Whose Chamberlain? And ‘unser Shakespeare’

To balance last week’s blog about English replacing German, we attempt a little balancing act. On 11 December 1915 T.P.’s Weekly, a popular literary journal, published a small editorial comment on Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s views that German, rather than English, was the real language of culture, and that its survival in place of English was in jeopardy.



Houston Stewart Chamberlain was a complex figure, who seems to have dropped out of general awareness, but who had a strong personal effect on events and individual drivers of twentieth-century history. Born British, he rejected British culture and identity, embraced Germany and German culture, and through several volumes of essays promoted anti-Semitism, pan-Germanism, racial hierarchies, Wagner, Aryanism, monarchic rule, and anti-democratic thinking. His most famous work, much admired by Wilhelm II, Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts(The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, 1899) proposed that the concept of the “Aryan race” was the presiding genius of world progress in culture and technology; Germany, as the epicentre of Aryanism, had a destiny to annex the Old World, preserve culture, and keep in subjection any supposed non-Aryan races. The cherry-picking of fact and fantasy, backed up by subjective and unscientific theorising, was useful support for the racial ideas circling around Wilhelm II, and Chamberlain supported German political, military and colonial expansionism. A close relationship with Wagner’s widow, Cosima, and many of Germany’s more authoritarian figures gave Chamberlain immense influence – The Foundationswas included in German school curriculums, and during the First World War, in which he whole-heartedly supported Germany against a decadent and materialistic Britain, Chamberlain was one of Germany’s most read authors. In Britain meanwhile the Times Literary Supplement dismissed his work as the ‘Ravings of a Renegade’. Chamberlain, who was indeed the son of a British admiral, maintained a long correspondence with the Kaiser, which lasted beyond 1918, and eventually became a mentor to Adolf Hitler.


The reaction in T.P.’s Weekly was most likely against Chamberlain’s 1915 pamphlet Deutschland und England (Germany and England), in which he vigorously attacked the changes that had supposedly ruined England during the Industrial Revolution, destroying an idyllic agrarian society and replacing it with an industrialised capitalist society, dominated by Jewish finance and an uncultured middle class. This was contrasted with the paternalistic aristocracy of Germany.


As an example of Chamberlain’s style, this is from the introduction to The Foundations:


The Goths, who of course were Teutons, have been, as Gibbon puts it, “injuriously accused of the ruin of antiquity”.  Their very name has passed into a byword for all that is barbarous and destructive; yet, as a matter of fact, it was Theodosius and his followers who, with the help of the Christian fanatics, destroyed the Capitol and the monuments of ancient art, whereas it was Theodoric, the Ostrogoth, on the contrary, who issued edicts for the preservation of the ancient glories of Rome. Yet “this man could not write; for his signature he had to use a metal stencil…. But that which was beautiful, that which the nobler spirits of the Chaos of Peoples hated as a work of the devil, that the Goth at once knew how to appreciate: to such a degree did the statues of Rome excite his admiration that he appointed a special official for their protection. “Who will deny the gift of imagination in the race which produced a Dante (his name Alighieri a corruption of Aldiger, taken from his grandmother who was of a Goth family from Ferrara), a Shakespeare, a Milton, a Goethe, a Schiller, not to speak of many other great and lesser lights? Who will dispute the powers of thought of a Locke, a Newton, a Kant, a Descartes? We have but to look around us in order to see how completely our civilisation and culture are the work of the Germane.


While The Foundations may not explicitly explain how Shakespeare came to be a Goth, the longstanding German affinity for Shakespeare may have caused some cultural boundary-definition problems. In The Foundations Chamberlain frequently quotes Shakespeare and ‘Shakespeare’s language’ (52 times – and explicitly links Goethe and Shakespeare), but an earlier letter in T.P.’s Weekly (6 February 1915) examines the text of the plays to question the connection between Shakespeare and Germany:



In 1915, without the benefit of a digital word-search, John Hurstwood missed the Host’s words in The Merry Wives of Windsor– ‘They are gone but to meet the duke, villain: do not say they be fled; Germans are honest men.’



A propos of the idea of  a  ‘universal language’, there were signs of this becoming a three-way tussle between French, German and English during and after the war. German was dropped or banned in some Anglophone areas, protests against the ubiquity of English in some German-speaking areas, and there were complaints in La Vie Parisienne (of all places) about the mingling of English and French. The concept of a universal language has long had its admirers and proponents, notably John Wilkins, who in An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668), devised a linguistic structure based on a taxonomy of morphemes which countered the sense of an arbitrary linguistic sign. After the war it was suggested that Esperanto, a sort of rational Romance superimposed onto Romance arbitrariness, should be taken up as the universal language of diplomacy, an idea that was widely supported, except by the French, who believed there was already such a language: French.


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