Takeaways from Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich
Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich By Eric Kurlander Yale University Press 448 pp; $45.50
Though Germans are known for their industrial efficiency, otherwise impressive skill applied horrifically during the Second World War, the Third Reich also turned to supernatural forces to bolster their attempt at restructuring Europe en masse. Eric Kurlander explores the roots of German occultism in Hitler’s Monsters, his third book about the Nazi Era, a frightening glimpse at the pseudo-science national socialists accepted to justify their abominations abroad. Here’s what we learned (and maybe wish we hadn’t) about how far Nazi Germans went:
The Nazi Party demonstrated an affection for the supernatural early in its rise to power, with Nazi stormtroopers hosting popular clairvoyant Erik Hanussen at several formal events held as the party took shape. It was at a storm trooper sanctioned séance on February 26th, 1933 that Hanussen was said to have predicted the Reichstag fire that would burn Germany’s parliament to ashes the very next day – and Nazi leaders used this supernatural prophecy to justify their first imposition of martial law in Germany.
While many have described Adolf Hitler’s speaking style as enchanting, charismatic and singular in its ability to persuade, according to Kurlander, it was Hitler’s subscription to mystic wordsmithing that drove the leader’s unique style. The Fuhrer drew heavily from the mystic musings of German author Ernst Schertel, whose 1923 book Magic: History, Theory and Practice had a special place on Hitler’s shelf for quick reference. He believed that words, chosen carefully and rhymed in the right cadence, could themselves operate magically. Anti-Semitic author Ernst Hiemer once described Hitler’s speeches as “the greatest example of mass sorcery that the world has heard in modern times.”
World Ice Theory.
There is no greater evidence of the Third Reich’s belief in “border science” – largely unfounded theories straying far from common fact – than its endorsement of Austrian inventor Hanns Horbiger’s World Ice Theory. In brief, Horbiger’s theory posits that ice forms the basic substance of all cosmic entities and determines the development of our universe according to lingering blocks of ice still floating in space. Hitler was an enthusiastic supporter – likely because Horbiger’s beliefs countered theories of relativity that Hitler deemed a product of naive Jewish thinking, and because Hitler tied the World Ice Theory to his own vision of the Aryan Nordic Man. Acceptance of the theory declined sharply post-War, mostly due to the irrefutable science associated with Einstein’s theory of relativity, though Horbiger defends his belief ardently, saying that scientific proof and calculation “can only lead you astray.”
Prophecy and politics.
In 1939, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels sought to use prophecy in service of the Nazi regime. While leading officials in the Third Reich wavered on their commitment to astrology and the supernatural – alternately condemning and endorsing border science – Goebbels was staunch: he took seriously Nostradamus’s predictions for a re-imagined Europe, especially given that the plan at hand would include his Nazi Party’s immediate rise to power. As the Second World War began, Goebbels refashioned Nostradamus to suit his desired outcome and began distributing these revamped prophecies in pamphlets across Germany, predicting both a German victory and brutal demise of the Reich’s Western enemies.
Out of their depth.
By 1942, British Navy vessels had begun to shift the tide in the Atlantic battlefront, sinking more German U-boats than Hitler’s army could Allied submarines. Scientific progress proved a major factor in Allied dominance, with the development of Radar and Sonar technology significantly upping the odds of locating German vessels in deep water. But Germany Navy officials had a different strategy in mind: U-boat captain Hans Roeder convinced colleagues in arms the British were using pendulums to predict their boats’ location underwater. As an amateur pendulum dowser himself, the enterprising captain established the Pendulum Institute to pinpoint British ships, enlisting pendulum dowsers and occultists from across the country and tasking them with applying their clairvoyant powers to search for British vessels. Results were, unsurprisingly, not altogether successful.
Nazi werewolves and German lycanthropy.
Widespread belief in lycanthropy – the magical metamorphosis of man into wolf – dates back to Germany’s ancient and medieval ages, when men would don the woodland animal’s pelts and take to the forest to transform fully. Waning in intervening centuries, Germany’s lycanthropic predilections rose to new popularity under Hitler’s Nazi regime, with Third Reich officials recalling images of the Germanic wolf in propaganda and commonly associating the term with their leading paramilitary groups, including the famed Organisation Werewolf. Hitler’s name is itself a derivation of the animal, meaning “father wolf” – a mammalian title he wore proudly, citing himself as a wolf on many public occasions throughout the war.
The enemy vampire.
While members of the Third Reich drew on folklore to promote themselves during the Second World War, they used similarly mythic terms to alienate enemies at home. The historical evil counterpart to wolves’ good nature in Germanic folklore, the “vampire” became the preferred appellation for Jewish and Slavic people under the Third Reich. Alfred Karasek, a prominent SS folklorist, gained infamy for his “documentation” of vampiric behaviour, particularly among Danube Swabians – Germans occupying the contested southeastern region of Banat. Eyewitness reports alleged a slew of atrocities under anti-German Yugoslavian leader Josip Tito, recounting observations of torture in which they “cut off their ears or nose, poked out their eyes, ripped off their faces.” This mythical matchup lingers in Germanic folklore today, with spooky stories featuring woodland creatures cast to characterize both victor and victim in modern fairytales.