Whether you learned about it from watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or from reading Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s European best-seller “The Morning of the Magicians,“ who doesn’t now know that Hitler and Nazi Germany were obsessed with the occult?
In “Hitler’s Monsters” Eric Kurlander, professor of history at Stetson University, carefully tracks the fringe movements and lunatic beliefs that swept through Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, he documents the intense interest in parapsychology, New Age fantasies and so-called “border science.” Some Nazi leaders firmly believed that the Aryan race descended from the aliens who established Atlantis, that Satan was really a good guy and that werewolves actually protected clean-living Teutons against the ravages and sexual depredations of Slavic vampires.
Kurlander groups all these – as well as the Nazi obsession with the Holy Grail, witchcraft, Luciferianism, World Ice Theory, anti-gravity machines, astrology and pagan religions – under the rubric “the supernatural imaginary.” He begins with Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, champion of “an esoteric doctrine that prophesied the resurgence of a lost Aryan civilization peopled by Nordic ‘God Men.’ ” According to Lanz, in 1909 he gave some issues of his magazine Ostara to a pale young man named Adolf Hitler. Of course, the future Führer may have just wanted the magazine for the pictures; it was illustrated with “muscular Aryan cavaliers defending scantily clad blonde women from the advances of hideous-looking ‘ape-men.’ ”
Lanz frequently referred to “lesser breeds” as “Tschandals,” a derogatory term taken from the Hindu codes of Manu. Manu? In German theosophical circles it was commonly believed that India and Tibet preserved the hidden enclaves of ancient Atlanteans or even living Secret Masters. With growing frequency, the Jews were deemed the most pernicious Tschandals.
Never miss a local story.
Throughout, Kurlander underscores the dangers of insane nationalism. Georg Kenstler proclaimed – with horrific consequences – that German territorial superiority required “Lebensraum,” or “living space.” Erik Hanussen, the country’s “most flamboyant clairvoyant,” helped convince “millions of Germans that they were the ‘Chosen People’ and that the downfall of 1918 would be reversed by Hitler’s ability to make ‘the impossible possible.’ ”
As Kurlander stresses, Hitler’s rise to power resulted from multiple factors – Germany’s military defeat, onerous war reparations, economic chaos – but esoteric mumbo-jumbo clearly played its part.
As late as 1942, Hitler could declare himself a “supporter” of World Ice Theory. “Glacial cosmogony,” as it was also known, maintained that “icy moons had crashed into the earth,” causing floods and geophysical damage, but also bringing “living kernels” from outer space that would evolve into Aryan superbeings.
In general, the Third Reich embraced crackpot doctrines “that buttressed its racial, political, and ideological goals.” These goals eventually included concentration camps, monstrous human experiments and the “Final Solution.” An entire people was horribly demonized solely because of their religion and ethnicity. This couldn’t happen now, could it?
Eric Kurlander has written a scholarly book that reveals – to borrow Joseph Conrad’s phrase – the fascination of the abomination. But he also shows how swiftly irrational ideas can take hold, even in an age before social media. As the Reich’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels reportedly declared, “If you repeat a lie a thousand times, people are bound to start believing it.”
“Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich”
By Eric Kurlander
Yale, 422 pages