Hitler’s Monsters

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

An iconic scene from Murnau’s Nosferatu. Source: Wikipedia

A little more than half way through Hitler’s Monsters, Eric Kurlander opens a new section this way:

After World Ice Theory, no area of border science was deemed more valuable in the Third Rich than radiesthesia. We will recall that many Nazi leaders, most notably Himmler and Hess, believed in the existence of cosmic forces or earth rays (radiation) that could be detected and harnessed with the proper training. Hitler had ordered one of Germany’s most famous diviner’s to check the Reich Chancellery for malignant forms of the latter. Goebbels also hired dowsers like Kritzinger to assist with Nostradamus propaganda. (220)

You could be forgiven if reading the passage tempted to you into some “WTFs.” As Kurlander makes clear, the NSDAP was awash with border science and shards of occult systems alongside folktales, mythology, and Aryan-centric anthropology. The kind of magical thinking that historians have seen as moving Hitler and his acolytes to believe in victory after spring of 1944 was informed and sustained by actual thinking about magic.

Eric Kurlander does a yeoman’s labor in understanding and then explaining the varieties of occult beliefs that circulated in late 19th century Germany and continued into the Weimar period. I cannot even begin to do justice to these ideas here. But, anyone familiar with the Nazi movement and with Hitler’s beliefs on racial issues and German destiny already knows the movement exploited contemporary social science (the U.S. was a powerhouse in producing eugenic thinking and, sadly, legislation) and also fringe ideas on race and mythology, and of course picked up the well established traditions of European anti-Semitism. Kurlander shows that the Imperial and Weimar occult movements were filled with völkisch claims about Aryan descent from an Asian race of heroes. Northern Indian warrior-conquerors and Japanese samurai shared roots with the Aryan warriors who arrived in Europe. A putative deep connection to Tibet led to a German “anthropological” mission there during the Third Reich. And in case you wondered, forget Darwin and descent from lower and ape-like forms—that was only for the lesser races. The Aryan people emerged from the Hyperborean civilization of Atlantis.

The original NSDAP founders developed their own Thule society to promote Aryan exceptionalism with a heady mix of occultisms. Hitler broke with the group only because it proved so politically inept. For Hitler himself, border science and occult ideas offered gaudy systems to sustain his beliefs and prejudices. Other Nazi leaders, particularly Himmler, took some strands of occult belief much more seriously. He made concentration camps available for border scientists to work out their insane theories about survival in high altitudes or freezing temperatures, or even if the dead could be brought back to life. By late in the war Himmler ordered that every SS division have a unit trained in radiesthesia, best known for water dowsing, to use cosmic rays to detect enemy movements. For a decade the SS sponsored a Witch Division to collect (steal) documents regarding material on Central European folklore and mythology. And Himmler would push border science as a path to discovering miracle weapons as the war moved toward its inevitable Götterdammerung.

Himmler serves here as synecdoche for the Nazi movement and leadership. As Kurlander shows, no other political movement of the 20th century relied so wholly and enthusiastically on the occult, as inspiration but also as a theoretical grounding. The “superman” beliefs came not just from Hitler’s racial fever dreams but from the well established occultist beliefs of the era. This was not a metaphor for German superiority but a specious “fact” of the völkisch belief system. That it resonated for so many Germans had to do with the special circumstance of the Weimar period, but also with what were already widely held ideas from the societies and publications dedicated to the occult. So, too, the equation of “the Jew” with an evil, disease-carrying parasite, the exact equivalent of the vampire. Vampire beliefs would flourish in the Nazi period, with the propaganda ministry taking advantage of the vampire craze to portray Jews with vampiristic features in posters and film.

This review can only suggest the rich tapestry of alternative belief that Kurlander explores and analyzes. But his work will convincingly show that if you dowse any Nazi belief or policy the cosmic rays will lead you to World Ice Theory or Atlantis or the search for anti-gravity. Or, worse.

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