Nazis and the Occult
Turn on the television and you won't have to wait long before a show comes up purporting to be a documentary of the deep occult roots of Hitler and the Nazis. It seems to be a perfect explanation for how a group of human beings could be so cruel; only the dark influence of demonic powers and religious extremism could explain something as unspeakable as the Holocaust. The idea of Nazi occultism has been shoved down our throats so many times that many of us simply accept it as historical fact. But today we're going to take a step back from that assumption, and see what the facts of the matter are.
From the HISTORY channel's website:
And this, from 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the actor who played Porkins in Star Wars tells Indiana Jones:
Search YouTube for "nazi occult" and you'll find countless videos, from slick professional-looking documentaries all the way to amateur productions, with titles such as SS Death's Head Rings & The Nazi Occult Obsession, Occult History Of The 3rd Reich, Hitler's Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, and Nazi Quest for the Holy Grail. Do the same search in the book section of Amazon.com and you'll find titles such as Unholy Alliance: A History of Nazi Involvement with the Occult, Nazi Secrets: An Occult Breach in the Fabric of History, The Nazi Occult War: Hitler's Compact with the Forces of Evil, The Nazis and the Supernatural: The Occult Secrets of Hitler's Evil Empire, and Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult.
All of television's pseudoscience and pseudohistory channels have been in on this game for a long time. National Geographic made Hitler's Supernatural Rise to Power. Smithsonian Channel has Where Is the Nazi Temple of Doom? HISTORY channel has been beating this drum for years, with shows like Hitler and the Occult and quite a few episodes of Ancient Aliens. Without a doubt, people are obsessed with the idea that the Nazis were occultists, drawing on all kinds of dark powers; and the media is quick to react by providing endless volumes of content to satisfy that obsession.
And so, being of a skeptical mindset, our job is to determine whether any of that is true? Was Nazism truly driven by secret occult stimuli, or is this all just more of the familiar old trick of authors and TV producers trying to shock and sensationalize?
To find out, we're going to turn, as our primary source, to the 1985 book The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on Nazi Ideology, by the late Professor of Western Esotericism at the University of Exeter, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. He was a founding member of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, and if you got all the world's academics on the subject into a room and had them vote on who was the most influential author and most knowledgeable expert on the Nazis and their origins, Goodrick-Clarke would almost certainly win.
Concerning the title of his book, The Occult Roots of Nazism, I caution you to take heed of the following line from a review published in The English Historical Review:
Intriguing. So let's have a look at that appendix. It's the last of five appendices that follow a long and dense (but exhaustively thorough) read, following every thread and leaving no stone unturned. The appendix opens with the following salvo:
He notes all the elements of the Nazi story that make it a magnet for macabre fiction: the horrors of the concentration camps and the Holocaust, the suicides of Nazi leaders at the close of the war, today's characterization of Nazism as "monstrous and forbidden"; and how mystical occult powers offer an explanation for a regime so horrific that it seems there's no way it could have come about through mere Earthly means. An occult underpinning for Nazism satisfies our need to comprehend something so repugnant.
Goodrick-Clarke brings his book to a close with what might be called a rant:
The majority of the Nazi occult mythology consists of apocryphal stories about Hitler himself, particularly as a boy, and about a number of prominent figures in pre-war occultism. These stories are often about who met with who, who was a member of which secret society, who passed along mystical secrets to who. Goodrick-Clarke does go into many of these — there are far more than I could keep track of — and generally proved each to be entirely without evidence, grossly exaggerated or misrepresented, and in many cases outright fabricated by various authors. So it would be easy to conclude that the link between the Nazis and the occult is completely fictional, but it's not. It's just all of those things: grossly exaggerated and misrepresented.
At its core, Nazism was a far-right ideology, and every culture on every continent has its own far-right element — always has, always will. These are characterized by ideas such as ultranationalism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, and nativism. Although we typically associate these ideas with the Nazis, they are what defines all far-right groups; and so we should expect to see similar underlying belief systems. One of these is belief in a god-given right to rule. This was present in the early days of the rise of populism in pre-Nazi Germany. It was in the form of what we now call Ariosophy, which literally means "Aryan wisdom". The two most central figures in the rise of this ideology were the Austrians Guido von List (1848-1919), an occult writer, and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels (1874-1954), a former monk and prominent anti-Semitic writer. Various Ariosophical ideologies spread throughout Austria and Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s — a period called the Modern German Occult Revival, spawning groups such as the Thule Society, which began in Munich at the end of World War I. The Thule Society's brief life was an influential one. The Nazi swastika was adapted from the Thule Society's emblem. They published a newspaper which later became the main newspaper for the Nazi party. Most importantly, they founded the political party which later was reorganized by Hitler into the Nazi Party. Two men who later became Nazi leaders, Hans Frank and Rudolf Hess, had been members of the Thule Society.
Given these connections, many authors seized upon the Thule Society and framed it as a principle bridge that connected the Nazis to the occult. Many authors have falsely named nearly every Nazi official as having been a member, even Hitler himself. In fact, the Thule Society was quite weird. It drew its name from a nonexistent landmass in the far north which they believed was the ancestral home of the Aryan race. Members were required to swear they had no Jewish or "colored" lineage. Functionally, the Society was concerned mainly with racial purity and white nationalism; but one of its tenets was devotion to a trinity version of the Germanic god Odin. Hitler's only proven connection to the Thule Society was that it was he himself who severed the Nazi Party's ties with the group in 1920, which then fell into decline and was gone by 1925. Then in 1935, Hitler used the new anti-Masonic laws to finally close down the rest of the occult and esoteric groups like the Thule Society had been. The only group he wanted good Nazis to belong to was the Nazi Party.
Willy Ley, who escaped Nazi Germany before the war and came to the United States, was an author who documented some of the strange beliefs that had found some traction in Nazi Germany. He wrote of the many secret societies, of the mysterious spiritual energy source called vril, the Hollow Earth Theory, and a variety of other alternate sciences. Such beliefs are common in far-right communities; witness the wide range of false beliefs held by many in the American alt-right today. But combined with the success and brutality of the Third Reich, they took on more significance to writers than they might otherwise have been due. One very influential book was Morning of the Magicians, by French journalists Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. It's a wide-ranging trip through all manner of pseudohistory and metaphysical nonsense, and devotes one section to promoting and exaggerating the idea of Nazi occultism, using Willy Ley as a springboard. Pauwels and Bergier introduced many of the false stories about Hitler as a boy and machinations among the Thule Society and the Nazi Party, a tradition that many writers who followed continue building upon.
The mythology-promoting authors have also made much of a 1938 Nazi expedition to Tibet, making various claims around the idea that it was to establish ties between Nazi occultism and Eastern mysticism. This entire branch of the mythology is complete nonsense. There was indeed such an expedition; it was the third scientific expedition made by the perfectly legitimate German naturalist Ernst Schäfer. His first two trips had come to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, probably the weirdest Nazi official, best known as the primary architect of the Holocaust and for his obsessions with racial purity and mysticism. Himmler had established an office called Ahnenerbe which was charged with, essentially, scientific research proving the superiority of the Aryan race, as well as any pet pseudosciences Himmler came across. One of these was an absurd alternate cosmology called Glacial Cosmogony, and Himmler decided that it should be the focus of Schäfer's next expedition. Schäfer and his team were required to all join the SS and the expedition was rebranded as an Ahnenerbe project. Fortunately, to Schäfer's credit, they did the normal botanical, zoological, and anthropological research they had planned, and ignored Himmler's silly instructions. Claims that the expedition established a mystical connection between the Nazis and the Tibetans, or whatever, are pure fiction.
Like all members of all groups, Nazi leaders were products of their backgrounds and surroundings. Many grew up amid the Modern German Occult Revival period, and many retained beliefs they may have adopted during that period. So we would expect that occult beliefs were found among Nazi leaders about as often as among the German population at large. Fanatics such as Himmler were no more common than are fanatics today, but they certainly existed. As far as the occult being a major influence of the party, it's simply not possible to put together a compelling case without resorting to fiction.
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