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How the Nazis Really Felt About Witchcraft

From "Ancient Aliens" to the "Daily Mail," many have sought to weigh in on the Nazis' supposed obsession with the occult. Following the recent discovery of a massive Nazi "occult library" in the Czech Republic, we asked a historian about Heinrich...

Lauren Oyler

Lauren Oyler

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In season two, episode five, the television show Ancient Aliens asks an important and largely unexamined historical question: "Did alien technology from the distant past give Hitler and the Nazi's an almost unbeatable advantage in WWII?"

The episode draws on Hitler's "obsess[ion]" with "ancient mythology" and "the occult" to argue that the Führer might have constructed a time machine. Ignoring the marketing-copy stretch of that almost, the idea is that the Nazi leadership's documented interest in "ancient alternative technologies" might have also led them to discover and plumb ancient alternative time-machine technologies, giving their empire an Aryan advantage drawn from Germany's past greatness.

I do not think the time-machine thing happened, but some of the Nazi leadership was into the occult, a factoid that weirdly delights many current lovers of witchcraft. While this delight is predicated on the idea that the occult is fantastical and bogus, it nevertheless seems to highlight the Nazis' hypocrisy—they also persecuted occultists—and not emphasize present-day witches' connections to Nazism. A couple of weeks ago, in fact, a few websites gleefully reported the discovery of a "rare library of books on witches and the occult" in a Czech library. Part of the library, the outlets reported, was assembled by Heinrich Himmler, the very evil head of the Schutzstaffel (SS) who was particularly interested in witchcraft. (One of his theories went that the witch trials were an attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to obliterate the German race.) It contains a number of Norwegian Freemasonic texts and, possibly, portions of Himmler's so-called "Witch Library."

When I emailed Peter Staudenmaier, an assistant professor of modern German history at Marquette University and author of the book Between Occultism and Nazism, to ask about the implications of the recently discovered occult library, however, he initially scoffed. "I won't have much juicy to say," Staudenmaier wrote. "My basic take is that a lot of the recent attention is overblown and misguided." I called him up to see what he meant.

Heinrich Himmler. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

BROADLY: In the email you sent agreeing to this interview, you said you think all of the media attention on the Nazi occult "library" is overblown. Why?
Peter Staudenmaier: Yes. We've known for many, many years that a lot of this material got collected in the late 1930s and early 1940s. We've known for years that much of it went missing in the course of the war. Nobody really knew if it was destroyed, or if it would be found again, but Prague is a very likely place for that sort of thing to turn up. It's one of the main places where that branch of the Nazis sent this sort of material. In a sense, it's a reasonable and almost expected kind of discovery. It doesn't seem to me to be earth-shatteringly new in that sense.

Why are the libraries so dense? They're just all the books that the Nazis sent out of Germany?
Out of countries that they occupied, so that's apparently why the Norwegian stuff is there. That's my guess, anyway. But there were also books that they collected in Germany itself. There was a branch of the SD [Sicherheitsdienst]—the SD is sort of like the intelligence arm of the SS; it was the branch of the SS that did research and kept tabs on the supposed enemies of the state, etc. One of the bureaus of the SS paid attention to Freemasons, to occultists—they kind of lumped all of these groups together in a way that doesn't really make much sense but makes sense in a Nazi mindset. What they would do when they'd dissolve these groups, part of the SD would usually confiscate all of the material from the groups. So they'd confiscate their archives, their libraries, or what have you. Then they'd send them somewhere. It's not been entirely clear where that material ended up by 1945.

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There seems to be a little confusion about whether the Nazis subscribed to these occultist beliefs themselves. A lot of the articles reporting on these finds suggest that these uncovered libraries are uncovered Nazi libraries.
There's a lot of confusion about that.

Can you explain?
In my view, it's pretty much exactly the opposite. The reason the Nazis collected this stuff was not because the Nazis believed in it. It's more because a branch of the Nazis thought that these groups presented a possible danger to Nazism because they were committed to their own ideologies, to their own rituals, to their own what-have-you's. These groups were listed as ostensible enemies—but a lot of them, for what it's worth, were not enemies. A lot of these groups were very nationalistic. A lot of them supported Nazis. But that didn't matter. In the eyes of the SDs, if you belonged to a Masonic lodge, if you belonged to an occultist group, that was pretty much enough to get you on the blacklist; they would try to keep tabs on all these groups and eventually suppress them and collect all their material. So my interpretation would be very contrary to the popular view that the Nazis collected all this stuff because the Nazis were themselves following occultist principles. I think they were collecting the stuff because they saw these groups as supposed enemies.

I think it's probably because a lot of articles used the word library to refer to the places where these books were held.
My understanding was it was more like a warehouse, but I also don't really think that's that strange. You ever go to the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue? If you go there and you ask for a book that they have in their collection, a lot of times they have to bring it over from Jersey or from down [in storage]. Large libraries often keep a lot of their older holdings offsite. That's pretty standard practice. I'm guessing that that was somewhat the case here.

This doesn't make much sense, but it's a fact, and we have to somehow come to terms with it.

Is there anything that actually suggests the Nazi leadership might have been interested in the occult? These articles are focusing on Himmler—
Oh, yeah, they love to focus on Himmler. I would say that's tricky. It would be a simpler story if I could say that that part was nonsense, too, but that part wasn't nonsense. Himmler as a person really did have some strong interests in occultist stuff. He was very interested in witchcraft. He was very interested in all these forms of unconventional spirituality and esoteric stuff. The mistake that I think a lot of people make—the mistake that I see in a lot of press coverage of things like this—is to sort of conflate Himmler's own personal convictions with the SS as an organization.

As strange as it sounds, Himmler was actually very reticent about sharing those personal interests with the whole rest of the Nazi leadership. He kind of kept them under wraps probably because he was a little embarrassed about it. We don't actually know if that's a plausible explanation. We sometimes have some people in the SS [whom] he's send off on these tasks to collect everything they could find about witchcraft in the 16th century, etc., but it's not the case that the SS as a whole was somehow structured on those principles.

I guess that's where the doubt or misinterpretation is coming in, because people know he was very into that stuff.
Probably. That's a kernel of truth, and it's an important kernel. If you want to understand Himmler as a figure—and he's a pretty powerful and important figure in the Nazi hierarchy—you do have to make some sense of why this incredibly powerful guy was so interested in the occult. What I would warn against is to not mix up Himmler's personal interests with what the SS was committed to as a whole.

Read more: The Woman Who Held Hitler's Teeth

Do you have any sense of why he was so personally interested in it?
I have some sense, but I have to say it's still not entirely clear. The guy who I think wrote probably the best scholarly biography of Himmler [Peter Longerich] devoted a whole chapter in the biography to trying to understand Himmler's occult interests. By the end of that chapter, that historian sort of throws up his hands and says, "This doesn't really fit. This doesn't make much sense, but it's a fact, and we have to somehow come to terms with it."

I would say part of it has to do with the generation that Himmler matured within. Himmler was part of a generation who felt a little bit like they didn't really get their chance to prove themselves. They were just barely too young to be part of WWI, and they grew up in 1920s Germany. People on the far right in 1920s Germany felt like the country had escaped them, like the country had gone in this totally other direction. It was democratic, it became a republic—all the things they hated. So a lot of people like Himmler sort of turned inward, and they tried to find a connection to these previous forms of German greatness. In Himmler's specific case, that seems to have taken on an esoteric or occult coloring to it.

I'm just looking at this Daily Mail article about it, and the dek says Himmler "had warped belief mysticism was proof of Aryan racial superiority." Is that true?
I would say that's a flawed way to formulate a basically accurate point. In Himmler's mind, there actually was a connection—in Himmler's mind, not in reality—between this kind of pagan mystical occultist side of things and the supposed Aryan racial history of the German people. He saw those things as being pretty closely intertwined. That is part of Himmler's own intent personal interest in occult literature, but I don't think that has much to do with why the SD went to such lengths to collect this stuff, all these different libraries, all these different archives. They had a whole section devoted to understanding the persecution of witches in the Middle Ages. Himmler wanted to create this alternative version of Germanic history that focused on things like the mainstream German churches trying to cross all the witches back four centuries earlier. He thought that was a great thing the Nazis could use against the established churches. From a Nazi point of view, that was a handy tool, a handy weapon.