The Playwright Hitler Plagiarized


Mr. Sage is the author of Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich (Carroll & Graf, June 2006). A former offer in the U.S. foreign service, he was in 2005 a research fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He also holds the title of Senior Research Fellow at the University of Massachusetts

If asked, “Who was the most influential playwright in history?” for most people it’s a slam dunk. But in choosing Shakespeare they’d miss, as sometimes happens with sure slam dunks. The Bard of Avon has long been the most performed and most quoted – no contest there – yet the impact of his works on specific, grand scale, real world events is quite another thing. For that the winning grade goes to a Norwegian writer who died a century ago this past May 23.

Henrik Ibsen wrote twenty-six dramas. Their bite spared no one, neither hypocrites, nor politicians on the right or left, nor men who would hold women in what was once deemed to be their place. The playwright was progressive in his time. His work encompassed brooding psychological plays, social protests, fantasy, comedy, and theatricals on the lives of kings. Shakespeare had put history on stage with his scripts on wars past. Ibsen, it now appears, scripted a war that began a third of a century after he had left the scene.

Adolf Hitler, the man responsible for starting that war, first read Ibsen between 1908-1910, during his frustrated youthful years in Vienna. A German literary cult then current was hailing the late playwright as a “prophet.” Some of these cultists would eventually promote one play, in particular, as prophetic scripture: Ibsen’s epic about the life of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome who vainly tried to suppress Christianity when he reigned from 361-363. Emperor and Galilean called Julian’s failed quest the “third Reich” in the play’s German version. According to Hitler’s roommate of 1908, the future dictator tried then to write a play of his own about a pagan restoration. He set the action on a sacred mountain in Bavaria. Eventually Hitler would build a chateau on such a mountain, overlooking the alpine resort of Berchtesgaden. That was where Ibsen had completed writing Emperor and Galilean in 1873. In the closing scene, as Julian dies from a battlefield wound, an aide predicts, “The Third Reich will come!”

Thus it should not be too surprising to find paraphrased lines from Emperor and Galilean among transcripts of Hitler’s casual remarks from 1931 and again from 1941-1942. The paraphrases are there, again and again, with the Nazi Führer’s metaphors veering too close to those of the play to leave any doubt that he had a literary source: Ibsen’s work. Moreover, Hitler confided to Heinrich Himmler that Julian had inspired his own mission. The record of Hitler’s casual chats yields praise of Julian on three separate occasions between October 1941 and February 1942. Yet historians have failed to probe why Hitler carried on about Julian.

If limited to mere words, Hitler’s self-inculcation in Emperor and Galilean would amount to a historical footnote. But the Führer fulfilled and exceeded cultist dreams by making life imitate art. When highlighted against the background clutter of everyday events, a series of Hitler initiatives matches Julian’s actions in the play. The analogous events follow Ibsen’s scripted sequence. These likenesses to the scripted plot began with small scale events during the 1920s as Hitler struggled to gain power. The analogs then escalated in consequence once he led the German state. Hitlerian moves foreshadowed by the life of Julian in Emperor and Galilean include:

  • His youthful statement of apostasy from Christian doctrine;
  • His relationship with his niece, Geli Raubal, her violent death in 1931, and the arrangements for her burial in Vienna;
  • Hitler’s unsuccessful run for the German presidency in 1932;
  • As German chancellor, his assurance of tolerance to the churches and his quick betrayal of that promise;
  • A curious mishap during the dedication of a Munich art museum, and Hitler’s speech at that event;
  • Hitler’s naming of his rebuilt Rhine defenses the limes, in the Roman way;
  • The destruction of synagogues on Kristallnacht in 1938;
  • The Nazis’ non-aggression pact with Stalin in 1939; recalling Julian’s peace with the Persian empire, and Hitler’s betrayal of that pact in 1941, shadowing Julian’s breach of his peace with Persia;
  • Hitler’s original plan to invade Russia, with a baffling northward turn of key panzer units away from Moscow, defying military logic but recalling Julian’s avoidance of the Persian capital by marching north instead;
  • Completing the sequence of analogous events was Hitler’s order to exterminate European Jews under the pretext of fighting partisans, recalling Julian’s similar threat to wipe out all Christians in the Roman empire.

Taken alone, each of these analogous moves might be deemed merely coincidental. Together they constitute a pattern made explicable by Hitler’s words paraphrasing the script. The cult over Emperor and Galilean provided a context, with at least one German literary critic writing, in 1924, that Hitler was anointed to fulfill the Ibsen script. The dots connect.

Two more Ibsen plays turn up as well in the record of what Hitler said and did. Part of Mein Kampf chapter 3 is demonstrably based on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Act IV. And at key junctures, incidents in the career of Hitler’s top construction official follow the plot of The Master Builder. To be sure, what Hitler did with the plays was no fault of the playwright. Ibsen bears no blame, but the evidence of Hitler following a set of scripts is there. Several enduring mysteries of the Nazi Third Reich are now linked and explained with reference to those Ibsen scripts.

Why has none of this been noted before? Though it has long been known that the Third Reich was led by a theatrically-obsessed maniac, researchers looked mainly to Richard Wagner’s operas as the source of inspiration. By contrast, Hitler never made a public fuss over Ibsen. Emperor and Galilean went unperformed and little studied compared to other Ibsen plays. Few historians specialized in the Nazi era would have known the play well, if at all, whereas Ibsen scholars are not usually versed in the historical minutiae of Hitler’s Reich.

If there is a practical lesson here, it is that Hitler was not the first or last lunatic to cause mayhem with reference to a script. The texts impelling today’s fanatics may likewise yield clues to why they act as they do, and what they might do next. Had analysts in Hitler’s era read Ibsen more closely, the insights gained may have spared the world a lot of pain.

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Jim Hammond - 12/18/2006

Mr. Sage says, "Ibsen wrote with a 19th century agenda, against the background of the German Kulturkampf." Does this mean that Ibsen takes a negative view of Julian? Frances Yates, who wrote about Renaissance Neoplatonism, says that Julian subscribed to a "religion of the world" that resembled Neoplatonism. I find Julian's worldview interesting, modern, relevant. My positive view of Julian seems to be shared by Paul Noonan, who wrote on this forum that, in Julian's empire, "everyone would be free to worship as he pleased. In fact, as Roman emperors go, Julian was a remarkably tolerant and humane ruler." Does Ibsen find Julian's worldview attractive? What is Ibsen's view of Julian?

Jim Hammond - 12/18/2006

Mr. Sage's theory is most intriguing, and I plan to discuss it in my newsletter. I’d like to ask Mr. Sage what was the seed of his theory -- the origin, the first clue.

Mr. Sage’s article has convinced me that there are parallels between Ibsen and Hitler. That doesn’t mean, however, that Hitler followed Ibsen’s script -- even if these parallels are very numerous and very detailed. Another interpretation is possible: perhaps Ibsen anticipated Hitler, foresaw Hitler, perhaps Ibsen had a prophetic gift.

I don’t deny that Hitler was familiar with Ibsen’s work, and followed Ibsen in certain respects. Rather, I’m suggesting that Ibsen may have glimpsed the future, may have foreseen Hitler. Perhaps Ibsen was following Hitler just as much as Hitler was following Ibsen.

Jung argues that Nostradamus foresaw events that took place centuries after he died. The Nazis studied Nostradamus (if I remember correctly). It’s unlikely, though, that Hitler followed Nostradamus as much as he seems to have followed Ibsen. Likewise, Heine and Nietzsche foresaw Hitler, but Hitler didn’t “follow their script” in the way that he followed Ibsen.

Whether or not Ibsen anticipated/followed Hitler, the fact that Hitler followed Ibsen is most interesting and most unusual, and I hope to study Mr. Sage’s theory further.
Jim Hammond

Steven F. Sage - 5/31/2006

Ibsen's take on Julian in "Emperor and Galilean" departs significantly from the contemporary portrait by Ammianus Marcellinus which probably comes closest to a 'historical Julian'. Ibsen wrote with a 19th century agenda, against the background of the German Kulturkampf. In Emperor and Galilean, Part Two Act IV, Julian does indeed call for the outright extermination of the Christians. AH echoed Julian's wording from the script, in December 1941 during a meeting with Himmler, according to the Himmler Terminkalendar. There are sufficient such occasions of AH's metaphors matching Ibsen's to confirm beyond reasonable doubt that AH had internalized this script. AH's matching deeds, occurring in the same sequence as those scripted by Ibsen, are reasonably explicable only as conscious emulation. Coincidence? To cite the classic simile, about as likely as waiting for a chimp to type "Hamlet".
IBSEN AND HITLER is an empirical work. It presents an unexpected set of findings, but they fit into a cultural and literary context. The book is not speculation. I welcome informed collegial comment on particulars of historical fact, comparative text, and the overall meaning of the discoveries presented. And, i'll respond point for point in this forum, to such critique from colleagues. So, first read the book.

Paul Noonan - 5/29/2006

"Completing the sequence of analogous events was Hitler’s order to exterminate European Jews under the pretext of fighting partisans, recalling Julian’s similar threat to wipe out all Christians in the Roman empire."

I'm not familiar with Ibsen's play, so perhaps Old Henrik did put something of that nature into Julian's mouth. However, the historical Julian certainly never intended to exterminate, or even harm, Christians. He intended to restore Classical paganism as the state religion of Rome, beyond that everyone would be free to worship as he pleased. In fact, as Roman emperors go, Julian was a remarkably tolerant and humane ruler. He even had a self-depricating sense of humor;I recall he wrote a brief self-description in which he mocked his own charactaristic dishevled appearance with ink stains on his fingers. His personality was thus about 180 degrees different from Hitler's.