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Evangelist of Race

Publisher: Columbia University Press

Geoffrey G. Field

  • Born: 1944

In 1899 the Munich publisher Hugo Bruckmann (later to be one of Hitler’s early financial backers) brought out a rambling book of a thousand pages, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (Die Grundlagen des Neunzehnten Jahrhunderts). The author was a forty-four-year-old English expatriate living in Vienna, Houston Stewart Chamberlain. The book was an immediate best seller: as Geoffrey G. Field tells us in his excellent scholarly study of its author, three editions appeared within a year, while a popular edition in 1906 sold over 10,000 copies in ten days. By 1915 sales had exceeded 100,000. Chamberlain became an instant celebrity whose book, as one of his friends told him, was the subject of daily conversation among the cultivated people in Berlin.

Although not a relative of the Chamberlain political dynasty, Houston Chamberlain did have an impeccable upper-class English background and was the son of an admiral and nephew of a field marshal. Professor Field gives an absorbing account of how he became an official propagandist of the Wagner cult at Bayreuth and one of the most virulent exponents of a racialist view of history and of Germany’s mission as a master race. By 1923 he had discovered Hitler and was writing to him: “My faith in Germandom has never wavered for a moment, though my hopes had, I confess, reached a low ebb. At one blow you have transformed the state of my soul. That Germany in its hour of greatest need has given birth to a Hitler is proof of vitality….” And not long before he died in January 1927, Hitler and Goebbels stood near to tears at his bedside.

The life of Houston Stewart Chamberlain is of interest for two reasons. There is the biographical and psychological problem of how this dilettante amateur philosopher, who was described by a German friend as “an extremely charming English individualist,” became sucked into the German völkisch miasma, but there is also the question why his writings, dismissed by the Times Literary Supplement during World War I as “Ravings of a Renegade,” had the success they did. Field has not only written a fascinating biography; he has also made a contribution to the discussion among historians of Germany whether German society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was an exception in Europe, or whether racialism, anti-Semitism, and all the excesses of ultra-nationalism were endemic in the whole of European society in the age of imperialism.

Geoffrey Field received his undergraduate degree in history from Oxford University and a PhD from Columbia University. His research and publications have focused on twentieth-century German and British history and European racism. He has been a visiting professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and the University of Paris. He is also a former Chair of the New York Council for the Humanities and was a Senior Editor of International Labor and Working-Class History. His upcoming book, Blood, Sweat, and Toil is the first scholarly history of the British working class in the Second World War. It integrates social, political, and labor history, and reflects the most recent scholarship and debates on social class, gender, and the forging of identities.