A couple of years ago the Pope laid much of the blame for the growth in Nazism at the door of Paganism. The majority of Pagans round the world threw up their hands in horror, denying that their creeds could have any connection to such a grotesque organisation as the National Socialists. A smaller number of Pagans took the Pope's comments as flattery, whole-heartedly agreeing with Hitler's ideas. Some fringe elements of the heathen community regard Aryan supremacy as an integral part of their religious ideology. Numerous books and films have played upon the idea of an occult involvement within Hitler's movement. Katherine Kurtz and Trevor Ravenscroft have had considerable authorial success exploring this idea. Some suggest they were closet Satanists, others that they were master rune magicians, or that they were in league with various "dark forces". Were the Nazi's heathens, black magicians or something else again?
During the late 19th century
Whilst many völkisch groups were little more than glorified Boy Scout packs, some took on a decidedly mystical bent ~ developing rituals and ceremonies. A few names came to prominence, such as Jorg Lanz von Liebenfels (a discredited monk), Kurt Wiligut (a former mental patient) and Guido von List (a leading mystic.) Most of the mystical lodges were short lived, prone to schisms and rifts (some things don't change!) One of the more prominent groups, the Germanenorden, rifted and reformed in 1918 into the Thule Gesellschaft. Members of
If Christ was to be abandoned, did they instead turn to the worship of Odin, Thor, Freya etc? Some did, but there is little evidence that they did so en masse. Heinrich Himmler was a follower of Wiligut, who argued that the true German deity was "Krist" whose worship could be traced back to 228,000 bce! This deity was widely worshipped until the naughty followers of Wotan began to persecute the servants of Krist. Wiligut would appear to have been as much anti-heathen as he was anti-Christian, by these sentiments. Incidentally "Krist" is the means of spelling Christ favoured by the ultra-fundamentalist Christian Ku Klux Klan! Himmler, like the Victorian aristocracy, was much taken with Arthurian tales. So much so that he had a banqueting table installed in a special chamber in
Whilst Himmler encouraged his storm troopers to explore esoteric rituals, other branches of the German war machine laughed up their sleeves at Himmler. His obsession with the occult was considered something of an embarrassment. Even the Führer seemed to have grown jaded with it all. Despite his youthful flirtation with the Thule Society, when he came to power Hitler outlawed a number of magical lodges and banned the practice of astrology and fortune telling generally. Indeed several years later he complained bitterly of Himmler's obsession with the supernatural. He decried the head of the SS, saying that
A number of the key figures in the plot to blow up Hitler had alternative mystical links of their own. Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who carried the bomb into the bunker, and several of his co-conspirators were devotees of the poet Stefan George. Not just admirers of his poetry, they embraced the old man's philosophies. For the most part these were concerned with idealistic self-improvement, but they also embraced a love of ancient religions, both Teutonic and Hellenic. George seems to have viewed the old gods as more symbolic than actual, much as many "pagans" do today. He opposed Hitler's rise to power and rejected the anti-Semitism that riddled most other völkisch groups. Indeed, he counted several Jews amongst his following.
This is not to suggest, as some romanticists have, that a struggle took place between the goodie and baddie magicians. Rather that the loose pool of völkisch ideologies gave rise to two conflicting philosophies. Both presented idealised versions of how people ought to be. One presumed this to be a state attained via blood right, and advocated the slaughter of any whose blood was "impure". The other saw this perfected state as open to all, through sufficient self-discipline. Neither group was overly interested in the use of magic, both advocating personal attainment through more mundane means ~ physical fitness, intellectual rigour, controlled breeding etc. So, whilst these two doctrines had a mystical angle, they cannot be convincingly described as magical or occult disciplines. Neither seems to have been all that interested in the ancient deities, except in the most abstract and symbolic of manners. So neither deserves the label Pagan.
Neither strain can be completely identified with Nazism, though it would be easy to see the murderous version as being Nazi. The German government was a disparate collection of individuals each with their own agendas. Some like Himmler were driven by mystical ideals, others like Rommel were focussing on nationalist dreams, while many like Heydrich probably just relished the license to indulge their extreme sadism.
To speak of the Nazis as if they were a unified force with a unified belief system is a mistake. Though some of them proposed ill-researched religious creeds with heathen elements to them, they were not in any real sense Heathen. Though some may have practised ritual magic, the movement as a whole cannot be portrayed as an order of super-powered black magicians. The wish to see them as dark warlocks is, perhaps, a last ditch attempt to explain what often seems inexplicable. How could an odd little man with a silly moustache cause so much destruction, aided only by a bunch of eccentric and resentful office clerks ~ unless, of course, he was aided by supernatural forces? Whilst it makes for a ripping yarn, it overlooks more depressing explanations about human nature which are exhibited time and again in the murderous excesses of other political and religious regimes.
Suggestions that Hitler or any of the other Nazi officials were dabbling in the occult as such are pure fiction, even Paganists (Völkish) represented by General Luddendorf were a minority among Nazis.
In fact Richard Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 published in April 2003, argues against the consensus that Nazism as a whole was either unrelated to Christianity or actively opposed to it.
He demonstrates that many participants in the Nazi movement believed that the contours of their ideology were based on a Christian understanding of
That occult and völkisch texts emanated in some cases from the same presses makes it tempting to overplay the importance of the occult-völkisch publishing enterprise a subject that has been milked by a number of authors making occult claims about National Socialism. A recent example has been “Himmler’s Crusade” by the TV script writer Christopher Hall.
It is important to realize, however, that presses focused exclusively on völkisch-occult texts belonged to a small and highly specialized sector of the overall market. Of a total of sixty-one presses, only twelve could be considered primarily völkisch. And the significance of this group shrinks further when we realize that, even combined, their publication lists were very small compared with those for a single mainstream press like Oswald Mutze or Wilhelm Friedrich. It should be clear by now, in any case, that the world of occult publishing had a structure whose complexity cannot be encompassed adequately in the völkisch -occult construct.
A useful comparison here might be made to the press of Eugen Diederichs, which published on the new racial thinking, German mysticism, and the occult. Regularly tarred with the all encompassing term volkisch, this press actually published books with neither a racialist nor a nationalist tinge, even in the 1930’s. Similarly, the Theosophical press of Paul Zillmann did more than just publish Ariosophical tracts. Neue Metaphysische Rundschau, for instance, published the racist essays of Guido von List alongside racially neutral pieces by such mainstream occult leaders as Annie Besant, H. P. Blavatsky, and Carl du Prel.
We should not, in any case, be surprised that the publishing history of the occult in
Within this larger context, publishing houses acted as one of the crucibles in which new and experimental cultural forms were generated and fused. As previous historians have suggested, presses during this period were important not just because of their publication lists but also because they acted both as cultural patrons and as cultural entrepreneurs, nurturing carefully selected cultural currents while also selling and profiting from them.
The Nirwana-Verlag fur Lebensreform, founded before World War I, was a case in point. Plugging itself as not just a publishing house but as the biggest specialized business in Germany devoted to occult texts and items, the press claimed to offer customers a variety of valuable services: ease of access (located on the posh Wilhelmstrasse, in the very heart of metropolitan Berlin), a regularly updated catalog that included hundreds of items, prompt and helpful service, and the advantage of buying from experts who had devoted years of study to the occult. Its catalog in 1922 consisted of 937 texts covering a wide variety of topics, including healthy living, human sexuality, nudism, occultism, spiritualism, magnetism, religion, Theosophy, occult novels, and astrology. Phrenological heads, scriptoscopes, and other occult props and instruments were also available for immediate sale.
As this impressive catalog of goods suggests, the German occult belonged to the larger culture of consumption. "Buy this and you will be wiser, healthier, and happier" was a standard message that appeared in innovative ways. A text printed in the 1922 catalog of the Nirwana-Verlag für Lebensreform exhorted consumers thus:
While institutions like the Nirwana-Verlag für Lebensreform were undoubtedly commercial businesses, finally, they were also more than this. The press ran a lending library well stocked with books on naturopathy, nudism, Theosophy, and occultism, sponsored lectures and demonstrations, and carried informational brochures about schools and services that customers might be interested in exploring. As should by now be clear, presses like the Nirwana-Verlag fur Lebensreform saw themselves as active agents in the vast movement for the reform of European, in this case German life. They existed not only to make money but to promote a certain lifestyle whose modern character was striking. Hans Fischer's fictional experiences had a solid basis in fact.
Already in the 1920s, astrologers certified and employed by such "professional" institutes were charging substantial fees for their services. Rudolf Sagittarius, an astrologer at the Institut fur wissenschaftliche Astrologie and Graphologie (Institute for scientific astrology and graphology) in Kiel in 1929, for instance, offered paying customers a menu of options and included the construction of a birth horoscope with an oral consultation, the construction of a birth horoscope with exact mathematical calculations, a graphological character analysis, or a graphological test for professional advice. Many of the more populist astrologers dabbled in other forms of occultism as well. They gave demonstrations of hypnosis and telepathy, occult character analysis, and occult techniques of healing.
That the "new worldview" movements, including the occult, proved remarkably adaptable to the modern marketplace did not escape contemporary notice. In a passage that might as well have applied to the occult movement, one critic lampooned Anthroposophy thus:
What is Anthroposophy? It is the department store of all ... disguised religions, for all social positions and professions, all sexes, all ages. You are a doctor? We carry four bodies and a few intermediate stages. You are a philosopher? Please, please, an infinitely rich stock, 253 world views.... You are a historical researcher? Please, go to the third floor: past and future times.
You are an optimist? Please, check in with the woman dressed in white in our basement department for reincarnation. A pessimist? It's not so bad. Please, check in with the woman dressed in black in our unrivalled department for reincarnation, located in the basement....
A poor writer? Yes, yes, hard times for the press. Well, we always have quite a few newspapers and a book press; perhaps there is something to be done. But, of course, my lady. We have an especially carefully run department for new, inconsolable widows. You are a carpenter? ... A noble profession ... Christ's father ... let's see what we can do for you.... Ah, honorable privy councillor, you are a politician and businessman? One moment please. Take a club chair and a Waldorf. You know, of course, about the director and the English minister of education ... yes, really excellent international connections ... there comes our department head for the tripartite division of the social organism.
This satire captured an important facet of German high modernity: the new worldview movements whose proliferation was integral to the genesis of this modern age owed their success not least to their adherents' adaptability to the mass marketplace, symbolized here by the department store. In this, the occult was no exception. If the many clubs and rural retreats added up to an occult public, the many presses, mail-order businesses, department stores, schools, and individual providers catering to this public added up to a vibrant occult marketplace. Indeed, occultists' emphasis on achieving satisfaction in this world rather than the next was well suited to the offerings of the modern marketplace and its ability to cater to the ethic of "personal satisfaction. "
What could Kuhlenbeck, a professor of law who soon became a vocal advocate of Germanic race purity, have had in common with the Russian writer Tolstoi, an ardent pacifist dedicated to updating Christian faith for modern times? Similarly, what could Kurt Eisner, a social-democratic activist who eventually led the short-lived Bavarian republic have had in common with Paul de Lagarde, an alienated cultural critic who located the causes of
This list of the Theosophische Societaet Germania (TSG), shows that juxtapositions pointed to a central fact about European Theosophy: from its earliest beginnings in the mid-1880’s to its formal suppression by the Nazis in 1936-37, the Theosophical project of cultural renewal via occult means proved highly adaptable to a wide spectrum of reformist trends and political ends.
Discussion of the German occult movement however, has focused almost exclusively on the supposedly occult roots of National Socialism. In their effort to locate these roots other scholars have been particularly assiduous in investigating Ariosophy, a Theosophical offshoot. Although these studies have turned up a wealth of interesting information about Ariosophy, they have tended to obscure the history of mainstream German/European Theosophy-a much larger, at least equally influential, and certainly more sociopolitically diverse movement.
To put it bluntly, Theosophy complicates our view of the occult reform culture in fruitful ways. Too often, historians have seen this reformist milieu in terms of what came later, trawling it continuously for signs of liberalism and proto-Fascism. Valuable as this scholarship has been for our understanding of Nazism, it has often misread signs of a thriving reformist culture with political leanings that defy easy categorization. Theosophy is a case in point, for although it did produce Ariosophy, it was also an important site for reframing traditional liberal ideas around modern occult ones.
Understood as a political tradition not easily reducible to social or economic factors, liberalism in its classical form rested on a belief in the inevitability of progress, an emphasis on the sanctity and central importance of the individual, a hostility to any church claiming possession of an absolute truth, and a socially integrative vision of a coming classless society in which citizens would enjoy equal rights before the law. In late-nineteenth-century
In Britain, where the Theosophical movement was particularly strong, Theosophists found a variety of political homes, from left-wing feminism and socialism in the late nineteenth century to right-wing fascism in the 1920’s and 193o’s as we will see in the following lectures focusing on the occult revival in the UK.
Early Theosophists understood themselves to belong to a spiritual vanguard dedicated to the cultural renewal of modern life on an occult basis. Critical of their era's rampant materialism and spiritual poverty, Theosophists sought to create a so-called "sixth root race," or universal brotherhood, that would live in full cognizance of humanity's spiritual nature and incorporate people from around the world.
Proceeding again now with our examination of German Theosophy, Wilhelm Hubbe-Schleiden’s life, presents a historical puzzle typical of the political ambiguities embedded in fin-de-siecle reform culture of
Born to a Hamburg family that included various civil servants and a leading biologist, he received a law degree from the University of Leipzig in 1869 before going on to London, where he worked first for a large business and then for the German consul. In 1875, he moved to
Quickly becoming involved in the growing movement to acquire German colonies, especially in
The seven years Hubbe-Schleiden spent as a colonial propagandist have earned him a standard place in histories of German liberalism, a political tradition often invoked to explain the origins of National Socialism. The historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, for instance, singles Hubbe-Schleiden out as a primary author of the ideology of "social imperialism," which cast
Woodruff Smith, another historian of German imperialism, contests many of Wehler's conclusions, but persists in associating Hubbe-Schleiden with illiberal politics. Labeling him an early "radical conservative" and a "racist authoritarian," Smith sees Hubbe-Schleiden as one of the first of a new breed of conservatives who used colonial politics to fan the flames of German nationalism, anti-Semitism, and anti-industrialism. Both Wehler and Smith, in short, place Hubbe-Schleiden in the pantheon of late-nineteenth-century proto-Nazis.
The problem with stopping the story about him there is that HubbeSchleiden's three decades as a Theosophist do not fit neatly under the banner of German illiberalism.
Consider, for example, a letter Hubbe-Schleiden wrote in 1911, long after he had left colonial politics and had embraced Theosophy. Here, in what was hardly a ringing endorsement of the conservative political culture of the Kaiserreich, Hubbe-Schleiden berated German leaders, including
How are we to reconcile these two versions of Hubbe-Schleiden-the first a man of apparently deep conservatism, nationalism, and racism, the second a man who could plead for universal brotherhood on the eve of the war? A fuller consideration of Hubbe-Schleiden's activities as a Theosophist suggests that the truth may lie somewhere uncomfortably between. Hubbe-Schleiden emerges less as a proto-Nazi than as a politically ambiguous modernist engaged in a rather bizarre quest for both personal and national salvation.
Whereas his public writings in the late 1870s and early 188os made the case for
Desperate for release, he finally drafted a letter to Henry Steel Olcott, the president of the international Theosophical Society:
Following his conversion to Theosophy in 1884, Hubbe-Schleiden participated no more in colonial politics, but this did not mean that he forgot his colonial past. In 1888, for instance, a German peasant woman's clairvoyant talents reminded him of visions that he had observed twenty years before among the inhabitants of equatorial
This last comment also points to an underlying missionary zeal informing Hubbe-Schleiden's efforts on both the colonial and Theosophical fronts. If he had insisted as a colonial propagandist that
Hubbe-Schleiden's wholehearted embrace of the "transcendent world view," indeed, betrayed the links as well as breaks with his colonial past. The inaugural issue of the occult journal Sphinx in 1886, for example, carried HiibbeSchleiden's statement on what this view entailed:
Against the backdrop of the 1880’s, a decade of widespread social unrest and political division, Hubbe-Schleiden earlier advocacy of imperial expansion gave way to an embrace of a transcendent worldview. In other words, while his concern with addressing "the social problem" remained constant, his line of attack was new.
Hubbe-Schleiden's understanding of the social problem after his Theosophical conversion however continued to center on the problem of
Echoing the convoluted justifications offered by "new imperialists" all over
Another conceptual continuity between Hubbe-Schleiden's brand of Theosophy and the colonialist milieu concerned his frequent invocation of Weltpolitik (world policy), which by 1914 was a buzzword in
In his effort to the Theosophical cause, and his own peculiar brand of Weltpolitik, Hubbe-Schleiden also believed that he had a special mission to fulfill, a mission that both linked him to and divided him from his colonial past. Reflecting back on his life in 1911, he noted that his major task had been to expand
If the constant element in his activities as both colonialist and Theosophist had been the expansion of horizons, what was new after his conversion in 1884 was what kind of horizon he aimed to expand, and by what means. As a colonialist, he had sought to expand
Making the transcendent worldview "scientific" and therefore acceptable to modern-minded Germans became Hubbe-Schleiden's obsession from this point in 1884 until his death in 1916.
Thus when Rudolf Steiner went to visit Hubbe-Schleiden in his home around 1900 (according to Steiner in one of his lectures), he found his host's apartment full of elaborate wire contraptions. On closer inspection, it turned out that these, contraptions were model chains of molecules in their physical and transcendent configurations. The wire models, in other words, were one of Hubbe-Schleiden's more graphic ways of offering scientific proof with which to persuade Germans to accept Theosophy and its message of transcendent reality.
So from describing Africans as utterly uncivilized in 1875, to articulating his vision of a Theosophical Weltpolitik dedicated to bringing all the world's races together in a higher civilization in 1914, the complexities of Hubbe-Schleiden's life points to the larger context within which European’s and in this particular case a German embraced Theosophical occultism. His simultaneous advocacy of Theosophical Weltpolitik and universal brotherhood, indeed, suggest that he was neither a pro-Nazi nor an oldfashioned conservative dedicated to maintaining an undemocratic status quo at home and building a strong German presence abroad. He emerges, rather, as a politically ambiguous reformer repackaging traditional liberal themes, including a deep faith in progress and the underlying kinship of the world's peoples (as long one kept in mind who the small and who the big or still bigger, brothers were as is the case in Theosophy), in spiritual terms.
And one way to solve the historical puzzle of Hubbe-Schleiden is to invoke, once again, the concept of modernism. What other concept could possibly encompass Hubbe-Schleiden's crusading youth dedicated to addressing social and political questions in a new way, his lifelong embrace of a dizzying array of reformist causes and tools, his hopscotching from one knowledge realm to another, and finally, his turn to the pursuit of a "scientific religion" grounded on the investigation of occult phenomena? Seen in this way, Hubbe-Schleiden's life gives us insight into the politically complex byways through which the occult modernism of the fin de siecle emerged in
In June 1914, as nationalist sentiments presaging the outbreak of war rose across Europe, Hubbe-Schleiden speculated, German Theosophists would now have to find ways to induce their compatriots to reject petty nationalism and embrace "world civilization" (Weltkultur) instead.
The reality of the occult world became an article of everyday knowledge for him, as his actions over the next few years testified. In
In the case of Franz Hartmann contact with a talented medium in
A letter expressing this desire to joint the Theosophical Society was followed by an anxious wait, which soon ended with the arrival of a reply from Olcott and Blavatsky that, on behalf of the Masters, invited Hartmann to come to India to collaborate with them in the Theosophical project.
Initially at the Adyar headquarters and then in the Theosophical movement more generally, Hartmann finally found what he had long sought for in vain: personal spiritual experience ensconced in an intellectually satisfying framework. Sittings with Blavatsky became occasions not for communion with dead spirits from the beyond but for profoundly moving encounters while she conversed with a Master. Although he himself was unable to see the Master and therefore had to rely on Blavatsky for full account of the conversation, Hartmann nevertheless experienced this mediated presence as a powerful stimulus to spiritual consciousness, recalling later that the Master's "influence pervaded my whole being and filled me with a sensation of indescribable bliss.
Admitting that Blavatsky produced occult phenomena not through her own mediumship but through conscious fraud, Hartmann nevertheless directed Theosophists to focus on her purpose, which was "to induce the people to study the higher laws of life, to raise them up to a higher conception of eternal truth, and teach them to do their own thinking.”
At times, Hartmann echoed Hubbe-Schleiden's laments about those Theosophists who forgot that the overarching goal of Theosophy was universal brotherhood. In a particularly scathing reference to this tendency of some Theosophists to dwell excessively on the subgoals of comparative study and occult research, for example, Hartmann dismissed those who pursued the former as grasping for mere "multitudes of facts" (Vielwisserei) and the latter after mere ‘dreaming around’ (Schwärmerei). But in the end, whatever his ideological commitments, Hartmann's brand of openly expressed and self-focused occultism soon became dominant in the German Theosophical movement.
Occurring at multiple levels of the movement, it was especially clear in the life of Rudolf Steiner, who devoted most of his adult years to developing an occult system suitable for “incorporation into modern life.”
Steiner's commitment to scientific method echoed Hubbe-Schleiden, while his frank dedication to convincing others of the reality of the spiritual world by helping them experience it within themselves echoed Hartmann.
While still in high school, Steiner read Kant and Hegel, and Steiner felt pulled first to philosophy and then to the arts.
Steiner submitted a dissertation to Heinrich von Stein, a philosopher of Christian Platonism at the university in
This also resulted in an invitation to deliver a lecture on Nietzsche at the home of the famous Berlin Theosophists Cay and Sophie von Brockdorff. Steiner later wrote that this speech had great personal significance for him since it allowed him, perhaps for the first time, "to speak in words coined from the world of spirit."
An exchange between Steiner and his pupil Eliza von Moltke, the wife of a famous general, Helmuth von Moltke, gives a sense of how this worked in practice. In a 1904 letter, Moltke begged Steiner to send her instructions on how to work on herself in order to be able to help humanity. Leaving aside the question of how to help humanity, Steiner sent back a personalized exercise plan, with an accompanying note implying that these instructions came not from him but from higher powers (presumably. the Great White Brotherhood) utilizing him as a vehicle of communication .
The nature of these "exercises" was made clear in a letter Steiner sent to another pupil, a science teacher named Hans Wohlbold, to whom Steiner explained that the purpose of his exercises was to train the mind to perceive spiritual reality directly.
His desire to establish a seamless link between the occult and the everyday represented a decisive break with nineteenth-century spiritualism and its focus on the trance personality of mediums. It also broke with the original Theosophical program of bending the occult to the progressive enlightenment of humanity and the achievement of universal brotherhood. For Steiner, the occult in its dominant tenor was individualist, not universalist. The occult now became a matter of personal will and conscious expression.
These trends away from an old emphasis on universalism to a new focus on individualism did not go unremarked or indeed uncriticized by other Theosophists. In a letter to a friend written in 1911, for instance, Hubbe-Schleiden bewailed Steiner's following among German Theosophists, implying that Steiner's teachings were nothing more than subjective occultism. Against this tendency, Hubbe-Schleiden reiterated his commitment to occultism based both on "authentic science and philosophy." In a series of letters written to Steiner that same year, Hubbe-Schleiden stated (not quite honestly) that what had drawn him to the Theosophical Society in the first place in 1884 was not the occult but rather the project of universal brotherhood, implying that Steiner needed to return to Theosophical basics .
Such complaints, however, did little to curtail the rising Theosophical tide of self-focused occultism. At a 1912 meeting hosted by the appropriately named Internationale Theosophische Verbrüderung (International Theosophical brotherhood), for instance, lectures featuring personal development dominated the program. These included talks with titles like "Barriers to Self Knowledge" and "The Meaning of Art for the Life of the Spirit.” Businesses and commercial clearing houses also enthusiastically exploited the Theosophical cult of the self for profit. A good example of this was the Zentrale fuer praktischen Okkultismus (Center for practical occultism), which took "know thyself" ("Erkenne dich selbst") as its slogan in the 1920’s. Sporting the common Theosophical symbol of the sphinx, its promotional brochure divided into departments of astrology, chiromancy, graphology, geomancy, dream interpretation, and so on. The flyer urged potential customers to send in their photos, samples of handwriting, dream descriptions, and questionnaires along with a fee.
The ecumenical and utopian rendition of some Theosophists contrasted sharply with the words of Karl Kern also a Theosophist initially, who insisted however instead that "God is purified race! Coming from a member of the Theosophically influenced movement known as Ariosophy, Kern's statement neatly captured the volkisch variant of German Theosophical thinking.
At a basic level, there should be nothing surprising about such links between Theosophy and the volkisch milieu, given the similar conditions in which both movements were born. With roots in the 1880’s, both belonged to the experimental field of fin-de-siecle modernism and overlapped significantly with the Lebensreform movement. Tapping the spiritual dissatisfactions of their age, both attracted followers hungry for a new kind of religiosity and proved adept at exploiting the new technologies of mass communication to spread their message. Both, finally, tapped the imaginative powers of the occult to articulate an "alternative modernity."'
And yet, just as it would be a mistake to ignore the overlap between Theosophy and the völkisch movement, one must also be careful not to stretch the links between these two movements too far. Only eight groups in
This is not to say that considerations of race played no role in mainstream Theosophy: race did in fact matter to the movement as seen in the example of the …. Theosophy aimed, after all, to bring the so-called "sixth root race" into existence, and its cosmology invoked a complicated hierarchy of racial development to explain the trajectory of human history.
Drawing on the popularity of Social Darwinian thought, Theosophical doctrine mixed biological and spiritual notions of race in an often incoherent manner. Theosophists could insist that the race to which one belonged had primarily to do with one's degree of spiritual maturity, yet at the same time claim that such biologically understood "races" as the North Indian Aryans had achieved a particularly high degree of spiritual maturity. Considerations of race, moreover, could enter the Theosophical milieu in other guises. Rudolf Steiner, for instance, often claimed that white Europeans had achieved a higher level of spiritual perfection than the African, Asian, or Jewish races. Sometimes, he even went so far as to claim that in the grand cycle of spiritual evolution, the Germanic race had advanced the furthest. At other times and with comparable frequency, however, Steiner reiterated the core spiritual unity of all the world's peoples.
In a private letter that Hubbe-Schleiden wrote in 1902, he dismissed an aspiring Theosophical leader as nothing more than a "Berlin Jew." However, it is important to remember that this was a relatively typical statement for the times, and one that Hubbe-Schleiden did not voice in public gatherings. So although concepts of race and certain forms of prejudice were undeniably to be found in the mainstream German Theosophical movement, in no way, were overt racism or anti-Semitism enshrined at the movement's ideological core.
Ariosophists, however, the most important exemplars of Theosophical occultism in the völkisch mode, rested on the thinking and writing of the Austrian Guido von List, who had made a name for himself in the 1870’s as a writer of fantasy novels about a glorious Teutonic past, and read key Theosophical works.
Relying in part on a series of clairvoyant visions received at the supposed ruins of ancient Teutonic battles, he began to imagine an ancient religion called Wotanism. By 1908, his fantasies extended backwards to a Teutonic past in which an Aryan priesthood presided over a racially homogeneous society, and forwards to an ideal future in which Germans would live once more in a state of total race purity. Through publications and the founding of the Guido von List Society in 1908, he drew a following among völkisch groups all over German-speaking
Links between the Ariosophical milieu and early National Socialism bring up the question of just what Ariosophy and Theosophy did and did not share, beginning at the most superficial level with the movements' names. Coined in 1915 by Joerg Lanz von Liebenfels, one of List's most important followers, Ariosophy played on the term Theosophy.
In the preface to the Handbuch der Ariosophy (Handbook of Ariosophy, 1931-32), for instance, the publisher Herbert Reichstein noted Ariosophists' support for such occult practices as mind reading, clairvoyant vision, and prophecy. These "Kabbalograms," he claimed, would help customers answer such weighty questions as whom to marry or whether and when to have a child. Ariosophy and Theosophy were also united in invoking the occult knowledge of spiritual masters. According to Ariosophical lore, occult knowledge belonged exclusively to an elite priesthood, a clear echo of the Theosophical concept of a Great White Brotherhood. But behind these similarities lay an important difference based in Ariosophists' rejection of the Theosophical interpretation of occult knowledge. Whereas mainstream Theosophists believed that the main purpose of the Great White Brotherhood was to share its occult knowledge with humanity in spite of giving each ‘race its place; without limits to race, religion, or sex, for Ariosophists, occult knowledge was a tool for erecting a racially pure social order.
Theosophists and Ariosophists however, on occasion sought out the same spiritual gurus. Ariosophist Seiling (calling himself a Kathar), patronized the mystic Alois Mailander, whose other disciples included Franz Hartmann and Wilhelm Hubbe-Schleiden, neither of whom belonged to the Ariosophical milieu. So Theosophists and Ariosophists moved indeed in the same social circles without bothering too much about their movements' ideological differences. Or when List's Die Bilderschrift der Ario-Germanen (The picture-writing of the Ario-Germans) appeared in 1910, Franz Hartmann praised it in his Theosophical periodical.
Yet significant is the fact that voelkisch groups that did make use of Theosophical concepts did not absorb the Theosophical cult of the self or a practical sense for universal brotherhood to any great degree. Rather, they appropriated Theosophy's invocation of an idealized past and cosmic scheme of racial evolution in order to underpin their developing interest in imagining a new social order based on nationalist grounds.
And provides an example of how far nineteenth-century ideologies and institutions like Theosophy could migrate in the twentieth century. A fruitful comparison here might be made with eugenics. Given the broad popularity of eugenic thought in early-twentieth-century, it is not to remarkable for it to also become absorbed by Theosophical circles to some degree. Rudolf Steiner frequently spoke of ‘Eugenic’ Occultism as a future development and around the same time
The Nazi-Occult myth however started late 1930’s in
Der Spiegel of 7 September 1985, however concluded that Rauschning’s “Conversations with Hitler”: are a falsification, an historical distortion from the first to the last page. And Der Spiegel revealed that Rauschning contrary to the claims in “Conversations with Hitler” did not have even a single a private meeting with Hitler.
And in the latter book one reads that in Herman Rauschning allowed two French reporters to re-write his anti-Nazi tract published in
Cultural affinities between occultism and members of the Nazi party under Hitler were less than the average percentage of the population that were interested in related subjects in 1930’s
In fact the Nazi’s hostility to the occult movement achieved its institutional form first in the Sicherheitsdienst (SD-the security service) and later under the umbrella of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA-the Reich security main office).
An SS officer named Kolrop assumed charge of a special desk dedicated to monitoring sects, including occult ones. Germans with ties to the occult movement were institutionally defined as sectarians, a distinction they shared with Mormons, Christian Scientists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whereas the Christian sects were officially classified as religious ones, however, occultists who adhered to Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Rosicrucianism, Ariosophy, astrology, the teachings of Bo Yin Ra, Mazdaznan, New Thought, and piritualism were considered-along with Freemasons-to be members of “worldview sects.
In the eyes of Nazi officials, this was a stubbornness that turned sects into a distinct barrier to the creation of a united Volksgemeinschaft.
The projects pursued by the SD and RSHA were varied. An RSHA program description drawn up circa 1939 listed a representative spectrum of goals for a statistical study of sects on which Kolrop’s team was to embark. The team would monitor meetings for any communist and pacifist elements that might be at work and gather information to aid the eventual dissolution of sects altogether. This information, in fact, was to result in the publication of a special reference work to help police outposts coordinate their response to local sectarian activity. Accompanying this reference work would be a series of special reports on individual sects like the Seventh Day Adventists and two spiritualist groups known as the Gottesbund Tanatra (Tanatra association of God) and the Bund der Kämpfer für Glaube und Wahrheit (Association of fighters for faith and truth).
Kolrop codified these efforts into a list of the top ten dangers that occult and other religious sects like Theosophy and Anthroposphy as sects posed to the Nazi state, Kolrop finally came out with a simple declaration: sectarian activity threatened the Volksgemeinschaft merely by promoting an alternative worldview; it thus encouraged disunity in the Third Reich. In other words, it was not so much that members of sects were seen as political opponents of Nazism, but that their adherence to an independent worldview-one distinct from National Socialism-necessarily defined them as resisting the will of the state. This resistance, both to giving up their own worldview and accepting the National Socialist one, was at the most basic level what cast them as ideological foes of the Third Reich.
Although the SD and the RSHA lumped all sects together as ideologically suspect, they did not thereby assume that all sects menaced the Volksgemeinschaft in the same way. As it turned out, police observers detected many different ways in which sectarians refused allegiance to the new order. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, were persecuted particularly for their refusal to give the German salute, swear the German oath, or perform army service. Members of occult groups may have participated in this type of refusal, but it was probably not these failings that landed them on the Nazi blacklist; the documents suggest that instead it was two specific transgressions that earned occult groups the epithet staatsfeindlich. A transgression concerned occultists’ alleged ability to mesmerize and manipulate the masses. As one report put it, occultists “hypnotized” the masses with spiritualist mischief (Unfug) and poisoned their minds with medieval superstitions.
This latter transgression put occultists in the same class as Freemasons. Sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who attracted older women and simple people from the lowest classes, in contrast, seemed more benign. Occultists thus rated the same danger level as Freemasons because they were perceived as offering a worldview whose popularity among intellectuals gave it a dangerous cultural authority with the masses.
Such inconsistent views on the dangers posed by occult sects revealed tensions in the Nazi state’s attitudes toward the occult,tensions with which officials in Wilhelmine and
Nazi observers could not grasp what was so compelling about occult leaders like the völkisch spiritualist Joseph Weissenberg. Able to see occultists only as unruly dissidents from the dominant ideology, Nazi observers thus were forced to attribute mysterious powers to the very occultists they sought to expose as charlatans. Informed by numerical proof such as this, those looking out from the SD and RSHA at the spiritual landscape of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s were alarmed at the rapid sectarian spread following the seizure of power in 1933. Searching for the underlying causes of this growth, the officials of the SD and RSHA were inclined to accuse organized Protestantism for failing to attract believers and thus forcing those with strong religious urges to turn elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment.
An anonymous report dated January 1937, for instance, lamented the dismal legal tools available to wage the war against occultism. Occult activities, the report’s author claimed, escaped state action because of legal loopholes that no one had yet bothered to close. Although such activities stupefied and confused the public and promoted non-Nazi and non-Germanic thinking, the author pointed out, they were neither Marxist nor Jewish and thus remained without penalty. To rectify this dangerous situation, the author recommended that at the very least legal measures be enacted against literature written from an astrological, characterological, or occult perspective.
Eventually, the regime not only censored occult publications but also embarked on a much more sweeping series of operations against occult activities in general. These actions came in two great waves, the first in 1937, the second in 1941. An official decree in July 1937 dissolved Freemasonic lodges, Theosophical and Anthroposophical circles, and related groups throughout
Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the SD, revealed the extent of a police response in a June 1941 report on the secret actions pending against the occult movement. The justification for this crackdown, he explained, was simple:
In the current fateful struggle of the German people, it is necessary to maintain the spiritual as well as physical health of both the individual and the entire Volk.
Police were ordered to shut down any presses printing occult materials, to confiscate any publications they found there, and to arrest all astrologers, occultists, spiritualists, prophets, faith healers, Christian Scientists, Anthroposophists, Theosophists, Ariosophists, and adherents of any similar creeds. Detainees were either to be sent to concentration camps or put to work on useful projects. The crackdown, which was to go into effect on
An irony embedded in this development was that it occurred under the aegis of police chief Himmler, who in his more private moments, was inclined to maintain a somewhat more open attitude toward specific occult practices. Like many figures before him, figures of an utterly different political persuasion, Himmler dearly could not resolve the issue consistently.
When Hitler rose to power in 1933, occult life was indeed flourishing in
If Weisl’s picture of a broad European stage upon which all manner of occultists performed for cosmopolitan audiences reflected the situation in 1933, it was a portrayal he would have been forced to alter just a few months later since almost immediately following the Nazi seizure of power, a gathering wave of official hostility engulfed the fifty-year-old occult movement.
Although initially some groups that had been active before the seizure of power continued their programs and a few new groups sprang up, decrees issued from 1935 onward and the police actions that accompanied them eventually forced most occultists underground.
While groups like the Zentralbibliothek der okkulte Welditeratur carried on with such activities after 1933, new groups emerged to join them. Hanns-Maria Clobes, for instance, managed to establish the Archiv fuer Reinkarnation (Archive for reincarnation) in
But while groups like the Zentralbibliothek and individuals like Clobes and Schurig continued to sound pre-1933 themes, other parts of the occult movement began to display signs of nazification. The Esoterische Studiengesellschaft (Esoteric study group) in Leipzig, for example, which continued to meet much as it had before the Nazi seizure of power, sponsoring frequent public lectures on characterology, chirology, graphology, and occultism, showed signs that it had made adjustments to the new realities of Nazi Germany. A promotional pamphlet published in 1936 closed by declaring the group’s solidarity with Hitler’s antimaterialism, on the one hand, and aggressive nationalism, on the other.
Antimaterialism, of course, had and still is a standard feature of Theosophical groups for decades, but the mention of nationalism was decidedly new. Theosophical groups, both within
Although such attempts to nazify were not always cosmetic, even occultists genuinely enthusiastic about the new regime found it difficult to earn official sanction. In 1935, for example, the Ariosophist Ernst Issberner-HaIdane published his book Arisches Weistum (Aryan wisdom). It included chapters on spiritualism, astrology, clairvoyance, telepathy, and chiromancy, all of which he pitched as forms of ancient Germanic practice. Consistent with his title, Issberner-Haldane took care to voice not only his wish that the occult sciences serve the cause of National Socialism, but also the opinion that Jews belonged to a lower race and that the witch burnings of the Middle Ages had been a crime against the German people.52 Despite its enthusiastic anti-Semitism and narrow German nationalism, however, Arisches Weistum did not fare well among official observers. When the book ended up in police hands in 1935, its reader expressed skepticism about the Nazi merits of the text, which he judged to be much closer to Anthroposophy-well on its way to being labeled officially staatsfeindlich-than National Socialism. The text’s primary threat, the policeman concluded, was that it might be spreading false information about the racial history of
Nor was it only bureaucrats who regarded such nazification efforts by occultists with a suspicious eye. In 1935, Ernst Pistor, editor of the anti-Semitic periodical Judenkenner (Jew-connoisseur), published a short piece detailing the recent crackdown in
In 1935, the Horpena joined Mazdaznan on a national blacklist, followed a year later by the Gottesbund Tanatra and Gnosis. Occult publishing enterprises were shut down as well. In May 1937 several astrological journals, including Astrale Warte, were banned in
Restrictive policies like these, of course, did not necessarily translate into the immediate cessation of occult activities, as the official police files show. A telegram to the main office of the Gestapo in
The persistence shown by Weissenberg’s followers was mirrored in case after case as occultists simply moved their meetings, trade, and beliefs underground. And police files continued to record their transgressions. A 1939 report to the Gestapo office in
A police raid in 1940 on a villa in Kirschlag Linz revealed a covert Anthroposophical school with daily lectures, discussions, and exercises.
And despite the ban on astrological publications, a report prepared by the German propaganda ministry in 1939 noted that three astrological newspapers published out of
The propaganda ministry’s files also contained a report on a Professor W. A. Christiansen, who was still giving lectures with titles like “A Review of Mysterious Forces” in the summer after Hess’s flight to
An example is an the above mentioned exponent of the liberal wing of Lebensphilosophie, Verweyen born to a Catholic family in 1883, he finished doctoral work in philosophy in 1905 and then, like so many of his contemporaries, embarked on a period of intense personal exploration. He visited Theosophical circles, immersed himself in the works of Nietzsche and Wagner (like Steiner, at least Nietze) , dabbled in monism, embraced Lebensreform and vegetarianism, and became a poet, composer, and a pacifist. In the midst of all this, he also found time to finish his habilitation in philosophy in 1908.
Active in the Theosophical Liberal-Katholische Kirche (
Whatever the byways he had traversed, Verweyen’s interests and activities clearly tended to the ecumenical, pacifistic, and even anarchical, interests and activities from which his occult predilections were inextricable. This was also what landed him on a Nazi blacklist in 1934, when the regime forced him to give up his chair in philosophy at the
Verweyen and also the stage clairvoyant Hanussen paid for their transgressions with their lives a price for their crimes that most astrologers, clairvoyants, hypnotists, and other occult seers in
That occult and völkisch texts emanated in some cases from the same presses makes it tempting to overplay the importance of the occult-völkisch publishing enterprise a subject that has been milked by a number of authors making occult claims about National Socialism. In fact the only affinity that complicated the Nazi’s hostility of the occult, from Ariosophy to Theosophy, to Anthroposophy and so on, showed up with health practices and programs, some of which tapped the same currents of Lebensreform as the occult movement. In the 1920s, a deep antagonism toward conventional medicine and the strong conviction that modern life had damaged their souls and bodies led many Germans of all political persuasions, including fascism, to embrace nature cures, folk remedies, vegetarianism, fresh-air exercise, Anthroposophic medicine, and other, similar practices. Germans committed to both National Socialism and Lebensreform, indeed, dedicated themselves to recreating a life in harmony with the laws of nature and biology.
Such naturalism was part and parcel of the Nazi quest for a “sanitary utopia” in which pioneering work in public health-an antismoking campaign, a concern with food additives, and a “war on cancer”-was joined to genocide.
To appease the Nazi’s the Anthroposophical society (before it was forbidden in Germany after Hess failed to make a peace deal with England) even went so far as to pressure its Jewish members to leave, which most of them did but not without bitter feelings. Although Hitler, despised occultists or the belief in a ‘spiritual world’, two members of the wider Nazi leadership did cultivate some connections to the occult milieu, Rudolf Hess interested in Anthroposphy and naturopathy, plus Heinrich Himmler with an interrest in Astrology and known to have read the Baghavat Gita as I will next describe in detail. But then again this would come to the same average population percentage that also later(including today) has an interest in the ‘esoteric’. Take for example President Reagan who had his schedule based on horoscopes provided by his wife and so on.
Hess, follower of homeopathy and proponent of organic food, followed a strict diet. And besides being a protector of Waldorf education, also Astrological horoscopes and magnetic therapies were regular features of his life. Hess’s predilection for such pursuits, in fact, became a tool for casting him as mentally ill in May 1941, although send by Hitler, parachuted into Britian in an attempt to end the war on the western front. A public relations disaster for
It was high time, Hitler had reportedly insisted, to rid
Intestinal spasms had plagued Himmler and refused to improve under the care of regular doctors. In desperation, Himmler had finally consulted a naturopathic practitioner named Felix Kersten at some point in the 1920’s. When Kersten’s treatment afforded him some relief, Himmler became a convert to alternative medicine. Once war broke out in 1940, Kersten was trapped in
Kersten’s memoirs revealed, that Himmler also consulted one or two astrologers during the war, although apparently without much faith in their predictive powers. Moreover, although Himmler had also expressed a deep antipathy toward Catholicism, the religion of his Bavarian youth, this by no means meant that he had no religious inclinations. Kersten’s memoirs showed that Himmler in fact believed in some form of reincarnation and was sufficiently enthused about Oriental religions to read the Bhagavad Gita. The most dramatic link between the occult and any top Nazi official was with certainty Wiligut, who had served as an Austrian officer during the Great War before discovering around 1920 his special talent for clairvoyantly recovering knowledge about ancient Germanic history, a knowledge he claimed by virtue of his blood relation to a long chain of sages. By the early 1920’s, Wiligut had become convinced that Jews, Freemasons, and the Catholic Church-whom he (and also Theosophists and Anthroposophists ) blamed for
Himmler’s astrological dablings were reported in detail in 1968 by Wilhelm. What the cases of Hess and Himmler reveal that particularly fringe medical practices, and in the case of Himmler’s dependence on an alternative healer accompanied his willingness to sample the services of the astrologer Wulff and read the Bhagavad Gita, a text central to the Theosophical portion of the occult movement. On the other hand an assessment that other top Nazis echoed, Martin Bormann, chief of the party chancellery, made his antipathy to occultism perfectly dear in a secret report issued in May 1941. The report linked superstition, faith in miracles, and astrology together as channels for the distribution of propaganda hostile to the state. Occultists, in his opinion, were using medieval methods to sow discontent among the masses. Borman , Göbbels, and also Rosenberg expanded this to mean Ariosophy and other groups attempting to “Germanize” Christianity and others who rejected Christianity as unsalvageable and instead quested after a Germanic neo-paganism. Activists in the völkisch milieu by the end of the first WW agreed on the need for German renewal but disagreed, often intensely, on the appropriate means by which to effect it. Guido von List saw the occult as a tool for Germanic salvation, other völkisch leaders did not. The criticisms with which this latter group assailed occultists, in fact, eventually found their way into the rationale behind the Nazi regime’s persecution of the entire German occult movement.
During the 1920s and early 1930s, the völkisch movement included several theorists who lumped occultists with Freemasons and maligned both groups as participants in an international conspiracy against German culture. For these theorists, one of the worst crimes of the Freemasons had been to promote a dangerous cosmopolitanism that led to Jewish emancipation in the nineteenth century. Such views became part of official ideology in 1933, when Hitler came to power. Although at this point Freemasonic circles in
For example Alfred Rosenberg, who later became head of the party’s Foreign Affairs Department during the Third Reich, in publications like Die Spur des Juden im Wandel der Zeiten (The tracks of the Jew through the ages) and Das Verbrechen der Freimaurerei (The crime of Freemasonry) 1921, Rosenberg early on had developed the notion that Germany had been undermined by an international conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons.
He argued repeatedly that Freemasons were natural conspirators and the born enemies of the German people. Not content to limit his views to books and longer essays,
He reiterated this message in 1930 when he published his famous tome The Myth of the Twentieth Century, which claimed that it was thanks to Freemasons’ “preaching of ‘humanitarianism’ and the doctrine of human equality [that] every Jew, Negro or Mulatto can become a citizen of equal rights in a
Fascism is usually described as a combination of pseudo-religious attitudes advocating an authoritarian hierarchical government. Decisions are made in secrecy and can be maintained by force or by a press entity with conflicting interests.
In academic terms, while Nazism during the 1930’s was a metapolitical ideology, seeing itself only as a utility by which an allegorical condition of its people was to be achieved, fascism was a squarely anti-socialist form of statism that existed by virtue and as an end in and of itself. The Nazi movement spoke of class-based society as the enemy, and wanted to unify the racial element above established classes. The Fascist movement, on the other hand, sought to preserve the class system and uphold it as the foundation of established and desirable culture.