Nazis and the Occult
Explanations of Hitler crisscross like tracks in a railroad switch yard. “Functionalist” historians see the Holocaust as moving along a bureaucratic track with inevitable momentum. “Intentionalist” historians focus on the ghastly ideological rationales behind the murder of six million Jews.
An original of a typewritten letter from Hitler, dated September 16, 1919, was recently put on display at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
In the letter, Hitler — years before he wrote Mein Kampf (1925) — described the Jews as a subhuman “bacillus” whose “irrevocable removal” was necessary for the health of the German nation. Hitler did not outline the means he had in mind, but we know what eventually occurred was the genocidal murder of European Jewry.
But was anything other than pathological antisemitism behind the coldblooded savagery of the Third Reich?
One possibility is that belief in occult “knowledge of the hidden” shaped Nazi fanaticism.
The occult movement in Germany encompassed spiritualism, theosophy, and “New Age” doctrines promising knowledge not accessible by scientific means — all through astrology, alchemy, paranormal demonstrations, and seances to communicate with the dead.
Rather like Henry Ford’s assembly line, modern German occultism was first imported from America, where widows whose husbands died in the Civil War wanted to communicate with them. Helena Blavatsky, a Russian psychic, announced her “Secret Doctrine” in New York City. Named theosophy, it was Blavatsky’s revelation of an unexplored cosmic realm about which “mahatmas,” or hidden masters centered in Tibet, told her that human evolution through seven “root races” would culminate in a new era of spiritual fulfillment and universal tolerance.
Blavatsky’s marrying of 19th century spiritualism to ancient mythology appealed to people alienated from orthodox Christianity, who feared that modern science was stripping individuals of their immortal souls. It found converts in Germany, unified by Bismarck in 1871 but still struggling to find its place in the world order.
In theory, theosophy was nonsectarian, cosmopolitan, and unconcerned with national boundaries. However, in Austria and Germany, ultra-nationalists like Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, who coined the term Ariosophy (“wisdom of the Aryans”), racialized theosophy into an antisemitic cult of Teutonic superiority predicated on the emergence of a world-conquering “German Savior.”
As Germany lost World War I, an embittered clique of German Ariosophists founded the Thule Society (Thule was a mythical land to the far north) to propagandize the German masses. They provided meeting space and financing for the German Workers’ Party that Hitler in 1920 rechristened as the Nazi Party.
Hitler was superstitious, but not a committed occultist despite his belief in cancer-causing “earth rays.” The Thule Society reinforced Hitler’s monomaniacal antisemitism. Yet his relationship with it was tangential — unlike occultists who formed his inner circle.
Deputy Nazi Party leader Rudolph Hess slept with a magnet over his bed to ward off evil influences. Heinrich Himmler had his own “natural healer” and astrologer, and allowed mentally unhinged seer Karl Maria Wiligut to create the SS’s rituals. But when Hess, in June 1941, parachuted into Scotland in hopes of ending the war, the Nazi establishment, led by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, used this as an excuse to suppress the German occultist movement, including the Ariosophists.
Contrary to Steven Spielberg’s film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, evidence is lacking that occult doctrines shaped Hitler’s decisions, though members of the Thule Society had inflamed his antisemitism. From first to last, Nazis truly believed in Germany as a hammer to crush the Jews.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).