Understanding Nazi Ideology

The Genesis and Impact of a Political Faith

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Carl Müller Frøland
Translator(s): 
John Irons
  • Jefferson, NC: 
    McFarland Books
    , March
     2020.
     348 pages.
     $49.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781476678306.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A lot has been written about the terror and devastation that Nazi Germany brought over Europe in the first half of the 20th century. There is a plethora of different approaches to explain the rise of the Nazi Party and the support it gained in the German population for its politics of hate and war. In Understanding Nazi Ideology: The Genesis and Impact of a Political Faith, Carl Müller Frøland offers a novel way of looking at the emergence of the ideology which fueled these developments. The Norwegian scholar examines this ideology solely through the lens of the history of ideas, which in his opinion can provide a deeper understanding of the events before and during the rule of National Socialism.

Frøland’s book is divided into seven parts in which he traces these ideas through history. His starting point is the end of the 18th century and the movement of Sturm und Drang, which preceded the Romantic era in Germany. In this period Frøland locates the origin of two basic concepts foundational for German Romanticism: the Organic, the idea of holism and the unity of God and nature; and the Dynamic, the idea of force, struggle, and the will of the individual. These ideas are further examined in the works of Johann G. Herder, Friedrich W. J. Schelling, and Johann G. Fichte, where they ultimately beget a “new form of German nationalism” (33, italics original).

In part 2, Frøland follows the idea of the nation as an organic unit through the 19th century. In the writings of Paul de Lagarde and Julius Langbehn German nationalism is infused with antiliberalism and antisemitism. Lagarde is also a proponent of a strong man to unite and lead the nation, a Führer who acts as an incarnation of the will of the people (57). This almost mystical union of the leader and the people, of Führer and Volk, is at the heart of the völkische ideology. The vitalistic and dynamic elements in the philosophies of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche are examined in the third part. Frøland then connects them to the idealization of war and the romanticization of violence in the works of German author Ernst Jünger.

According to Frøland, all these different elements together form the unique amalgam at the heart of Nazi ideology. The author demonstrates this with examples from Hitler’s Mein Kampf and other writings from Nazi ideologues in part 4 of the book, always coming back to his main concepts of the Organic and the Dynamic. In the fifth part Frøland focuses on the “Führer Cult.” Relying heavily on Ian Kershaw’s work on Hitler, he describes the relationship between the people and its leader as a form of political religion according to the theories of Eric Voegelin and Emilio Gentile.

The penultimate part then tries to explain the ideological background behind the barbaric actions of the SS forces, and the horrors of Auschwitz and the Holocaust in general. In the final part Frøland then describes the last efforts of the Nazi leadership to mount some resistance against the Allied Forces. Facing certain defeat, Hitler embraces the downfall as a kind of “Wagnerian fate” (267). Drawing parallels to Ragnarök in Nordic mythology, Frøland supposes that in Hitler’s view, the whole of Germany must go down in flames, so that a new nation can be reborn. The author finishes the book with a detailed recapitulation of the arguments laid out in the book, which in its length seems a bit redundant.

Frøland’s book provides a fascinating insight into the development of the ideas that led to one of the deadliest political ideologies in human history. And some of these ideas are still around today, as the mentions of right-wing terrorists like Anders Breivik or the German NSU in the first chapter show. Frøland’s approach is not as daring or “taboo breaking” as one might suspect after reading the introduction, but while his explanations are not groundbreaking, he manages to present this deep history of the “political faith” of Nazi Germany in a convincing and substantial way. The focus on the history of ideas may be a bit narrow, because it ignores a lot of social or economic factors that contributed to the historical developments of the 20th century. But for a researcher in the field of the study of religion, Frøland’s book may provide a good starting point to delve deeper into the boundary area of politics, religion, and ideology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthias Eder is a doctoral student at Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich.

Date of Review: 
October 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carl Müller Frøland holds an MA in intellectual history from the University of Oslo and is working on a PhD dealing with religious and secular aspects of the Nazi worldview. He lives in Oslo, Norway.

John Irons holds a PhD in literature from Cambridge University and has translated more than one hundred books from various European languages into English. He lives in Svendborg, Denmark.

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