Metapolitics of Peter Viereck

Note: I found this on one of those I-read-a-book sites while trying to track down where the whole notion of ‘metapolitics’ came from. It appears that Peter Viereck pretty much invented the notion of metapolitics while a student at Harvard. Since his conception was the first out of the chute, a lot of his thinking is bound to seem naïve and flawed to later critics. Thus the attitude of the pseudonymous ‘Sator,’ author of the following. I was so impressed by the depth and length of this essay that I archived it. I disagree with many things about it, such as the characterization of Peter Viereck’s father, but those are relatively trivial objections.

Peter Viereck’s Metapolitics was originally his Harvard PhD thesis, written between 1936 and 1941 and first published in 1941. Viereck (1916-2006) was a right-wing American historian and poet. In many ways Viereck’s book is the product of a personal crisis precipitated by the events into which he was personally intricately intertwined. Viereck was the son a German father and an American mother. His father, George Sylvester Viereck, was a vitriolic apologist for the National Socialists and for which he was imprisoned between 1942 and 1947. Caught between divided loyalty towards his country and his father, the answer to Peter Viereck’s personal crisis was simple: blame it all on Richard Wagner. Wagner was the evil genius pulling the strings behind the veil of historical events, and making Viereck’s life difficult.

Viereck’s thesis was also an emotional expression of patriotism, a piece of war propaganda at America’s gravest moments during the war. It was the founding of a deeply personal conservative right-wing nationalism that became the defining feature of Viereck’s intellectual orientation for the rest of his life.

Beyond a loyalty divided between country and family, there was a further crisis going on here. It was a crisis of confidence in the American political right. It was a crisis precipitated by the looming dominance of Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, but a crisis further deepened by the tarnished image of the political right in the face of fascism. It was important that if they were to maintain credibility, the American right simply had to valiantly dissociate itself from fascism.

The fourth personal crisis for Viereck was the pressure to hand in his PhD thesis. In a 1940 book entitled They Wanted War by Otto Tolischus, Viereck found the perfect scapegoat to bear cross of the sins of fascism: Richard Wagner. From the same book, Viereck plagiarised without acknowledgement, the term “metapolitics” for the title of his book. According to this view, the right had been lead down the path of fascism by the evil wizard, Richard Wagner, who had allegedly convinced the political right to base their political ideology purely on grand opera. The singular goal of German fascism was now seem as the enactment of grand opera on the world’s stage. Or to quote the passage from Tolischus that Viereck plagiarised for his PhD thesis:

“Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner,” Adolf Hitler has often to his friends; and the whole National Socialist regime, which finds its foundation in the Germanic mythos and the cult of the heroic, is in fact unthinkable without Wagner and all he represents. In that sense the whole present war resolves itself into a super-Wagnerian opera turned into grim reality.

Tolischus: They Wanted War, p11, New York 1940

National Socialism was actually an opera company disguised as a political party—one that had transformed the Reichstag into an opera house. Once the root source of all that had misled the political right could be identified in the form of Wagner, and then purged, the right could venture forth once more with renewed credibility, cleansed of all defilement by Wagnerian badness.

Thirdly, and above all, the most important methodological tenet implicit within Metapolitics is that of what the underlying cause of WWII and the rise of fascism might be. At the time, in most history departments, Marxist influenced interpretations of history based on analysis of socio-economic infrastructure were prominent. When the war was over, Viereck knew that there would be a wave of anti-fascist, post-Marxist historians looking at the Great Depression and hyperinflation as key driving elements that precipitated war. Viereck devotes a whole section to the subject under the title “Economic Determinism”, which is partly a code for Marxism. Viereck fiercely denounces the standard textbook teaching that the Great Depression had much to do with the rise of National Socialism. In other words, the cultural mindset of Germany alone was to blame, and any analysis of socio-economic conditions is to be denounced as a communist conspiracy. Even as a student, the proto-McCarthyist Viereck was determined to have none of this. In its place, Viereck wanted a culturally based explanation for WWII. History was to be explained, not by structural and socio-economic analysis, but entirely as the end-product of the poetic influence of the Great Man whose epic odyssey single-handedly shaped history.

The human poetic genius alone would thus be the steering hand of history, even if that genius was an evil genius, such as Nero, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler—or Richard Wagner. The structuralist analysis pioneered by Marx was to be rejected outright as a left-wing conspiracy, in favour of a right-wing and romantic view of history shaped by epic heroes and anti-heroes. The poet in particular was viewed as having a particularly seminal role in single-handedly shaping world history according to an inspired vision. And Wagner was Viereck’s trump card to “prove” that the demonic vision of a poet and composer could single-handedly steer the course of history. After all, mesmerised by Wagner, Hitler had transformed the world’s stage into a gigantic opera set.

Today, much of this seems rather comical. No serious mainstream academic historian takes any of this seriously. For example, Sir Richard J. Evans compared Viereck with the widely discredited Daniel Goldhagen, whose PhD thesis come book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners became an international bestseller:

Goldhagen argues that Germans killed Jews in their millions because they enjoyed doing it, and they enjoyed doing it because their minds and emotions were eaten up by a murderous, all-consuming hatred of Jews that had been pervasive in German political culture for decades, even centuries past (pp. 31-2). Ultimately, says Goldhagen, it is this history of genocidal antisemitism that explains the German mass murder of Europe’s Jews, nothing else can.

This is a bold and arresting thesis, though it is not new. Much the same was said during the Second World War by anti-German propagandists such as Robert Vansittart or Rohan Butler, who traced back German antisemitism—and much more—to Luther and beyond; a similar argument was put forward by the proponents of the notion of a German ‘mind’ or ‘character’ in the l960s [citation to Viereck’s 1960s ed. of Metapolitics], and by William L. Shirer in his popular history of Nazism.

Goldhagen asserts that German society as a whole had been deeply antisemitic since the Middle Ages. The tradition of Christian antisemitism was reinforced by Luther, and further strengthened in the nineteenth century by the rise of German nationalism, which defined Germanness from the outset against the ‘otherness’ of the Jew (pp. 44-5). By the late nineteenth century, antisemitism was not only all-pervasive but also exterminatory. To be antisemitic in Germany meant to will the physical annihilation of the Jews. It was a doctrine, Goldhagen claims, that was adhered to by the vast majority of Germans throughout modern history.

In other words, the Goldhagen hypothesis is old hat and it just rehashes old ideas long ago published by the likes of Peter Viereck. The hypothesis goes that Wagner shaped the “German mind” by stirring genocidal bloodlust in the Germans, and that his operas prove the Goldhagen hypothesis about how deeply rooted genocidal anti-Semitism had become by the late nineteenth century. Wagner set the stage to enact opera on the opera house of world history, and set things up so that it was totally inevitable that someone would soon produce his operas on the stage of world history, and presto, there you would have it—WWII and the Holocaust. Such events were predestined to happen, thanks to Richard Wagner, the demonic playwright who scripted the libretto of world history.

To prove this, Viereck cites a quote which he attributes to Hitler:

Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner [no citation]


Viereck repeats this quote three times over, for example:

Though he knew much of Wagner’s prose by heart [no supportive citations], it is the operas that were the main source of emotion throughout Hitler’s life [no supportive citations], a deeper emotion than with any man or woman [no supportive citations]. Already in the 1941 edition I quoted Hitler’s statement that “whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner.” [no supportive citations]… And what must you know to understand Hitler? I leave that to the biographer…

I have done an extensive study to determine the authenticity of the oft repeated “whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner” quote, and so far, I have been unable to find a credible primary source for it: it is likely spurious. No evidence has yet come to light proving that Hitler ever said this and none of the mainstream academic historians specialising in this field quote it. The only secondary source for the quote that Viereck could muster was They Wanted War by Tolischus, who lists no source citation at all. All this merely confirms that Viereck’s 1941 PhD thesis was little more than a poorly concealed plagiaristic rehash of the 1940 book by Tolischus.

As for Viereck’s question as to what a biographer of Hitler might make of all this, here is what Sir Ian Kershaw would write in his monumental two-volume study of Hitler:

It is nevertheless a gross oversimplification and distortion to reduce the Third Reich to the outcome of Hitler’s alleged mission to fulfil Wagner’s vision, as does Köhler, in Wagners Hitler.

Kershaw: Endnote 121 from Hitler: 1889-1936—Hubris

Köhler’s, Wagners Hitler, takes this [reduction of history to opera] on to a new plane, however, with his overdrawn claim that Hitler came to see it as his life’s work to fulfil Wagner’s visions and put his ideas into practice. Kershaw: Endnote 129 from Hitler: 1889-1936—Hubris

Kershaw is talking about Joachim Köhler’s “Wagner’s Hitler—the Prophet and his Disciple”, but Köhler’s reduction of National Socialist Germany to little more than grand opera is actually an unoriginal, albeit interminably protracted, rehash of what the likes of Viereck had said decades before him. Everything that Kershaw says about Köhler equally applies to Viereck.

For a historian, Viereck is astonishingly willing to make up evidence. For example Viereck claims to be privy to uniquely penetrating insights into Hitler’s deepest emotions as well as to know with superhuman insight as to precisely what Hitler did or did not know “by heart.” Viereck gives us not the slightest shred of supportive citations to back these bold assertions up, leaving us little choice but to conclude that he merely made them up, especially when you consider that Sir Ian Kershaw has said of Hitler that:

One reason why Hitler has proved ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ (to quote Winston Churchill, though in a quite different context), is the emptiness of the private person. He was, as has frequently been said, tantamount to an ‘unperson’. … Partly, too, the black hole which represents the private individual derives from the fact that Hitler was highly secretive—not least about his personal life, his background, and his family. The secrecy and detachment were features of his character, applying also to his political behaviour; they were also politically important, components of the aura of ‘heroic’ leadership he had consciously allowed to be built up, intensifying the mystery about himself.

Kershaw: Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris

Yet Viereck already claimed in 1941 to have fully solved the “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” that was Hitler, right to the point of plumbing the deepest and most intimate recesses of Hitler’s mind. Even more remarkable was that Viereck, the PhD student, managed it all from the safety of Harvard University campus.

Viereck makes up other fairy tales. For example Viereck claims that Hitler stated in Mein Kampf that his favourite reading consisted of the “political compositions of Richard Wagner” and he cites p69 of the 13th edition of Mein Kampf, Munich 1934 as the source of the quote. I carefully checked the citation in Mein Kampf and Hitler says nothing of the sort anywhere in the book: Viereck made the quote up. Sir Richard J. Evans concurs with me in stating that:

[Wagner’s] influence on Hitler has often been exaggerated. Hitler never referred to Wagner as a source of his own antisemitism, and there is no evidence that he actually read any of Wagner’s writings.

Evans: The Third Reich in Power.

Viereck makes things up elsewhere too. In the preface of the 2006 digital edition, he states:

Yet in the 1869 edition of his 1850 polemic Judaism In Music he added that his work was being persecuted by Jews. The Nazis never mentioned how much this Wagner essay owed to Karl Marx, who had attacked Jews as bankers and for turning creations into commodities. The difference: Marx attacked Jews on economic grounds, Wagner increasingly on racial grounds. Thus Wagner’s Heldenthum and Christenthum, 1881, called all races capable of salvation through Christ with the single exception of Jews.

While Wagner and Marx certainly did belong amongst the ranks of left wing antisemitism, the claim that for Wagner it was purely racially based is unsubstantiated by readings of his late writings such as Heldenthum and Christenthum. Nor does Viereck give us the quote where Wagner says all races are capable of salvation “with the single exception of Jews.” Viereck is unable to give us a direct citation of Wagner saying “with the single exception of Jews” because Viereck just made the words up. Here are the words Viereck alludes to from Heldenthum and Christenthum:

The blood of the Saviour flowing from his head, from his wounds on the cross — who would commit such an outrage as to ask whether it might belong to the white or any other race?

Das Blut des Heilandes, von seinem Haupte, aus seinen Wunden am Kreuze fließend, — wer wollte frevelnd fragen, ob es der weißen, oder welcher Rasse sonst angehörte?

However, to attempt to trace National Socialist genocide to Wagner and Marx is simply an attempt by the political right to shift the blame for the Holocaust onto the left. Nineteenth century left-wing anti-Semitism is of an entirely different character and with different historical origins. Merely scapegoating either Marx or Wagner for “causing” the Holocaust does nothing to convince us of anything other than that the blame for this tragedy belongs squarely with the political right.

Evans goes on about Viereck:

It has been all too easy for historians to look back at the course of German history from the vantage-point of 1933 and interpret almost anything that happened in it as contributing to the rise and triumph of Nazism. This has led to all kinds of distortions, with some historians picking choice quotations from German thinkers such as Herder, the late eighteenth-century apostle of nationalism, or Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century founder of Protestantism, to illustrate what they argue are ingrained German traits of contempt for other nationalities and blind obedience to authority within their own borders. Yet when we look more closely at the work of thinkers such as these, we discover that Herder preached tolerance and sympathy for other nationalities, while Luther famously insisted on the right of the individual conscience to rebel against spiritual and intellectual authority. Moreover, while ideas do have a power of their own, that power is always conditioned, however indirectly, by social and political circumstances, a fact that historians who generalized about the ‘German character’ or ‘the German mind’ all too often forgot [citation to Viereck’s Metapolitics].

Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich

Viereck even frankly asserts (quoting Kolnai) that “from Fichte to Hitler . . . the line runs straight”. While it is true that Hitler’s private library does contain Fichte’s complete works (but not a single volume of Wagner’s prose works), it must be pointed out that Fichte was a liberal in his time whose philosophy of a perpetual struggle for autonomous self-determination was influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution (see Frederick Beiser’s German Idealism). Interestingly the edition of Fichte’s complete works in Hitler’s private library was given to him by Leni Riefenstahl who has hand written a dedication to “my dear Leader”: “Meinem lieben Führer, Leni Riefenstahl 20 Juni 1933”.

You can see how from the historian specialising in National Socialist Germany’s perspective, a narrative reducing their entire field to the enactment by Hitler of opera on the stage of world history must seem comically preposterous. It virtually makes a mockery of their entire discipline. This is why I call such narratives reducing the vast complexity of history down to Wagnerian opera, Nazi opera conspiracies. These can be considered siblings of Nazi UFO conspiracies, and Occult Reich conspiracies that allege that the Nazis were all satanists.

Admittedly, though, to his credit, Viereck does say in his 2006 preface of “Metapolitics” that the Nazi opera conspiracy theory, which he helped to pioneer, had now gotten completely out of hand:

[M]y Wagner-Hitler research was greeted with general skepticism in 1941. Also by economic determinists, who saw only a capitalist plot, a kind of Protocols of the Elders of Wall Street.

But today the Wagner link has gone too far in the opposite direction. Countless exaggerated articles on WagnerHitler. Today what is overlooked is the crucial differences between the two. One book (by the rebel great-grandson Gottfried Wagner) even declares that there is not a single line in Mein Kampf that doesn’t derive from Wagner. Mein Kampf has major sources unconnected with Wagner, such as the lost war, German humiliation by Versailles, and the Free Corps of 1919-1920. In turn, the complicated Wagner (again, we need nuance) had not only major proto-Nazi strains but was influenced by totally un-Nazi strains, such as pacifism, Christianity, Feuerbach, Bakunin, Buddhism, Schopenhauer (the stress on doom, on the twilight of the gods), and a fanatic vegetarianism and anti-vivisection. The last two were shared by Hitler but not by the Party.

The oblique reference to Joachim Köhler’s Wagner’s Hitler is unmistakable, where Köhler wrote that “reality meant for [Hitler] the task of transforming the world into a Wagnerian drama”. Yet, Viereck astonishingly fails to see how Köhler’s methodology of making things up is directly derived from the methodological precedents set by him.

Although, Viereck sees “proto-Nazi strains” in Wagner, it is clear he freely imagines such things in everything—including in Karl Marx. You could even argue that because the Swastika is used in Buddhism that Wagner’s interest in Buddhism and vegetarianism was therefore “proto-Nazi”. Even Daniel Goldhagen, himself a vegetarian, points out that just because the Nazis wore black that it hardly means that everyone who wears black or is a Nazi. Where Viereck criticises the likes of Köhler for a lack of “nuance”, it is merely a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Unfortunately, musicologists today are so extremely poorly read outside of their field that they seem to systematically ignore everything that mainstream historians write about National Socialist Germany. I

Note: It is unclear whether the essay is truncated or the author simply gave up when he realized he was wandering far afield into musicology. I left the danging “I” there to remind us that he had a lot more to say, though I think he’s said everything relevant.

Metapolitics of Peter Viereck