To say that white nationalism contains a religious element would likely be unsurprising. After all, there’s no shortage of scholarly literature on the religious aspects of white nationalist thought. Plenty of white nationalists have themselves described their racial worldviews in religious terms, too. The Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, for instance, called a metaphysics of race “The Myth of the Twentieth Century.” Odinism, occultism, Christianity, even Satanism all jostle for pride of place as the spiritual viewpoint most appropriate for white people. We could even go so far as to call white nationalism itself a religion, one which elevates the race to the divine and still there wouldn’t be anything remarkable about that position. Yet, while there may be nothing too novel about describing white nationalism as a racial religion, what if we were to describe this religion as one of life and of love?
At first glance, this seems like little more than provocation. We rightly understand white nationalism as coming from a place of hate—hate for the other, hate for the different. And, with its legacy of violence and genocide, death seems more appropriate than life as the centerpiece of its religious values. But a closer look at the diverse body of writings that make up white nationalism’s intellectual project—and it very much has one—points toward a theology of life and love. To ignore this is to miss a critical component of white nationalism, one which underlies its activism and its ability to mobilize others to its point of view. We do so only to our detriment.
To speak of white nationalism as a religion with an intellectual project requires a way of thinking about it, a definition. This is no easy task. The milieu of the broader racist right is diverse, encompassing not only the nominal religious plurality mentioned above, but differences in outlook, strategy, and even in the definition of what constitutes whiteness. There are, however, commonalities which give us a way to think about how different groups and outlooks cohere into something recognizable as white nationalism. The shared belief in a common white race, which goes beyond ethno-linguistic boundaries, is an obvious one. Ethnic differences don’t disappear entirely; rather, white nationalism provides a way of articulating how different ethnicities share, in the words of one prominent white nationalist, “a sense of wider racial solidarity” based on “a sense of common origins, common enemies, and a common destiny.”
This racial solidarity is also tied to a sense of affinity with natural space. Both geographic entities like Europe and a broader, abstract “nature” are seen as part of a living unity with the members of the race. This harmony between race and place is aptly expressed in the Nazi doctrine of Blut und Boden (blood and soil), which itself drew on older, Romanticist notions of the relationship between people and the land. Lastly, there is a longstanding sense in white nationalist thought that both the race and its natural spaces are imperiled, under threat from a host of forces including racial others (most prominently Jews), capitalist “materialism,” and liberal universalism, among other factors.
It is against these perceived threats that white nationalists assert their religious devotion to life and love. The forces which “endanger” them are perceived as life-denying and hateful. They are trying, according to white nationalists, to break the bonds of racial solidarity and to destroy the natural world in and through which those bonds manifest. Resistance against these forces, born out of love for the race and a respect for life and nature, is thus the heart of the national community that is white nationalism. And like any national community, it’s one that has its own body of shared literature and symbolism which underpins the linkages through which it coheres. This literature is a living thing; it’s been developing for two centuries, drawing on older, ethnically-focused nationalisms. Today it continues its development on the web through a dense, mediated network of transnational connections. New ideas emerge in this literature as old ones fall into neglect; nevertheless, across this historical span, the over-arching theology of life and love has remained constant.
Take for example the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In his Addresses to the German Nation, he asserted that a “noble man” could only expect to live on after death in the “eternal continuance” of his people. This eternal life “constitute[s] the bond that connects him most intimately with his nation…and which brings the nation’s every need into his enlarged heart until the end of days. This is his love for his people.” Not only does the individual find meaning and purpose as part of the larger nation, they are the nation and the nation is them. Part and whole are one in a divine unity. For Fichte, this was the only meaningful life for the constituent of a nation:
Life, simply as life, as the continuation of changing existence, has never possessed value for him; he desired life only as the source of what is permanent; but this permanence is promised to him only by the independent perpetuation of his nation; to save it he must be willing even to die, so that it may live and he live in it the only life he has ever wanted.
Only by being part of the nation could an individual know love in its “highest” sense, the love that binds and unites the race as a living thing which must be safeguarded against all threats. Fichte’s nationalism, which did not admit of a Christian afterlife or divinity outside of the nation, was its own religion of life and of love.
The Addresses were written as a call to the German people to unite and expel French forces which occupied Germany at the start of the nineteenth century. But Fichte’s ideas remained influential on German racial nationalists into the twentieth century. Nearly two hundred years after the Addresses were published, one can find references to them in the writings of prominent white nationalists. In this sense, they are an important foundation for white nationalism’s understanding of racial bonds as articulated in a religion of life and love.
Fichte is also not alone among German racial nationalists who have contributed to white nationalism’s theology. The composer Richard Wagner insisted that a love of life was a defining feature of the German race, one which was tied to its racial spirit. In an 1879 essay titled “Against Vivisection,” Wagner argued that Germans had lost “the pity deeply-seated in the human breast” which offered “the only true foundation of morality.” Bereft of this sympathy, Germans engaged in barbaric practices like vivisection and eating meat. In the process, they forgot the teachings of Christ, that “divine and sinless being” who gave His life to redeem the violence done to animals by human beings. It was the Jews, according to Wagner, who had led Germany astray by elevating a materialistic “utilitarianism” which permitted the sacrifice of any number of animals if it benefited just one human being. By keeping to this utilitarian path, Germans risked losing their compassion and therefore their Germanness and their divine morality. Echoing her husband, Cosima Wagner wrote that “only when we recognize animals as living beings like us can we speak of true religion, namely the bond between ourselves and the whole of Nature.”
The influence of these aspects of the Wagners’ racial religion would live on into the twentieth century. Their son-in-law, the British expatriate Houston Stewart Chamberlain, expanded on them by connecting them to Aryanism. In his 1905 book Aryan Worldview, Chamberlain wrote that Aryans possessed a spiritual bond with nature that ingrained in them a cosmic empathy with all living things, something that was lacking in other peoples, especially the Jews. The influence of Chamberlain and the Wagners—along with many other racial nationalists who espoused a similar theology—also carried over into key segments of the Nazi party. Chamberlain, who lived until 1927, engaged directly with the Nazis; Hitler even attended his funeral. They were a critical inspiration for National Socialism’s opposition to vivisection—banned in 1933, shortly after the Nazis came to power—and the popularity of vegetarianism among many of the party’s key figures, including Hitler and Himmler.
Following the Second World War, Nazi “mystic” Savitri Devi—born in France with the name Maximiani Portas—carried on this tradition. Her 1959 book Impeachment of Man denounced “man-centered” views like humanitarianism that treated human life as universally valuable and non-human animal life as expendable in the service of human advancement. Against such “destructive” orientations, she formulated a racially hierarchized “life-centered faith” which dismissed the value of “worthless” human life in favor of environmental preservation and the liberation of non-human animals. For Devi, this was true love, a love which valued life as it was, organized by a nature-ordained hierarchy. As part of this love, Aryans were called upon to maintain their racial purity so as to ensure both the survival of their race and the maintenance of this natural order.
Devi remains an important influence on contemporary white nationalists. The theology she articulated, along with that of her predecessors, has contributed to the prevalence of veganism and an emphasis on animal rights among today’s white nationalists. This concern for animals, and the religious devotion to life behind it, may seem strange coming from people who don’t value the lives of other human beings. But this love of life is about hierarchized life; in other words, life that is ordered and classified with everything in its “right” place (white people are, of course, at the top). Upsetting this balance, for white nationalists like Devi, means upsetting the universe itself, casting all things into darkness and death. To safeguard the hierarchies of life is to value and protect life itself.
Devi’s religious views continued to circulate past the immediate postwar period. She was a long-time correspondent with William Luther Pierce, founder of the National Alliance, the largest white nationalist organization in the US from the 1970s until the early 2000s. Pierce, who once called Devi “one of our sisters in spirit,” adapted her life-centered faith into his own religion, Cosmotheism, which also placed significant emphasis on a natural order which hierarchized life. Maintaining this hierarchy while pursuing ever-higher “forms of life” marked the “Path of Life” which Cosmotheism guided its adherents down. If one loved one’s race and wanted to see it along the Path of Life, one would actively safeguard its purity and integrity.
For white nationalists like Pierce, protecting the race in this manner meant defending it against all those forces which imperil it. The list of these agents is a long one, although Jews occupy a central place from Wagner to Pierce and beyond. Nonetheless, the common thread is that the race is in existential danger. This theme of imperilment was given one of its most enduring elaborations by another prominent white nationalist and contemporary of Pierce, David Lane. A member of the white nationalist terrorist organization The Order in the 1980s, Lane was imprisoned for life as a result of crimes, including murder, he committed during his tenure. Order founder Bob Mathews was himself a member of the National Alliance and modeled the organization after Pierce’s infamous novel The Turner Diaries. It’s not clear whether Lane himself ever joined the Alliance; though, his own “spiritual path,” Wotansvolk, does appear to draw heavily from Cosmotheism.
Lane is perhaps best remembered, however, for popularizing the term “white genocide” in his eponymous White Genocide Manifesto. The manifesto is a call to arms, warning white nationalists that the white race is on the brink of extinction and must be defended at all costs. In religious terms, Lane highlighted the love that animates this defense, writing that “just as a Baptist loves and supports his religion, so a Racist loves and supports his race.” This love is “the first and highest Law of Nature,” directing white nationalists to safeguard the race and its constituents. To emphasize this point, Lane closed the manifesto with a summons: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” These “14 Words,” as they are known, have become both a mission statement and a mantra with religious overtones for contemporary white nationalists around the world. In an echo of Fichte, they point toward the love of the race and the desire to ensure the continuance of its life—and thus the lives of its constituents—in perpetuity.
Today, the 14 Words occupy a central place in white nationalist symbolism and thought, where they point to a larger theology grounded in life and love. This religion lives in the media of white nationalism, which now runs across a wide swath of digital platforms and bleeds over into mainstream social media. Spending even a short time in these mediated spaces, one will encounter regular references to life and love which echo earlier German racial nationalists and their postwar adherents in the transnational movement that white nationalism has become. Nominal religious differences do abound—adherents of “traditional,” pre-Christian European religions contend with Christians over which faith is “true” to the white race, for example—but underlying all of them is a deep-seated belief in the beauty of the life which racial belonging affords and the love such comradery inspires.
This fact can be hard to reconcile with the actual history of white nationalism and its racial nationalist predecessors. A legacy of violence and hate seems a strange place to find a religion whose central tenets are life and love, but those very sentiments motivate that violence and hate. White nationalism is what Manuel Castells calls a “project identity;” in other words an identity predicated on a shared project tied to how its constituents understand each other and their place in the world. For two hundred years, the identitarian project which has developed into contemporary white nationalism has been a defense and maintenance of the race against all that is perceived to imperil it. This project is unintelligible without the theology which underpins it, the Fichtean faith that one is bound together in a whole through a mutual love which gives life meaning and purpose. For white nationalists, losing those bonds results in a death more permanent than an individual death; it is the death of that eternal continuance and even of the hierarchically-ordered universe itself.
In the introduction to its second issue, the editor of the magazine Europa Sun expressed the resistance this fear of death inspires in a call to her readers:
My fellow ethnic-European brothers and sisters, we gather at these pages because we love our ancestral heritage, our blood, and we are loyal to the soil that nurtured our ancestors…we’re not going down—period. This fight has only begun…sound the trumpets of war for the sake of our ancestors who built the modern world, and for our descendants who will inherit it.
This is the struggle as they understand it. The bonds of love and the faith that they are fighting to preserve life give meaning to those engaged in that struggle, and provide them a community, both imagined and experienced, which supports and values them. If we are to contend with the challenges they pose to our plural democracies, it is imperative that we take this theology seriously, that we grasp how it motivates its adherents to action and to violence. As white nationalism comes to increasing prominence around the world, we can afford to do no less.