Chamberlain was born on 9 September 1855 in the Portsmouth area, the last of four children of Rear-Admiral William Charles Chamberlain and his first wife. His mother died soon after, and he spent much of his early childhood with his grandmother in Versailles. From 1867 to 1869, he was schooled at Cheltenham College. Thereafter, during travels and sojourns across Europe, he was privately tutored by Otto Kuntze, a Prussian, who is said to have filled his head with tales of German greatness. A tendency to nervous disorders prevented Chamberlain following a military career like his father, instead he went on to study natural sciences at the University of Geneva. Prior to this though, in 1878, he had married Anna Horst, daughter of a Breslau lawyer.
Chamberlain and his wife moved to live in Dresden from 1885 and, from 1989, in Vienna, where he continued his studies and work in the natural sciences. But, by 1892, he had become fascinated with Wagner and his music. He started publishing essays and books on the subject, notably Das Drama Richard Wagners (1892) and a biography (1896), emphasising the heroic, Teutonic aspects in Wagner’s compositions. During the later part of the 1890s, Chamberlain accepted a commission from Bruckmann, a Munich publisher, to prepare a historical work taking stock of the condition of civilization at the end of the century. Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts was published in 1899 in two volumes, and would make Chamberlain famous. In Germany, it was noticed by Kaiser Wilhelm II who wrote to Chamberlain that ‘it was God who sent your book to the German people’. It took a decade or so to be translated into English, as The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century.
George Bernard Shaw rated it, and wrote in Fabian News: ‘It is a masterpiece of really scientific history. It does not make confusion, it clears it away. He is a great generaliser of thought, as distinguished from the crowd of our mere specialists. It is certain to stir up thought. Whoever has not read it will be rather out of it in political and sociological discussions for some time to come.’
Theodore Roosevelt also wrote about the book (in his History as Literature collection of essays in 1915 - see Googlebooks), demonstrating considerable respect for the author’s abilities, but with a deep concern about his ideas. He wrote: ‘Mr. Chamberlain’s thesis is that the nineteenth century, and therefore the twentieth and all future centuries, depend for everything in them worth mentioning and preserving upon the Teutonic branch of the Aryan race. He holds that there is no such thing as a general progress of mankind, that progress is only for those whom he calls the Teutons, and that when they mix with or are intruded upon by alien and, as he regards them, lower races, the result is fatal. Much that he says regarding the prevalent loose and sloppy talk about the general progress of humanity, the equality and identity of races, and the like, is not only perfectly true, but is emphatically worth considering by a generation accustomed, as its forefathers for the preceding generations were accustomed, to accept as true and useful thoroughly pernicious doctrines taught by well-meaning and feeble-minded sentimentalists; but Mr. Chamberlain himself is quite as fantastic an extremist as any of those whom he derides, and an extremist whose doctrines are based upon foolish hatred is even more unlovely than an extremist whose doctrines are based upon foolish benevolence. Mr. Chamberlain’s hatreds cover a wide gamut. They include Jews, Darwinists, the Roman Catholic Church, the people of southern Europe, Peruvians, Semites, and an odd variety of literary men and historians.’
In 1906, Chamberlain separated from Anna, and, on having the divorce formalised two years later, he married Eva Wagner, daughter of Richard Wagner and his second wife, Cosima. By this time he had moved to live in Bayreuth, the centre for all things Wagnerian since the opening of the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876. Chamberlain continued to write books, including ones about Kant, Goethe, and Germany’s military efforts and aims during the First World War. Indeed, his wartime essays were widely read. As an Englishman who lived in, and supported, the Reich, he became an even more famous celebrity in Germany during the war than he had been before. In 1915, he was awarded the Iron Cross for services to the German empire, and the following year he became a German citizen.
With the fall of the Wilhelm II in 1918, Chamberlain, who was paralysed and largely confined to his bed by this time, continued to correspond with him in exile; but he also forged closer links with the emergent Nazi movement. Hitler and Chamberlain first met in 1923: Chamberlain was enamoured of Hitler, and saw great potential in him as leader; and Hitler, for his part, certainly admired Chamberlain, considered him a mentor. Also, in the early years, Chamberlain’s support helped Hitler attract supporters. In the post-war years, Chamberlain’s ideas became increasingly anti-semitic, and Hitler is known to have been influenced by his mentor’s tracts.
Chamberlain died in 1927. His funeral was attended by Prince August Wilhelm, son of the former Kaiser, and by Hitler. A few months later Alfred Rosenberg, one of the main architects of the National Socialist ideology, named Chamberlain as the ‘pioneer and founder of a German future’. For further information see the rather long entry at Wikipedia, a shorter one at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), the dedicated Chamberlain website, The Occult History of the Third Reich, or The Foundations of the Twenty-First Century blog. The full text of The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century can be read at Internet Archive.
Chamberlain must have kept a diary, at least some of the time, for a few extracts are quoted by Olivier Hilmes in his biography of Cosima Wagner (Yale University Press, 2010 - partly available to view at Googlebooks). Cosima, herself, was a diarist - see Music was sounding - though only diaries written during her life with Wagner have been published. Hilmes reference for the Chamberlain diary extracts is the National Archive of the Richard Wagner Foundation in Bayreuth, so it seems unlikely that any diary material has been published in its own right. Here are most of those diary entries - about Chamberlain’s first meeting with Hitler - within the context of Hilmes’ text.
- ‘In late September 1923, Bayreuth’s National Socialists organised a ‘German Day’ at which the main speaker was to be an as yet largely unknown Austrian politician by the name of Adolf Hitler. “Preparations for the German Day bring the house to life,” Chamberlain noted in his diary on Saturday 29 September. “Wheelchair ride through the flag-strewn town gave me a good deal of pleasure.” ’
- ‘The next day’s events began with a march past by some 6,000 Brownshirts, a procession that made its way past Wahnfried and the Chamberlains’ villa to an open-air service outside the town. Chamberlain was galvanised: “German Day with Hitler! Much activity from dawn till dusk.” From his open ground-floor window, he waved at the passing troops. And he was not alone, for Cosima was sitting beside him, her presence, hitherto unknown, attested by Chamberlain’s diary: “Processions a.m. and p.m. watched from window and terrace, Mama present!” ’
- ‘That Sunday evening Hitler gave a speech in the town’s packed Reithalle [. . .] Immediately afterwards, Hitler called on the ailing Chamberlain and received the blessing of the idol of his Viennese youth. He is even said to have knelt before Chamberlain and reverently kissed his hand. Whatever the truth of the matter, Chamberlain was delighted by the visit: “In the evening from 9.30 to 10.30 visit from Hitler, uplifting!” The two men met again at Wahnfried the very next day: “10.30 outside, waiting for Hitler in my wheelchair, moving welcome to Wahnfried: ‘May God be with you!’ ” ’
Finally, it is worth noting that Chamberlain is mentioned in the diaries of Josef Goebbels. One particular extract, from a few months before Chamberlain’s death, is quoted online in several places, such as in Johann Chapoutot’s article in Miranda, From Humanism to Nazism: Antiquity in the Work of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. (The extract is sourced originally from The Early Goebbels Diaries - see We can conquer the world.)
‘Shattering scene: Chamberlain on a couch. Broken, mumbling, tears in his eyes. He holds my hand and won’t let me go. His big eyes burn like fire. Greetings to you, spiritual father. Trailblazer, pioneer! I am deeply upset. Off we go. He mumbles, wants to speak, he can’t - and then weeps like a child! Long, long handshake! Farewell! You stand by us when we are near despair. Outside the rain patters! I want to cry out, I want to weep.’