very land the Volkish thought held so dearly -
defining him as an enemy of the Volk.
Among the thinkers of the late 19th century were scientists that advocated
racial cleansing. They were influenced by the superiority Volkism
gave to the Germans as well as the pseudoscience that evolved during
According to their Christian beliefs, all men were
descended from Adam. But many races existed that could not be explained
by the Bible. Many debates raged about the origins of mankind and
the superiority of certain races. The doctrine of the unity
of the human race . . . was directly attacked by a number of leading
philosophers of the Enlightenment (Poliakov 327). From Darwin
and Tacitus evolved the philosophies of men like Wagner, Gobineau,
Nietzsche and Chamberlain. None of the latter four mens ideas
can be supported by science. But others, like Haeckel and Schallmeyer,
claimed there racial hygiene plans were plausible and scientific.
These men and their philosophies furthered the German ideal of a world
without Jews and other people deemed detrimental to the Aryan
Aryan is a Sanskrit word that literally means the
Persians who settled in Iran and northwest India (Poliakov v). To
racial thinkers, however, this word came to mean a people who were
not of Jewish origin and usually blond haired or blue eyed.
One might describe these myths [of racial
science] as compromises between pagan memories, dynastic ambitions
and teachings of the Church (Poliakov 326). As Adolph Hitler,
the Nazi Party, and racist thinkers gained power, things like Eugenics
- sterilization of those labeled inferior - were put into
practice in both Germany and the United States. Incentives for Aryan
women to have more children were enacted. From lies, to science,
euthanasia, to genocide, the pseudoscientific
discoveries of the Enlightenment, the reverence of the
past started by the Renaissance, and the idealistic views of the Romantic
age led to theories on race that were as baseless as they were deadly.
The Rise of the Third Reich
By 1933 the German right was captured by Volkish ideas. (Mosse 6).
It was a trend in German thought that became so strong that millions
accepted it as the only solution to Germanys problems.
It became widespread after 1918 through education and religion.
Ancestral legends, old pagan mythology and tales
of greatness, a reverence for the natural features of the land and
an idealistic view of culture can appeal greatly to nationalist, megalomaniac
tendencies of groups such as Hitlers. The tendencies toward
Volkism among the German people was fed upon by the Nazis as they
sought to gain power. The Swastika, the symbol of the Nazi Party,
was carefully chosen to appeal to the Volk. In ancient German mythology,
the Swastika was the symbol Thor, the powerful god of war and thunder.
Membership of the Nazi Party grew during the Great
Depression. Included lower middle class dwellers of towns and countrysides.
Nazis were anti-capitalist and anti-proletariat. Proletarian city
workers were also an enemy to be vanquished (Mosse 22). The bourgeoisie
feared becoming like them.
The Nazis blamed capitalism (run by the Jews, they
said) for Germanys economic crisis. Hitlers political
campaign goals included abolition of parliament and the multi-party
system, revision and expansion (Lebensraum), the annulment of all
treaties, and the blaming of the Jews for the problems of Germany.
By getting himself accepted as the political savior by ever
larger groups, Hitler was able to make the discrepancies of the economic
and social program appear as negligible (Holborn 922).
The working class was not largely represented in
Nazi Party membership, with the exception of the young workers. The
strong representation of the youth in the ranks of the Party made
it pose as the wave of the future . . . Its military and militaristic
character promised action instead of mere talk (Holborn 723).
It should be remembered that youth
was one of the key words of fascism (Poliakov 104). Youth was
also a major aspect of Volkish thought, as seen in the Volkish reverence
for history: The oldness of the world is in our time and not
in that wherein the Ancients lived, for that was its youth (Francis
Bacon, qtd in Poliakov 102).
Because of the strong belief in the Volk, Germans
felt they had legitimate claims to certain European territories because
they were already inhabited by Germans since ancient times, and shared
the same Volk. Stereotypes existed to legitimatize one countrys
rule over another (Burleigh 26). The ruling culture debased the culture
it ruled to the point where the inferior should consider themselves
fortunate to be brought to civilization by the superior
rescuers who invaded them.
It is not certain which racialist works Hitler
actually read (Burleigh 37). Hitlers policies reflected
ideas of the Volk, of the racist philosophers, and of the racial scientists.
He never cited any particular person for his ideas, not even Nietzsche.
One cannot say, however, that Hitler never told the world what his
ideas were, and what were his goals.
The Volkish world view . . . by no means
believes in an equality of races, but along with their difference
it recognizes their higher or lesser value and feels itself obligated,
through its knowledge, to promote the victory of the better and the
stronger, and demand the subordination of the inferior with the eternal
will that dominates this universe (Hitler, qtd in Burleigh 39).
The history of Germany was glorified by Volkish thinkers to an extent
that it fomented modern-day rationalizations of racial superiority.
The average German bourgeoisie who adopted a love for their countryside,
roots, and heritage were not unlike those who fled the cities for
the suburbs in the United States: if only we can get away from
the evils of the city, they thought, our children will
grow up healthy and our society will be saved. Those evils included
Jews, capitalism and communism to the Germans. To the Americans they
meant perceived crime, pollution, and moral degeneration.
The attempt to justify a race as superior has been
met with debates from all sides. All of the philosophies on race of
the 19th century have been proven unscientific. Even the debate of
Adam has not succeeded in rationalizing racism: We have . .
. seen how the tendency embodied in the ruling dynasty to claim a
distinct and superior descent always clashed with the myth of Adam
as a universal father - a myth which . . . was intended to teach all
men that they are in reality equal (Poliakov 326).
As for the millions of German people who accepted
and supported the Third Reich, they were only the products of their
history (Mosse 9). The ferocity of the racism and anti-Semitism that
existed in pre-Nazi Germany was sustained by the nature of the German
Volkish beliefs. These views had been held by many Germans well before
the Third Reich began; they permitted its existence. But the actions
of the Reich, the aggressive war of Germany against the people of
Europe, was instigated by the political outcomes of the First World
War and the fate of the Weimar Republic, and would not have come about
with the Volkish and racist sentiments alone.
Burleigh, Michael and Wolfgang Wippermann. The Racial State.
Great Britain: Cambridge University Pres, 1991.
Holborn, Hajo. History of Modern Germany, 1840 - 1945. New
York: Alfred A Knopf, 1969.
Mosse, George L. The Crisis of German Ideology. New York: Grosset
and Dunlap, 1964.
Poliakov, Léon. The Aryan Myth. Trans. Edmund Howard.
USA: Barnes and Noble Books, 1996.
Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New
York: Simon and Schuster,1966.