A couple of years ago, a Russian television channel asked if they could interview me for a programme they were making about Hitler. I get these requests every so often, and agreed in the usual hope that I would be able to pour some cold water on whatever outlandish theories they came up with. On previous occasions I have been confronted with claims that the entire German population was drugged up to the eyeballs for the duration of the Third Reich, thus making life bearable; that Hitler escaped the bunker and went to live in Argentina with Eva Braun (and in some versions, Blondi the dog); that Unity Mitford gave birth to Hitler’s child early in the war; that 2014 was going to be, like 1914, a year in which world war broke out; and so on.
I suppose I should have been prepared for the questions put to me by REN-TV, a privately owned channel which after its founding in 1997 enjoyed a reputation for factual seriousness and political independence but has more recently taken a populist turn. In 2016 the station broadcast a documentary alleging that the sinking of the Titanic was the result of a conspiracy launched by ‘three hundred Jews, Illuminati and Freemasons’ with the aim of causing an international crisis and taking over the world.
A cameraman and sound recordist arrived in my Cambridge office along with a glamorous female interviewer. She began, conventionally enough, with the Nazi economic recovery in the 1930s (though I should perhaps have smelled a rat when she asked ‘Where and who did the money come from?’). But soon we were in very different territory. ‘Why,’ I was asked, ‘did Hitler delegate the task of finding the Holy Grail to Himmler? Why didn’t he lead the search himself?’ ‘A lot of researchers say that Hitler was obsessed with searching for the Holy Spear … Where had it been before the Nazi Party came to power?’ ‘Did the Third Reich have highly qualified magicians?’ Were they the ones who made ‘the Nazi gold’ vanish? Had they caused the death of Roosevelt by casting a spell on him? There was a lot more in this vein. It seemed the Third Reich was a playground for sinister, occult forces, some of which the Nazis had made use of themselves.
When we were finished, I asked the interviewer whether she really believed any of this stuff – surely she knew, for instance, that stories of Nazi gold at the bottom of a Swiss lake or in blocked-off Polish railway tunnels had all been disproved? Of course she didn’t believe them, she replied, but the station had a lot of young viewers and they liked this sort of thing.
REN-TV is far from the first media outlet to discover that there’s money to be made from linking Nazism and the occult. ‘Hitler’s nuts about the occult,’ a government agent tells Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when commissioning him to stop the Nazis gaining control over the unimaginable power of a rediscovered Ark of the Covenant (the third film features a very similar race to stop the Nazis getting hold of the Holy Grail). Ever since the publication in 1940 of Occult Causes of the Present War, by the folklorist, esotericist and Scottish nationalist Lewis Spence, there has been a persistent strand of crypto-historical writing, occasionally augmented by television programmes claiming that Hitler used, or was the creature of, real and sinister magical forces.
Serious students of Nazism have rightly paid little or no attention to any of this, but the role of occult ideas in the Nazi movement has been the subject of a number of scholarly studies by historians who see Nazi ideology as the expression of a wider revolt against Enlightenment values and modern rationalism. In his pathbreaking book The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (1964), George L. Mosse argued that spiritualism, theosophy, nature mysticism, pseudo-Germanic paganism and several other irrationalist ideologies that emerged in the late 19th century found their way into Nazism, which put them into the service of antisemitism, while discarding their more bizarre and extreme excrescences. Some Nazis, especially Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, continued to hold such esoteric ideas, although most other leading Nazis treated them with disdain.
In 1985 Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke drew attention in The Occult Roots of Nazism to the ideas of Ariosophy, pioneered before the First World War by the Austrian racist Lanz von Liebenfels, as well as to the doctrines of Guido von List, another Austrian esotericist. These men and their disciples, who had been briefly described by Mosse, were interested in sun-worship, ancient Germanic cultish ceremonies, runic writing and the idea of a reincarnated superhero who would rescue the German or ‘Aryan’ race (hence the term Ariosophy) from degeneracy and decay by channelling magical powers derived from the Norse gods. While taking these counter-currents to Enlightenment thought seriously enough to study them in detail, Goodrick-Clarke remained sceptical about their influence on Nazism. At best, he concluded, they had some currency in the higher circles of the SS, encouraged by Himmler, but they had no broader impact on the Nazi movement.
Eric Kurlander, an American historian who has written two books on the relationship between German liberalism and National Socialism, now seeks to overturn this conclusion. We should look again, he says, at the relationship between Nazism and the supernatural: ‘National Socialism … was more preoccupied by and indebted to a wide array of supernatural doctrines and esoteric practices than any mass political movement of the interwar period.’ These doctrines and practices were, he argues, far more broadly based and more popular in German culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than their association with the secretive world of occultism might suggest. They included astrology, divining, clairvoyance, parapsychology, demonology, Ariosophy and Anthroposophy. But they also encompassed the ‘border sciences’ – pseudo-sciences, in other words – that operated outside the boundaries of university-based science. Among these were some aspects of folklore, mythology and Germanic religion, or, to take the most striking example, the World Ice Theory (Welteislehre), an obscure doctrine that located the origins of the Earth in a vast stellar explosion that supposedly sent huge blocks of ice hurtling through the universe, some of which formed a series of moons that crashed into the Earth, thus shaping its basic physical substance.
‘Millions of Germans,’ Kurlander declares, accepted such ‘widely popular’ ideas, which were cleverly exploited by the Nazis not only in their rise to power but also in their domestic and foreign policy after 1933. By portraying their real and imagined enemies, above all Jews, communists and freemasons, both verbally and visually, as ‘vampires, zombies, demons, devils, spectres, alien parasites and other supernatural monsters’, the Nazis ‘provided an ideological and discursive space in which Nazism’s enemies could be dehumanised, marginalised and figuratively transformed into monsters requiring physical elimination’.
Kurlander divides his book into three parts. In the first, he charts ‘the supernatural roots of Nazism’ in ‘Ario-Germanic religion, border science and the Austro-German occult revival’, which led to the fashioning of ‘the Nazi supernatural imaginary’ in the Thule Society, a small group of far-right thinkers who provided an ideological education after the First World War for a range of individuals who later had significant roles in the Nazi Party, including Rudolf Hess, Hans Frank and Alfred Rosenberg. After considering in more detail the Nazi Party’s use of demonising supernatural imagery to win over voters, the book moves in its second part to explore the Third Reich leadership’s relationship with magic and the occult and the place of border science, especially the World Ice Theory, in Nazism after 1933. The third and final part discusses ‘the supernatural and the Second World War’, covering the use of ‘folklore and border science in foreign policy, propaganda and military operations’, the influence of the Nazi ‘supernatural imaginary’ in ‘racial resettlement, human experiments and the Holocaust’, and finally ‘miracle weapons, supernatural partisans and the collapse of the Third Reich’.
Kurlander’s book, unlike the vast majority of publications in this area, is deserving of careful consideration. Its 314 pages of text are buttressed by 86 pages of closely spaced endnotes. The bibliography provides an extensive list of unpublished documents consulted in German archives and published primary sources read in libraries in Berlin, Cologne, Freiburg and elsewhere. Over the eight years he took to research and write the book, Kurlander hoovered up everything even remotely connected with the topic. His argument unfolds logically and consistently. And there are clear implications for the present day now that, as Kurlander observes, ‘a renaissance in supernatural reasoning, shadowy conspiracy theories, extraterrestrial powers, and the omnipresence of a hostile ethno-religious other has begun to correlate with illiberal political and ideological convictions, influencing national elections, domestic social policies and matters of war and peace.’
And yet, for all its thoroughness, there are serious flaws in the book’s argument. Far too often, Kurlander tries to give the impression that the esoteric ideas he describes were followed by the overwhelming majority of Germans in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. He does this by using inflated language and by lumping all Germans together into an undifferentiated mass instead of making the distinctions necessary if one is to understand the history of what was then a deeply divided country. In order to buttress his claim that the Nazis were able to win millions of votes in the late 1920s and early 1930s by using the supernatural as part of their appeal, Kurlander has to convince the reader that millions of Germans believed in occult ideas, not just trivial ones like fortune-telling and astrological predictions, but serious ones like Ariosophy, demonology and the border sciences.
‘Many German scientists,’ he writes, ‘lamented the rise of modern physics and chemistry,’ but in fact only a tiny minority did, and the ‘German physics’ propagated by the Nazis as an antidote to the ‘Jewish’ theory of relativity espoused by Einstein failed to win much support among scientists. To talk of ‘the popularity of Welteislehre’ among ‘wide swathes of Germany and Austria’s intellectual elites’ is a grotesque exaggeration, given that many if not most of Weimar Germany’s intellectuals, writers, journalists, editors and the like were on the left, and that the World Ice Theory never took off in universities.
The problems involved in generalising about ‘the Germans’ are legion. To begin with, Germany was split on religious lines, with a very large Catholic minority – well over a third of the population – particularly in the south and west, who were extremely unlikely to follow occultist theories. The ideas of ‘German Christianity’ (which included the claim that Jesus was not Jewish but ‘Aryan’) were more likely to gain adherents among Protestants, but even with the backing of the regime after 1933 they failed to conquer the Protestant Church. And then there is the awkward fact that the Social Democratic Party, the largest political party in Germany, indeed in the world, before 1914, and the mainstay of Weimar democracy, was a secular movement, with a strong commitment to scientific rationalism. Even more hostile to religion of any kind were the Communists, who together with the Social Democrats actually won more votes and more seats in the Reichstag than the Nazis in the last free elections of the Weimar Republic, in November 1932. Neither Protestantism nor Social Democracy appears in the book’s index; instead, Kurlander prefers to generalise about ‘popular culture’, ignoring the mass of scholarly work done in the 1970s and 1980s on the cultural worlds of Weimar’s huge working class, seemingly forgotten now that the collapse of communism has made labour history unfashionable. Referring to ‘the masses’ simply won’t do in dealing with Weimar’s political, cultural and ideological antagonisms.
Kurlander frequently relies not on primary sources or mainstream historical scholarship but on specialist works on Nazism and the occult, so that the relationship between the argument and the evidence becomes a circular one. To take just one example, his claim that occultism was ‘remarkably widespread in interwar Germany’ – a sweeping and highly implausible generalisation – is supported by references to two books on occultism, including one by the author of a book on ‘Nostradamus and the Nazis’. It’s noticeable too that his quotes from Hitler and other leading Nazis are often taken secondhand from such works, not from the original sources.
There’s also some sleight of hand in the way he deals with other sources. Take for example Hermann Rauschning’s Hitler Speaks, originally published in 1940. In it, Rauschning recorded what he said were more than a hundred conversations with Hitler, reconstructed either from notes he claimed to have made at the time, or from memory. What Hitler told him was revealing about his ideology, his political beliefs and intentions, but Rauschning, a leading German nationalist and Nazi supporter in the port of Danzig, which was put under League of Nations control after the end of the First World War, had resigned from the party in 1934 and gone into exile two years later, appalled by Nazi extremism and antisemitism. He had had relatively few opportunities to engage in lengthy conversations with Hitler. It seems they met between four and 13 times – estimates vary – and much of what he recorded Hitler as having told him was invented or copied from other sources. There may be some accurate reporting in his book, but it is so mixed up with Rauschning’s own subjective representation of Nazism that it’s now virtually impossible to identify. Kurlander is of course aware of all this, but he still uses Rauschning when it suits him, for example when discussing Hitler’s attitude to freemasonry and his supposed ‘profound appreciation for magical thinking’, his conviction that he possessed ‘magical insight’ and his mystical claim that ‘just as the Nordic peoples took the sun’s passing of the solstices as a figure of the rhythm of life, which proceeds not in a straight line of eternal progress but in a spiral … [so too] must man now, apparently, turn back in order to attain a higher [evolutionary] stage.’
There is a good deal of conceptual slippage in the text, allowing findings of a relatively limited kind to support claims of a more far-reaching nature. The irrational and the occult are not always the same thing, and much of what Kurlander discusses isn’t really supernatural at all. ‘Nazism’s appeal,’ he says in an appraisal of the reasons for its electoral successes in the early 1930s, ‘lay in the spiritual and metaphysical solution it seemed to offer to the contemporary sociopolitical crisis.’ Not in an appeal to the supernatural, then; though in any case Nazism’s electoral appeal, as Kurlander concedes towards the end of the book, had far more to do with promises of economic recovery and the restoration of German national pride, along with the vague but potent dynamism of Hitler’s rhetoric on the podium and the columns of stormtroopers on the streets.
All of these problems pale into insignificance when we consider what the Nazis actually said about occultism once in power. ‘Unclear mythical concepts,’ Goebbels ordered in 1935, ‘must disappear from the German press where they are used in conjunction with the essence and idea of National Socialism.’ On 7 May 1941 the increasingly powerful Martin Bormann, the effective head of the Nazi Party Chancellery, sent a circular to party officials complaining that ‘confessional and occult circles have attempted to spread confusion and insecurity among the people through the conscious dissemination of miracle stories, prophecies, astrological predictions of the future.’ He condemned the activities of ‘soothsayers, clairvoyants, palm-readers and tarot practitioners’ for undermining ideological cohesion. ‘National Socialist ideology,’ he declared firmly, ‘is built on the scientific knowledge of racial, social and natural laws.’
Bormann was echoing the views of Hitler himself, who devoted a major speech in September 1938 to the subject of occultism and pseudo-pagan, Germanic religion:
National Socialism is a cool, reality-based doctrine, based upon the sharpest scientific knowledge and its mental expression … We have no desire to instil in the people a mysticism that lies outside the purpose and goals of our doctrine … For the National Socialist movement is not a cult movement … Its meaning is not that of a mystic cult … In the National Socialist movement subversion by occult searchers for the Beyond must not be tolerated.
In 1934 the regime tightened the laws against clairvoyants and tarot readers who made money by presenting information that was ‘not possible to know through natural means’. It clamped down on occultist and pseudo-scientific organisations just as it did on other non-Nazi bodies, in the process of so-called ‘co-ordination’ or Gleichschaltung. In 1935, the Gestapo declared the Anthroposophical Society a danger to the state. Two years later, the Security Service (SD) of the SS estimated that there were still three hundred or so occultist sects in existence, some of which had several thousand members. The ‘dismal legal tools available to wage the war against occultism’, it complained, had allowed the sects to survive Hitler’s seizure of power.
As Kurlander records, in 1937 ‘the SD and Gestapo began a campaign of surveillance and repression’ aimed at occult groups ‘whose charismatic proponents threatened to lead the public astray’. ‘Scientific’ investigation of the paranormal and other unexplained phenomena was still permitted, but the propaganda and policing wings of the SS and the Nazi state were determined to bring about what one article published by the Reich Office of Public Health in 1937 called ‘the twilight of occultism’. In 1941 a fresh campaign against occultism was launched, intensifying after Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, flew to Britain on a hare-brained, self-appointed peace mission. After learning that Hess had consulted an astrologer before his act of rebellion, Hitler approved an Action against Occult Doctrines and So-Called Occult Sciences, known as the Hess Action. Hundreds of individuals were arrested and thousands of publications closed down. The regime’s disapproval could hardly have been clearer.
Kurlander engages in a lot of special pleading in order to get round these facts. He argues, for example, that the four-year delay in launching a campaign against occultism is evidence for the reluctance of the Nazi leadership to take action. But this can just as easily be attributed to the regime not considering occultism very important, and having other things to deal with. The Hess Action was half-hearted because most of those arrested were released within a few weeks, he says, but short-term imprisonment in concentration camps was common enough under the Third Reich, with brutal maltreatment used as a deterrent from future misbehaviour and release offered only on the promise of not reoffending.
‘Virtually all Nazis,’ Kurlander asserts, ‘acknowledged, for good or ill, the widespread popularity of occult practices, popular superstition and border scientific thinking … The widespread popularity of esoteric thinking across the party and civil society, including those charged with combating the occult, explains why its policing was so uneven and rife with exceptions.’ As so often, he cites another book in the same field, Peter Staudenmaier’s Between Occultism and Nazism (2014), in support of his belief that the leading Nazis’ condemnation of occultism was insincere. But there really isn’t any convincing evidence that occult practices were popular enough in German society to force the Nazi regime to moderate its repression. The hostility the Nazis displayed towards occultism, even if it was in some respects inconsistent, hardly supports Kurlander’s central thesis that Nazism was deeply indebted to supernatural beliefs and practices.
To be sure, Kurlander does expose the deep irrationality at the heart of the Nazi regime. The ‘cold science’ Hitler claimed to espouse was itself a pseudo-science, for he was referring in fact to the murderous absurdities of ‘racial hygiene’ and racial theory on which the Nazi movement and its policies were based. Yet Kurlander’s claim that ‘the Nazis drew upon a wide variety of occult practices to gain power, shape propaganda … and pursue their dreams of a racial utopian empire’ does not stand up to close scrutiny. The reality was more prosaic.