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The Bard of Eugenics: Shakespeare and Racial Activism in the Third Reich

Author(s): Gerwin Strobl


Source: Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Jul., 1999), pp. 323-336
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/261142
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Journalof Contemporary
HistoryCopyright? 1999 SAGEPublications,London,ThousandOaks, CA and
New Delhi, Vol 34(3), 323-336.

[0022-0094(199907)34:3;323-336;008935]

GerwinStrobl

The Bard of Eugenics: Shakespeare and


Racial Activism in the Third Reich

In April 1937, roughly midway between Hitler's appointment as Chancellor


and the inception of the 'Euthanasia Programme', some of Germany's leading
literary critics and beaux esprits attended an unusual exposition of nazi
eugenic theory. The annual meeting of the German Shakespeare Society in
Weimar provided the setting, Shakespeare's birthday the unlikely occasion.
The event itself took the form of a paper with the title 'Maidens and Matrons
in Shakespeare: A Practical Perspective', published subsequently in the
Society's Jahrbuch for 1937.1 This article considers how this curious document
- ostensibly an exercise in literary reflection - foreshadowed and facilitated
Germany's deadly eugenic experiment.
'Maidens and Matrons' is a remarkable document for several reasons: first,
because it highlights the often incongruous ways in which nazi ideology was
disseminated; second, because it demonstrates that this was done as much
through individual initiative as organized propaganda; third, because it reveals
how complicity with the regime and its aims was gradually established even
among sections of German society that had initially sought to keep nazism at
arm's length; and fourth, because it demonstrates how such complicity provided the basis for the progressive escalation of nazi racial policy. Lastly, the
document is remarkable in itself, as evidence of the degradation of German
intellectual and cultural life in the Third Reich.
The author of the paper in question, Hans FK. Giinther, was an influential
academic figure in 1930s Germany; and though he held a doctorate in
Germanistik,2and had at various times dabbled in verse and drama, his name
was not generally associated with literary criticism.3 It seems doubtful that in
the normal course of events he would ever have been invited to address the
high-minded circle of Bildungsbiirger that made up the German Shakespeare
Society. The first thing about the paper, therefore, that deserves comment is its
context.
The German Shakespeare Society was (and is - in its postwar reincarnation) a learned society dedicated to Shakespearean studies. Those associated
1 Hans FK. Giinther, 'Shakespeares Madchen und Frauen aus lebenskundlicher Sicht', Jahrbuch
der deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, 73, Neue Folge 14 (Weimar 1937) 85-108.
2 The Doktorarbeit was subsequently published: Zur Herkunft des Volksbuches von Fortunatus
und seinen Sohnen (Freiburg im Breisgau 1914).
3 See, for instance, Hans Baldenwegs Aufbruch: Ein deutsches Spiel in vier Auftritten (Munich
1920) and Lieder vom Verhiingnis:Gedichte, meist aus der Vorkriegszeit (Kassel 1925).

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Joural of ContemporaryHistoryVol 34 No 3

with it therefore tended to have a professional interest in literature. Amateur


Shakespeareans were not unwelcome: the Society's Jahrbuch occasionally
published pieces by them; some, indeed, were invited to address its annual
conference at Weimar; but such guests all brought with them substantive
cultural credentials.4 Hans Gunther's literary connections were, by comparison, rather more tenuous: all that could be said in his favour was that he
had held a chair at Jena, where Schiller had once taught. There, however, all
similarity with the poet-historian ended. For, whereas Schiller was interested,
above all, in individual members of humanity, Giinther was concerned with
groups.
Having abandoned, in turn, historical linguistics - the subject of his first
academic interest - and Germanistik, he became active in social anthropology after the first world war, and here a clear theme soon emerged in his
research. In 1922 he published A Racial Typology of the German People,
followed two years later by A Racial Typology of Europe. After a brief detour
into antiquity (A Racial History of the Greeks and the Romans, 1928), he
wrote a timely Racial Typology of the Jewish People in 1929, which immediately went into reprints. Having adapted for popular use his original German
Racial Typology (the so-called Volksgiinther), he turned to eugenics proper
with Volk and State in Relation to Heredity and Selection (1933), which he
dedicated to Hans Frick. A year later, Alfred Rosenberg became the dedicatee
of a tract on the harmful effect on the Nordic race of urbanization.5And it was
from Rosenberg's hands that during the 1935 Nuremberg rally Giinther
received the first ever NSDAP Prize for Science. Giinther, as the official citation
stressed, had not merely contributed to German racial theory, he had largely
defined it.6
His presence in Weimar was therefore significant. Giinther - or RassenGiinther, as he was widely called - very obviously stood for the 'New
Germany'; the German Shakespeare Society, on the other hand, was in its
outlook a remnant of another age. Its meetings - even in the nazi era
betray a sentimental attachment to the House of Saxony-Weimar; wreaths
would be laid at the royal tombs, and the annual presidential address invariably included loyal references to members of the royal house.7 In fact, the
Society had only very reluctantly, in the 1920s, replaced the dowager GrandDuchess with a commoner as its patron. It did so ultimately to avoid charges
of political partisanship and to preserve a polite air of academic detachment.
The closest the Society got to an overtly political stance was its pronounced
devotion to the land of Shakespeare's birth, or rather that country's ruling
family. Here it seemed safe to exhibit its otherwise discreet royalism. Every
birth, engagement, or death in the House of Windsor occasioned elaborate
4 The list of previous guests included the likes of Hugo von Hoffmansthal or, more recently,
Martin Luserke, an influential figure in interwar theatrical practice.
5 Die Verstidterung (Berlin and Leipzig 1934).
6 Cf. Volkischer Beobachter, 13 September 1935.
7 Cf. the various presidential addresses published in the Jahrbiicher of the period.

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tributes.8 Inevitably, this anachronistic ethos came under some pressure after
1933.
The Society initially reacted to the age of Gleichschaltung in the only way it
knew: by emphasizing its collective patriotism and otherwise abstaining from
anything that might be considered remotely controversial. This proved insufficient: vehement verbal attacks on non-German playwrights by party activists
intoxicated by their first taste of power threatened not just the Society but its
very raison d'etre.9If these moves were swiftly rebuffed by the party hierarchy,
the episode did underline the Society's potentially precarious position.10In the
jargon of the time and of the members' middle-class background, a modus
vivendi had to be found. Here the Society followed a pattern endlessly replicated across German cultural and intellectual circles, as worthy - and often
unworldly - men decided to swallow their distaste for politics and make
overtures to the Nazi Party, in the vain hope of safeguarding a cherished piece
of civilization.
In the case of Germany's Shakespeareans, this proved at first less disagreeable than had been feared. The relatively urbane head of the theatre section in
the Propaganda Ministry, the Reichsdramaturg Rainer Schlosser, was duly
admitted; and with his immediate elevation to the board of governors receded
the danger of someone more senior appearing on the scene. (That threat had
seemed acute, as Goebbels had in his undergraduate days been a pupil of
Friedrich Gundolf, Germany's foremost Shakespearean in the early twentieth
century.)"1If Goebbels remained mercifully aloof, two further nazi figures with
cultural connections - and usefully low party membership numbers - were
happy to provide discreet assistance: Baldur von Schirach (whose father, a
former director of Weimar's Court Theatre and a prominent member of the
Society had effected crucial introductions) and Gauleiter Josef Wagner of
Westphalia (a region which had supported the Society during the financially
grim years of the depression).'2
8 1937, the year Rassen-Gunther expounded Shakespearean eugenics, was no exception. The
proceedings opened with excited references to the forthcoming Coronation in London and
expressed the Society's earnest wish that the new King's reign might be 'long and beneficent' (cf.
Jahrbuch, op. cit., 1).
9 For a retrospective summary of such anti-Shakespearean sentiment, see, for example,
Hermann Wanderscheck, Deutsche Dramatik der Gegenwart (Berlin 1938), 40: 'Dort wo
Shakespeare heute und alle Zeit seine Wirkungen erziele, sei er typisch undeutsch. Wie seine Stoffe
typisch englisch waren, so auch sein Stichwortdialog.... Shakespeare als Vorbild habe den
deutschen Dramatikern das Leben nur verbittert, stets sei die deutsche Dramatik von fremden
Vorbildern nur verleitet worden.'
10 The counter-attack was led by Rosenberg's monthly journal: see Heinrich Bauer,
'Shakespeare - ein germanischer Dichter', Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte, 41 (August 1933),
372-8.
11 Seen from the vantage point of 1933 that connection was, however, distinctly problematic.
Gundolf was known to have rejected the youthful Goebbels's request to act as his Doktorvater.
Moreover, he was, of course, Jewish.
12 Schirach and Wagner were both, by nazi standards, unusually civilized and undoctrinaire;
and both duly fell out of favour during the war (Schirach over his liberal cultural policy during his

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Journalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 34 No 3

By 1937 this policy of constructive engagement seemed to have succeeded.


For that year, the Society's three nazi protectors between them had contrived
to organize a special Shakespeare Festival for the Hitler Youth in Josef
Wagner'sWestphalia. The proceedings were to be inaugurated by Rudolf Hess;
the Fiihrer's deputy would thus complete the Bard's nazi canonization. For
Germany's Shakespeareans the future seemed secure. There was, however, a
price attached to continued corporate existence in the Third Reich. It was now
extremely difficult to exclude from the Society's meetings and publications
other nazi Shakespeare enthusiasts, such as Rassen-Ginther, and his paper on
'Maidens and Matrons in Shakespeare'.
Giinther, of course, was rather more than a mere amateur. He had been a
member of the Society for some years. Also, the geographical proximity of
Jena had made it easy for him to attend the annual Weimar conference (and
gave communications from him added urgency: Jena and Weimar were not
just linked by a serviceable railway line, they shared the same political chain of
command at Gau level). That consideration was not without relevance in
Gunther's case. For there was, crucially, the matter of how he had acquired his
position at Jena. The chair in anthropology to which he had been appointed in
1930 had been created especially for him. This had not been unopposed; the
university's senate had voted in vain against chair and incumbent. The state of
Thuringia, which contained both Jena and Weimar, had, that year, been
the first German Land to fall to the nazis. Wilhelm Frick, Thuringia's new
minister responsible for higher education, had insisted on establishing a chair
for Giinther (who had already been recommended, unsuccessfully, by Frick to
the same university as a suitable candidate for, variously, professorships in
philosophy, pre-history, eugenics and Rassenkunde).13Gunther's installation
after such public opposition was an important early nazi triumph. His
inaugural lecture was attended by a deputation of eminent nazis led by Hitler
himself; Goring addressed party members afterwards, and in the evening nazi
students saluted Gunther with a torchlight procession to his house.14
After the Machtergreifung, an approach by Hans Giinther therefore
admitted of only one reply. Though in professional terms a complete outsider,
he was elected to the Shakespeare Society's board of governors in 1936. A year
later, he delivered the opening lecture. Judging by the opening remarks in his
paper, he nevertheless appears to have been uncertain of his welcome from
ordinary members. There were, he remarked, perhaps some amongst his
listeners who might be 'a little alarmed' at his attempt to link Shakespeare
with eugenics.15The thought evidently did not deter him, however. His calling,
time as Reichsstatthalter in Vienna, Wagner because of his Catholic convictions which cost him his
office, his freedom and ultimately his life).
13 For details of Giinther's appointment, and the university's attempts to prevent his installation, see the Jenaische Zeitung for 28 May and 4 June 1930.
14 Cf. Giinther, Mein Eindruck von Hitler (Pahl 1969), 19.
15 Giinther, op. cit., 86 (this and subsequent translations are my own).

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he explained, was that of an Erbgesundheitsforscher, a 'eugenicist, as the


Anglo-Saxons call it';16and he had come to talk about 'heredity, selection,
suppression, and birth statistics'.7
To appreciate the effect these words would have had when they were
uttered, it is worth reflecting briefly on his audience. The men before him were
for the most part eminent literary critics, representing a well-established tradition in Shakespearean scholarship; they knew that the published proceedings
of their Society's annual meetings had a wide academic readership outside
Germany, and they possessed sufficient powers of imagination to predict the
likely effect abroad of its forthcoming volume. In short, Gunther would not
have been mistaken in detecting around him a degree of unease. But, clearly,
no one could prevent him from speaking without imperilling the Society's
existence - to say nothing of their own careers. The second, and perhaps
more important point is that it changed the relationship of the assembled
academics with the regime. For one thing, the true nature of the Third Reich
must finally have become apparent to them. The Society's records for 1933-36
suggest the belief, common during those years, that an embrace of nazism
could be a partial or conditional affair. With Giinther's paper, however, a
Rubicon had been crossed: it was one thing to accommodate socially a political figure, quite another to accept his 'research'; Giinther's eugenic address
was not merely distasteful, it was an insult to the Society's intellectual tradition, and the individual scholarship of its members. Their reaction is therefore
instructive. If public defiance was unrealistic, private gestures were not. Yet
no one withdrew discreetly - even temporarily - from Society activities:
meetings and formal dinners were attended as before, articles submitted and
subscriptions renewed. Quis tacet consentire videtur. All the more so in this
case, as the Society had, in the past, shown itself noticeably unafraid to voice
doubts or objections, and had done so in sometimes very forthright terms.'8
The suggestion that the members somehow failed to appreciate the import of
Giinther's paper, and the effect of their own silence in answer to it, must be
rejected as unconvincing. It is difficult not to conclude that the decision to
carry on as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred was anything
other than a conscious act: a pretence of operating in a civilized society.19
16 Ibid., 85.
17 Ibid.
18 See, for instance, its sustained hostility over the years to the new translations by Hans Rothe
of Shakespeare's plays.
19 There exists, moreover, indirect confirmation of this conclusion. A few days after the Weimar
lecture, Giinther apparently read the same paper at a joint meeting in Berlin of the German
Philosophical Society and the Nordic Society. This time there seem to have been objections, judging by the review of the meeting in Rosenberg's Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte (87, June
1937, 547-50). The reviewer's reaction to such criticism is particularly revealing: 'Abgesehen von
den Aufbauwerten, die der Vortrag Giinthers alien Horern unserer Art gegeben hat, hat er also
auch zu einer Klarung der Fronten beigetragen. Er ist deshalb ganz besonders begrufienswert. Es
ist klar, daf3 die Machtiibernahme nicht gleichzeitig die Entscheidung des weltanschaulichen
Kampfes bedeuten konnte. Fur diesen setzen sich uberhaupt erst jetzt die Fronten gegeneinander

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Journalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 34 No 3

If there was any pretence on Giinther's part, it was limited to the hint of
conciliation at the beginning of his paper. For, after some conventional
remarks about 'nature' and 'nurture' in The Tempest, and heredity in
Cymbeline, he quickly got into his stride. Gunther began, as did his political
masters, with the general outlines of population policy. This involved encouraging 'the genetically-fit' male to 'select an appropriate mate', preferably in
'early manhood'.20To illustrate the point for his audience, he turned to something they would understand: Shakespeare's Sonnets. The opening line of the
sequence, which set the theme for the poems, would also do admirably as a
motto for a lecture on eugenics, 'From fairest creatures we desire increase'.
(Gunther, incidentally, quoted in English throughout.) Needless to say, the
addressee of this sentiment had changed. What in the Sonnets had been
directed at an individual young man was now meant for an entire nation. In
the Third Reich, thoughts of procreation had of course ceased to be a private
matter. That point had been made explicitly only a few weeks earlier by
Heinrich Himmler: 'All things which take place in the sexual sphere are not a
private affair of the individual, but signify the life and death of the nation.'21
Procreation itself was regarded as a political act - volkisch consciousness
made incarnate, as it were. If a German's principal duty in the nineteenth
century had famously been to remain unnoticeable to the authorities, now it
was to go forth and multiply. Not to do so was tantamount to anti-social
behaviour. Giinther referred his audience to Shakespeare's views in the
Sonnets. The fair youth of the opening poems is repeatedly urged to transmit
his beauty. Should he decide, out of some caprice, not to do so, he would, in
the words of the Third Sonnet, 'unbless some mother'. And Giinther was
anxious to draw his audience's attention in particular to the Sixth Sonnet:
merely 'to breed another thee', as it were, was hardly enough, for as the Bard
so aptly put it, 'ten times happier, be it ten for one'.22
What Giinther's audience made of all this is hard to determine. There was, if
nothing else, an unfortunate mismatch here of ideological intent and literary
detail. Aryan sexual wholesomeness was coupled with the notorious ambiguities of the Sonnets. But what had merely been risible or embarrassing up to
this point now turned sinister, as ham-fisted literary criticism gave way to
ab. Da ist es ein wertvollesKennzeichenjederArbeit,wer sich zu ihr bekenntund wer sich gegen
sie stellt.Je besserdie Arbeit,je klarerundeindeutigerdie Haltung..., umsoscharferwirdsichan
dieserStelledie Linieabzeichnen,auf der die Frontverlauft.Geradean GiinthersVortraghat sich
da auf einemwichtigenGebietvielesgeklart.'
For concreteevidencethat criticismof nazi distortionsof literaturewas possible,providedit
remainedwithin the establishedparametersof literarycriticism,see WolfgangKeller'selegant
attackon a nazi version(withheightenedantisemitism)of Marlowe'sJew of Malta(ahrbuch 77,
1941, 204).
20 Ibid.,86.
18 February1937 (quotedin MichaelBurleighand
21 Himmler,'Speechto SS-Gruppenfiihrer',
State
The
Racial
1991], 192-3).
[Cambridge
WolfgangWippermann,
22 Cf. Giinther,op cit., 86.

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eugenics proper. For Shakespeare's golden youth is contrasted with the


'genetically questionable, whom nature had not intended to procreate'.23Here,
too, the eugenicist was talking in unison with his masters. Within months of
the nazi seizure of power, legislation had been enacted to prevent, in the wording of the act, 'hereditary diseased progeny'.24The act had been adopted after
vigorous lobbying by Fritz Sauckel, Gauleiter of Thuringia, who had explicitly
invoked Giinther's name in his campaign.25All of which moves things beyond
the realm of literary appreciation and adds a sharp edge to Giinther's next
quotation, taken from Sonnet XI: 'She [i.e. nature] carved thee for her seal,
and meant thereby,/ thou should'st print more, not let the copy die'. Selection,
rather than mere philoprogenitiveness is thus revealed as the basis of all effective racial policy.
This, of course, was a point ceaselessly repeated by everyone connected with
the Third Reich's eugenic enterprise. Its justification, however, could be
tailored to suit the tastes and background of specific audiences. With literary
critics it might, as in Giinther's paper, take the form of literary quotations. And
if Shakespeare alone had failed to sway the more sophisticated listeners among
them, then more recherche authorities would have to be invoked. To this end,
Giinther quotes the Elizabethan poet Sir Thomas Overbury: 'My self I cannot
chose, my wife I may/ and in that choice of her it much doth lye/ to mend
myself in my posterity.'26
This had both private and public implications: finding an appropriate
female for oneself, with whom to continue the Nordic bloodline; and advising
other, less expert, men in their choice of mate. Giinther's paper, with its
'practical perspective' - lebenskundlich in his own untranslatable phrase,
was, in part, intended to help 'direct the gaze of male youth' in an appropriate
direction.27There were, however, also those who were, so to speak, genetically
beyond mending. And thus Giinther, in his discussion of Shakespeare and the
Sonnets, had finally arrived at the issue of sterilization.
He did not, of course, alarm his audience with disagreeable medical detail.
In fact, he did not feel the need to say very much about it. The economic case
for it was, he remarked, unanswerable.28But concentrating on the financial
benefit of mass sterilization seemed to him to be missing the point. Something
loftier was involved: Gesinnung alone ultimately mattered. 'Only an innate
ability to glimpse the final aim of creating an abler, nobler and fairer race'
could truly motivate the eugenicist to alter the racial status quo.29And leaving
prose behind him to give himself over to the sheer poetry of eugenics, Giinther
returns once more to Shakespeare. He quotes lines from Twelfth Night: the
23
24
25
26
27
28
29

Ibid., 87.
Cf. Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Progeny, 14 July 1933.
Cf. Gisela Bock, Zwangssterilisation im Nationalsozialismus (Opladen 1986), 82.
Cf. Giinther, op. cit., 88.
Ibid., 85.
Cf. ibid.
Ibid.

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Journalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 34 No 3

character of Olivia, Giinther suggests, is conscious of genetic superiority, when


she confirms (the disguised) Viola's status as a 'gentleman', 'I'll be sworn thou
art;/ thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, thy actions, and spirit/ do give thee fivefold blazon'. Likewise, Helen in All's Well, though lowly born, is 'young, wise,
fair' and 'in these to nature she's immediate heir'. Both characters, Giinther
feels, demonstrate Shakespeare's instinctive grasp of eugenic potential.
What was involved here, according to Giinther, was not a denial of the
concept of nobility, but a redefinition of it, along genetic and racial lines. This
underlay all racial policy worthy of the name. To equate eugenics with
suppression of the undesirable was simplistic and misleading even. After all, he
reminded his audience, an awareness of the virtues of mass sterilization was
not limited to National Socialism. But eugenics - true eugenics - ultimately
hinged on an innate 'sense of nobility', which needed to be translated into
procreative action, as it were.30And here Ginther was under no illusions as
to the practical difficulties involved: the ability of the state, or of concerned
individuals like himself, to intervene directly was clearly circumscribed. One
was limited to reminding the young of their responsibilities in the 'Struggle
for Survival', and hope that their idealism be fired by the eugenic message.
Reading Giinther's paper today, across the safe distance of half a century of
democracy and the rule of law, there is a danger of dismissing it as little more
than a colourful example of the nazi grotesque. This is both to ignore the
man's seriousness and events outside the literary sphere. Giinther's rhetorical
flourishes, after all, were uttered against a background of eugenic practice,
which he had helped to shape.
A few weeks before Hans Giinther spoke at Weimar about the 'unblessed
mothers' of Shakespeare's Sonnets, Himmler was developing a similar train of
thought in a secret speech before SS officers.31Its subject was the ongoing
effect of the Great War on the Reich's birth rate, and the failure of Germany's
estimated two million homosexuals to procreate. It is worth reflecting on the
symmetry of the two events. The near exact chronological coincidence was,
admittedly, an accident, but otherwise the two speeches were hardly unconnected. What linked them was a clear eugenic agenda and a steely determination to see theory translated into practice. Giinther may have been talking
about positive literary role models to guarantee 'increase' and 'fair issue',
while Himmler, for his part, was concentrating on the perceived homosexual
threat to reproductive activity in the Reich. However, the real difference lay
not in the individual slants Gunther and Himmler gave to their shared
obsessions but in the extent to which each felt able to reveal his true intentions. Whereas Giinther was deploring the limits to eugenic intervention (but
wisely forbore to develop more satisfying scenarios), Himmler was under
no such constraints: he was able to promise mass murder as an immediate
solution to a eugenic dilemma.
30
31

Ibid., 88.
Cf. Burleigh and Wippermann, op. cit., 192-3.

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The connection between Hans Ginther's pseudo-literary reflections on


Shakespeare and Himmler's calm promise of murder is therefore twofold:
Giinther's paper represents the semi-respectable public face of nazi policy in
1937, Himmler's speech the hidden reality. But Giinther is also an essential
precondition for Himmler, both as a pioneer of eugenics and as its propagandist. Acceptance by the public of eugenic theory - silent acceptance at the
very least - was a prerequisite for eugenic practice; and on the acceptance of
such practice depended the Third Reich's larger ambitions. There is a logical
progression from Giinther's racial tracts via the Marriage Laws and forcible
sterilization to the attempted mass murder of the eugenically undesirable.
In peacetime, with the full glare of the world media directed on Germany, it
was necessary to advance cautiously. Surveying the scene in 1933, Giinther
had concentrated on the limitations - if things 'are to stay within legal
parameters'. (His choice of the verb 'wollen' over the more common 'sollen' is
revealing: clearly, his imagination already ranged beyond legal constraints.)32
For the time being, the most promising avenue was therefore propaganda.
In eugenics, as in most areas of nazi policy, the regime's hopes rested principally on the Volksgemeinschaft's youngest members. Not only were they the
key to all future reproduction, they were also the most malleable section of
society. With them, the teaching of the churches and of other moral agencies
had not yet penetrated deeply, and might be counteracted by vigorous political
indoctrination; the door would thus be open to more overt eugenic intervention. The schools and youth organizations of the Reich were therefore the
natural battlegrounds for people like Hans Giinther. To ensure maximum
effectiveness, careful thought was required about how best to deliver the nazi
message. Racial primers, while useful, were only a start. They needed to be
supplemented by a racial component in all areas of teaching to provide constant reinforcement of the core message. The direct influence of nazi ideology
on the production of textbooks in the Third Reich is now widely acknowledged. Ginther's pronouncements on Shakespeare are a useful reminder that
matters went beyond textbooks. All aspects of teaching and education were
viewed as potential vehicles for the transmission of nazi racial thought.
Wider didactic ambitions clearly also lay behind Ginther's appearance
before the German Shakespeare Society. Private literary tastes may have played
a part, and the Society's cultural and intellectual prestige would have been an
added attraction. But it seems safe to assume that the assembled professors
and Geheimrdte were not the main target audience. They were, after all, at
some remove from the immediate front line in the Struggle for Racial Survival.
Giinther himself had specifically stated that all his endeavour was directed at
[Germany's] 'male youth'.33 With this in mind, the choice of venue for his
reproductive homily was less improbable than it might seem.
32 Cf. Giinther, Volk und Staat in ibrer Stellung zu Vererbungund Auslese (Munich 1933), 19:
'Unsere volkischen und staatlichen Zielsetzungen, wenn diese im Bereich der uns gegebenen
Moglichkeiten bleiben wollen ...' (quoted by Bock, op. cit., 68).
33 Giinther, 'Shakespeares Madchen', op. cit., 85.

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To understand why, it is helpful to consider briefly the role of Shakespeare


in German education. Shakespeare's position was unique. Not only was he
generally acknowledged as the greatest dramatist in any language since the
Greeks, he was also the only foreign writer to have achieved the status of
'honorary German'.34Since the late eighteenth century, and in particular since
the appearance of Schlegel and Tieck's definitive translation, he was at the
centre of German literary life. Goethe, no less, had assigned that place to him,
and it was no accident that the German Shakespeare Society should have
resided in Goethe's own Weimar. Shakespeare was as much a topic for German
schools as Germany's native classics; no Gymnasiast would reach his Abitur
without encountering in the classroom at least some of the Bard's plays. Post1933, Shakespeare'spre-eminence had, if anything, become more pronounced,
as the literary canon had otherwise been severely truncated.
Giinther, therefore, had hard-headed reasons for turning to Shakespeare.
(And, of course, the greater the stature of the writer the more valuable his
work became in propaganda terms: this, after all, was an ideology that
revelled in Great Men.) If Giinther's true intention was to convince by invoking Shakespeare, he must have hoped that his voice would carry beyond the
gathering that heard him speak. This was not unrealistic. The published proceedings of the German Shakespeare Society were available in the staff
libraries of many German Gymnasien - the Society's membership roll
included a substantial number of schoolmasters. And in those schools the same
ideological pressures applied that had carried Gtinther first to his chair at Jena
and now to the rostrum at Weimar. By 1937, with the regime's grasp on power
secure, a kind of self-censorship was prevalent in German schools, effectively
forcing politically uncommitted schoolmasters to echo in their teaching the
ideological message of their nazi colleagues.35Giinther's ruminations on Bard
and breeding were thus less quixotic than they might otherwise appear. To
complete the picture, one needs to examine why Shakespeare was considered
not merely useful but worthy of transmitting the nazi racial message.
Let us start with the obvious, the Bard's own racial background. In a distressingly mongrelized world, where even Richard Wagner's ancestry was the
object of dark rumours, Shakespeare was luminously Aryan. That much had
been established by 1937 - as much by official pronouncement as by 'scientific' racial method. For once, both the Propaganda Ministry and the
34 Cf. the Festrede at the 1934 meeting of the Shakespeare Society which provides a useful historical overview of Shakespeare's impact on German cultural life (Hans Hecht, 'Shakespeare in
unserer Gegenwart', Jahrbuch 70, 1934, 117-33). For official nazi pronouncements, see the
speeches by the Reichsdramaturg Rainer Schlosser, 'Der deutsche Shakespeare' and Gauleiter Josef
Wagner, 'Was ist uns Shakespeare?' (Jahrbuch 74, 1938, 13-19).
35 Schlosser had famously invited Germany's writers to re-interpret everything around them in
the light of nazi ideology: 'We find that the National Revolution has created anew for us the entire
world' (Rainer Schlosser, 'Rede auf der Ersten Tagung des Reichsbundes fur deutsches Freilichtund Volksschauspiel in Berlin', Das Volk und seine Buhne [Berlin 1935]. My translation.)
Something rather like that was also happening to existing literature, thus providing obvious
opportunities for nazi propaganda.

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333

Rosenberg Office concurred.36(The press and the various party organs duly
greeted each Shakespearean production in the Reich's theatres with the same
racial refrain.) The Bard's Germanentum had also been substantiated by
Giinther's own profession. The cranial measurements in Shakespeare'sportrait
were scrutinized and found to be squarely within the Nordic range - though
there was perhaps a touch of the Dinaric type about him.37(The absence of any
proof that the man in the portrait was Shakespeare had briefly been acknowledged but had not otherwise been allowed to undermine the analysis.)
Pictorial evidence apart, Shakespeare's rural origins practically guaranteed his
Aryan pedigree. On such 'findings', of course, depended decisions in all
aspects of private and public life in the Third Reich. Respected learned publications were forced to publish them; serious scholars were obliged to dignify
them with reviews. Yet everyone nonetheless persisted in keeping up the pretence of academic normality. In this regard, Germany's Shakespeareans were
entirely representative of wider professional practice in the Third Reich.
Since Shakespeare was thus indisputably Nordic, it followed that he had
written Nordic plays and verse. (Of course, with classic nazi circular reasoning, his work had earlier helped authenticate his own Nordic status.) If
these logical contortions provided the general ideological background to nazi
appreciation of the Bard, Hans Giinther went much further. As the title of his
paper suggests, Giinther saw in Shakespeare's work a potential manual for
appropriate selection of a mate. This particular aspect of eugenics was an
enduring preoccupation with Giinther. A few years later, in 1941, he would
publish the essence of his thoughts on the matter in the form of a popular
guide: Partner Selection for Marital Happiness and Hereditary Toughening.38
The basis of a happy union, according to Giinther, was racial awareness (at
any rate on the man's part), a clear idea of what marriage should be about, and
linked up with that an unambiguous definition of the respective roles in
marriage and society of the sexes.
With regard to racial awareness, the Third Reich's marriage laws had provided an overall framework to prevent any further dilution of 'Aryan' racial
purity. However, as Guintherwas at pains to explain, this would not bring
about an immediate eugenic improvement. Only sustained racial consciousness could do that. Giinther evidently realized the difficulty of attempting to
prove 'racial awareness' in Shakespeare.39The characters' individual nobility
offered a more promising avenue: their superiority was, he declared, 'innate',
not 'acquired' or even 'capable of being acquired'.40(Here Shakespeare proved
36 See, again, Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte, 87, June 1937, 547-50.
37 For this and similar insights, see Gustav L. Plessow, Um Shakespeares Nordentum (Aachen
1937).
38 Gattenwahl zu ehelichem Gluck und erblicher Ertiichtigung (Munich 1941). (Interestingly,
he was able to re-launch that little booklet at the height of the Adenauer Restoration in 1951.)
39 Characteristically, he tries nonetheless: Jessica, 'the Jew's daughter', in The Merchant of
Venice, is such a flat character, he suggests, because Jews lack the Aryans' inner life, and
Shakespeare had perceived as much (cf. 'Shakespeares Madchen', op. cit., 93).
40 Ibid., 90.

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more clear-sighted than Germany's own dramatists: Schiller's insistence on


universal brotherhood, for instance, was not merely politically suspect but
undermined the very basis of eugenics.) If this 'innate' awareness of nobility
dictated the characters' behaviour in the plays, it might, with luck, rub off
onto the reader or spectator. After all, the maidens in Shakespeare were
'intended to provide an ideal image', sketched with the hope, 'albeit to be read
between the lines', that they might inspire fair youth to sire 'noble issue'.41
What then made Shakespeare's female characters exemplary? Their solidly
Aryan traits, obviously, were of the essence. These were so solid, Giinther felt
no need to provide further evidence; even Juliet, it seems, was at heart a
Teutonic maiden and 'Mediterranean only in as much as the plot demanded
it'.42This manifest detachment from reality is more than a picturesque detail. It
goes to the heart of Giinther's concept of womanhood. What delights him
about Shakespearean maidens is precisely their idealization. Reality, as
Giinther knew all too well, was a different matter. When the magazine Volk
und Rasse had organized a photographic competition in 1926 of the perfect
Nordic face, the shortcomings of Germany's women had been starkly
revealed.43The all-male jury of racial experts, Giinther chief amongst them,
had felt unable to award a first prize: 'There was not one photo among [the
entries] that would have merited the prize.'44The contrast with the male
selection had been striking. There the problem was of a very different order.
The jury had been faced with such an embarrassment of genetic riches, such
superabundance of male beauty, it had proved almost impossible to decide on
the claims of any one individual.45(Seen in the light of these comments, it is
perhaps no accident that at Weimar Giinther should have dwelt so long and
lovingly on the fair youth of the Sonnets.)
What Giinther, and his masters, prized above all in a woman was decorous
passivity. This is amply borne out by his eugenic assessment of Shakespeare's
gallery of female characters. The list of maidens and matrons of whom he
approves is long, and only a few fail the test: Cressida (too wanton) and
Cleopatra (ditto - besides which she tempts Anthony into a racially doubtful
union); also suspect, for all their 'vivaciousness', were Windsor's eponymous
merry wives (too merry).46On the other hand, he is struck by the thought that,
with the exception of Miranda in The Tempest, all Shakespeare's female
characters are uneducated. This does not, he feels, diminish their attractiveness. They are gloriously feminine: utterly convincing both in their virtues and
characteristic feminine failings.47Education, he decides, is 'unnecessary for the
41 Ibid., 92.
42 Ibid., 99.
43 The details of the competition were announced in Volk und Rasse, 1 (2), May 1926; after the
deadline for submissions had been extended to the end of the year, the results were finally discussed the following February.
44 Cf. Volk und Rasse, 2 (1), February 1927, 1-11.
45 Cf. ibid.
46 Cf. 'Shakespeares Madchen', op. cit., 99-100.
47 Ibid., 92.

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development of what is finest in their nature'.48And here Giinther is, as ever,


perfectly in tune with nazi thought.
What was valued in a woman was her recognition of marriage and motherhood as her essential calling: 'her fate and higher purpose in life' (Beseeligung),
as Giinther himself put it.49Education was useful only in as much as it reinforced that message and taught necessary 'feminine' skills. Anything beyond
that was undesirable, since it might affect the all-important birth rate.
(Significantly, Giinther confesses to doubts about the over-educated Miranda
in The Tempest.)50The example of the BDM - the League of German
Maidens - with its emphasis on practical skills and 'natural feminine grace'
- neatly illustrates the point. For the real purpose of its gymnastic routines
was of course to prepare young bodies for childbirth.51In Giinther's paper, as
in the wider reality of the Third Reich, women figured only as potential breeding stock: the ultimate weapon in the v6lkisch state's armoury: 'The people
which has many children has the candidature for world power and world
dominion', as Himmler had confided to his followers.52 Here, too, Giinther
provides an edited version of his masters' ambitions, and a useful reminder
that nazi ideology dehumanized even where it meant to praise.
Giinther's remarks about the married state are also still somewhat guarded.
Even so, he notes with approval that the course of true love in Shakespeare
frequently runs counter to strict Christian teaching. This, he claims, represents
a return to the values of the Teutonic nations of old. Naturally, he provides no
evidence; and, since alleged conformity to ancient Germanic practice was a
routine form of praise in the Third Reich, one might be inclined to dismiss it as
inconsequential verbiage. Yet the emphasis on the 'pre-Christian', and the use
of the striking and untranslatable adjective lebensstark, with its veiled hint of
violence, should perhaps make one think again. The coming all-out assault on
Christian morality is surely foreshadowed here, and as openly as Giinther
dared in 1937. Again, it is instructive to remember Himmler's secret speech of
the same period. There, murder (of homosexuals) is promised and expressly
sanctioned with a reference to ancient Germanic practice.53It might seem
far-fetched to link Himmler's advocacy of mass murder in the interest of undisturbed procreation with Giinther's careful remarks about marriage, were it not
for one significant detail. Giinther mentions as the supreme expression of
lebensstark Germanic passion the plot of Macbeth; and he refers his audience
48
49

Ibid., 101.
Ibid., 95.

50 Cf. ibid., 91.


51 It was not for nothingthat the acronymBDM was generally,if scurrilously,interpretedto
standfor balddeutscheMutter- Germanmother-tobe. Seealso the explanation,providedby the
Das SchwarzeKorps,of the deepermeaningof the 'Faithand Beauty'organization:
SS-newspaper
'DerGlaubeist das Wissenum eine Berufung:Siesollenja dereinstMutterderkommendengesunden, starken,zahlreichenGenerationensein' (27 January1938).
52 SpeechbeforeSS-Gruppenfiihrer,
18 February1937 (BurleighandWippermann,op. cit.).
53 Homosexuals,Himmlerclaims,were routinelystrangledand dumpedin peat bogs. He does
not divulgewhat the ancientTeutonsdid in drieruplandareas.

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Journalof ContemporaryHistoryVol 34 No 3

in particular to the scene in the first act where, dagger in hand, Lady Macbeth
steels her husband's nerve to murder.54
Retrospective interpretation must guard against overstating the case. For all
his nazi connections, Hans Giinther was no more privy in 1937 to the regime's
ultimate plans than was his audience. And sterilization, however repugnant
and morally reprehensible, does not equal murder. What is indisputable, however, is Giinther's own radicalism. In his Shakespearean paper he explicitly
praises the regime's eugenic agenda; and he mentions as instances of 'far-sighted policy' not just sterilization of the 'diseased', but 'protective custody' and
what he coyly refers to as 'other measures'.55At about this time the regime
began to break its own laws when it forcibly sterilized the so-called
Rheinlandbastarde - people of mixed race conceived during the occupation
of the Rhine. Giinther was among the 'experts' whose views had been sought
about this.56Again, this is not murder; but in view of Giinther's equanimity
about this blatant breach even of nazi law, his reference to Lady Macbeth does
seem significant. And it adds a definite edge to his earlier observation that
women should 'stiffen' their husbands' 'resolve in the Struggle for Survival'.57
To conclude, Hans Giinther's bizarre exercise in literary criticism provides a
stark glimpse of German national life in the Third Reich. The fate and fortunes
of the protagonists at the 1937 meeting of the German Shakespeare Society are
of wider significance. Gunther's inexorable rise and the concomitant decline of
the German intellectual tradition are paradigmatic of developments in nazi
Germany - and after. (By 1941 the German Shakespeare Society had been
effectively closed down in spite of its attempts to move with the times;
Giinther meanwhile flourished, survived the war and, ultimately, even the
collapse of the regime. By the 1950s he was in print again and gloomily
scanning the darkening racial horizons.)58But the importance of his paper goes
beyond intellectual morality or aspects of nazi racial policy. It illuminates the
background to the Third Reich's murderous eugenic experiment - even if
Giinther's paper is still relatively close to the beginning of that process, and the
final destination was not yet fully visible. 'Shakespeare's Maidens and
Matrons' demonstrates how complicity with the regime's agenda was established by small incremental steps that ultimately led to the gas vans and gas
chambers of the 'Euthanasia Programme'.
Gerwin Strobl
teaches Central European History at Cardiff University. He is the
author of several articles on nazi cultural policy, and is currently
writing a book on German perceptions of Britain.
54
55
56
57
58

Cf. 'Shakespeares Madchen', op. cit., 95.


Ibid., 85.
Cf. Bock, op. cit., 354.
'Shakespeares Madchen', op. cit., 91.
Cf. Begabtenschwund in Europa (Munich 1959).

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