Eckart was born Johann Dietrich Eckart in 1868 in Neumarkt, Upper Palatinate (about twenty miles southeast of Nuremberg) in the Kingdom of Bavaria, the son of royal notary and lawyer Christian Eckart and his wife Anna, a devout Catholic. His mother died when he was ten years old. Young Dietrich was expelled from several schools; in 1895, his father died also, leaving him a considerable amount of money that Eckart soon spent.
Eckart initially studied law at Erlangen, later medicine at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and was an eager member of the fencing and drinking Student Korps. But he finally decided in 1891 to work as a poet, playwright, and journalist. Diagnosed with morphine addiction and nearly stranded, he moved to Berlin in 1899. There he wrote a number of plays, often autobiographical, and became the protégé of Count Georg von Hülsen-Haeseler (1858–1922), the artistic director of the Prussian Royal Theatre.
After a duel, he was incarcerated at the Passau Oberhaus.
Eckart was a successful playwright, especially with his 1912 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, one of the best attended productions of the age with more than 600 performances in Berlin alone. In Eckart's version, the play became "a powerful dramatisation of nationalist and anti-semitic ideas", in which Gynt represents the superior Germanic hero, struggling against implicitly Jewish "trolls". As Ralph M. Engelman says, "Eckart meant his adaptation of Peer Gynt to represent a racial allegory in which the trolls and Great Boyg represented what [Otto] Weininger conceived to be the Jewish spirit."
This success not only made Eckart wealthy, it gave him the social contacts that he later used to introduce Hitler to dozens of important German citizens. These introductions proved to be pivotal in Hitler's ultimate rise to power. Later on, Eckart developed an ideology of a "genius superman", based on writings by the Völkisch author Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels; he saw himself following the tradition of Heinrich Heine, Arthur Schopenhauer and Angelus Silesius. He also became fascinated by the Buddhist doctrine of Maya (illusion). From 1907 he lived with his brother Wilhelm in the Döberitz mansion colony west of the Berlin city limits. In 1913 he married Rose Marx, an affluent widow from Bad Blankenburg, and returned to Munich.
After World War I, Eckart edited the antisemitic periodical Auf gut Deutsch ("In plain German"), working with Alfred Rosenberg and Gottfried Feder. A fierce critic of the German Revolution and the Weimar Republic, he vehemently opposed the Treaty of Versailles, which he viewed as treason, and was a proponent of the so-called stab-in-the-back legend (Dolchstoßlegende), according to which the Social Democrats and Jews were to blame for Germany's defeat in the war.
In January 1919, Eckart, Feder, Anton Drexler and Karl Harrer founded the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers' Party - DAP), which to increase its appeal to larger segments of the population, in February 1920 changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers Party – NSDAP); more commonly known as the Nazi Party. He was the original publisher of the party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, and also wrote the lyrics of Deutschland erwache ("Germany awake"), which became an anthem of the Nazi Party.
Eckart met Adolf Hitler when Hitler gave a speech before the DAP members in 1919. Eckart was involved with the Thule Society, although not a member. The Society was a secretive group of occultists who believed in the coming of a “German Messiah” who would redeem Germany after its defeat in World War I. Eckart expressed his anticipation in a poem he wrote months before he first met Hitler. In the poem, Eckart refers to ‘the Great One’, ‘the Nameless One’, ‘Whom all can sense but no one saw’. When Eckart met Hitler, Eckart was convinced that he had encountered the prophesied redeemer. Eckart became Hitler's mentor, exchanging ideas with him and helping to establish theories and beliefs of the Party.
It was Eckart who introduced Alfred Rosenberg to Adolf Hitler. Between 1920 and 1923, Eckart and Rosenberg labored tirelessly in the service of Hitler and the party. Through Rosenberg, Hitler was introduced to the writings of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Rosenberg's inspiration. Rosenberg edited the Münchener Beobachter, a party newspaper, originally owned by the Thule Society. Rosenberg published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Beobachter.
To raise funds for the Party, Eckart introduced Hitler into influential circles. In June 1921, while Hitler and Eckart were on a fundraising trip to Berlin, a mutiny broke out within the NSDAP in Munich. Members of its executive committee wanted to merge with the rival German Socialist Party (DSP). Hitler returned to Munich on 11 July and angrily tendered his resignation. The committee members realised that the resignation of their leading public figure and speaker would mean the end of the party. Eckart was asked by the Party leadership to talk with Hitler and relay the conditions in which Hitler would agree to return to the Party. Hitler announced he would rejoin on the condition that he would replace Drexler as party chairman, and that the party headquarters would remain in Munich. The committee agreed, and he rejoined the party on 26 July 1921.
On 9 November 1923, Eckart participated in the failed Beer Hall Putsch. He was arrested and placed in Landsberg Prison along with Hitler and other party officials, but was released shortly thereafter due to illness. He died of a heart attack in Berchtesgaden on 26 December 1923. He was buried in Berchtesgaden's old cemetery, not far from the eventual graves of Nazi Party official Hans Lammers and his wife and daughter.
During the Nazi period, several monuments and memorials were created to Eckart. Hitler dedicated the second volume of Mein Kampf to Eckart, and also named the arena near the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, now known as the Waldbühne (Forest Stage), the "Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne" when it was opened for the 1936 Summer Olympics. The 5th Standarte (regiment) of the SS-Totenkopfverbände was given the honour-title Dietrich Eckart. In 1937 the Realprogymnasium in Emmendingen was expanded and renamed the "Dietrich-Eckart secondary school for boys". Several new roads were named after Eckart. All of these have since been renamed.
His birthplace in Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz was officially renamed with the added suffix "Dietrich-Eckart-Stadt". In 1934, Adolf Hitler inaugurated a monument in his honour in the city park. It has since been rededicated to Christopher of Bavaria (1416–1448), King of Denmark, who was probably born in the town.
In March 1938, when Passau commemorated Eckart's 70th birthday at Oberhaus Castle, the Lord Mayor announced not only the creation of a Dietrich-Eckart-Foundation but also the restoration of the room where Eckart had been imprisoned. In addition, a street was dedicated to Eckart.
In 1925, Eckart's unfinished essay Der Bolschewismus von Moses bis Lenin: Zwiegespräch zwischen Hitler und mir ("Bolshevism from Moses to Lenin: Dialogues Between Hitler and Me") was published posthumously, although it has been shown that the dialogues were an invention; the essay was written by Eckart alone. "However, this book still remains a reliable indicator of [Eckart's] own views." The historian Richard Steigmann-Gall quotes from Eckart's book:
In Christ, the embodiment of all manliness, we find all that we need. And if we occasionally speak of Baldur (a god in Norse mythology), our words always contain some joy, some satisfaction, that our pagan ancestors were already so Christian as to have an indication of Christ in this ideal figure.
Steigmann-Gall concluded that, "far from advocating a paganism or anti-Christian religion, Eckart held that, in Germany's postwar tailspin, Christ was a leader to be emulated."
In 1935 Alfred Rosenberg published the book Dietrich Eckart. A Legacy (i.e. Dietrich Eckart. Ein Vermächtnis) with collected writings by Eckart, including the quotation:
To be a genius means to use the soul, to strive for the divine, to escape from the mean; and even if this cannot be totally achieved, there will be no space for the opposite of good. It does not prevent the genius to portray also the wretchedness of being in all shapes and colors, being the great artist, that he is; but he does this as an observer, not taking part, sine ira et studio, his heart remains pure. ... The ideal in this, just like in every respect whatsoever is Christ; his words "You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one" show the completely divine freedom from the influence of the senses, the overcoming of the earthly world even without art as an intermediary. At the other end you find Heine and his race ... all they do culminates in ... the motive, in subjugating the world, and the less this works, the more hate-filled their work becomes that is to satisfy their motive, the more deceitful and fallacious every try to reach the goal. No trace of true genius, the very opposite of the manliness of genius ....
Eckart was described by Edgar Ansel Mowrer as "a strange drunken genius". His antisemitism supposedly arose from various esoteric schools of mysticism and he spent hours with Hitler discussing art and the place of the Jews in world history, he has been called the spiritual father of National Socialism.Dietrich Eckart: "Der Bolschewismus von Moses bis Lenin". Zwiegespräch zwischen Adolf Hitler und mir, München, 1924 (PDF)
Dietrich Eckart: "Bolshevism from Moses to Lenin: A Dialogue Between Adolf Hitler and Me", English translation (PDF)
Dietrich Eckart: "El Bolchevismo de Moisés a Lenin: Un diálogo entre Adolfo Hitler y yo", Traducción al español (PDF)