German Anti-Semitism in Context Part 6: Houston Stewart Chamberlain

This will be my final instalment for this series. Thanks for reading, and a special thanks to those who got in contact!

Houston Stewart Chamberlain represents an important link between the völkisch anti-Semitism of the late 19th century and the ideology of Hitler and the Nazi party. Chamberlain is unique, however, in the fact that he is the only author surveyed in this chapter who was not a native German. Chamberlain’s experiences living in various European countries lends his work an international perspective through which he espoused the alleged superiority of the Germanic race over and above all others. For Chamberlain, the Aryan race was “physically and spiritually pre-eminent amongst all peoples; for this reason, they are by right lords of the world.”[1] Unsurprisingly, the Jews were to blame for the rampant cultural and racial degradation of Europe, and Chamberlain dedicated his life’s work to the propagation of anti-Semitic racial theory and philosophy. Aside from the immediate influence of his writings in the context of the 19th century, Chamberlain would go on to become a member of the Nazi party and enjoy a personal relationship with Hitler.

Chamberlain’s upbringing was marked by frequent moves throughout Europe. He did not settle in Germany until he was in his mid-twenties. Born in England in 1855 to a naval family of noble extract, the first few years of Chamberlain’s life were marked by the tragic death of his mother, whereupon he was sent to live with his aunt, Harriet, in Versailles, France. The subsequent years of Chamberlain’s life witnessed a series of back-and-forth moves between England and France. Although his father desired a military career for his son, Chamberlain’s own disposition was marked by an interest in science and the arts rather than the strict world of military discipline.[2] Reflecting on his early educational experiences and his fascination for the beauty of the natural world, Chamberlain noted that:

The starlight exerted an indescribable influence on me. The stars seemed closer to me, gentler, more worthy of trust, and more sympathetic—for that is the only word which describes my feelings—than any of the people around me in school. For the stars, I experienced true friendship.[3]  

It was during these turbulent years that Chamberlain felt a growing sense of isolation from English culture and society more broadly. He wrote that he had become “so completely un-English that the mere thought of England and the English makes me unhappy.”[4] Chamberlain’s growing disenchantment with the industrialisation process sweeping through Europe created an intellectual vacuum through which he became receptive to ideas that proposed solutions to the spiritual decline of the West. Chamberlain gave sustained expression to his discontent in 1895, when he diagnosed the “great armies of railways and newspapers” as divorcing humanity from its spiritual roots.[5] At this time Chamberlain became deeply influenced by the romantic critique of the industrial revolution and bemoaned the impacts of urbanisation, cultural homogenisation, and greed.[6] These anti-liberal views, though subtle in origin and slow in forming, were greatly enhanced by Chamberlain’s travels throughout Europe, in which he witnessed the impacts of industrial society first-hand.

Chamberlain’s anti-Semitic theories developed throughout his years spent in Geneva, where he studied under the scientist and racial theorist Carl Vogt. An outspoken critic of the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, Chamberlain ascribed to Disraeli the introduction of “selfish class interest” into Britain.[7] As a result of Disraeli’s legitimisation of greed, Britain became marked by economic and social injustice. In a letter written to his family in 1881, Chamberlain complained of the extortionary Irish Land Bill as being formulated by “blood-sucking Jews”[8]—an early indication of the anti-Semitic rhetoric to come. The most decisive moment in Chamberlain’s philosophical development, however, came when he was exposed to the music of Richard Wagner. Chamberlain’s exposure to the demigod of German composers had the quality of a religious conversion and served to reorient Chamberlain’s future direction drastically.[9] In determining that the nation which produced Wagner was transparently superior to all others, Chamberlain became immersed in the world of German culture, language, and history. In a fervour of zealous enthusiasm for Wagner, Chamberlain founded the first Wagner society in Paris, but eventually left the French capital to live in Dresden.[10]

During his time in Dresden Chamberlain developed his philosophical writing, which was heavily inspired by the völkischideas of the day. His written works from this period include an in-depth treatment of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and various philosophical treatises on the Aryan worldview.[11] Due to the influence of völkisch ideology, Chamberlain’s anti-Semitism grew steadily more pronounced during this time, as is exemplified in various letters to his family.[12]Another important step in the strengthening of Chamberlain’s völkisch convictions came when he was introduced to Cosima Wagner, who would in time consider the English-born Chamberlain as her surrogate son.[13] When Chamberlain eventually married Wagner’s daughter, his adoption into the esteemed circles of German culture was complete.

Chamberlain’s most important and enduring publication is the two volume 1899 text, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century.[14] An eclectic work, Foundations traversed vast topical territory and subject matter, including forays into religion, the arts, politics, and history. One of the most distinct features of the work, however, was Chamberlain’s attempt to legitimise his own racial theories from a scientific perspective. Gutteridge details this aspect of Chamberlain’s argument and describes his use of various anthropological and biological arguments to convince readers that his own racist views were merely an expression of concrete scientific findings.[15] These theories were framed within the overarching narrative of Germany’s inexorable march forward toward a glorious future—a conviction which Chamberlain conveyed in a letter to Wilhelm II. “The future progress of mankind,” wrote Chamberlain, “depends on a powerful Germany extending far across the earth.”[16] Chamberlain’s support of German expansion was fuelled by an unleashed anti-Semitism, which was given new and forceful expression in the Foundations:

One does not need to have the authentic Hittite nose to be a Jew; the term Jew rather denotes a special way of thinking and feeling. A man can very soon become a Jew without being an Israelite; often it needs only to have frequent intercourse with Jews, to read Jewish newspapers, to accustom himself to Jewish philosophy, literature and art. On the other hand, it is senseless to call an Israelite a ‘Jew’, though his descent is beyond question, if he has succeeded in throwing off the fetters of Ezra and Nehemiah, and if the law of Moses has no place in his brain, and contempt of others no place in his heart.[17]

Such sentiments are representative of an emerging view of the Jews which understood “Jewishness” as an inherently spiritual “condition” which led to damaging character traits. Elsewhere in the Foundations Chamberlain appears to summarise his entire anti-Semitic outlook when he writes that “their existence is sin; their existence is a crime against the holy laws of life.”[18]

One might reasonably deduce that Chamberlain represented the type of anti-Semitism demonstrated by people like Dühring, especially in regard to Dühring’s dismissal of any possibility of Jewish conversion.[19] Yet despite the dismissive nature of Chamberlain’s vitriol, the door was left open, at least in a theoretical sense, for the Jew to become fully German.[20] In this respect, the theoretical framework of Chamberlain’s anti-Semitism more closely resembles that of Stoecker, who considered the conversion of Jews to be the ideal response to the Judenfrage.[21] It is noteworthy also that the Foundations contained theological arguments which were reflective of the way which the Aryan race was held to be sacred and God-ordained, while the Jews were demonic in nature. The Jewish “mission” to the world was therefore a manifestation of the will of Satan and was ultimately an attempt to control and defile the sacred Aryan race. Chamberlain, who claimed to be a believer in Jesus, also pre-empted the work of Nazi theologians in understanding Christ as being of non-Jewish extraction. Chamberlain’s thoughts on this topic are worth quoting, as his arguments concerning the racial origins of Jesus would resurface in the work of Nazi theologians:

Whoever makes the assertion that Christ was a Jew is either ignorant or insincere: ignorant when he confuses religion and race, insincere when he knows the history of Galilee and partly conceals, partly distorts the very entangled facts in favour of his religious prejudices or, it may be, to curry favour with the Jews. The probability that Christ was no Jew, that he had not a drop of genuinely Jewish blood in his veins was so great, that it was almost equivalent to a certainty.[22]

Chamberlain’s attempt to re-cast Christ as non-racial Jew was motivated by his core belief that the Jews were racially inferior and could therefore have no legitimate place in the foundations of pure Christianity.[23] Further evidence of Christ’s non-Jewish nature was to be found in his moral and ethical values, which Chamberlain perceived as reflecting an Aryan spirit. Christ’s ministry and personal character displayed a commitment to love, honour, compassion, and, most importantly, a complete absence of the materialism which was felt to reflect a fundamental character trait of the Jews.[24] The logical conclusion of Chamberlain’s assessment of the roots of the Christian faith was that genuine, German Christianity was founded on the revolutionary work of a de-Judaized Jesus. From a biblical perspective, this still left the problem of what to do about the apostle Paul. Pre-empting the work of Deutsche Christen theologians such as Walter Grundmann, Chamberlain attempted to explain the problem of the Jewish Paul by appealing to the apostle’s internally conflicted nature. After categorically denying that Paul was biologically a Jew,[25] Chamberlain described Paul’s inner life as a war between two souls: Jewish and non-Jewish.[26] Paul’s internal struggle between these warring souls could be seen as the paradigmatic struggle facing German Christianity in its attempts to cast off the exploitative and corrupt influence of Judaism.

Chamberlain’s direct influence on the Nazi party is significant, and his relationship with the Nazi leadership must be considered here. Like many Germans of the interwar era, Chamberlain was utterly devastated by the defeat of Germany in the First World War. Chamberlain blamed the catastrophic defeat on the backstabbing influence of international Judaism, and henceforth described the German nation as existing under the “supremacy of the Jews.”[27] In the early days of the Nazi party, Chamberlain observed a true leader of the people who had the fortitude and skill necessary to redeem Germany.[28] Chamberlain’s respect for the future dictator was returned in kind, with Hitler claiming to have been influenced by Chamberlain’s Foundations and wartime essays.[29] Chamberlain and Hitler were also united through their shared admiration of Richard Wagner, who provided much of the raw aesthetic and mythological material which was to be appropriated by the Nazi party.[30] A more explicit example of Chamberlain’s influence is found in the conversion experience of future Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who agreed with Chamberlain’s assessment that the only way in which Germany could be saved was through the removal of the Jews.[31] During these interwar years Chamberlain maintained constant correspondence with influential figures in the German political and intellectual life, including Theodor Fritsch and the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1923, Chamberlain was afforded the opportunity to meet with Hitler personally and was subsequently at Hitler’s side during the “German Day” celebrations in Bayreuth. Chamberlain’s personal endorsement of Hitler is reflected in a letter to the NSDAP leader, in which he attests to the deep affinity he felt with the Nazi cause.[32] Chamberlain’s support of Hitler and the Nazi party was a significant victory for the political newcomers in their attempts to solidify their own reputation amongst a cynical populace.

Chamberlain’s intellectual legacy and direct influence on Nazi ideology make him a particularly potent example of the link between 19th century anti-Semitic writers and the eventual legitimization of the Nazi party and its racial and ideological agenda. The Foundations was extremely important in formulating the notion of a non-Jewish Jesus and the racial inferiority of the Jews. Such an approach to theological revisionism would find its ultimate expression in the work of Grundmann and the Institute for the Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life between 1939 and 1945. Chamberlain’s emphasis on race and biological theory is a clear forerunner of work undertaken in the sphere of Nazi eugenics, particularly in relation to the evolutionary motif of a “struggle for existence.”[33] The immediate and long-term impact of the Foundations, therefore, is itself enough to make Chamberlain the most important figure in forging a bond between 19th century anti-Semitic writers and the emergence of völkisch nationalism in the interwar years.

Because there are clear ties between Chamberlain and Hitler, the temptation is to fall into the trap of an irrevocable link the two distinct eras of anti-Semitic activity. Yet this would be too simplistic a view in respect to the apparent decline of anti-Semitic feeling in the opening years of the 20th century. Gutteridge acknowledges a change in general feeling toward the Jews in the first decade of the new century and suggests that by 1910 the full assimilation of the Jews within German society was a distinct possibility.[34] At the very least, such historical trends defy recourse to a simplistic continuity between the eras. In addition, Chamberlain’s influence on Hitler and the Nazis must be seen through the broader trend of Nazi cultural appropriation, in which National Socialist ideologues actively sought to co-opt key figures of European intellectual and cultural history, with the sole purpose of strengthening their own appeal amongst German citizens.[35] In the final analysis, however, Chamberlain’s influence on specific Nazi-era concepts (e.g., the non-Jewish Jesus; the racial inferiority of the Jews) is undeniable, and this influence was supplemented through a personal relationship with Hitler which further solidified the perception that Nazism was perfecting the unrealised aims of 19th century anti-Semitism. For this reason, Chamberlain is unique amongst the authors surveyed in this chapter.


[1] See Houston Stewart Chamberlain, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, trans. J. Lees, 2 vols. (London: John Lane, 1911), 1:542. 

[2] For a detailed biographical treatment of Chamberlain, see Lord Redesdale’s introduction to Chamberlain, Foundations, 1911.

[3] As quoted in Geoffrey G. Field, Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 24.

[4] Field, Evangelist of Race, 32.

[5] Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Richard Wagner, trans. G. Ainslie Hight (London: J.M. Dent, 1900), 20.

[6] See George L. Mosses’s introduction to the 1968 edition of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, trans. J. Lees, 2 vols. (New York: Howard Fertig, 1968).

[7] Field, Evangelist of Race, 80.

[8] Field, Evangelist of Race, 79.

[9] See Ian Buruma, Anglomania: A European Love Affair (New York: Vintage, 2000), 219.

[10] Wagner’s biographer John Chancellor would describe Chamberlain as an “evil intellectual genius” whose death in 1927 freed allowed the Bayreuth establishment to pursue a more liberal path. John Chancellor, Wagner (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), 283.

[11] See Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Immanuel Kant: Die Persönlichkeit als Einführung in das Werk (München: Bruckmann, 1905); cf. Arische Weltanschauung (München: Bruckmann, 1905).

[12] Field, Evangelist of Race, 90.

[13] Field, Evangelist of Race, 79; cf. Michael Biddiss, “History as Destiny: Gobineau, H.S. Chamberlain and Spengler,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 7 (1997): 80.  

[14] References in this thesis are taken from the 1911 English translation.

[15] See Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 22–23.

[16] Field, Evangelist of Race, 360; cf. Konrad Heiden: Der Führer (London: Gollancz, 1945), 194.  

[17] See Houston Stewart Chamberlain, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols. (Munich: Bruckmann, 1906), 1:544–45, 574.

[18] See Houston Stewart Chamberlain, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols. (London: Lane, 1910), 1:391–92.

[19] Dühring had testified to the alleged corruption of Jewish character, describing it as “quite inflexible and self-seeking, the basest of cruelty, absolute shameless sensuality and most impudent hypocrisy” (Eugen Dühring, Der Ersatz der Religion durch Vollkommeneres und die Auscheidung alles Judentums durch den modernen Völkergeist [Karlsruhe: Reuther, 1883], 23).

[20] Steven E. Aschheim described Chamberlain as “humanizing” the Jew and allowing the possibility of the Jew to transcend his own Jewishness through immersion in German culture (Culture and Catastrophe: German and Jewish Confrontations with National Socialism and Other Crises [New York: New York University Press, 1996], 58–59).

[21] Adolf Stoecker considered himself to be advocating for a “mighty and irresistible mission to both the orthodox and the modern Jews” (Christlich-Sozial, 382).

[22] Chamberlain, Foundations, 1:211–12.

[23] See Susannah Heschel, “Was Jesus an Aryan? The Protestant Church and Anti-Semitic Propaganda,” in Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust, ed. Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 77. 

[24] See George Lachmann Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), 106.

[25] Chamberlain, Foundations, 2:57.

[26] Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 24.

[27] Field, Evangelist of Race, 401.

[28] Field, Evangelist of Race, 422.

[29] See Ian Kershaw, Hitler — 1889–1936: Hubris (New York: Norton, 1998), 151; cf. Field, Evangelist of Race, 452. 

[30] On the crucial role of Wagner’s aesthetics on the formation of Nazi ideology, see Hans Rudolf Vaget, “Wagnerian Self Fashioning: The Case of Adolf Hitler,” New German Critique 101 (2007): 95–114. 

[31] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (London: Penguin, 2005), 204.

[32] William L. Shirer describes Chamberlain’s initial meeting with Hitler, in which the “hypnotic magnetism” of Hitler’s personality confirmed to the ageing philosopher the great destiny awaiting Germany under the leadership of the emerging Austrian politician. See William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (London: Arrow, 1998), 109. 

[33] On Chamberlain’s contribution to genetic and racial theory, and its subsequent influence on the Nazis, see Robert J. Richards, Was Hitler a Darwinian? Disputed Questions in the History of Evolutionary Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 16–28.

[34] See Gutteridge, Open Thy Mouth, 26.

[35] The Nazi appropriation of English playwright William Shakespeare is a curious example of the lengths the Nazis would go to validate and normalise its own ideology. See Rodney Symington, The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (Lewiston: Edward Mellen, 2005).

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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