Whether we’ve ever really given it any study, we’re all at least a little familiar with the link between the Nazi party and the occult. Movies like Captain America and Hellboy have plot lines that center on supernatural obsessions of Nazi leadership, desperately trying to find magical or supernatural ways of winning the war and establishing the Nazi worldview. Indiana Jones famously fought the Nazis – more than once! – to secure the Holy Grail and Ark of the Covenant, which the Nazis hoped would bring them cosmic power. But this is just pop culture, embellishing what we already know was a fanatical movement to create compelling movie plots, right? Right? Well, as we always say, it’s complicated – but in short, while those movie plotlines might be exaggerated for dramatic effect, they weren’t made up out of wholecloth. The NSDAP, or the National Socialist Worker’s Party, which rose to power in the interwar period led by Adolf Hitler, was a party ideologically enabled by occultist theories about the Aryan race and vampiric Jews, on old folk talks about secret vigilante courts and protective werewolves, and on pseudoscience ideas about ice moons. In this episode, we’re going to explore the occult ideas, racial mythology, and ‘supernatural imaginary’ that helped to create the Nazi Party.

Transcript for: Werewolves, Vampires, and the Aryans of Ancient Atlantis: The Occultic Roots of the Nazi Party

Written and researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Whether we’ve ever really given it any study, we’re all at least a little familiar with the link between the Nazi party and the occult. Movies like Captain America and Hellboy have plot lines that center on supernatural obsessions of Nazi leadership, desperately trying to find magical or supernatural ways of winning the war and establishing the Nazi worldview. Indiana Jones famously fought the Nazis – more than once! – to secure the Holy Grail and Ark of the Covenant, which the Nazis hoped would bring them cosmic power. But this is just pop culture, embellishing what we already know was a fanatical movement to create compelling movie plots, right? Right? Well, as we always say, it’s complicated – but in short, while those movie plotlines might be exaggerated for dramatic effect, they weren’t made up out of wholecloth. The NSDAP, or the National Socialist Worker’s Party, which rose to power in the interwar period led by Adolf Hitler, was a party ideologically enabled by occultist theories about the Aryan race and vampiric Jews, on old folk talks about secret vigilante courts and protective werewolves, and on pseudoscience ideas about ice moons. In this episode, we’re going to explore the occult ideas, racial mythology, and ‘supernatural imaginary’ that helped to create the Nazi Party.

I am Sarah

And I’m Averill

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

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Sarah: Just a quick note here to say that I am not a German speaker. I have always wanted to learn German and I have tried very hard to ensure that our pronunciation of German terms is as good as possible, but please do not email us or write bad reviews based on how bad our German pronunciation really is, thanks.

Sarah: In 1947, German-born science writer Willy Ley published an essay in the science magazine Astounding Facts entitled “Pseudoscience in Naziland.” Ley had fled Germany in the winter of 1935, horrifed both by the rise of the Third Reich and a boom in pseudoscience and superstition in Germany. Ley’s article begins like this: “​​When things get so tough that there seems to be no way out, the Russian embraces the vodka bottle, the Frenchman a woman and the American the Bible. The German tends to resort to magic, to some nonsensical belief which he tries to validate by way of hysterics and physical force.” He qualifies this by acknowledging no, not all Germans of course, but a significant enough percentage that when the Nazis began to use unproven and occult theories in their ideology, it resonated. As Ley writes, “It was the willingness of a noticeable proportion of the Germans to rate rhetoric above research. and intuition above knowledge, that brought to power a political party which was frankly and loudly anti-intellectual.”

Averill: That willingness to “rate rhetoric over research” that Ley describes wasn’t specific to the Third Reich – and in fact, the culture of occultism in 1930s and 1940s had deep roots into the late nineteenth century, that created that foundation that that “Nazi pseudoscience” relied upon. In order to understand the Nazi relationship to the occult, we need to look back into the ideology of the Second German Reich (or the Kaiserreich) which lasted from 1871 to 1918. When Germany unified in 1871, scholars and creatives sought to create a shared past that would help to culturally unify Germans. They specifically looked for a “romantic alternative” to what they perceived as the bland, pragmatic, and rational English and French cultures. They relied first on the work done by an earlier wave of German creatives like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who typified the ‘sturm and drang’ movement. Sturm and drang was a precursor to Romanticism that operated outside of rationalism and emphasized emotionality and impetuousness. Goethe’s most famous story, The Sorrows of Young Werther, is about a young man who is tortured by unrequited love until he dies by suicide.

Sarah: Goethe and his contemporaries helped to set off the Romantic movement. In Germany, two of the most famous Romanticist creatives were the Grimm brothers and Richard Wagner. The Grimm brothers, Wilhelm and Jacob, wrote up old German folk tales for a public eager for Romantic versions. The Grimms were motivated by the belief that elevating and disseminating such folk tales was a way of preserving a morally superior German culture, one based on a particular vision of the Volk (the people) as rural, hard-working, and led simple lives. Their stories were also full of monsters like witches, demons, and evil Jews that threaten the Volk. Richard Wagner also presented old tales in new ways. His early operas were romances, drawn from Goethe, for example, but later he turned to Germanic and Norse mythology for inspiration. The operas considered his masterpieces make up what is called The Ring Cycle, or Der Ring des Nibelungen, which is four operas that sort of go together: The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, and Twilight of the Gods. If you were to watch the Ring Cycle operas it would total roughly 15 hours. You’ll recognize the story if you’re a Tolkein fan: it centers on a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world, passed back and forth between gods and humans. The action of the operas is kicked off when a dark and evil dwarf steals the ring from three beautiful Rhinemaidens, or water nymphs that live in the river Rhine. (Is there a hidden message there?) Wagner was a nationalist and anti-semite, and while the operas aren’t overtly political, they spoke to the renewed German interest in Norse mythology and are intended to provide the German state with a sense of a shared past and mythology.

A painting depicting  a design for an 1878 staging of Wagner's Das Rheingold. A castle in the background on a hill is framed by trees with a rainbow over a river in the foreground.
Hermann Burghart, Walhalla, a design for an 1878 staging of Wagner’s Das Rheingold | Wikimedia Commons

Averill: We should pause here to say that all of this desire for a shared past and mythology is understood as the völkisch movement, an ethno-nationalist movement that was active in the late nineteenth century. The term can be translated many different ways, but it can be understood as meaning anything from the fairly simple “ethno-nationalist” to the more occult-sounding “bio-mystical racialist.” The idea was that there was a sense of national connection based on common blood, spirit, and energy. The völkisch movement was inherently racist (arguing that Germans were racially superior, which we’ll describe more soon) but it was also more than that. We’re not in the habit of using Wikipedia as a source here, but we’re going to borrow this succinct description from Wikipedia because let’s face it, they’re good at making complicated things more accessible: “The word (völkisch) has been rendered as popular, populist, people’s, racial, racist, ethnic-chauvinist, nationalistitc, communitarian (for Germans only), conservative, tratitional, Nordic, romantic, – and it means, in fact, all of those.” A concept that went hand-in-hand with the völkisch movement was lebensraum, or “breathing room.” Lebensraum was the idea that German-speaking people needed not only to be united, but needed space to return to an idealized traditional, rural, agrarian way of life. That space would come from Eastern Europe, which völkisch thinkers (erroneously) believed had been stolen from ancient Germanic peoples, and then poorly utilized, by Slavs and Jews.[1]

Sarah: As völkisch thinking grew across the late 19th century, fewer and fewer Germans were going to church, and some ethno-nationalists began to try to find new forms of religion that were more “authentically German,” rather than global or otherwise centered outside of the German state, like the Catholic Church.[2] In some cases, this meant fusing Christianity with Norse mythology or other ancient (often fabricated) ancient traditions like runes and ancient epic poems and texts. Alongside this was a resurgence in interest in supernatural monsters like vampires and werewolves, but these old beliefs had a very different interpretations within the German context. Rather than scary and dangerous crones, German legends cast witches as “Earth Mothers” persecuted by the power-hungry Catholic Church. Werewolves had a similar spin in German culture. Two separate novels, one published in 1848 and one in 1910, used the idea of the werewolf to describe peasant movements to resist foreign incursions during the Thirty Years War. In the second, Hermann Lons’ Der Werhwolf, Lons actually makes a play on words in the novel’s title – instead of Der Werwulf, the typical spelling, he spells it Der Wehrwolf, which might sound the same but is spelled very differently – “wehr” is translated as “defense,” creating the term “defense wolf” or more simply, warwolf. Warwolves were guerilla fighters who protected the realm from the threat of outsiders. Vampires, on the other hand, were more evil in German culture than they were in other cultures, which tended to see vampires as somewhat romantic. Vampires were seen as racially other, as Jewish or Slavic and originating on the edges of German speaking Europe. The 1922 German film Nosferatu, for example, depicts the vampire Orlock as having stereotypically Jewish characteristics.

Averill: The desire for a shared mythology or origin also ventured into pseudoscientific race theory. The term ‘Aryan’ initially referred to an Indo-European language group, but was adopted by some scholars, like the English expat Houseton Stewart Chamberlain (Wagner’s son in law), to refer to a superior race of humans that had originated in India and the Middle East.  Chamberlain argued that all of human history was a struggle between Aryans and Semites. Some German scholars of ancient Indian literature, like the Bhagavad Gita and Mahabarata, re-read these texts as “Indo-Germanic epics” and claimed them as their own. Other scholars had a different theory focused on Nordic roots of Germans, called ‘Germanism,’ which substituting the Norse epic Edda poems for the Indian texts. But as Eric Kurlander writes, “Both ‘Aryanism’ and ‘Germanism” were variations on the same belief in an Ur-Germanic master race.”[3]

Helena Blavatsky
Helena Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy | Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Race theories abounded. The incredibly popular theosophy new religious movement, which told of a more complex history of human races, was developed by Helena Blavatsky in the United States in the late nineteenth century. Theosophy taught that there was a secret brotherhood of spiritual “masters” or mahatmas that retained the last knowledge of an ancient, magical religion. According to Blavatsky’s theory, there were seven root races, each existing in a slightly different time period and place on earth – kind of an alternate human evolution. (It’s easier to think of these as ‘epochs’ or ‘eras.’) The various races on currently living on earth had retained some of the traits of those previous races, but not all humans were still able to access the ‘magic’ of previous people. Theosophy was a tolerant religion that advocated for ‘universal brotherhood.” But people don’t always apply or interpret religion in the ways they were originally intended. Germans, Eric Kurlander argues, interpreted theosophy differently than American or British adherents. Germans focused particularly on the organization of the ‘root races’ (or epoch of human history). The fifth root race was the Aryan, which originated in the (mythical) civilization of Atlantis. The Atlantean Aryans were white (“moon-colored”) and intellectually and spiritually advanced – other races, like some African and Indian people – could never be like the Aryans, even with exactly equal opportunity because they were fundamentally not Aryan. Semites (Jews) were also part of the Aryan root race, Blavatsky wrote, but they had somehow ‘degenerated.’ After the fifth race, a sixth would come into being – there’s some mumbo jumbo about an island rising up out of the Pacific  – but the part that German thinkers focused on was that the sixth race would be an advanced, master race united under a single, powerful leader that would head up a powerful, global government.

Averill: It was this last part that captured the attention of Austro-German thinkers, who largely jettisoned the parts about ‘universal brotherhood’ and instead focused on bringing about this advanced sixth race. Ideas about the superior Aryan race and the lost civilzation of Atlantis particularly captured the German imagination, especially as they hoped to find that ‘shared mythology’ for the new German state. Jörg Lanz, editor of the occultist magazine Ostara, for example, interpreted Blavatsky’s theories in a particularly German way. Lanz combined Blavatsky’s theories with some ancient Greek writings about the island of Thule, sometimes interpreted as Iceland. He theorized that the people of Thule were Nordic ‘proto-Aryans,’ and that when Atlantis (or Thule) was destroyed in a flood, some survivors migrated to the Himalayas, where they became the Aryans. So that was really, uh, complicated, but what that would mean is that the superior Aryan race was originally Nordic and Germanic. Eventually, Germans created their own versions of theosophy called anthroposophy. Anthroposophy seized on the idea that the ancient Aryan race had spiritual powers, and that they could be revived through spiritual study and other methods … like organic farming using astrology. Anthroposophy was also invested in science – but only in science that could be manipulated into “proving” its reality.

Sarah: As we’ve seen with all of these beliefs, anthroposophy was intertwined with belief in the racial superiority of the Aryan-German race and the inferiority of Jews. Anthroposophists were more scientific minded than earlier theosophists, and so it’s not surprising that they were excited about the science of eugenics in the 1910s and 1920s. But as Kurlander writes, “anthroposophists embraced eugenics not primarily because of their faith in modern science … because they thought that spirituality and race were intrinsically linked.” It helped to lend an undercurrent of scientific legitimacy to their pre-existing ideas about the racial superiority of Aryan-Germans. Rudolph Steiner, a prominent anthroposophist thinker and writer, wrote that “humanity has risen by throwing out the lower forms in order to purify itself, and it will rise still higher by separating another kingdom of nature, the kingdom of the evil race. Thus mankind rises upward.” He wrote that while humans developed different cultures naturally, “dark skin” only developed because of “demonic interference.” Racial mixing was therefore antithetical to the mission of spiritual evolution and personal betterment taught by anthroposophy.

Guido von List's "Armanen runes," esoteric (and fake) ancient Germanic runes. | Wikimedia Commons
Guido von List’s “Armanen runes,” esoteric (and fake) ancient Germanic runes. | Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Theosophy and anthroposophy created the foundation for yet another belief system, one that was even more central to what Kurlander calls “the Nazi supernatural imaginary,” or the broad occultist worldview of the Nazi Party. This belief, called ariosophy, was developed by Jörg Lanz and Guido von List. List, obsessed with the revival of German folklore of the late nineteenth century (think Wagner and the Grimm brothers), developed the idea that there was an “ancient, pre-Christian cult” which he called the “Armanen.” The Armanen were “Aryan priest kings” of an ancient pagan religion. List believed that the Armanen had their own language, based on runes. List also argued that the superior Armanen civilization had been slowly destroyed by Christian imperialism and breeding with non-Aryans. List believed himself to be a real scientist, doing important eugenic, folklorist and archaeological research – even though most mainstream science ignored his publications.

Sarah: Jörg Lanz (Jörg Lanz vons Liebenfels) then took List’s Armanen theory and made it into a full ‘occult doctrine’ that he named ariosophy. Lanz and his ariosophists ideas were (somehow) even more wild. They believed that humans were the result of a forbidden intermixing of animals with angels, and that the different races were the result of varying amounts of angel ancestry. The more angel you had in you, the more Nordic you were. (Of course.) This is how Kurlander describes ariosophy: “If we had to distill List and Lanz’s bizarre ideas into a few basic principles, we might emphasize the role of superhuman races whose Aryan golden age had been ‘supplanted by an alien and hostile culture’ defined by inferior races. This ancient Germanic religion might be restored through ‘knowledge in cryptic forms (eg, runes, myths and traditions) but such runes and traditions could be deciphered ultimately only by their spiritual heirs.” Ariosophy, then, did a lot of ideological work for the völkisch movement. It offered a ‘shared mythology’ or history that was ancient, racially superior, and uniquely German. It explained why society had degraded from a purer state – miscegenation and colonization by outsiders – and suggested that German could be returned to that state if the right people learned about and adopted ancient history and religion.

Averill: But that’s not all. At the same time, Germans were experimenting with what Kurlander calls the ‘border sciences,’ things like alternative scientific theories, astrology, chriology (palm reading), characterology (a kind of astrology-phrenology hybrid), mediumship, and radesthesia (use of divining rods and pendulums). Kurlander calls these ‘border sciences’ because they weren’t seen as marginal or new agey like they might be today. Instead, a huge interest in parapsychology (or scientifically studying the paranormal) made it so that all of these things were understood as feasible alternatives that required real scientific study. Many of these practices were associated with health and personal betterment. Dowsing rods and pendulums, for instance, were often consulted to locate bad energies that might cause physical disease or spiritual stuntedness. Anthroposophists and ariosophists, remember, believed that self-improvement might help to bring about the pure, Aryan civilization.

Sarah: One of the most popular border scientific theories was Welteislehre, or World Ice Theory. This was an alternative scientific theory developed by Austrian scientist and philosopher Hanns Hörbiger, who had a dream in which he observed a great pendulum swinging while he was floating around in outer space. This somehow convinced him that the universe was all based on the “antagonistic Ur-substances of ice and fire.”[4] It is an incredibly confusing theory – as you have probably already guessed – that really makes almost zero real sense. It has a lot to do with a water-filled star exploding and shooting ice crystals out into the universe, which then created multiple solar systems, and our own Earth, which was shaped by lots of ice meteors and moons crashing into it and melting and stuff. A key part of Hörbiger’s theory was the idea that the human race were created when ice meteors containing “divine sperma.”[5]

Averill: So during the late 19th and early 20th century, we have this bubbling cauldron of mystic beliefs, pseudohistory, pseudoscience, and völkisch ideology. Some of this, like theosophy, divination, and astrology, were not uniquely German – theosophy, after all, was first developed in the United States. But the growing pains of the Second Reich made all of these ideas in Germany sort of blend together into and mix with völkisch racial and nationalist ideology in a way they didn’t in other countries. Then, factor in the German loss in World War I, which resulted in harsh recriminations in the Treaty of Versailles. The interwar period, under the government of the Weimar Republic, was marked by hyperinflation and popular demoralization. Writing at the beginning of the second World War, German philosopher Gerhard Szczesny wrote that the “general cultural and economic collapse, inflation and the ensuing big political and social crises” of the Weimar period “prepared the way for the occult in its lowest forms and created a whole new genre in terms of occult periodicals drawn from the ‘murkiest sources.”[6] He believed that the ‘shock of war,’ followed by ‘social and spiritual distress of the years thereafter” made Germans especially susceptible to “the warm arms of the oldest and most primitive of all human illusions of wish fulfillment, the exciting, feverish spell of the magical world view and superstition.”[7] Occult newspapers, magazines, books, societies, and research groups proliferated, and average Germans flocked to astrologers and clairvoyants. The esoteric and occult theories that had always existed suddenly boomed as people tried to cope with the real difficulties of living through economic and political unrest.

Sarah: But I think it’s important to note that this wasn’t just individuals getting tarot readings – I mean, it was, but it was made bigger and more meaningful than that by the theories of the anthroposophists and ariosophists. The Germans were actually descended from the ancient Aryans, who possessed spiritual power. The use of things like pendulums and divination allowed Germans to “tap into long-lost paranormal powers (magic) … [that was] lost when the ancient Aryans mated with lesser races. Occultism offered a way of channeling primordial magic.”[8] This was a way of bring back the power that had once been once been theirs – a desire made all the more important as Germans felt their most powerless. It was during this time period that Adolf Hitler – a frustrated art student wounded during the first World War – received and annotated a copy of Ernst Schetler’s occultist book, Magic: History, Theory, and Practice. Schetler’s is a work of parapsychology, blending together ideas about the psyche with the paranormal. Schertel described powerful leaders as “magicians” who could manipulate people into following them.Becoming a magician required being in touch with “the irrational by invoking one’s intuition”, a kind of personal, internal divination. Becoming powerful meant using the ‘hallucinatory-suggestive process,” in which a magician used ceremony, tradition, ritual, and shared totems to generate shared energies. Kurlander writes this: “Hitler generated the same energies by shifting his venues from Munich beer halls to massive rallies, ceremonies, and parades.” Hitler’s personal copy of Magic (which now lives in the library at Brown University) is heavily marked up, with lines marking important passages and notes scrawled to himself.

Averill: Now, we don’t know exactly how Hitler thought about magic or the occult – he didn’t talk about it much publicly, and he didn’t write about it all that much.  We do know that he read the work of thinkers like Schertel, and we know that he described racial pseudoscience in his writing, like Mein Kampf. But scholars of this Nazi occult are pretty clear that “we have every reason to believe” that Hitler believed in occult power and also believed that occult power could be “channeled, controlled, and directed by man.”[9] Moreover, we also know that contemporaries thought about Hitler in occult terms. He was described as a ‘medium, magician, or medicine man,’ who could ‘manipulate mystical forces.’[10] Nazi party member Otto Strasser wrote that Hitler was a “clairvoyant” who went into trances when speaking publicly, “carried away by a mystic force.”[11]

Sarah: But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Averill mentioned that there was a boom in occult thinking after World War I, when the Weimar republic was mired in economic and political distress. The ariosophic society inspired a variety of off-shoot groups, like the Edda Society, which was focused on the study of ancient Germanic runes and the German Order, which adopted the idea of the ‘root races’ and added rituals. Theodor Fritsch, the German Order’s creator, wanted to more explicitly bring his theories to bear on politics, and created a second group that he named the Reich Hammer Association (Reichshammerbund), which was named for his anti-Seminitic publishing company, Der Hammer. Fritsch’s goal was “to inaugurate an Aryan-Germanic religious revival founded on Germanic supremacy over “lower working races” and an “inexorable hate for the Jews.”[12] The Hammer Association sought to unite völkisch groups across class and religious lines to create a large political group and spread the völkisch message through propaganda. The Hammer Association, drawing on decades of theories about Aryan-Germanic people in an ancient struggle against racial others, argued that “parasitic races” should be deported out of Germany. One founder of the German Order and Hammer Association stated that if Jews ‘prepared to exploit war or revolution,’ they would be ‘annihilated’ by the Sacred Vehme, which would “smite the mass-criminals with their own weapons.”[13] This referred to the Westphalian vigilante “secret court,” which could be drawn up by any German man as Stuhlherr (chairman), and was made up of several Freischoffen, or judges. These secret courts could essentially try, pass judgment, and execute anyone they found criminal. The courts were abolished in the early 19th century, and were subsequently romanticized as völkisch groups latched onto the idea of Vehmic courts were a German institution protecting the people by doing what was necessary.

Averill: Eventually, the German Order/Hammer Association was absorbed into another nationalist group, some members dedicated to the specific occultic aspects of the organization splintered off again. A member of that group, Rudolph Sebottendorff – who published a magazine called The Magic Pages, where he published essays about magic amulets and astrology, met an artist named Walter Nauhaus, who had a small discussion group that focused on new religion. In 1918, they united their two groups into the Thule Society. We talked about the idea of Thule before – it was a mythological island civilization, inspired by the myth of Atlantis, located maybe in Iceland, that had been the home of a Nordic race that went on to become the Indo-European Aryan “race.” Sebottendorf created rituals and shared symbols for members of the society. Members wore membership pins that reflected esoteric Indo-European and Germanic mythology – men wore a golden swastika with two spears, while women wore just a swastika. (You probably already know this, but the swastika was an ancient Indo-European design that was seen as a symbol of the mythical Aryan race.) The Thule Society first developed at the end of World War I, and was shaped by the tumult of the doomed German war effort.

Sarah: The Thule society was more explicitly political than previous völkisch esoteric groups, even as Sebottendorf insisted that it wasn’t. They wanted to unite German speakers into a kind of “Greater Germany,” but remove Jews, Communists and other degenerates from the society. Sebottendorf was also somewhat anti-capitalist, but he was strongly anti-Marxist. Instead, he wanted to create an economy that allowed German workers to succeed, which he believed could be achieved if Jews (who he believed were dominating the marketplace) were removed from Germany. In 1918, not long after creating the Thule society, Sebottendorf purchased a newspaper, which he renamed the Völkischer Beobachter, or VB. (English – Racial Observer) Around the same time, the new editor of the VB, Karl Harrer created a political subgroup within the Thule society that he dubbed the Deutsche Arbeiterpatei, (DAP, German Worker’s Party). Still, Sebottendorf insisted that the organization wasn’t political, but instead focused on parapsychology and occult study.

Averill: That was probably less because Sebottendorf meant it and more because after the catastrophic end of World War I, the Weimar government kept close tabs on extremist groups. Being too openly political would lead to a crack down on the organization. But the humiliating defeat of World War I, and a socialist revolution led by philosopher and politician Kurt Eichner in Bavaria, also added fuel to the Thule Society’s fire. All around them, they believed they were seeing the apocalyptic degeneration of Germany. Take this quote for instance:

“Jews and profiteers became rich, feasting and living at the cost of the Volk as if in a Promised Land … Germany appeared lost. Resigned, the Front soldier attempted to safeguard his family from ruin and hunger…Strikes and revolts in all districts, Germany’s fate appeared sealed…the world turned upside down! … The Front soldier and the decent part of the population led a nearly hopeless struggle against this epidemic. Parliamentarianism was celebrated like an orgy. Roughly thirty-five parties and factions arose and confused the volk. A pure witch’s Sabbath! The German Volk, devoid of political acumen, staggered toward the diverse will-o’-the-wisps, sick in body and soul.”

Sarah: This sense of impending doom fueled the Thule Society. Just a couple of days before Armistice Day – and the day that Kurt Eisner declared a Socialist Republic in Bavaria, Sebottendorf (remember, not political! lol) called a meeting of the society. I should note here: Eisner was Jewish. He declared that the Thule society would be dedicated to the work of bringing about a völkisch future for Germany. “Yesterday we experienced the collapse of everything which was familiar, dear, and valuable to us … In the place of our princes of Germanic blood rules our deadly enemy: Judah. What will come of this chaos, we do not know yet. But we can guess. A time will come of struggle, the most bitter need, a time of danger … As long as I hold the iron hammer, I am determined to pledge the Thule to this struggle.” In January 1919, when the Weimar government created the  Freikorps, a loosely organized paramilitary operation that they used to combat the ‘socialist threat.’ This created a perfect opportunity for völkisch groups, and Sebottendorff organized his own paramilitary group (the Kampfbund) that was sort of deputized as a part of the Freikorps. This group was later renamed the Freikorps Oberland.

Averill: Sebottendorff wasn’t satisfied to stop there. The government was watching the Thule Society constantly, and Sebottendorf only thinly veiled their activity. Once, Sebottendorf learned that the police were coming to raid Thule Society headquarters. To create a cover story, he assembled women members to pretend that they were a eugenic society having a choir practice – but when the police insisted on coming in to take a look anyway, Sebottendorff began making violent threats. “If you arrest me or one of my people,” he told the police, “then my people will nab a Jew, wherever they find one, and drag him through the streets and insist that he has stolen the Host. Then, Herr Police President, you will have a pogrom on your hands that will sweep you aside as well!”[14] Not exactly keeping it on the downlow. Sebottendorf published racist screeds in the VB, and in 1919, tried to plan a hasty putsch (coup) to overthrow the Socialist government of Bavaria. It failed, obviously. Soon, the DAP – that political subgroup created by Thule Society member Karl Harrer – came to believe that it was necessary to separate further from the Thule Society. As Kurlander writes, “Without Sebottendorff’s Thule Society, without Harrer’s Political Worker’s Circle, and without the infamous newspaper they purchased to promote their worldviews, the Nazi Party would almost certainly not have been born.”[15]

Sarah: The DAP – soon to become known as the NSDAP or Nazi party – took the ideological foundations and racial mythology of the Thule Society and combined them with far more shrewd political tactics. It’s important to point out that the NSDAP did not separate from the Thule Society and distance from Sebottendorf because they disavowed his occult ideas – rather, it was because Sebottendorf wasn’t politically savvy. But without Sebottendorff, the organization needed a charismatic leader to become the mouthpiece of the movement to help it grow and spread its message. The group found that in September 1919, when a young Adolf Hitler attended a meeting and became frustrated when a speaker suggested that Bavaria secede and become an independent nation. Hitler, soaked as he was in German nationalism and the idea of an expanded, unified German state, gave an impromptu speech that impressed the group’s leaders, who asked Hitler to join the NSDAP. He did, and soon became an important member of the group. Within a few months, the NSDAP had largely overtaken the Thule Society, even absorbing its paramilitary group the Freikorps Oberlund and the newspaper, the Völkisch Beobachter. But while the group drew in more members and the newspaper was in new editorial hands, its occult ideologies didn’t disappear.  New members of the NSDAP included Theodor Fritsch, creator of the German Order we discussed earlier, as well as racist fantasy novelists and other völkisch occultists.

Averill: And the NSDAP held events that were specifically designed to bridge the interest in the völkisch occult and völkisch politics. They sponsored pagan solstice festivals, which included honoring pagan god like ‘Baldur the sun god’ and Seigfried, the half-God half-man who was the hero of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Of course, the party eventually adopted the symbol of the swastika, which reckoned back to the mythological Indo-European Aryan race. And individual members of the Nazi Party held a wide variety of occult views, most of them totally bonkers and all of them deeply racist. Party leaders repeatedly use references to the threat of monsters in their speeches. Hitler referred to Communists  as “veritable devils,” because “only within the brain of a monster – not that of a man – could the plan of an organization assume form and meaning.” Gottfried Feder argued that the Weimar Republic turned Germans into “zombies.” On the other hand, they also called on the mystical powers of blood and soil. Dead German soldiers weren’t just symbols or heroes, but present spirits that visited living Germans in the night and whispered in their ears. Even these dead, they argued, were living in a special Aryan  afterlife, the “Valhalla of the race-soul.” They “climb out of their graves at night,” Nazi Robert Ley wrote, “and visit us in our dreams.” As is so often the case, rhetorically turning the enemy into a threatening other (animals, insects, monsters) and using the dead are powerful tools of propaganda.

Logo of the Third Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture, depicting elements of Nazi iconography, including the Aryan swastika symbol and motto "Blood and Soil."
Logo of the Third Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture, depicting elements of Nazi iconography, including the Aryan swastika symbol and motto “Blood and Soil.” | Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: But this wasn’t just talk. Important members of the Nazi party really espoused aspects of the occult. Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s close confidant in the early days of the party, was a longtime member of the Thule Society who dabbled in mindreading and consulted astrologers before making decisions. Heinrich Himmler was truly wacky in his occult obsessions, moreso than we can really even thoroughly unpack here. Himmler was deeply influenced by Theodor Fritsch’s writing as a young man, and believed that Christianity was a foreign influence that had displaced the true Germanic pagan religion of Norse gods. He believed in astrology, had a personal psychic, thought that humans could communicated with the dead, and was obsessed with the folklore of werewolves. His reading of that novel Der Wehrwolf influenced him that the werewolf was a powerful symbol of the duty to protect the German homeland. In 1923, this led to the founding of Organisation Wehrwolf, a paramilitary organization dedicated to protecting the German people. One Wehrwolf pamphlet read: “Why do we fight? Quite simply because so much Nordic blood pulses through us we cannot live without fighting …. We the racial-bundish movement, we the werewolves, will clarify and share the articles of faith of the coming time.”

Averill: Further, Himmler was inspired by the Artamanen movement, which was founded on the teaching of ariosophists about an ancient Aryan-Germanic peoples occupying much of central and eastern Europe. The Artamanens believed that German people needed to restore not only the Aryan race, but also the original German territory by fulfilling the concept of lebensraum (or living space) by “re-taking” eastern territories. It was from Artamanens that the NSDAP was introduced to the concept of “blood and soil,” which romanticized the rural and cast cities as dangerous, filthy, and Jewish. This is where we get a lot of the propagandistic imagery of the Nazis, of healthy, white women with lots of children, and beefy farmers gathering wheat or whatever.

Sarah: As for Hitler, we know that he closely read Ernst Schertel’s Magic, and seems to have used its suggestions for becoming a ‘magician’ to manipulate crowds into listening to his message. And it worked – fellow Nazi Party member Erhard Heiden wrote that no matter how ridiculous the content of his speeches were, Germans sat transfixed, almost as if in a trance.  Carl Jung said that Hitler’s real power wasn’t just politics – it was a kind of magic. Listeners recalled that they were drawn to Hitler and his message in an almost supernatural way. Primed on decades of völkisch mythology, the audiences were ready to hear what Hitler told them. We also know that he was invested in the concept of a mythological Aryan race. In Mein Kampf, he wrote that the “Aryan gave up the purity of his blood and therefore, lost his sojourn in the paradise which he had made for himself, he became submerged in the racial mixture and gradually lost his cultural capacity  until at last not only mentally but also physically he began to resemble the subject aborigines more than his own ancestors. Blood mixture and the resultant drop in the racial level is the sole cause of the dying out of old cultures.” That quote might seem simply eugenic or, let’s be real, racist, but Kurlander makes the point that this is drawn from the deep roots of pseudohistory, invented mythology, and occult ideas we’ve been discussing. He doesn’t write about the occult theories in Mein Kampf in detail, but the traces are still there – and Kurlander argues this is evidence not that Hitler rejected it, but more so that he was dedicated to creating “a broader and more inclusive supernatural imaginary, one that extended far beyond the academic, volkisch esotericism of the day. He wanted to create a broad, powerful, and active political movement, rather than discuss theories and try out pendulum divination.

This episode could easily go on for hours. We barely scratched the surface of the history of the Wehrwolf paramilitary organizations, or the investigation of ley lines, quest for miracle weapons, the half-hearted crack down on occult practitioners in 1941, the use of all this völkisch mythology in Nazi propaganda, the cameo by the Holy Grail, the funding of parapsychological research headed up by Himmler’s personal clairvoyantor Himmler’s obsession with the history of German witch hunts. I guess we have more episodes to come on these topics – that is, if you want them. So let us know!


Bibliography

Kurlander, Eric. Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.

Paradiz, Valerie. Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Further Reading & Resources

Here’s an interesting video of a performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. (The rest of the Ring Cycle is also available on Youtube, too.)

You can also watch all of Nosferatu!

Notes

[1] Kurlander, 12

[2] Kurlander

[3] Kurlander 12

[4] Kurlander, 29.

[5] Kurlander, 30.

[6] Kurlander 65.

[7] Kurlander 65.

[8] Kurlander, 69.

[9] Kurlander, 70.

[10] Kurlander 70.

[11] Kurlander, 70.

[12] Kurlander, 70.

[13] Kurlander, 36.

[14] Kurlander 43.

[15] Kurlander, 45.


1 Comment

Hirsent · October 24, 2021 at 1:21 pm

I really do hate the link between Nazis and werewolves. On one hand, I know that I’m not an authority to say who can and can’t have mythological creatures…but also, f*ck off, Nazis!! You don’t get to have werewolves (or any other cool mythological creatures, but especially werewolves) !! They’re for people living in the margins of society, monsterlovers, dog lovers, furries, shlocky-yet-lovingly-made B-movies, transgender people, and people who like flannel!

However, I think it is important to learn how monsters have been used in history, both to harm and comfort.

Anyway, I’ve been a big fan of your podcast for a long time, and you guys absolutely knock whatever topics you cover out of the park almost always. I’ve learned a lot and become a better person. This podcast scratched the itch I needed for a well-researched, equally silly yet respectful history podcast made by people who know what they’re doing, and I’m ever grateful for it. My favorite episodes so far (that I can remember off of my head) was the Midwife Witch episode (that I think should be required listening for every single witch on Tumblr), the Amy Dudley episode, the Alcohol and Early America Episode, and Tuberculean Chic.

If you are taking episode suggestions, I would like to suggest another werewolf episode that doesn’t involve Nazis (maybe the werewolves of Ossory or werewolf trials), a transgender history episode (maybe focusing on the Public Universal Friend, James Barry, or molly houses), or maybe an episode on the cultural history or significance of an animal, such as frogs or rattlesnakes.

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