Originally published in Magonia 22, May 1986
Jacques Bergier and Louis Pawels’ The Dawn of Magic, first published in 1960, originated many themes that have continued to recur in popular works on occultism and pseudo-science. Not the least influential section of this book was one that reinterpreted the history of Nazi Germany and proclaimed that occult beliefs, ritual magic and contacts with secret societies were central to the thinking of Hitler and his entourage.
Other writers eagerly took up this theme, to produce a body of books that Nicholas Goodrich-Clarke describes in terms that will be familiar to students of ancient astronauts or Bermuda Triangle literature:
“A complete ignorance of the primary literature was common to most authors and wild claims and inaccuracies were repeated by each newcomer to the genre until an abundant literature existed based on wholly spurious `facts’”
Undeterred by this, Mr Goodrich-Clarke has attempted to discover the factual basis behind these claims. In doing so he traces and documents in detail the story of the Ariosophist groups in Germany and Austria from the 1890′s to the early 1930′s. This movement involved three main bases: Guido von List’s Armanenschaft, Lanz von Liebenfels’ New Templars, and Rudolf von Sebottendorf’s Thule Society.
The beliefs of these bodies were similar. The ancient Germanic people had possessed knowledge of occult secrets and ritual magic. The Roman Conquerors and the Church had attempted to suppress this knowledge, but it had never been totally forgotten; during the Christian era its secrets had been hidden in such forms as the symbolism in the coats of arms of the Mediaeval German aristocracy, and the rituals of the Knights Templar. However the nineteenth-century unification of Germany and its emergence as a world power was the beginning of a process of renewal in which the old secrets would be rediscovered.
List, Liebenfels and Sebottendorf all backed up their ideas by eccentric scholarship which possesses quite extraordinary similarities with some more recent fringe beliefs. Von List drew huge patterns on maps to prove that mediaeval churches, and natural features were remains of vast prehistoric sites, in a manner similar to those of present-day earth mysteries researchers. His belief that mediaeval witchcraft concealed pre-Christian mysteries forced underground by a rapacious Church is held today by mystically inclined feminists. Von Liebenfels’ contention that the Old Testament contained cryptic references to a sinister ancient orgiastic cult that promoted sex between superior and inferior races recalls John M. Allegro’s attempts to find evidence in the Bible for another mysterious orgiastic ancient cult, this time based on hallucinogenic drugs.
Van List’s belief that mediaeval witchcraft concealed pre-Christian mysteries forced underground by a rapacious Church is held today by mystically inclined feminists
The similarities between many of the ideas of the Ariosophists and Nazism are clear. As well as believing in German racial superiority, the Ariosophists were also antisemitic and in 1905 von Liebenfels was already advocating genocide. However, there were also many points of difference. The Ariosophists believed that the new era would be ushered in by the work of a small, secret elite, whereas the Nazis advocated mass political action. Nazism made a demagogic appeal to the working class, while many of the Ariosophists had, like other nineteenth century racists, believed that not only non-Europeans but their own working classes were racially inferior. The Nazis surpassed Freemasonry, whereas the Ariosophists believed that its rituals preserved the ancient Germanic mysteries. (In 1935 the remaining Ariosophists, like the Masons, fell victim to the Nazi proscription of secret societies).
Is it possible to trace direct connections between the Ariosophists and the Nazis, as has been claimed? To some extent it is. Himmler took many Ariosophist ideas seriously and maintained a research bureau on such matters, presided over by K. M. Wiligut, a self proclaimed psychic archeologist, whom he promoted to general rank in the SS; but Himmler’s interest in these matters was widely regarded as eccentric even by the rest of the Nazi hierarchy. However it does seem likely that Hitler met von Liebenfels on one occasion in pre-1914 Vienna. He may have been familiar with the writings of von List, and there is no doubt that the swastika was first used as an emblem by Ariosophists. However, all of this does certainly not serve, as is sometime alleged, to establish occultism, still less Satanism, as is sometimes sensationally claimed, as the real force behind the Nazi Party, any more than one might make a similar claim for the British Labour Party, on the basis of the involvement of the Theosophist Annie Besant in the Fabian Society, or the Spiritualist beliefs of Kier Hardie and the Swedenborgian ones of Ramsey Macdonald.
The ideas the Ariosophists shared with the Nazis, such as antisemitism and a belief in racial superiority were common ones in the nineteenth century. The main distinctive strand in Nazi beliefs that may be regarded as having been transmitted by the Ariosophists was its apocalyptic overview. Von List had based part of his ideas on mediaeval German beliefs of the coming Emperor (often identified with a resurrected Frederick Barbarossa) who would slaughter the Jews and other enemies of God, and institute a Messianic kingdom. (These ideas and their influence on peasant revolts in the Middle Ages are described in detail in Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium.) It is scarcely fanciful to see ideas of the ‘thousand year Reich’ and the ‘final solution’ as twentieth century apocalyptic ideas; but apocalyptic beliefs are part of a Christian tradition rather than an occult one, and today are being maintained in the US by those who proclaim themselves foes of occultism and Satanism.
Nicholas Goodrich-Clarke’s study concentrates very specifically on occult beliefs, and has little to say about alleged Nazi interest in pseudo-scientific ideas such as eccentric cosmology, another subject in which many undocumented claims have been made and where genuine research might prove interesting. Ellic Howe’s study of astrology in the Third Reich provides a look at part of this territory. Tales of Hitler consulting astrologers seem to be without foundation. There certainly was a strong German astrological movement in the early ‘thirties which saw a battle between traditionalists and those who wanted to create an explicitly Nazi astrological movement, but this situation was no different from what happened in the arts, the churches and universities.
One one occasion Hitler did send a message to a national astrological conference, but this seems to have consisted of the sort of generalities that a totalitarian head of state might send to any national gathering, and did not stop official suppression of much astrological literature.When World War II began, German intelligence did enlist the services of astrologers, but this seems largely to provide technical assistance for the production of bogus almanacs and editions of Nostradamus circulated in occupied Europe purporting to foretell German victory. Individual Nazi chiefs had an interest in astrology, but it is not clear that these were any more significant than the astrological beliefs of Mackenzie King, the Canadian wartime P.M., or the Spiritualist beliefs of RAF chief Lord Dowding.
It does seem to be true that experiments were made to discover if British ships at sea might be located by map dowsing, but ironically this seems to have been provoked by inaccurate reports that British intelligence used such methods – a situation rather similar to what appears to be the reality behind the so-called ‘psychic arms race’ between Russia and America.
In addition to his study of astrology under the Nazis, Howe’s book also gives a very interesting account of the nineteenth century background to contemporary astrology. For reasons that are not really clear, astrology seems to have survived in Britain throughout the nineteenth century in the world of popular publishing, largely aimed at the working class, with some overlap with the fields of working class self-education and popular science. By contrast, on the continent astrology died out entirely in mid-century, to be revived as a preoccupation of wealthy occultist intellectuals with the emergence of theosophy. (Interestingly, Howe also shows that the idea of the tarot pack having occult significance seems, far from being ‘traditional lore’, to have originated in the same circles at the same time.)
Both these books show that the study of occult-type ideas and their influence are interesting and significant parts of contemporary history. (Indeed, the influence of Theosophy on twentieth century ideas seems to be a subject of more importance than is generally realised.) Perhaps with what appears to be a slackening off of worthless paperbacks on this field, this branch of study may attract more serious work.