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“Germanic Freedom” and neo-paganism in German working-class, proletarian and socialist culture (Hennig Eichberg)

“Germanic Freedom” and neo-paganism in German working-class, proletarian and socialist culture

Hennig Eichberg


A retrospective study of the German left leads us, before 1914 and even before 1900, to discover an original working class and socialist culture within which we find the proletarian free thinkers (proletarische Freidenker). Curiously, the historians of the left in the 1970s deliberately ignored this movement which in 1933, at a time when Hitler reached power, did not count less than one million members drawn from Social-Democratic, Socialist and Communist organizations.

In the rare cases where this movement was studied, it was under conditions of ideological narrow-mindedness; they approached only the personal history of the leaders and forgot the daily aspects of the life of this movement. By observing its history and sociology more closely, however, one discovers many references to Germanic antiquity.

“Thor cuts down the Snake of Midgard”: such is the legend of an engraving printed in a Social Democratic Party magazine in 1895. In Vorwärts, a socialist newspaper, the historian and Marxist ideologist Franz Mehring welcomes the intention of an editor to publish a series of books showing old German legends, even adding new content. On a cover in 1894, one sees a gnome with white beard opening the gates to a world of fantastic legends for some wonder-struck children: it was understood that a futuristic and  Socialist perspective was associated with this. The socialist periodical, Der wahre Jakob, abounded in the same direction, handling the same associations of ideas and images by offering a poster to its readers titled “Winter Solstice”, showing ancient Germans gathered around a burning fire.

A series of pictures collected and published by a Social Democratic cooperative which distributed cheap foodstuffs were used to transmit the following message:

“the gatherings of the tribes of ancient Germany were called Things or Dings; they were always held in the open air. These gathering places were on mountaintops or under the cover of large trees or within proximity of enormous blocks of stone. All the free and worthy men who carried weapons had the duty to attend these meetings. They gathered on fixed dates or on exceptional convocations to regulate business according to traditional laws, to decide peace or war or to sit as a court”.

This left-wing affirmed a fidelity to the Things of the Ancien Régime, lead by assemblies of companions, and to the consumer cooperatives of the first decades of German social democracy. A song of the “Proletarian Friends of Nature” (c. 1900) shows that the open air, evoked in the description of the democratic Thing, could be regarded as a political claim, an identification with a original form of environmentalism preaching the hygiene of life:

Stand up brothers!
Let us leave for the beloved and free forest!
That in the green alleys of oaks,
our song resounds more strongly.
Where lived our fathers,
strong like lions and faithful like doves,
where flew the formerly free eagle,
that our course takes its rise.
Let us there exert the force of our numbers,
put the test of courage on our chests,
so that our ancestors in Valhalla will look joyfully towards us!

“Free”, “green”, “ancestors”, “Valhalla”: here was planted a very romantic setting, but perfectly in agreement with socialist hopes. At the time of the Bavarian festival of working singers in 1925 one saw, when entering the town on the way to the solstice festival, a booth occupied by figures in ancient Germanic costumes and a blonde girl sitting on the side, playing a quadrant between two oaks. These characters sang old German songs. This spectacle could pass for a strange and doubtful one if exclusively associated with the patriotic and militarist pomp of the imperial age. But in the context of the socialist movement, it was neither militarist nor chauvinistic: it symbolized a Germanic freedom, perfectly in pace with the visions of the socialist movement’s future.

In addition to the friends of nature and the proletarian free thinkers, there were the socialist working youth who followed the steps of  Hermann the Cherusci by taking walks in the Teutoburg forest. In the cities, working youths broke the monotony of their industrial existence by dancing the popular dances in the open air, by celebrating the solstices and by rediscovering the old scenic plays of the Middle Ages. A cosmetic reform was even adopted by the working youth: the girls revived the female behaviors of Germanic antiquity by wearing diadems and bronze pins.

This re-appropriation of Germanic cultural heritage, transformed and adapted, found a particular echo within proletarian festivals, organized mainly by the socialist free thinkers.  In 1874, a socialist newspaper wrote: “Who isn’t joyful with the approach of the merry time of Christmas? Who isn’t delighted with his children by seeing them jumping for joy in front of the Christmas tree filled with gifts? But few of our contemporaries wonder about the true significance of the festivals of Christmas. Christianity succeeded in transforming the festivals of pagan antiquity into Christian festivals. It was what arrived with Christmas that the ancient Germans held highly significant. This ancient festival is now one of the major festivals of the Christians. The ancient Germans had similar feelings because the days again start to lengthen. Our ancestors often bound their festivals to natural processes. The lengthening of the days created within their homes a festive environment because this meant more light. Light is life and more light means more life”.

At the end of 1880, the working poet Manfred Wittich published a piece on Christmas for the  “Union of Trained Workers” of Leipzig. This piece referred to the old Germanic customs of Christmas. A militant text by Franz Diederich was entitled “Winter Solstice”. After the First World War, working youth played out solstice scenes published by the “Young Workers’ Editions”. Among these publications, we could cite Light, a solstical play by Hermann Claudius and Solstice by Kurt Heilbutz. Philologists should start a thorough search to establish if these solstice fires and festivals emerged without mediation in socialist literature or if they were inspired by the behaviors of working youth. Both certainly played a role. It is more than probable that the movement of young people contributed to the development of rites while socialist literature provided topics, theories and justifications. In 1926, a socialist free thinker wrote: “the proletariat creates its own festivals. We see in Christmas an event by which Communism brings its message of happiness to the people: the solstice is for us a symbol of the proletariat in the struggle.  Just as the sun rises from this day, thus the revolutionary movement overcame its low point and is on the path to victory: our spring also will come”.

Festivals of May, pagan festivals of spring, and the cult of work

In addition to the solstice, May 1st was also interpreted by the German Socialists as a day of the international struggle of the working class and linked it to the pagan customs of spring. As far back as 1880, Wilhelm Liebknecht called upon the distant origins of socialist May 1st: “For millennia, May 1st is a feast day, not only in the Germanic countries but also as much in the Latin countries. It is the festival of the spring and the rebirth of the soil. May 1st is thus the happiest choice for the world festival of work because it is sanctified by a thousand-year-old tradition”.

Although the festival of May 1st complemented certain economic and political views and was resolutely turned towards the future, it received, by this pagan reference, a different element that was integrated in the socialist design of this festival. Only from a superficial look at the history of socialism, based on the optics which are prevalent nowadays, can it seem contradictory that an old socialist revolutionary like Liebknecht would mouth references to pagan festivals of spring and thousand-year-old traditions and the sacred aspects resulting from them. But the Socialists of the time did indeed refer to it. In 1905, the SDP newspaper was decorated, in honor of the May festival, with drawings by the popular artist and neo-pagan, Fidus. The first page showed the radiant god of the spring (Baldur), surrounded by naked humans in the manner of the ancient Germans.  Fidus drew then as well for the publications of the Socialists, the anarchists and the free thinkers as well as for those of right-wingers who were impregnated with Germanic religiosity and the nationalist worship of the people.

The festival of May, anti-Christian and of pagan coloring, ended up reaching higher realms of the policy in 1919, when the new republican government proposed making a national festival of it. The debates in the Reichstag were opened by the socialist Minister of the interior, David: “on May 1st,  primitive nature is celebrated and survives in many places within popular tales and customs. One feels a heightened joy in life, the return of the light and sun, the alarm clock of nature with its mouthful of flowers. By choosing this day, the worker-combatants introduced into the ancient nature celebrations a high cultural ideal”.

The spokesman for the right-wing answered him by saying that the dignity of work was better expressed in the Christian harvest festival. As a Christian he noted that, in the agitation of  May 1st, the religious note remained but it was distant from Sundays and of other Christian public holidays. With the applause of the German nationalists (Deutschnationalen), he concluded by saying that he refused to endorse the legal recognition of May 1st and invited all the deputies of Christian sensitivity in the Parliament to join him.

Following this debate, a schism became visible between pagan Socialists and an opposition faction that remained in the Christian bosom. This opposition included social democratic speakers who referred to Jesus of Nazareth and insisted that Christian ethics could not be erased. The free thinkers in the socialist movement stuck to their pagan interpretation of the festival of May and developed it even further. For example, in 1928 a periodical of the Social Democratic Reading Circle declared:

“the character of May 1st, celebrated as the most crowned day of the year among many ancients, is all the more interesting since its ideological contents are not limited to the exaltation of the new soil, but also introduces an assortment of cultural topics related to work (…) among the Celts, Druids distributed the fire of the new hearth on May 1st. This distribution of new fire was a noted custom of a strong sanctity; it counted among the most significant the sanctity of work (…)  the thought of the majority of the primitive peoples was largely dominated by the worship of the instruments of work, the plants and the domestic animals. One finds the same designs in the worship of the hammer: one swears on the hammer, it seals the contracts, blesses the marriages and is used as an amulet. One places it like talisman on the gates of the cattle sheds and dwellings, later on the gates of the cities. The Christian sign of the cross is the old sign of the hammer. The plough, the boat, the wheel, the cart, the sickle and, overall, fire, enjoyed the same veneration. Fire is particularly significant because it is the symbol of the social unit, of a socialist community of work and life.

It is the old fire of the horde that we find here. The ceremony of fire is added at the most significant of popular assemblies: the large Thing. As for the antique “Merkergeding”, an assembly which usually took place itself at the time of the festival of Walpurgis, also named “Meigeding” (Thing of May) or, in the older documents, “Meyengedingen”, the origins of which is lost in the mists of time. It was the most solemn meeting of the members of a community of frontier colonists. It was not for arbitrary reasons that the festival of spring and the gathering of the people were held together. The two events had a social root. In the spirit of those remote times, it was completely normal to associate the return of the soil with the payment of community problems, because the gods were factors of unity.

The decline and, finally, the disappearance of these communities of colonists of the steppes, along with their methods of managing the economy and public welfare by utilizing a very high amount of social ethics, did not necessarily involve the disappearance of the festival of May. On the contrary, this festival did not cease having very clear social connotations and expressing conflicts of class. The games of May, which proceeded around the May tree after it was solemnly set up, often were a venue for satires by peasants and urban proletariat craftsmen directed against their oppressors and exploiters. In this respect, the plays of the English people are particularly interesting. Robin of Wood appears there like the “king of May” and a popular hero. What did that signify? Robin Hood! Robin Hood! Takes from the rich and gives to the poor! The festival of May was the most imposing in the history of human engineering. In 1889, with the international congress in Paris, it was heightened as the world festival of the proletariat. Thus an arch was thrown over a millennia.”

In this socialist text of 1928, it’s not any longer just a question of external behavior or romantic explanations (fires of solstice, etc…). On the contrary, it offers a synoptic sight of the Thing: fire-worship and the May tree, the festival of spring, the worship of work and class struggle. The festival of May thus received contents that were pagan, socialist and historical materialist. The documents attesting to mythological and pagan references in the socialist working culture are so numerous that one wonders how they could have pass unperceived until now. In the more recent literature, it is either completely overlooked or denounced as tactical concessions. The same could be said of the religious-like mass pageants, working-class nudism (considered an act of liberation) and the movement of free thinkers within the German militant proletariat.

These omissions not only reveal the limited spirit of the analysts but also an arrogance of a methodological nature implicit within the media. These revivals, at the same time Socialist and neo-pagan, were not theoretical stunts emanating from various social democratic or rightist leaders. The reason our contemporary historians haven’t taken it seriously is that the movement was chronicled in daily newspapers, children’s books and in graphics. Certainly, not in “serious” socialist literature.

Thus a whole field in the cultural history of working-class opposition was driven back and we miss a major insight into the motivations which led to the formation of significant proletarian organizations, working-class youth movements, the circles of the “friends of nature” and the free thinkers. But a quest by today’s pioneers, who are starting to release themselves from pretentious intellectualism and pure theory, reveals an alternative socialist religiosity. By studying the spontaneous forms of the festival and the need for religion that is felt and lived by the workers, one saw in Russia the features of neo-paganism taking shape after the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. Thus we had the “god-builders”, who referred to Anatoli Lounatscharski and Maxime Gorki. Among Western social democrats in Germany and Belgium, Henri De Man made a similar effort by organizing socialist “Thingspiele”, along with the national-socialists.

An examination of all this material shows it’s quite possible that there could be a direct continuity or structural analogy between the neo-pagan working-class culture of 1900-1933, on the one hand, and attempts in a very similar vein to rediscover mythological roots in the 1970s, on the other. We must develop new interpretations of a structural nature, as if sealing a rupture. On the other hand, it seems more exact for us to say that the Danish and German romantic left-wings of the late 19th and 20th Century are a source of more contemporary inspiration.


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