I Put a Spell on You

Hitler's Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich BY Eric Kurlander. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 448 pages. $35.

The cover of Hitler's Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich

Quaint to think that not even fifty years ago—when network TV reigned supreme, the underground press flourished, and El Topo invented the midnight movie—there was an amorphous thing called the Counterculture. Now, of course, there are hundreds.

Back then dog-eared head-trips like Clans of the Alphane Moon by the still-unknown Philip K. Dick circulated among the cognoscenti. So did Richard Brautigan’s twee Trout Fishing in America and Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s blithely footnote-free The Morning of the Magicians.

Morning’s first part concerned the secret society of the “Nine Unknown Men,” contemporary alchemists, and Charles Fort, an American collector of believe-it-or-not scientific anomalies. The second part, titled “A Few Years in the Absolute Elsewhere” and devoted to Nazi occultism, revealed Hitler’s allegiance to the theory of “Eternal Ice,” which posited that frozen moons had repeatedly bombarded the Earth, changing the climate and the course of evolution, and his beliefs that the “New Man” was already among us. Per Bergier, Heinrich Himmler was “a kind of fighting monk from another planet,” and a thousand unidentified “Himalayans” died in the defense of Berlin. The idea of Nazi New Age mysticism was too impossibly far-out to imagine: Was the Third Reich the vanguard of the Counterculture?!

More scholarly than its title might suggest, Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, by Eric Kurlander, author of The Price of Exclusion: Ethnicity, National Identity, and the Decline of German Liberalism, 1898–1933, provides the sources (eighty-six pages of small-type endnotes) that might support that assertion. According to Professor Kurlander, “No mass political movement drew as consciously or consistently as the Nazis” on what he calls the “supernatural imaginary.”

Even before World War I, various occult völkisch doctrines—many of them race-based and Aryan-supremacist—were gaining followers. The humiliation of Germany’s defeat and the subsequent collapse of the German economy facilitated their growth. Objective social reality was in play. Magical thinking, compensatory fantasy, and mass delusions were rife. Whether zealots or opportunists, or a combination of the two, the original Nazis were the supreme toadstool nourished by the compost.

Distinguished from other right-wing nationalist and fascist movements by an essentially anti-Christian fascination with the supernatural, the new Nazi Party sponsored neo-pagan solstice festivals in the early 1920s; founding member and future deputy führer Rudolf Hess (known in party circles as “The Yogi from Egypt”) belonged to the occult Thule Society and, like Himmler, who joined the party in 1923, was immersed in astrology and Tibetan mysticism. Himmler, eventually the head of the SS and implementer of the Final Solution, was the most promiscuously New Age of the Nazi leadership, an adherent of holistic healing who believed himself to be the reincarnation of Henry the Fowler, king of East Francia and founder of the medieval German state.

Hitler’s interest in esoteric doctrine was more practical—he read up on magic and studied the occult in order to glean techniques for propaganda and crowd manipulation. Predicated on the repetition of key words and phrases, his speeches were hyperdramatic rants, a form of incantation delivered, as though by one possessed, to an audience experiencing the apocalyptic disorientation of military loss and economic ruin.

As the pioneer sociological film critic Siegfried Kracauer would later suggest, the Nazis were in tune with Germany’s dream life. Weimar popular culture, particularly movies, reflected an interest in the occult, the undead, and the magical creation of supernatural beings. (So did the more sophisticated thinking of intellectuals like Hermann Hesse and also Carl Jung, whose thoughts on the occult are found throughout Kurlander’s book.) Horror-movie tropes easily merged with political anti-Semitism. Hitler, Himmler, and Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg continually associated Jews with vampires; Hitler and Joseph Goebbels recruited the popular writer of fantastic fiction and movie scenarist Hanns Heinz Ewers as an agitator. (Among other things, Ewers is largely responsible for propagating the myth of the storm-trooper martyr Horst Wessel.)

Although perhaps the most spellbinding, Hitler was just one of many charismatic would-be messiahs come to rescue Germany from the catastrophe of 1918. But it was not until the crash of 1929 that his message began to resonate beyond Nazi Party true believers and the overlapping world of völkisch esoterica—helped, Kurlander writes, by the “barefoot prophet” Erik Jan Hanussen. A celebrity clairvoyant with a mass audience, Hanussen heralded the coming Third Reich and predicted the Reichstag fire that allowed Hitler to solidify power in 1933.

Once installed, the Nazi regime set out to institutionalize its Aryan-supremacist doctrines, melding German folklore with astrological fakelore. The Nazis encouraged research on telepathy, parapsychology, and Grenzwissenschaft, a German term Kurlander translates as “border science,” especially if it seemed in concert with pagan Nordic cosmology or folk tradition. Dowsing was a type of divination with a medieval-German pedigree—in 1934, Hitler hired a celebrated practitioner to investigate the possibility of “death rays” in the Reich Chancellery.

Having exploited the occult to gain power, the Nazis attempted to rein in unsanctioned popular tendencies—particularly astrology—although, as Kurlander notes, the regime preferred to couch suppression as a form of enlightenment. Sanctioned research institutes continued to apply scientific methodology to the practice of magic. There was also a more material form of mass hypnosis at work. It was rumored in the late 1960s that the Nazis had invented speed. Norman Ohler’s lively Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich puts another countercultural spin on the Nazi regime by highlighting its sanction of the powerful amphetamine Pervitin among the general population (and later, the army), and Hitler’s own drug dependency.

Hess’s 1941 solo flight to Scotland, a mission purportedly undertaken after consultation with his personal astrologer, precipitated a short-lived crackdown on practitioners of the occult. But that hardly affected the professional astrologers drafted by Goebbels into his so-called Nostradamus division, tasked with developing anti-Allied propaganda of the scary, mystical kind—an evidently useless attempt to intimidate the enemy with sixteenth-century prophecies. Himmler created an SS “witch division” to ascertain just how the Nordic nature religion vilified as witchcraft had been defeated by decadent Jewish Christianity. (Beginning in 1935 and continuing nearly to the end of the war, the division amassed documents on medieval witches to make the case that these guardians of Germany’s ancient faith had been systematically murdered by the Catholic Church as well as by Jews.)

Both Himmler and Hitler were adherents of the Austrian philosopher Hanns Hörbiger’s World Ice Theory, also known as Glacial Cosmogony. Explicating matter and energy as the interplay of fire and ice and explaining geology and biology in terms of the icy moons and meteors that had crashed into the Earth in prehistoric times, Glacial Cosmogony provided a racially pure counterweight of sorts to Albert Einstein’s “Jewish” theory of relativity, offering a unified-field explanation of the physical universe that drew on Nordic mythology to provide appropriately völkischnotions of space and time.

Himmler further believed that the Aryans were descended from the survivors of Atlantis and that the religious teachings of the Lost Continent had been preserved by Tibetan monks. Victory would bring a global empire ruled by various Indo-Aryan tribes; thus, in the run-up to World War II, India had a crucial role in Nazi diplomatic and military thinking—as did Tibet.

Hitler may have been influenced by Himmler’s Indo-Aryan geopolitical cosmogony, but he was also subject to his own irrational impulses. Jung, who understood the Nazi mentalité surprisingly well, later suggested that Hitler’s foreign-policy directives were those of “a man acting under compulsion,” like a schizophrenic controlled by an inner voice. As the German army set out to conquer the Eastern realm of Bolshevik demons and vampire Jews, that voice used Nordic folklore and border science to justify Nazi policies of race, resettlement, and what is euphemistically called “ethnic cleansing.”

Occult logic was fully in command by January 1942 when, with Jews defined as both predatory vampires and a biological disease (a “parasitical apparition,” in one Nazi phrase), the decision to exterminate European Jewry was made at Wannsee. “The Third Reich’s brain trust truly believed these supernatural tropes,” writes Kurlander, discussing “The Jewish Vampire Brings Chaos to the World,” the 1943 pamphlet explaining human history in terms of an omnipotent, occult conspiracy. The supernatural imaginary was present in the death camps and on the battlefield. Nazi guerrilla units were called (and modeled on) werewolves, while ethnic Germans fleeing the Balkans thought the Yugoslav Communist Tito’s partisans were the bloodsucking undead.

As the end-times approached, Himmler virtually handcuffed himself to his personal astrologer, even as the Nazi command placed its faith in a miracle weapon to be produced by the SS. “We cannot ignore the possibility that World Ice Theory influenced major military decisions and operations,” Kurlander writes, suggesting that Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 in part because Himmler’s World Ice theorists “predicted a mild winter.” (On the other hand, Ohler blames German overconfidence in the success of Pervitin for fueling the blitzkrieg conquest of France.)

Does this emphasis on the Nazis’ megalomaniacal delusions and bizarre theorizing trivialize the horror they brought upon Europe and the world? I think not. Irrationality cannot be dismissed just because it makes no sense. On the contrary. Up until the Nazis took power, most leftists, liberals, and foreign observers saw Hitler as a grotesque clown. His magic affected “one half of the people; the other half are disgusted, find him laughable,” quotes Kurlander from a contemporary source’s analysis of the situation.

Kurlander emphasizes, as The Morning of the Magicians did not, that the Weimar Republic was a petri dish for the incubation of crackpot notions, pseudoscientific theories, occult superstitions, and alternate realities. It was Hitler’s political genius (or, even worse, his profound intuition) to recognize that this festering counterculture and its supernatural imaginary could be repurposed to create the foundation for a fascist regime and the justification for genocide.

J. Hoberman is the author of many books on film, including An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War (The New Press, 2011).