The idea that the Nazis were into the occult has become a widely popular idea. When Indiana Jones battles Nazis for the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, no one needs any backstory to make this plausible. We just all accept it and move on.
What is perhaps more interesting is how the ideas that animated the Nazis have evolved. In the last seventy years, fascism and the occult have merged to produce something that potentially will again have popular appeal.
In this review, John was surprised to discover a Satanic-Nazi strand in heavy metal and Industrial music. I'm not surprised, but then John was a lot older than me and probably never listened to that kind of music. Perhaps he had better taste than me.
Something that did come as a bit of a surprise to me is the relationship between fascism and the German counter-culture. Nazism flourished in the same circles that were fond of nudism and vegetariansim, people who entertained what we would today call New Age beliefs, but in their time included a signifcant nationalist element.
I usually assume that any American espousing New Age beliefs is on the Left, but this isn't necessarily so. You need to be an American in the early twenty-first century to assume that nationalism is a right-wing phenomenon.
This is particularly important because most Americans probably view fascists, occultists, and occult fascists as losers on the wrong side of history, and therefore not worth our attention. Fascists in popular culture are perceived as objects of parody.
When I think of Nazis, this scene from the Blues Brothers is what I see in my head:
All of this might have gone nowhere, except that neo-fascists have been willing to openly state the widely felt anxieties occasioned by demographic change. Ths has propelled them to a fame that vastly exceeds their numbers. However, it worth noting that this kind of neo-fascist does not represent the kind of right of center party that actually wins elections in Europe, even if some of their concerns are the same, their motivations are entirely different.
What makes the occult fascists interesting is that they are natural allies of the anti-globalization, anti-capitalism, and anti-Western movements. Right now, this is prevented by the Right/Left dichotomy. We can only hope that this prejudice prevails.
Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity
By Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke
New York University Press, 2002
371 Pages, US$24.97
Nazi Germany has become Atlantis. The historical Nazi regime was peculiar enough, of course. In some ways, it was more like a cult in power than a state controlled by a totalitarian party. After it was over, however, the regime was increasingly portrayed as an empire of dark magic. The belief spread that its rise and fall were not just uncanny but historically inexplicable. Its end was sudden and complete, so complete that the shards of evidence on the surface seemed less significant than the excavation of the occult underground. In some circles, the mythology has progressed even further: Nazi Germany became not just a vanished civilization, but also an ideal civilization, destined to rise again.
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke is perhaps the foremost serious scholar of the relationship between the Third Reich and the occult. (The Occult Roots of Nazism, which he published in 1985, is not the only good book on the subject, but it is still a good place to start.) In Black Sun, he is chiefly concerned with the development of postwar esoteric fascism, which includes but is not limited to novel forms of magical Nazism. He is particularly concerned with its inflection into both terrorist politics and the mainstream New Age movement since the 1970s. He also argues that the social changes in Middle Europe that helped to plant the underground seeds of Nazi Germany 100 years ago now obtain to a greater or lesser degree throughout the West and Russia. The author draws dark inferences about what today's underground could produce by 2030.
Most of the information in Black Sun has appeared elsewhere, but even people familiar with the literature will get a few surprises. I had never heard of the pro-Nazi science fiction of Wilhelm Landig, for instance. For that matter, I had been only vaguely aware that there was a Satanic-Nazi strand in heavy metal and Industrial Music. Also, though the author had to take the principals at their word, the book has the first coherent account I have seen of the origins of the Order of the Nine Angles.
As for the rest, it is very useful to have something like the whole story between two covers. There are the key figures of the immediate postwar period, the American renegade Francis Parker Yockey, and Baron Julius Evola, who helped transform Nazi racism into a kind of aristocratic snobbery. There are the people who deified Hitler, or at least turned him into a Messianic figure, notably Savitri Devi and the former Chilean diplomat, Miguel Serrano. There are the early American neo-Nazis, such as James Madole, who combined Nazism and Theosophy to create a vision of America as the New Atlantis. There are the greater and lesser Satanists, whose ideas have tended to become more political and metahistorical with the passage of time. There is also a review of the Christian Identity movement, a largely independent phenomenon that nonetheless parallels esoteric fascism in its ontological rejection of the Jews and its expectation of a racial apocalypse in the future.
The role that the occult played in the foundation and policies of the Nazi regime is a matter of continuing research. Certainly the party grew out of völkish circles, people who entertained what we would today call New Age beliefs, but with a nationalist tilt. Important influences included the "Ariosophy" of the Viennese mystics Guido von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, whose notions about the need for a knightly "Order" to advance pan-Germanism clearly affected Heinrich Himmler's model for the SS. The Nazi Party used ideas and symbols long familiar in occult circles, notably the swastika itself. Alfred Rosenberg's Myth of the 20th Century, which was at least nominally the party's ideological guide, invoked the familiar esoteric idea that the Aryan race originated in Atlantis. This essentially Theosophical model of history saw the past as a progression of ages that each had own master race, and that each age was separated by a transitional disaster. Generically, that is also the way that some of the Nazi leadership looked at the 20th century. However, this does not mean that the occult is necessarily the key to the study of the Nazi phenomenon.
As Goodrick-Clarke points out, the evidence that any of the Nazi leaders ever performed black magic is quite thin. Himmler did subsidize research into occult subjects. This included at least one SS man, an Otto Rahn, who hunted across Europe for information about the Holy Grail. I might note that Rahn does seem to have been a Satanist, in the sense of sympathizing with Lucifer and agreeing with the Cathar rejection of the God of the Old Testament. Still, even he was probably engaged in folkloric research rather than looking for an actual artifact. In Mein Kampf, Hitler himself made fun of völkish groups, with their rune-magic and their attempts to revive Nordic paganism. Hitler in some ways was intensely superstitious. He was arguably a millenarian of sorts. However, there is no reason to think he was playing out a specific esoteric agenda.
Esoteric agendas did exist, especially in the SS. The problem was that there was more than one. Should the Nazi regime simply promote German power, or should it seek to unify all Aryans everywhere, including in Russia? What attitude should the Nazi government take to anti-colonial movements, particularly in India and the Middle East? Was the future to be secular or religious? Was Christianity compatible with fascism? The German leadership deferred deciding these issues right up to the point when the working language in Hitler's bunker changed from German to Russian. After 1945, however, fascist ideology was freed of the compromises necessary for government. Black Sun describes the trajectory it took thereafter.
Postwar esoteric fascism falls into two periods, joined by a phase of startling mutation in the 1970s. The first period was backward looking, essentially a salvage operation from the wreck of the Reich. The pan-European orientation of the Waffen-SS finally won out over that of the German-chauvinist Black SS, if for no other reason than that Germans were a distinct minority in the early postwar networks. Oswald Spengler's model of history was adopted in various hermetic forms, often involving the identification of the terminal crisis of modernity with the Kali Yuga. There was an increasing tendency to call in the Russians to counterbalance America, now wholly identified with the Jews. Hitler was literally deified in some circles, thus carrying to its logical conclusion a line of speculation started by C.G. Jung himself. The fascists whispered about Hitler's survival, in this world or another. They also traded stories about secret Nazi bases surviving in the Arctic and Antarctic, where wonder-weapons were still under development. They quickly seized on the advent of flying-saucer reports in the late 1940s as confirmation of their hopes.
Though political fascism in the1950s and '60s could still display a lethal edge, particularly in Italy, in most places it was a sad affair. American neo-Nazis marched in Nazi finery and invited attack from passersby, in the mistaken belief that this would excite public sympathy. Nothing was behind such "movements" but perverse historical nostalgia.
Two trends were underway by the 1970s that would make esoteric fascism relevant. The first was the New Age Movement and the concurrent general increase in mysticism. Books began to appear in great numbers that depicted the Second World War as essentially a war of wizards. Jean-Michel Angebert's Morning of the Magicians got the trend fairly underway in 1960. The genre peaked in the '70s; the best-known book of this type is probably Trevor Ravenscroft's Spear of Destiny (1973). Some of the information that continues to circulate in this literature is wholly spurious, some of it relies on sensationalist accounts from the 1930s, and some of it is strange but true. The effect of the new mythology was to give the evil of the Nazi regime a metaphysical dimension.
It was this spiritualization of Nazi wickedness that attracted the attention of Satanist groups, which were starting to expand at just that time. Modern Satanism usually means the rejection of Christianity and the idea of natural order, rather than the worship of a literal Satan. Still, the budding diabolists were intrigued by the notion that there had been a "Satanic" government in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, in the sense of a regime that was the adversary of everything that had traditionally been thought good. For followers of the Left Hand Path, people who choose to pursue liberation through nihilism, it made sense to adopt the real or imagined rituals of the Third Reich, and to make its memorials places of pilgrimage. Additionally, many of the postwar esoteric fascists were also noted writers on Tantra, Jungian depth psychology, or ritual magic. Essentially magical techniques thus became central to some new forms of Nazism.
There had been some fantasy literature during the Nazi years about the life of the Aryans in Hyperborea and Atlantis. (As a matter of fact, I might note that there was quite a lot of it in English, from writers like Robert Howard.) In the 1970s, a form of pro-Nazi science fiction began to appear. This chronicled the adventures of Germans who escaped the downfall of the Third Reich by fleeing to secret bases in the Arctic or Antarctic. (The names to remember for the Arctic are Point 103, the Blue Island, and Midnight Mountain; for Antarctica, the venue was usually Neuschwabenland, an actual territory explored by Germany before the war.) As part of a secret international society engaged in defending the world against Jewish domination, the refugees abandoned the swastika and conventional German insignia. The symbol of the society was the Black Sun.
The Black Sun design can consist of a black or deep-violet disk with a lightening bolt striking it, or a disk alone. This symbol perhaps came originally from the alchemical shorthand for the lowest point the Great Work. It had some currency in Germany in the 1930s; Himmler had may have had it worked into the floor of the SS castle at Wewelsberg, though it is not certain that is what the design there is supposed to mean. The Black Sun is also related to the Theosophical notion of the Invisible Sun around which the universe is supposed to revolve. This seems to have been what Himmler's wizard, Karl Maria Wiligut, had in mind when he described an extinguished star that had once shone on Hyperborea, and whose rays still energized the Aryan soul. In any case, this symbol of the low point of history has become the preferred symbol for esoteric Nazism.
All of this imaginative fiction and pseudo-history might have done little harm, had it not appeared at just the point when demographic changes were giving ideas like this some popular traction. Low birthrates and massive immigration began to manifest themselves throughout the West in the 1970s. The author asserts that the situation in German-speaking Europe in the late 19th century was similar, when an influx of Slavs and Jews from eastern Europe occasioned resentment and anxiety, particularly in Austria.
In previous books, Goodrick-Clarke has made a good case for the argument that this immigration sparked the mystical racism that resulted in the Nazi Party a generation later. One may, of course, question how strongly the analogy holds for 21st century Europe, much less for the United States. Demographic changes are not sufficient to explain the outbreak of violent extremism. In the US, for instance, there was a severe agricultural depression in the Midwest in the 1980s that spread alienation and populist radicalization.
Nonetheless, large-scale immigration is always disruptive, especially in societies that have no experience of dealing with it. Certainly the conviction has spread in many nations that the homeland is becoming unrecognizable, and that the elites are complicit in the process. Black Sun summarizes the violent reaction that appeared almost everywhere in the '80s and '90s, from the incipient guerilla war of the Order in the United States to the arson campaign against Norwegian churches by neo-pagans. In these events, there was usually some connection with the new fascism, whether by ideology or organization. There is in fact a Nazi international today.
Reading about these events in retrospect, one cannot help but be struck by the small numbers of activists actually involved. Were there ever more than a few thousand British skinheads? The Oklahoma City bombing seems to have been carried out by just two or three people. Organizations that seemed powerfully ominous online turn out to have had no more than a few dozen members. One might also note that this brand of neo-fascism is unrelated to the right-of-center parties in Europe that actually receive measurable numbers of votes in elections. It has nothing at all to do with American conservatism, which somehow manages to be simultaneously evangelical Christian, libertarian, and pro-Israel.
Still, Goodrick-Clarke is probably onto something when he notes that esoteric racism is essentially a multicultural phenomenon. In a world in which one's ethnic group can determine what benefits one is eligible for, people tend to find an ethnic identity and cling to it for dear life. Today, people in pursuit of ancient wisdom are more likely to hunt for it among their own ancestors than in the habits and beliefs of distant or alien peoples. The past is a different culture, particularly when it is imaginary. Some neo-pagan groups, notably those associated with the Nordic cult of Ásatrú, have replicated almost exactly the mixture of beliefs entertained by the proto-Nazi völkish groups that appeared before the First World War.
Beyond this, though, is the "perfect storm" that coalesced after September 11, 2001, against the liberal West. The continuing attacks on Israel and the United States must be counted as a success for postwar fascist underground, which began aiding radical Muslim interests even before the Second World War ended. The anti-globalization movement constitutes just the sort of international anti-capitalist and anti-Western alliance of which some leading Nazis dreamed. Environmentalists who think of themselves as good liberals have in fact adopted the biological mysticism that was a notable feature of the Nazi regime. Almost unnoticed, eugenics has progressed from an aspiration to a roaring success: few children with genetic abnormalities are allowed to come to term in advanced countries.
In the Chancellery bunker in 1945, Propaganda Minister Joseph Göbbels exhorted his colleagues to make a courageous end. He asked them to imagine a color motion picture, made in the year 2050, about what they said and did in the final days of the Reich. The question they each had to answer, he told them, was whether they wanted to appear as a hero or a villain in that film. Even today, I think we can be pretty sure that the identities of the good guys and the bad guys will not have changed much from the Allied point of view in 1945. Still, Black Sun is a useful reminder that some people have different ideas for the scenario.