Houston Stewart Chamberlain

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CHAMBERLAIN, HOUSTON STEWART (1855–1927), Anglo-German writer, cultural critic, and race theorist.

At his death in 1927 Houston Stewart Chamberlain was famous as the "renegade" Englishman who repudiated his native land and championed German nationalism. A leading race publicist, he occupied a special place in the pantheon of the Third Reich (1933–1945) as one its most important ideological forerunners.

Chamberlain was born at Southsea, England, on 9 September 1855. His father became an admiral and several of his uncles had distinguished military careers. Soon after Chamberlain's birth, his mother died and along with two brothers he lived with relatives in France. Since his health was poor, he was mostly privately tutored and lived a peripatetic life on the Continent, quickly becoming more at home in the cultural traditions of France and Germany than in his native England. His older brother, Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850–1935), was also drawn to a foreign culture, Japan, where he lived for many years and achieved renown as a scholar of Japanese language and literature. In 1878 Houston married a Prussian girl and, after a brief ill-fated business venture on the Paris stock exchange, he completed a science degree at the University of Geneva and began a doctorate. A recurrence of bad health, probably a nervous breakdown, foreclosed his hopes for an academic career and for the rest of his life he lived as a private scholar, largely funded by family money, first in Dresden, later Vienna, and finally Bayreuth.

The chief intellectual influence on Chamberlain was the composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) who at Bayreuth in Bavaria had established a festival for the performance of his music-dramas. Chamberlain attended the Bayreuth Festival in 1882 and soon after collaborated on the journal La Revue Wagnerienne whose aim was to publicize Wagner's music and ideas for French audiences. After the composer's death, Wagner's widow, Cosima, and an inner circle of advisors sought to establish control over the interpretation of Wagner and to promote Bayreuth as a shrine of German culture. By the 1890s, writing mostly in German, Chamberlain had completed two books and innumerable essays on Wagner and was a leading publicist of the growing cult. It was as a Wagnerite that he developed his views on politics, culture, and race; more than anyone he forged close links between the composer's legacy and the mainstream of German conservatism and racial nationalism. Under Bayreuth's spell Chamberlain became increasingly anti-Semitic and supportive of both an authoritarian political order and a German imperial mission.

International fame came to Chamberlain with the publication of The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899). Over one thousand pages in length, the book was testimony to its author's encyclopedic knowledge and eclecticism. It tried to substantiate two major ideas: that racial struggle was the chief propelling force of human culture and that a superior Germanic or Teutonic race (also called the Aryan race, a term more in vogue decades before) was the major architect of modern European civilization. Chamberlain traced Germanic achievements from ancient Greece and Rome to the formation of nation-states and modern accomplishments in industry, science, and art. The two negative forces in his historical drama were first, the Semitic races, in particular the Jewish race, which was depicted as the historical adversary of the Germanic type, and second, miscegenation between unrelated or dramatically different racial types. The fall of the Roman Empire was attributed to racial mixing and in the dark age that followed the Roman Catholic Church had corrupted Christianity. The Germanic race, Chamberlain argued, was the bearer of true Christianity and a long, involved chapter rejected the idea that Jesus was a Jew and asserted that his mortal heritage was Aryan. Chamberlain was claimed as a precursor by the Aryan or German Christian movement in the Nazi era. He was influenced by an acquaintance of Wagner's, the Frenchman Count Gobineau (On the Inequality of Human Races, 1853–1855). But whereas Gobineau saw racial decline as irreversible, The Foundations incorporated the dynamism of Darwinian struggle and eugenic theories of racial selection and improvement.

Endowing his book with an aura of science and scholarship, Chamberlain sustained the deepest prejudices of many of his readers: their pride in German culture and imperialism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and their readiness to see manifestations of decline in liberalism and socialism. The Foundations received thousands of reviews, sparked heated debate, and won many admirers. It was political ideology thinly veiled as cultural analysis. By 1915 sales exceeded 100,000 copies and a popular edition in 1906 sold over 10,000 copies in ten days; translations appeared in French and English. Its most famous enthusiast was William II, the German emperor, who gave out copies to visitors and members of his entourage. Soon Chamberlain was invited to court and the two men corresponded regularly for over twenty years.

The attentions of the emperor convinced Chamberlain—as nothing else could—of his mission as a German prophet. Two major studies followed: Immanuel Kant (1905) and Goethe (1912). They challenged the recent revival of academic interest in these two thinkers around 1900 and sought to harness them to a racist and conservative viewpoint. Kant's philosophy was interpreted as safeguarding an inner realm of idealism, faith, and subjectivity while clearly demarcating the outer limits of reason. The philosopher was used to bolster Chamberlain's race theory and attack the excessive claims of scientific rationalism. In Goethe's case Chamberlain focused on his neglected scientific writings rather than literary works, seeing in them the model for an alternative methodology to scientific positivism. Neither book achieved the acclaim of The Foundations. Now the most renowned writer associated with the Wagner cult, Chamberlain's personal connections to Bayreuth became even stronger when, after a painful divorce, in December 1908 he married Eva, the youngest daughter of Richard and Cosima Wagner, spending the rest of his life in Bayreuth.

During World War I Chamberlain became one of the most prolific and extreme propagandists for Germany. Hundreds of thousands of copies of his war essays were distributed to German soldiers and civilians. Attacked as a "turncoat" in Britain, he was awarded an Iron Cross and became a German citizen in 1916. The war brought him into close relations with numerous ultranationalist and anti-Semitic organizations, including the Pan German League and the Fatherland Party, founded in 1917 to mobilize opposition against peace negotiations. Chamberlain was prominent among those who insisted that "internal enemies"—liberals, socialists, and Jews—were stabbing Germany in the back, undermining its war effort. Fearful that without complete victory, Germany would be convulsed in revolution, his politics became increasingly radical and his racial rhetoric more vehement and prescriptive. After Germany's defeat, Chamberlain and the Bayreuth circle endorsed counterrevolutionary movements that sought to overthrow the newly established Weimar Republic. His health had deteriorated (probably from multiple sclerosis) but he continued writing political essays, an autobiography, and Man and God (1921). Meeting Adolf Hitler in Bayreuth in October 1923, Chamberlain was captivated by the Nazi leader and publicly announced his support. He never lived to see the Bayreuth Festival turned into a kind of Nazi rite, but Chamberlain became a fixture of the regime's hagiography and much cited by its leading ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg (1893–1946). Chamberlain's funeral—attended by Hitler and a Hohenzollern prince representing the deposed emperor—symbolized the direction of German politics with World War I; his career poses the question of the relationship between earlier German racism and the policies of the Third Reich. Chamberlain cannot be held directly responsible, but he helped forge the climate in which Nazi crimes were possible.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Civilization, Concept of; Race and Racism; Wagner, Richard.


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

Lindner, Erik. "Houston Stewart Chamberlain: The Abwehrverein and the 'Praeceptor Germaniae 1914–18'." In Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 37, edited by Arnold Paucker, 213–236. London, 1992.

Schüler, Winfried. Der Bayreuther Kreis von seiner Enstehung bis zum Ausgang der Wilhelminischen Ära. Munster, 1971.

Spotts, Frederic. Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival. New Haven, Conn., 1994.

Geoffrey G. Field

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Chamberlain, Houston Stewart 1855–1927

Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who was born into a family of English military officers on September 9, 1855, became a widely recognized advocate of race inequality and Aryan superiority in his adopted country of Germany. In his writings he built his enthusiasm for German cultural and intellectual achievements into an eclectic theory of the superiority of the “Teutonic” race, a category that he used synonymously with “Aryan” and “Germanic.” After initial university studies in the biological sciences, he developed a career as an independent author of widely disseminated essays and biographical treatises on German cultural, philosophical, historical, political, and religious themes. In the latter half of his life, Chamberlain developed a close association with family members and admirers of the antiSemitic opera composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883). Chamberlain’s writings were widely admired in conservative German political circles, and he became an early supporter of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Indeed, he is often considered an important intellectual and ideological precursor of the Nazi movement.

Chamberlain’s education had two elements that developed into the primary themes of his writings. Because he suffered from poor health and abhorred the regimentation of English schools, his early education took place largely under private tutors. Long tours of continental Europe provided the first of his major themes: a deep admiration for the artistic and musical achievements associated with Italy and Germany. The other major theme of his writing developed out of his university training at the University of Geneva (1879–1884), where he studied the biological sciences (botany, zoology, and physiology). His professors included Carl Vogt, an outspoken proponent both of Darwinism and of the intellectual inferiority of women and non-European races. Chamberlain never completed the requirements for his doctorate in botany. Nonetheless, he pursued his biological research further, and in 1897 he published a treatiseon sap flowin plants that he had written under the supervision of the botanist Julius Wiesner in Vienna, where he resided from 1889 to 1908.

These two themes of cultural glory and scientific investigation combined to form the structure of his arguments about race. He knew the work of other theorists of Aryan superiority, such as Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882) and Ernest Renan (1823–1892), but he developed his own views independently. He never began his arguments with a simple assertion of the superiority of the Germanic race. Instead, he claimed to reach that conclusion based on what appeared to be the evidence provided by broad-ranging references to earlier texts, documents, and cultural objects. He supported his racial theories with a loose definition of the privileged Germanic, Teutonic, or Aryan groups. Italians, for example, could sometimes count as Teutonic because of the influence of Germanic tribes and aristocrats in Italy over many centuries.

The most significant personal and intellectual encounter of Chamberlain’s life and career was with the operas and writings of Wagner, who was himself an anti-Semite. His single personal meeting with the composer, at the Bayreuth Festival in 1882, led to a correspondence with Wagner’s widow, Cosima. In 1892 he published a short study of Wagner’s operas. On the basis of that work, and on Cosima’s recommendation, the Munich publisher Friedrich Bruck-mann commissioned him to write a full-scale biographical study of Wagner, which was published in 1896. He took Wagner’s daughter Eva as his second wife in 1908, the same year that he took up residence in the Wagner household.

Bruckmann was pleased with the success of the biography of Wagner, and he contracted Chamberlain to write a comprehensive study of the culture of the nineteenth century intended for a broad audience. The resulting book, Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, was published to wide notice in 1899. More than 100,000 copies were sold by 1915. A massive brief for “racial purity,” this book undergirded the messages of such works as Charles Carroll’s The Negro a Beast (1900), and Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905). Chamberlain argued that the creative forces of the Aryan-Teutonic race allowed German culture to triumph over the European “racial chaos” that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. HethussawGermansasthetrue defenders of Christianity and a counterweight to the invidious, “alien” influence of the Jews. He believed that Germans always displayed an intuitive, ‘regenerative’ creativity that justified their cultural and racial superiority. He defended this claim in further biographical studies of major German figures, including the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1905) and the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1912).

Throughout his wide-ranging writings, Chamberlain pursued a concept for which he drew support both from the arts and from the biological sciences: the Gestalt. In Chamberlain’s mind, both living organisms in their environments and broadly conceived systems of creative ideas (e.g., Wagner’s operas, Goethe’s literature, Kant’s philosophy, or German Protestant Christianity) all carried the wholeness of Gestalt, or an integrated formal order within a dynamic system. For Chamberlain, no boundary existed between the methods and insights of the natural sciences and those of the arts and humanities. These opinions also made him ambivalent about Darwinism, which he considered destructive of the necessary religious order.

During his later career, Chamberlain polemically supported Germany in its political and military conflicts. During World War I, for example, he wrote vigorous pro-German propaganda. In the final years of his life, which he spent in poor health at the Wagner household in Bayreuth, his work inspired the admiration of several important Nazi figures, including the party propagandist Alfred Rosenberg and Adolf Hitler himself. He died on January 9, 1927, and Hitler attended his funeral.

SEE ALSO Wagnerian Music.


Allen, Roger. 2005. “Die Weihe des Hauses (The Consecration of the House): Houston Stewart Chamberlain and the Early Reception of Parsifal.” In A Companion to Wagner’s Parsifal, edited by William Kinderman and Katherine R. Syer. Rochester, NY: Camden House.

Biddiss, Michael. 2004. “Chamberlain, Houston Stewart.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 10. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Harrington, Anne. 1996. Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kevin S. Amidon

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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.


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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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 (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.


Houston Stewart Chamberlain