Peter Viereck: Psychoanalyst of Nazism

  • Themes: History

Motivated by a wish to understand his own father's affinity for the Nazis, historian Peter Viereck argued that Hitler was the culmination of an intellectual trend in German thought stretching back to antiquity.

The Nazi congress at Nuremberg, 1938. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo.
The Nazi congress at Nuremberg, 1938. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo.

Like one of his idols, Thomas Mann, Peter Viereck was in his early twenties when he wrote the book that made his name. Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler (1941) was one of many attempts made around that time to trace the origins of Nazism. Viereck wrote it on the ‘ardent assumption that ideas are exciting’: that Hitler could not be explained simply by gesturing at the Treaty of Versailles or the Great Depression, but that he sprang from something much deeper in Germany’s intellectual culture. In 2003, near the end of his life, he reflected that Metapolitics was ‘written – or overwritten – in the anguished emotional context of Hitler seemingly winning’. On every page there is a sense of moral urgency; published in 1941, not long before Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war against the United States, Viereck was pleading with his fellow Americans to wake up to the evils of Nazism and to enter the world war being waged against it. Yet this emotional tone belies its rigour and originality: the work was deemed sufficiently scholarly that Harvard accepted it as his PhD thesis the year after its publication. It was even praised by Thomas Mann, by then in his American exile.

The young Viereck was an unlikely anti-Nazi. Owing to a colourful and infamous family history, the presence of the Viereck name on the cover of such a book as Metapolitics was enough to attract gossip and attention. His paternal grandfather Louis was born in Berlin in 1851 to the actress and courtesan Edwina Viereck. It was rumoured that the later king of Prussia and German emperor, Wilhelm I, was Louis’ real father – a rumour that Peter always found faintly embarrassing. The official lineage was not much less impressive; Louis Viereck was acknowledged as the son of Louis von Prillwitz, himself a nephew of Frederick the Great. In 1884 this bastard scion was elected to the Reichstag as a left-winger. It was a risky thing to be in Bismarck’s Germany, and he was imprisoned two years later.

In 1901 he became a US citizen. He was not the first Viereck to emigrate to America for political reasons. His uncle Wilhelm was a ‘Forty-Eighter’ who fled to California after the failure of the revolution. Wilhelm fathered a daughter in San Francisco, Laura, who was later to marry her cousin Louis. In 1884, the same year as Louis Viereck’s election to the Reichstag, the Viereck-Viereck couple had a son in Munich, whom they named George Sylvester.

Like his son Peter, Sylvester, as he preferred to be known, burst onto the literary scene at a young age. He dedicated his Confessions of a Barbarian (1910) to his father Louis who, ‘whatever he may think of them, inspired these pages’. The book is Sylvester’s sustained reflection on his own ‘twofold racial consciousness’. Its conceit is sometimes that of a man with two lovers, and sometimes that of a man torn between mother and wife. ‘My heart longed for America fiercely, as the cannibal yearns for his peculiar diet’, goes one typically lurid passage.

Madame Europe, you are very wonderful, though in your youth you were a goose and fell in love with a bull. Columbia is very naïve, I admit, but there is a certain charm in her inexperience.

As for its politics, the book contains a lengthy encomium to the man whom Sylvester considered his first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. If Germany became a republic, he tells us, the kaiser would surely be unanimously elected president; even the socialists ‘secretly adore’ him.

Confessions of a Barbarian made Sylvester Viereck a spokesman for America’s German community. His weekly newspaper, the Fatherland, catered to that community during the First World War, advocating neutrality. This did not sit well with most Americans after the sinking of the Lusitania, and even less after the eventual victory of the Entente. In 1918 his house was stormed by an angry mob, and the following year he was expelled from the Poetry Society of America. Like many of today’s ‘cancelled’, he doubled down on his hardcore fanbase.

That base was edified by the fact that Sylvester was the first American journalist to have access to a little-known political agitator back in the Fatherland, then on the rise. Sylvester was ‘dazzled’ by Hitler when he interviewed him in 1923. Over the next decade, he repeatedly praised Hitler’s movement as a bulwark against the red threat from the east. This is how he introduced his subject to his readers back home: ‘Adolf Hitler drained his cup as if it contained not tea, but the lifeblood of Bolshevism.’ Sylvester heaped upon Hitler all the adjectives most likely to appeal to bourgeois Americans: he was ‘widely-read’, ‘thoughtful’, above all ‘a self-made man’. He even compared Hitler with FDR: both were ‘trying their utmost to build a new world out of the wreck of the old’.

For a second time in Sylvester Viereck’s career, his blind support for Germany, a tame eccentricity in times of peace, had disastrous consequences in times of war. It ripped apart his marriage. Margaret Viereck was appalled by her husband’s sympathy for Hitler; in return, Sylvester called her ‘Judas’. The muckraker Upton Sinclair wrote to him: ‘if there is anybody in America who is doing Satan’s work, you are the man’. Sylvester’s one-time publisher, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, was even more scathing, describing him as ‘loathsome’ and ‘oily’, a ‘lickspittle of swinish exploiters who are able to pay him well’. Haldeman-Julius was probably wrong to attribute Sylvester’s behaviour to financial gain rather than genuine political conviction. Whatever his motives, Sylvester was in effect a Nazi agent during the war, and he languished in prison as a result until 1947.

These were not the only relationships that Sylvester’s support for Hitler brought swiftly to an end. In the 1920s Sylvester had tried to claw his way back to respectability by distinguishing himself as the chief American disciple and publicist of Sigmund Freud. He knew Freud personally, having interviewed him on numerous occasions. After Sylvester had welcomed Hitler’s coming to power ten years later, Freud severed ties with him completely.

It was against this backdrop that Sylvester’s son Peter offered what he intriguingly called his own ‘psychoanalysis’ of Nazism. Seeing how Nazism had appealed to men like his father, he was forced to regard it as something more sophisticated than the ‘movement of illiterates and boorish cavemen’ that Americans liked to imagine. His father was rather similar to the frustrated artists in the Nazi top brass: Hitler the painter, Ribbentrop the playwright, Hess the poet, even Julius Streicher the aspiring watercolourist. There was another element to Peter Viereck’s analysis in Metapolitics of who (to coin a phrase) ‘goes Nazi’. ‘The most fanatic German nationalists’, he pointed out, ‘are generally produced outside Germany’: Hitler in Austria (especially in cosmopolitan Vienna), it goes without saying, but also Hess in Egypt, Walter Darré in Argentina, Alfred Rosenberg in the Baltics. To this list one could plausibly add Sylvester Viereck in America.

What was the attraction of Nazism to these wistful Romantics, these artistes manqués? Nazism, Peter Viereck argued, was something ancient and dark, the dreadful culmination of Germany’s intellectual Sonderweg. ‘Just as Mason and Dixon’s line today still runs through the heart of many Americans’, he explained, ‘so through the centre of German hearts runs the great Roman wall.’ Germany had been divided, since antiquity, between civilisation and barbarism: on one side were the ‘classical, rational, legalist, and Christian traditions’ of Rome, and on the other the ‘paganism of the old Saxons, the barbaric tribal cults of war and blood, and the anti-rationalism and anti-legalism of the Romantics’. Hermann the Cheruscan destroyed three Roman legions at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD; Widukind rallied the Saxons against Charlemagne in the late eighth century; Martin Luther broke from Rome in the 16th; and the Romantic nationalists had their day in 1848. Peter Viereck saw 1933 as the fifth in this sequence of revolts against ‘civilisation’.

When Hitler presented himself as the new Hermann or the new Luther, Peter Viereck was therefore inclined to take him at his word. The vague notion that Nazism owed something to 19th-century Romanticism is relatively widespread in today’s historical imagination. In 1941 it tilted against an orthodoxy that held Nazism as little more than a curious outgrowth of Prussian militarism. By placing the blame for Nazism at the feet of Bismarck and the Hohenzollern, this thesis let the 19th-century Romantic nationalists off the hook. Characters like J.G. Fichte, or ‘Turnvater’ Jahn, were generally cast as cheerful ‘liberal revolutionists’. Peter preferred to regard them as the ‘ancestors of the present German revolt’ against Western civilisation. It was in this intellectual tradition that the proto-Nazis were to be found.

This argument was reinforced by Peter’s recognition of something that had always eluded his father: that antisemitism was not peripheral to Nazism, but rather lay at its core. Sylvester’s embrace of Freudianism – which the Nazis had condemned as ‘Jewish science’ – suggests little personal animus against Jews. Indeed, he once denounced antisemitism as ‘legally a monstrosity, economically a catastrophe, ethically an error, politically a blunder, intellectually an imbecility, humanly a barbarism, aesthetically bad taste’. Despite repeated attempts by Jewish acquaintances to alert him to the realities of Nazi antisemitism, however, Sylvester seems to have sincerely believed that it was only a sideshow.

The younger Viereck laboured under no such illusions. The key bridge between Romanticism and Nazism was Richard Wagner, whom he fashioned in some ways into the protagonist of his book. Wagner’s antisemitism, more than anyone else’s, prefigured the annihilationist antisemitism of Hitler, who was himself a Wagnerian character, a ‘lower-middle-class Siegfried’. ‘Metapolitics’, the Nazis’ political style, was itself a kind of high Wagnerism: ‘in metapolitics even the price of potatoes must be heroic’. Peter Viereck argued that, for Hitler as for Wagner, ‘political antisemitism is no isolated programme’. Rather, it was the ‘first step’ in the revolt against ‘all restraints and liberties’.

Peter Viereck thus devoted his career to the defence of those restraints and liberties. He did so, self-consciously, as a conservative. Whereas his father was an inveterate opponent of Britain, even arguing at one point in Confessions of a Barbarian that Americans are a ‘Germanic, not an Anglo-Saxon people’, Peter was stridently Anglophile; his conservatism thus sat squarely within a British intellectual tradition. His father had hated Churchill as an imperialist and warmonger; but Peter made Churchill his great hero, describing him in 1956 as the ‘Cassandra of conservatism’. Like Cassandra, Churchill was proved right: right about Bolshevism after 1917, right about Nazism in the 1930s, and right again about Stalin and the Soviet empire after 1945. ‘Aged 80 and already proved right only too often by history, he retired from the premiership voluntarily.’

What Peter Viereck prized about this essentially British tradition was its opposition to radical change. One theme of his writings is a strong preference for Burkean caution over reactionary (and almost always explicitly continental) ‘ottantottism’. This term was his own coinage:

‘A reactionary king of Piedmont-Sardinia became almost a figure of fun by wandering about mumbling pathetically the word ‘ottantot’, Italian for ’88. Thereby he meant to say: all problems would vanish if only the world turned its clock back to 1788.’

Goebbels famously described the aim of Nazism as to ‘expunge the year 1789 from history’. Nazism was therefore ‘ottantotism’ in the extreme; this was what constituted its Romantic idealism, its ‘revolt against civilisation’.

Despite his stature as a conservative intellectual, Peter Viereck never voted for a Republican presidential candidate. A certain elitism ran through his thought: he twice supported the Democrat Adlai Stevenson against General Eisenhower because he was ‘Mill plus Burke; Jefferson plus John Adams; civil liberties and open-mindedness plus a noblesse-obligated, traditional, and very American spirit of aristocracy’. American liberty, he liked to remind his readers, had an ‘aristocratic origin’. If Jefferson and Washington were alive today, he once lamented, they would probably be jeered as ‘effete easterners’ who lacked ‘the common touch’.

If this alienated him from America’s conservative movement, so too did his stout opposition to McCarthyism. Reviewing William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, he complained: ‘Why is this veritable Eagle Scout of moral sternness silent on the moral implications of McCarthyism?’Another of the great Cold War conservatives, Russell Kirk, was no better; he too was ‘morally evasive’ on the central domestic issue of the day. For perhaps the last time, Viereck the son was turning against his father. The elder Viereck attempted to salvage his reputation by stressing his anti-communist bona fides, to the point of cheering on McCarthy. Peter Viereck insisted upon higher principles. It was possible, simultaneously, for him to inveigh against pacifists for failing to recognise the evil of Stalinism, in language redolent of his anti-Nazi crusade in Metapolitics, while also denigrating McCarthyism as a stain on American civic life. Many academics today might stand to learn something from his example.

While scarcely ever explicitly mentioning his father in his writings, they all have a flavour of patricide, and Metapolitics most of all. Perhaps the son – and more likely the father – would be open to a Freudian interpretation of their relationship. Still, when Sylvester’s health declined in 1959, Peter took him in; he died at Peter’s home three years later, having privately expressed some regret over his ‘Nazi interlude’.

Metapolitics, after all, is a book written in the darkest hour of the Second World War that, nonetheless, looks forward to the moment of Germany’s moral redemption. Peter Viereck despised the Germany that produced Hitler, but he held out hope that ‘Germany’s ceaseless cultural pendulum will inevitably swing back to its western pole’. All the proto-Nazi thinkers discussed in Metapolitics eventually ‘swung back’: Julius Langbehn when he converted to Catholicism (a detail excised by the official Nazi hagiographies); Oswald Spengler when he called for the pope to excommunicate the Führer; Stefan George, one of his father’s signal literary influences, when he too refused to lend Hitler his support; and even Wagner (so Viereck argued) in his last opera, Parsifal. All the great Germans ultimately reconcile themselves to the West: they all, in the end, wish to ‘undo the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, when Hermann cut half the barbaric Germanic tribes off from the civilising influences of the great world-empire’. If Peter Viereck could find hope for these people, then there might be hope for his Nazi father; and there might also be hope for the German nation as a whole.


Samuel Rubinstein