Houston Stewart Chamberlain: Writer – Historian – Critic

Frithjof Hallman

Houston Stewart Chamberlain - 1886.jpg

On September 9, 1980, the 125th anniversary of the birth of Houston Steward Chamberlain, the renowned philosopher and son-in-law of the composer Richard Wagner, was celebrated by West German conservatives. Regrettably, a number of Chamberlain’s most important works are still accessible only to those who know German, the language in which he did all his writing after 1914, when, in protest against the British declaration of war on Germany, he chose to settle on German soil. His Goethe: Politische Ideale (“Political Ideals”); Deutsches Wesen (“The German Character”); Lebenswege meines Denkens (“My Intellectual Career”); Natur und Leben (“Nature and Life”); and Mensch und Gott (“Man and God”) have not, so far as I know, been translated into English. But there are translations of Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (“Foundations of the XIXth Century”), his most famous work; Richard Wagner; and Immanuel KantDie Persoenlichkeit als Einfuehrung in das Werk (“Immanuel Kant – A Study and a Comparison with Goethe, Leonardo da Vinci, Bruno, Plato and Descartes”).

The son of a British admiral, Chamberlain spent his childhood in England and France. After the completion of his university studies at Geneva, he spent a number of years travelling through various parts of Europe. During the years 1885-1889, he lived in Dresden, then moved to Vienna. When he married Richard Wagner’s daughter Eva, he settled down at Bayreuth, and lived there until his death in 1927. His first book Das Drama Richard Wagners (“The Drama of Richard Wagner”) was published in 1892, and his even greater Wagnerian study Richard Wagner followed four years later. In 1899, he published Foundations of the XIXth Century, the two-volume philosophical treatise that made him world-famous overnight.

This book is still regarded as Chamberlain’s masterwork, and it has been compared in importance to Spengler’s Decline of the West. After reading Foundations, Count Hermann Keyserling, one of the most eminent philosophers of this century, remarked: “In modern times, there appears to be no other book which, in so high a degree, meets the criteria for a work of art as Chamberlain’s Foundations. “His Foundations is among the most beautiful books written in this century,” said Arthur Drews, another German thinker. And Hans Vaihinger, author of The Philosophy of As If and other noteworthy philosophical works, declared: “Chamberlain quite rightly calls himself a pupil of Kant. He is a man of grand vision, reckless courage, and frankness.”


As a philosopher, Chamberlain was mainly concerned with investigating cultural movements and tracing cultural influences to their sources. In Foundations, he deals extensively with the reasons for the decline of ancient Graeco-Roman civilization. Two essential ideas form the Leitmotiv of the book: While the entry of Orientals into the Graeco-Roman world brought about chaos, a counterbalancing entry of Germanic peoples into that culturally decadent sphere resulted in the creation of a new culture on the ruins of the old. Chamberlain explored not only the cultural development of Greece, Rome, and modern Europe, but also that of the ancient Aryan nations India and Persia. He was as enthusiastic a student of the Rigveda, the Bhagavadgita, the Upanishads, the Vedanta, and the works of Yajnavalkya as he was of the Greek classics. The more he studied the Aryan cultures, the more he was struck by the deep parallels between their religious and philosophical traits. These he described in his booklet Arische Weltanschauung (“The Aryan World-Outlook”), which he dedicated to his friend Leopold von Schroeder, the renowned Indologist. Besides outlining the similarities between Indo-Iranian and Graeco-Roman thought and religion, he pondered the reasons for the breakdown of the great Indian and Iranian civilizations, concluding that the main one was the incessant racial mixture between the Aryans and the aboriginal coloured populations.

In Foundations, Chamberlain emphasizes the dire consequences of racial crossings between genetically disparate groups. Again and again, he points to the Jewish people as an example for others to follow. “Out of the midst of the chaos towers, like a sharply defined rock amid the formless ocean, one single people, a numerically insignificant people – the Jews. This one race has established as its guiding principle the purity of the blood; it alone possesses, therefore, physiognomy and character. If we contemplate the southern and eastern centres of culture in the world-empire in its downfall, and let no sympathies or antipathies pervert our judgment, we must confess that the Jews were at that time the only people deserving respect” (Foundations, 1911 edition, Vol. I, pp. 253-254). “Judaism as an idea,” Chamberlain goes on to say, “is one of the most conservative ideas in the world. The idea of physical race-unity and race-purity, which is the very essence of Judaism, signifies the recognition of a fundamental physiological fact of life; wherever we observe life, from the hyphomycetes to the noble horse, we see the importance of race; Judaism made this law of nature sacred” (Ibid., p. 255). Elsewhere he observes: “Like a cataract the stream of strange blood overflooded the almost depopulated Rome and at once the Romans ceased to be. Would one small tribe from among all the Semites have become a world-embracing power had it not made ‘purity of race’ its inflexible fundamental law? In days when so much nonsense is talked concerning this question, let Disraeli teach us that the whole significance of Judaism lies in its purity of race, that this alone gives it power and duration, and just as it has outlived the people of antiquity, so, thanks to its knowledge of this law of nature, will it outlive the constantly mingling races of today” (Ibid., p. 271). Chamberlain then cites Disraeli’s dictum: “Race is everything; there is no other truth. And every race must fall which carelessly suffers its blood to become mixed.”


In the British people, who, until the recent inundation of their island by immigrants from the former colonies of the Empire, were relatively isolated from alien races, Chamberlain sees another instance of the “value of purer inbreeding,” a clear parallel to the Jewish people. “England is practically cut off by its insular position: the last (not very extensive) invasion took place 800 years ago; since then only a few thousands from the Netherlands, and later a few thousand Huguenots have crossed over (all of the same origin), and thus has been reared that race which at the present is unquestionably the strongest in Europe” (Ibid., p. 272). He notes that the Jews, in a somewhat more humane version of the ancient Greek custom of abandoning undesirable infants outside the walls of the city, transferred children born out of wedlock to other territories. “Natural children are not at all taken into the community by orthodox Jews. Among the Sephardim of East Europe today, a girl who is known to have gone wrong is immediately taken by the plenipotentiaries of the community to a strange land and provided for there; neither she nor her child can venture ever to let anything be heard of them; they are regarded as dead. Thus they provide against blind love introducing strange blood into the tribe” (Ibid., p. 274, note 1).


“The careful observer,” Chamberlain declares, “will further notice that in crossings between human stems, which are not closely related, the relative generative power is a factor which can prevail after centuries and gradually bring about the decline of the nobler portion of a mixed people, because in fact this generative power often stands in inverse relation to the nobility of the race.” He adds, “Professor August Forel, the well-known psychiatrist, has made interesting studies in the United States and the West Indian islands, on the victory of intellectually inferior races over higher ones because of their greater virility. ‘Though the brain of the negro is weaker than that of the white, yet his generative power and the predominance of his qualities in the descendants are all greater than those of the whites. The white race isolates itself (therefore) from them more and more strictly, not only in sexual but in all relations, because it has at last recognized that crossing means its own destruction.’ Forel shows by numerous examples how impossible it is for the negro to assimilate our civilization more than skin deep, and how so soon as he is left to himself he everywhere degenerates into ‘the most absolute primitive savagery.’ …And Forel, who as a scientist is educated in the dogma of the one, everywhere equal, humanity, comes to the conclusion: ‘Even for their own good the blacks must be treated as what they are, and absolutely subordinate, inferior, lower type of man, incapable themselves of culture. That must once and for all be clearly and openly stated’ (Ibid., p. 290 and footnote).”

What Houston Steward Chamberlain described for us in his Foundations, namely, the decline and fall of civilizations as a result of racial crossing, is a phenomenon we can observe all over the world today. It is what the Jewish capitalist, politician, and writer Walter Rathenau called “The tragedy of the Aryan race: a blond and marvellous people arises in the north. In overflowing fertility, it sends wave after wave into the southern world. Each migration becomes a conquest, each conquest a source of character and civilization.” And then, encountering alien blood and alien cultures, it disappears from the lands it explored and cultivated, leaving behind architectural monuments of great beauty, new religions and noble literature, and, sometimes, as in the case of the ancient Greeks, artistic records of its outstanding beauty of face and figure.

“This study of the Roman Chaos of Peoples,” Chamberlain emphasizes, “teaches us that race, and nationality which renders possible the formation of race, possesses a significance which is not only physical and intellectual but also moral. Here there is before us something which we can characterize as a sacred law, the sacred law in accordance with which we enter upon the rights and duties of manhood: a ‘law,’ since it is found everywhere in nature; ‘sacred,’ in so far as it is left to our free will to ennoble ourselves or to degenerate as we please” (Ibid., p. 317).


Naturally, Chamberlain’s works have largely disappeared from the shelves of public libraries in West Germany and many other countries, except for a few university libraries. Like the Frenchman Count Gobineau, Chamberlain is now denounced and “blacklisted” as one of the originators of the “race theory.” Although one may still speak and write about the races of dogs, horses, and the like, today only the very intrepid dare publicly discuss the races of man. The reason for that is, of course, that the Jews, with their world-wide propaganda campaign about “anti-Semitism” and the “Holocaust, have made the whole subject of race virtually taboo.


Although negroes in the French and American occupation forces left behind a number of bastards, Germany does not have a racial problem comparable to that of the United States, with its tens of millions of negroes and Orientals, or Britain and France, with their millions of colored inhabitants. Whatever racial problem exists in Germany today arises from the presence of about four million foreign workers, mainly immigrants from the Balkans, whose birth-rate is considerably higher than that of the Germans. The Scandinavian countries, for their part, still have more or less racially homogeneous populations. As racial crossing gradually proceeds in Britain, France, and the United States, we can expect to see in those countries a growing interest in the “race theory,” hence in Chamberlain’s work.

No less than Foundations have Chamberlain’s other writings retained their value. His study of Immanuel Kant is still valid in every respect. Richard Wagner and Goethe remain great biographies. And Natur und Leben is still one of the finest surveys of natural science, from ancient

Greece to modern Europe. His religious history of mankind, Mensch und Gott, focuses on Jesus. Chamberlain believes him to have been of Indo-Germanic, not Jewish, origin, and contrasts him with the Christian propagandist Saul/Paul. In Lebenswege meines Denkens, Chamberlain gives a fascinating account of his own life, together with analyses of the books that most deeply influenced his intellectual and spiritual development. The volume of his correspondence with Cosima Liszt (later the wife of Richard Wagner) offers a panoramic view of one part of the mighty landscape of Western culture.


Of particular interest to politically minded readers are Chamberlain’s Kriegsaufsaetze (“War Essays”), which are written completely from the German point of view; his Briefwechsel mit Kaiser Wilhelm II (“The Correspondence with Kaiser Wilhelm II”); Demokratie und Freiheit (“Democracy and Freedom”); Ideal und Macht (“Ideal and Power); Det Wille zum Sieg (“The Will to Victory”); Hammer oder Amboss (“Hammer or Anvil”); and Politische Ideale (“Political Ideals”).

Written in 1915, Political Ideals is a survey of world politics comparable to Spengler’s The Hour of Decision. “Libery, Equality, Fraternity,” Chamberlain stresses there, “did not at first seem dangerous. Who does not wish to spread such noble ideals? But when taken as a political ideal and made the program of a great nation, they so devastated that nation that not even the foundations capable of supporting a new structure remained” (Politische Ideale, p. 28). This slogan of the French Revolution Chamberlain describes as the gateway through which mankind rushes into chaos. “All three parts of this ideal are lies, by which I mean, they contradict nature.” Although he commends liberty as “an aim worthy of attainment, the ultimate goal of man,” Chamberlain deems the statement that man is born free “pure defiance of all reality.” Man is born in a state of complete dependence on his fellows, totally helpless, an “animal incapable of living alone, without the strength and instincts to preserve him in nature.” The statement that “all men are equal” is also a lie. No man is identical to any other in size, strength, intelligence, or other gifts. As to “Fraternity, the French Revolution clearly showed what it meant by that when it put the national élite to the guillotine and flooded the gutters with some of the best Nordic blood in France. The real meaning of the slogan “Fraternity,” Chamberlain perceives, lies “in a negation of the word: ‘I hate anybody who does not think exactly as I do.’” Translated into plain language, the idealistic fanfare of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” means: “Do not obey, do not venerate, do not love! Embody hatred and disrespect! (Ibid., p. 34) “That the French Revolution was a fiasco is only too obvious. You need but open your eyes and look about” (Ibid., p. 37). Chamberlain then cites a dictum of Goethe, the German uomo universale and sage he so admired: “Nothing is more disgusting than the majority. Compared with the majority of a parliament, Genghis Khan was an angel of God. The majority,” Chamberlain writes, “comprises the grains of sand of a desert covering millennia of cultural manifestations… Where in the entire history of mankind has one ever seen that better judgment, wiser counsel, lay with the majority?” (Ibid., pp. 60-61). In any system but “democracy,” he believes, there at least exists a possibility of wise leadership. He concludes his discussion by quoting Schiller’s lines:

You shall weigh the votes, not count them.
That state must perish, sooner or later,
Where the majority wins and folly decides.

Here, as in all Chamberlain’s writings, an aristocrat is speaking, and his language is unabashedly élitarian, unsullied by mass-thinking and slogans coined for an ignorant and cultureless rabble. Such words as his do not belong to our age of parliamentarism, mass-mindedness, spiritual poverty, and ugliness. They are regarded with horror by the ochlocracy of liberals, egalitarians, Marxists, and mammon-worshippers whose materialistic obsessions have brought about the virtual ruin of Western culture. Such words as Chamberlain’s are, in short, not at all “modern.”

SOURCE: The Liberty Bell, May 1983

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