A Walpurgisnacht fable: the seductive myth of Nazi occultism.

nazi occultism

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.

spear of destiny cover

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 sourcesdo 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.

hitler rally

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.

The cover of The Spear of Destiny book is (C) 1982 by Samuel Weiser, Inc., the publisher of the book. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use.
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20 Comments

  1. Well said, Sean! I share your dismay about the distortion of history every time I look at the ‘History’ Channel and see the latest nonsense they’re showing about Nazi UFOs or Satanism etc. While it is true that some Nazi officials had some involvement with occult societies that’s a very long way from the absurd notion thatmmagical beliefs provided a wellspring for Nazi theory. Many of the officials with those beliefs were not in senior positions anyway, and were often ridiculed when they spoke about them. It seems glaringly obvious that the war and death camps sprang from a hate-filled political ideology promoted by a mentally ill man with absolute power rather than some minor functionaries who once belonged to the Vril Society.

    1. But how could you not enjoy the sterling scholarship of Ancient Aliens? You’re really missing out, you closed-minded fool.

      (Sarcasm.)

  2. Thank you for this. I long ago stopped watching the History Channel because of its promotion of outlandish theories. Of course there is always some disclaimer and mush words like: think. believe, some people, etc; but the impression left to young people is at best very uncritical and misleading. The HC always emphasizes the dramatic “possibilities,” over serious scholarship. Not only about the Nazis either. What I would like to see in a similarly brief article as yours is one that puts the occult activities of Himmler and their real propaganda or image purpose in perspective: that castle, the “archeological” expeditions to Asia, etc. How serious were they? How widespread? Did they at all hamstring serious war efforts?
    I will definitely be passing this blog on to my grandkids, not merely because they should get the story of the Nazis straight but so that they learn to be critical of everything they read, see, or hear. My mantra to my grand daughter is “check everything.” I’m less worried about children being exposed to popular “history” books than to TV. Those adults who take them seriously are too committed already to be helped. They want to believe the most outlandish stuff. The more outlandish the better. Children, however, are not already committed and the HC and similar “sources” take some minor point and over emphasize it while ignoring or only briefly mentioning less provocative scholarship. How is a child to keep perspective?

    Vince

    1. I’ve long had a beef with History Channel presenting garbage like “Ancient Aliens” and “The Men Who Killed Kennedy” (a botched documentary so misleading that it is banned in Great Britain) as fact. Unfortunately I also fear this is where a lot of kids are learning about history, and it sucks.

      The SS did sponsor an expedition to Tibet. My understanding was that it was mainly to measure racial differences and not really involved in anything occult. I haven’t read that much about it, though.

  3. While I agree with your argument, I would question the following:

    “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.”

    I refer to Plato’s Republic [near the end of Book III] (here he is talking about the necessary education for the Guardians) and I point in particular to the parts about ‘enchantment’:

    “SOCRATES: And they will have to be watched at every age, in order that we may see whether they preserve their resolution, and never, under the influence either of force or enchantment, forget or cast off their sense of duty to the State.
    ADEIMANTUS: How cast off? he said.
    SOCRATES: I will explain to you, he replied. A resolution may go out of a man’s mind either with his will or against his will; with his will when he gets rid of a falsehood and learns better, against his will whenever he is deprived of a truth.
    ADEIMANTUS: I understand, he said, the willing loss of a resolution; the meaning of the unwilling I have yet to learn.
    SOCRATES: Why, I said, do you not see that men are unwillingly deprived of good, and willingly of evil? Is not to have lost the truth an evil, and to possess the truth a good? and you would agree that to conceive things as they are is to possess the truth?
    ADEIMANTUS: Yes, he replied; I agree with you in thinking that mankind are deprived of truth against their will.
    SOCRATES: And is not this involuntary deprivation caused either by theft, or force, or enchantment?
    ADEIMANTUS: Still, he replied, I do not understand you.
    SOCRATES: I fear that I must have been talking darkly, like the tragedians. I only mean that some men are changed by persuasion and that others forget; argument steals away the hearts of one class, and time of the other; and this I call theft. Now you understand me?
    ADEIMANTUS: Yes.
    SOCRATES: Those again who are forced, are those whom the violence of some pain or grief compels to change their opinion.
    ADEIMANTUS: I understand, he said, and you are quite right.
    SOCRATES: And you would also acknowledge that the enchanted are those who change their minds either under the softer influence of pleasure, or the sterner influence of fear?
    ADEIMANTUS: Yes, he said; everything that deceives may be said to enchant.”
    SOCRATES: So… could it not be said that these mystical and mythological theories were used by Hitler as part of his campaign to ‘enchant’ the populace? If so, does this necessarily lead to an “it can’t happen here” mentality?

    1. I don’t think the historical record supports that conclusion; at least I haven’t seen anything that is based on primary source documents that would make that case without a real stretch. In any event I think that the “Hitler as Svengali” narrative–which is made explicit in the black-magic sorcery nonsense of Nazi occult books–ignores the complexities of why different sectors of the German electorate supported the Nazis and the historically legitimate questions about how much they understood about their program when they did so. I resist any explanation that resorts to “mystical and mythological theories” when there are plenty of other historically plausible (and evidentially supported) factors that can account for the same result. Whether the source of Hitler’s “sorcery” is black magic, or Plato’s Republic, is not really that relevant. It’s the “sorcery” narrative that I think is unsupportable.

      1. Sure I agree with that completely. I was simply saying: a smart (but immoral) politician might consult mythology and use aspects of it in his rhetoric to ‘deceive’ or ‘ensorcel’ the public.

  4. It could be argued that the occult interests of the Third Reich were in fact the beliefs of Heinrich Himmler and a handful of members of his SS. I have seen photographs of the Nazi expedition to Tibet and I think some film footage too, Sean is right to describe it as an expedition to examine racial differences. Most of it shows expedition members measuring the heads of Tibetans with calipers. He also funded expeditions closer to home, the most famous being that of Otto Rahn’s search for the Holy Grail in France. Rahn joined the SS to gain Himmler’s financial support, a most unlikely career choice for a gay Jewish man. I vaguely recall that Himmler also attempted to search for Thule and of course we know he was building a cult centre at Wewelsburg Castle. But Himmler was considered to be a crank even by the majority of Nazis. It is extremely misleading to assert that occult belief had an influence on Nazi doctrine in any way.

  5. I think the Germanic legends of the warrior-hero Sigurd/Siegfried and his adversary the greedy dragon/dwarf Fafnir had a much more profound effect upon Hitler and his contemporaries. Wagner’s musical explorations of these and their affiliated legends were said to have moved Hitler more than any ‘occult’ rubbish peddled by some of his confederates. You have to look at the context of German nationalism that led up to Hitler and his crimes – the Franco-Prussian war, Hindenburg’s unification of Germany and her eventual humiliation at the Treaty of Versailles after WWI were a heady brew, from which Nazi ideology fed: This was not in the least because of the perceived role of Jewish financiers in profiting from German expansionist attempts in the late 19thC, and from its curtailment from 1918 onwards, a fact which Hitler and his cronies played upon. Hindenburg was in awe of Rothschild and his power, but Rothschild was a businessman and not a statesman. The Siegfried/Sigurd legends deal strongly with the theme of how capitalism and greed corrupts, albeit with a proviso that fame, cult-status and ego-mania will bring down the proud ‘dragon-slayer’ in the end – a fact Hitler failed to grasp when natural justice swiftly caught up with him…

  6. I sometimes think the “History Channel” should be called the “Popular Delusions and Lies about the Past” Channel. If they are not doing the umpteenth documentary on “the truth about the Titanic disaster” they are doing new crap about Nazi Occultists after that spear and the Holy Grail, or they are telling us that the Government is hiding the truth about UFOs. Now we are watching crap about seeking the “Lost Dutchman Mine” (if they find it in the Superstition Mountains, shouldn’t it be given to the Apache Indians who own that land?) or “the Oak Island Money Pit” (which now is advancing a theory about the “Holy Grail” and the surviving Knight Templars). The historical dramatisations they do about the Hatfields and the McCoys, or Bonnie and Clyde, or the Vikings are so much fiction. I presume that a program on, say, the causes of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, or about the history of man-made flight by airplanes, is just not interesting enough to them – unless they insist that some obscure person beat the Wright Brothers in a successful sustained flight and accurate landing.

    1. I wish I could click “like” on your comment more than once. I’m so sick of the History Channel and their ridiculous gonzo conspiracy theories. It’s an affront to serious history. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  7. Here’s the note that I wrote to my grandchild when I sent her the link to your post.
    Caitlin:
    If you are serious about knowing history you should read this because TV is full of the garbage he debunks. Munger is a good generalist historian. There have always been hints of Hitler et al being fascinated by occultism, but if so, until recent decades it was never thought to be anything more than a vague and unimportant element. (I’m 77.) We know that Hitler believed in some sort of divine destiny for himself and Germany but it was non specific. like General Patton’s belief in his own destiny or 19th century American fascination with Manifest destiny It was not specific. What to a limited extent did preoccupy the Nazis was trying to find some connection (mythic, racial, or historic) with a Nordic background but this was romantic showmanship like Mad King Ludwig, or R.Wagner, or Nietche, or other Germans of the late 19th early 20th century. Even there they were more inclined to impose their own ideology on the Nordics than to investigate honestly. In many ways there was a certain weirdness about the Nazis (some of their experiments for example) but if anything these things were a justification not a motivation. Remember that few of them were educated. Hitler’s first followers were simple street thugs and like most such were entirely practical minded.

  8. THE CORE of Nazi life was the German Faith Movement / the Deutsche Christians. See, I always tell people, Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper, Baron Dacre of Glanton, FBA, quite literally fabricated evidence of paganism with a bad translation of Hitler’s Table Talk, translated from the French edition. It is the ONLY evidence of “Nazi paganism” that is something more than pointing to cryptic symbology. But that symbology has more to do with the fetishization of Indo-Europeans, and the Nazis, who only called themselves Aryan as a nod to the Magi at Christ’s birth, believed that THEY were the real descendants of Ashkenaz, son of Gomer, son of Japheth through the legendary progenitor Tiesto, that Tiesto was a scribal error, that his name was Teuto or Teito, and that the Ashkenazim were essentially impostors. (I don’t think they could accept the fact that the Roman & early medieval Jewry were in the Upper Rhine before the Franks or Alamanni.) I know it sounds far fetched, but it’s the reality of Naziism. It’s a unification of Lutherans and Catholics, through bad etymology and geneology, and a rejection of societal progressive historiographical narratives (like Whig historiography), in favor of Great Man history. It’s all based around, ultimately, the idea that Tacitus’ Germania was -mostly- correct, and that the Bible was ALWAYS correct.

    “I have never tolerated an atheist in the ranks of the SS. Every member has a deep faith in God”.
    Heinrich Himmler: A Life by Peter Longerich page 220.

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