‘Blüte und Zerfall'?: ‘Schematic Narrative Templates' of decline and fall in National Socialist racial ideology

Presented at Declines and Falls: Perspectives in European History and Historiography – Twenty Years of the European Review of History / Revue européenne d’histoire – An Anniversary Conference, Central European University, Budapest, 17 May 2013.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the idea that the destinies of races, nations and empires were universal and biologically determined (wherever and whenever in human history they existed) was the preserve of a minority of racial theorists and academics. However, within a few decades, such ideas came to dominate National Socialist thought, and were propagated in ideological and educational material throughout the Third Reich.

Whether in relation to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the Greek city-states, or the workings of the British Empire and the supposed mission of the Third Reich itself, historical events began to be presented in a way which assumed the dominance of Nazi racial theories, and which ultimately attempted to discredit all deviant, non-racially-motivated interpretations of world history. In particular, it had to be ‘proved’ that declines and falls were always the product of ‘racial degeneration’, the intermarriage of ‘superior’ races with ‘inferior’ races, and that Nazi Germany would fulfil the promise of the ‘Thousand-Year Reich’ precisely because its inhabitants would not commit the mistakes of their supposed Aryan forbears (such as the Persians, the Spartans, and the ancient Romans).

Using a variety of examples drawn from these racial interpretations of history, the paper will argue that this inculcation of a particular racial historical framework follows very closely the model of ‘schematic narrative templates’ devised by the sociologist James Wertsch. Wertsch’s work has shown that a crucial element in the formation of collective identity is provided by forcing historical occurrences to fit into a consistent, immutable narrative framework, which can be used both to justify and to legitimise the actions of the nation or ruling power in question.

This paper will systematically apply Wertsch’s theory to the representations of the decline and fall of empires, states and civilisations found in Nazi educational and scholarly discourse, and analyse the ways in which such schematic narrative templates of racial decline came to dominate German intellectual and historical thought during the Third Reich.

An article based on this paper has now been published in a volume entitled The Persistence of Race: Continuity and Change in Germany from the Wilhelmine Empire to National Socialism, ed. Lara Day, Oliver Haag (Oxford 2017).