Chamberlain, Houston Stewart (1855–1927)
CHAMBERLAIN, HOUSTON STEWART
Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the Anglo-German race theorist and philosophical and historical writer, was born in Southsea, near Portsmouth, England. Despite his English birth and family, his early indifference toward England and all things English developed into a lifelong hatred. Chamberlain was brought up by relatives in France. After being forced to attend schools in England, he returned to England only briefly, in 1873 and 1893. A nervous breakdown determined the course of his physical and mental development. (Frequently ill, hypersensitive, neurotic, he was crippled during the last thirteen years of his life by an incurable paralysis.) He traveled in western and central Europe for nine years seeking a cure. A German tutor inspired him to turn his mind to German literature and philosophy, and eventually he chose Germany as his home. As early as 1876 he wrote, "My belief that the whole future of Europe—that is, of world civilization—is in Germany's hands has become a certainty" (Lebenswege meines Denkens, p. 59).
Chamberlain's intellectual development began with the study of botany and other natural sciences; this was soon completely supplanted by a preoccupation with philosophy, literature, theology, art, and history. The turning point of his life was his meeting his future father-in-law, Richard Wagner, "the sun of my life," whom Chamberlain considered the greatest poet and musician of all time. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe inspired the central concept of Chamberlain's picture of the world and his "theory of life," the concept of Gestalt (form) as the expression of all that is timeless and unchangeable. The Gestalt is encountered as the primary concept in the intuition of everything living (Anschauung ) and must be grasped and interpreted in thought. It is the key to metaphysics and art, two fields which Chamberlain passionately defended against rationalism and "the coarsely empirical theory of evolution."
Chamberlain's "Lebenslehre" (Theory of life), which he first drafted in 1896 (it was not published until 1928 and was then titled Natur und Leben [Nature and life]), presented the position of most of his later writings, a position to which he frequently sacrificed historical truth in Die Grundlagen des 19. Jahrhunderts (Foundations of the Nineteenth Century ), his weakest but best-known work. Chamberlain upheld "Life," intuition, metaphysics, "holy art" in the Wagnerian sense, and antidemocratic thought against rationalism, biological materialism (of Jewish origin), the superficial belief in progress, and moral decadence. His Weltanschauung —a favorite word of Chamberlain's—is closely related to Wagner's theory of decadence and regeneration. It carries with it the urge to improve the world, and Chamberlain felt himself called into the battle for moral renewal not of humanity in general (he spoke derogatorily of "the ghost, humanity"), but of the Teutonic culture and people. To save culture from the threat of materialism was also the declared aim of his books on Immanuel Kant and Goethe.
In the Grundlagen Chamberlain represented history as a conflict of opposing philosophies of life, represented by the Jewish race on the one hand and by the Germanic-Aryan race on the other. The application of the biological idea of race to the study of cultural phenomena was widespread around the turn of the twentieth century. Under the influence of Charles Darwin, it was used by anthropologists, ethnologists, religious historians, and others. It could serve both as a basis for scholarly interpretation and as a vehicle for racism, following the example of Comte Joseph Arthur de Gobineau. It was natural for Chamberlain to take over the concept of race from his scientific studies, but the significance he gave to it went beyond what was tenable in the light of the scientific knowledge then available and even denied the relevance of scientific criticism: "Even if it were proved that there had never been an Aryan race in the past, we are determined that there shall be one in the future; this is the decisive point of view for men of action" (Grundlagen, 1st ed., Vol. I, p. 270). Intuition and instinct, an overwhelming irrationalism, the capacity to sweep away logical contradictions—these are the major characteristics of this "historical" work.
Without ever giving a precise definition of "race," Chamberlain considered it to be the "Gestalt in particular, transparent purity" (Natur und Leben, p. 152) "Only thoroughbred 'races,'" he held, "accomplish the extraordinary" (Rasse und Persönlichkeit, p. 75). In connection with his race theory, Chamberlain emphasized the significance of nations: "It is almost always the nation as a political entity that creates the conditions for the formation of a race, or at least for the highest expressions of the race" (Grundlagen, 1st ed., Vol. I, p. 290). The awareness of racial identity, not physical characteristics, determined a race. Thus Chamberlain could speak of the English or Japanese "races" and also employ the term in a very broad sense, as when he included the Slavs and Celts among the Teutonic peoples.
Race was always dominant in Chamberlain's thought, whether he was describing the "heritage of the old world" as Hellenic art and philosophy, Roman law, and the coming of Christ; the cultureless chaos of peoples which separated the ancient from the modern world; or the role of the Jews and the Teutonic peoples, who entered Western history as "pure" races and whose antagonism shaped the modern world. He recognized the existence of other historical forces, such as religion or the desire for power, but he placed them far below race in importance. He was thus led to the paradox of trying to prove that the historical Jesus, whose birth he regarded as "the most important date in the entire history of humanity," was not a Jew. Chamberlain denied that the Jewish people possessed any metaphysical inclinations or philosophical tendencies. Their outstanding characteristics in his view were materialism and rationalism. They were thus incapable of religion and could not have produced the man Jesus. The Jews served Chamberlain as a dark foil for the image of the Germanic peoples, whom he celebrated as the creators of "all present culture and civilization" and whose standard-bearers were the Germans. Paul Joachimsen, in a memorial article, described the aim of the Grundlagen as "to demonstrate the elements of Western cultural development in the light of an Aryan theodicy." But whereas Joachimsen considered Chamberlain's work as a document already belonging to the past, we know today what terrible consequences his ideas had when they were translated into reality after his death. The chief ideologist of National Socialism, Alfred Rosenberg, showed himself to be Chamberlain's disciple in his Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (Myth of the twentieth century).
Goethe and Kant
One must not interpret Chamberlain's personality exclusively by the Grundlagen. His philosophical books on Kant and Goethe provide a far more solid basis for judgment and are more representative of his inclination and his intellectual position. His Goethe (1912) is a milestone in studies of the poet. Chamberlain was concerned to present "a clear, enthusiastic, and at the same time a critically reflective, grasp of this great personality in its essence and effect." Chamberlain found in Goethe the same polarities which he found in himself: nature and freedom, intuition and concept, poet and scholar, Christian and pagan—in brief, "the juxtaposition of opposed vocations." Jean Réal rightly described Goethe as "full of originality, of depth, and of prejudice" ("Houston Stewart Chamberlain et Goethe").
Chamberlain interrupted his studies of Goethe, which he pursued for more than twenty years, in order to write his Immanuel Kant (1905). Through Kant's limitation of the possibility of metaphysics Chamberlain came to realize the place of religion in human life. This side of Kant's thought appealed to Chamberlain's antirationalistic, vitalistic tendencies.
During World War I, Chamberlain composed fanatical anti-English propaganda. He was an intimate of Kaiser Wilhelm II from 1901 until well into the kaiser's exile in the Netherlands. He was quite naturally unable to come to terms with the Weimar Republic and turned his sympathies to Adolf Hitler, whom he first met in 1923. Mensch und Gott (Man and God), written in Chamberlain's old age, is an impressive attempt at a philosophical synthesis but casts no light on his personality as a whole. One can agree with the judgment of Friedrich Heer in Europa—Mutter der Revolutionen (Stuttgart, 1964, p. 6): "H. S. Chamberlain presents himself as a highly significant symbol combining high culture and barbarism."
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Antonia Ruth Schlette (1967)
Translated by Tessa Byck
Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)