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 on Houston Stewart Chamberlain

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 Biography Sources

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

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