I’ve recently been reading Peter Longerich’s biography of Heinrich Himmler (disclosure: I was Longerich’s student) and one thing that stuck out was that his translator seems to have solved a longstanding problem in Nazi-era translations, but not to have noticed. The problem is this: what do you do with völkisch?

This adjective was widely used as a self-identification by Nazis, and also by all sorts of people in the wider extreme-right movement in the German-speaking world from the late 19th century onwards. It’s sometimes translated as “nationalist”, but this is widely considered inadequate. Consider the main Nazi newspaper: Nationalist Observer is both clunky and also too harmless. It sounds like it might be a paper in provincial Ireland, competing with the famous Impartial Reporter of Enniskillen.

The problem is that the adjective is derived from das Volk, the people or the nation or the race or even the tribe or host, depending on context. The Warsaw Pact countries tended to describe themselves as People’s Republics, which translates as Volksrepublik. A Völkische Republik would have been a very different animal. Bees, in German, live in Bienenvölker – bee nations or bee tribes.

But this only expresses the incoherence of the content behind the name. To be völkisch is not the same as being nationalist. It wasn’t bound to a state or a government, or to a particular physical territory. Although it rejected civic nationalism, it excluded some members of the nation on the ground that they disagreed with it purely in terms of political opinion. It also included some foreigners, and never quite decided whether it wanted to include people who adopted German culture and served German interests, or to exclude them on essentialist grounds of race.

When the Nazis took over Alsace-Lorraine, they decided early on to reintegrate the provinces into Germany-proper, but they got hugely confused dealing with the people. If you were a blonde, German-looking, person with a German surname, but you opted to remain a French citizen, racial examiners might classify you as especially German precisely because of the stubbornness and determination you exhibited in insisting on Frenchness. Depending on who was politically in charge at that moment, they might either decide that you must be denied to the French enemy and reintegrated into the German nation, or else that you were racially German but politically probably a communist, and therefore you should be sent to a concentration camp. On the other hand, if you weren’t blonde enough but you insisted on Germanness you might be deported to France, which all things considered might have been the best thing that could have happened to you, while heaven help you if you were an unblonde who opted for France, and therefore both racially unworthy and a traitor to boot. But sometimes these last options were swapped, depending on power politics in Germany.

It wasn’t equivalent to “fascist” either. Unlike Italian fascism, a lot of völkisch people despised modernity. Unlike Spanish, Latin American, or Austrian versions of fascism, they tended to consider Catholicism the enemy. And it wasn’t even equivalent to “Nazi”. Albert Speer or Hermann Göring didn’t really fit with it, especially when the bit about hating modernity came around.

But Longerich’s translator briefly hit it out of the park by translating it as “racist”. The leading Nazi newspaper Racist Observer sounds just right to me. Although völkischkeit wanders about all over the place, race is always central to it. The varying worldviews on history, culture, policy, etc. are all organised around race and racism. An important point about völkischkeit is that it always had pretensions to the status of science, and the source of this pretended authority was the concept of race. It was racist in the sense that it demanded discrimination, apartheid, slavery, and eventually genocide. It was racist in that it claimed inspiration from other regimes it considered racist.

Of course, the notion of race is itself incoherent and pseudo-scientific. Völkischkeit incorporated poorly understood concepts from genetics, physiology, and statistics. The genetics was usually pre-Mendelian, the statistics pre-Fisherian (even if RA Fisher himself was more than a little racist), and the physiology already overtaken by genetics. Himmler, for one, had started looking for an escape-hatch by 1942 or thereabouts through vague notions of recessive genes and spontaneously emerging leaders among the subhumans. In many ways, this reminds me of bad science-fiction.

Völkischkeit might well be considered a genre fiction more than anything else. It consisted of poorly understood, not-quite cutting edge scientific concepts, plus a variety of myths and aesthetic tropes, organised into narratives by wishful thinking. This may remind you of H.P. Lovecraft, and it probably should as he was a prize racist. It should come as no surprise that, according to Longerich, Himmler was addicted not just to pseudo-science of every sort, but also to crappy genre fiction, consuming vast quantities of both.

10 thoughts on “Völkischkeit

  1. Two thoughts:
    1) This is a particularly European problem where ethnic background and national borders are conflated. People whose ancestors came to Germany from Turkey four generations ago often still see themselves– and are often seen by Germans– as “Turkish.”

    2) Be careful with dismissing “race” as being “incoherent and pseudo-scientific.” Different peoples (e.g., Italians vs. Sardinians, Germans vs. Poles) are actually genetically distinct in quantifiable ways.

    In other words, it is incoherent to believe that policy decisions should be based on genetic distinctiveness. The genetic distinctiveness itself is not and has a firm scientific basis.

    analogous to the problem with the word “nation.”

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  3. I would translate voelkisch more as “peoples’”. It was a widely used word in communist propaganda too by the way in a lot of countries which is an additional qualifier to view it as the better translation.

  4. Well tribal is a place to start, or maybe clanish. For example, Eli (being one himself) has always thought of the Jewish or Hindu religions as tribal cults rather than the proselytizing religions such as Christianity or Islam.

  5. I remember discussing this with my father about forty years ago. He spoke tolerable German – well enough to win a small prize for translating it – and I asked him if he would render the paper as “People’s Observer”. He said then that “Racist Observer” would be better, and I’ve followed his judgement since, having more or less no German myself.

  6. I’ve always understood völkisch to have ethnic, even folkloric connotations. Also a suggestion of wholesomeness. Read somewhere that it can also be suggestive of “a people” or “nation.”

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  8. @4Runner: while you should be careful about dismissing race as a pseudo-scientific concept, you should then go ahead and dismiss it anyway since all differences are quantitative, or can be interpreted as such, and that has no bearing on either their existence or their significance.

  9. I think there is an English word for volkisch: folkish or folk. For example, in America “folk music” means the music of the unlettered (at least until it was co-opted by the Popular Front). We also talk about “folkways” to describe the customs of common folks. I think that folk is anglosaxon for “common people”.