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 Hitler’s 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.

Simple Roots

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 individual’s 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 15).

    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 people’s 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 the Enlightenment.

    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 men’s 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” race.

    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, from 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 Germany’s 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 Hitler’s. 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 Germany’s economic crisis. Hitler’s 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 country’s 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). Hitler’s 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.

Works Cited

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.