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The völkisch movement is the German interpretation of the populist movement, with a romantic focus on folklore and the "organic". The term völkisch, meaning "ethnical", derives from the German word Volk (cognate with the English "folk"), corresponding to people, with connotations in German of "people-powered," "folksy," and "folkloric". The defining idea the völkisch movement revolved around was the Volkstum (lit. "folkdom", probably more precise in meaning would be "folklore" and "ethnicity"), not to confuse with the Volkssturm. "Populist", or "popular", in this context would be volkstümlich.
Origins in the 19th century
The völkisch movement had its origins in Romantic nationalism, as it was expressed by early Romantics such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation published during the Napoleonic Wars, from 1808 onwards, especially the eighth address, "What is a Volk, in the higher sense of the term, and what is love of the fatherland?", where he answered his question, as to what could warrant the noble individual's striving "and his belief in the eternity and the immortality of his work", that it could only be that "particular spiritual nature of the human environment out of which he himself, with all of his thought and action... has arisen, namely the people from which he is descended and among which he has been formed and grown into that which he is" .
The movement combined sentimental patriotic interest in German folklore, local history and a "back-to-the-land" anti-urban populism with many parallels in the writings of William Morris. The dream was for a self-sufficient life lived with a mystical relation to the land; it was a reaction to the cultural alienation of the Industrial revolution. Similar feelings were expressed in the US during the 1930s by the writers grouped as the Southern Agrarians.
In addition the völkisch movement, as it evolved, sometimes combined the arcane and esoteric aspects of folkloric occultism alongside "racial adoration" and, in some circles, a type of anti-Semitism linked to ethnic nationalism. The ideas of völkisch movements also included anti-communist, anti-immigration, anti-capitalist and anti-Parliamentarian principles.
Before and after World War I
A number of the völkisch-populist movements that had developed during the late 19th century in the German Empire, under the impress of National Romanticism, were reorganized along propagandistic lines after the German defeat in World War I, as the word "the people" (Volk) became increasingly politicized as a flag for new forms of ethnic nationalism.
Yet at the same time, Volk was also used by the international socialist parties in the German lands as a synonym for the proletariat. Indeed the leftist political press popularized folk-culture, such as folk music, black-letter calligraphy, runes, and medieval myths and legends, much in the same way that the American left popularized folk-singing, ballads, and organic farming in the 1960's.
From the left, elements of the folk-culture spread to the parties of the middle-classes. But whereas Volk could mean "proletariat" among the left, it meant more particularly "race" among the center and right. Although the primary interest of the Germanic mystical movement was the revival of native pagan traditions and customs (often set in the context of a quasi-Theosophical esotericism), a marked preoccupation with purity of race came to motivate its more politically oriented offshoots such as the Germanenorden. This branch of the völkisch movement quickly developed a hyper-nationalist sentiment and anti-semitism, then rising throughout the Western world.
Another völkisch movement of the same time was the Tatkreis.
Not all folkloric societies with connections to Romantic nationalism were Germanic: contemporary folkloric communities in Italy, such as those of Monte Verita in Ascona, embraced a mix of anarchism, libertarian communism and various forms of artistic bohemianism and neopaganism.
Connection with Nazism
The völkisch ideologies were influential in the development of Nazism. Indeed, Joseph Goebbels publicly asserted in the 1927 Nuremberg rally that if the populist (völkisch) movement had understood power and how to bring thousands out in the streets, it would have gained political power on 9 November 1918 (failed Communist revolution, end of the German monarchy). Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf (My Struggle): "the basic ideas of the National-Socialist movement are populist (völkisch) and the populist (völkisch) ideas are National-Socialist."
This connection can be overstated, however. According to Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke an imaginative mythology has grown up around the supposed influence within the Nazi Party of a völkisch group, the Thule-Gesellschaft (Thule Society), which was founded on August 17, 1918 by Rudolf von Sebottendorff. Its original name was Studiengruppe für Germanisches Altertum (Study Group for Germanic Antiquity), but it soon started to disseminate anti-republican and anti-Semitic propaganda. In January 1919 the Thule Society was instrumental in the foundation of the Deutsche Arbeiter-Partei (German Workers' Party, or DAP) which later became the NSDAP (Nazi Party). Furthermore the Münchener Beobachter (Munich Observer), owned by Sebottendorff, was the press organ of another small nationalist party and later became the Völkischer Beobachter (People's Observer).
On the other hand it can be noted that Karl Harrer, the Thule member most directly involved in the creation of the DAP in 1919, was sidelined at the end of the year when Hitler drafted regulations against conspiratorial circles, and the Thule Society was dissolved a few years later (Goodrick-Clarke 1985: 150, 221). It had no members from the top echelons of the party and Nazi officials were forbidden any involvement in secret societies. Adolf Hitler was never a member, while Rudolf Hess and Alfred Rosenberg were only visiting guests of the Thule Society in the early years before they came to prominence in the Nazi movement (Goodrick-Clarke 1985: 149, 201). However, the völkisch circles did hand down one significant legacy: Friedrich Krohn, a Thule member, designed the original version of the Nazi swastika in 1919.
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