In Hitler's Monsters, a forthcoming book about Nazis and the supernatural, scholar Eric Kurlander examines how Hitler's rise exploited a public fixation with the occult and paganism. More than a record of how, say, a few Third Reichers followed their astrology charts into disaster, the book depicts a culture whose rejection of natural science in favor of faith-based "border sciences" allowed its leaders to mythologize their beliefs in racial superiority. Border science, as distinct from pseudoscience, was a term adopted by 1930s occultists to cover fields like parapsychology, astrology, or clairvoyance that suddenly found favor with Hitler's fact-averse government.
Kurlander quotes pro-Nazi writer Gottfried Benn, who observed, "There tended to be a regression in intellectual advances while those grasping for power… reached backwards in search of mythical continuity." In Nazi Germany, this meant werewolves, a preference for magic over science, and the influential Thule Society, which traced the Aryan race back to a lost continent, or what Kurlander collectively refers to as "the supernatural imaginary."
Hitler's Monsters, which will be published on July 18 by Yale University Press, is the story of a romantic movement—the populist völkisch movement—gone terribly awry, as paramilitary groups coopted magic and religion and effectively banished reality, instead embracing "fantasies of racial faith" like Hanns Hörbiger's World Ice Theory, which postulated that huge blocks of celestial ice were at the root of all natural science and explained human history. Kurlander also records the attempts of leaders like Reinhard Heinrich to expel occultists from the Party, which proved impossible given that the science-averse Nazi religion depended on superstition to justify itself.
Far from the Hollywood depiction of Nazi sorcerers (Indiana Jones, Wolfenstein 3D, Marvel's Hydra) or Britain's harmless-by-comparison Golden Dawn, Nazi magic and mysticism was something far more insidious: an ideology immune to logical contradiction and capable of shaping a faith-based populism rooted in the idea of a common myth and a shared destiny. When I recently spoke to Kurlander over the phone, it became clear that his project was not an idle arcane history of the kind that fills occult bookstores, but a prescient document of how a nation in crisis could come to prefer its own myth over reality, and reap the consequences.
VICE: So, how much did Hitler and the Nazis actually believe in werewolves and vampires?
Eric Kurlander: There's evidence that many Germans and certainly some leading Nazis believed in supernatural beings and forces, especially in the distant past. Not that everyone in the party really believed in vampires and werewolves, I'm not going so far as to say that, only that there's a reason that they chose these tropes and the British and Americans, at least at that time, did not. Can you imagine Roosevelt or Churchill calling a major military operation Project Werewolf?
For us, monsters are almost purely a pulp phenomenon. People going around in gothic makeup don't really think that vampires represented the "degenerate" Slavic or Jewish races who flooded in from the East to suck Germany dry of resources and contaminate Aryan blood. For the Nazis, however, there were good monsters like the werewolves—folkloric monsters of blood and soil who protected the nation at times of stress—and there were bad monsters, like vampires, who were never merely metaphorical.
"Even Reich minister of propaganda [Joseph] Goebbels put together a team of astrologers to create Nostradamus-based propaganda for use in foreign policy."
Do you have a sense of why these occult practices flourished in Germany in particular?
There's a general trend toward a post-traditional spiritualism or transcendentalism in France and Britain (and there are many good books that look at those movements in parallel to Germany). The difference I think is that it was more privatized and apolitical. The kind of theosophy popular in America around this time would normally go on in your drawing room, in the woods, or an artist's community. The [spiritual philosophy of] anthroposophy of occultist Rudolf Steiner, for example––which did find some inroads in Great Britain and America––didn't become so politicized or racialized as it did in Germany and Austria.
Could you talk about how frost giants and World Ice Theory tie into all this?
The fascinating thing in the Central European supernatural imaginary is that all that worldwide interest in things like Atlantis or the search for the Holy Grail get racialized and hierarchized into ideas like the existence of the lost continent of Ultima Thule, or Hyperborea, which plays into grand historical narratives of Aryan racial purity. Norse traditions like frost giants found their way into World Ice Theory, which Hitler and Himmler wanted to adopt as the official cosmology of Germany, and some contemporaries suggest led to Hitler not properly equipping his soldiers on the eastern front, since Nordic peoples were ostensibly more immune to cold.
You write about how völkisch thinking, or traditional German myth and culture, drew from the Brothers Grimm, the idea of woods full of magicians and devils.
I don't want to suggest there's some straight line from talking about the völkisch mythology and the supernatural thinking that led to Nazism, but the two do intertwine. The question becomes, "How does the völkisch thought become appropriated by some supernatural thinkers?" Once you go down that path of resorting to border science and esotericism to resolve complicated questions of race and ethno-historical origin, there's a conscious appropriation of the principles of supernatural thinking. Because you can use them to rationalize or "prove," so to speak, their racial thinking. And so a whole mélange of racist and imperialist thought is tied together by a border scientific or esoteric epistemology.
So was this a case of the Nazi leaders simply appropriating a convenient ideology?
Yes, in many respects. The actual content of these doctrines became widely popular in Germany and Austria, and many were tolerated or even tentatively adopted by the Third Reich: parapsychological belief in telepathy, astrology, water dowsing, for example. Because you're now in the realm of esoteric thinking where "Jewish" materialism and "close-minded" rationalism doesn't matter, you're more open to ideas about a thousand-year-old Reich and a racial "science" and so on. It wasn't like Einstein or Freud or Heisenberg were arguing that the jury was still out on "border science." Mainstream scientists by that point are saying, "C'mon, there's no evidence for this," especially outside of Germany. But that just allowed Nazi leaders like Himmler to say, "You're being intolerant of alternate views."
"Some contemporaries suggest [the Nordic tradition of frost giants and World Ice Theory] led to Hitler not properly equipping his soldiers on the eastern front, since Nordic peoples were ostensibly more immune to cold."
Does this mean we should look upon astrology as more than an innocent superstition?
That's a great question. In 1941, you see a great deal of internal disagreement within the Nazi party over astrology regarding exactly this question. It's not just Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess, who flew to Scotland to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom because his astrologer told him to. The [Nazi leader Heinrich] Himmler enlisted the advice of an astrologer named William Wulf, a failed artist who only became a professional astrologist because he was reading da Vinci's journals and figured he could make some money. Even Reich minister of propaganda [Joseph] Goebbels, who was supposed to be one of the more sober Nazi leaders, saw the value in all this effort to enlist astrology for political purposes, putting together a team of astrologers to create Nostradamus-based propaganda for use in foreign policy.
What are the misconceptions in depiction of the Nazi infatuation with the occult that you want to clear up?
The problem is people who talk about the Holocaust and then fetishize it into some kind of poetic event that transcends all history, in which case you can't trace any lessons, compare it to other genocides or prevent future ones because it is outside of history. And by creating a caricature of Nazi occultism that is outside of all reality, we can't learn any lessons that might help us anticipate the same kind of problems today.
"There are many similarities between the arguments we're seeing on the alt-right and among religious fundamentalists today and the doctrines that helped facilitate Nazism a century ago."
What is the lesson you would like us to take from the Nazi's use of mythology as a tool of propaganda?
I think it shows that, in times of crisis, supernatural and faith-based thinking masquerading as "scientific" solutions to real problems helps facilitate the worst kind of political and social outcomes. I'm not trying to say it is an exclusively right-wing phenomenon—fascism, after all, has elements of left-wing thinking, too—only that conservatives and liberals alike might do well to recognize how the kinds of arguments being made on the "alt-right," or among people who want to make sociopolitical decisions based on faith instead of empirical evidence, can end in terms of increasingly radical, totalizing projects toward an ethnic or religious other. There are many similarities between the arguments we're seeing on the alt-right and among religious fundamentalists today and the doctrines that helped facilitate Nazism a century ago.
Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, the Culture Trip, the New York Times, and the New Republic.
Hitler's Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich by Eric Kurlander will be published on July 18 by Yale University Press.