The Nazis are history’s archetypical supervillains, and there has long been a tendency to ascribe to them supernatural evil. Members of the Nazi Party used the occult for a variety of purposes. The ridiculous World Ice Theory found favor mostly because it could be used as an alternative to “Jewish” science. Atlantis and Thule were potential Aryan homelands, and the Holy Grail was supposedly an artifact of Germanic history. Heinrich Himmler, perhaps the truest believer, hoped to infuse pagan ritual into the SS to give an extra layer of emotional power to Nazi ideology.
But while there was certainly a layer of pseudoscience and occult practice among some Nazis, in the years after the war, this occult connection ballooned in the popular imagination into the image of a regime permeated with occultists, suffused with magic and demonic power, and even contact with space aliens. Much of the blame for this rests with Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, who in their book Morning of the Magicians painted a picture of Hitler as obsessed with the supernatural and the recipient of revelations from extraterrestrial or interdimensional beings. Much of their analysis, which wasn’t meant seriously, was entirely false but accepted as true by generations of fringe writers.
Now Stetson University professor Eric Kurlander has released a new book called Hitler’s Monsters which claims to be a supernatural history of Nazi Germany. I have not read the book. Instead, I read an interview with the author in Slate magazine. Kurlander, who has published extensively on German history, argues that the Nazi state embraced the pseudoscientific and the occult like no other before it and that their use of fake history and magical thinking was qualitatively different from any other country. He locates the origins of the Nazi occult in the Austro-German social context of the 1890s down to the Great War.
We happen to have a period in Austria and Germany, where for various reasons, the intrinsic popularity of certain occult ideas and border scientific doctrines, of alternative religions, Nordic mythology, and German folklore, punctuated by crises, like World War I and the Great Depression, made the supernatural imaginary much more widespread, public, political, and dangerous as a reservoir of policy, than it would have been otherwise or was in other countries at that time
Kurlander, who seems to overstate the degree to which the Nazi state promoted the supernatural and the occult (Hitler, for example, seems not have cared much about it beyond its political utility), says that other Western countries did not experience the same type of Romantic, magical thinking or embrace of the supernatural:
In France, you don’t see the equivalent politicization and racialization of it. You have theosophy in Britain and America. But it’s a relatively harmless movement, where people get together in a drawing room and try to connect with spirits and write novels about Atlantis. But the concept of root races, which [H.P.] Blavatsky, the Russian progenitor of theosophy, talked about, never gets brought up as an actual basis for belief in “superior breeding” or race war among the liberal or conservative parties that run the government in Britain and America. It clearly is not influencing Roosevelt or Churchill’s view of social policy or foreign policy.
Kurlander wants us to see the German situation as inherently different, but that just isn’t true. The same types of people had the same types of ideas at the same time in other countries. Blavatsky, here identified as Russian, was living in America at the time she invented Theosophy (in a house in Ithaca, N.Y., which I walked by on the way to college many mornings) and Theosophy began as a largely American movement before moving outward to Britain and the Continent. The German philosophies he blames for Nazism—anthroposophy and ariosophy—grew out of Theosophy, which in turn would not exist without America’s pseudohistory, notably Atlantis theories and mound builder myths. Many countries have been consumed with pseudoscience, from America’s eugenics laws to the Soviet Union’s disastrous adoption of Lysenkoism. Politicians were also consumed with crazy ideas, from the Tsarist flirtation with Rasputin to U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace’s obsession with apocalyptic prophecy, theosophy, and the occult. On the lesser end, British prime minister William Gladstone believed in Atlantis and claimed that world mythologies were all corruptions of an original Biblical narrative.
In the literature of all of the different countries, we find writings virtually indistinguishable from those that led to the Nazi occult. I’ve ready plenty of them, and virtually every country had a somewhat racist origin myth that explained why they were better than all others, more deeply connected to primeval glory, etc. British Israelism was for a while a strong rival to German Aryanism, tracing Britain’s imperial glory to being the “real” (and non-Semitic) Aryan Jews. Italians appealed romantically to Roman glory, and Americans invented the lost white race mound builder myth and used it to justify Indian removal and policies designed to “restore” America to its rightful white rulers. America even created a whole religion—Mormonism—based on this myth, and that lost white race weaves in and out of American nuttiness ranging from Atlantis theories to Theosophy. It goes without saying that all of the Western countries were de jure or de facto racist (American slavery and Jim Crow, e.g.) and suffused with antisemitism. France revealed this in the Dreyfus Affair. Imperial Russia was a hotbed of antisemitism, and the Nazis borrowed a lot of their propaganda from tsarist material, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which also had a huge fan in all-American Henry Ford, who paid to propagandize Americans with reprints of the forged volume. Scientists in all of these countries, just as in Nazi Germany, happily promulgated white supremacy and made scientific arguments that the white race was superior to all others, supporting this with appeals to anthropology, ethnology, and other emerging sciences. The Nazis modeled many of their views on American and British racism.
The question, therefore, isn’t whether there was a qualitative difference in the ideas promulgated in Nazi Germany and in other Western countries, but rather why Nazi Germany let pseudoscience and occult beliefs run roughshod over more sober assessments. Here, I think, Kurlander gives the answer accidentally. He notes that most Germans and most German scientists didn’t subscribe to Nazi pseudoscience except when compelled by the state.
After the war, now that Germany was defeated [these kinds of supernatural thinking] became receded from the realm of policy, becoming a mostly privatized form of entertainment. No longer were there research institutes, supported by Himmler or Hitler, sponsoring parapsychology, dowsing, or World Ice Theory. With the collapse of Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry no major German political leaders were promoting astrology as a means of propaganda or threatening collaborators with retribution from Nazi “werewolves.” And that for me is important.
In short, the only thing that differed between German pseudoscience and that of other countries was that it was a fringe belief that gained the power of the state, supported by a totalitarian government in which there was no opposition party to support mainstream science, if only as part of a program of opposition. Nazism’s extreme Theosophy had no more popular support before 1933 than in any other country, and it faded away after 1945. The defining difference, therefore, was state support, which let a minority view—for Kurlander concedes it was never a majority position, even within the Nazi party rank and file—become official. A U.S. vice president or a British prime minister lacked the ability to impose pseudoscience because of the institutions that divided power; Stalin could enact Lysenkoism by force of law because there was no power to balance his.
Kurlander suggests that the Nazi experience offers lessons for us today, decrying the fact that the American public won’t elect someone who supports scientific findings on controversial issues, but he declines to note that while the state imposed weird ideas in Nazi Germany, today the bad science and fictitious history are part of a bottom-up movement where wide swaths of non-state actors seek to influence public opinion with the goal of using bad ideas to gain political power. The opposite happened in Germany, where the political power came first and was then used to shape public opinion in support of the Nazis’ worst beliefs. Hitler’s voters didn’t support him because they believed in Atlantis, World Ice Theory, or Thule. But American voters certainly support politicians because of their pseudoscientific beliefs about climate change, vaccines, creationism, Confederate historical revisionism, etc. Pseudoscientific beliefs have become markers of identity and no longer need to be imposed by the state because they have already taken over the voters.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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