Das Jahr 1938 in der deutschsprachigen Volkskunde

By Wolfgang Brückner. 2020. Munster: Waxmann Verlag. 202 pages. ISBN: 3830992033 (hard cover).

Reviewed by James R. Dow, Iowa State University, emeritus

[Review length: 898 words • Review posted on October 22, 2020]

[Cover ofDas Jahr 1938 in der deutschsprachigen Volkskunde]


Personal anecdote:

The Austrian folklorist Richard Wolfram used the term “gestalthaftes Sehen” (clairvoyance) in 1970 but no one knew exactly what he meant, and no one has seen fit to pursue his usage. It was a term borrowed in fact from his close friend Otto Höfler, and represented a central concept for Wolfram in his many years of fieldwork. He “saw” not just remnants of ancient Germanic customs; he actually seems to have believed that they continue into the present, in this case the 1940s, during his fieldwork in South Tyrol. When I offered to lay this out in an article for the Österreichische Zeitschrift für Volkskunde, a colleague and personal friend in Vienna told me that few persons if any would be interested, as history of the discipline was no longer being published!


In the 1990s the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Volkskunde (German Folklore Society) continued under this name, but virtually all departments in it renamed themselves Europäische Ethnologie, Kulturanthropologie, Empirische Kulturwissenschaft, etc. Unique among these academic departments today is a focus on existential, everyday life, and a de-emphasis on the history of the discipline. This was not always the case, especially from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, when there was widespread treatment of the past, particularly the years leading up to and including National Socialism, but also later when the German world was divided into four: Austria, part of Switzerland, and the two German states. Wolfgang Brückner is one of the stalwarts of this interest in the past, as this work Das Jahr 1938 in der deutschsprachigen Volkskunde will show.

Brückner confesses in his introduction that his book could be renamed Das Umfeld des Matthes Ziegler (The Milieu around Matthes Ziegler), and presents us with a near-obsessive investigation of the man, who was a high-ranking Nazi in the Rosenberg Office and in Himmler’s SS Ancestral Inheritance—Nazi Germany’s two competing ideological umbrella organizations—but remained virtually unknown following the war. Ziegler’s later occupations were as a pastor and a reporter on the Vatican for Protestant publications. The book traces Ziegler’s interwoven career as National Socialist and publisher. The year 1988, the fiftieth anniversary of Germany’s annexation of Austria, provided Brückner and many others with a stimulus to look back at 1938, the year of appeasement, the Anschluss, the incorporation of the Czech Sudetenland into the Reich, Reichkristallnacht, the Jugendpflichtgesetz (Mandatory Youth Law—requiring Hitlerjugend participation), the creation of a Volksempfänger (inexpensive radio for propaganda transmission), the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition, the racial accord between Hitler and Mussolini, first talk of an atomic bomb, Stalin’s show trials in the USSR, and the American depression with 10.4 million people out of work. This was indeed an Epochenjahr (epochal year), and the author points to research that views the age as “class warfare of intelligence,” in this case, regarding what will be allowed in print (12)

Early in the text Wolfgang Brückner addresses one of the continuing questions concerning Volkskunde in the German world. How can a small discipline have had such an enormous influence on the politics of the day? His answer: “Alongside all of these serious events [of 1938], the success of the little local dictators or the ‘Führer’ in the ‘politically coordinated’ organizations of every kind seem unspectacular. But here there arose a network, as we say today, that over time and in spite of difficulties of the war, created and kept alive new structures that reinforced the entire system and shielded it from a quick demise” (12). He is describing German Volkskunde during the 1930s and 1940s, though there is still ongoing debate on just who participated. The author says his book will consist of an empirical investigation of historical facts, not a belaboring of “ideological studies.”

In the first chapter a backstory is offered, but there is little new information, just a detailed outlay necessary for understanding his later elaboration on Ziegler and German book and journal publishers. Brückner does give us an initial look at the man Matthes Ziegler (1911-1992) and his education, quoting extensively from the latter’s postwar manuscript Von Rosenberg zu Niemöller: Ein deutscher Schicksalsweg, dated 1967 and revised in 1987. Ziegler’s relationship to Alfred Rosenberg’s failed attempt to create the so-called Hohe Schule der NSDAP (University of the National Socialist Party) with central faculties devoted to pre-history, racial teachings, and Volkskunde, is presented. The university library would include confiscated materials from Poland and Ukraine.

Most significant in the first chapter is the lengthy discussion of the Leitfaden (guide) for the 1938 publication Deutsche Volkskunde im Schrifttum (German Folklore in Publication) and subtitled “A Guide for the Teaching and Educational Work of the NSDAP,” published by the Party’s Working Community for German Folklore, in conjunction with the Office for Literary Promotion of the Führer’s Commissioner for the Supervision of all Intellectual and World View Schooling and Education of the NSDAP. I own a copy of this work and frequently referred to it while preparing my review. According to Brückner’s statistics there were 485 summaries with 339 positive, 70 that were conditionally positive, and only 43—about 8.8%—negative. The book was nothing less than a published blacklist. I offer one example of a negative evaluation, for Hans Naumann, known to most folklorists around the world for his concept of gesunkenes Kulturgut, and about whom I have written in the Journal of Folklore Research. The summary on page 16 reads as follows:

“Naumann’s Volkskunde was treated during the liberal period as the basic work on folklore. For us it remains a constant reminder of the penetration of the liberal spirit into German folk research and points out its troublesome conclusions. Naumann’s two strata theory, laid out programmatically here, divides a unified folk into two different levels, both of which are viewed as übervölkisch (racially pure) German folk. The fundamental denial of völkisch necessity, and the failure to recognize all of the biological laws of life, forms the distinctive trait of his viewpoint. Clearly Neumann’s [sic] “ordering principle” was Marxist and what resulted was that all confessional groups were able to use it in its scholarly disguise.”

“Naumann tries in the new edition to make his viewpoints fit the National Socialist scene. This volunteer attempt at Gleichschaltung (political coordination) borders on misuse and intentional distortion of National Socialist ideology and must be rejected no less sharply in tone and method.”

The next three chapters deal with the second goal of the book, what Brückner refers to as Meinungshegemonien des gedruckten Wortes (opinion-hegemony of the printed word). Such a presentation is the bane of modern historians who do not like the one-damn-thing-after-another approach, but these chapters are clearly written for insiders who appreciate the virtual and minute detail of publisher, editorial boards, and individual approaches to Volkskunde. Chapter 2 establishes the media presence of what was conceived to be volkskundlich (folkloric). Chapter 3 traces the Herbert Stubenrauch Verlag as it moves from Berlin to Leipzig and finally to Vienna, and particularly the editors and their increasingly NS political allegiances. Chapter 4 does the same but concentrates in some detail on the völkische Aufgabe der Religionswissenschaft (racial mission of religious scholarship), since this is the point of connection between the first and second purposes of the book: Ziegler and publishing of Volkskunde. Stubenrauch even published an English edition: “News in Brief. Reports and Documents on Contemporary Germany” (80). Other journals are also referenced for 1938, including those that were intended for a wider circulation and readership, called Illustrierte (on page 126), but many of these were short-lived.

Most interesting in these chapters are the brief biographies of the publishers, the intermittent, nearly episodic stories of well-known individuals, and Brückner’s own personal knowledge of and relationship to many of them (e.g., Adolf Spamer, on page 84). Some are just factual descriptions, others reveal his own sympathy to those who were faced with the NS state and its restrictions (e.g., Richard Beitl, on pages 60-63). Chapter 3 also includes a sub-section on the mythologists of Vienna after 1938, and includes many of the individuals I have written about. Most interesting is the brief but very informative description of a 1952 Verdammungssynode (Condemnation Synod) in Frankfurt am Main, arranged and directed by Brückner’s Doktormutter Mathilde Hain. It is a list, though hardly complete, of those folklorists who lived through National Socialism and were beginning to reestablish the discipline. Unknown to me is why Mathilde Hain did not participate in the first (questionable) meeting of the German Folklore Society in March of 1951.

In chapter 5 Wolfgang Brückner brings together all his research and thoughts about Matthes Ziegler as a Volkskunde referee, a member of the SS, and a high Party functionary. He received the coveted unabkömmlich (indispensable) credentials, meaning simply that he could avoid military combat. The author describes Ziegler’s knowledge of and complicity in executions, like that of Ernst Röhm, described as “mies,” Yiddish, and used euphemistically, and of an Italian prisoner whose last words were “O mama mia.” Finally, on page 161 a summary of Ziegler’s postwar years is offered. Matthes Ziegler “found his way back to the Protestant church” and served a pastor in Hessen until the mid-1970s. Ironically, after witnessing the crowning of Pope Pius XII in Rome in 1939, as a representative of Alfred Rosenberg to whom he reported on the Vatican, he became once again a reporter for the Deutsche Pfarrerblatt (German Pastor’s Sheet) in the section Vatikankronik. Further, in 1947 in the village of Bensheim, a religious institute was founded, which established a charity and the Bensheim Circle of Protestant theologists who had been Catholic priests. Ziegler participated in 1955-56.

The last sub-chapter serves to wrap up some of what had been laid out in some detail before. Karl Haiding who was to be part of the Hohe Schule der NSDAP found himself in 1943 in the Cistercian Abbey in Rein (Austria) as the only member of the planned Institut für Volkskunde in the planned university. Having fled with his family, Ziegler continued to write and send his reports out. Unbelievable but true was Ziegler’s report on the death of Adolf Hitler: “The Führer undertook his last sortie from the Reich Chancellery, and with weapon in hand he died in action against the Bolshevik world enemy” (169).

Attached almost as a novelty, Brückner reports on the discovery of a Goldkessel (Golden Chalice) in the large Chiemsee Lake near Munich. The chalice was reported on in the press, and the author offered his help in documenting its authenticity. It should be known that Brückner has frequently appeared on a Bavarian television show, “Kunst und Krempel,” similar to the popular Antiques Roadshow in America. The chalice was most likely produced in the 1920-1930s, but little is known about its purpose, just where it is now, or its real value. This wild story does not end, however, and Brückner offers his own fascinating clarification, relating the object to this very book. The location of the find was about 200 meters offshore, in water three meters deep, and precisely where Rosenberg’s Hohe Schule was to be located. Was this some kind of Holy Grail of the Party, to be ensconced in one of the buildings on the planned university campus, a sacred vessel at the center of cultic activities? Was this the place where ancestor worship in the sense of both Rosenberg and Himmler would take place? There were already such places, well documented in research: the crypt in Himmler’s Wewelsburg, or in Quedlingburg where Weihestunden (Sacred Time) was to be observed. But Brückner leaves this fascinating story here and returns to Ziegler, whom he describes as a “belief warrior” for Himmler, one who embraced a “political religion,” already described in 1938.

Why does a renowned scholar like Wolfgang Brückner take on the task of researching and publishing his findings on such a figure as Matthes Ziegler? His answer is clear here too; this was an opportunist who was using his position(s) to further his own desire to acquire a professorship at a university, somewhere in the German world. But more importantly, how could a man who professed his own “belief” in Christianity yield to such perversion? Brückner offers many answers, not just a simple one; readers must draw their own conclusions. If he himself is a man of belief, then the effrontery of Ziegler is even more understandable.

Finally, just a little about the Apparat: the bibliography contains 274 items, while individual discoveries, like unpublished manuscripts, and private communications are only found in the footnotes. The index is threefold: the first index locates the many publishers throughout the text, the second includes the cited journals, and the third is of the individuals treated—most interesting for students and scholars who want to do further research, particularly on the 231 people treated in the body of the text. Wisely, Brückner does not include all references in the text of people like Ziegler (192 times), Hitler (51 times), Rosenberg (195 times), Himmler (44 times), or Göring, Hess, and Bormann, among others. There are two mistakes, most likely simply typos: on page 86, mit einen (should be einem) Nachwort,” and on page 129, footnote 308, “Ottfried should be Gottfried.”

Professor Brückner has contributed in this most impressive text to the history of the discipline, even if it is no longer at the center of research, and to himself on his “round” birthday, 90 and still very productive.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.