[Völkisch thought was] a combination of folklore, occultism, romanticism, and ethnic nationalism.
The intellectual character of the Völkisch movement was a direct consequence of the romantic movement of nineteenth-century Europe, and like romanticism, Völkisch thought favored the irrational and emotional, focusing mainly on man and the world. The movement arose from the turmoil that “accompanied the social, economic, and political transformation of Europe” during and after the industrialization and modernization characteristic of the nineteenth century. Industrial society drove the population to seek “deeper meaning in life than the transitory reality of their present condition”, since the demands of such a society tended to increase “the individual’s feeling of isolation.” Considering these origins, one can view Volkism as a backlash to the modernizing world.
Above all else the Volk valued rural rootedness, a concept that allowed an almost spiritual communion between the Germanic landscape, its people, and the cosmos. Since the Volk did not extend universally but rather was limited to a particular national unit, the movement set the groundwork for intense nationalism in the following decades, making the connection between landscape and people an exclusive experience. As Friedrich Ratzel made explicit in 1896, Volkism’s “awakening of a feeling for nature [was] ‘only a sign of the increased reacquaintance with our country, that is to say with ourselves as a Volk. For how could you divorce from the very being [of nature] a Volk which for half a thousand years has worked, lived, and suffered on the same soil.'” Appreciation of nature was transformed into a nationalistic ideal that soon went beyond a mere respect for the landscape. Völkisch philosophers advocated the return to medieval traditions and practices, to regress from modernity and reinstate the feudal system with a master-apprentice-based way of life. To Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, an influential Völkisch thinker, the bourgeoisie and proletariat were “disruptive element[s] that had challenged the ‘genuine’ estates” of old. These classes were composed “mainly of merchants and industrialists who had no close connection with nature”, and animosity toward the city and its inhabitants “was an integral part of the rise of Völkisch thought.”
Indeed, the longing for a return to feudal society manifested itself in the Völkisch literature. Books such as Der Wehrwolf, “the most famous German peasant novel” written by Hermann Löns, extolled not only the peasant lifestyle but the use of brute force in order to defend Völkisch ideals. As George Mosse describes it, “The story of the peasants who defended themselves against the bandits and marauders of the Thirty Years’ War may well have been intended to illustrate the heroic Völkisch personality defending the true order against the inroads of a materialistic and industrial society.”
“Uprootedness” served as a contrast to rural rootedness. In Völkisch thought, having no root “stigmatized a person as being deprived of the life force and thus lacking a properly functioning soul.” From the Völkisch perspective, the Jewish people was by its very nature restless, and since it occupied no specific territory it “was consequently doomed to rootlessness”, an existence contrary and irreconcilable with the Völkisch way of life. Rootedness “conveyed the sense of man’s correspondence with the landscape through his soul and thus with the Volk, which embodied the life spirit of the cosmos.” It was thought that without the Volk a person had [less] spiritual value or purpose. Since the Jewish population tended to dominate the large cities, Völkisch thinkers considered Jews as inhabiting an artificial domain disconnected with any spirituality and in contrast to idyllic rootedness. The city fused elements that the Volk disliked most: the proletariat, industry, life in continuous motion, and separation from nature. Urban dislocation embodied “an ominous colossus which was endangering the realm of the Volk.” As previously mentioned, to the Volk the city and all its components were irreconcilable with Völkisch ideology. [T]he Volk considered [the Jewish population] embodiments of all that stood in the way of a Volkish utopia.