Nuts about the Occult
Richard J. Evans
- Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich by Eric Kurlander
Yale, 422 pp, £12.99, May 2018, ISBN 978 0 300 23454 1
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 16 · 30 August 2018
Richard Evans claims that there are ‘serious flaws’ in the argument of my book Hitler’s Monsters (LRB, 2 August). First, my aim was to provide a ‘supernatural history of the Third Reich’, but Evans seems at times to be reading the book as if it were a general history of the Third Reich, or even of Germany and the Germans in the interwar period. He takes me to task for ‘generalising about “the Germans”’ and ‘ignoring the mass of scholarly work done in the 1970s and 1980s on the cultural worlds of Weimar’s huge working class’. As he correctly points out, the Catholics, like the socialists, communists and urban working classes, weren’t particularly susceptible to Nazism or occultism. The ‘millions of Germans’ I refer to intermittently are primarily those (disproportionately Protestant) middle and lower-middle-class Germans most likely to support the NSDAP.
Second, Evans criticises me for citing putatively obscure secondary sources germane to my argument. Most of these citations are of widely recognised academic historians of science, religion, culture and politics in modern Germany. To take just one example, Evans takes issue with the claim that ‘many German scientists lamented the rise of modern physics and chemistry.’ There I am drawing on the work of the pre-eminent historian of science Anne Harrington, in her monograph Re-enchanted Science (1996); most of my sentence is a direct quote. The same goes for dozens of instances in which I cite Harrington, Corinna Treitel, Peter Longerich, Michael Kater, Peter Staudenmaier and other academic historians who are treated in Evans’s review as if they were obscure crypto-historians.
Third, as Evans acknowledges, the book is based on more copious primary and secondary research than any previous work in the field. So while I may cite Rauschning on the nature of Hitler’s ideology and the Nazi movement – as Evans does in his own book The Coming of the Third Reich – I rely far more frequently on statements from Himmler, Hitler, Hess, Goebbels, Rosenberg, Darré, Bormann and other well-known contemporaries.
Finally, in making a case that the Nazis were all but universally opposed to supernatural thinking, Evans cites specific examples of Nazi leaders expressing scepticism concerning mysticism or the occult. I cite the same examples, explaining them as well-known assertions that are contradicted by the primary evidence and by the fact, illustrated repeatedly in my book, that by the 1930s even many occultists, hoping to garner legitimacy, preferred to define their practices as ‘border science’. But Evans largely overlooks my examples of Nazi leaders, various state institutions and party offices, and numerous fellow travellers researching, discussing or attempting to exploit astrology, magic, pendulum dowsing, anthroposophy, cosmobiology, biodynamic agriculture, World Ice Theory, the Holy Grail, theories of Atlantis and the Thule, Luciferianism, Tibetan mysticism, Shinto, Buddhism, Hinduism, folklore on werewolves, revenants and vampires etc. It would be unfortunate if readers came away from Evans’s review thinking that Nazi leaders either rejected such ideas and doctrines outright or showed no interest in them at all.
Stetson University, DeLand, Florida
Vol. 40 No. 17 · 13 September 2018
The brain works in strange ways. Reading the letter by Eric Kurlander, the author of Hitler’s Monsters, I misread the word ‘occultist’ as ‘oculist’, producing the sentence ‘by the 1930s even many oculists, hoping to garner legitimacy, preferred to define their practices as “border science”’ (Letters, 30 August). Then, something made me glance an inch or so to the left, where I saw a letter from Christopher Prendergast, the editor of the Penguin edition of Proust. In one of its volumes, the French word Proust uses, oculiste (he is well known for his optical metaphors), is mistranslated as ‘occultist’. When I pointed this out to Prendergast in the senior common room at King’s College, Cambridge, he sighed as if to say, ‘Not you too.’