Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Hitler’s Monsters:
A Supernatural History of the Third Reich

by eric kurlander
yale, 448 pages, $35

That Hitler and his inner circle were mad is not a matter of controversy. The source and character of their madness, though, is subject to debate. Eric Kurlander wants us to understand Nazi ideology as an outgrowth of occultism, characterized by endemic beliefs in parascience, magic, ­astrology, ­crackpot theories of racial origin, and other weird notions. There exists an extensive literature on Hitler and the occult, but Kurlander’s new book is the most ambitious offering to date. It is likely to be the standard work for some time to come on a bizarre but revealing facet of Nazi ideology.

Truly strange ideas had currency in Hitler’s circle. In addition to their obsession with spurious “race science,” Kurlander reports, “Nazi leaders sponsored everything from astrology, parapsychology, and radiesthesia [dowsing] to biodynamic agriculture and World Ice Theory (Welteislehre, or WEL).” The last of these tried to explain events in prehistory by the earth’s collision with moons of ice. They sent expeditions to find the Holy Grail, a vanished master race in the mountains of Tibet, Aryan magical rites supposedly still practiced in Karelia, and an Aryan calendar in the Andes.

Morbid curiosity makes all of this entertaining, but the reader finds it hard to determine just how important any of it was to actual Nazi internal policy or war strategy. One didn’t have to be an occultist to be a Nazi, although evidently it helped. Otherwise rational men and women joined Hitler not because they believed in pixies, but out of profound historical despair. Martin Heidegger, for example, embraced Nazism because he believed that “resoluteness” required the embrace of “historical authenticity” in the form of the “fate” of the German nation in its concrete circumstances (see Being and Time, section 74). Some occultists eschewed Nazism; although the Nazis drew some ideas from Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, the Steiner schools closed rather than take the loyalty oath to Hitler, a fact Kurlander fails to mention.

The very abundance of material overdetermines Kurlander’s argument. It is more parsimonious to state that the Nazis were mad, but in a specific way: They were pagans who abhorred Christianity for the same reason they hated Jews. In passing, Kurlander mentions a Nazi accusation that Jews conspired with the Catholic Church to exterminate the vestiges of German pagan religion by killing witches. The SS formed a Witch Division, which produced a report alleging that a connection between Jews and Catholics was behind the persecution of witches:

Witches were the “guarantors of German faith” and “natural healers” from the oldest Germanic sagas. . . . To Himmler and his SS colleagues, the Early Modern witchcraft trials therefore represented a “capital crime against the German people”, instigated by the Jews and presided over by the Catholic Church. 

There was nothing original about the SS obsession with witches, a hidden remnant of the old Teutonic religion that Christianity suppressed. Heinrich Heine observed that in the folk-belief in witches, kobolds, ghosts, and poltergeists there lurked the living remnants of surviving German paganism. “Christianity,” he wrote in 1834, “abhorred the old German pagan gods as devils. Out of spite, the old German national religion perversely transformed the pantheistic outlook of the Germans into a pan-demonic view.” Heine added that Christianity

had soothed to some extent this brutal German lust for battle, but could not destroy it, and if ever the Cross—the taming talisman—were to fracture, then the wildness of the old warriors will clatter to the surface, their mad berserkers’ rage . . . and the old stone gods will raise themselves up out of the forgotten dust and rub the dust of a millennium from their eyes, and Thor with his giant hammer will at last rise up and smash the Gothic domes.

Kurlander uses this last citation as an epigraph, poorly translated from a secondary source. It is from Heine’s “Religion and Philosophy in Germany,” perhaps the most widely read German-language essay of the nineteenth century, and (according to Walter Kaufmann) Nietzsche’s principal source. The Nazis believed every manner of strange thing, but the main thing that they believed was no stranger to German thinking: Reversion to paganism had been a dominant theme in German letters and the ideological leitmotif of the works of Richard Wagner, the most influential German cultural figure of the century. (Wagner cribbed the plot of The Flying Dutchman, the first properly “Wagnerian” opera, from a Heine story.) Many forms of madness infested the Nazi mind, but Teutonic paganism with its ancient lineage and long-forecast restoration was its characteristic obsession. Kurlander in that regard misses the Teutonic forest for the trees.

Weimar horror cinema features prominently in Kurlander’s account. “Horror films such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1920), and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (1922) played on prominent esoteric themes and included occultists in the production crew.” After reading Hitler’s Monsters, I watched Wegener’s surviving Golem film and the 1928 version of Hanns Heinz Ewers’s Alraune. Ewers was the Stephen King of his time and a Nazi collaborator; he is an important figure in Kurlander’s story. Alraune and The Golem look like Hallmark family features next to the apocalyptic visions of zombies and demons that flood our visual field, including 2,600 zombie films or television episodes since 1968. Alraune is a female Frankenstein monster with preternatural powers of seduction, and Ewers’s story is derivative of Mary Shelley’s. How important was this in Weimar culture? The horror genre made up 4 percent of Hollywood’s output in 2005, but rose to 12 percent by 2013. Nothing on this scale occurred in Weimar Germany.

The most powerful cultural influence on Hitler came not from the occult fringe, but rather from a long-established current of the cultural mainstream, namely the music dramas of Richard Wagner. “Hitler’s scorched-earth policy during the last months of the war was linked to a personal obsession with ‘his own immolation,’” Kurlander notes. Thus it was “no surprise that Albert Speer, in planning Hitler’s final birthday concert, ‘ordered Brünnhilde’s last aria and the finale of [Wagner’s] Götterdämmerung—a rather bathetic and also melancholy gesture pointing to the end of the Reich.’” Wagner’s influence on Hitler was much greater than that of the World Ice Theorists.

What Kurlander misses, I think, is that pagans and Christians perceive horror from different sides of the mirror. Horror is the norm of the god-haunted pagan world, a creation indifferent or even hostile to humankind. Nowhere in the fevered imagination of the modern West do we find a character more horrific than Lucan’s Erichtho or Grendel in Beowulf. The pagan knows his tribe is fated to extinction. His gods are immortal but not eternal; Zeus knew that one would come to depose him as he deposed Chronos, and the Norse gods awaited their twilight in the Ragnarok. Pagan life is bitter, as Silenus told Midas, because it is futile.

Monsters also peek out of the Bible, remnants of the primeval chaos that God banished in his not-yet-perfected creation. But the biblical response differs from the pagan’s. Psalmist and prophet enjoin the one Creator God to rise up and suppress them. “Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. / Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness,” intones Psalm 74.

The Nazis made themselves into monsters. Goebbels bragged in a 1943 broadcast, “We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.” The Nazis mined the nether side of Weimar culture not only because it resonated with their beliefs, but also because they learned from it methods of social control and military terror. The Nazis employed horror as a weapon both to bind the German people to their cause and to paralyze the will of their opponents. The most horrifying act of National Socialism was the extermination of Europe’s Jews, and the Nazis made no effort to keep the German population in ignorance.

Kurlander argues that “the late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed a reframing and transposition of supernatural thinking from Christianity to occultism, border science, and alternative religion.” Citing anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann, he argues that “the political danger point, whether in fomenting religious fanaticism or fascism, appears to be ‘when people feel themselves to be completely fused with a group defined by its ­sacred values.’”

That depends on the sacred values. The countries of southern Europe abounded with pagan practices and beliefs syncretically embedded in Christianity, but none of them produced Nazism. Freud wrote,

We must not forget that all the peoples who now excel in the practice of antisemitism became Christians only in relatively recent times, sometimes forced to it by bloody compulsion. One might say they are all ‘badly christened’; under the thin veneer of Christianity they have remained what their ancestors were, barbarically polytheistic. They have not yet overcome their grudge against the new religion which was forced on them, and they have projected it on to the source from which Christianity came to them.

Kurlander tries to explain too much by virtue of the occult and ends up explaining too little. “Astrology, clairvoyance, and paranormal activity, Germanic mythology and fairy tales, pagan religious traditions and folk superstition, alternative healing practices and border science—all these cultural phenomena and practices were remarkably widespread in Germany” before 1933. If that is true, then America is in very deep trouble. A wide variety of opinion surveys show that most Americans believe in occult phenomena of some sort, ranging from the 17 percent who believe they have been in contact with spirits of the dead to the 65 percent who believe they have had at least one supernatural (as opposed to a “religious or mystical”) experience, according to a 2009 Pew Survey. Are we turning into Nazis, too?

The answer, I think, is that America’s dabbling in the occult is of an entirely different character than Germany’s existential embrace of paganism. It is a biblical view of horror as an anomaly to be suppressed, rather than pagan acceptance of horror as normative. By contrast, World War I broke the holy circle of God, king, and country; in Germany, it also discredited the secular concept of Kultur, under whose banner Wilhelmine Germany marched to war. In 1914 Germany was Europe’s fastest-growing and strongest country. By 1919 it was territorially truncated and financially ruined. In 1900 the average German woman bore more than four children; in 1933 the total fertility rate fell below replacement for the first time in history. Germany saw the prospect of its eventual demise. The pagan revival that flourished after the French Revolution and the German revolutions of 1848 erupted into national madness. A people that doubts its future has no rational self-interest.

Despite its diffuseness, Kurlander’s book is a reference volume of great value. Its appearance is also timely. Horror has been weaponized once again, in mass terror attacks on civilians, gruesome public executions, and the use of human shields to protect terrorists attacking civilian populations as during the 2014 Gaza war. Both aspects of horror—the despair at defeat and decline, and the waging of war not merely to compel but to horrify—were present with terrible clarity in National Socialism. We ignore the example of the Nazis at our peril.

David P. Goldman is a columnist at Asia Times and a former senior editor of First Things.