Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, by Eric Kurlander (Yale, 448 pp., $35)
Adolf Hitler once argued that National Socialism represented “a cool and highly reasoned approach to reality based on the greatest of scientific knowledge and its spiritual expression.” If there are any people foolish enough still to fall for that, they will not enjoy this book. While the enthusiasm of some Nazi leaders, most notoriously Himmler, for the occult has been a staple of pop culture and the more disreputable corners of historical “investigation” for years, this volume shows that many others felt much the same way.
Kurlander depicts a Third Reich in which, despite uneven and often ambiguous efforts to rein them in, seers, magicians, and psychics flourished. Buddha was drafted into the master race, parapsychology “so long as it comported with ‘Nordic-Germanic feeling’” was recognized as legitimate, and the grounds were laid for an “Ario-Germanic” national religion as a syncretic (it wouldn’t all be Wotan) “substitute for Christianity.” Meanwhile, charlatan-historians and charlatan-folklorists hunted for proof that large swathes of Europe were part of an ancestral German homeland, charlatan-archeologists searched for evidence of “the Nordic origins of Asian civilization,” charlatan-doctors worked on monstrous human experiments, and charlatan-scientists struggled to develop weapons designed to draw on mysterious untapped electromagnetic forces. This arsenal was intended to include death rays, sound weapons, and anti-gravity devices — an absurdity and a waste made all the more grotesque by the contrast with the remarkably sophisticated technology successfully deployed by Germany during the war.
If the magical weapons proved harmless, the same cannot be said of the mix of superstition and pseudoscience that ran through the Nazis’ thinking about race, a mix that goes some way to accounting for both the intensity of their anti-Semitism and the meticulousness of the slaughter that followed. “Traditional” anti-Semitism rested on a distrust of difference reinforced by religious and then economic resentment. It generated exclusion, violence, and, as time went by, increasingly elaborate conspiracy theories. But the notion of Jews as perpetual enemies of an advanced “Aryan” race was a fairly new confection, dating back only to the mid 19th century.
Kurlander is an excellent guide to the complex and often conflicting “histories” of the Aryans’ origins, versions of which featured sex with angels, God-men from Tibet, a descent from heaven, moons made of ice crashing into the earth (the weirdly popular “World Ice Theory,” in which Hitler was one of numerous believers), and much more besides. These narratives also incorporated tales of a fall: The original Aryans had been scattered. Their racial integrity had been diluted by intermingling with “lesser breeds.” They had been preyed upon by — whom else? — the Jews, routinely smeared as parasitic and as a disease but also in terms that sometimes appeared to be more than metaphor: Hitler dubbed Jews the children of the devil and believed that forestalling the “Jewish apocalypse was our duty, our God-given mission.”
Kurlander contends that this supernatural dread was genuinely felt by “the Third Reich’s brain trust,” a claim that should be treated with some caution. When it comes to the supernatural, what people believe and what they say they believe are frequently very different — more so, indeed, than they might themselves understand.
When studying the translation of concepts of such malevolence into the deeds that became the Holocaust, it is easy to make the all too common mistake of treating the Nazis as a case apart, as an unparalleled eruption of evil. And, yes, there were aspects of the Third Reich — from the particular horrors it devised to an ideology that was as bizarre as it was sinister — that distinguished it from the other mass-murdering regimes of the last century. But take a step back and the similarities between National Socialism and its totalitarian counterparts on the left quickly become visible.
This is true of their shared “supernatural” dimension. All were essentially millenarian. Communist revolutionaries (nominally philosophical materialists despite a fundamentally mystical view of historical forces) would not have appreciated the connection, but it was there all right — the religious impulse is hard to discard — complete with the promise of a merciless sorting, after which the saved would march to a better world. Untethered to atheism, the Nazis could be more explicitly millenarian, referring to a “thousand-year” Reich. This number has, notes Kurlander (citing another author), “deep biblical overtones,” overtones to which he pays too little attention — a curious misstep in a history of this type, as is his relatively cursory handling of the Nazis’ knotty relationship with Christianity.
As Kurlander makes clear, the Nazis’ racial and occult obsessions did not come out of nowhere. The party that evolved into the National Socialists had roots in the Thule Society, a group formed in early 1918, focused on the occult, anti-Semitism, and, as Germany descended into defeat, politics. Its members sported a swastika in homage to the Aryans’ supposed Indo-European heritage — an important, if counterintuitive, theme that ran through much of esoteric German racism and was associated with the admiration for “Eastern” spirituality of the sort later felt by quite a few leading Nazis. The Thule Society (the name is a reference to a “Nordic” interpretation of the Atlantis myth) had in turn emerged out of a broader Germanic intellectual community that had wallowed in a swamp of Grenzwissenschaft (or “border science,” to give this nonsense — astrology, anthroposophy, “natural” medicine, parapsychology, radiesthesia, theosophy, and all the rest — a kinder name than it deserves), Aryan fantasy, and racial hysteria for decades.
There is no “right” side of history, no law that makes what we call progress inevitable. Other parts of Europe were also doing their bit to let the Enlightenment down. As Kurlander points out, it was a Frenchman, Arthur de Gobineau, who, writing some 40 years before the beginning of the Dreyfus Affair, did much to popularize the idea of a superior Aryan race. Anti-Semitism was far from being solely a Teutonic vice. Kurlander accepts that border science had scant respect for borders but maintains (without satisfactorily explaining why) that Germans were more despairing of the growing ascendancy of scientific materialism than most Europeans, and therefore more prone to succumb to the “re-enchantment” offered by border science. If that was true before 1914, it was even more so after a war that shattered any illusions about modernity — and a defeat that brought humiliation, chaos, and revolution in its wake. As Kurlander tells it, “hundreds of thousands of Germans and Austrians” bought “occult and New Age literature,” read “border scientific journals,” and participated in “astrological and theosophical societies, séances and spiritualist experiments.”
A key element in this collective derangement was the suspicion — still flourishing in the West today — that modern science had torn apart the harmony that had allegedly once existed between man, nature, and the divine, a breach that could be restored by a more spiritual, holistic approach. More often than not, the results — such as “biodynamic” agriculture (a more straightforwardly superstitious variant of organic farming) — were largely innocuous, but the fact that there was a biodynamic “plantation” on the grounds of Auschwitz is a reminder of where the retreat from reason can lead, a lesson that, judging by our own overly relaxed response to resurgent pseudoscience (the anti-vaxxers come to mind) or political attacks on the scientific method, has not been learned.
The dream of restoring a lost whole — even one that had never seen the light of day — was particularly toxic when applied to ethnicity. Imagining a heroic national past (even one with mythic or supernatural undertones) was not confined to Germans, nor was a sense of being a cut above other races, but in Germany, such prejudices were unusually intense. Kurlander never specifies quite why, but the comparatively late (1871) creation of a unified German state — a state then partly unraveled by the Treaty of Versailles — must have increased the pressure on Germans, including, in different ways, their kin in the multiethnic Austria-Hungary of Hitler’s youth or the truncated Austria that was left after World War I, to define who they were. Among the ways they responded was by emphasizing who was not German, most notably the Jews, reviled for the threat they were meant to represent to the unity of the Volk: They were an Other that could have no place in a nation that wished to survive as a nation.
Even if he might occasionally exaggerate the contribution of the specific outlandish beliefs he describes to the catastrophe that unfolded, Kurlander provides a careful, clear-headed, and exhaustive examination of a subject so lurid that it has probably scared away some of the serious research it merits. In remedying that, Kurlander offers a strikingly different and deeply disturbing perspective on the rise and subsequent trajectory of the Third Reich, and, most unsettling of all, on the numinous appeal of its Führer. Hitler both shared and channeled (some contemporaries referred to him as a medium) the discontents of a people so drastically detached from reality that they were seduced by a conjuring trick, albeit one in which the conjurer himself may well have believed. It was a dark magic so potent that it took an apocalypse to break the spell.