By GRIFFIN SMITH-NICHOLS
“I have in this war a burning private grudge… against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler… [who is] ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe,” J.R.R. Tolkien, 1941.
I quote Tolkien, fantasist extraordinaire but also, dearer to my heart, a Germanicist for all seasons, as an emblematic, obstructive sherd standing bravely against the brunt of the all-consuming juggernaut of a peculiarly National Socialist cultural fetish. Against Tolkien’s better wishes, the groping and ultimately suicidal assault that the Hitlerite cultural apparatus made on Northern European antiquity succeeded. This was death by association: runic characters and heraldic devices in the shape of hooked lighting bolts, crossed suns, heaven-pointing arrows, wolf traps and elk antlers were pictographic representations of nature as the Germanic peoples from Caesar to Charlemagne’s epochs saw it, and became the damaged goods of a criminally insane regime. Public display of many more politically charged runes is an offense punishable by fines or jail-time in the Bundesrepublik.
As, if I may, an invested bystander to the spectacle of German history, I will not wring my hands and expend more valuable air spewing nonsense over the Sonderweg, a term coined by a particularly muck-stained brand of post-war chauvinist-historian to designate the supposedly special path that Germany as a civilization was fatally preordained to pursue and that, by consequence, led it inevitably into Hitler’s lap. This was not inevitable. Instead, I desire only to shed light on how this cerebral mythology with nevertheless tangible, bloody consequences became the ideological drumbeat of one of the most catastrophic bloodlettings in recorded history.
The earthly paradise of virile, bellicose blonds in prehistoric Europa was, in the heady aftermath of German Romanticism and the flowering of the modern nation state, not merely the semiotic preserve of the poet and the Wagner-aping esthete, but increasingly of the ideologue, the firebrand and the slavering anti-Semite. Though myriad occultists, twisted clergymen and racial theorists all played a role in forging this myth, one of the most prominent was Guido von List: the bearded, bespectacled Austrian love-child of Sir Walter Scott’s rosy medievalism and Spengler-esque cultural fatalism. The “von” in his name was a later self-styled aristocratic flourish of name-preening. In his pseudo-scientific oeuvre, he paints a terrifying portrait of prehistoric Europa, informed and propped up by an almost fanatical reading of Tacitus and the Poetic Edda and a half-baked Schopenhauer-istic comprehension of Hindu cosmology.
List imagines the builders of standing stones littered across Stone Age Europe as fairy tale giants, bested in combat by proto-Aryan-Germans on dry battlefields preserved from the Biblical flood which destroyed (in List’s mind, the very real) Atlantis. Mysterious, seemingly purposeless tunnels into the soil become the work of dwarves enslaved by these same Aryan-Germans. List’s historical imagination stretches back impossibly far: one informative pullout in the back of his linguistic chef-d’oeuvre Die Ursprache der Ario-Germanen shows a fantasized racial timeline positing the existence of the first humans and the awakening of a primordial racial soul in the Cambrian, a period which modern science recognizes, more soberly, as the time in which the first fingernail-sized fish had appeared. Lacking any concrete historical presence, the geospatial movements and timeless works of the Aryan-Germans could instead further be handily imposed into and retold with lavish allegory in the sagas, wherein the exploits of the giant-smiting Donar or the kingly decrees of the all-seeing Wotan become literal Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Märchen humming with an immemorial, timeless power.
Over tens of thousands of years, the Aryan-Germans, separated from their Hyperborean origins and the magnetic pull of the North Pole, degenerated from “root” to “branch” races (Wurzelrassen and Zweigrassen, respectively). Each race is not merely a cultural, but also a biological entity. List imagined this entangled taxonomic web as the innumerable branches of the Weltsäule tree Yggdrasil of Norse mythological fame: some degenerate branches wither, but others grasp upwards like light-seeking leafy appendages as they snake a perilous course across floodplains, deserts, steppes and impenetrable primordial woodland in the face of advancing glaciers. This ideal past situates itself in an Ice Age landscape in which the Aryan Wurzelrasse is shielded from the sinister influences of the Südenrassen by the natural mountainous and watery boundaries of the European mainland. A trifunctional society, like that postulated decades later by the historian of Indo-European society Georges Dumézil, emerges: warriors, priests and simple agricultural laborers prostrate themselves before an Armanenschaft, whose shadowy practitioners venerate sun and lighting runes as a means of communion with heaven. All is well until the apparent biological inevitability of “hybridization,” or Rassenkreuzung, rears its ugly head as foreign elements appear in the midst of Europa’s erstwhile unstained bosom.
That human breeds should be cultivated as plantlike sprouts, either worthy of sun and soil or meriting a swift uprooting, seemed natural to List. This gardener’s instinct led him to extreme emotional tenors, from pride to turning up his nose in disgust. When one race encounters another and sets itself to the grim business of intercourse — linguistic, cultural and otherwise — the unholy union begets a “raceless People’s chaos” to the detriment of both parties, a soulless, self-perpetuating grime from which neither can extricate itself. Better, believes List, that one race should utterly annihilate the other in a prolonged death-struggle than to go whimpering into the ignoble genetic dustbin. This model, repeated over agonized millennia, gives List’s image of Yggdrasil’s withered branches a chilling relevance: gnawed away at its roots by a pernicious, foreign serpent, the axis mundi collapses, bringing an entire Volk to its collective knees.
Guido von List was not merely a voice crying in the wilderness. His Aryan portraiture, a historical image of a people stretching outwards in power like Yggdrasil’s boughs and roots, finds a precise post-war obverse in the fledgling National Socialist movement. R.W. Darré, Reichsminister of Food and Agriculture, took this plant analogy further, comparing eugenics as a sensible alternative to hot air and effort wasted on the cultivation of pineapples in colder climes. A similar argument can be found in the elaborate 1936 propaganda film Ewiger Wald: as a forest expands outwards in procreation demanding ever more green and fertile earth as living-space, so too should a Volk as an organic whole (addressed, with mock-sympathy, as “du und ich,” by the film’s narrator). The ideal Aryan-German is lodged in eons of Blut und Boden, concrete ancestral roots. He ought to be cultivated. The public body must instead be pruned and trimmed off if necessary. Aryan-ness surpasses the weak; its justification is an affectation, a narrative of ancient racial struggle steeped in mythology, the timeless ring from which history springs armed and fiery-eyed like soldiers from sown dragon’s teeth. Tolkien’s private grudge is exacerbated to hysteria only to be extinguished with a shriek of agony as its proponents are shot or hanged in and after 1945.
German cultural prehistory and the first Germanic narratives to be constructed from a writing-less void are thus perverted and mobilized by a vulgar bastard-child of 20th century politics. No individual can wipe away the damage 12 years of insanity have done to more than three millennia. I entertain, of course, a faint hope that decades to come of concerted scholarship and rehabilitation may purify the German past of Nazism’s hanging infection. Hilf mir! This will not happen easily. Hitler won one war: what should be common Northern European heritage has been almost inextricably tied to his sinking ship.
“Aber trotzdem ist es heute an der Zeit, den Schleier von Saïs zu lüften, denn es werden viele dadurch veranlasst werden, das verlorene Meisterwort zu suchen, und manche werden es auch finden, um mit demselben den nahenden Starken von Oben zu begrüßen!” -Guido von List, Die Ursprache der Ario-Germanen
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