As claims of social progress resulting from free market capitalism come under renewed scrutiny in the twenty-first century, the search for prophets and a useable past has begun.  In this search, the nineteenth century German social critic Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl reappears, but not uncontested.  For some, Riehl was a Volkish utopian and a progenitor of twentieth-century authoritarianism, yearning for a medievalist past of natural splendor and ethnic purity.  For others, Riehl’s keen social observations stripped away the inhuman modern statistical “reign of quantity” to seek a humane historically based community —not unlike his French contemporary Frederic Le Play.  Amid modern disillusionment and material plenty, Riehl and his cultural observations deserve reconsideration.

W. H. Riehl was one of the foremost social critics in nineteenth-century imperial Germany. Born in Rhineland in 1823, he bounced around German universities in the 1840s and eventually abandoned his quest to become a Lutheran pastor for a career in journalism.  As a journalist and public intellectual, he witnessed the 1848 European revolutions, the violence and impetuousness of which pushed Riehl away from a naïve liberalism to traditional conservatism.  His writings on German culture and society in the 1850s brought him to the attention of Bavarian King Maximilian II, who befriended Riehl and engineered his appointment to a Munich professorship despite the Rhinelander’s lack of professional academic training.  Scornful professorial colleagues considered Riehl a poseur, but he remained in Bavaria for the rest of his life, teaching, writing, and lecturing up to his death in 1897.[1]

Although widely known for his Munich lectures, Riehl gained greater fame with his multivolume examination of German society, The Natural History of the German People.[2]  Published in four parts between 1851 and 1869, his work questioned the usefulness of quantitative processes for determining social reality (“a revolt against armchair scholarship,” as one historian called it), contending that qualitative observation and familiarity were the fountainheads of authentic understanding.[3]  As a prominent practitioner of Volkskunde (folklore studies or ethnology), he celebrated traditional social roles and the family, and he fiercely criticized emerging cosmopolitan modernity.  Riehl’s work exhibited, translator David J. Diephouse noted, “deeply rooted sympathies for the pre-capitalist, pre-industrial society of earlier centuries and his profound ambivalence towards modernity, urbanization, and the growth of the proletariat.”[4]  Taken together, Riehl’s work was a comprehensive assault on social progress and the modern world taking shape, and it transformed him into a “prophet of anti-modernism.”[5]

According to Riehl, human society was defined by its uniqueness and diversity, its traditions and time-established customs -all inadequately represented, if not polluted, by social sciences bent on imposing quantified categories on institutions of limitless variety.  Statistical social science was evidence “of that modern levelling instinct that threatened to reduce all the colorful variety of healthy local traditions to a dull, ledger-book uniformity.”[6]  Riehl sought social understanding through determining,

the general organic personality of a people on the basis of its natural ethnographic features—“land and people,” as these mutually influence each other. At the beginning, therefore, would be a general study of geography and folklore. Then would follow the study of those small basic units in society, held together by the bonds of nature and domestic life, for which the state is not yet a necessary precondition—the study of the family. Then would come the study of those larger organic components of the national personality, the natural social orders, groups distinguished from one another by differences in labor, in vocation, and consequent differences in customs, settlement, and manner of life—in short, the study of society.[7]

Studies such as these did not lock human communities into clearly defined, quantified, inorganic, neat categories, but looked to understand “organic, historically-refined structures of popular experience.”[8]

Studying society as “an organic totality,” Riehl identified three characteristics: the community, the hierarchy of civil society, and the family.[9]  All three existed beyond the realm of statistics, provided a foundation for a stable social order, and were being dangerously challenged by an emerging aggressive modernity.

Community preexisted government and was the sum of man’s social and political life.  “The community is not merely a political organism,” wrote Riehl, “it is properly a corporate social entity.  A community of labor, of occupation and settlement, is what provides shape through the state.”[10]  The peasants and farmers of German villages lived within this historical structure, with a lineage stretching back to the Middle Ages, untouched and unquestioned —until the eighteenth century.  “No era contributed less than the eighteenth century to the development of a communal spirit of citizenship.”[11]  Social structures that gave residents a sense of order and meaning came under attack; individualism eclipsed communalism, cosmopolitan cities overshadowed smaller towns and the countryside, and a new proletariat dominated the traditional populace.  The Enlightenment chipped away the foundation of the medieval inheritance.  “The savages who once prowled the German forests in their bearskins had a healthier sense of community,” Riehl lamented.

This modern spirit spawned by the Enlightenment had as its goal the leveling of community distinctions and the creation of national and transnational masses, organized around liberal democracy, social reform, and equality.  Riehl believed this process was socially destructive and virtually impossible to complete:

The very nature of the German community precludes attempts at homogenization, whether social or political. There can be no doubt that every German patriot yearns for the consolidation of our entire fatherland into a single political and diplomatic unit. But there can also be no doubt that it would constitute an offense against the ethos of this German nation if one were to lump together in a single category all various types of community, or civil and societal structures, to be found in its individual states and regions. German communities encompass a rich array of separate moral entities, each of which truly has a distinct personal character all its own. This character may often be a caricature, but at least it is imbued with its own personality, not some lifeless political category.[12]

To counteract the corrosive nature of modern society eating at the roots of community, Riehl urged preservation of traditions about to disappear, rather than engineering new structures of social organization.  “In this moral universe, preservation was frequently the true hallmark of progress,” Diephouse noted. “[C]hange was just as frequently a symptom of corruption and decay.”[13]

Within the community, what Riehl called civil society was under pressure as well.  The tripartite division of society between peasants, aristocrats, and the burghers (or bourgeoisie), a natural order validated by time and practice, was being shunted aside by a bustling, disorderly, and unprincipled “fourth estate.”[14] Peasants were the “invincible conservative force, a solid core of continuity” across all the regions of Germany.[15]  Through their traditional lifestyles, their celebration of village and family life, and the diversity of their local customs, there was,

an invisible bond that draws everything together to form a unity of which the peasant himself is no doubt the least likely of all to be aware. The same historical character is everywhere present, everywhere tradition constitutes the supreme form of law. Whenever religion, national spirit, social and family life remain native instincts, where they still constitute a solid moral tradition, there the German peasant is sure to be found.[16]

An aristocrat is not “a mere historical fossil, a hoary, antiquarian museum piece,” living in “crumbling castles of the old knights, hidden away on the lonely heights of overgrown and trackless hills.”[17]  He, like the peasant, is the physical embodiment of history —“the most fascinating aspect of our nobility’s highly convoluted past lies in the very fact that, despite all the abrupt changes, a clear historical thread has remained intact.”[18]  As a property owner in a historical community, the aristocrat is independent and becomes a force for order and stability.  “Settled ownership of property is the cornerstone of a thriving aristocracy. It is the basis of aristocratic independence. . . . Ownership of property makes the nobility the closest ally and natural guardian of the small proprietor, the peasant.”[19]

The burghers were members of Germany’s cautious middle class, a rapidly growing and influential class in the nineteenth century.  “Our entire era bears a middle class stamp,” Riehl observed with concern.  Comprising artisans and small businessmen, burghers supported moderate social and political reforms.  Riehl mocked the odd “dualism” in their ideas:

Bourgeois liberalism wanted royalty—but not divine right, a constitutional monarchy—but one that was at the same time democratic, “on the broadest possible basis,” a king who was sovereign—but who did not rule. It wanted a legislature that could totally control government ministers—but would not itself be responsible for administration; political representation of society in general—but not in particular; a German bill of rights—but with exceptions; freedom of religion—but no Jesuits, monastic orders, or dissenters; popular uprisings, popular demands, the triumph of the people—but not revolution.[20]

Riehl, however, refused to condemn the reform-inclined middle class as an enemy of traditional community; in the wake of the 1848 revolutions he considered himself a reform conservative.[21]  He found their prudence refreshing and important to healthy civilization, echoing English conservatives like Burke and Coleridge who championed an efficacious balance between landowners and merchants: “If what ought to be honored in the peasant is the force of perseverance and tenacious adherence to everything traditional, it is the power of reform that one honors in the burgher.”[22]

The fourth estate, or proletariat, threatened to break apart the three-tiered hierarchy of natural society.  Born of industrialism and its urban offshoot, the proletarians were unattached to the land, without strong familial ties or a historical tradition.  They were, in fact, mortal enemies of traditional society — “The rise of the fourth estate therefore portends the end of social cohesion,” noted Diephouse.[23]  These industrial workers and “the aggregate of all those who have broken away from or been extruded from the old system of social groupings and strata, and who consider it an outrage against humanity to speak of lords, burghers, and peasants” are rootless by principle “in the name of a homogenous, universal, indivisible society.”[24] Riehl continued:

It lacks all the elements of cohesion at work in the other social orders. Its members are not bound by common ties of historical continuity or inherited custom, since the fourth estate came to life precisely out of the decay of inherited traditions and since the total destruction of such traditions is its most cherished aim. Whereas the other orders are national, even particularist, the fourth estate is cosmopolitan.[25]

Until the older orders reassert themselves, cosmopolitanism will be the norm.  “The fourth estate is with us, like it or not,” Riehl regretted.[26]

The third characteristic of imperiled natural society was the family, “a product not of historical circumstances but of a basic creational order.”[27]  The family was a social microcosm, encompassing and reflecting the greater community’s qualities of patriarchy, order, and tradition.

Just as a mighty oak is contained in every acorn, so every possible organic division in civil society can be found in miniature within the family. The family constitutes the source for all the social and political forces of tradition that constitute the source of law. The family is in fact a necessary precondition for the civic development of any people. To harm the family is to undermine the foundation of all human civilization.[28]

As much as the family supported the virtues of the greater community, Riehl found its propagation of social inequality the most satisfying.

Nothing was so natural as inequality —between classes in social hierarchy and, as regards the family, between men and women.  Men were responsible for activities outside the home, namely production and farming to support the family.  Women acted inside the home nurturing children, organizing food production, and maintaining the household.  Each sphere depended upon and complemented the other.  Both met in the institution of marriage, “the restoration of an integral humanity, through the physical and moral union of an individual from both sexes.  Out of this union arises the family.”[29]  After this union, husband and wife met at the fireside, where the father, the monarch of the family, was supreme.  Any disturbance of this relationship, either with the union of marriage or with patriarchy, was egalitarian scheming aiming to uproot the natural foundations of “the patriarchal family, a microcosm of social order and monarchical authority.”[30]

How Historians Consider Riehl

For some commentators, Riehl and his Natural History cannot escape the nineteenth-century milieu, suffering from, in Diephouse’s phrase, “time-boundedness.”[31]  In this view, Riehl’s analysis died with him in 1897, left forever in the long shadows of contemporaries like Marx and Mill.

Riehl’s obscurity does not preclude a new appreciation, however.  Resurgent anxiety about modernity make his observations as prescient as ever.  Yet rediscovery is not without controversy and mention of his name invites debate.  His Natural History transcended its temporary exile in “time-boundedness,” enduring harsh criticism from those who regarded it an intellectual inspiration to Nazism and admiration from others who applauded its incisive social observations and defense of traditionalism.

Leading the charge against Riehl was the late historian George Mosse in his landmark Crisis of German Ideology.  For Mosse, Riehl was a hopeless romantic and dangerous Volkish dreamer.  The Natural History posited a mystical “natural environment” that grew “such qualities as sincerity, integrity, and simplicity” in its citizens and created an imaginary “Volk rooted in nature.”[32]  Building up a fanciful German utopia into reality, it lashed out at those people and ideas seen as threatening and impure; “only nature was genuine, since it was infused with both the life force and historical meaning for the Volk.”[33]  It was Riehl who “formulated important precepts for the society that the Volkish ideology envisaged” and encouraged “the romantic nostalgia for medieval times” that opened doors for twentieth-century autocracy only too happy to co-opt Riehl’s utopianism.[34]  The Nazi regime even established a “Wilhelm Riehl Prize” in folklore studies in his honor.[35]

Riehl may have created the forms for later authoritarianism, Mosse continued, but he also had a hand in the details as well, particularly his anti-Semitism. By describing the fourth estate in starkly negative terms, and by mentioning Jews as among them, Riehl, Mosse believed, invited the Nazis to systematize the book’s observations:

The proletariat was the enemy to be vanquished. . . . In its ranks was the migratory worker, who, lacking a native residence, could not call any landscape his own. There was also the journalist, the polemicist, the iconoclast who opposed ancient custom, advocated man-made panaceas, and excited the people to revolt against the genuine and established order. Above all, there was the Jew, who by his very nature is restless.[36]

Linking Volkish utopia with nomadic migrants and Jews, a Riehlian state promoted institutional anti-Semitism.  “Such ideas secured a place for Riehl in the history of Volkish thought,” Mosse asserted.  “Although statements of many famous men were misconstrued and their thought distorted by extremists in the later Volkish movement, [Riehl] was not among them.”[37]

Diephouse, Riehl’s translator, partially concurred with Mosse viewing Riehl as a “conservative utopian.”[38]  He also noted Riehl’s Jewish fourth estate remarks in the Natural History, where Jews were “disproportionately represented in the subculture of rootless modernity.”[39]  Where Riehl deserved criticism in particular, asserted Diephouse, is his linkage of corrupt urbanity with foreign cities:

He was thereby helping forge a link between chauvinism and cultural antimodernism, a synthesis only too familiar in National Socialism and its pseudointellectual antecedents. Not for nothing would some ideologies of the Third Reich prove eager to admit Riehl into their pantheon of cultural heroes.[40]

While Riehl could not have anticipated his words would help a movement like Nazism, Diephouse believed the infelicitous language of the Natural History lent itself to abuse.

Riehl was not without his defenders, however.  While Diephouse chided Riehl, he also defended him against historians who forged hard links between the Natural History and National Socialism.  Riehl may lend himself to ideological abuse, but the German communities he celebrated were the antithesis of Hitlerism.  The Third Reich “surely represented a travesty of everything Riehl held most dear,” Diephouse insisted.[41]  As such, the Natural History was eminently redeemable.  “The emphasis on society for which Riehl was faulted by much of the historicist establishment now looks like a considerable virtue; some elements of his social geography remain worthy of further refinement.”[42]  The German studies scholar Mary Beth Stein also offered Riehl, whom she considered a Romantic nationalist, conditional praise.  While Nazi utilization of his work complicates his legacy for German cultural scholars even today, Stein advocated for his remembrance and study. “Although controversial, Riehl’s importance for the discipline of Volkskunde cannot be dismissed. . . . He refashioned Volkskunde into a field of empirical, social scientific inquiry and placed material culture, mentality, and custom on equal footing with the philological and historical orientation of [the folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm].”[43]  His social theories as described in the Natural History and elsewhere —“a conservative cultural critique challenging the liberal theoretical paradigm and focusing on specific social institutions (family and estate) and historical processes (modernization and democratization) —remained illustrative and useful.[44]

A further defense of Riehl came with his comparison to the nineteenth century French sociologist Frederic Le Play.  David Sabean in his Property, Production, and Family in Neckerhausen,1700-1870 mentioned Le Play and Riehl with regard to evolving perceptions of home throughout the 1800s.  Both “saw the structure of the family as a continuous, functional whole with a head and dependent members,” and “[b]oth Le Play and Riehl stressed that authority and discipline were the key to understanding how the complex unity of the house could be welded together.”[45]  Most importantly, both men emphasized that for the natural order of the family to stay together, there was “need to maintain the integrity of the patrimony.”[46]

Sociologist Robert Nisbet also considered Le Play in his Sociological Tradition, and in so doing helps us compare Riehl to the French thinker.  For Le Play, the central organizing institution of society was the family, as he wrote in his book The European Working Classes.  “Populations consist not of individuals but of families.  The task of observation would be vague, indefinite, and inconclusive, if in every location it were required to extend it to individuals differing in age and sex.  It becomes precise, definite, and conclusive when its subject is the family.”[47]  Whereas Riehl said the modern impulse toward egalitarianism, homogenization, and rootlessness was tearing apart the traditional and orderly functions of the family, Le Play declared “we see the results of fragmentation of property, of the loss of legal paternal authority, and of the rupture of relation between family and tradition caused by modern individualism and secularism.”[48]  Celebrating the “stem family” that “combines . . . the best of the patriarchal system with the individualism of the stable type,” Le Play, like Riehl, stressed the importance of natural surroundings and community institutions —“the nature of the physical environment of each family, its surrounding religions and moral customs, its rank in the hierarchy of the community, its food, shelter, and of course, occupation.”[49]  Comparing Riehl with Le Play, the Rhinelander should be seen as an incisive nineteenth-century European social critic rather than as a herald of modern authoritarianism.  Yet the German volkish thinker, Riehl, burdened by the weight of German history, faces a different standard.

As long as social innovations threaten established traditions and liberal capitalism upends historically established communities and institutions, there will be searches for sympathetic social critics like Riehl.  His contribution to conservative social thought, though a complex one, should invite renewed interest among Rightists as they critique modernity and its discontents.


Michael J. Connolly is Professor of History at Purdue University Northwest and received his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America.  He lives in Indiana with his wife and three corgis.


[1] Mary Beth Stein, “Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl and the Scientific-Literary Formation of ‘Volkskunde,’” German Studies Review 24, no. 3 (October 2001): 487‒90.

[2]Woodruff Smith, Politics and the Sciences of Culture in Germany, 1840-1920, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 40-42.

[3] Stein, “Wilhlem Heinrich Riehl,” 496.

[4] Ibid, 493-494.

[5] W. H. Riehl, The Natural History of the German People, trans. and ed. David J. Diephouse (Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1990), 12. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[6] Ibid., 14. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 8. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 73.

[11] Ibid., 71.

[12] Ibid., 77.

[13] Ibid., 16. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[14] Ibid., 9. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[15] Ibid., 155.

[16] Ibid., 163.

[17] Ibid., 183, 199.

[18] Ibid., 199.

[19] Ibid., 202.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Smith, Politics, 41.

[22] Riehl, Natural History, 226.

[23] Ibid., 9. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[24] Ibid., 231.

[25] Ibid., 233.

[26] Ibid., 257.

[27] Ibid., 8. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[28] Ibid., 299.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 12. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[31] Ibid., 3. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[32] George Mosse. The Crisis of German Ideology (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964) 9.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 19-20.

[35] Ibid., 23.

[36] Ibid., 22.

[37] Ibid., 23.

[38] Riehl, Natural History, 3. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[39] Ibid, 9. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[40] Ibid., 11. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[41] Ibid., 18. Quote from Diephouse introduction.

[42] Ibid. Diephouse quotes the German sociologist Eckhart Pankoke on Riehl: “For all the backwardness and blindness to reality in his sociological model, Riehl’s formulation of the new problems of an industrial division of labor now appear more appropriate than the abstract individualism of the [liberal] bourgeois conception of the state.”

[43] Stein, “Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl,” 491.

[44] Ibid., 500.

[45] David Sabean. Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 89.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Robert A. Nisbet. The Sociological Tradition (New York: Basic Books, 1966), 62.

[48] Ibid., 63.

[49] Ibid., 64.  The historian Woodruff Smith also gives a generally positive appraisal of Riehl’s significance and never makes the connection to National Socialism. See Smith, Politics, 40‑44