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

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Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich. Eric Kurlander. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.


Reading Eric Kurlander’s Hitler’s Monsters awoke my memory of working with Detlev Clemens on another Eric, Voegelin’s Hitler and the Germans lectures, and sent me back to one of the books Kurlander refers to, Klaus Vondung’s 1971 Magie und Manipulation: Ideologischer Kult und politische Religion des Nationalsozialismus. Voegelin’s key diagnostic tool in Hitler and the Germans is the same as Robert Musil’s, “stupidity”:

“‘The higher stupidity,’ [Musil] says, ‘presumes to accomplishments to which it has no right.’ So here comes the element of presumptuousness, of hybris, of spiritual arrogance. Higher, or intelligent, stupidity is a disturbance in the equilibrium of the spirit. The spirit now becomes the adversary, not the mind. It is not a defect of the mind as with simple people, but a defect of the spirit, a revolt against the spirit, which gives rise to saying or doing things against the spirit. Therefore this condition of higher stupidity is not a spiritual sickness in the sense of psychopathology, but something quite different. We need here an expression not used by Musil but available in German analyses of the matter since Schelling. Schelling already used the expression “pneumopathology” for spiritual disturbances of this kind” (Hitler and the Germans, 101).

In Voegelin’s lecture, “The German University and the Order of German Society: A Reconsideration of the Nazi Era,” given at Munich a year after his “Hitler and the Germans” lectures in 1964, he proposes an even more acute diagnosis of that period: “Through spirit man actualizes his potential to partake of the divine.” Using Heraclitean terminology, Voegelin speaks of the man estranged from the spirit as an idiotes, yielding as analytical tools the opposed pairs of openness to the divine and estrangement from it which characterize an epoch with the Nazi period as one where  such closed spirits become socially dominant.

Since Kurlander’s 422 page study is incredibly detailed, I’ll limit myself to selections here and there to try to convey his overall theme. He briefly surveys the literature on his topic, particularly Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890–1935 (1985 and reprinted, also in many translations). He notes how the critical pendulum has swung from asserting a major to a minor role for the various occult cults thriving under Nazism. To an extent, he considers his study, if not restoring the key importance of the occult to the Nazi movement, at least to appreciating its serious effects (xiv).

In his Introduction, Kurlander refers to “the vast reservoir of supernatural thinking . . . as the ‘supernatural imaginary’”—which he compares to Charles Taylor’s notion of a “social imaginary,” which for Taylor refers to the core images and ideas underlying people’s social existence (xvi). Hitler’s Monsters “is organized in three chronological parts composed of three chapters each.”

“Part One traces the role of supernatural thinking in the Nazi party from its intellectual antecedents in the late nineteenth century through to its seizure of power in 1933.” Its three chapters discuss the Ario-Germanic religion, the pseudo-science called “border science” here up to 1914; from that period to 1924 “the connections between late-Wilhelmine occult organizations” like the German Order and the Thule Society and the early Nazi party; and how the Nazi party manipulated supernatural ideas, using occultists and horror writings for political propaganda.

“Part Two focuses on the role of supernatural thinking during the first six years of the Third Reich.” This part first examines “the regime’s policies towards occultists in the early to middle years of the Third Reich,” including “the persistence of magic, astrology, and other supernatural practices during the war.” He follows this by consideration of many Nazis’ promotion of “border science” and astrology between 1933 and 1941. Finally, Kurlander “surveys the Nazis’ interest in Germanic paganism, witchcraft, Luciferianism, and Eastern spirituality” in their quest to replace Christianity with an “Ario-Germanic alternative” (xxi).

“Part Three examines the role of supernatural thinking during the Second World War” (xxi). First he “evaluates the influence of the supernatural imaginary on the Third Reich’s conception of foreign policy, investment in fanciful weaponry, and use of astrology… and telepathy in prosecuting the war.” Then he treats of the use of pseudo-science and the supernatural “in the Third Reich’s approach to anti-Semitism, human experimentation and ethnic cleansing.” The last chapter “looks at the regime’s increasingly desperate if futile investment in “miracle weapons… and cataclysmic ‘twilight’ imagery during the final years of the war” (xxii).

The first chapter of the book, “The Supernatural Roots of Nazism,” opens with a young man dropping into the Vienna office of leading “ariosophist” Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels in 1909, looking to order back copies of Lanz’s magazine, Ostara. Lanz’s “ariosophy” prophesied the “resurgence of a lost Aryan civilization peopled by Nordic ‘God Men’.” Lanz, moved by the sympathetic earnestness of the young man, presented him with back copies of Ostara and even gave him the price of a streetcar home. According to Lanz’s 1951 memoir, the young man was Adolf Hitler (3). Kurlander notes that corresponding to the decline of traditional religion in Germany and Austria there was a seeking for meaning and spirituality in ancient myths and heroes, in opposition to French rationalism and English pragmatism (5).

In the same year as Hitler’s unsuccessful putsch, Moeller van den Bruck’s The Third Reich, argued “for a political revolution founded on a mix of German Christianity and paganism, völkisch nationalism, and a German form of socialism.” Its “prophetic nationalism intertwined well with late-Wilhelmine science fiction works” (11). Along with these various blends of the irrational was Friedrich Ratzel’s writing on Lebensraum—a desired for Eastern expansion of a Greater German Empire, which would later justify any aggression, even if Ratzel himself didn’t necessarily endorse wars of conquest (12).

Kurlander’s discussion of the “Austro-German Occult Revival” includes Madame Blavatsky’s theosophy and Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy. I wouldn’t at all be as charitable as Kurlander when he sees theosophy as constituting “a genuine attempt to combine natural science and supernaturalism, rationalism and mysticism, in a quintessentially ‘modern’ answer to the spiritual dilemmas of the industrial age” (15). While Blavatsky believed theosophists were forming “the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color,” they nonetheless privileged the lost civilization of Atlantis, somehow related to Hindu and Buddhist mythologies of a race residing under the Himalayas—while later Blavatsky followers like Lanz saw Atlantis as “a North Atlantic island civilization of Thule,” which later “found its way… into the Nazi theories on race and space” (16f). Steiner “asserted the superiority of white Europeans, claiming that “in the grand cycle of spiritual evolution, the Germanic race had evolved the furthest” (19). So that Kurlander can write that “Ariosophy and anthroposophy may have informed the broader supernatural imaginary that helped make Germans susceptible to Nazism” (20). Steiner’s “biodynamic agriculture” based on “restoring the quasi-mystical relationship between earth and the cosmos” was widely accepted in the Third Reich (28).

In a section on “Border Science” (translating Grenzwissenschaft, a euphemistic piece of self-labelling which at best should be called called “pseudo-“ or “crackpot-science”), Kurlander discusses “Parapsychology and Astrology,” “Radiesthesia” (use of dowser rods to protect from harmful radiation) and “World Ice Theory” (originating in a dream by Austrian engineer Hanns Hörbiger, which explained “[g]ravity, the rotation of the planets and various interstellar phenomena…through interactions between primordial satellites made of ice” (30). Various of these imaginings were taken seriously by leading Nazis Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess, who also, along with Hitler, practised vegetarianism (see 146).

Ernst Schertel, fired in 1918 as a high-school teacher for promoting “man on man love,” went on to write erotic novels and in 1923, Magic: History–Theory–Practice. Hitler annotated his own copy, including heavily marked passages like “He who does not carry demonic seeds with him will never give birth to a new world” (64). Kurlander further remarks that:

“In his reading of Schertel, Hitler seized immediately on one of the central tenets of parapsychology: the power of the will in appealing to the collective unconscious. The magician did not have to seek the support of a ‘people’ (Volk) whose ‘good’ he would have to ‘serve,’ Hitler underscored, but in order to garner power (‘an enlargement of his I-sphere’). Should people ‘not seem reactive enough,’ should they lose faith in their leader, Schertel added, the magician had every right to abandon them as Christ abandoned the Jews” (69).

Kurlander gives the testimonies of many witnesses to Hitler’s medium-like qualities, with former and for a short time leading Nazi, Hermann Rauschning recalling, “I have again and again come under a spell which I was only later able to shake off, a sort of hypnosis” (71). Another former Nazi, Otto Strasser spoke of Hitler as a “clairvoyant,” who went into a trance when addressing the public. Kurlander quotes Strasser: “‘That is the moment of real greatness,’ Strasser explained, ‘carried away by a mystic force, he cannot doubt the genuineness of his mission . . . with a certainty with which no conscious gift would endow him, to act as a loudspeaker, proclaiming the most secret desires, the least admissible instincts, the sufferings and personal revolts of a whole nation’” (71).

Part One of the book concludes with journalist Rudolf Olden’s essays published under the heading of Prophets in the German Crisis: The Miraculous or the Enchanted. He saw the half of the population that came to support Nazism as conditioned by:

“‘thousands of ‘small’ prophets both inside and outside the NSDAP… the theosophists, the anthroposophists, the miracle rabbis…the death rays, the three thousand magicians who live in Berlin alone . . . the diviners . . . the astrologers . . . the many sects, political and medical miracle makers . . . the belief in witchcraft is growing . . . parapsychologists . . . proponents of esoteric science . . . .occultists, who speak of unknown powers . . . that stream out of the Führer’” (94).

Kurlander quotes Klaus Vondung and others, who argue that “Nazism was not in itself religious but appropriated mystical symbols and ritual forms to create a secular ‘political religion’ based on a shared faith in racial community.”  He goes on to say that “the Third Reich embraced a range of pagan, esoteric, and Indo-Aryan religious doctrines that buttressed its racial, political and ideological goals . . . This eclectic appropriation of Ario-Germanic and Indo-Aryan religions cannot be dismissed as a pet project of Heinrich Himmler or Rudolf Hess.” Along with the unholy minestrone of occult, New Age and other esoteric influences already mentioned, they were exploited to build “spiritual consensus across a diverse Nazi Party and an even more eclectic German population” (163–64). While Reichsführer Himmler was more committed to a religion that would substitute for Christianity than Hitler or Goebbels, Kurland considers that “many, perhaps most” Nazi leaders shared Himmler’s views, a “fundamental anti-Christianity, which separated Nazism from other fascist movements in Italy, Spain or France” (193–94).

What Kurlander calls “supernatural thinking” had little to do with the genesis and course of the Second World War, however it did provide ideological justification for the Third Reich’s foreign policy. Hitler himself “tapped into his own intuition” rather than into practical reasoning, for his foreign policy decisions, appealing to “the German people’s collective unconscious.” His Propaganda Ministry and Foreign Office “employed professional astrologers and diviners to produce wartime propaganda,” and the regime also “utilized occultism and border science to gather military intelligence, search for enemy battleships, and train Nazi soldiers” (198).

In his chapter on “Monstrous Science: Racial Resettlement, Human Experiments, and the Holocaust,” Kurlander notes that:

“As the Nazi academic Ernst Anrich observed, there were two strains at work in the Third Reich, one “materialist racist” and another “spiritual-racist (völkisch)” in character . . . for most Nazis there were mutually reinforcing elements in their völkisch-organicist conception of race. Nazi experiments on human beings, though inspired by eugenical thinking popular across Europe, were given additional impetus by border scientific theories grounded in völkisch esotericism and Indo-Aryan fantasies” (241).

Not unlike contemporary pro-abortion activists who have difficulty seeing their inconsistency in rightly defending animals from any kind of cruelty, Kurlander tells us that Himmler’s masseur, Felix Kersten “asked his boss directly how he could abhor killing and experimentation on animals with enlisting human beings in bizarre experiments and slaughtering them in gas chambers. Himmler replied that Jews and Slavs, unlike animals, were biologically inferior and physically dangerous, while science would benefit from the results of SS research” (250).

Kurlander considers the various elements leading to the Holocaust, including Nazi anti-Semitism as “a byproduct of racist and social-Darwinist theories extant across Europe from the late nineteenth century. From this perspective the Jews were merely the most dangerous biological threat to the German body politic.” But there was also “the magical background,” what Jonathan Steinberg calls “the power of racial dogmas and the almost mystical crusade” grounding Nazi anti-Semitism. Kurlander continues: “Without the decades-long process of demonizing the Jews not only in traditionally Christian terms but also pagan and occultist ones, the radical conception and solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ would most likely not have occurred” (252). He concludes the chapter by saying that “Only by associating Jews with vampiric, parasitic, almost superhuman opponents locked in a centuries-old conspiracy to destroy the Aryan race could the Nazis lay the conceptual groundwork” for the Holocaust (262).

Kurlander heads his final chapter “Nazi Twilight: Miracle Weapons, Supernatural Partisans, and the Collapse of the Third Reich,” with a comment from Albert Speer in 1944 when Minister of Armaments and War Production in a speech to leading arms producers. Speer told them that he “would not like us to fall into the psychosis that ascribes too much meaning to the new [miracle] weapons” (263). This chapter has sections on “Miracle Weapons and Border Science in the Pursuit of Final Victory,” where, despite Speer’s admonishments to Goebbels to refrain from spreading false rumours (270), there was much talk of death rays and anti-gravity, Nazi werewolves to counteract partisan vampires. And in the final months, there was recourse to the Old Norse myth of the Edda and its account of Ragnarok, its prophecy of the twilight and doom of the gods, in which leading Nazis like Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann and East Prussian Gauleiter Erich Koch, believed (286ff.). They extrapolated to “the idea of a final battle, a twilight of the gods, in which every German must take part” (295).

The book’s conclusion points to the threat similar “supernatural thinking” poses for any polity in our time: “This phenomenon is evident globally, whether in the emergence of activist and neo-fascist (‘alt-right’) groups across Europe and the United States or the exponential spread and politicization of fundamentalist Islam.” For Kurlander, “every culture has its own supernatural imaginary, which can, in times of crisis, begin to displace more empirically grounded, nuanced arguments about the challenges that define our socio-political and geopolitical reality” (299–300). While I’d prefer Voegelin’s more technical use of “stupidity” to Kurlander’s “supernatural thinking,” I wouldn’t limit its application to the tired categories of neo-fascist, never mind the fleeting “alt-right” groups, since surely every Communist and Communist-inspired government the 20th and 21st centuries have been burdened with have equalled suffered from radical eclipses of reality.

Voegelin in his Hitler and the Germans lectures refers to magic and witchcraft:

“To set up an analogy to the modern period of decline, Doderer in The Demons turns back to the late Middle Ages. Witchcraft is often assigned to the Middle Ages; in fact, it’s a phenomenon of the late Middle Ages and particularly of the modern era. The first outbreaks of witchcraft occur in 1434 to 1445 and in the 1480s; then in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, with occurrences as late as the nineteenth century. Witchcraft is an outbreak of the second reality. There’s a continuum from witchcraft to National Socialism, which is what Doderer is grappling with. In the article “Witchcraft” in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, you can read that witchcraft didn’t exist in the High Middle Ages. In a Christian society, one believes in God, not in witches. Whoever believes in witches is a heretic. Belief in witches first became possible through the development of an extensive demonology” (254–55).

Kurlander’s work has to be congratulated on what seems as exhaustive account of the esoteric materials relevant to Nazism as could be assembled in one volume. Its subtitle, “A Supernatural History of the Third Reich” could have been tightened up, since it’s certainly not a supernatural but a descriptive account of the Third Reich’s embrace of the various forms of occultism it covers. The study I’d suggest could helpfully have been beefed up with a stronger diagnosis of the anti-rational, anti-truth nature of the phenomena he’s dealing with. And some of his key terms, like “supernatural,” require reworking, because the notion of the supernatural is a technical elaboration of medieval theology, while its contemporary usage has less intellectual sharpness. Since “border science” is as much as an advertising slogan as “National Socialism” was, I suggest it should always be collared by scare quotes.

Most readers of VoegelinView will be familiar with Voegelin’s “The German University and the Order of German Society” essay, where he draws on Nietzsche’s contrast between descriptive and critical history. For Nietzsche, “only one who in a present emergency is in imminent danger of being crushed, and who seeks relief at any cost, has the need for critical, that is, evaluative and judgmental history.” And, for Voegelin, what Nietzsche meant by critical history has to do with “the judgment of a past epoch that arises from a new spirit.

In order to pursue critical history, therefore, it is not enough to speak differently—one must be differently. Being differently, however, is not something which is brought about by foraging in the horrors of the past; rather, on the contrary, it is the revolution of the spirit which is the precondition for being able to judge the past critically.”[1] With this in mind, I’d suggest that Kurlander’s fine work could gain from being formulated within a worked out philosophical anthropology of the sort Voegelin indirectly sketches in his Hitler and the Germans.



[1] Eric Voegelin, “The German University and the Order of German Society.” In The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 12: Published Essays, 1966–1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 3–4.

Brendan Purcell

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Brendan Purcell is a Board Member of VoegelinView and an Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University in Sydney. He is author of several books, including From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (New City, 2012).