German Anti-Semitism in Context Part 1: Paul de Lagarde

Welcome to the first in my new series, which aims to introduce readers to some key figures responsible for the development of anti-Semitic philosophy and ideology in late-19th century Germany.

Each of these authors, intellectuals, and activists played a role in shaping the anti-Semitic climate of the late 19th century and beyond. In many cases, their influence extended into the National Socialist era in a direct way, as in case of Theodor Fristch and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. In others, this influence was indirect, and felt primarily through the appropriation of their written works by Nazi ideologues. In this first instalment I profile the life and work of the cantankerous scholar Paul de Lagarde, whose vision for a new Germanic religion was fueled by an anti-Semitism with distinctly racial overtones.

Paul de Lagarde’s Germanic Volk Religion

The respected 19th century German orientalist Paul de Lagarde once claimed to sum up the national mood when he wrote that the German people “do not want the Jews to be allowed to live together with them.” Giving expression to an emotional and psychological anxiety that was all too eager to indulge in scapegoating, de Lagarde blamed the Jews for all manner of national ills. Chief amongst these complaints was his firm conviction that the Jews were parasitical in nature and were thus draining the lifeforce from Germany. For de Lagarde, the ongoing presence of Jews was undermining the purity of racial and spiritual strength of the German Volk. “Every Jew,” he wrote, “is proof of the enfeeblement of our national life and the worthlessness of what we call the Christian religion.” De Lagarde’s anti-Semitism was a foundational element in his vision for a mystical, romanticised German religion that would signal a return to the “primeval voice of nature.”[1] He represents a particularly unique voice in the lexicon of late-19th century conservative intellectuals for both the harshness of his anti-Semitism as well as his call for a new religion to form the basis of a new state.[2]  

The trajectory of de Lagarde’s life offers insight into the formation of his often-contradictory intellectual views as well as the stridency of his personality. Born in Berlin as Paul Bötticher in 1827, de Lagarde’s early years were marred by tragedy and difficulty. His mother died during his birth, leaving him to be raised by his strict disciplinarian father. The emotional isolation of this experience resulted in an increasing sense of loneliness and homeless, which in turn corresponded with the formation of a personality marked by stubbornness, arrogance, and an embedded sense of being at war with a cold and careless world. In 1854, the twenty-seven-year-old was officially adopted by his maternal great-Aunt, an event which finally conferred a longed-for sense of legitimacy and which represented the possibility of a new beginning free from the oppressive and stifling presence of his father. As a symbol of his fresh start, the surname Bötticher was officially changed to de Lagarde.[3]

De Lagarde’s intellectual development reflected something of the uncertainty and difficulty of his upbringing. De Lagarde studied philosophy, theology, and languages at the University of Berlin, receiving his first doctorate in philosophical studies in 1849. De Lagarde earned a second doctorate from the University of Halle in 1851, after which he received a scholarship from the King of Prussia to study oriental manuscripts at the British Museum Library. Fully expecting to merge seamlessly from his studies into a professional academic career, de Lagarde’s expectations were dashed as he found the transition difficult and without quick success. Part of this difficulty can be ascribed to de Lagarde’s cantankerous and belligerent streaks, which generated conflicts with professional colleagues and those within the academy.[4] From a practical perspective, his perceived rejection by the academic elite meant de Lagarde was forced to seek alternate means of employment. He eventually decided to settle for a role as a preparatory schoolteacher, with his scholarly projects being relegated to a hobby status. Only a few select articles were admitted for publication during this time. This period in de Lagarde’s life, however, is vital for understanding the vehemency of his later work. De Lagarde’s experiences of rejection, both within his family home and by the academic community, created the conditions necessary for political dogmatism and scapegoating.

Despite a reluctant acknowledgment of the honourable role of the Prussian statesman von Bismarck in securing the unification of the German states in 1871, de Lagarde strongly believed that von Bismarck had neglected to acknowledge and deal with the increasing dominance of the Jews within Germany society, a theme which would occupy much of de Lagarde’s future polemical writings. De Lagarde eventually secured a professorship at the University of Göttingen in 1869, taking over from the orientalist and theologian Heinrich Ewald. Yet even his entry into the academic world was marred by feelings of rejection and inadequacy, which according to Bernhard Maier manifested in “histrionic self-dramatization.”[5]  Ewald had resented de Lagarde, possibly on account of his own forced retirement from the University. This toxic dynamic enhanced de Lagarde’s own sense of academic fraudulence and illegitimacy and a corresponding rise in polarising and combative behaviour can be observed. Throughout his tenure as Professor, de Lagarde managed to offend and ostracise many of his professional colleagues, and he became known as something of a notoriously difficult personality, even if a degree of respect was allowed for his important translations of various Syriac and Aramaic texts.[6] As Professor, he was viewed with reservations by his students, who described him as having a hysterical streak and a propensity to speak in broad terms about subjects with which he had no professional experience.[7] His reputation for rudeness, stubbornness, and dishonesty meant that his experience with academic life was largely lonely, and de Lagarde appeared to have internalised his loneliness as a symbol of his own righteousness and exceptionality amidst a climate of mediocrity. De Lagarde’s aloofness within the academy was attested to by Göttingen university student Theodor Nöldeke, who spoke of de Lagarde’s commitment to a lofty romantic idealism, which was considered a somewhat passé attribute in a scholarly discipline (Oriental linguistic studies) dedicated to the rigors of the scientific method.[8] In coming years, it was the romantic ideal which would prove the most powerful of de Lagarde competing drives, and his credibility as an Oriental scholar was to soon superseded by his outspoken political commentary.

Nöldeke observed in de Lagarde a “burning ambition which has never been satisfied,” and it is perhaps his insatiable need for recognition and professional expansion which led the Orientalist to consider channelling his scholarly abilities toward the political sphere. Assuming the role of frustrated cultural Prophet, de Lagarde began expressing his loathing of the current state of German culture and politics, which he felt was heading toward an imminent collapse of apocalyptic proportions. The Kaiserreich and its Prussian emperor King Wilhelm I represented for de Lagarde a fundamental betrayal of Germanic identity. Instead of advocating for the autonomy and distinctiveness of the German Volk, it had instead become a mere federal state under the control of Prussia. Such political shifts threatened to level cultural distinctiveness and replace it with an enforced pan-European homogeneity. The remedy to the cultural calamity facing Germany was to identify and attack the source of the menace and advocate for a cultural rebirth similar in concept to the theological notion of being born again (cf. John 3). The ultimate goal, de Lagarde articulated, was for each individual“to become a German and nothing but a German.”[9]

Under the corrupted political conditions of the Kaiserreich, the process of individual Germanisation was certainly not inevitable, even for naturalised Germans who had been endowed by Providence with an inner “drive toward truth.”[10] What was required was a fresh commitment to the German Volk as the primary lens through which all other aspects of life were viewed. According to de Lagarde, the dual threat of Judaism and Liberalism represented the internally destructive forces through which the spirit of the German Volk was being eradicated in pursuit of profit, materialism, and superficiality. De Lagarde blamed Jews for inventing the stock market as a deliberate way of enslaving the world and demonising the lower and middle classes, who were capitalism’s inevitable victims. In language evocative of the racial anti-Semitism of Hitler’s National Socialism, de Lagarde described the Jews as a bacterium that could not be negotiated away. The only possible solution was extermination.[11]

De Lagarde’s most significant work is Deutsche Schriften (German Writings), which is an eclectic collection of essays documenting his bold transformation from a linguistic theorist to a political and religious commentator. First appearing in 1879 and running to five editions by 1920, de Lagarde’s overarching purpose here was to advocate for a cultural rebirth which would see the disparate elements of religion, politics, culture, and history united under the banner of a re-awakened German national identity. The assertive reclamation of national identity was a necessary reaction to the loss of nationhood that was a result of the failed experiment of Jewish orchestrated liberalism which had plunged Germany into a materialistic nihilism. Mourning the loss of national autonomy and spiritual vibrancy, de Lagarde saw the contemporary crisis reflected in the educational deficits of German youth, who lacked a firm understanding of German literature and culture, and who had become infected with the plague of boredom.[12] The condition of German youth reflected broader materialism and nihilistic moral decay, in which the rampant individualism of von Bismarck’s liberal agenda diminished the concept of a collective national purpose and responsibility.[13] The liberal fragmentation of life into segments of specialisation meant that there was no concept of an overarching vision or Weltanschauungg. Instead of a shared commitment to co-create the Germany of the future, the spirit of liberalism had fostered national inertia, in which each individual understood themselves as a self-contained universe with no obligations toward anything other than the pursuit of one’s own interests.[14] For de Lagarde, the individual only acted correctly when, in a spirit of idealism, one acts “out of inner needs against his own advantage, his own comfort, and against the world surrounding him.”[15] In these brief words lay the heart of de Lagarde’s nationalistic idealism: the German individual must relinquish self-interest to usher in a new era of German autonomy and distinctiveness.

Throughout Deustche Schriften de Lagarde offers a sustained criticism of the Church, which he felt had become yet another casualty in the Jewish-liberal war on the German Volk. For de Lagarde, the corruption of the Church necessitated its own cultural-religious rebirth so that it could better represent the völkisch Germany of the future. The Church could only be the true Church if it was divorced from its Jewish origins and subservient to the national interest. True Christianity had not yet been realised in the German nation due to the corruption of its institutions, which had inevitably fallen victim to the liberal zeitgeist. Additionally, the very essence of Christianity had been distorted and its dogmas and doctrinal positions infected with Jewish poison. In an 1873 essay titled “On the Relationship of the German State to Theology, Church and Religion: An Attempt to Guide Non-Theologians,” de Lagarde argued that the very basis of Protestantism and Catholicism was compromised due to the corruptive Jewish influence of the apostle Paul.[16] De Lagarde’s harsh criticism of the apostle is worth quoting at some length:

Paul has brought the Old Testament to us in the Church, and through its influence the gospel has been ruined- as far as this is possible. Paul has blessed us with Pharisaic exegesis, which proves anything from anything…Paul has brought us the Jewish sacrificial theory, and everything connected with it. The whole Jewish view of history has been foisted on us by him. He did this against the vigorous opposition of the early Church which, Jewish though it was, thought less Jewishly than did Paul, and who at least did not consider sophisticated Jewishness to be a Gospel sent from God.[17]

De Lagarde’s novel theological reasoning was at significant variance with traditional interpretations, and his dismissal of Paul’s role as a Jewish expositor of the gospel necessitates a disavowal of the significance of the Old Testament in shaping Christian identity. De Lagarde also accused the Church of propagating theological views that had little or no scriptural precedent, including the Trinity and infant baptism. Indeed, so controversial were de Lagarde’s theological positions that Swiss theologian Walter Nigg concluded that the Orientalist cannot have been viewed as anything other than an outsider amongst the Christianity of his time. His revisionist theological agenda and outspoken criticisms of the institutional Church had by necessity opened him up to the charge of heresy.[18] In such radical approaches to theological questions de Lagarde betrayed his own indebtedness to the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who had blamed Paul for the “degeneration of Christianity,”[19] and who accused the Jews of all manner of cultural ills. It was to Fichte’s fierce nationalism that the Nazi party would appeal over a century later to legitimize its congruency with the great German intellectual tradition.[20]

If the traditional understanding of Christianity as having Jewish origins was false, how did de Lagarde conceive of the true nature of Jesus? What did the de-Judaized Jesus look like, and what did he require of humanity? The answer, at least in part, was to conceive of Jesus not in theological and doctrinal categories but as a cosmic energy or life force that inspires feelings of awe, reverence, and mystery. The cosmic Christ cannot be explained through abstract appeals to dubious dogmatic positions but instead must be believed in through an unwavering faith and a commitment to godly action in the here and now. Through the act of creation God instituted the immutable structures of life,[21] and each nation and culture are set apart to fulfill their own unique destiny. The fall represented the entry of evil into the cosmos, which de Lagarde referred to as a dark spirit marching through the world. This evil interrupted the natural order of creation and represented chaos, confusion, and corruption.[22] In this respect the Jews were to be considered as the bearers of God’s holy wrath against evil as they lacked a homeland and were cursed to aimlessly wander the earth.  

The arrival of the gospel in the person of Jesus should not be considered synonymous with “Christianity,” but instead stood quite apart from the phenomena of the institutionalised Church. In its true form, the gospel was an exposition by a religious genius (Jesus) on the laws of the life of the Spirit.[23] In glorifying the death and resurrection Christianity had located its centre of faith in an ancient historical event rather than in the enduring, eternal truths of Jesus’s teaching. De Lagarde, predictably, blamed Paul for this travesty. Paul had infused the gospel with the spirit of Phariseeism and had arrogantly avoided the remaining disciples in pursuit of his own missionary agenda.[24] Ultimately, it was the emphasis on Christ’s ethical and moral teaching which was important for de Lagarde, and this is because it offered clear answers questions about how to best respond the to the challenges of the age. In this sense, Lagarde’s limited Christological understanding reflects the pioneering work of 12th century French abbot Peter Aberlard, whose interpretation of the atonement emphasised the moral aspects of Jesus’s mission.[25] It was the element of praxis within Jesus’s teaching that enabled scholars like de Lagarde to draw inspiration for their own attempts at overthrowing the oppressive and unjust forces of the day (i.e., Judaism and Liberalism). Just as Jesus had subverted the political and religious forces of his time with a call to become born again, so too should individual Germans resist the evil forces of liberalism a become reborn into a true German nation.  

De Lagarde’s political philosophy and theological views offer a striking insight into the role of context as the driving force of his vision for Germany. Observing the climate around him, de Lagarde determined that the liberalism of the von Bismarck era was ultimately fuelled by the external menace of international Jewry. Each segment of public life was corrupted and in need of reform, with educational institutions being particularly notorious co-conspirators in the nation’s downfall. The Church, too, was playing an important part in this process, but was envisaged by de Lagarde as instrumental in shaping a shared Germanic national religion of the future, even though he concurrently felt a disgust at the shallowness of contemporary Protestantism. As has been shown, de Lagarde was by no means universally popular, especially within the academy. His arrogance, insecurity, and bitterness meant that those who encountered him often found his personality nauseating and the extremity of his racist views off-putting.[26] Nevertheless, he was a potent voice amongst a new breed of theologians, philosophers, and political commentators whom each sought a national rebirth free from the destructive forces of Jewish-fuelled liberalism.

The ideological legacy left by de Lagarde was exploited by future National Socialists who were able to appeal to historical congruency to legitimise their own philosophy.[27] An important qualification to this influence has been pointed out by Vincent Viaene, who suggests that de Lagarde’s political and religious philosophy did not hold to the same social-Darwinist assumptions that fuelled Nazi ideology.[28] Nor was de Lagarde’s philosophy inherently nihilistic in the way it conceived of the world. This meant that his solutions to the crisis of “cultural despair” tended to be more constructive when compared to a Nazi cosmology, which understood life as a continuous struggle between the strong and the weak. Being something of an intellectual anathema in his own time, biographer Robert Lougee further points out that the Nazi appropriation of de Lagarde lacked the spiritual depth and warmth that he was occasionally capable of displaying.[29] Instead of being interpreted as a direct influence on the emergence of conversative fascist politics, then, de Lagarde is best viewed as a virulent anti-Semite who captured a mood of discontent and offered a constructive set of proposals to restore the true spiritual foundations of the German Volk. In so doing, he helped foster a longing for cultural redemption which was to be seized upon by the National Socialists in the coming century. 


[1] Paul de Lagarde, Lebensbild und Auswahl, ed. Klara Boesch (Augsburg: Bärenreiter, 1924), 52. See also George L. Mosse, “The Mystical Origins of National Socialism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (1961): 81–96.

[2] Fritz Stern, Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 51.

[3] Bernhard Maier, William Robertson Smith: His Life, His Work and His Times (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 114.

[4] See Richard S. Levy, ed., Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, 2 vols. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 409.

[5] Maier, William Roberts Smith, 115.

[6] Maier, William Robertson Smith, 115.

[7] Maier, William Roberts Smith, 115.

[8] A letter dated 18 February 1883 from Theodor Nöldeke to William R. Smith outlines Nöldeke’s observations about the character of Lagarde. This letter is held by Cambridge University Library in a wider collection of correspondence relating to William R. Smith (CUL 7449 D 511).

[9] See Thomas L. Gertzen, “To Become a German and Nothing but a German…”: The Role of Paul de Lagarde in the Conversion of Egyptologist Georg Steindorff,” The Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 60 (2015): 279–89. 

[10] Stern, Politics, 61–63.

[11] Stern, Politics, 73,

[12] Paul de Lagarde, “Liberalism, Education and the Jews,” in Deutsche Schrifften: Gesammtausgabe letzter Hand, 5th ed. (Göttingen: Becker & Eidner, 1920)

[13] See Robert W. Lougee, Paul de Lagarde, 1827–1891: A Study of Radical Conservatism in Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 260–61.

[14] Stern, Politics, 65.

[15] De Lagarde, Deutsche Schriften, 408.

[16] See Klaus Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 2 vols. (London: SCM, 1987), 1:81–82

[17] De Lagarde, Deutsche Schriften, 62. 

[18] Walter Nigg, Geschichte des religiösen Liberalismus. Entstehung, Blütezeit, Ausklang (Zürich: Niehans, 1937), 286–88.

[19] See Fichte’s thirteenth lecture in “Die Grundzüge des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters,” in Fichtes Werke Band VII: Zur Politik, Moral ind Philosophie der Geschichte, ed. I.H. Fichte (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1971), 190.

[20] Fichte’s nationalistic ideology is outlined in his “Addresses to the German Nation,” in which he describes the German nation as “sufficiently united in itself by a common language and a common way of thinking, and sharply enough severed from the other peoples.” See the thirteenth address in Johann Gottfried Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation: Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, ed. Gregory Moore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[21] A theological position that would be more fully developed in the interwar and Third Reich era by Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus.

[22] Paul de Lagarde, Mittheilungen, 4 vols. (Göttingen: Dietrichsche verlagsbuchhandlung, 1884), 2:75.

[23] Paul de Lagarde, Über das Verhältnis de Deutschenen Staates zu Theologie, Kirche und Religion. Ein Versuch, nicht Theologen zu orientieren (Göttingen: Dietrichsche verlagsbuchhandlung, 1873), 69.  

[24] De Lagarde, Über das Verhältnis, 67.

[25] Abelard’s atonement theory is set out in Peter Abelard, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, trans. Steven R. Cartwright (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2011).

[26] Despite a familiarity with de Lagarde’s written works, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche found the racist element of the growing völkisch movement troubling and sought to distance himself from it. See Robert. C. Holub, Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem: Between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 178.

[27] This is particularly evident in the ideology of Alfred Rosenberg. See Steven E. Aschheim, Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises (London: MacMillan, 1996), 61–4.   

[28] Vincent Viaene, “Paul de Lagarde: A Nineteenth-Century “Radical” Conservative — and Precursor of National Socialism?” European History Quarterly 26 (1996):527-557.

[29] Lougee, Paul de Lagarde, 288.

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Melbourne who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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