One hundred years ago today, a man in his late thirties was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Tübingen, Germany. His head was sunburnt between his full beard and the long hair that began at a receding hairline; despite the hot weather he was wearing a fur coat. He was the author of what he held to be the “third and final testament” and had more recently announced himself as “the way, the truth and the life”. But this was hardly the first time someone had presented to such an institution with megalomania and messianic delusions.
The unusual aspect to his case was that this self-identifying Saviour also proclaimed his divinity from posters all across the country, pronounced it in crowded venues and professed it on thousands of postcards on which he posed as a balding Christ – and he had enlisted plenty of others in his illusion. This was the age of what were later termed the Inflationsheilige, or “Inflation Saints” – robed, bearded, wandering prophets like Friedrich Muck-Lamberty, Max Schulze-Sölde, Leonhard Stark – leaders of rival cults who offered provisional answers to a shattered post-World War One Germany. In the first half of the 1920s, their Jesus cosplay, apocalyptic charisma and message of politico-religious renewal resonated widely among a populace traumatised by death, defeat and privation, violently disabused of its accustomed values.
The most successful of these latter-day apostles, notwithstanding this brief institutional time-out, was Ludwig Christian Haeusser.
I first encountered Haeusser and the other Inflation Saints a few years ago in Prague when I caught the exhibition Artists and Prophets. As I wrote then, it not only introduced the astonishing story of these men (and they were all men), it also located them in a Central European, largely German legacy which began with the “Kohlrabi Apostle” Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach in the 1870s and proceeded through a highly idiosyncratic lineage of politics, prophecy and provocation with a rich graphic heritage which has persisted into the modern era with the likes of Joseph Beuys and Jonathan Meese. The Inflation Saints are now largely forgotten in their homeland and entirely unknown elsewhere. This is all the more surprising considering how rigorously Weimar culture has already been picked over for portents of the Third Reich, and how much these self-styled saviours evidently spoke to a longing for national redemption.
Viewing Ludwig Christian Haeusser’s posters I was struck by his entirely modern command of media and messaging. Only later, on reading Ulrich Linse’s authoritative 1983 book Barfüßige Propheten (Barefoot Prophets), did I realise just how much there was to unpack in the life of the man behind these artefacts, a bizarre blend of Robespierre, Rasputin and Rajneesh – and that I had an odd personal connection with the site of his death. Haeusser’s public life only lasted from 1917 to 1927, but into that decade he fit themes of megalomania, pacifism, androgyny, utopianism, ultraviolent ressentiment, Teutonic exceptionalism, European unity, communal living, psychosexual mania, political polarisation, messianic populism and radical personal liberation, and he had connections not only among the hugely diverse lifestyle reform movement of his time but also the avant-garde practitioners of Bauhaus and Dada.
Before we explore all that – a word. For the complete avoidance of doubt: in no way am I suggesting that Haeusser is worthy of admiration, merely that the life of this largely repellent man was extraordinarily rich in compelling personal eccentricity, with much to say about his own age while portending even more that came after.
The violent revenge fantasies and bitter contempt for authority that marked Haeusser’s later life were instilled early on. Born near Stuttgart in 1881, he suffered through a brutal childhood, enduring savage beatings from his farmer father who cared more for his pigs than his son. Understandably eager to leave home, Haeusser ended up in Paris where he became a champagne merchant. Flogging bubbles to the beau monde during the Belle Époque was about as profitable as you might imagine and Haeusser also topped up his earnings with a rich wife and dubious business practices, and was soon operating out of an apartment on the Champs-Elysées.
Back in Germany, the shift in Haeusser’s life began in 1912 in a Frankfurt hotel room, where he experienced an epiphany about his spiritual quest. But his sketchy methods were catching up with him; fleeing legal troubles he moved to Switzerland in 1913. During World War One he began recording his thoughts on society and faith and his exalted conception of his capacities in these spheres in articles for a newspaper he planned to publish as well as a text that he claimed would be a “third and final testament”. In 1917 he started giving talks on the subject of “the coming Übermensch”, to no great success initially.
In the last stages of the war Haeusser gave up his business and went to see Gusto Gräser, a spiritual vagabond captured in fiction by Hermann Hesse who had set up the idealistic Monte Verità community in Ascona at the beginning of the century. A stark contrast with the humble Gräser, Haeusser was now exhibiting signs of megalomania, declaring himself to be a modern hybrid of Christ, Tao and Zarathustra. But he was still in a transitional phase. Just as his long patriarch’s beard was paired with a merchant’s smart black suit, Haeusser had not completely abandoned his shady dealings; he duped Gräser and his brother out of property before he was expelled once more, back to Germany.
Haeusser finally abandoned the trappings of his former prosperity for a kaftan and sandals and presented himself to the Weimar Republic then in its violent infancy, issuing postcards in Christ-like attitudes inspired by the remarkable gustaf nagel, and putting up high-impact posters announcing speaking events which started attracting sizeable audiences. Haeusser demanded adoration from his new followers; he rewarded their devotion with insults. All of this served to obscure the fact that his core messages – the anti-materialist detachment of biblical Christianity served with a helping of Nietzsche’s cult of self – were hardly new. But few preachers blurred the distinction between Messiah and messenger with the degree of hubris exhibited by Haeusser.
By now Haeusser was attracting plenty of attention, not all of it welcome. He was briefly detained in Stuttgart in the confusion surrounding during the Kapp-Putsch in March 1920. In May he was beaten up by far-right thugs on suspicion of being Jewish. And on 2 July 1920 he was ordered to report for psychological evaluation. His file notes that Haeusser’s prophetic career was a matter of “purely external, formal resemblance”, that it was his “hypomanic sense of power” that really drove him. A modern-day evaluation would probably diagnose bipolar disorder.
Haeusser’s spell in the Tübingen asylum coincided with the “First International Dada Fair” in Berlin. In it Johannes Baader, the original art punk, proclaimed himself the “President of Earth and Space”, much as Haeusser decreed himself the “President of the United States of Europe”. Conversely, Haeusser’s posters could well have been exhibits in the Dada show. Haeusser and Baader got to know each other around this time and found they were kindred spirits – to an extent. Baader was intrigued by the demented intensity of Haeusser’s persona but repelled by his lack of humour; while Baader formed a satirical “Christus GmbH” (Christ Corp.) during the war, Haeusser appeared to be quite serious about his own divinity. But the two had mental instability in common; Baader had also spent time in an asylum. In fact for the Inflation Saints and those in their orbit, neurodiversity was not a bug, it was a feature. Haeusser’s two great inspirations, Gusto Gräser and gustaf nagel, and two of his most prominent followers, Leonhard Stark and Outsider artist Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern – all of them had spent time in psychiatric institutions.
Haeusser kept it sufficiently together to be granted release a few weeks later. In late 1920 he was invited by Walter Gropius himself to come to Weimar and speak at the Bauhaus in its early, heterodox phase in which it also hosted Else Lasker-Schüler. He was apparently well received but ultimately the Bauhaus, whose faculty included Johannes Itten, a key figure in the Mazdaznan cult, had no need to outsource mysticism. And Gropius further reported that he was disturbed by Haeusser’s magnetic appeal, especially to women.
Haeusser was thronged by female followers and openly maintained sexual relations with many of them; when an anonymous letter accused him of “deviant” sexual practices, his response was to have it published. His great weaknesses were for flagellation and group sex, which he described as a magic rite. Sex with him, he claimed, was an act of such purity that he could make virgins of prostitutes. His female acolytes included the daringly androgynous Adele Juel and (future second wife) Olga Lorenzen, and Selma Jäger, who aspired to bear the “saviour of the world” that would be fathered by Haeusser.
Although largely confined to the page, Haeusser’s violent fantasies were even less restrained, his writings littered with deranged, bloodthirsty, scatological scenarios. “The pure one sees the world as a monstrous latrine. And every one of the sinners who inhabit this earth is one of the arseholes that fill the great shithouse of the world with their excrement … And whosoever drinks of this sea of shit – in him is born – worming its way out – overcoming the shithouse of the world – he is truly great – so great that it comes as no surprise when the arseholes can neither comprehend nor believe it … Louis l’Eternel!” Another rousing call: “Blood! Blood! Blood! Blood! Blue blood! Black blood! Red blood! Blood in all its colours! … Blood shall flow! Blood shall swell in every gutter as though after a downpour!” Haeusser promised to murder anyone who did not submit to his rule. “I am a preacher of rapid death and a preacher of violence, of blood that rises to the horse’s bridle!”
By 1922, Haeusser was the most successful of the new caste of Inflation Saints and even launched his own newspaper, Haeusser, to further mobilise the faithful. In June he offered to take over Germany’s Foreign Ministry; the authorities’ response to his generous offer is not recorded. But with his thoughts still on the political sphere he started his own party, the Christlich-Radikale Partei (Christian Radical Party), which claimed to have 2 million members. This was a figure as wildly inflated as the beleaguered Reichsmark of the time – there were never more than 200 on its list.
Haeusser ended the year on a high, appointing himself “Volkskaiser” and issuing an “imperial” declaration offering amnesty for all crimes, declaring an end to all institutions – jails, asylums, even hospitals – and calling for an end to all constraint, a “voluntary lack of possessions”, all of this to be celebrated by an inaugural ten days’ rest under punishment of death with guillotines to be erected on every square to underline the threat.
Back in the real world of things that actually happen, Haeusser came closer than ever to a measure of genuine social power through his betrothal to Hedwig von Pohl, daughter of the aristocrat admiral who commanded Germany’s U-Boot fleet during the war. Foreseeing his ascension to a more exalted social class, Haeusser started dressing as a worldly bonhomme again, with a top hat, engraved watch and monogrammed whip for the boudoir.
As hyperinflation took hold in 1923 and destroyed whatever stability Germany had mustered after the First World War, Haeusser’s dreams of gentry crashed along with it; Pohl’s alarmed family put her in a mental institution to prevent her marrying Haeusser and the engagement was broken. As if to show his bride-not-to-be what she was missing out on, Haeusser posed nude in his newspaper. But he was leaving himself dangerously exposed in other ways, declaring himself the “High Commander of the Army of Truth” and alerting local authorities that he would repel any police action “with the most brutal violence”. Like Rajneesh preaching huggy, sexy liberation to his followers while armed to the teeth in an Oregon backwater, Haeusser’s identification as the “Lamb of God” was accompanied by rhetoric of the utmost violence.
The state had its limits; Haeusser was arrested for threatening public officials and imprisoned. His 21-month sentence coincided with and exacerbated a particularly fraught stage in his physical and mental health. Haeusser lapsed into hysterical paralysis and refused to consume anything but his own urine and semen. Near death, he came close to abandoning his calling but instead consolidated his efforts in the political arena.
For consistency of branding, if nothing else, Haeusser renamed his party the “Haeusserbund” and waged a campaign from jail to get himself elected to the Reichstag in Germany’s May 1924 elections. He managed 25,000 votes, but it was nowhere near enough to get him a seat. The peak of inflation, and with it the perilous conditions in which Haeusser and his ilk were able to flourish, was past. A new vote was called for December; gustaf nagel also stood and presumably cannibalised whatever was left of the messianic lunacy vote. Neither of them made it to the Reichstag. Undaunted, Haeusser stood for President in 1925, with posters proclaiming “You can’t do anything without him”, tendering the exclusive claim common to all potential autocrats (c.f. Trump’s “I alone can fix it”). Except – it turns out they could; Germany’s electorate took a hard pass on President Haeusser and the last of his attempts to attain power through conventional means was dashed.
But what drove him? Haeusser’s politics were as difficult to pin down as his ideology. He had no interest or belief in democracy (or “demon-cracy” as he called it), preferring the idea of “anarchist monarchy”, whatever that was, or a “state of GOD under the rule of a priest-king”. Politics, it seems, was just another opportunity for him to live out the full force of his mania. “I feel the hour coming when everyone, overcoming their helplessness, ceding the way, will rejoice when I replace them and take over government business,” he gloated (before the votes came in). But you don’t need fluent German to discern the portents in another of Haeusser’s rants:
ein Volk – Herr über Völker! – Und ich – Ich will diesem Volke Führer sein!
By now you have probably noticed the presence of an elephant in the room, an elephant with a little moustache. It is impossible to ignore comparisons with the man who harnessed hypnotic, irrational allure more than any other; the parallels are legion, the foreshadowing extraordinary.
A story circulated by one of Haeusser’s followers has the master standing up at an early campaign rally by the head of the Nazi party and saying “Herr Hitler, if your lies become truth, you are the greatest bloodhound that German history has ever produced!” It has proved impossible to verify this; as a tweet this would doubtless attract, and might well merit, a sarcastic comment of “HUGE if true”. However, there was another, more likely encounter between the two. Years later, during World War Two, in one of his interminable after-dinner monologues Hitler turned to the subject of the “kook” Haeusser, and recalled having attended one of his events in which the prophet had insulted the audience freely.
Hitler was either ignorant of or chose to overlook the numerous points of intersection he shared with the “kook”. Haeusser saw himself as the “saviour” of Germany, who would “cleanse” the country so it could fulfil its destiny as the “dominant force” over Europe, or even further: “All peoples will soon be healed by our essential German character!”. He spent his time in prison developing elaborate revenge scenarios. In the campaign for the first of the 1924 elections, Haeusser announced that he would introduce an Ermächtigungsgesetz, or “Enabling Act” – the precise name of the 1933 law that formalised Hitler’s dictatorship following the Reichstag fire. But there were limits to the parallels. While Haeusser spoke of the “collapse of the white race”, he dismissed antisemitism as a nonsense. Nor did he share the ancestral hatred of Germany’s western neighbour; Haeusser was both Francophile and fluently Francophone.
It seems that what appealed to Haeusser was the extreme, and whether that was the extreme right or the extreme left was irrelevant. For a while he referred to himself as a “Swastika Communist”, believing he could unite the far left and far right in a one-man vindication for anyone who subscribes to the “horseshoe theory” of political polarisation.
In 1923 Leonhard Stark explicitly drew the dots in an article entitled “Adolf Hitler or Louis Haeusser?”, coming to the improbable conclusion that Hitler, rather than Haeusser, lacked the “self-discipline” required for power. But Hitler had both self-discipline and something else that Haeusser lacked – a clearly defined enemy. While the prophet kept a list of judges to be executed once he seized power, this was a less serviceable beef than Hitler’s insistence that the Jews were responsible for all of Germany’s troubles. Haeusser preached radical individualist anarchy, professing not just the autonomy but the godhead of the individual. Clearly this was at odds with the awed, impersonal subservience the Nazis expected of the populace.
In one sense, Haeusser’s insanity was subtly yet fatally at odds with the prevailing insanities of his age. In another, more prosaic sense, Haeusser’s physical and mental health were simply not up to the rigours of public life. Others sensed his weakness, and pounced on it. In the manner of aspiring Wimbledon champions, Haeusser’s fans became his competitors in the shrinking market for freestyle prophecy, and they showed little loyalty. But Haeusser himself seemed to encourage this polytheism, proclaiming “I shall have other gods beside me!”
Haeusser was finally released from prison in July 1925, and he resumed his speaking activities, presenting his dwindling audiences with another incarnation, now almost unrecognisable with a completely shaven head. But he was well into his terminal phase. In 1926 he decided to start a commune, and had got as far as picking out a plot in Brandenburg, but his rapidly declining health didn’t allow him to follow through on the plan.
Instead his sphere of influence was reduced to an apartment near Berlin’s Anhalter Station which he grandly proclaimed to be the “Chancellery” for the “Haeusser-Reich” which he envisaged as the successor body to the Haeusserbund. But he was too weak to put these plans into action and was admitted to a hospital in Neukölln where he died on 9 June 1927. The building now houses council offices, where 90 years later I applied for German citizenship.
Haeusser’s widow Olga took over leadership of the “Reich” and his eponymous newspaper finally folded in 1932 after a remarkable ten-year run. Almost a century after his death, Ludwig Christian Haeusser remains a figure of near-total obscurity in Germany, and his astonishing story has never been told in English. Until now.