In 1929, one of Germany’s national newspapers ran a picture story featuring globally influential people who, the headline proclaimed, “have become legends.” It included the former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and India’s anti-colonialist leader Mahatma Gandhi. Alongside them was a picture of a long-since-forgotten German poet. His name was Stefan George, but to those under his influence he was known as “Master.”
George was 61 years old that year, had no fixed abode and very little was known of his personal life and past. But that didn’t matter to his followers; to them he was something more than human: “a cosmic ego,” “a mind brooding upon its own being.” Against the backdrop of Weimar Germany — traumatized by postwar humiliation and the collapse of faith in traditional political and cultural institutions — George preached an alternate reality through books of poetry. His words swam in oceans of irrationalism: of pagan gods, ancient destinies and a “spiritual empire” he called “Secret Germany” bubbling beneath the surface of normal life. In essence, George dreamed of that terribly persistent political fantasy: a future inspired by the past. He wanted to make Germany great again.
George dazzled Germans on all sides of the political spectrum (although many, with regret, would later distance themselves). Walter Benjamin loitered for hours around the parks of Heidelberg that he knew the poet frequented, hoping to catch sight of him. “I am converting to Stefan George,” wrote a young Bertolt Brecht in his diary. The economist Kurt Singer declared in a letter to the philosopher Martin Buber: “No man today embodies the divine more purely and creatively than George.”
Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, met Stefan George in 1910 and immediately became curious. He didn’t buy George’s message — he felt he served “other gods” — but was fascinated by the bizarre hold he seemed to have over his followers. At a conference in Frankfurt, he described the “cult” that was growing around him as a “modern religious sect” that was united by what he described as “artistic world feelings.” In June that year, he wrote a letter to one of his students in which he described George as having “the traits of true greatness with others that almost verge on the grotesque,” and rekindled a particularly rare word to capture what he was witnessing: charisma.
At the time, charisma was an obscure religious concept used mostly in the depths of Christian theology. It had featured almost 2,000 years earlier in the New Testament writings of Paul to describe figures like Jesus and Moses who’d been imbued with God’s power or grace. Paul had borrowed it from the Ancient Greek word “charis,” which more generally denoted someone blessed with the gift of grace. Weber thought charisma shouldn’t be restricted to the early days of Christianity, but rather was a concept that explained a far wider social phenomenon, and he would use it more than a thousand times in his writings. He saw charisma echoing throughout culture and politics, past and present, and especially loudly in the life of Stefan George.
I knew: This man is doing me violence — but I was no longer strong enough. I kissed the hand he offered and with choking voice uttered: ‘Master, what shall I do?’
— Ernst Glöckner
It certainly helped that George was striking to look at: eerily tall with pale blueish-white skin and a strong, bony face. His sunken eyes held deep blue irises and his hair, a big white mop, was always combed backward. He often dressed in long priest-like frock coats, and not one photo ever shows him smiling. At dimly lit and exclusive readings, he recited his poems in a chant-like style with a deep and commanding voice. He despised the democracy of Weimar Germany, cursed the rationality and soullessness of modernity and blamed capitalism for the destruction of social and private life. Instead, years before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power, he foresaw a violent reckoning that would result in the rise of a messianic “fuhrer” and a “new reich.”
Many were immediately entranced by George, others unnerved. As the Notre Dame historian Robert Norton described in his book “Secret Germany,” Ernst Bertram was left haunted by their meeting — “a werewolf!” he wrote. Bertram’s partner, Ernst Glöckner, on the other hand, described his first encounter with George as “terrible, indescribable, blissful, vile … with many fine shivers of happiness, with as many glances into an infinite abyss.” Reflecting on how he was overcome by George’s force of personality, Glöckner wrote: “I knew: This man is doing me violence — but I was no longer strong enough. I kissed the hand he offered and with choking voice uttered: ‘Master, what shall I do?’”
As German democracy began to crumble under the pressure of rebellions and hyperinflation, George’s prophecy increased in potency. He became a craze among the educated youth, and a select few were chosen to join his inner circle of “disciples.” The George-Kreis or George Circle, as it came to be known, included eminent writers, poets and historians like Friedrich Gundolf, Ernst Kantorowicz, Max Kommerell, Ernst Morwitz and Friedrich Wolters; aristocrats like brothers Berthold, Alexander and Claus von Stauffenberg; and the pharmaceutical tycoon Robert Boehringer. These were some of the country’s most intellectually gifted young men. They were always young men, and attractive too — partly due to George’s misogynistic views, his homosexuality and his valorization of the male-bonding culture of Ancient Greece.
Between 1916 and 1934, the George Circle published 18 books, many of which became national bestsellers. Most of them were carefully selected historical biographies of Germanic figures like Kaiser Frederick II, Goethe, Nietzsche and Leibniz, as well as others that George believed were part of the same spiritual empire: Shakespeare, Napoleon and Caesar. The books ditched the usual objectivity of historical biographies of the era in favor of scintillating depictions and ideological mythmaking. Their not-so-secret intention was to sculpt the future by peddling a revision of Germany’s history as one in which salvation and meaning were delivered to the people by the actions of heroic individuals.
In 1928, he published his final book of poetry, “Das Neue Reich” (“The New Reich,”) and its vision established him as some kind of oracle for the German far-right. Hitler and Heinrich Himmler pored over George Circle books, and Hermann Göring gave one as a present to Benito Mussolini. At book burnings, George’s work was cited as an example of literature worth holding onto; there was even talk of making him a poet laureate.
Link to the rest at Noema