Eduard Gugenberger and Roman Schweidlenka. Mutter Erde, Magie und Politik. Zwischen Faschismus und Neuer Gesellschaft
(Vienna: Verlag für Gesellschaft, 1987.

Loren Goldner

A vast amassing of material on a very timely subject justifies a somewhat belated review of this book, which has thus far attracted little attention in the English-speaking world. The timely subject is the disconcerting link between certain currents of ecological politics in Germany (and to a lesser extent in Austria and Switzerland), the “New Age” ideologies these currents espouse, and their explicit or implicit connection to the politics of the extreme right. These connections have been noted before. But Gugenberger and Schweidlenka, both historians, have integrated their discussion with an unusually rich documentation. To what extent their overall attempt is successful will emerge in our discussion.

Over a decade before the emergence of “Green” politics in Western Europe and the U.S. in the late 1970s, a striking parallel had been noted between the burgeoning hippie counterculture and the German youth movement, or “Wandervögel,” of the 1900-1933 period. Perhaps most striking for this comparison were the writings of figures such as Walter Laqueur or Daniel Guerin, published well before the emergence of the hippies and with no specific contemporary parallels in mind. Like the Wandervögel, the hippie counterculture was a middle-class movement with a strong bent for rural idyll, communal life, folk music, Eastern religions and occultism, and a strong antipathy for modern cities, industrial society, and Enlightenment culture. The Wandervögel ideology was a perfect example of the assertion of Gemeinschaft against Gesellschaft. What troubled those who saw parallels between the Wandervögel and 1960s hippies was that the former had been recrüited en masse to the Nazi movement in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The strong nationalism of the Wandervögel, as opposed to the general pacifism and sympathy for oppressed peoples of the hippies seemed an important difference between the two epochs.

When Green politics succeeded the moribund New Left in Germany in the late 1970s, some of these parallels were once again underscored. Even today, both in the U.S. and in Germany, Nazism is understandably remembered first of all for massive repression against the left and the working class, statist economic regimentation, militarist expansionism, concentration camps, and antisemitism. But this vision of Nazism after 1933 has often eclipsed the memories of nature mysticism, occultism, primitivism, Orientalism, fascination with ancient matriarchy, and ecologism out of which many of the early Nazis emerged. A mood of what can only be called “New Age” ideology profoundly shaped Hitler, Himmler, and many lesser-known ideologues of Nazism and protofascism, as any portrait of pre-1914 Schwabing Bohemia can show. Undoubtedly one element in the present which clouds these memories is the weight of similar ideologies in contemporary culture. Particularly interesting are parallels between the downwardly mobile white-collar strata, above all students, of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and similar downwardly mobile strata in the Bundesrepublik who have supported the Greens.

Nevertheless, to date, all attempts to show meaningful influence of far-right ideology and politics in mainstream support for the contemporary Green party in Germany have failed. The individuals and currents who can be thus characterized, such as the National Revolutionary Henning Eichberg, have invariably proved to be marginal to the bulk of Green supporters, who have come from demobilized New Left activists and disillusioned left-wing Social Democrats. This latter reality by no means settles the question, of course, because the linke Leute von rechts, the so-called “redbrown” fascists such as the Strasser brothers, showed characteristics that recurred in 1960s and 1970s Maoism. The “oscillation” between the far left and the far right, particularly around nationalism, was fundamental to the origins of Nazism, as JeanPierre Faye demonstrated in his brilliant and little-noted Langages totalitaires (1972). Nevertheless, nearly fifteen years of Green politics and numerous experiences of local “red-green” coalitions have shown the dominant current of contemporary Greens, whatever their ideological idiosyncrasies, to represent more the bad conscience of the SPD than a nascent “National Revolutionary” formation awaiting only a severe crisis to flip over into fascism.

The frustrating aspect of Gugenberger and Schweidlenka’s Mutter Erde, Magie und Politik is that it never even gets around to asking, let alone answering, the questions raised above, namely: after showing a hundred manifestations, some of them large, most of them small, of ecologism connected to occultism and far-right politics, how does one assess their import for the modern ecology movement as a whole? What social strata are receptive to such a connection and what social strata are not? What, moreover, is the social dynamic of the “ecology question,” which is now accepted (for better or for worse) across the political spectrum in all Western societies? The absence of such a framework in Gugenberger and Schweidlenka leaves the reader, at the end, wondering how to connect their material to any larger social and political analysis. They never get around to answering the question implied in their subtitle: is this movement a prelude to fascism or to a “new society” (whatever that might mean)?

The authors, as indicated, provide a mass of historical material that is rarely synthesized in one book. They begin with a history of European primitivism from the sixteenth century onward, which by the eighteenth century had already popularized a connection between American Indians and Germanic tribes, a connection that recurred in the 1970s and 1980s with a boom of books published on these subjects. (The Nazis also praised American Indians for their “wolf-like” nature.) In 1818, the famous Wartburg festival gathered romantic nationalist youth, and books were burned. A few decades later, Heinrich Heine, remembering this episode, wrote his prophetic warning to the French that “where books are being burned, people will ultimately be burned as well.” Nearly a century before the Nazi Machtergreifung, Heine’s warning culminated in the following passage, one of the most memorable ever penned about what others have called “der alte deutsche Gartenzwerg”:

demonic powers of German pantheism… The day will come when.. . (the cross) .. . will collapse into nothing. Then the old nature spirits and idols will rise from the long-forgotten rubble and will rub the thousand-year-old dust from their eyes, and Thor with his mighty hammer will finally leap to his feet and shatter the Gothic dome. When you hear the rumbling and crashing, get ready to defend yourselves, my dear neighbors and Frenchmen (…) A drama will be acted out in Germany next to which the French Revolution will appear as a fairly harmless idyll ….

This is ultimately the specter raised by the resurgence, in the late twentieth century, of “New Age” occultism, as manifested in ecological politics. As early as the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, Gugenberger and Schweidlenka argue, a Celtic revival was underway in France and through such phenomena as MacPherson’s Ossian (the faked writings of an ostensible Gaelic bard which became a runaway bestseller in England and Germany on the eve of romanticism) influenced the rise of Sturm und Drang. In the late nineteenth century, a tidal wave of occultism began which crested in the early years of the Third Reich. It was manifested in such forerunners of Nazism as the Ariosophists and the Thule Gesellschaft, the latter a secret society of politically influential aristocrats (including the future Nazi geopolitical theorist Haushofer), or the blood-and-soil ideology of the Wandervögel. After 1933, most occultists and esoteric societies were either integrated into the party or persecuted, and for two decades after World War II, such phenomena, by their association with fascism, faded into ostracized marginality.

Gugenberger and Schweidlenka trace the return of this ideology with the wave of occultism beginning, as indicated, with the American and European hippie counterculture of the 1960s. But the authors show remarkable, and disconcerting, continuities with prewar occultism in this new wave. One striking episode is the “Wirth affair,” which erupted when a former Nazi and theoretician of “Urmatriarchy,” Herman Wirth, was offered federal money by the SPD government in Bonn in 1979 to establish an institute on “Ur-communities”; this was prevented only by strident protest from leftist and Christian circles who uncovered Wirth’s long Nazi past. Another notable trend, although more marked in Italy and in France, has been the large impact of the Italian fascist writer on the esoteric, Julius Evola. In France, in the authors’ view, the New Right intellectuals around Alain de Benoit were the first postwar current to politicize the “new paganism,” as early as the late 1960s. A less virulent current, on the other hand, is the renewed influence of Rudolf Steiner, who in fin-de-siecle Berlin made overtures to the workers of the SPD and whose theories derive more from Goethe’s botany than from Germanic tribal cults.

Gugenberger and Schweidlenka do succeed in showing how many of the themes popularized by the counterculture and the Greens were articulated by far-right regroupments in Germany after 1945, such as the National Revolutionaries. Another significant continuity with pre-1933 “alternative” culture is the authoritarianism of some of the Eastern gurus, such as the Bhagwan and the Maharishi, who attracted wide followings in the 1970s and 1980s. Even more remarkable is the connection documented between far-right “shamanists” in Germany and the American Indian Movement (AIM), although the authors do not discuss how significant these connections were for AIM itself. Further sections on the revival of old Germanic runes, on Carlos Casteneda, and on witchcraft revivals and shamanism fit into a similar pattern.

Perhaps the most interesting question raised by Gugenberger and Schweidlenka is the connection between these “New Age” currents, contemporary “high-tech” entrepreneurs, and the recycling of managerial ideology by New Age thought and practice. Here, the authors indicate, “esotericism becomes in some ways an egocentric stimulus for a new profit motive.” Of all the themes in their book that touch on contemporary reality, this one seems to be the most promising to make their point. Although they do not mention comparable subcultures in such places as Colorado and California, Gugenberger and Schweidlenka would have done well to answer more thoroughly their own question: is “New Age” ideology the forerunner of a new esoteric fascism? If such a case is to be made anywhere, it must be in the “New Age” movement’s success in influencing the vanguard of contemporary capitalist practice. If the history of the 1890-1933 period provides any important analogy, it must be that marginal ideologies from the fringes of society make their way into the mainstream by posing as “radical” what amounts to a restructuring of old hierarchies and practices, which can no longer win allegiance with dead or moribund ideologies. Mutter Erde, Magie und Politik documents a series of very well-heeled international “New Age” congresses, shamanic conventions, and spiritual workshops that were clearly neither staged nor attended by indigent hippies, to say the least. But lacking any broader analysis of the contemporary world, and unable to get beyond what amounts to a vast catalogue of examples (some of them very arresting), Gugenberger and Schweidlenka never synthesize some very suggestive, very disturbing, but very inconclusive connections.