I have blogged repeatedly on various esoteric and occult themes, including Freemasonry and Theosophy, so hence my interest in this recent book, which I review here. My approach differs from that of other reviewers in that I stress what seems to me to be a critical American dimension of the book:
Eric Kurlander, Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich (Yale University Press, 2017). 422 pages.
In writing Hitler’s Monsters, Eric Kurlander has performed a valuable and indeed valiant service. He has taken a topic on which there is a very great deal of garbage pseudo-scholarship, and shown how the subject can in fact be approached sanely and profitably. A less bold historian might well have concluded that the whole theme was so disreputable and discredited that nothing was to be gained professionally by addressing it. His book is a significant contribution not just to the history of political extremism, but to the study of new and marginal religions.
As a lad, I was an early purchaser of the wildly influential 1960 book Le Matin des Magiciens by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier (translated into English as The Dawn of Magic, 1963). Among many other soon-to-be popular theories about lost ancient civilizations and ancient astronauts, Pauwels and Bergier depicted the bizarre occult ideas that supposedly dominated Nazi Germany. For them, Germany by 1942 was not merely a deeply menacing political power, but a whole civilization utterly at odds with Western civilization and the Enlightenment. Those deviant ideas included an alternative science, which among other things hypothesized a hollow earth, in which we all live. The swastika symbol was a frank statement of the evil and even Satanic nature of Nazism. Hitler himself, in this view, was a magical adept who commanded the mystical powers of Vril – a concept first proposed by the English Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1871 book The Coming Race. From this perspective, Hitler was thus a dark messiah, who could quite properly be termed an Antichrist figure.
The theories presented by Pauwels and Bergier have inspired a whole genre of writing on so-called Esoteric Nazism – not to mention provoking a good number of modern enthusiasts to try and recreate such a synthesis in real life. For many years, there was an outpouring of increasingly bizarre books about the mystical and esoteric factions and sects out of which Nazism supposedly grew, movements like the Thule Society. Only in 1985 did the scholar Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke finally put such speculations into a realistic context in his classic book The Occult Roots of Nazism.
The problems with the occult approach to Nazism are many, including the fact that many authors in the genre were describing events and linkages that just did not happen. Many of their references simply could not be trusted. (Pauwels and Bergier were actually to the reputable end of the spectrum in this regard). Just as seriously, such writers were presenting Nazism almost as an alien invasion from another cosmic dimension that somehow descended on Germany. Lost in these accounts were the all too real social and economic forces driving political anger and extremism in post-1918 Germany, which would have created something like the Hitler dictatorship even if none of the esoteric sects had ever existed.
I give this background in order to stress just how tainted this Supernatural History field was and, to some extent remains, all the more highly to praise Kurlander’s achievement in navigating his way through this swamp of error and misinformation. His book is firmly based on solid historical research in German archives, and all the relevant German scholarship. The result is thoroughly credible and convincing, and represents a new benchmark in scholarship in the field.
Kurlander shows just how extensively occult and esoteric ideas influenced the German leadership in the Nazi era. More accurately, he shows that the power of such ideas in the larger society ran wide and deep, and by no means only among people who placed themselves on the extreme Right. Among many others, these included interests in astrology and parapsychology; “Ario[Aryan]-Germanic paganism, Indo-Aryan spirituality, and the Nazi search for alternative religions;” and a range of pseudo-sciences, including World Ice theory and dowsing. Not only did such ideas motivate cranks in their libraries, they drove real-world efforts to produce wonder-weapons based on alternative science, weapons using anti-gravity or death rays. (Kurlander uses the expressive term “Border science” for such ventures). Nazi authorities dreamed that food production could be revolutionized by the mystical powers of Biodynamic Agriculture.
Like all good New Agers, the Nazis were also fascinated by the Mystic Powers of the ancient East, and sought to launch expeditions into deepest Tibet. Had the British not been so firmly in charge of the Indian subcontinent, they would undoubtedly have made their pilgrimages there, like so many other later would-be disciples in search of a guru. Only a very sober reader can address such stories without inevitably thinking back to the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Those occult interests extended to such mythical beings as vampires and werewolves, who to some activists were no mere characters of fiction and metaphor. When the Germans designed what was hoped to be a secret resistance army to oppose the invading Allies, its members joined Operation Werewolf. Borrowed partly from popular culture, vampire imagery shaped Nazi interpretations of the allegedly blood-sucking Jews. When Germans in their millions fell back before Slavic invaders in 1945, legends and folk tales likewise presented the easterners in vampire terms. It was as if Germany was being invaded by the films then being issued by America’s Universal Studios. Occult speculation merged seamlessly with popular culture and science fiction.
At this point, the question obviously arises: did the Nazis really take this stuff seriously? The answer is mixed. Some German activists certainly did, and a few had the ear of key figures in the Nazi regime. Heinrich Himmler could usually be relied on to be a gullible listener. Other Nazi leaders were happy to use the occult ideas to produce propaganda, depicting Hitler as not just a world-historical figure but as a magus. Others still were happy to tolerate and encourage the esoteric thinkers until they went too far, when they were duly suppressed and arrested. It was rather like attitudes to modern art and music in the USSR in the same period.
Nor did the investment in bogus science and pseudo-medicine prevent the Germans making massive achievements in regular fields. In his excellent book The Nazi War on Cancer (1997), Robert Proctor showed that Hitler-era medical authorities had an appreciation of the causes and prevention of cancer that the United States would not really match until the 1970s, and they implemented their ideas through sweeping public health policies, directed against smoking and meat-eating.
Another of Kurlander’s strengths is that he shows just how strongly the esoteric ideas were rooted in Germany long before the Nazi seizure of power was anything but a pipe dream. He is excellent on the power of esoteric, spiritualist and neo-pagan ideas in the first quarter of the century, when a mystic like Rudolf Steiner commanded the attention of much of the German military and political elite. (Steiner himself was anything but a Nazi sympathizer, and became a target for ultra-Right militias). These themes reached mass audiences through a very lively publishing industry catering to interests in the supernatural and astrology.
One of Germany’s main esoteric publications was the Leipzig-based Zentralblatt für Okkultismus, the most popular of a large range of contemporary magazines and as close as the alternative world came to a mainstream German voice. In its 1916–17 volume, at the height of the Great War, the Zentralblatt published two hundred articles on subjects as diverse as prophecy and famous seers, presentiments of death, dream visions, telepathy, hypnosis, vampire beliefs, spiritual healing, Norse and pagan German beliefs, and alchemy. Many authors gave their writing a strictly contemporary relevance, with pieces on “What the War Will Bring,” “The Kaiser and the World War,” and “War and Occultism.” A piece on “War Prophecies” included very specific predictions about the fate of England and Nostradamus’s supposed foretelling of the sinking of the Lusitania. The virtual German dictator in the war years, Erich Ludendorff, was deeply sympathetic to all these ideas, especially those of a neo-pagan bent. The Nazis had so very much on which to build.
In praising Hitler’s Monsters unreservedly, I do raise one objection, specifically about viewing these German conditions as in any sense unique. Kurlander rightly suggests that esoteric ideas achieved unparalleled influence in Germany, but in many ways, they were no less widespread in other countries, especially the United States. In the first forty years of the twentieth century, the United States was the world capital of all manner of esoteric interests – Rosicrucian, Spiritualist, Theosophical, pseudo-Oriental, Aryan, and what would later be termed New Age. All these ideas inspired numerous sects and cult movements, but a few went on to achieve real mass memberships. In the 1930s, several of these sects were reaching audiences in the millions, including such once-notorious groups as Psychiana, Mighty I AM, and the Silver Shirts of William Dudley Pelley. In popular culture, literally dozens of Hollywood films produced between 1938 and 1945 offered themes of ghosts, angels, and survival after death, of mediumship, spiritualism, and the supernatural, presented less as fiction than as an alternative reality parallel to hard science.
From 1941 to 1945, the Vice President of the United States was Henry A. Wallace, about whom much bad can be said in terms of his secular politics. Very fortunately, he was not permitted to run for a second term, so that when FDR died in 1945, his successor was instead the truly capable Harry Truman. Wallace was deep into Theosophy and other mystical sects. When he mounted a third party campaign against Truman in 1948, his enemies produced a deeply embarrassing series of letters that Wallace had sent to his “Dear Guru,” Nicholas Roerich, a Russian artist and mystic. As Alex Ross writes,
In the twenties, Roerich and his wife, Helena, blended aspects of Theosophy, Hinduism, and Tibetan Buddhism into a doctrine called Agni Yoga, which was presented in such treatises as “Fiery Stronghold” and “Flame in Chalice.” … Wallace diligently studied Roerich’s writings and wrote to him in terms such as these:
Long have I been aware of the occasional fragrance from that other world which is the real world. But now I must live in the outer world and at the same time make over my mind and body to serve as fit instruments for the Lord of Justice. . . . Yes, the Chalice is filling.
Wallace himself thought that FDR might emerge in messianic mode as the Flaming One. Not for a second do I equate Wallace with Himmler and others in the Nazi elite, but Germany was by no means alone in the penetration of weird occult ideas into the highest echelons of government.
Throughout the West, occult and esoteric ideas were simply in the atmosphere in a way that is hard to reconstruct today. That was a fact of intellectual and cultural life that historians disregard at their peril.