History: Hitler's Monsters, Eric Kurlander, Yales, hardback, 448 pages, €35
Belief in pseudoscience extended across the Nazi high command, from the Führer's search for 'death rays' to Goebbels reading Nostradamus in bed.
This is a dense and scholarly book about one of the pulpiest subjects of the past 70 years - the relationship between the Nazi party and the occult, which has been much debated across popular culture both in fiction (Captain America: Civil War, Hellboy, Wolfenstein, the Indiana Jones series, Iron Sky, The Keep and countless others) and in innumerable schlocky works of pseudoscience with runes and swastikas on the covers.
As it turns out, though, even this sober, academic treatment of the topic reveals stranger-than-fiction truths on every page.
Here are a few of them. In the 1930s, Hitler made extensive notes on a book called Magic: Theory, History, Practice and underlined passages such as "He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world". In 1934, the year after he was appointed chancellor of Germany, he hired a dowser to go over the Reich Chancellery in search of "death rays" that might damage staff in the building. He and Himmler held frequent conversations about "the World Empire of Atlantis, which fell victim to the catastrophe of the moons falling to Earth" and about a discredited pseudoscience called Welteislehre, or World Ice Theory, which taught that the cosmos was made of ice and which they saw as a "Germanic" counterbalance to the "Jewish" theory of relativity.
All across the Nazi high command, in fact, esoteric belief was rife. Goebbels read Nostradamus in bed. Rudolf Hess was into homoeopathy and herbalism, and employed a personal dowser and astrologer. Other advocates of "radiesthesia" - the supernatural capacity to locate objects with rods and pendulums - included Julius Streicher, governor of Nuremberg and editor of the Nazi paper Der Sturmer, and Richard Walther Darré, head of the Race Settlement Office.
All these men were also fascinated by biodynamic agriculture, a mystical farming concept borrowed from Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophist movement which the Nazis believed would provide "harmony between blood, soil and cosmos". Many high-ranking Nazis were also enthusiasts for Eastern mysticism - Indian myths, Tibetan spirituality, Japanese warrior codes - which they saw as the lost teaching of an ancient, Aryan race.
Himmler, the head of the SS, went farthest, setting up the Ahnenerbe - the Institute for Ancestral Research - which combed Germany and occupied Europe for records and folklore to support his ideas of Aryan heredity. The SS had a witch division, responsible for bringing home evidence of witch trials and wizardry: witches, Himmler argued, represented an old Germanic religion that had been cruelly wiped out by Judeo-Christian religion (with the emphasis on the Judeo). In his castle at Wewelsburg, which was fitted out like the occult lair of a knightly order, he employed an elderly sage called Wiligut who claimed to be descended from gods. In return for copious rations of drugs and booze, Wiligut, who went by the name Weisthor (Wise-Thor) would provide stories about telepathic deities, ancestral white supermen and a time when "giants, dwarves and mythical beasts moved about beneath a sky filled with three suns".
The Nazi high command was wedded to these peculiar mixtures of science and occultism, whose history Eric Kurlander deftly traces in German popular thought from the 19th century onwards. As early as 1904, he notes, the leaders of the volkisch movement were hoisting swastika flags, advocating race war with "Judah" and promoting bizarre blends of Germanic folklore and the science-fictional occult. In the fertile imaginative soil of the post-Versailles period, among a people desperate for hope and self-definition, supernatural and occult ideas of all kinds sprouted freely.
Co-opted by the Nazis as part of a generalised desire to create a "Germanic" national identity, they rapidly became political orthodoxy, meaning that by the time of World War II, anyone who professed an adherence to Grenzwissenschaft - "border science", or what we would today call pseudoscience - was likely to go far.
During the battle of the Atlantic, for example, a U-boat captain by the name of Hans Roeder became convinced that the Allies must be using dowsing, or "radiesthesia", to locate and sink German submarines. The reality (radar, sonar and cracking the Enigma code) was far more prosaic, but instead of being laughed out of command, Roeder was handed a substantial budget to set up the Pendulum Institute in Berlin.
A large map of the Atlantic was spread out on a table, and a toy battleship placed on it. Then "a pendulum, consisting of a cube of metal about one cubic centimetre and a short string, was swung above the battleship. If the pendulum reacted, it proved the presence of a true battleship at that location." Dowsers continued to operate throughout World War II. In 1943, Himmler was still employing pendulum-swingers to search rivers for the mythical Rheingold. Kurlander's book charts a judicious path through this wildest of territory, finding traces of the occult in Nazi film, mass media, and, most chillingly, in the preparations for the Holocaust. And it has a sting in the tail.
A concluding chapter takes note of the current "renaissance in supernatural reasoning, shadowy conspiracy theories, extraterrestrial powers" combined with "fantasies of a racially pure, immigrant (Islam)-free Europe" - a climate of pseudoscience, anti-intellectualism and delusion not unlike the Nazis' own. Hitler's monsters, it seems, aren't just Hitler's. You close the book, and look over your shoulder.