Race and Nation: Arthur Moeller van den Bruck’s Influence on German Reception of Dostoyevsky

by Dmytro Memari Fard

Dostoyevsky’s works, published by Piper Verlag in the first quarter of the 20th century, were not only the first complete edition of the author’s oeuvre in German, but also the most popular in German-speaking countries for decades. Despite this great popularity, the procedures behind the translations were kept secret. Reinhard Piper, the owner of the publishing house, did not learn the identity of the translator until 1917, more than ten years after the first published volume – The Demons – appeared. This secret also was not revealed to the wider reading public until 1960, when Elisabeth Kaerrick received a prize for her life’s work, [1] surprising all those who did not know that “E. K. Rahsin” was only a pseudonym and thought the translator was a man.

Elisabeth “Less” Kaerrick

It is my argument, however — outlined further in my dissertation — that Kaerrick’s editor, her brother-in-law Arthur Moeller van den Bruck (1876-1925), actively interfered in the translation process. In my dissertation, I draw on the diaries, letters and notes of many people in the circle around Moeller van den Bruck and the emergent field of German Dostoyevsky studies when the complete edition was being written [2]. Many of the conversations and theses found in these writings lead back to the translations. Elisabeth Kaerrick usually kept her opinions to herself and focused on the linguistic aspects of the translation, but from 1918 onwards she was increasingly critical of Arthur Moeller van den Bruck’s political positions and his interventions into her work.

This complete edition is full of deviations, from how genders and nationalities are depicted to the seemingly arbitrary change of numbers and dates. In particular, the representations of Jews, Germans, and Russians were altered to further specific political ends in the early 20th century. For example, the negative descriptions of the Germans’ appearance or character traits were either removed or presented in a much more positive way, while the characteristics of Russians change before, during, and after the First World War. In some works, entire paragraphs are missing, while some new ones have been added. One of the most striking passages is found in the novel The Demons, while describing one of the characters, Karmasinov. In the translation we read the passage „den so plötzlich ĂĽbergeschnappten JĂĽden“ – „the Jew, suddenly gone mad“ as one of Karmasinov’s characteristics. He is indeed portrayed in Russian as addled or even as having gone mad, given the strange lecture which he presented to the audience in the third part of the novel. Nevertheless, Dostoyevsky doesn’t mention at any point in the book that this person is Jewish. The addition of a person’s origin, which is not important from the point of view of the original, is one editorial practice that appears through many of the translated works in the Complete Edition.

Arthur Moeller van den Bruck

These decisions must be understood in the context of the idea of race that Moeller van den Bruck discusses in some of the prefaces to the volumes. These deviations – as well those introductions and prefaces, which were also written by editor Arthur Moeller van den Bruck – had overtly political motives. For the editor, it was important that his versions would be accepted among German readers. Moeller van den Bruck was opposed to the German Kaiser and obsessed with bringing a multi-party system and form of parliament to Germany, as he had seen in Russia after the 1905 revolution against Tsarist autocracy. In the preface to the novel Crime and Punishment, we read:

In Germany we need the inescapable Russian spirituality. We need it as a counterweight against Westernism, whose influences we have also been exposed to, as Russia has been exposed to them, and which has also brought us to where we are today.

It was only through this form of “spiritual sovereignty,” he asserted, that Germany could gain “political sovereignty” [3].

Moeller’s style and his passion for Russia and Dostoyevsky influenced, among others, the later Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, whose diaries from 1924 and 1925 include the following entry:

In Russia lies the key of the European question. How can you put your hope in England and USA? What is more precious, man or money? You diplomats, read Spengler, Dostoyevsky, and not Rathenau and the French.

In another entry, Goebbels explicitly alludes to Moeller’s work:

I have found time to read a book in peace again: Moeller van den Bruck, “The Third Reich.” [He] writes as if in prophetic vision. So clear and so calm, and yet seized by inner passions, he writes all that we boys have long known with feeling and instinct. [4]

Both the left and right fronts embraced Dostoyevsky’s prophethood which Moeller van den Bruck tirelessly preached. Nonetheless, there was resistance to the increasingly popular receptions of the Russian author as a prophet.  While Rosa Luxemburg praised Dostoyevsky for being an “artistic advocate of the most far-reaching love of humanity[,] and [having] the deepest sense of responsibility for social injustice,” she also deplored him as an “outspoken reactionary” and “hater of socialists” [5]. Some right-wing circles ironically wrote him off as a communist, even as others saw in him the great conservative mystic of the new Germany. Meanwhile, translator Elisabeth Kaerrick saw nothing but dilettantism in both fronts. She felt distanced from Dostoyevsky’s influence on the emerging political landscapes, and criticized Moeller van den Bruck’s approach in her letters and diaries.

The group that Moeller van den Bruck arguably dominated the most was the June Club, which could best be described as a discussion circle. The members rejected the party state and the fulfillment of the Treaty of Versailles (which was fashionable in right-wing circles at the time), and published the journal Das Gewissen, of which Moeller van den Bruck was a co-founder. Here he had an audience to whom he could communicate the ideas he developed while working on Dostoyevsky’s complete edition [6].  Adolf Hitler tried to convince him to join his own circle and support him ideologically. Moeller van den Bruck, however, was disappointed by the failed Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923, and wrote in response:

Hitler failed because of his proletarian primitiveness. He did not understand how to underpin his National Socialism spiritually. He embodied passion, but completely without distance or sense of proportion. [7]

Moeller van den Bruck had at least one private meeting with Hitler afterwards; however, he did not live to witness the rise of the Nazi regime and the reception of his work in the Third Reich. In 1925 he had himself committed to a mental hospital in Berlin, where he hanged himself from the window cross.

His version of Dostoyevsky apparently managed to accurately address the zeitgeist. While the political groupings sought inspiration in the political ideas, some German writers devoted themselves to the literary aspects of the works. Bernhard Kellermann’s work Der Tor (1909), for example, has many parallels with Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, such as the introductory train journey. Parallels to Dostoyevsky’s works can also be found in Rilke’s only novel, The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge, published in 1910. In 1912, Rilke wrote in a letter to an unknown person the order he would recommend reading Dostoyevsky’s works, but explicitly warns the recipient not to read the translation from Piper’s Complete Edition [8]. Interest in Russia seemed to have increased considerably among German readers in the period around the publication of the Complete Edition. In 1903, only 70 titles by Russian authors were published by German publishers, half of them by Tolstoy and another 20 by Gogol and Andreyev. By 1922, that figure had risen to 201, excluding Dostoyevsky’s works published by Piper and other publishers [9]. Dostoyevsky was popular in both nascent right-wing and left-wing circles, as well as among the working class and intellectuals. Moeller’s politicization through the deviations and his influence on the reception of Dostoyevsky in Germany can be seen as one of the foundations of the divided political reception of Russian literature of the time.

When reading a work in translation, it is always interesting to note that not everything we read is guaranteed to come directly from the author but has usually gone through many layers of translation. In the same way, we should not forget that the basis for ideological readings of Dostoyevsky thoughts in Germany in the first quarter of the 20th century was based precisely on translations, and not directly on the author’s words. The first German-language complete edition of the works led to the further development and affirmation of many German-nationalist thoughts, created in the intellectual communication between translators, editors, and the readers.

This blog post is part of the series Global Dostoevskys edited by Melanie V. Jones and Christina Karakepeli. To find out more about the series, click here.

Dmytro Memari Fard is a PhD student at the TU Dresden, Germany under Prof. Dr. Klavdia Smola. He studied Slavic and German literature, religious studies, and linguistics and now he is mainly engaged in empirical textual analysis and eventually in translation studies as part of his dissertation project on the politicization of world literature. 


[1] Elisabeth Kaerrick herself was not present at the award ceremony. Her acceptance speech, as well as the laudatory speech delivered by Werner Bergenruen, can be read here: https://www.deutscheakademie.de/de/auszeichnungen/johann-heinrich-voss-preis/elisabeth-kaerrick-rashin/

[2] Among the people studied were Dmitri Merežkovskij, Oswald Spengler, Joseph Goebbels, Erst Jünger, Paul Ernst, Reinhard Piper, Lucy and Elisabeth Kaerrick, Ernst Block, Stefan Zweig, Thomas Mann and Lou Andreas-Salomé.

[3] Moeller van den Bruck, Arthur, In: Dostojewskij, F.M.: Rodion Raskolnikoff. (MĂĽnchen: R. Piper und Co., 1916), p. V

[4] Goebbels, Joseph, TagebĂĽcher. Band 1: 1924-1929. (MĂĽnchen/ZĂĽrich: Piper, 1992), p. 104

[5] Luxemburg, Rosa, Schriften ĂĽber Kunst und Literatur (Dresden 1972), p. 59

[6] Thomas Mann also had a subscription to the magazine but left the circle when the thoughts became more and more radical. The writer Ernst JĂĽnger, who was one of the intellectual pioneers of National Socialism, also belonged to the circles around the June Club, as did the writer and anti-democrat Oswald Spengler.

[7] Moeller van den Bruck, Arthur, Kritik der Presse. In: Gewissen (Germany, 5.45)

[8] Rilke, R. M.,  Briefe. (Wiesbaden, 1950.), p. 348

[9] Hinrichs, J.C, Hinrichs’ Halbjahrs-katalog der im deutschen Buchhandel erschienenen BĂĽcher, Zeitschriften, Landkarten usw. (Leipzig, 1910, 1922)

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