The verdict Walter Benjamin delivered on Stefan George, a few months after the Nazis seized power and shortly before the poet died, still stands as his most appropriate epitaph: ‘If ever God punished a prophet by fulfilling his prophecy, then that is the case with George.’ From his beginnings under the aegis of French symbolism—Hymnen was published in 1890, when he was twenty-two—the poet had graduated to prophet well before the Great War; and in its aftermath George’s call for a messianic leader who would redeem Germany was increasingly translated by the thousands of young men who hung on his words into support for Hitler. His publications had pioneered the swastika motif, albeit in a cursive form, and his last work in 1928 was titled Das neue Reich.
As ideologue, George followed in the wake of Nietzsche—not that he would recognize any mentor later than Goethe and Hölderlin. Resolutely anti-Christian, anti-Enlightenment, anti-democratic and anti-feminist, he championed a heroic new order, a Germanized Hellas, in which a spiritual aristocracy would trample the old society underfoot. His message had a powerful appeal already in the Wilhelmine era, with its ambiguous relationship to modernity. After the trauma of Versailles, it converged with the virulent nationalism of the radical right. Yet even at the peak of his influence, George remained enough of a poet to escape any simple political reduction. Protestantism and Prussia were the constant bugbears of this unregenerate Rhinelander, as well as the despised Bürgertum. In 1914 he distanced himself from the patriotic euphoria that engulfed most of his followers, and all but relished the prospect of German defeat. He never endorsed any political party, even when the triumphant Nazis claimed him as their inspiration.
If George was in his time a towering presence in German poetry, he is not widely read today outside of the academic world, and no English translation of his work is currently available. In technique he stood at the cusp of modernism, parallel to the transformation in music, as extreme chromaticism faltered before the new twelve-tone coinage. His concern to communicate the subtleties of personal experience in delicate and ineffable terms appealed at this time to Schoenberg and Webern, both of whom made song cycles out of George’s early works. ‘The Year of the Soul’, published in 1897, retains a certain popularity from its fine fulfilment of a perennial poetic function: what Norton aptly describes as ‘a kind of melancholy wash’ is spread over the interior landscape, giving everything a ‘slightly faded, somewhat elegiac cast’—very much the world of Pelleas and Melisande. Later, however, as he felt ‘the wind of other planets’, George’s distinctive voice became closely entangled with images of destruction wrought by heroic leaders, and it is hard to read this work today without sensing the looming shadow of events he himself helped to promote.
It is strange, nonetheless, that a man whose writings and personality did so much to frame the cultural matrix within which Hitler could seduce the educated classes has been so conspicuously ignored in recent decades. Not only does Robert Norton’s comprehensive book have no German predecessor; it is the first biography written from outside the George circle itself, and it even seems that no one before Norton had systematically worked through the Stefan George archive in Stuttgart.
Norton does not discuss George’s poetics in any detail, nor does he explore at all thoroughly the web of George’s influence, which would take a further volume. The closeness of focus, while clearly required for such a dominating subject, inevitably makes for a certain one-sidedness. Among George’s poetic contemporaries, for example, Hugo von Hoffmansthal plays an over-large part in Norton’s book, because George was in love with him as a precocious adolescent and sought for many years to win him to his circle, until Hoffmansthal forsook poetry for richer pastures. Rilke, however, a more pertinent comparison—likewise heavily influenced by Nietzsche, bending the German language to his will, and with George’s own vein of casual violence, which Lukács caustically noted—appears for Norton only when he writes an admiring letter to his older colleague, which George politely deflects.
The ambiguity of George’s legacy was compounded by the timing of his death in December 1933. Had he survived just a few more months, he would either have succumbed to Nazi blandishments, or would have remained in Switzerland as an exile; for no German intellectual could there be a middle way. His return to Germany in triumph would have confirmed for history that George’s ‘secret Germany’ was indeed the tausendjährige Reich;while Stefan George the émigré would have been the overshadowing colleague of Thomas Mann. After the Second World War, George’s surviving disciples sought to portray his unwillingness to return to Germany as a decisive opposition to Hitler, but Norton reproduces for the first time a key letter of May 1933 which shows George ambiguous to the last: while he would accept no post in the ‘so-called Writers’ Academy’ that the Nazis wished to set up, he was happy to avow himself ‘the forefather of the new national movement’, though ‘the laws of the spiritual and the political realms are certainly very different’. Contrary to prevailing legend, it was only the chance of his illness and death that spared George a decisive choice. In either case, George would have remained a prominent feature of cultural history, strongly marked either positive or negative; but in the event, he faded into a twilit no-man’s-land, unclassifiable and thus almost invisible.
There are two more specific reasons why George is an awkward figure with whom few nowadays seek to engage. That he was homosexual, and more explicitly so in his poetry than any German contemporary, might not in itself be a problem in these supposedly more enlightened times. But George was a lover of boys who would scarcely qualify in today’s terms as gay. His greatest passion, Maximilian Kronberger, he idealized to the point of proclaiming him a god, following his death at sixteen from meningitis; the cult of ‘Maximin’ became an integral part of the George-circle’s practice. This overt homosexuality was at least one reason why, within a few months of his decease, the Nazis were quick to forget the assistance George had rendered them. Yet the way George’s allegiances cut obliquely across later evaluative categories encouraged posterity to forget him as well. George was never a Nazi, so his sexuality could not serve the anti-fascist trope of the Popular Front years that portrayed the Hitlerites as sexual perverts. But no more could a postwar generation aware of the Nazi extermination of homosexuals reclaim him as a pioneer of gay liberation.