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Japan's Wonderful Nationalist Spirit and Culture Were Greatly Admired in the Third Reich

And the Quest for a New European Spirituality

In November 1940, a six-member delegation of Hitler Youth visited Japan, tasked by Adolf Hitler himself with a single task: “The only thing you need do is thoroughly experience the great spirit of the Japanese people that has arisen in their national polity.”[1] In honor of their visit, the Japanese composed a song entitled Banzai Hitorā Jūgento (Long Live Hitler Youth!, video here). As part of their mission of spiritual and cultural exchange, the young Germans were allowed to stay overnight at Eiheiji, one of Japan’s two most important Zen temples, to observe and get a taste of the life of the monks.

World War II-era poster celebrating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

The visit was recorded in a Japanese article entitled “Hitler Youth (Blue Eyes Spend One Night as Zen Guests).”[2] The text is a fairly fluffy report. The author claims that the Japanese guests ate more skillfully with chop sticks than some visiting Chinese monks had previously. The following happened as the Germans sampled the monastery’s Buddhist vegetarian cuisine:

[Head of the Hitler Youth Delegation Heinrich] Jürgens went on to say that there were many vegetarians in Germany though not for religious reasons. While the vegetarianism of the Führer Adolf Hitler was well known, Jürgens explained that he personally leaned in that direction inasmuch as he normally ate only fruit for breakfast. Hearing this, Zen Master Katō asked, “Does that mean that Führer Hitler is a Zen priest?” With that, everyone burst out laughing.

Zen masters are famous for their sense of humor!

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Jürgens went on to observe that the people of the Third Reich were seeking a new spirituality (journalist’s summary):

The people of present-day Germany are no longer satisfied with the religion they have had up to now. However, a new religion that can fully satisfy the German people has yet to be born. Therefore, until a new national religion appears, they have, albeit reluctantly, to depend on the religion they’ve had up to now. The Hitler Youth take the same position.

Hitler Youth delegation with monks at the head Zen temple of Eiheiji, Japan

These events and documents have been unearthed by Brian Victoria, an American Zen priest who is very critical of the Japanese Zen establishment’s support for the Japanese war effort during the Second World War.[3] Whatever one thinks of Victoria’s opinions, he has done valuable work as a historian in bringing to light this perhaps surprising relationship between Japanese religion and German fascism. The present article largely draws on his pioneering work.

While the Hitlerians were notorious for their national chauvinism, they also could recognize a gifted foreign people and culture when they saw one. Victoria observes that, from both a spiritual and cultural point of view, many leading National Socialists actually were extremely admiring of Japanese society and culture, in some respects even considering them superior to Germany’s.

Hitler reportedly told his minister of armaments, Albert Speer: “You see, it’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good?”[4] Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s amiable deputy-führer, argued that melding into the community came easier for the Japanese: “We, too, [like the Japanese] are battling to destroy individualism. We are struggling for a new Germany based on the new idea of totalitarianism. In Japan this way of thinking comes naturally to the people.[5]

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The German people themselves came to be greatly impressed by the Japanese war effort. An August 1942 Situation Report by the SS’s Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service, the SS’s intelligence agency) worried that positive reports of the Japanese’s heroic efforts were beginning to intimidate ordinary Germans:

The former view, that the German soldier is the best in the world, has been confused by descriptions of the Japanese swimmers who removed mines laid before Hong Kong or the Japanese pilots who, with contempt for death, pounce with their bombs on enemy ships. This has partially caused something like an inferiority complex. The Japanese look like a kind of Super-Teuton [Germane im Quadrat].[6]

The Germans ultimately tied the Japanese’s exceptional capacity for patriotic self-sacrifice to their culture and spirituality, namely the legacy of Shinto, Buddhism (especially Zen), and the samurai.

German nationalists in fact often had a very conflicted view of German history and culture. Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity as a Jewish-inspired slave religion – emphasizing meekness, humility, the righteousness of the wretched, and otherwordly salvation – had widespread currency in the Third Reich. Piously Christian National Socialists sought to purge Christianity of Jewish and slavish elements, emphasizing the religion’s Germanization in the early Middle Ages[7] and the work of German Christians like the Zen-like mystic Master Eckhart and the zealous anti-Semite Martin Luther.

Heinrich Himmler, the head of the elite military and police forces known as the SS, sought to create some kind of neo-Pagan spirituality for his men, drawing from ancient Germanic Paganism, Hinduism, and even Buddhism. If you browse the publications dedicated to the SS elite – notably the various Leithefte (“Lead-Journals” a kind of magazine) – one is struck at how ecumenical these may be in terms of their civilizational inspiration. In addition to articles on German, Viking, or ancient Germanic history and art, one may also find ones on Japan (not surprising as an ally) or indeed ancient Greece, Rome, Persia, and India. This is because the latter four civilizations were founded by the Aryan conquerors – today known under the more politically correct term “Indo-European” – which the Germans fiercely identified with (indeed, sometimes terming this people the “Indo-Germanics”). Himmler was fairly serious about this, organizing a famous 1938-39 research expedition to Tibet and carrying with him the ancient Hindu epic the Baghavad Gita, considering its ethos of perfectly willful but detached action to be perfect for the SS man.

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In short, German nationalists were frustrated by the fractious nature of German cultural and spiritual history – long torn between different states, religions, and civilizational influences. Christianity in particular was often criticized as a universalist religion hailing from the Middle East, relatively indifferent to the racial struggle for survival.

In contrast, Japanese history and culture was – and is largely still – marked by a great coherence and congruity, a self-contained ethno-cultural world. Victoria notes:

By comparison, the Japanese side clearly believed they already possessed an unshakable and powerful spiritual foundation, one eminently suited to mobilizing the Japanese people in the war effort. Although not directly discussed in this article, this widespread belief in the strength of its spiritual foundation, including a divine emperor rooted in Shinto, allowed Japan to entertain the idea the country could prevail over the West, despite the recognized material superiority of the latter.[8]

Japanese religion consists firstly of Shinto, essentially the Japanese version of Paganism, with spirits inhabiting the entire land of Japan, family household spirits, Japan itself, and the emperor being divine. This entailed a religious duty for the Japanese to defend and perpetuate their nation and state. In all this, one is struck at the parallels between Shinto and the ancient Greco-Roman Pagan religion.[9] Both seem to reflect the primordial human religion, essentially deifying the tribal lineage itself, which must have predominated in Eurasia before the onset of the conciliatory and universalist religions of the Axial Age, which Japan was partly aloof from by its isolation.

In addition to Shinto, the Japanese had adopted Buddhism from China in the sixth century, which had led to a certain amount of conflict between the two religions over the centuries. Ultimately, it seems to me the naïve vitalism of Shinto and ineffable[10]discipline of Buddhism – in particular Zen – has proved an extremely fertile combination for Japan.

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Both native Japanese and German visitors agreed that Zen provided much of the foundation for Japan’s spiritual power and cultural fecundity. Certain Germans were seeking to take inspiration from Japan so as to strengthen their own nation’s spirit. A prominent case of this was Count Karlfried Dürckheim, a card-carrying National Socialist (since 1933) who worked in Japan doing ‘cultural diplomacy’ for Germany during the war years. After the war, Dürckheim became a respected psychotherapist and quasi-Zen guru, writing books well into the 1990s.

Dürckheim was on a quest to refound German spirituality on a Völkisch (ethno-nationalist) basis. In this, he drew from the thought and meditative practice of numerous historical figures, including Master Eckhart, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and the Zen masters. He said of Zen: “Zen is above all a religion of will and willpower; it is profoundly averse to intellectual philosophy and discursive thought, relying, instead, on intuition as the direct and immediate path to truth.” The historian Karl Baier says that Dürckheim was so admiring that “one sometimes gets the impression he thinks the Japanese would be the better Nazis.”[11]

Dürkheim was not alone in his interest. The philosopher Eugen Herrigel, also an NSDAP member, also spent time in Japan, an experience which would for the basis of the postwar classic Zen and the Art of Archery (setting the precedent for innumerable Zen and . . . books, e.g. motorcycle repair, dive-bombing, etc).

In 1941, the Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki published the German translation of his Zen and Japanese Culture – another classic in the field – which received rave reviews in the German press. The Völkischer Beobachter (“Folkish Observer,” the official NSDAP newspaper with some 1.7 million readers in 1944) published four entire pages of the book. The Beobachter’s review of Suzuki’s book observed that Japan “has been able to survive for two and a half millennia in a rare concord of race, religion, and politics. . . . The outstanding national virtues of the Japanese are anchored in the Zen sect, a fact that signifies a monumental endorsement of this practical life-art.”[12] German interest in Zen also extended to the highest academic circles. The famously inscrutable philosopher Martin Heidegger reportedly said of Suzuki: “If I understand this man correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.”

Above all, the Germans admired the spirit of the samurai, which itself was said to be partly inspired by Zen’s emphasis on discipline and impermanence, culminating in a rigorous lifestyle unafraid of death. The definitive statement of the samurai ethos is the remarkable book Hagakure – which I recommend to all – which are the memoirs of a retired samurai-turned-monk Yamamoto Tsunemoto. Himmler was so enthralled with the samurai that in 1938 he arranged for a booklet to be published on them, printing 52,000 copies . . . one for each SS-man. He wrote: “Using this short history of the samurai, we wish to call to mind some long forgotten truths . . . that these are usually elite minority groups that endow the worldly existence of a nation with eternal life.” The motto of the SS, Meine Ehre heißt Treue (My Honor is Loyalty), strongly parallels the samurai’s absolute emphasis on single-minded devotion to their lord.

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Himmler apparently saw spiritual development as central to good leadership. He reportedly told his Finnish masseur: “I admire the wisdom of the founders of Indian religion, who required that their kings and dignitaries retreat every year to monasteries for meditation. We will later create similar institutions.”[13] I understand that this kind of spiritual discipline is increasingly popular among Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, notably Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

Himmler was then apparently interested in founding the Third Reich on a Traditionalist basis, under the leadership of a military-spiritual elite embodying certain values, rather than liberal-egalitarian values and majority rule. Italian and German fascism were an attempt to refound their polities, replacing liberal-democracy with the rule of something like ‘European samurai.’ The Italian Fascists claimed to be establishing a trincerocrazia (“trench-ocracy”), in which those who had been willing to fight and risk their lives in the trenches of the First World War should rule. Hitler, in the possibly spurious Table Talk attributed to him, argues quite forcefully that Germany should be ruled by a meritocracy (only among Germanics, obviously), of those who showed self-sacrifice and bravery in wartime.

Victoria is quite disturbed by Zen’s emphasis on death.[14] However, risking one’s life for the sake of honor, truth, and the good are central to all traditional ethics grounded in heroism ever since Homer. We are all going to die eventually, why not risk death to live excellently, why cling to an unworthy life? The spirit of Zen and the samurai is different however in adding to this, simultaneously, a commitment to action and a worldly detachment. The samurai, like the Stoic, steels his will, does all he can, knowing he has only his mind to work with, and is utterly detached from the necessarily unpredictable outcome. This is, incidentally, the same spirit that one finds so beautifully expressed in the Baghavad Gita.


[1] Quoted in Daihonzan Eiheiji: Sansho, August 5, 1941, p. 279.

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[2] “Blue eyes” is a Japanese term for Westerners.

[3] Brian Victoria, “The Zen of Hitler Jugend,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 14, Issue 2, No. 2, January 18, 2016. His article includes a full translation of the contemporary Japanese article on the Hitler Youth visit.

[4] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (New York: Macmillan, 1971) p. 143. Hitler also had a high opinion of Islam as a warrior religion. One finds similar comments recorded in his private Table Talk, including marked attacks on Christianity and championing of science, while recognizing the utility of religion for the masses. However, the reliability of the Table Talk is unclear.

[5] Quoted in Brian Victoria, Zen War Stories, frontispiece (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003).

[6] Quoted in Herbert Worm, “Japanologie im Nationalsozialismus“ in: Gerhard Krebs & Bernd Martin (eds.), Formierung und Fall der Achse Berlin-Tōkyo (München: Iudicium Verlag 1994), pp. 153-186.

[7] On which see this excellent work of history inspired by sociobiology: James C. Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation (Oxford University Press, 1996).

[8] Victoria, “Hitler Jugend,” Asia-Pacific Journal, 14, 2, 2, January 18, 2016.

[9] On which, see Fustel de Coulanges’ The Ancient City (also translated as Aryan Civilization) and Guillaume Durocher, “Biopolitics, Racialism, and Nationalism in Ancient Greece: A Summary View,” The Occidental Observer, August 11, 2018.

[10] Realistic? Pessimistic? Nihilist?

[11] Karl Baier, “The Formation and Principles of Count Dürckheim’s Nazi Worldview and his interpretation of Japanese Spirit and Zen,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 48, No. 3, December 2, 2013. This article is incidentally an excellent overview of a twentieth-century ethnocentric German’s attempts to revive European spirituality.

[12] Quoted in Brian Victoria, “Japanese Buddhism in the Third Reich,” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, vol. 7, November 2014, p. 210.

[13] Quoted in Palash Ghosh, “Heinrich Himmler: The Nazi Hindu,” International Business Times, April 10, 2012.

[14] Personally, I would say that most spiritual paths are fundamentally neutral on the question of violence. A spiritual champion like Mahatma Gandhi indeed made a religion of nonviolence. But that is not the only path. How many people – spiritual or not – would, like him, refuse to participate in the Second World War, either for or against Hitler, based on an unwillingness to counter violence with yet more violence?

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