Zum Verhältnis von Buddhismus und Nationalsozialismus
Even if there were differing opinions about Buddhism among the ideologues of the National Socialist regime between 1933 and 1945, those Germans who were Buddhist were overwhelmingly supportive of National Socialism.
The Nazi ideologues in Himmler’s circle were largely appreciative of Buddhism. Indologist and SS official Walther Wüst sought to assert clear parallels between the Buddha and Adolf Hitler as outstanding representatives of the Aryan race in ancient times and in the present. The Buddhist concept of reincarnation also found approval as a perspective appropriate to the Aryan. Alfred Rosenberg, the party’s chief racial theorist and responsible for fleshing out the party’s world view, and philosopher Alfred Grunsky regarded the Buddha as an Aryan man of action. Philosophers August Faust, Eugen Herrigel, and Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, all party members, sought inspiration from the Zen Buddhism of Japan, which was often considered valuable training for warriors.
By contrast, philosophers Ernst Bergmann and Ernst Krieck categorically rejected Buddhism. They warned against Asian influences in Europe which they saw as threatening the integrity of Western culture. The main reason for their criticism was the fact that Buddhism presents itself as a doctrine of salvation. As such, it sought to move beyond the world, negating life and sexuality. Both philosophers also rejected the meditative methods of Buddhism for leading to passivity. Breathing exercises, the ritualistic repetition of mantras, and other spiritual exercises seemed to them to encourage switching off awareness and the will to live.
German Buddhists mostly had positive attitudes towards National Socialism when the Nazis came to power. This reflects the fact that the Buddhist movement in Germany had had a pronounced racist tendency since its beginnings in the 19th century. They saw a contrast between Christianity with its origins in Judaism and Buddhism, which had been founded by an Aryan and therefore seem a more appropriate religion for Aryan Germans. Buddhist Wolfgang Schumacher, who was a party member, published a journal in Berlin which sought a synthesis of Buddhism and National Socialism. He thought Hitler had Buddhist affinities, since he was a vegetarian, did not drink alcohol, and promoted animal welfare. Party member Anton Kropatsch led a Buddhist community in Vienna. SS member Reinhard Höhn, a leading jurist in the Third Reich, was also a follower of Buddhism as well as a part of Heinrich Himmler’s inner circle. Höhn had given Himmler a volume of Discourses of the Buddha and had discussed reincarnation with him. The effect of these and other Buddhists who were also Nazis reveals how the commitment to Buddhism was not seen as problematic by the state or the party.
In addition to the racist components in their movement, two other aspects allowed German Buddhists to harbour a positive relationship with National Socialism. The Buddhist concept of the extinction of the self could have been seen as being akin to the melting of the individual into the Volksgemeinschaft required by National Socialism. The teaching of karma, where a person’s present situation is affected by actions in past lives, could also be interpreted as meaning that there are no innocent victims.
Was macht der Buddha in einer altfriesischen Chronik? Der Buddhismus und die Religionsgeschichte Asiens im Werk des Atlantis-Ideologen Herman Wirth
In 1933 Herman Wirth (1885–1981), a self-proclaimed scholar of a “primordial history of mind” (“Geistesurgeschichte”) and highly popular author of several books on the origin and preeminence of a prehistoric “Aryan” viz. “German race”, published a monograph on the so-called Oera Linda Boek, a spurious chronicle on the prehistory of the Friesian people. Wirth’s publication entitled Die Ura Linda Chronik, übersetzt und mit einer einführenden geschichtlichen Untersuchung herausgegeben (“The Ura Linda Chronicle, translated and edited with an historical introduction”) defends the authenticity of the text, which is interpreted as an important source for the early history of the Germans and their descent from a purported “Aryan” race originally located on the continent of Atlantis. This was done despite major concerns regarding this awkward sample of “historical” documents called Oera Linda Boek, which according to recent research was contrived within a specific Dutch milieu as a parody of several fantastic theories on the history of the Friesian people. Although the Oera Linda Boek was already recognized as a forgery (even written in pseudo-Runes on paper produced after 1850!) soon after its “bilingual” publication in 1872, it remained a reference text within the heterogeneous “voelkisch” movement in the following decades and even came to be called “Himmler’s Bible” due to the fascination it exerted over one of the leading Nazi politicians and his keen interest in any findings regarding the history of the German people viz. legitimizing their ancient importance.
The presentation in this article focusses on the occurrence of references to a “Buddha” in this awkward text and Wirth’s interpretation of it. In an interesting text passage of the Boek a religious figure called “Bûda” is introduced, who was born in “Kasamyr” and received a substantial part of the education through contacts with the Old Frisian culture. This specific training acquainted him with the fundamental truth of the German religion that forms the basis for his own teachings. The story, which provides other titles for the “Bûda” (like “Fo” but also “Jes-us”) and additional “biographical” details as well, is obviously a travestied version of the Jesus-in-India-legend that was combined with scant information on the biography of the Buddha and supplemented by connections with the purported Old Frisian culture. Wirth, who was convinced of the authenticity of the text, purports to have evidence for the genuineness of this information, which ranges from alleged remains of “Buddhist” statues in the Northern European hemisphere to evidence of intensive seafaring between Europe and India. In addition, he draws on the parallels between the “Aryan” religion of the Buddha and its (German) archetypes, which are further arguments for the legitimacy of this close connection. This also opens up the possibility to prove the alleged close resemblance between the “Aryan” religion of the Buddha and the German tradition.
In this context, Wirth’s interpretation of the history of religions is closely related to the theory of a so-called primordial monotheism (“Urmonotheismus”) as propagated by the Austrian ethnologist (and Catholic priest) Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954). According to Wirth, this primordial religion soon deteriorated and was forgotten in the course of further cultural developments, mainly due to the harmful influence of the subsequent patriarchal kingdoms and “hate” coming from the official male priesthood. As with every important religious leader this is also the case with the Buddha and his religion as it faced major resistance from various representatives in the further development, particularly from the Confucian elite in East Asia.
When dealing with the major traits of the Buddhist teachings, Wirth draws on an alleged “Aryan” religious core tradition, namely a focus on a self-centered, self-confident trust in one’s own abilities. This is, in Wirth’s view, the essence of all major “Aryan” religious endeavours as it brings forth the inner strength of any individual and forms the basis for his connection with “God”. When taking into account the early Buddhist discussion on the “self” and its problematic dimension in the process of liberation this peculiar interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings has nothing to do with Buddhist core elements and even runs counter to it. It is mainly formed on the underlying idea that every major “leader” (whether religious or political) came into the world to strengthen his “people” and their self-esteem, which – in Wirth’s presentation – leads directly to the “redemptive” role of Hitler in the course of history.
Wirth’s approach to the awkward text makes up part of a specific framework of interpretations and readings of the history of religions which is quite typical for a special layer within the racist and “voelkisch” discourse. The place of the German viz. Aryan people as the most important and pre-eminent race is secured at all costs, even by referring to most doubtful documents.
„Dem politischen Zeitgeschehen vollkommen interessenlos gegenüber“Deutsche Buddhisten im „Dritten Reich“ am Beispiel der Buddhistischen Gemeinde Berlin
The depiction of Buddhists in the “Third Reich” and their persecution by Nazi politics and by the organs of execution was a not widely represented topic in the research on Buddhism. The few references are based on testimonies which stated that parts of the ruling elite, as Deputy Führer of the Nazi Party Rudolf Heß, protected Buddhists in Nazi Germany. This protection ended after Heß’ solo flight to England in 1941 and all the Germans in the “Third Reich”, who followed Buddha’s teaching by then, were exposed to an increasing persecution.
This article shows that such interpretations are not applicable. A new picture has to be created based on the Berlin Buddhist Community (Buddhistische Gemeinde Berlin e.V.) around Tao Chün (Martin Steinke) and the extent documents of judicial and monitory authorities that depict adequately Buddhism and its representatives in National Socialism. The Berlin Buddhist Community is a representative example since it was the only Buddhist group in the “Third Reich” which operated publicly almost entirely until 1945.
Steinke, who founded a Buddhist community already in 1922 in Berlin, traveled in the early 1930 s for several years to China, where he received the monastic consecration. Following his return 1934 to then Nazi Germany he founded an own community in Berlin. According to the report in the archive files, especially files of the Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv), one can retrace Steinke in the 1930 s and multiple contact situations with the Nazi regime, in which he neither received preferential nor unfavorable treatment. The situations of conflict occurred when local or regional representatives of state and Nazi party started to evaluate the Buddhists; the conflicts even lead to a short period of imprisonment for Steinke. When the Buddhist Community in Berlin planned to buy a house, several authorities interposed: the mayor of Potsdam among seven other regional or Reich authorities. The evaluations and assessments show that, against previous scientific opinions, there were no unified ideological stance in-between Nazi representatives toward Buddhism. It resulted in disputes between judicial authorities and representatives of the Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei; Gestapo), which argued if they could press charges against Steinke for allegedly collecting money illegally. Even though Steinke was convicted and had to pay a fine, he was still supported by the Reich Literature Chamber (Reichsschrifttumskammer), which was controlled by the Propaganda Ministry (Propagandaministerium), in the 1940 s in a law suit with a publishing house. Furthermore, Steinke worked until the end of World War II for the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) due to his Chinese language skills. The lack of the ideological mindset of National Socialism and its representatives toward Buddhism is very evident in this dispute and many others and shows that the respective treatment was coined by personal and pragmatic interests of the ruling elite.
Then again, this example and many others demonstrate the treatment of the Buddhist community in Berlin and thereby exemplify the handling of small religious communities in the “Third Reich” which was shaped by constant negotiation processes of power and jurisdiction between various party and state authorities on local, regional and State level. The polycratic regime structure of National Socialism mirrors the symptomatic handling of smaller religious groups which also manifests in the Berlin Buddhist Community.
„So herrscht der Lama über die Menschen Tibets!“Ernst Schäfer, Alfred Rosenberg und der katholische Lamaismus
The motifs of a Lhasa-Berlin axis and the special interest in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism held by several leading Nazis is not limited to the writings of occultists and conspiracy theorists. They even crop up in academic literature as if they were proven facts. Zoologist and SS member Ernst Schäfer’s Tibet expedition in 1938/39 was undertaken under the patronage of Heinrich Himmler and is often seen as definitive proof of the German government’s relations with the Buddhist rulers of Tibet.
Indeed, Schäfer played a key role in shaping the German public’s image of Tibetan Buddhism during the Nazi period. The high regard held for Tibetan Buddhism among National Socialists claimed in the literature would most likely have been subdued by reading Schäfer’s books on the Himalayan region, watching his 1943 film, or hearing him lecture.
In his reports of his visits to Tibet, the zoologist presented himself as a daring man whose breakneck adventures led to high losses in animals and material and who hunts for the pleasure in killing. By associating academia with a daredevil fighting spirit, he saw himself as the prototype of the new Nazi academic who does not wall himself up in an intellectual’s ivory tower. Schäfer’s assessment of Buddhism in Tibet as expressed in his publications was heavily influenced by the geographical and biological determinism of his National Socialism.
Schäfer did not judge Buddhism based on its actual beliefs, but instead on the rites he had observed in Tibet, which he described as the superstitious customs of unenlightened people. He was fundamentally negative about the overwhelming role played by religion that he had observed in the politics, society, and everyday life of every Tibetans.
He was particularly dismissive towards the Buddhist monks as representatives of institutionalised religion, saying that the power they wielded had caused the mountain nation’s material and spiritual development to stagnate. According to Schäfer, Tibetan Buddhism mainly served the material profit of its leaders who wanted to retain power at any cost. He spent considerable time in both his books and his film on this secular power wielded by Tibet’s religious leaders, even claiming that they sought world domination, an impression he could not have gained locally. The Buddhist authorities of the closed-off country showed no missionary efforts at that time. Instead, Schäfer may have been informed by the writings of the Ludendorff movement.
Schäfer’s views reflected Nazi anti-clericalism, which said that religion was solely responsible for matters of the hereafter. From his perspective, the worldly power of religious authorities in Tibet had paralysed a formerly warlike people. Schäfer’s image of “Lamaism” ultimately proves to be a transposition of Alfred Rosenberg’s concepts of cultural conflict to a Tibetan context. Rosenberg had constructed a similarity between Lamaism and Catholicism, which allowed an indirect criticism of the Catholic Church. Schäfer, who had repeatedly spent time in Tibet and presented himself as an expert in its culture, helped to add weight to these arguments of a cultural war, “Kulturkampf”, against the Catholicism.
Any claims in the literature that Ernst Schäfer’s depictions of Tibet were underpinned by a unique sympathy fail to see his harsh criticism of Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, the image of “Lamaism” that Ernst Schäfer presented to the German public could hardly have been more negative. His work provides no evidence of a positive interest in Tibetan Buddhism by National Socialists.
NS-Mystik und militanter ZenDie Geschichte einer Konvergenz am Beispiel Graf Dürckheims
After an introductory discussion of the relation between National Socialism and religion, this article investigates the religious thought of Karlfried Graf Dürckheim during the Nazi period. Dürckheim was a very active propagandist of National Socialism in wartime Japan. After the war he became one of the fathers of transpersonal psychology, even inspiring the Californian Human Potential Movement. He also became an influential popularizer of Zen and of the practice of body-centered meditation in the German-speaking world. Accordingly, it may be worthwhile to study the Nazi period of his life, a time that he kept largely secret in later years.
In his Nazi writings Dürckheim connected his commitment to the NS-regime with a religiosity that aimed at a mystical union with the German nation (nation in the sense of the „Volk“) and the divine ground of the world that – according to Dürckheim – primarily manifests itself as nation. The motive of heroically abandoning one’s own will and surrendering to the greater whole functioned as a link between his militarism and political totalitarianism on the one hand and his preference for mysticism on the other. He constructs the nation as a trans-temporal divine essence (“eternal Germany” and “eternal divine Japan”) that every individual member of a nation should incarnate by giving up selfishness and surrendering to the egoless functioning within the whole. As the nation is the primary revelation of the divine, the main religious task of its members is to contribute to its development and powerful manifestation. Service to the community and obedience towards its leaders who represent the will of the whole are paramount for the experience of union with the ultimate divine reality. This kind of Nazi mysticism fit perfectly to the totalitarian politics of the so-called Third Reich.
During his stays in Japan Dürckheim became increasingly interested in the militant wing of Zen that supported Japanese imperialism and in many ways resembled his own nationalistic and militaristic religious attitude. He thought that Japan’s political and military success was based on a deep harmony between contemporary Japanese society and its transhistorical divine essence. In his view, Zen contributed significantly to this harmony. Although Dürckheim considered religions with a transnational mission like Christianity and Buddhism to be incompatible with the true religiosity based on national spirit („Volksgeist“), he nevertheless thought that healthy nations could benefit by transforming them according to their nature and innate religiosity. In this way, Zen helped to create the typical Japanese union of passive contemplation that develops inner serenity on one hand and willpower that expresses itself in determined action on the other hand. Similar to Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, and perhaps even more forcefully than him, he underlined the connection of the samurai to Zen Buddhism and the capacity of this religion to empower the practitioners with fearlessness even when facing death.
Dürckheim’s model of interaction between different nations, races and religions supported the integration of alien elements that could strengthen the national spirit. In 1940 Dürckheim published the booklet Vom rechten Mann („On the Righteous Man“), which was meant to be a kind of handbook for German men in difficult times (and especially in wartime). The author of this article argues that Suzuki’s Zen-empowered samurai and other Japanese sources inspired Dürckheim to elaborate on the symbolism of the sword in this publication and to use orientalised phrases such as „die Große Kraft“ („the Great Force“). Dürckheim probably envisioned adding spiritual exercises based on the model of Japanese Zen arts to the quasi-religious expressions of the „holy spirit“ of the German nation developed during the National Socialist era – at least for elites like the members of the SS.
His Nazi mysticism is a good example of the enormous aggressive potential of such a politicised religiosity. A religiosity that would stop short of nothing should the display of a nation’s power and its rulers be at stake.
Impulse:Nun sag, wie hältst du’s mit der ,Öffentlichkeit‘?Überlegungen zur Positionsbestimmung von Religionswissenschaft in der Öffentlichkeit
The academic discipline of the study of religion struggles to take a public stance and follows Weber’s (1919) dictum striving to remain scientifically neutral. Yet, to what extent does neutrality ever exist? Based on this question, for which the study of religion scholar Kurt Rudolph (1978) laid the thematic foundations, the paper considers various positions that analyze the relationship between the study of religion and the public sphere. It becomes evident that the study of religion serves already forums of knowledge transfer. The exemplary explications of the works of Lüddeckens (2002), Wilke (2005), Wilke and Fries, respectively Kemper (2001, 2001), Seiwert (1998) and Klinkhammer (2001) reveal that the study of religion position themselves in the public through empiric research on the basis of a methodologically agnostic expertise. The study of religions’ impact lies in imparting knowledge about society, describing and analyzing individual phenomena. In addition to McCutcheon (2001), the study of religion scholars does not engage in social and antireligious critique on the objective level; they rather investigate the connections between religion and society in the charges relationship between caretaker and culture critics. Statements then refer to the description and redescription of ‘religion’ and ‘public’. In contrast to Tworuschka (2008, 2015), the study of religion does not engage in any philosophical or positive critique of religion in this case, but takes on a function of religious and social critique based on critical historical analysis (Hock 2008, Rudolph 1978). The scientist is thus not a practitioner, but takes an active part in the process of imparting scientific knowledge to extra-scientific fields.
I would like to suggest a mutual exchange of scientific and practical knowledge as well as the interconnection of research, teaching, and knowledge transfer. What do scholars of the study of religion know of police officers’ or nurses’ practical needs that arise with regard to their daily professional practice and specialized knowledge? Certainly, just as little as police officers and nurses understand the scientists’ daily work and the resulting needs. In this case, forums are required to allow for entering into an exchange of experience and knowledge. The reciprocal model does not aim to enlighten but present and impart scientific knowledge in a target-group-specific way. With the information provided, practitioners can decide for themselves which findings are relevant and realizable for their own field of actions in practice. In addition, their awareness for scientific (religious) research is raised. This interactive moment does not only impart knowledge but also leads to a process of mutual understanding. At the same time, representatives of the respective professions get an idea of the possibilities the study of religion expertise offers. Through this mode of reciprocal knowledge transfer, scientists do not need to give up their epoché.
About the article
Published Online: 2017-05-10
Published in Print: 2017-04-01