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The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus
In-depth critical analysis of the forces shaping the Asia-Pacific...and the world.

The Formation and Principles of Count Dürckheim’s Nazi Worldview and his interpretation of Japanese Spirit and Zen デュルクハイム伯爵のナチス的世界観および日本的精神と禅の解釈 その形成と理念

Karl Baier

The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 48, No. 3, December 2, 2013.

A Zen Nazi in Wartime Japan: Part II

The Formation and Principles of Count Dürckheim’s Nazi Worldview and his interpretation of Japanese Spirit and Zen  デュルクハイム伯爵のナチス的世界観および日本的精神と禅の解釈 その形成と理念

Karl Baier

Preface by Brian Victoria

In Part I of this series on D.T. Suzuki’s relationship with the Nazis, (Brian Daizen Victoria, D.T. Suzuki, Zen and the Nazis readers were promised a second part focusing primarily on Suzuki’s relationship with one of wartime Japan’s most influential Nazis, Count Karlfried Dürckheim (1896 –1988).

However, in the course of writing Part II, I quickly realized that the reader would benefit greatly were it possible to present more than simply Dürckheim’s story in wartime Japan. That is to say, I recognized the importance, actually the necessity, of introducing Dürckheim’s earlier history in Germany and the events that led to his arrival in Japan, not once but twice.

At this point that I had the truly good fortune to come in contact with Professor Karl Baier of the University of Vienna, a specialist in the history of modern Asian-influenced spirituality in Europe and the United States. Prof. Baier graciously agreed to collaborate with me in presenting a picture of Dürckheim within a wartime German political, cultural, and, most importantly, religious context. Although now deceased, Dürckheim continues to command a loyal following among both his disciples and many others whose lives were touched by his voluminous postwar writings. In this respect, his legacy parallels that of D.T. Suzuki.

The final result is that what was originally planned as a two-part article has now become a three-part series. Part II of this series, written by Prof. Baier, focuses on Dürckheim in Germany, including his writings about Japan and Zen. An added bonus is that the reader will also be introduced to an important dimension of Nazi “spirituality.” Part Three will continue the story at the point Dürckheim arrives in Japan for the first time in mid-1938. It features Dürckheim’s relationship with D.T. Suzuki but examines his relationship with other Zen-related figures like Yasutani Haku’un and Eugen Herrigel as well.

Note that the purpose of this series is not to dismiss or denigrate either the postwar activities or writings of any of the Zen-related figures. Nevertheless, at a time when hagiographies of all of these men abound, the authors believe readers deserve to have an accurate picture of their wartime activities and thought based on what is now known. I am deeply grateful to Prof. Baier for having joined me in this effort. BDV


Japan, the “yellow fist”, as he called the nation in “Mein Kampf”, caused Adolf Hitler a considerable headache. In his racist foreign policy he distrusted the Asians in general and would have preferred to increase European world supremacy by collaborating with the English Nordic race. On the other hand, he had been impressed as a youth by Japan's military power when he observed Japan beat the Slavic empire in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. He also admired Japan for never having been infiltrated by the Jews. In “Mein Kampf” his ambiguous attitude let him place Japan as a culture-supporting nation somewhere halfway between the culture-creating Aryans and the culture-destroying Jews.1 He hoped that in the near future Japan and the whole of East Asia would be aryanised by Western culture and science and sooner or later the political domination of the Aryans in Asia would follow.

Fig. 1 Dürckheim country estate Steingaden as seen today

As the brotherhood in arms with England turned out to be a pipe-dream, Hitler had to make a pact with the Far Eastern country. This allowed a group of japanophile Nazis to raise their voices and disseminate a more detailed and positive view of Japan. They were interested in Japanese religion and especially sympathized with Zen Buddhism.

The following article can be seen as a case study. Taking the intellectual and religious biography of Count Dürckheim as an example, the author investigates the question of how dedicated Nazis could connect their worldview to a kind of mystical spirituality and develop a positive attitude towards Zen.

Karl Friedrich Alfred Heinrich Ferdinand Maria Graf Eckbrecht von Dürckheim-Montmartin (1896-1988), today widely known as Karlfried Graf (Count) Dürckheim, was born in Munich, Bavaria as the eldest son of an old aristocratic family. Baptized Catholic, he was religiously educated by his Protestant mother, grew up at the family’s country estate in the Bavarian village of Steingaden, at the Basenheim Castle near Koblenz and in Weimar, where his family owned a villa built by the famous architect Henry van de Velde.

Fig. 2 Villa Dürckheim in Weimar

In 1914, immediately after receiving his high school diploma, the 18-year-old Karlfried volunteered in the Royal Bavarian Infantry Lifeguard Regiment to serve on the frontlines for around 47 months as officer, company commander and adjutant.2 He never forgot the enthusiastic community spirit that filled his heart and the hearts of his fellow Germans at the beginning of the war. “I heard the Emperor saying, ‘I do not know parties any more, I only know Germans’. It remains in all our memories, these words of the Emperor, in those days at the beginning of the war.”3 Later he would say that during this period the meaning of his life had been the “unquestionable, ready-to-die-commitment to the fatherland.”4

Regularly exposed to deadly threats, the young frontline officer was intensively confronted with his fear but also experienced moments of transcendence.

There exists a ‘pleasure’ of deliberately thrusting oneself into deadly danger. This I experienced when embarking upon a nightly assault on a wooded hill, when running through a barrage at the storming of Mount Kemmel in Flanders, when jumping through a defile under machine gun fire. It is as if at the moment of the possible and in advance accepted destruction one would feel the indestructible. In all of these experiences another dimension emerges while one transcends the limits of ordinary life – not as a doctrine, but as liberating experience.5

This kind of “warrior mysticism” – a combination of military drill and blind obedience, fight to the very end, a devotion to and melding with the greater whole of the fatherland that culminate in the experience of “another dimension” far beyond the transitoriness of ordinary life – informed his attitude towards life and was conducive to his later appreciation of militaristic Bushidō-Zen and his admiration of the kamikaze pilots which he expressed even after World War II.6