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Houston Stewart Chamberlain

Houston Stewart Chamberlain

The English-born German writer Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927) formulated the most important theory of Teutonic superiority in pre-Hitlerian German thought.

Houston Stewart Chamberlain was born in Southsea, England, on Sept. 9, 1855. He was the son of an English captain, later admiral. Two of his uncles were generals, and a third was a field marshal. Educated in England and France, he suffered from poor health throughout his life. This prevented him from entering the British military service and led him to take cures in Germany, where he became an ardent admirer of the composer Richard Wagner. In 1882 Chamberlain met Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival, and he later became a close friend of Wagner's widow.

During the 1880s Chamberlain studied natural sciences in Geneva and Vienna. He wrote a dissertation on plant structure, which was accepted by the University of Vienna in 1889, but he never sought an academic position. In 1908 Wagner's daughter Eva became Chamberlain's second wife. Thereafter he lived at Bayreuth, the "home of his soul." He became a German citizen in 1916 and died on Jan. 9, 1927.

Literary Works

Chamberlain preferred to write in German, and his major works were composed in that language. His first published books were studies of Wagner: The Wagnerian Drama (1892) and the biography Richard Wagner (1896).

Chamberlain's most significant work is The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899), which demonstrates his thesis that the history of a people or race is determined by its racial character and abilities. He conceives of race in terms of attitudes and abilities rather than physical characteristics. In general he views abilities and attributes of personality as inherited.

Unlike Joseph Arthur Gobineau, Chamberlain applies the term "Aryan" only to a language group and doubts the existence of an elite Aryan race. Instead he views the Teutons as the superior European race. For him the Teutons include most importantly the Germanic peoples, but also the Celts and certain Slavic groups. He holds that the Jews are fundamentally alien in spirit to the Teutons and believes that they should be allowed no role in German history.

Foundations, despite its scientific underpinnings, is essentially an eloquent, even poetic, vision of the German people. The modern reader may justly criticize this work as self-contradictory and sometimes nonsensical, but it had deep meaning for the Germans of Chamberlain's day. By 1942 Foundations had gone through 28 editions.

During World War I Chamberlain advocated the German cause, and his pro-German, anti-English writings were published in English as The Ravings of a Renegade (1916). Chamberlain met the young Hitler in 1923 and wrote several articles favorable to him.

Further Reading

Because of the highly controversial nature of Chamberlain's main thesis, most of the literature on him is biased. However, an introduction by George L. Mosse in a 1968 reprint of John Lee's 1910 translation of Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (2 vols., 1899) is useful. See also Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Superstition (1937; rev. ed. 1965).

Additional Sources

Field, Geoffrey G., Evangelist of race: the Germanic vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, New York: Columbia University Press, 1981. □

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Chamberlain, Houston Stewart (1855-1927)

Chamberlain, Houston Stewart (1855-1927)

British-born publicist for neopagan religion in Germany and precursor of Nazi racial theorists. Chamberlain was born at Sothsea, England, on September 9, 1855, the son of an admiral in the British navy. His mother died while he was still an infant, and he was raised by his grandmother and an aunt who lived in Versailles, France. In 1867 he returned to England to attend boarding school. He grew to adulthood with no true sense of his English identity, and in 1870 came under the influence of a German tutor who gave him both a love of Germany and an interest in botany. His father died in 1878, and with the financial independence it gave him he soon married a German woman and settled in Geneva to pursue studies at the university. He quickly finished his basic degree but took many years (because of recurring ill health) to finish his doctorate. During these years he also became an enthusiastic fan of the music of Richard Wagner.

In the 1890s Chamberlain combined his scientific background, which included a critique of Darwinian approaches to evolution, and his increasing mastery of Wagner's ideas into a comprehensive vision: he conceived the idea of producing an epic history of humanity. The result was his most famous and important book, Foundations of the 19th Century (1899). Lacking training in history, Chamberlain used artistic license to tell the story of human history in such a way as to substantiate two basic ideas: he argues that humanity is divided into various distinct races, each of which has its own physical structure and mental and moral capacity, and that history is best understood as the struggle between these different races.

Historical epochs were marked by the coming to the fore of a dominant racial type, according to Chamberlain, and modern European civilization was built on the Germanic or Teutonic race. As to the components of modern (i.e., nineteenth century) culture, he hypothesizes six major influences: Hellenic art and philosophy; Roman law and organization; the revelation of Christ; racial chaos in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire; the negative and destructive influence of the Jews; and the creative and regenerative mission of the Teutonic (or Aryan) race. Chamberlain's anti-Semitism led him to reject the idea of the Jewish-born Messiah of Christianity and to propose an essentially Germanic religion deriving from the symbols of the Aryan race.

The mystical/occult underpinnings of Chamberlain's beliefs had a great influence on Hitler's Nazi faith. He wrote a number of other books, but none were as influential as Foundations of the 19th Century. He died at Beyreuth, Germany, on January 9, 1927.

Sources:

Field, Geoffrey G. Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Ravencroft, Trevor. The Spear of Destiny. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1973.

Sklar, Dusty. Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977.

Williamson, Roger Andrew. "Houston Stewart Chamberlain: A Study of the Man and His Ideas, 1855-1927." Ph.D diss., University of California-Santa Barbara, 1973.

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Chamberlain, Houston Stewart

Chamberlain, Houston Stewart (b Portsmouth, 1855; d Bayreuth, 1927). Eng.-born writer (Ger. cit.). In 1870 went to Stettin and conceived intense admiration for Ger. culture. Lived Dresden 1885–9 and Vienna 1889–1908. Wrote The Foundations of the 19th Century (1899–1901, Eng. trans. 1910). Married Wagner's daughter Eva 1908 and lived at Bayreuth, publishing several books on Wagner (propagating anti-Semitic and nationalist views) and ed. of letters.

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