Witches, werewolves and vampires: the Nazi's quest for the supernatural
The ideology of the Nazis drew on theories of racial superiority – but also found inspiration in Nordic mythology, paganism and occult beliefs. Eric Kurlander introduces the menagerie of witches, were- wolves and vampires that populated the ideas and language of Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels
In Marvel’s blockbuster movie Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), a Nazi officer searches for an ancient relic, the Tesseract, reputed to bestow on its owner infinite power. In fact Captain America contains many elements of Nazi supernaturalism: occult forces, mad scientists, fantastical weapons, a superhuman master race, and magical relics granting the Third Reich unlimited power.
That film is far from alone in broad- casting such themes. Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) saw Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) racing to find the ancient Jewish Ark of the Covenant, again sought by Nazis planning to harness its reputed occult power. And Hellboy, a comic-book superhero who starred in two big-screen adaptations (2004 and 2008) and computer games, was a demon summoned to Earth by Nazi occultists.
These are just three examples. Popular culture has long been awash with images of the Nazi supernatural, from Second World War-era comic-books to 21st- century video games, and from classic sci- fi films to contemporary horror movies. For nearly as long, many academics have dismissed such ideas as at best highly exaggerated, at worst completely fictional.
Yet there is plenty evidence of an important link between Nazism and the supernatural. No mass political movement drew as consciously or consistently on the ‘supernatural imaginary’: on occultism and fringe (‘border’) science; on pagan, New Age and eastern religions; on folk- lore, mythology and other supernatural doctrines. The Nazis exploited these ideas and practices to attract a generation of German men and women seeking new forms of spirituality and novel explanations of the world – explanations that sat somewhere between scientific verifiability and traditional religion.
Once in power, no mass party made such an effort to police or parse, much less appropriate and institutionalise, such doc- trines. They were applied to the realm of science and religion, to culture and social policy, to the drive toward war, to empire and to ethnic cleansing. One cannot understand the history of the Third Reich without understanding this relationship between Nazism and the supernatural.
Subverting ancient mythology
On 22 December 1920 the Nazi Party sponsored a Winter Solstice festival. The festival was important, according to the Völkischer Beobachter (People’s Observer), the main Nazi newspaper, because it would help restore racial and spiritual unity in the wake of the war and the leftwing revolutions of 1918–19.
The renaissance in Aryan civilisation symbolised by the solstice, declared one speaker, was prophesied by Nordic mythology and religion in ancient times. The “National Socialist solstice,” according to Anton Drexler, co-founder of the Nazi Party, was a “visible sign of the return to German thought”. Another speaker talked of Baldur, the Nordic sun-god, pagan deities and heroes, and the great history of Nordic mythological hero Siegfried (“his birth in us – that is our solstice prayer”).
The Nazis did not invent the tradition of a pagan German Christmas. The organisers were indebted to similar solstice festivals revived a decade or so earlier by Guido von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, proponents of the esoteric belief system dubbed Arioso- phy. But the Nazis made good use of these pagan-esotericist traditions in their attempts to sponsor a more ‘authentic’ Germanic religiosity – an alternative to what they considered the destructive institutions and doctrines of Christianity.
For nearly a decade, between 1935 and 1944, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler charged a Hexen- Sonderauftrag (Special Task Force on Witches, or Witch Division) with collecting archival material on the persecution of pagan religious practices by the medieval Catholic Church across central Europe. The division assembled nearly 30,000 documents from various local and regional archives. Its purpose, according to Himmler, was to solve the riddle of how the “dominant Aryan-Germanic religion of nature could be defeated by the decadent Jewish-Christian religion”.
The SS witch researchers came to the conclusion that Nordic ‘witches’ were the “guarantors of German faith” and “natural healers” from the oldest Germanic sagas. By accusing so-called witches of consorting with the devil, the medieval Catholic Inquisition had criminalised the practise of German religion and justified the murder of its spiritual leaders.
The Nazis made good use of pagan-esotericist traditions in their attempts to sponsor a more ‘authentic’ Germanic religiosity
Such theories were taken one step further by the archaeologist Otto Rahn, believed to have inspired plotlines and characters in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films. In a 1933 book called Crusade for [or against] the Grail, Rahn argued that the “cup of Christ” came from the Indian mani, the symbol for a stone fallen from heaven, brought to Europe from the Himalayas by a white dove.
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Sponsored by Himmler and the SS, Rahn’s second book, Lucifer’s Court (1937), went even further. In it he speculated that the Grail lay at the centre of a medieval cult of Luciferians – literally, devil worshippers – who practised a pagan, Ur-Aryan religion drawn from Tibet and Northern India via Persia. Accused of heresy and witchcraft, these last representatives of the Indo-Aryan civilisation of Thule (‘Atlantis’ in western tradition) had been eradicated by the Catholic Church, though their teachings were preserved by the Knights Templar and Tibetan monks.
Rahn’s theories linked Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism and Indo-Aryan mythology with the paganism, Luciferianism and witchcraft practised across Germany in the Middle Ages, at places such as Brocken in the Harz mountains, the site of the Walpurgis Night scene in Goethe’s Faust.
This explains why many Nazis believed that Tibet was the home of an ancient Indo-Aryan people who had fled the destruction of their Ur-Aryan civilisation (Atlantis or Thule) after a series of floods. Indeed, though all of these Nordic and Indo-Aryan religious traditions “seemed to be going in different directions”, as the historian George Williamson wrote, they all served “the purpose of forging a national religiosity that the Nazi regime wanted”.
Not all Nazis were enthusiastic about occultism and paganism. In May 1941, Martin Bormann, soon to become Hitler’s deputy, sent a memorandum to Nazi officials. “Confessional and occult circles,” Bormann wrote, “have attempted to spread confusion and insecurity amongst the people through the conscious dissemination of miracle stories, prophecies [and] astrological predictions of the future.” We “have to be careful,” Bormann added, “that no party members, especially in rural areas, take part in the propagation of political fortune telling, confessional belief in miracles or superstitions, or occult miracle-making.”
Bormann’s circular invites the question: after eight years in power and two years of war, why hadn’t the Third Reich moved more aggressively to curb occultism? The answer is that the Nazis themselves embraced many occult and fringe scientific practices. In order to reframe scientific inquiry, improve medical practices, increase economic production or shape racial and settlement policy, Nazi leaders sponsored everything from astrology and parapsychology to radiesthesia (pendulum-dowsing).
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels hired astrologers to produce material. The parapsychologist Hans Bender’s occult experiments were reported in major newspapers and sponsored by a Reich-financed institute funded by Hitler and Himmler. Hitler and Himmler’s commitment to the bizarre doctrine of World Ice Theory, which claimed that celestial bodies made of ice determined the course of cosmic and human history, was more powerful still. The regime even employed the occult-inspired biodynamic agriculture – based on harnessing cosmic forces in the soil and the stars – to prepare the athletic fields in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics.
During the war this approach to decision-making and policy helped facilitate projects both fantastical and monstrous. The Third Reich appropriat- ed folklore, occultism and fringe science to justify military aggression and territorial expansion. Elements of Indo-Aryan religion and Nordic mythology informed Nazi conceptions of geopolitics and efforts to cultivate alliances with Asian and Middle Eastern powers.
After Mussolini was deposed and imprisoned, the SS gathered three dozen occultists to track him down
Hitler himself took a magical approach to wartime operations. In attracting popular support and making decisions, he relied as much on intuition and faith as he did a practical assessment of the military circumstances. The propaganda ministry, SS and foreign office employed professional astrologers and diviners to produce wartime propaganda and gather military intelligence. The German Navy, for example, created a Pendulum Institute in 1942 to locate enemy battleships. And in 1943, after Mussolini was deposed and imprisoned, the SS gathered three dozen occultists and charged them with tracking him down.
These occult and fringe scientific theories were far from innocuous. It is no coincidence that the infamous SS doctor Sigmund Rascher was the son of Hanns Rascher, a proponent of natural healing and biodynamic agriculture – and one of Germany’s leading Anthroposophists, who believed that humans can, through inner development, learn to access a discrete spiritual world. Rascher the younger became one of Himmler’s most odious acolytes, conducting terrible human experiments at Dachau concentration camp, where his father’s ‘biodynamic’ teachings were also applied to improve German farming in occupied Poland. The Raschers epitomised the broader nexus between occult and fringe scientific thinking and Nazi racial science, which produced some of the worst crimes of the 20th century.
The campaign against Jewish ‘bloodsuckers’
In summer 1943, the Regional Education Office of the Nazi Party published a pamphlet with the evocative title Der jüdische Vampyr chaotisiert die Welt (The Jewish Vampire Brings Chaos to the World). Part of a propaganda series on “The Jew as World Parasite”, the pamphlet argued that the Second World War was defined by an existential conflict between Aryans and Jews, who had “propagated political and economic black magic for three millennia”. “Wherever a wound is ripped open on the body of a nation,” the Nazi propagandist continued, “the Jewish demon always feeds in the sick place,” like a “powerful parasite from dreams”.
This propaganda was not empty rhetoric. Nazi leaders genuinely viewed the Jews as omnipotent, supernatural monsters responsible for the devasta- tion of the Second World War (as well as nearly every crime throughout history). In Mein Kampf, Hitler made multiple references to Jews as “vam- pires”, “bloodsuckers” and “spongers”, stating that “wherever he appears, the host people dies out after a shorter or longer period”.
The Jew “never cultivates the soil”, Hitler added, “but regards it only as a property to be exploited”. Through the “most miserable extortions on the part of his new master, the aversion against him gradually increases to open hatred. His blood-sucking tyranny becomes so great that excesses against him occur.”
After the “death of his victim”, Hitler explained, “the vampire sooner or later dies, too,” which is why the Jews, he said, would always search for new, healthy societies on which they could feed for long periods of time.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler made multi- ple references to Jews as ‘vampires’, ‘bloodsuckers’ and ‘spongers
For Hitler, killing just a few Jewish ‘vampires’ was “completely irrelevant” – in that event, the “chief result was that a few other bloodsuckers... came into a job much sooner”. Like an undead vampire, the Jew needed “the smell of decay, the stench of cadavers, weakness, lack of resistance, submission of the personal self, illness, degeneracy!
And wherever it takes root, it continues the process of decomposition!” No wonder that Hitler remarked in December 1941 that: “he who destroys life is himself risking death. That’s the secret of what is happening to the Jews. This destructive role of the Jew has in a way a providential explanation.”
The Holocaust was part of a longer-term pattern of European colonial violence against the racial other, exacerbated by total war, economic scarcity and virulent anti-Bolshevism. Yet the Third Reich’s specifically genocidal plans toward the Jews were nonetheless more radical than those of other European colonisers because the Nazis drew not merely on Darwin, Kipling or the Bible, but on a supernatural imaginary they shared with Lanz von Liebenfels and other racist occultists. Only by associating Jews with vampiric, nigh superhuman opponents intent on destroying the Aryan race could the Nazis lay the conceptual groundwork for murdering so many harmless civilians in so monstrous a fashion.
Werewolves of the Wehrmacht
Just a few years after the end of the Second World War, Oxford historian Robert Eisler gave a lecture to the Royal Society of Medicine titled Man into Wolf: An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism and Lycanthropy. A belief in lycanthropy, Eisler began, was prevalent across ancient and medieval Germany.
This belief in the ability to transform into an animal, Eisler continued, had been resuscitated in the Third Reich, which employed the folkloric concept of the werewolf ubiquitously.
Nothing could be more thrilling, Hitler suggested, than “to see once more in the eyes of a pitiless youth the gleam of pride and independence of the beast of prey”. Organised in “wolf packs”, he believed, they might hunt down and murder Germany’s enemies in the dead of night. Hitler urged his soldiers to “[fling] themselves upon the enemy in packs” like wolves. His headquarters in Ukraine was known as the “Werewolf” compound, and his better-known headquarters in East Prussia as the Wolfsschanze (Wolf ’s Lair).
The research institutes of both Himmler and influential Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg produced reports suggesting that the “incarnation of the werewolf runs through Aryan and German fairy tales and naming conventions”, and was one of the Ur-Germanic characteristics of German racial spirit. There was no connection between the “werewolf and slavic vampire”, wrote the Nazi folklorist Lutz Mackensen. Vampires (linked in Nazi minds with Jews) were evil and racially degenerate. Werewolves, on the other hand, belonged to that rare group of heroes who could change into animals and could never “serve the devil”. As the “dogs of God”, werewolves were forces for good, defending the people against evil and protecting their souls – an argument made by one of Alfred Rosenberg’s subordinates in a dissertation.
In fact, the Third Reich actively sponsored the republication of Hermann Löns’ 1910 novel Der Wehrwolf, about a band of partisans defending Germans against foreign incursion during the Thirty Years’ War. In choosing the name for their own new partisans, Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels made a small though important point with nomenclature. Löns’ Wehrwolf and the interwar ‘Wehrwolf’ movement employed the term Wehr, a play on the German word for ‘defence’. Hitler and Himmler chose instead the more overtly supernatural derivation of the word, Werwolf, for the name of their own paramilitary, a troop of volunteers recruited to operate behind enemy lines.
As far as Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels were concerned, ‘Operation Werewolf ’ constituted a core element in their vision of total victory or apoca- lypse. It was timed, after all, with the impending Allied invasion of the Reich proper and the rise of local militia movements in the east, where Commu- nist partisans carried out guerrilla warfare, assassinations and sabotage against German occupiers. Even in the territory the Allies believed they had conquered, Himmler announced in October 1944, the Germans would “constantly spring to life again, and, like werewolves, death-defying volunteers will damage and destroy the enemy from the rear”.
Ragnarok of the Reich
The final opera in the Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer, is called Götterdämmerung – Twilight of the Gods. The title was derived from the Old Norse myth of Ragnarok, the ‘fate of the Gods’, which culminates in a final, cataclysmic battle between the deities and their enemies.
Drawn from the 13th-century poetry and prose epic Edda, Ragnarok foretold a series of attacks by the giants from Jotunheim, the fire demons of Muspellheim and the Midgard Serpent. In this terrible melee, Odin, Thor and Baldur will be killed, the earth and sky will be destroyed and the sun will turn black. Nevertheless, as foretold by prophecy, two of Thor’s sons will survive the apocalypse, Baldur will return from Hel, and the Earth and humanity will be reborn.
Götterdämmerung is different in many respects from the Edda, since Wagner’s tetralogy was based primarily on the medieval German epic Nibelun- genlied (Song of the Dwarves), in which the dwarves Hagen and Alberich stood in for the Edda’s giants and fire demons. However, both accounts culminate in a final battle against implacable supernatural enemies. And both end the same way – with the Nordic gods and heroes consumed by fire in a message of redemption. This idea of existential conflagration, a series of battles that would produce either final victory (Endsieg) or total defeat, became especially prominent during the last years of the war.
For most Nazis and many millions of Germans, the line between natural and supernatural, empirical and fringe science, was always porous. Once the Third Reich entered a period of total war after Stalingrad, however, twilight- inspired thinking found ever more fantastical and violent expression. Such thinking was apparent in Operation Werewolf and, more remarkably, in ethnic Germans accusing Slavic partisans of vampirism. Twilight- inspired supernatural thinking extended into armaments, producing a desperate search for hyper-destructive, increasingly fantastical miracle weapons – includ- ing anti-gravity machines, ‘death rays’ and massive missiles – with no basis in material or technological reality.
During the final months of the war, many Nazis and many ordinary Germans wanted to believe that death was not permanent, that fantasy was reality, that a ‘magical priest’ such as Hitler – or perhaps some new prophet – might rescue them from annihilation. In this way, the regime’s fanciful preoccupations with miracle weapons, partisan werewolves, vampires and ritual self-immolation functioned as a form of therapy for Germans suffering material and psychological distress.
If twilight imagery helped Germans reconcile themselves to everyday violence, criminality and loss, it also augured the disintegration of the Third Reich and Germany’s postwar rebirth. By the end of the war the myriad stories, prophecies and conspiracy theories shared by ordinary Germans were less likely to excoriate Jews, communists or freemasons than to peddle visions of retribution and redemption. Germans’ final recourse to the supernatural imaginary was no longer about political domination, ethnic cleansing, or empire. It was much more the expression of hope and fear in the wake of the dissolution of the Third Reich.
Eric Kurlander is professor of history at Stetson University, Florida, and author of Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich (Yale University Press, 2017)