Sixty-nine years ago today, on April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker beneath the ruins of Berlin. This act effectively ended the Nazi regime and World War II in Europe. It hasn’t escaped the notice of many people, especially in the last 50 or so years, that Hitler’s suicide occurred on the old pagan holiday of Walpurgisnacht, the spring festival of Germanic Europe that traditionally celebrates the end of winter. Due to its association with pre-Christian religions of Europe, Walpurgisnacht is sometimes associated with occultism, witchcraft and similar milieu. So, it seems, is the Nazi regime itself, a perceived link that has proven to be very pervasive in popular culture and belief.
Nazi occultism is an extremely attractive subject. It pops up again and again in popular depictions of the Nazi regime and World War II. It’s a key plot point in two Indiana Jones films, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; it’s also a theme in the popular zombie film Dead Snow and the classic video game Castle Wolfenstein, which takes many cues from an old horror movie (first a book) called The Keep. Documentaries alleging Nazi occultism appear regularly on the History Channel and numerous popular history books rehash the supposed Satanic, demonic, pagan, Wiccan, Crowleyan, Lovecraftian, etc. etc. aspects of Nazi ideology. Indeed, the idea of Nazi occultism is so pervasive that I’d venture a guess that most people who profess a casual interest in history, but who have not read scholarly histories of the Nazi regime, probably believe that the Nazis and Hitler were heavily influenced by or at least incorporated a lot of occult themes into their ideology.
This is an entertaining book, but not very good history.
There’s a problem with this belief, though: it is not supported by the historical record. The popular history books and documentaries that spin lurid tales of demonic possession of Nazis or the supposed occultist symbolism of the SS and the like–Trevor Ravenscroft’s insipid 1972 tome Spear of Destiny springs immediately to mind–simply do not reflect the reality of the Nazis. These works, which include the likes of Alan Baker’s The Invisible Eagle or the History Channel documentary Hitler and the Occult, are not drawn from primary sources; if they cite other works at all, they’re invariably citing other pseudohistorical works about supposed Nazi occultism. The cottage industry of Nazi occult books that has sprung up since the 1960s behaves very similar to the self-referential literature involving UFOs or conspiracies about the Kennedy assassination. It’s not real history.
It is true that the Nazi Party marketed itself in the 1930s using themes and tropes of traditional German nationalism, and promoted a vision of German national identity that trafficked heavily in pre-Christian mythology (think gods like Wotan) and the glorification of it (Hitler loved the operas of Wagner, for instance). Nazi art and culture glorified the strong Nordic warrior of early European history, and the racial ideology of the Nazi state spoke in terms of “Aryans” who were usually envisioned as blond-haired, blue-eyed Vikings. Admittedly this is not too far from the milieu in which Walpurgisnacht and other Germanic myths dwell. But to claim that Hitler’s motivation for refining the Nazi Party as he did was to advance this kind of cultural or quasi-religious mythology is very misleading. There’s a difference, especially in politics, between motivation and marketing. It’s another step again away from the truth to claim, as many Nazi occultism books and documentaries do, that Hitler was “possessed by the Devil” or made political or military decisions for occultist reasons, such as Ravenscroft’s claim that the Anschluss with Austria was done to get control of the Spear of Longinus which supposedly has mystical powers. Hitler was a politician and a nationalist. He wanted to advance his vision of Germany, of course; but it’s simply false to project occultist motives onto his behavior.
It is interesting that, despite the profusion of Nazi occultism books, real scholarly works about Hitler and the Third Reich–the ones that arebased on primary sources—do not mention occultism at all. The topic never once comes up in the 1600 pages of William L. Shirer’s mammoth 1965 work The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, nor is it mentioned at all in Alan Bullock’s seminal biography Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. I consulted both books before writing this article. I’m certainly not a scholar of the Nazi period, but I’ve taken and been involved with several university-level courses that deal with it, and occultism never seems to come up there either.
This was not an act of “black magic” or some sort of brainwashing trick. This a very tragic example of politics gone wrong.
Indeed, the mythology of Nazi occultism is a dangerous distortion of history. As argued by Swedish scholar Mattias Gardell, the view that the Third Reich was heavily motivated by or used occult themes and practices tends to paint Hitler and the Nazis as a band of “evil sorcerers” who attained power by casting some sort of mystic spell over the German people, who followed them out of compulsion. This is not what happened at all. Millions of ordinary Germans, the vast majority of them rational and in their right minds, supported the Nazis for years, or at least did not oppose them. Casting Hitler as a sort of Svengali, using witchcraft and black magic to entrance the German people, is utterly false and leads to an “it can’t happen here” kind of complacency. It’s a convenient shortcut that absolves us of trying to understand a difficult and dark episode in recent history.
Walpurgisnacht is a fun, positive and benign holiday. Many people across Europe and elsewhere celebrate it with bonfires, dancing, picnics and other wholesome events. The Germanic traditions from which it comes deserve to be evaluated and celebrated in their own positive light, not tainted forever by false associations with the horror of the Nazi regime. Let’s be clear about who the Nazis were and why they did what they did. Hitler’s motivations may be difficult and complex, but Satanic sacrifices and witchy spells had nothing to do with them. History is never that simple.