If you can believe it, this is my 3,000th blog post. What better way to mark this milestone than with an episode of a cable TV pseudohistory show featuring ancient astronauts, lost civilizations, Nephilim, the occult, and glowing descriptions of Nazis? It’s everything we have criticized and debunked over the past ten years in capsule form.
In 1960, Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels gave birth to an entire school of pseudohistory centered on Hitler’s alleged involvement with demons and the supernatural power he supposedly wielded. Morning of the Magicians intended these claims to be outré and emotionally rather than literally true, in the winking half-serious way of French literature, but readers took them very seriously. The authors drew on a few real incidents, some Allied propaganda, and imaginary ideas they made up from whole cloth. As I wrote many years ago, “The authors specified that Hitler, while evil, had special access to ‘Superior Beings,’ who were space aliens; that these beings were directly involved in the creation of the Master Race; and that there was a powerful science of alien evil that was directly opposed to ‘Jewish-Liberal science.’” Would it surprise you to learn that Forbidden History replays the false claims from Morning of the Magicians almost beat-for-beat?
The show opens with the question of Aryan race theory, and the show mixes Aryan race theory with Ariosophy, an Aryan occult belief system. The two overlap but are not identical. The show focuses, correctly, on Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, as the source of the Nazi movement’s most extreme occult ideas. (The title of the episode is a lie, as Hitler hardly figures in the hour.) Himmler was indeed an occultist, but it is less clear how much the other Nazi leaders considered occultism any more than a useful propaganda tool. Prof. Eric Kurlander, the author of Hitler’s Monsters, explains some of the steps Himmler took to try to paganize Germany and resurrect pre-Christian “Aryan” beliefs. However, the show doesn’t distinguish clearly between German paganism, scientific racism, and Ariosophy-style occultism. While they overlap, they are not the same, and many Nazis were racists without being occultists, and more celebrated Germanic paganism without being supernatural occultists. Kurlander makes this distinction, but the producers let the point slide right on by as they heavily imply that any interest in paganism or ancient history is prima facie a belief in the diabolical mystical-magical occult. Most of the show is actually about Himmler’s interest in using German paganism to create a pseudohistorical origin for the German people, not about his beliefs in magic and the supernatural.
To be entirely honest, despite the show reminding viewers that the Nazis performed evil acts, it’s really hard not to listen to the narration and the narrative without feeling like the show is glorifying a mystical iron bond between antiquity and the Aryan occult. I’m disturbed by the number of times that the narrative talks about the master race and ancient perfection and how such beliefs spoke to the deep needs and emotions of the German people in sound bites and claims that are framed in a worshipful, celebratory manner. I don’t think they did it on purpose, but the producers seem to misunderstand how ideas presented on television read to their audiences. I would argue that if this episode aired on Reich TV on The Man in the High Castle minus a couple of sinister adjectives, I wouldn’t have been surprised. At times it plays like SS propaganda.
“The Nazis were great at what we’d call the branding business,” novelist and history writer Guy Walters says. “There is no better brand than the swastika.” I know what he meant, but the show clearly doesn’t. I mean, seriously: Did anyone listen to what they were putting on the air? They sliced and diced soundbites into a torrent of praise for Nazis, and an almost obsequious worship of Nazi aesthetics. The occasional use of words like “twisted” and “nutter” to describe Nazis just don’t quite overcome the glorifying b-roll, the emphatic and enthusiastic descriptions of Nazis, and the decidedly milquetoast reminders that Aryan race theory is racist nonsense.
A segment on runes and their connection to SS iconography misidentifies the runes, a system of writing, as a language. Kurland claims that the Nazis believed that early Germans descended from space aliens, but I think he is referring to a Theosophy-style belief in beings from other worlds, which are not space aliens in our sense but spiritual beings inhabiting spheres beyond Earth. In this context, the show is either discussing “Irminism,” a branch of Ariosophy, or “Armanism,” the original doctrine of Ariosophy. It’s hard to tell because the narrator doesn’t pronounce the word clearly. Assuming it is Irminism, I can find no information about that modernized racist German pagan creed having any connection to space aliens. Klint Janulis references Nephilim in this context—because, of course Nephilim—and Gough says that the Nazis believed the seed of the Aryans came to Earth on a meteorite. He seems to have made this up from Hörbiger’s World Ice Theory, which held that humanity originated in a panspermia-style fertilization of the Earth with a meteor full of “divine sperma.” Or, rather, he stole this interpretation from Morning of the Magicians, where the authors spun it into an ancient astronaut theory
After this, the show describes the Ahnenerbe’s efforts to prove that Aryans were the true and rightful rulers of the world by dint of their connection to an ancient civilization.
Next, we hear that Hitler was a messiah who had powerful demonic connections to the underworld and the powers of Hell. We actually hear someone say that “perhaps it’s real” that Hitler was possessed of satanic magic. Such claims, popularized in the false narrative in Bergier’s and Pauwels’s Morning of the Magicians, were a disturbing effort to excuse Nazism as a supernatural rather than a human evil when first proposed in the 1960s; today, these claims smack of power-worship, especially when the narrator sounds nearly lusty in lauding Hitler’s power, even while using words like “sinister” to describe his actions. Our culture worships power, so evil is no longer a disqualification. Gough seems to orgasm while describing the Nazis’ efforts to use black magic, astrology, and dowsing to win the war, and the show tells us, falsely, that such magic rites worked with what Gough calls “great accuracy.” He seems way too happy to discuss Nazis.
The show accepts as true Aleister Crowley’s false claim to have invented the V-sign for victory as a foil to the Nazi swastika. History records that Victor de Laveleye, a former Belgian official working for the BBC, first began using the symbol in Allied propaganda a month before Crowley claimed to have invented it.
The succeeding segment describes Wicca, which it conflates with premodern witchcraft, and alleges that Wicca rituals were used in Britain to fight Nazis. The show breathlessly claims that World War II was actually an occult battle of competing light and dark magics. This is an insult to the 75 million people who died in the war, civilians and soldiers alike. They did not die from magic spells.
In the last third of the show, we return to Himmler to describe his efforts to create an occult center for Nazism and the SS. If you’ve ever watched a cable pseudohistory show, you’ve already seen Wewelsburg Castle, and you know all about the Arthurian/chivalric ideals Himmler imagined his Aryan knights would uphold. I’m not sure how the writing makes this sound noble, but their use of language accomplishes that dubious feat. Bits of this segment reuse ideas and concepts the show previously explored in its earlier episode from this season on the Nazi quest for the Holy Grail. To his credit—for once!—Gough cuts against the worshipful tone of the segment by emphasizing the (subjective) feelings of evil that he experienced from the supposedly unholy cultic “energy” in the castle. Castles do not have mystical evil energy, but he accurately described the impression the aesthetics of Nazism create when combined with knowledge of the vast crimes of the regime.
Weirdly enough, in the final moments, Lynn Picknett admits that most of this occult material is nonsense, not really believed by many Nazis. The other talking heads disagree, though, emphasizing the disputed claim that Nazi Germany was “obsessed” with magic and the occult.
The uncomfortably admiring tone of the writing lasts straight through to the end. Consider narrator Eric Meyers’s final rhetorical question: “What went wrong for the Nazis?” he asks. “How did they get so close to world domination only to fall so spectacularly?” On the surface, there is nothing objectively wrong with the question, but in context, with the b-roll of marching Nazis and glamor shots of Hitler, and Meyers’s excited tone, it scans more like a lament for Nazi failure than an honest inquiry into the underlying weaknesses of the Nazi state, particularly when the writing casts World War II not as a battle of Axis and Allies but as a gambit that was Hitler’s to lose if only he had fully mastered occult power.
I don’t think that Forbidden History intentionally tried to make a modern Leni Riefenstahl film, but I think the speed with which trash like this is produced, combined with the laziness of the writing and the ethos that b-roll should slap anything interesting on screen, even when it is Nazi propaganda footage recycled uncritically, combines to give the impression that the show stands in awe of the Nazis’ dark power. Sensitive subject matter needs much more careful writing and more careful production values to avoid exactly this situation. Forbidden History needed to think about how the images on screen and the words being spoken and the dramatic music playing under it all combined and the impression that they were unintentionally creating.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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