How Mysticism and Pseudoscience Became Central to Nazism
Supernatural ideas were widespread at the turn of the 20th century, especially in Germany. But in the social crisis following World War I, esoteric and border-science ideas became a powerful tool of Nazi mobilization, directed at demonizing Jews and the Left.
- Interview by
- Ondřej Bělíček
In the late nineteenth century, industrializing Europe was the epicenter of what Max Weber famously named the “disenchantment of the world.” Traditional religious practices were being challenged by the forces of modernity, with church attendance troubled by the advance of Enlightenment, science, and secularism.
Yet the famous Weber quote often omits the second part of his thesis — holding that the world was also being re-enchanted by something new. New kinds of esoteric, religious, and border-scientific doctrines emerged as seemingly modern alternatives to traditional religion and science.
These included anthroposophy (an Austro-German variation on the esoteric doctrine of theosophy, which combined elements of eastern spirituality with Christianity, western philosophy, and natural science); ariosophy (a more explicitly racialist and eugenicist version of theosophy), World Ice Theory (a “border-scientific” theory insisting that ice is the basic substance behind all cosmic as well as geological and evolutionary processes on Earth), astrology, and parapsychology (the study of psychic phenomena and paranormal claims). This trend also included alternative religions, New Age, homeopathy, folklore, and renewed interest in Hinduism and Buddhism.
In his new book Hitler’s Monsters, Eric Kurlander looks at the specific influence supernatural ideas had on the emergence and consequences of Nazi ideology. He argues that the invocation and appropriation of popular esoteric, border-scientific, and religio-mythological beliefs helped Adolf Hitler’s party to attract supporters, dehumanize its enemies, and pursue its imperial and racial ambitions. But — the historian tells Jacobin’s Ondřej Bělíček — these ideas also took root in a particular sociopolitical context — one that’s reproducing itself, if not on the same scale, also in our own present.
At the end of the nineteenth century, a strong movement dedicated to supernatural ideas, esoteric doctrines, spiritualism, and occultism developed. What was different about this movement in Germany and Austria, compared to other places where these tendencies also flourished?
The uniqueness is twofold. On the one hand the investment in what I call the “supernatural imaginary” in Germany and Austria had a wider influence. It wasn’t just a discrete aspect of the everyday, like when you go to church or a séance on Sunday. It got integrated into the politics and social theories much more directly and ubiquitously. A lot of these esoteric figures started to draw political conclusions based on such beliefs.
That also happened in France and Great Britain, for example, but not to the same extent. On the other hand, the content of the supernatural imaginary, where you had many movements like theosophy, astrology, and so on, was also much more folkish and racial in Germany and Austria than France or Great Britain.
There were a lot of people talking about different races in the nineteenth century, not just in Germany and Austria. But when you look at the way that these alternative esoteric and border-scientific doctrines were deployed in the public sphere, race and antisemitism were seemingly more prominent there compared to France, Great Britain, and even the United States, which had its own folkish-esoteric groups, like the KKK and William Pelley’s “Silvershirts.”
In short, race was also part of the official language of science and social reform in Britain, France, and the United States, but it wasn’t at the core of border-scientific and occult practices; and such practices, conversely, didn’t play as central a role in right-wing ideologies or theories of politics or society.
You also mention that German folklore, mythology, Indo-Aryan religion, and racist theories were often actually a part of the German school system. You mention specifically the influence that Hitler’s teacher Leopold Pötsch had on young Hitler. Was this also a national particularity?
This gets at the concept of border science. Everyone was talking about Charles Darwin and the civilizational decline of the West, the rise of nonwhite races — all of which was a part of mainstream natural and social scientific discussions in the second half of the nineteenth century. Even left-liberal progressives and socialists used the concept of race at that time, which they would not accept now.
If you went to school in France or the United States in the 1880s and ’90s, you’d hear theories about the racial superiority of some groups over others, and theories of history that tended to idealize white men, or the history of your country, in a very nationalistic way. The difference is that in Germany and Austria, Nordic mythology and folklore became mixed in with this so-called “scientific” thinking about race, politicized, and then integrated into pedagogy. It not only happened in school, but in popular and scientific literature.
Many leading personalities of supernatural movements in Weimar Germany were later prominent Nazis. Did the other interwar parties somehow work politically with belief in the supernatural, or was this Nazi-specific?
There were undoubtedly some individuals in parties on the center-left that were interested in astrology and German mythology, but they generally didn’t integrate it into their political ideas and propaganda. If you were a member of the two liberal parties, the Social Democrats, or the Communists, you weren’t that likely to invoke the images of vampires and the devil, werewolves or witches, to describe your political opponents and/or yourselves. Nor would you generally talk about swastikas or ancient sun wheels or “Sig” runes being a symbol of the Aryan or Nordic race.
But not only Nazis invoked this iconography. There were all sorts of folkish paramilitary groups that used these kind of symbols, that organized solstice festivals and talked about restoring German empire and resettling the European East with “Warrior Peasants.”
Parties on the German center-left, as in most countries, certainly wanted to argue in terms of what to do with finances, taxes, and education, but center-right parties were just as likely to invoke emotional propaganda linked to race-based theories of Germanic superiority and the nearly superhuman danger of monstrous Jews and Bolsheviks, in ways that were hard to engage rationally or empirically. How would you argue with someone appealing to the quasi-mythical blonde and blue-eyed character of the German people, and arguing that your country has been colonized by a cabal of Jewish-Bolshevists, freemasons, and lesser races?
Not all Germans believed these things: many, perhaps even a majority didn’t. And remember that only a third voted for Hitler. The Nazis never got more than 37 percent of the vote despite the Great Depression and other factors. But people who voted Nazi appear to have been disproportionately invested in the supernatural imaginary.
I suppose that after the lost war in 1918 and the Great Depression these supernatural ideas must have spread throughout the German population. Can we say what sort of people tended to support these ideas?
History, sociology, and political science has shown us that while the Nazis did appeal to substantial numbers of Germans from all demographics, Catholics and workers tended not to vote for Nazis in high numbers. Conversely, Protestants of lower-middle class or rural sociological background voted disproportionately for Hitler’s party. What you find, looking at the way that the supernatural imaginary functions, is that it doesn’t appear as prominent in the urban socialist and worker milieu.
It’s not that the German working classes were immune to supernatural ideas — whether the occult, border science, or alternative religion. Certainly, some members of the working class read their horoscopes or believed in aspects of the paranormal. But for various reasons, the working classes were generally more insulated from the political consequences of such ideas due to the powerfully leftist, indeed often overtly Marxist, character of the urban, proletarian milieu.
Beyond the strength of this proletarian culture, the workers’ own socioeconomic interest, and their typical party affiliation with the Social-Democrats or Communists, we have Marxist theory’s intellectual emphasis on materialist explanations of sociopolitical reality. For these reasons, it was very difficult for non-Marxist parties and non-materialist ideologies to make inroads among the German working classes, especially among skilled workers in urban areas, who proved remarkably resilient to conservative, clerical, and to a lesser extent fascist politics throughout the interwar period.
Indeed, even among constituencies with a greater proclivity for non-materialist, faith-based thinking, such as rural and small-town Catholics, the strength of the Catholic social and religious milieu — reinforced by decades of Protestant persecution — insulated devout Catholics from alternative forms of supernatural thinking as well as radical-nationalist, disproportionately Protestant parties such as the German Nationalist People’s Party and the Nazis.
These ideas seem to have been most popular among middle-class Germans who perhaps weren’t devout Catholics or Protestants anymore, but who may have still been interested in alternative religious, quasi-Christian/quasi-pagan esoteric, and other supernatural ideas. These esoteric tendencies also seem to be noticeably gendered in Germany, especially where politics is concerned — which appears to be another difference between the way these doctrines spread and the “supernatural imaginary” functioned in France, Great Britain, the United States, for example, in comparison to Germany and Austria.
In the former countries it seems that women were nearly as likely to participate in these movements as men, certainly as followers, but also sometimes as leaders. In Germany and Austria, propagating esotericism, border science, and folkish paganism seemed to be an almost exclusively masculine enterprise.
You see that also in the Nazi movement, which was also very masculine. It’s mainly white males who were not particularly educated in terms of scientific training, but had some university education. White-collar workers, small businessmen, engineers, these are the kind of people that found these ideas most interesting. A similar demographic to those who enjoy watching shows about “Ancient Aliens” or lost relics or Himmler’s undead soldiers on the History Channel nowadays. It’s the people who have some kind of education, some background in history, but are open to pseudoscientific and faith-based arguments.
In many ways this resembles today’s groups of people who believe in conspiracy theories like QAnon, anti-vax movement, etc. How did the intellectuals, scientists, and authorities react to this pseudoscientific trend at that time?
Many leading figures on the Left or liberal center observed this unhealthy investment in supernatural and faith-based thinking and said, “Here is a phenomenon which is anti-science, irrational, and preoccupied with magical thinking, alternative history, and religion and seems to be helping antidemocratic forces of the far-right. We should be careful about that.”
Bertolt Brecht and some socialists mocked the Nazis for flirting with such ideas in the press. They found it shocking that Germans believed in Hitler and Goebbels’s emotional appeals — in some cases written by Hanns Heinz Ewers, a horror writer famous for novels about vampires, mad scientists, and devil worshippers and briefly a Nazi propagandist. They couldn’t understand how any party could come to power that employed the contemporary equivalent of Stephen King or Clive Barker to promote their cause. Some supporters of the liberal parties, which lost many more of their voters to the conservative and far-right parties than the Social-Democrats or Communists, were even ready to blame their political failure on Germans’ irrational behavior.
Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi ideologist, admitted that lots of people voted for Nazis because they were interested in the occult. The influential conservative political philosopher Carl Schmitt noted the widespread investment in what he called “political romanticism.” So, with the decline of the liberal center, the only political parties that could oppose Nazis were the left-wing parties, but they spoke totally different language and were unable to compete with the Nazis in terms of their emotional appeal to nationalism and folkish rebirth, grounded in Germans’ “longing for myth” and desire to transcend the political and economic crises and social divisions of the interwar period.
What about Hitler himself? Could you describe what was his relation to supernatural ideas, occultism, or border science?
Hitler was perfectly emblematic of a typical Nazi party member — or certainly, Nazi leader — in this regard. He was not as invested in supernatural ideas, for example, as Himmler, Hess, or Alfred Rosenberg. He was always more skeptical about broader supernatural theories being made too prominent a part of Nazi propaganda. But he still drew on them and his rhetoric was infused with border-scientific arguments, the invocation of mythology and appeals to the emotions. Even if he didn’t buy into all the esoteric race doctrines that some of his colleagues did, he understood that it’s important for the Nazi party and he used that language.
In my book, Hitler’s Monsters, I mention Hitler’s famous quote in Mein Kampf warning against the Nazi party becoming home to “wandering scholars wrapped in bearskins.” Given the animal-skin-wearing QAnon Shaman who stormed the American capitol building in January 2021, this obscure comment from Hitler seems much more relevant. Like Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen, both of whom have publicly tried to distance themselves from the folkish “QAnon Shamans” in their ranks, Hitler worried the Nazi Party might lose support from mainstream middle-class constituents.
Even if Hitler publicly tried to distance the Nazis from esoteric and pagan religious groups such as the Thule Society and folkish “wandering scholars in bearskins,” he nonetheless still recognized that his supporters were attracted to supernatural ideas and conspiracy theories in making sense of an increasingly complex and threatening world.
What was the Nazis’ relation with supernatural ideas after Hitler came to power? You mention that it was dangerous for the Nazi party to let the supernatural movement and occultism grow, because they feared that it could get out of their control.
It’s not so much that they rejected supernatural reasoning. They were specifically afraid of occult groups presenting a sectarian challenge to a unified “racial community” led by the Nazi party. These occult and folkish doctrines and associations, like theosophy, ariosophy, Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy movement, and other folkish and messianic groups — which had their own rituals, secret traditions, and most of all their own Führer — were seen by the Nazis as sectarian. It meant that they had their own sociocultural identity and, potentially, ideology in competition with Nazism.
Hence many scholars point out the crackdown on occultism during the Third Reich — erroneously, in my mind, saying “look, the Nazis hated occultism.” But they didn’t. They tried to control certain kinds of occultism and other “sectarian” groups for many reasons, the same way they tried to control religion, social programs, women, workers, peasants, or industrialists. Their natural proclivity as a fascist regime was to try to control things and make everyone “work toward the Führer,” but it doesn’t mean they rejected esoteric or völkisch religious or border-scientific thinking.
Their hostility to occultists, then, was not the same kind of blanket hostility as Nazi attitudes toward Socialists or Communists or certainly the Jews. They repeatedly accepted former occult leaders into the party as long as they stopped trying to maintain separate folkish-esoteric organizations like the Thule Society or the Werewolf Bund or the Tannenburg Bund.
The Nazis were also divided on what was “scientific occultism” and what was popular money-making occultism. Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, members of the Reich Education Ministry, Himmler, and the SS, and even Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry at times worked to differentiate “scientific” or at least pragmatically useful occult doctrines and border-scientific ideas and individuals from what they called the popular or “Jewish” boulevard occultists like Erik Hannusen — who, they, claimed were just stealing money from people.
So, the Nazis surveilled and periodically arrested or interrogated occultists who were supposedly making money off undermining “public enlightenment.” But for Himmler, Hess, Walther Darré, and other Nazi leaders, “real,” scientific occultists, and border scientists could still investigate whether Thor’s lightning was magical or whether the position of the stars and moon promoted organic farming.
These “scientists” were sponsored by various Nazi ministries and especially Himmler’s SS. So, they selectively rejected some occult ideas and individuals as unserious and unscientific, but were also willing to legitimize and even employ them when they were sympathetic to the particular border-scientific or esoteric doctrine or völkisch religious belief. The dubious concept of World Ice Theory seemed to reinforce the idea of an ancient Aryan race and call into question “Jewish physics” like relativity and quantum mechanics. Hence both Himmler and Hitler sponsored it.
You mention that the supernatural imagination “gave an ideological and discursive space in which it was possible to dehumanize, marginalize the Nazis’ enemies and turn them into monsters.” Could you elaborate on how this worked?
Once you leave the realm of modern science, like biology and physics, and begin operating in the realm of the “supernatural imaginary,” where anything is possible or justifiable, once you start mixing biology with esotericism, history, and archaeology with folklore and mythology, you could turn Ashkenazi Jews from a partly European people who shared with Germans a common East and Central European ancestry, into wholly alien, biological monsters with superhuman and evil tendencies, behind everything malevolent that has happened in history.
The supernatural imaginary, which mixed science and occultism, history and mythology, also allowed Nazis to pick and choose the characteristics they would like to ascribe them to their enemy, comparing them to vampires, zombies, devils, and demons. It also allowed them to ascribe certain superior characteristics to Germans, sometimes drawn equally from mythology or border science.
In their last-ditch effort to create an elite partisan division in late 1944, they invoked the name werewolves, from Germanic folklore. While werewolves were regarded as tragic or noble heroes possibly linked to Odin’s coterie or Norse berserkers, in France they were cursed beings linked to Satanism and witchcraft. In German folklore werewolves were therefore tragic heroes ultimately tied to blood and soil; creatures who would defend their forests and land against Slavic interlopers. Vampires on the other hand, were not tragic romantic figures or even heroes, as they were portrayed in France or Great Britain, but degenerate Eastern parasites linked to the Jews and Slavic peoples, who were trying to undermine German’s purity of blood.
Folklore, mythology, theories of aliens, World Ice Theory, frost giants, gods, and monsters were ultimately used to construe why Germans have a right to invade the European East and subjugate or destroy lesser races and so-called “Judeo-Bolshevism.”
Supernatural thinking had a multiplier effect on the violent policies that already existed in the eugenics of that time, abused in many other countries, including Britain, Sweden, or the United States, but never to the same, unbridled extent. The “secret” ingredient here, I argue, was “supernatural” thinking.
What influence did the supernatural imaginary have on the Nazis’ war effort?
Firstly, the supernatural imaginary influenced Nazi geopolitical views, which manipulated archeology, folklore, and mythology for foreign policy purposes. Himmler and Rosenberg developed these arguments, based largely on folklore, mythology, and border science that for thousand of years the Nordic people were the dominant civilization in Europe and they had a right to reclaim that. Bad archeology, selective use of biology and anthropology, and mythology fueled a lot of ideas about the Eastern Europe and why Germans had a right, like the medieval Teutonic knights, to (re)conquer the East.
Supernatural thinking wasn’t the only factor in determining Nazi policy, but certainly reinforced the Nazis’ racist and imperialist relationships toward Eastern Europeans. Yes, at some point during the war Nazis negotiated deals with Ukrainians and Baltic states for pragmatic reasons, but ultimately they had this huge complex of supernatural thinking underlying their conceptions of race and space. It helped justify, for example, moving Poles out of their homes and putting Germans in their place or sending Jews off to death camps.
The supernatural imaginary was also directly linked to eugenics experiments during the Holocaust. One of the worst Nazi doctors, Sigmund Rascher, was a son of a leading anthroposophist, Hanns Rascher. You have this leading doctor very open to this idea of race and space — who accompanies Ernst Schaefer on Himmler’s Tibet expedition to uncover the ancient origins of the Aryan race — and he is later willing to experiment on human beings to test his and Himmler’s border scientific theories.
When you take the level of scientific ingenuity and confidence that Germans had going to the 1930s and you mix it with a regime immersed in supernatural thinking, led by Hitler and Himmler, who had no background in natural science, who were self-taught, who read folklore and mythology and dreamed about rocket ships, and provide the platform of terrible war where mass violence is already becoming acceptable, that’s very dangerous. Along with eugenics, it is part of what fueled these horrible experiments and even the Holocaust.
It seems like Germans who believed in supernatural imaginary really believed that Slavs are vampires, Jews are vermin, and Soviets basically monsters.
I can’t tell you that millions of soldiers in the field really saw Jews as a superhuman monsters; many Germans had Jewish friends and spouses both before and after the Third Reich. But the Nazis certainly used the supernatural imaginary to dehumanize Jews, Slavs, and Bolsheviks and transform them into an inhuman and inhumane enemy. Some ethnic Germans did report being attacked, admittedly during the trauma of war, by Slavic “blood-drinkers.”
The question is, how did that happen? My argument is that it wasn’t just the science of biology or imperialism or industrial capitalism or the mass violence and trauma of “total war” — important as all those factors were — but also the Nazi supernatural imaginary. How much someone really believe in the various doctrines, tropes, and ideas that constituted that imaginary depended on the person. At times, however, it seems like some Nazis really believed that there were whole other species and races the Jews in particular, who were simply inhuman monsters, whether literal or figurative, who had to be eliminated for “Aryan” civilization to survive.