In part two of this series, we will look at the dark messianic figure saluting at the head of the Nazi columns, Adolph Hitler, and beyond him to the figures in his orbit who most involved themselves in mystical and occult practices. At the end of Part One, we introduced him as an art student and army corporal who took an interest in the writings of Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels. After the conclusion of World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles forbade the reconstitution of the Imperial German Army, unemployed veterans joined up with a number of paramilitary militias called freikorps, or like Hitler, joined the national police force known as the Reichswehr. This was a time of great unrest, with communists on the far left and nationalists on the far right all displeased with the democratic compromise of the Weimar Republic, a disaffection exacerbated by a general economic collapse. Just as numerous mystical creeds had vied for ascendancy in the Austro-German New Age, in 1919, in Munich, numerous fledgling political groups struggled to capture the attention of the German people. The Reichswehr sent young Hitler to spy on one small party, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP), or the German Workers’ Party, but Hitler, an avowed anti-Semite already, liked what the DAP had to say about Bolsheviks and the Jews being responsible for Germany’s recent defeat and ended up joining the party instead. Before the end of the year, the DAP became the NSDAP, or National Socialist German Workers’ Party, but don’t let the name fool you. They were a far right nationalist group seeking to expand their appeal to their base with watchwords; they were only “socialist” insofar as they heaped scorn on Jewish capitalists. Thus the Nazi party was born, their name a shortening of Nationalsozialistische, and by 1921, the orator Hitler was its chairman, and by 1923, its Führer, the dictator of a political party with some 20,000 members and its own freikorps of storm troopers, the SA, called brownshirts after their uniforms, who went around intimidating and brutalizing enemies of the party. It was late that year that Hitler attempted a coup in Bavaria, fomenting the overthrow of the government with a speech at a beer hall and marching on Munich’s city hall, a gambit that failed and landed him in prison, where he solidified his doctrine of racism and nationalism by writing Mein Kampf and prepared himself to resume leadership of the Nazis and continue his inexorable march to absolute power over Germany and Europe. But while it is overtly clear that Hitler was driven nationalist and racist ideals, it is not as clear whether he subscribed to the occult, mystical, and neo-pagan notions of the Austro-German New Age or how ingrained these elements were in the culture of Nazism.
Once again, as I discuss the rise to power and beliefs of Hitler and his lieutenants, I do so with a purpose: to examine the veracity of claims that Nazis were an occult group. If I suggest that perhaps there are myths surrounding him or other Nazi figures, it is not in an attempt to exonerate him or revise history to his benefit. Hitler was a racist and a despot and a mass murderer the likes of which I don’t believe have never been seen before or since in human history, and the same can be said for all his cronies or accomplices. If you are listening to this searching for fodder to use in Nazi apologism, unsubscribe, delete your accounts, go outside and get to know the people you fear and blindly hate.
Clearly Hitler identified with völkisch and Ariosophist ideas, but that does not mean that he was a mystic pupil of Guido von List and Jörg von Liebenfels. He was a clear nationalist, but the völkische movement did not invent German nationalism; there was plenty of that in the Imperial German Army to which Hitler had previously belonged. Certainly he appreciated völkisch notions, such as Drang Noch Osten, the eastward urge, which suggested Germans held a manifest destiny to settle in lands to the east, a notion addressed in Hitler’s doctrine of lebensraum, or the German need to spread eastward for living space. And of course, ideas of German racial superiority, specifically over Jews, appealed to Hitler’s very apparent and rabid anti-Semitism. There is, however, some justified debate over whether he subscribed to the racial theories of Aryan superiority as some others held them, for although he did seek to absorb all Germanic peoples into his Reich, he appears to have been more skeptical about accepting those of other ethnicities even when his racial pseudo-scientists insisted on their Aryan characteristics, which would suggest Hitler maintained more of an Imperial nationalism than some other true believers. Then there is the fact, strange if Lanz von Liebenfels was such an influence on him through his writings in Ostara, that Hitler never drew von Liebenfels into the Reich or awarded him any position. Some have claimed that Hitler may have visited the offices of Lanz’s magazine in 1909 to buy some issues of Ostara, and that he may have spoken with Von Liebenfels at the time, but there is no evidence of a significant influence on the Führer. Indeed, in Mein Kampf, Hitler even warns against “wandering völkisch scholars” and “so-called reformers of the ancient Germanic type,” calling them “the greatest imaginable cowards” and “comedians,” suggesting “that they are sent by dark forces who do not desire the rebirth of [the German] people. For their entire activity leads the Volk away from its fight against the common enemy, the Jew, in order that it may expend its energy in internal religious struggles.” These are certainly not the words of an initiate in pagan mysteries or a true believer in the occult or the mystical.
There exist numerous unsupported claims about Hitler being the pawn of occult agents bent on grooming him for evil purposes. One example comes from English occult writer Victor Neuburg, who claimed to have been present at a conversation in which infamous magician Aleister Crowley informed novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley that his secret society, the Ordo Templi Orientis, had fed peyote to Hitler and under its influence brainwashed him, trained him in oratory, and “gave him his daemon.” Needless to say, Neuburg offers no further evidence of this third-hand claim. Likewise, perhaps the most famous story about Hitler’s involvement in occultism comes to us as hearsay that we are expected to take as truth. In Trevor Ravenscroft’s incredible—as in hard to believe—book, The Spear of Destiny, he lays out a tale about Hitler’s obsession with a magical artifact, manipulation by esoteric secret societies, and possession by dark forces, all of which was supposedly conveyed to him by Dr. Walter Stein, the physician and advisor to Winston Churchill mentioned in Part One, who believed, or at least spread the idea, that Hitler was a Satanist. As Ravenscroft’s pseudohistory unfolds, we meet a young and indigent Hitler who is obsessed with an artifact in the Hofburg Museum in Vienna. This artifact, a lance variously believed to have belonged to Saint Maurice or to Constantine the Great, became conflated with the Holy Lance, or Lance of Longinus, said to have pierced Christ’s side during the crucifixion. This claim is also made of numerous other lance heads displayed around the world. Ravenscroft, however, tacitly asserting that the one in the Hofburg was genuine, describes how it called out to Hitler, possessing him, for he who took ownership of the Holy Lance would rule the world. While it is true that, after annexing Austria, Hitler seized the crown jewels and this artifact along with them, transporting them in an armored train and depositing them in a bunker, there was plenty of precedent for doing so as it made a clear symbolic statement about his sovereignty. Trevor Ravenscroft attributes quotes to Hitler without source; makes claims that biographers of Hitler have proven untrue, such as where he was at certain times and what his financial situation might have been; and relies on a plot containing so many coincidences that it reads like a bad novel, which it probably is. Perhaps the biggest strike against the book is that it later came out Ravenscroft never actually met Dr. Stein but rather claims to have interviewed his ghost through a séance! Regardless, even if he really had learned these things from Dr. Stein, Stein’s own credibility issues and the lack of any concrete evidence make Ravenscroft’s story of Hitler’s initiation into the occult only worth mentioning insofar as it is entertaining.
However, even if Hitler’s devotion to esoteric and occult beliefs cannot be clearly proven, it is evident that he surrounded himself with true believers. One example was the astrologer and hypnotist, Erich Jan Hanussen, an old friend of Hitler’s who would sometimes advise him by reading his horoscope or suggesting certain arcane rituals be undertaken for luck or to break supposed curses on Hitler. His relationship to this figure seems to suggest at least an openness or tolerance of the occult. Then there were the members of the Thule Society, such as the playwright Dietrich Eckart, racial theorist and future Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories Dr. Alfred Rosenberg, and pseudo-aristocratic occultist Rudolf von Sebottendorff, all of whom ran the Nazi mouthpiece newspaper, the People’s Observer. These men were all neo-pagans and Ariosophists, believers in the legendary land of Ultima Thule as the long-lost origin of the mythical Aryan race, about which, as already promised, I will have more to say before the series concludes. There is no evidence that Hitler himself was a member of the Thule Society, however, and he may have only relied on them as writers and publishers because of their involvement in the DAP from the beginning, before it had even transformed into the NSDAP, or Nazi Party. One thing, however, is certain; the involvement of the Thule Society members in the Nazis did much to encourage Heinrich Himmler to devote himself to the party, and Himmler would prove to be the biggest occult influence on Nazism.
Raised a middle-class Catholic, like Hitler himself, Himmler was an imaginative youth who lost himself in daydreams about medieval Germanic folklore and Nordic mythology, much like Guido von List. His reveries about the warriors of the Nibelungenlied and of Teutonic Knights left him yearning for martial service. He enlisted in the 11th Bavarian Infantry Regiment in World War I, but with poor eyesight and a weak constitution, he never saw any action and failed to complete the officer training into which his father had pulled strings to enroll him. During the days of the Weimar Republic, he lived on a farm and became enamored of völkisch ideas, including the most extreme Blood and Soil notions, and he became obsessed by the myth of the Aryan race and its history in the primeval past as well as the runology of Guido von List. After studying agriculture at the University of Munich and still trying to scratch an itch for the military service he idealized, he join a freikorps militia, and finding similar interests among members of Nazi Party, such as those espoused by the Thule Society, he joined up, and during the attempted coup known as the Beer Hall Putsch, he marched with his freikorps to seize the former war ministry offices. Upon Hitler’s release from prison and the reconstitution of the Nazi Party, Himmler took a position as a rural community organizer, recruiting völkisch idealists for the Nazi cause, but his dark star was on the rise. By 1929, he was the head of another freikorps, the SS (the Schutstaffel, or Protection Squad), conceived as a kind of elite imperial guard. Through ruthless maneuvering, Heinrich Himmler would likewise take control of the German State Police, or Gestapo, and over the course of his career and the Third Reich would become the most feared man in Germany, but his focus always remained on the SS, which he transformed from an imperial guard into a kind of cult devoted to neo-paganism and Aryan purity. More than any other Nazi, Heinrich Himmler stands as proof of occultism’s influence on Nazi policy, and it was at his desk that the most horrifyingly evil Nazi policy, that of the Final Solution, originated.
Some scholars, such as Stephen E. Flowers and Michael Moynihan in their essay, “The Myth of Nazi Occultism,” have suggested that the pagan and anti-Christian culture of Nazism has been exaggerated, pointing to the fact the original NSDAP party platform declared Christianity the official religion of Germany, and further noting that Hitler not only mocks neo-pagans in Mein Kampf but also relies on numerous biblical references (Flowers and Moynihan 30-31). A quote from Hitler’s 1938 speech to the Reich Party Congress stands as a clear example that Hitler, who himself never resigned from the Catholic Church as did many others in his party, may have thought of himself as remaining a Christian. He warned that “woe if the movement or the state, through the insinuation of obscure mystical element, should be given unclear orders.… There is already a danger if orders are given for the setting up of so-called cult-places, because this alone will give birth to the necessity subsequently to devise so-called cult games and cult rituals. Our cult is exclusively the cultivation of that which is natural and hence willed by God.” But of course, he may have simply been appealing in this speech to those who had retained their traditional Christian loyalties, and it is telling that in it he still calls Nazism a cult, even if only rhetorically. But to suggest that Nazism was not anti-Christian in the extreme would be to ignore the fact that, along with Jews, they would eventually persecute a great many Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses for their beliefs. And the simple fact that the neo-pagan Heinrich Himmler organized and ran the SS like a pagan cult clinches the argument, for the SS were considered the elite, the perfect example of Nazi ideals. Himmler required that any who would join his modern day Teutonic knighthood first renounce their faith in Catholic or Protestant Christianity. SS soldiers were forbidden to celebrate Christmas, replacing the observance with solstice celebrations. While it is true that many in the SS only paid lip service to this policy and continued to worship privately as they always had, the policy itself stands as the strongest evidence of Nazism’s anti-Christian, neo-pagan principles.
The runology of Guido von List, with which Himmler was so fascinated, provides another piece of evidence proving the occult influence on Nazism and the SS in particular. Even the prominence of the swastika itself, which had early been flown as a banner by Lanz von Liebenfels at the solstice rituals of his New Templars, appears to have been encouraged by the fascination of neo-pagans and new age mystics with ancient runes. The old mystic Guido von List had connected the hakenkreuz, or hooked cross, as it was called in German, to ancient Aryans, suggesting it represented some force by which the universe had been created, an assertion for which, typically, he offered no evidence beyond his own certainty. Certainly the symbol, called swastik in Sanskrit, has been found to be prevalent in numerous cultures connected through Indo-European languages, from Northern Europe all the way to India. It has been used in some form in Hinduism and Buddhism and Jewish Kabbalism, and in ancient Greece, where it was called the gammadion. But as noted in the previous installment, language groups and even cultural groups, are not the same as racial groups, and this was the root error that resulted in the myth of an Aryan race. Moreover, this symbol, which Carl Sagan has noted is readily apparent in nature and so could have arisen spontaneously in completely unrelated cultures, has been found in artifacts of pre-Columbian North American native tribes, such as the Navajo. Its widespread use in multiple cultures is likely what encouraged Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society to take it up as one of their principal symbols, and its association with Nordic mythology and the Teutonic Knights, a Catholic military order around whom swirled almost as many fantastical theories as those concerning the Knights Templar, led to the hakenkreuz being adopted as an important symbol of the Thule Society as well, who recommended its use in the Nazi flag. Members of the Thule Society likely saw in it more than the traditional Sanskrit meaning, which denoted good luck or well-being, for they were preoccupied with the symbols of Guido von List’s so-called Armanen Futharkh runes, a runic alphabet he appears to have invented and claimed were supernaturally conveyed to him. Therefore, to them, the hakenkreuz, or swastika, was likely viewed as two Sig or Sigel runes superimposed on each other. According to List’s runic alphabet, Sig meant victory, just like the German word sieg, which would become the traditional Nazi chant, sieg heil, or “hail victory.” Likewise, when it came time for Heinrich Himmler, the true believer, to choose the symbols of the SS and their regalia, he settled on two Sig runes, like twin lightning bolts, a runic symbol that he made so common in Nazi Germany that typewriters were manufactured with a special key to type the symbol on official documents. Along with this runic insignia, Himmler chose to retain the symbol previously adopted by the SS before he had taken command: that of the Totenkopf, or death’s head, a symbol that had been called the Jolly Roger when used by pirates. The images of the skull-and-crossbones and runic double lightning bolts on the black uniforms of this military order would strike terror into their victims and the world at large, and the very fact that this elite group openly and stringently devoted to neo-paganism and racial theories based on myth adopted its own occult iconography goes a long way toward establishing that this was more of a cult than an army.
Himmler’s devotion to the occult myth of the Aryan race is plain to see in his administration of the SS as well, for it was not only held up as an exemplar of Nazism but also of Aryan racial purity. Many were the armchair theorists and mystical declaimers of Ariosophy in those years, but Heinrich Himmler, a mild-mannered and mousy little man with hooded eyes, was determined to act on his convictions of Aryan purity and actually enact a program of controlled breeding that many early 20th century eugenicists only pondered. He started by instituting exacting standards for membership in the SS, believing that his elite corps must be unimpeachably pure of Aryan blood in order to serve as the vanguard in their struggle to assert the mastery of their race. Applicants to serve in the SS were therefore required to not only appear Nordic but to document their genealogy back more than a hundred years to prove that no Slavic or Jewish blood ran through their veins. This was true not only of new applicants, but of the existing rank and file, from which Himmler purged any whose blood he believed to be tainted. Once enlisted, SS could not marry unless their brides provided their family trees to prove their pure Aryan ancestry. Once approved, their weddings were pagan affairs, a non-Christian consecration ceremony that Himmler himself had crafted. And even their daughters were forbidden to marry any man in whose lineage could be found a drop of Jewish or Slavic blood, for Himmler saw the members of his SS as the seed from which a future, purely Aryan utopia would spring, and he felt it needed to be protected from the corruption of miscegenation. No wonder, then, that, after the SS had proven in its operations in the Soviet Union that it was capable of mass murder, the zealously anti-Semitic Hitler, who had long shouted about the annihilation of European Jews, would turn to Himmler, the ruthless enactor of racial policies, for a “Final Solution.” Thus it was Himmler, the mastermind of the concentration camp, and his death’s head cult, who would carry out the greatest atrocities of the Third Reich.
When one hears about how carefully Himmler and the SS scrutinized the women in their officers’ lives, one might be tempted to give credence to the tales that Himmler formed a secret unit of women, the SS Hexen-Sonderkommando, who were witches practicing their dark arts to further the ends of the Führer. But this appears, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be a legend. Certainly Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer, was interested in witchcraft. He created a team of researchers to gather evidence that the Catholic Church had persecuted Germans in their witch-trials, and this group, which indexed its findings in the Hexenkartothek, may actually be the inspiration for the SS Hexen group of legend, but there is no indication that this group was even comprised of women, let alone witches. Documents have turned up indicating that Himmler may have believed one of his ancestors had been persecuted as a witch, and that he was interested in claims that unusual numbers of crows were said to haunt the sites of witch executions, but I decline to hazard a guess as to the authenticity of these, and regardless, they would only prove his academic interest in the occult, which is already well-established. In truth, there were female units in the SS, such as the Helferinnenkorps, or Helpers Corp, who served as nurses and administrative assistants. Later, there were the more notorious Aufseherinnen, or Overseers, women tasked with overseeing some aspects of concentration camp operations. Technically, none of these were considered real members of the SS, and of course, there are no indications of them practicing magic, but there is the story of Die Hexe von Buchenwald, the Witch of Buchenwald, that might have transformed into a legend of actual witches in SS uniforms. Ilse Köhler Koch, wife of Karl Otto Koch, commandant of the Buchenwald, was in her position as Oberaufseherin, known to engage in as much casual cruelty and disgusting sadism as any male counterpart. She took a voyeuristic pleasure in staging rapes, and she was disturbingly obsessed with tattoos, such that she had them cut off the corpses of prisoners, tanning the skin and making accessories out of them, like gloves and handbags.
While Himmler and the SS may not have had witches in their ranks, they certainly had at least one warlock. In the same year that Hitler rose to the position of chancellor, a nearly 70-year-old man, formerly a colonel who had served in the Austrian army during the previous world war, got an audience with Himmler and explained how he was able to commune with the spirits of old Nordic heroes from the time of Germanic mythology. The two men shared many interests, in theories about the ancient roots of the Germans, their old runic language, their relation to the gods. Himmler made him head of a department focused on researching prehistory, but within a year, this old mystic guru had risen to the rank of SS Oberführer, a position something like that of a general. Karl Maria Wiligut was just another crank coming out of the Austro-German New Age, like a Guido von List or a Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, except he had never managed to find himself a following. Like List, he was interested in runes and had written a book about them, and just as List crafted a mythology around a group of ancient priests called Armanen, an extrapolation of a tidbit in Tacitus that mentioned Germanic tribes called Irminones who resisted the Romans, Wiligut crafted his own alternate mythology around a similar group he called the Irminen, although he insisted they were a wholly different ancient Germanic priesthood that worshipped a different pagan deity and actually went to war with List’s Wotan-worshippers. Just as Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels had his publication Ostara, Wiligut published his own periodical, The Iron Broom, in which he also vocally dissented from Christianity and bemoaned the fact that the supposedly superior Aryan race had been and was being deteriorated by lesser races, including the Jewish race. As Guido von List had claimed supernatural inspiration for the futharkh runes, and as Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels had claimed to receive a vision revealing the threat of the sub-human races, Wiligut claimed that he knew so much about the ancient world because he channeled ancient spirits, from whom he learned that the Aryan race was born 230,000 years earlier, in a fantastical world with three suns, peopled by dwarves, giants, and mythical creatures. His own bloodline, according to him, could be traced back to Irminen royalty, born of gods and men, just the kind of divine sodomy that Lanz von Liebenfels wrote about. In every way, he was a contemporary of those pseudo-mystics, but he never had his own secret society or cult. In fact, he could not even make a believer of his own wife, whom he abused and who ended up having him committed. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he spent around three years institutionalized before being released into the welcoming arms of Ariosophists who appreciated his writings. And eventually, he found an acolyte in Heinrich Himmler who was finally able to give him, in the SS, the cult following that had always eluded him.
Heinrich Himmler had grown up in Landshut, in the shadow of Castle Trusnitz, which called up images of the ancient kings and hero knights with which he had been infatuated. And Himmler’s high priest, Karl Maria Wiligut, had never had an ancient temple of his own, as had his contemporaries. Guido von List and his Armanenorden had some ancient Roman ruins at Carnuntum in which they practiced their pagan rituals, and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels’s Ordo Novi Templi or Order of the New Templars used Castle Werfenstein, an impressive old pile of rocks on a hilltop, for their orgiastic rituals. So, late in 1933, Himmler and Wiligut, the two leaders of the Nazis’ Death’s Head Cult, went looking for just such a place and found it in the Castle of Wewelsburg. Believed to be near the site of an ancient battle in which Germanic tribes defied Roman rule, it was perfectly suited for their neo-pagan beliefs, and the fact that it was said to be the site of thousands of witch burnings also, perversely, seems to have been a draw for them. The strangely triangular shaped castle would officially be the temple of the Death’s Head Cult, renovated to reflect their occult mythology with countless runic symbols carved into the ornate walls and ceilings. The castle was to be the hub from which he would build outward a massive complex called the Center of the New World whose numerous towers, walls and boulevards would, from above form the shape of a spear pointing north, toward the mythical homeland of the Aryan race. This spear one may be templated to think was meant to represent the Holy Lance, but that very Christian symbol had no place in the mythology of the Death’s Head Cult, which more likely would think of it as Gungnir, Wotan’s spear, or as a simple metaphor for this new world order, if you will, that they intended to spearhead.
It was here at Castle Wewelsburg that they would perform their pagan weddings and baptisms, and other rituals, which Himmler, always one for meticulous record keeping, kept curiously secret. Thus legends have sprung up around the goings on there. In Dusty Sklar’s 1977 book, The Nazis and the Occult, she reported an unsupported claim that Himmler, Wiligut, and the SS engaged in human sacrifice rituals at Castle Wewelsburg. As the story goes, they would take a good specimen of an Aryan man, behead him, and use this severed head to channel otherworldly spirits they called the “Secret Masters of the Caucasus.” When you look more closely into the provenance of this story, however, much like the claims of Trevor Ravenscroft, it begins to lose any semblance of credibility. Sklar’s source was an Occidental College anthropology professor named C. Scott Littleton, which sounds reliable enough, but it turns out Littleton had the details from a college friend whose identity he refused to reveal, and that friend had them from a professor at a German university who likewise would remain anonymous. Supposedly, this German professor’s father had been an SS general and had left behind a box of files in which were reports about these grisly séances, but the actual files have never turned up. Instead, we just have what amounts to an urban legend, in which Sklar was told that Littleton heard that so-and-so spoke to a guy whose father had proof of these occult rituals. Nevertheless, what we do know of the Castle at Wewelsburg shows us the fascination that Himmler and Wiligut maintained in the occult and in their mythologized ancient past, an interest they encouraged all the members of their Death’s Head Cult to take. Throughout the castle, they built a series of oak-paneled reading rooms, each named after a specific subject, among which were a room on runes, a room on all things Aryan, rooms on old Germanic kings, a room on the Order of Teutonic Knights, and rooms on King Arthur and the Holy Grail. And as we shall see, in the final installment of this series, under the auspices of Heinrich Himmler’s authority, the Nazis would engage in much strange research and occult archaeology straight out of an Indiana Jones film.
Badger, William, and Diane Purkiss. “English Witches and SS Academics: Evaluating Sources for the English Witch Trials in Himmler's Hexenkartothek.” Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural, vol. 6, no. 1, 2017, pp. 125–153. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/preternature.6.1.0125.
Roland, Paul. The Nazis and the Occult: The Dark Forces Unleashed by the Third Reich. Chartwell Books, 2008.
Sklar, Dusty. The Nazis and the Occult. Dorset Press, 1989.
Yenne, Bill. Hitler’s Master of the Dark Arts: Himmler’s Black Knights and the Occult Origins of the SS. Zenith Press, 2010.