He is considered one of the main authors of key National Socialist ideological creeds, including its racial theory, persecution of the Jews, Lebensraum, abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles, and opposition to degenerate modern art. He is known for his rejection of and hatred for Christianity, having played an important role in the development of German Nationalist Positive Christianity. At Nuremberg he was sentenced to death and executed by hanging for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Rosenberg was born on 12 January 1893 in Tallinn in the Russian Empire, the capital of modern Estonia, to a family of Baltic Germans. His father, Waldemar Wilhelm Rosenberg, was a wealthy merchant from Latvia, and his mother, Elfriede (née Siré), was a teacher of French language in Tallinn. The Hungarian-Jewish journalist Franz Szell, who was apparently residing in Tilsit, Lithuania, spent a year researching in Latvian and Estonian archives before publishing in 1936 an open letter, with copies to Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, German foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath, and others, accusing Rosenberg of having "no drop of German blood" flowing in his veins. Szell wrote that among Rosenberg's ancestors were only "Latvians, Jews, Mongols, and French." As a result of his open letter, Szell was deported by Lithuanian authorities on September 15, 1936. His claims were repeated in the 15 September 1937 issue of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.
The young Rosenberg graduated from the Petri-Realschule (currently Tallinna Reaalkool) and went on to study architecture at the Riga Polytechnical Institute and engineering at Moscow's Highest Technical School completing his PhD studies in 1917. During his stays at home in Tallinn, he attended the art studio of the famed painter Ants Laikmaa, but even though he showed promise, there are no records that he ever exhibited. During the German occupation in 1918, Rosenberg served as a teacher at the Gustav Adolf Gymnasium. Rosenberg held his first speech on Jewish Marxism at the House of the Blackheads on 30 November after the outbreak of the Estonian War of Independence. He emigrated to Germany with the retreating imperial army, along Max Scheubner-Richter, who served as something of a mentor to Rosenberg and to his ideology. Arriving in Munich, he contributed to Dietrich Eckart's publication, the Völkischer Beobachter (Ethnic/Nationalist Observer). By this time, he was both an antisemite – influenced by Houston Stewart Chamberlain's book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, one of the key proto-Nazi books of racial theory – and an anti-bolshevik. Rosenberg became one of the earliest members of the German Workers' Party – later renamed the National Socialist German Workers' Party, better known as the Nazi Party – joining in January 1919, eight months before Adolf Hitler joined in September. According to some historians, Rosenberg had also been a member of the Thule Society, along with Eckart, although Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke contends that they were only guests. After the Völkischer Beobachter became the Nazi party newspaper in December 1920, Rosenberg became its editor, in 1923. Rosenberg was a leading member of Aufbau Vereinigung, Reconstruction Organisation, a conspiratorial organisation of White Russian émigrés which had a critical influence on early Nazi policy.
In 1923, after the failed Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler, who had been imprisoned for treason, appointed Rosenberg as the leader of the National Socialist movement, a position he held until Hitler's release. Hitler remarked privately in later years that his choice of Rosenberg, whom he regarded as weak and lazy, was strategic; Hitler did not want the temporary leader of the Nazis to become too popular or hungry for power, because a person with either of those two qualities might not want to cede the party leadership after Hitler's release. However, at the time of the appointment Hitler had no reason to believe that he would soon be released, and Rosenberg had not appeared weak, so this may have been Hitler reading back into history his dissatisfaction with Rosenberg for the job he did.
In 1929 Rosenberg founded the Militant League for German Culture. He later formed the "Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question," dedicated to identifying and attacking Jewish influence in German culture and to recording the history of Judaism from a radical nationalist perspective. He became a Reichstag Deputy in 1930 and published his book on racial theory The Myth of the Twentieth Century (Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts) which deals with key issues in the National Socialist ideology, such as the "Jewish question." Rosenberg intended his book as a sequel to Houston Stewart Chamberlain's above-cited book. Despite selling more than a million copies by 1945, its influence within Nazism remains doubtful. It is often said to have been a book that was officially venerated within Nazism, but one that few had actually read beyond the first chapter or even found comprehensible. Hitler called it "stuff nobody can understand" and disapproved of its pseudo-religious tone.
Rosenberg convinced Hitler that communism was an international threat due to the fragility of the Soviet Union's internal political structure. "Jewish-Bolshevism" was accepted as a target for Nazism during the early 1920s.
In Rome during November 1932 Rosenberg participated in the Volta Conference. British historian Sir Charles Petrie met him there and regarded him with great distaste; Petrie was a Catholic and strongly objected to Rosenberg's anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic sentiments.
The following year, once Hitler had become Chancellor, Rosenberg was named leader of the Nazi Party's foreign political office, but he played little practical part in the role. Another event of 1933 was Rosenberg's visit to Britain, intended to give the impression that the Nazis would not be a threat and to encourage links between the new regime and the British Empire. It was a notable failure. When Rosenberg laid a wreath bearing a swastika at the Cenotaph, a Labour Party candidate slashed it and later threw it in the Thames and was fined 40 shillings for willful damage at Bow Street magistrate’s court. In January 1934 Hitler granted Rosenberg responsibility for the spiritual and philosophical education of the Party and all related organizations.
As the Nazi Party's chief racial theorist, Rosenberg oversaw the construction of a human racial "ladder" that justified Hitler's racial and ethnic policies. Rosenberg built on the works of Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Madison Grant, the Klansman Lothrop Stoddard as well as on the beliefs of Hitler. Rosenberg placed Blacks and Jews at the very bottom of the ladder, while at the very top stood the white "Aryan" race. Rosenberg promoted the Nordic theory which regarded Nordics as the "master race", superior to all others, including to other Aryans (Indo-Europeans).
Rosenberg got the racial term Untermensch from the title of Stoddard's 1922 book The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-man, which had been adopted by the Nazis from that book's German version Der Kulturumsturz: Die Drohung des Untermenschen (1925).
Rosenberg reshaped Nazi racial policy over the years, but it always consisted of Aryan supremacy, extreme German nationalism and rabid antisemitism. Rosenberg also outspokenly opposed homosexuality – notably in his pamphlet "Der Sumpf" ("The Swamp", 1927). He viewed homosexuality as a hindrance to the expansion of the Nordic population.
Rosenberg's attitude towards Slavs was flexible and depended on the particular nation involved. As a result of the ideology of "Drang nach Osten", Rosenberg saw his mission as the conquest and colonization of the Slavic East. In Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts Rosenberg describes Russian Slavs as being overwhelmed by Bolshevism. Regarding Ukrainians, he favoured setting up a buffer state to ease pressure on the German eastern frontier, while agreeing with the notion of the exploitation of Russia for the benefit of Germany. During the war, Rosenberg was in favour of collaboration with the East Slavs against Bolshevism and offering them national independence unlike other Nazis such as Hitler and Himmler who dismissed such ideas.
Rosenberg argued for a new "religion of the blood," based on the supposed innate promptings of the Nordic soul to defend its noble character against racial and cultural degeneration. He believed that this had been embodied in early Indo-European religions, notably ancient European (Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Roman) paganism, Zoroastrianism, and Vedic Hinduism.
He rejected Christianity for its universality, for its doctrine of original sin (at least for Germans whom he declared on one occasion were born noble), and for its teachings on the immortality of the soul, saying, "indeed, absorbing Christianity enfeebled a people." Publicly, Rosenberg affected to deplore Christianity's degeneration owing to Jewish influence. Following Chamberlain's ideas, he condemned what he called "negative Christianity" (the orthodox beliefs of Protestant and Catholic churches), arguing instead for a so-called "positive" Christianity based on Chamberlain's claim that Jesus was a member of an Indo-European, Nordic enclave resident in ancient Galilee who struggled against Judaism. Significantly, in his work explicating the Nazi intellectual belief system, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, Rosenberg cryptically alludes to and lauds the early Christian heretic Marcion (who rejected the Old Testament as well as the notion of Christ as the Jewish Messiah) and the Manichaean-inspired, "Aryo-Iranian" Cathari, as being the more authentic interpreters of Christianity versus historically dominant Judaeo-Christianity; moreover these ancient, externally Christian metaphysical forms were more "organically compatible with the Nordic sense of the spiritual and the Nordic 'blood-soul'." For Rosenberg, the anti-intellectual, religious doctrine was inseparable from serving the interests of the Nordic race, connecting the individual to his racial nature. Rosenberg stated that "The general ideas of the Roman and of the Protestant churches are negative Christianity and do not, therefore, accord with our (German) soul." His support for Luther as a great German figure was always ambivalent.
In January 1934 Hitler had appointed Rosenberg as the cultural and educational leader of the Reich. The Sanctum Officium in Rome recommended that Rosenberg's Myth of the Twentieth Century be put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (list of books forbidden by the Catholic Church) for scorning and rejecting "all dogmas of the Catholic Church, indeed the very fundamentals of the Christian religion". During World War II Rosenberg outlined the future envisioned by the Hitler government for religion in Germany, with a thirty-point program for the future of the German churches. Among its articles:the National Reich Church of Germany would claim exclusive control over all churches
publication of the Bible would cease
crucifixes, Bibles and saints were to be removed from altars
Mein Kampf would be placed on altars as "to the German nation and therefore to God the most sacred book"
the Christian Cross would be removed from all churches and replaced with the swastika.
In 1940 Rosenberg was made head of the Hohe Schule (literally "high school", but the German phrase refers to a college), the Centre of National Socialist Ideological and Educational Research, out of which the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg developed for the purpose of looting art and cultural goods. The ERR were especially active in Paris in looting art stolen from famous Jewish families such as the Rothschilds and that of Paul Rosenberg. Hermann Goering used the ERR to collect art for his own personal gratification. He created a "Special Task Force for Music" (Sonderstab Musik) to collect the best musical instruments and scores for use in a university to be built in Hitler's home town of Linz, Austria. The orders given to the Sonderstab Musik were to loot all forms of Jewish property in Germany and of those found in any country taken over by the German army, and any musical instruments or scores were to be immediately shipped to Berlin.
Following the invasion of the USSR, Rosenberg was appointed head of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories (Reichsministerium für die besetzten Ostgebiete). Alfred Meyer served as his deputy and represented him at the Wannsee Conference. Another official of the Ministry, Georg Leibbrandt, also attended the conference, at Rosenberg's request.
Rosenberg had presented Hitler with his plan for the organization of the conquered Eastern territories, suggesting the establishment of new administrative districts, to replace the previously Soviet-controlled territories with new Reichskommissariats. These would be:Ostland (Baltic countries and Belarus),
Ukraine (Ukraine and nearest territories),
Kaukasus (Caucasus area),
Moskau (Moscow metropolitan area and the rest of nearest Russian European areas)
Although Rosenberg regarded all the Soviet peoples as subhumans for their communist beliefs, such suggestions were intended to encourage certain non-Russian nationalism and to promote German interests for the benefit of future Aryan generations, in accord with geopolitical "Lebensraum im Osten" plans. They would provide a buffer against Soviet expansion in preparation for the total eradication of Communism and Bolshevism by decisive pre-emptive military action.
Following these plans, when Wehrmacht forces invaded Soviet-controlled territory, they immediately implemented the first of the proposed Reichskommissariats of Ostland and Ukraine, under the leadership of Hinrich Lohse and Erich Koch, respectively. The organization of these administrative territories led to conflict between Rosenberg and the SS over the treatment of Slavs under German occupation. As Nazi Germany's chief racial theorist, Rosenberg considered Slavs, though lesser than Germans, to be Aryan. Rosenberg often complained to Hitler and Himmler about the treatment of non-Jewish occupied peoples. He proposed creation of buffer satellite states made out of Greater Finland, Baltica, Ukraine, and Caucasus.
In a 18 November 1941 press conference speaking about the Jewish Question, he said:
Some six million Jews still live in the East, and this question can only be solved by a biological extermination of the whole of Jewry in Europe. The Jewish Question will only be solved for Germany when the last Jew has left German territory, and for Europe when not a single Jew stands on the European continent as far as the Urals... And to this end it is necessary to force them beyond the Urals or otherwise bring about their eradication.
He made no complaints about the murders of Jews. At the Nuremberg Trials he claimed to be ignorant of the Holocaust, despite the fact that Leibbrandt and Meyer were present at the Wannsee conference.
Since the invasion of the Soviet Union intended to impose the New Order, it was essentially a war of conquest. German propaganda efforts designed to win over Russian opinion were, at best, patchy and inconsistent. Alfred Rosenberg was one of the few in the Nazi hierarchy who advocated a policy designed to encourage anti-Communist opinion among the population of the occupied territories. His interest here was mainly in the non-Russian areas such as the Ukraine and the Baltic States; however, supporters of the Russian Liberation Army were somewhat able to win him over.
Amongst other things, Rosenberg issued a series of posters announcing the end of the Soviet collective farms (kolkhoz). He also issued an Agrarian Law in February 1942, annulling all Soviet legislation on farming and restoring family farms for those willing to collaborate with the occupiers. But decollectivisation conflicted with the wider demands of wartime food production, and Hermann Göring demanded that the collective farms be retained, save for a change of name. Hitler himself denounced the redistribution of land as "stupid".
There were numerous German armed forces (Wehrmacht) posters asking for assistance in the Bandenkrieg, the war against the Soviet partisans, though, once again, German policy had the effect of adding to their problems. Posters for "volunteer" labour, with inscriptions like "Come work with us to shorten the war", hid the appalling realities faced by Russian workers in Germany. Many people joined the partisans rather than risk being sent to an unknown fate in the west.
Another of Rosenberg's initiatives, the "Free Caucasus" campaign, was rather more successful, attracting various nationalities into the so-called Eastern Legion (Ostlegionen), though in the end this made little difference in the outcome of the war on the Eastern Front.
Rosenberg was captured by Allied troops at the end of the war in Flensburg-Mürwik. He was tried at Nuremberg and found guilty of all four counts: conspiracy to commit crimes against peace; planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; war crimes; and crimes against humanity. The final judgment against him named him one of the principal planners of the invasions of Norway and the Soviet Union. It also held him directly responsible for the systematic plunder of the occupied countries of Europe, as well as the brutal conditions in Eastern Europe. During his trial he wrote his memoirs, which were published posthumously and with analytical commentary by Serge Lang and Ernst von Schenck.
He was sentenced to death and executed with other condemned co-defendants at Nuremberg on the morning of 16 October 1946. His body, like those of the other nine executed men and that of Hermann Göring, was cremated at Ostfriedhof (Munich) and the ashes were scattered in the river Isar.
Throughout the trial, it was agreed that Rosenberg had a decisive role in shaping Nazi philosophy and ideology. Examples include: his book, Myth of the Twentieth Century, which was published in 1930, where he incited hatred against "Liberal Imperialism" and "Bolshevik Marxism"; furthering the influence of the "Lebensraum" idea in Germany during the war; facilitating the persecution of Christian churches and the Jews in particular; and opposition to the Versailles Treaty.
According to Joseph Kingsbury-Smith, who covered the executions for the International News Service, Rosenberg was the only condemned man who, when asked at the gallows if he had any last statement to make, replied with only one word: "No".
Hitler was a leader oriented towards practical politics, whereas, for Rosenberg, religion and philosophy were key and culturally he was the most influential within the party. Several accounts of the time before the Nazi ascension to power, indeed, speak of Hitler as being a mouthpiece for Rosenberg's views, and he clearly exerted a great deal of intellectual influence.
The question of Rosenberg's influence in the Nazi Party is controversial. He was perceived as lacking the charisma and political skills of the other Nazi leaders, and was somewhat isolated. In some of his speeches Hitler appeared to be close to Rosenberg's views, rejecting traditional Christianity as a religion based on Jewish culture, preferring an ethnically and culturally pure "Race" whose destiny was supposed to be assigned to the German people by "Providence". In others, he adhered to the Nazi Party line, which advocated a "positive Christianity".
After Hitler's assumption of power he moved to reassure the Protestant and Catholic churches that the party was not intending to reinstitute Germanic paganism. He placed himself in the position of being the man to save Positive Christianity from utter destruction at the hands of the atheistic antitheist Communists of the Soviet Union. This was especially true immediately before and after the elections of 1932; Hitler wanted to appear non-threatening to major Christian faiths and consolidate his power. Furthermore, Hitler felt that Catholic-Protestant infighting had been a major factor in weakening the German state and allowing its dominance by foreign powers.
Some Nazi leaders, such as Martin Bormann, were anti-Christian and sympathetic to Rosenberg. Once in power, Hitler and most Nazi leaders sought to unify the Christian denominations in favor of "positive Christianity". Hitler privately condemned mystical and pseudoreligious interests as "nonsense". However, he and Joseph Goebbels agreed that after the Endsieg (Final Victory) the Reich Church should be pressed into evolving into a German social evolutionist organisation proclaiming the cult of race, blood and battle, instead of Redemption and the Ten Commandments of Moses, which they deemed outdated and Jewish.
Heinrich Himmler's views were among the closest to Rosenberg's, and their estrangement was perhaps created by Himmler's abilities to put into action what Rosenberg had only written. Also, while Rosenberg thought Christianity should be allowed to die out, Himmler actively set out to create countering pagan rituals.
Lieutenant Colonel William Harold Dunn (1898–1955) wrote a medical and psychiatric report on him in prison to evaluate him as a suicide risk:
He gave the impression of clinging to his own theories in a fanatical and unyielding fashion and to have been little influenced by the unfolding during the trial of the cruelty and crimes of the party.
Summarizing the unresolved conflict between the personal views of Rosenberg and the pragmatism of the Nazi elite:
The ruthless pursuit of Nazi aims turned out to mean not, as Rosenberg had hoped, the permeation of German life with the new ideology; it meant concentration of the combined resources of party and state on total war.
Rosenberg was married twice: to Hilda Leesmann (1891-1928), an ethnic Estonian, in 1915 (divorced in 1923), and to Hedwig Kramer in 1925, with whom he was married until his execution. He and Kramer had two children: a son who died in infancy and a daughter, Irene, who was born in 1930.Unmoral im Talmud, 1920, Ernst Boepple's Deutscher Volksverlag, Munich ("Immorality in the Talmud")
Das Verbrechen der Freimaurerei: Judentum, Jesuitismus, Deutsches Christentum, 1921 ("The Crime of Freemasonry: Judaism, Jesuitism, German Christianity")
Wesen, Grundsätze und Ziele der Nationalsozialistischen Deutschen Arbeiterpartei, 1922, Ernst Boepple's Deutscher Volksverlag, Munich ("Being, principles, and goals of the National Socialist German Worker's Party")
Pest in Russland. Der Bolschewismus, seine Häupter, Handlanger und Opfer, 1922, Ernst Boepple's Deutscher Volksverlag, Munich ("The Plague in Russia. Bolshevism, its heads, henchmen, and victims")
Bolschewismus, Hunger, Tod, 1922, Ernst Boepple's Deutscher Volksverlag, Munich ("Bolshevism, hunger, death")
Der staatsfeindliche Zionismus. ("Zionism, the Enemy of the State"), 1922.
Die Protokolle der Weisen von Zion und die jüdische Weltpolitik, 1923 ("The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Jewish World Politics")
The Jewish Bolshevism, Britons Pub. Society, 1923, together with Ernst Boepple
Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts, 1930 ("The Myth of the 20th Century")
Dietrich Eckart. Ein Vermächtnis, 1935 ("Dietrich Eckart: A Legacy")
An die Dunkelmänner unserer Zeit. Eine Antwort auf die Angriffe gegen den „Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts“, 1937 ("The Obscurantists of Our Time: A Response to the Attacks Against 'The Myth of the 20th Century'")
Protestantische Rompilger. Der Verrat an Luther und der „Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts“, 1937 ("Protestant Rome Pilgrims: The Betrayal of Luther and the 'Myth of the 20th Century'")
Portrait eines Menschheitsverbrechers, 1949, with analytical commentary by Serge Lang and Ernst von Schenck ("Memoirs of Alfred Rosenberg: With Commentaries")
Die Macht der Form, Unknown ("The Power of Form")
Rosenberg's handwritten diary, which had been used in evidence during the Nuremberg trials, went missing after the war along with other material which had been given to the prosecutor Robert Kempner (1899–1993). It was recovered in Lewiston, N.Y., on 13 June 2013. Written on 425 loose-leaf pages, with entries dating from 1936 through 1944, it is now the property of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington. Henry Mayer, the museum's senior archivist, and the son of a Holocaust survivor, was able to access the material and while "not given enough time to read [the] diary entry from beginning to end," he "could see that Rosenberg focused on certain subjects, including brutality against Jews and other ethnic groups and forcing the civilian population of occupied Russia to serve Germany." Meyer also noted Rosenberg's "hostile comments about Nazi leaders," which he described as "unvarnished." While some parts of the manuscript had been previously published, the majority had been lost for decades. Former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Robert King Wittman, who helped track down the diary, said, "there is no place in the diary where we have Rosenberg or Hitler saying the Jews should be exterminated, all it said was 'move them out of Europe'". The New York Times said of the search for the missing manuscript that "the tangled journey of the diary could itself be the subject of a television mini-series." Since the end of 2013, the USHMM has shown the 425-page document (photos and transcripts) on its homepage.