The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

The Occult Roots of Nazism

  • by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, U.K.: Aquarian Press, 1985. Hardbound, 293 pages, illustrations, $23.50, ISBN 0-85030-402-4.

Reviewed by William Grimstad

Although the gas chamber mythos has been the center-piece of ongoing Establishment efforts to diabolize the Third Reich, there has been a parallel attempt to remove that epoch from objective consideration by casting it in a less homicidal but more bizarrely demoniacal light. Linking National Socialism to occultism has served several purposes: making the Hitler period look spooky, or at least a bit “kooky"; alienating people of traditional religious outlook, and not least, cashing in on the lucrative bookselling fad of recent years sometimes called the “occult explosion.”

Such books as The Morning of the Magicians or The Occult and the Third Reich first broached the notion that the National Socialist era, in addition to its multifarious other evils, had actually been conjured up by wicked wirepullers behind the visible leaders. We were introduced to the enigmatic figures of Rudolf von Sebottendorf and other supposed adepts of the fabled Thule Society, which now have become household words among even casual students of the period; and behind them an earlier strain of philosophers who, shockingly enough, had erected a religious worldview upon “Aryan” racialism.

Conveniently, the German regime’s avowed pro-Aryan policies now could be faulted not only as leading to the Holocaust. They also became the butt of ridicule for travestying science or of opprobrium for trying to harness powers of evil. Still better, the always awkward fact of broad electoral support for the National Socialist program in one of the world’s most advanced countries likewise could be explained: an entire nation had been mesmerized by baleful cultic Svengalis.

Goodrick-Clarke’s book was published several years ago in England, but has begun finding its way into the book trade here. As it represents a substantial research effort, one naturally wonders about the author’s inclinations. Little biographical information is furnished, but the acknowledgments do contain a couple of names of interest. The first one thanked is Ellic Howe, a leading personality within the United Grand Lodge of England, reputedly the world’s predominant Masonic organization. Howe writes frequently in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, the controlled circulation research journal of the lodge, whose enmity to National Socialism is glaring.

The author next salutes Norman Cohn, the British Holocaustorian who has made a career of microscopically analyzing the sensational Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion as a literary impetus for the later Holocaust. On the strength of such thinly veiled pro-Zionist essays as his Warrant for Genocide, Cohn worked his way to the top of the historical hierarchy at Oxford, and there supervised Goodrick-Clarke’s studies, where the present volume began as a Ph.D. thesis.

Revisionists may raise eyebrows at such auspices, but my impression is that Goodrick-Clarke generally avoids the tendentiousness of his mentors. Although marred by annoying knee-jerks and tics of minor residual bias, this remains a thorough and levelheaded inquiry into a topic severely mauled by hacks. It also offers, for the first time known to me in English, a window into the amazingly extensive and frankly quite fascinating German nationalist literature of the period.

His subtitle, “The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890-1935,” refers to a body of ideas which once had a substantial following in the German-speaking world. The ideas centered on the writings of two Austrians, Guido von List (1848-1919) and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels (1874-1954). Ariosophy is used by the author as a generic for this “lore of the Aryans” that was expounded by the two men.

Guido von List (the aristocratic von was self-assumed) was raised a Catholic but early took interest in Nordic paganism, which he coupled with a profound attraction to nature. An ardent rebel against modernity, which he associated with the spreading metropolis of fin-de-siècle Vienna and all its decadent ways, List’s happiest moments came on rambles through the Austrian countryside, and he began his literary career with newspaper pieces on the rural scene, depicted as highly spiritualized. He was concerned to furnish an ideological backdrop to the pan-German movement led by such nationalist politicians as Georg von Schoenerer and Vienna Mayor Karl Lueger.

Later, List worked out what was essentially a clairvoyant reconstruction of the distant past, elaborating a vast mythology of an ancient Wotanist priesthood, the Armanenschaft. They supposedly held sway in Europe until the Christian conversion, but now were confined to clandestine status, perpetuating the ancient Aryan lore through a small élite, among whom he numbered himself.

Eventually, List built up a fairly wide readership and a Guido von List Society, sponsored by prestigious people, was established. With the coming of the First World War, the appeal of such a philosophy grew greatly, especially in Germany, and List also found a wider field for analysis of the destructive elements arrayed against the Central Powers. He dubbed these the Great International Party, in a fair anticipation of the World Zionist Organizations and Trilateral Commissions of our own day.

Adolf Josef Lanz also was born in Vienna, of middle-class Catholic parents. Like List, he assumed an aristocratic pedigree and the pompous Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels moniker, although his claim to this title was never disproven. He was inspired by List and became one of the older guru’s early backers, but Lanz’s Ariosophical interests were different. As a young man he had entered a Cistercian abbey as a novice monk, and although he left after a time, he remained enthralled by medieval Catholicism.

Lanz was disinterested in Listian oracular recreations of the German past, but he did have his own candidate for an ancient Aryan secret priesthood that supposedly had survivors in the modern era: the Knights Templar, a Catholic order suppressed for heresy in the 1300s. He founded his Ordo Novi Templi (Order of the New Temple) around 1907 in the medieval castle of Burg Werfenstein, which perched dramatically above the Danube with a swastika and fleur-de-lis flag over its tower. Goodrick-Clarke is much perturbed at the racialist slant of this literature. Actually, such material was commonplace in many Western countries at that time: imperial Britain had its “white man’s burden” ethic purveyed to a huge audience by poet Rudyard Kipling; and here in America, anthropologist Lothrop Stoddard could publish a best-selling book entitled The Rising Tide of Color.

As the author’s exhaustive analysis, if not his own conclusions, makes clear, however, Ariosophy played only a very incidental role in the rise of National Socialism. Although Hitler may have known of List, there is no proof of it, and only an indication that he had read Lanz’s Ostara magazine as a young man. He was not impressed, to judge by his ridicule of “völkisch wandering scholars” and antiquarian cultists in Mein Kampf.

Of far greater import in the political arena was Baron Rudolf von Sebottendorf von der Rose (born Adam Alfred Rudolf Glauer in 1875), although his role too has been distorted. Goodrick-Clarke has done an excellent job of analyzing the available material on this colorful international adventurer. Once again, however, Sebottendorf’s involvement with Freemasonry, Muslim dervishes and the Turkish revolution cannot be convincingly tied to his pan-Germanism, except that they may have predisposed him to backstage activism. What he does deserve credit for is having the political savvy, virtually alone among a welter of confused nationalists and anti-Communists in southern Bavaria, to see what was needed in Germany and the conviction to stake his personal resources on that.

After joining the moribund Germanenorden in 1916, Sebottendorf quickly revived the Bavarian section and began using the nominal cultural society as a center for political action during the brewing Marxist revolution, adopting the Thule Society name as a “cover” to divert Red suspicions. He purchased the Beobachter newspaper (later the National Socialists' Völkischer Beobachter ); stockpiled weapons; schemed to kidnap the Communist leader, Kurt Eisner; infiltrated spies into the Communist cadres, and organized the Kampfbund Thule paramilitary group which joined with other Free Corps units in the successful attack on Munich’s Communist government on April 30, 1919.

Most important, of course, was Sebottendorf’s recognition of the need for a new type of worker-based party to deal with the unprecedented Red threat. He founded the German Workers Union in 1918, the most active member of which was Anton Drexler, who went on to start the German Workers Party, which was joined, taken over, and renamed the National Socialist German Workers' Party by Adolf Hitler in 1919.

Meanwhile, Sebottendorf’s political career ended abruptly that same year, when Communists seized seven Thule Society members and executed them on April 30, triggering international outrage and at last galvanizing the Munich citizenry into ousting the Marxists. Sebottendorf was blamed for having allowed the Thule membership list to fall into the Reds' hands, although there were those who suggested that this was his Machiavellian intent all along, as the ensuing creation of martyrs played a key role in the nationalist victory.

In any case, Rudolf von Sebottendorf was in no way a puppet-master of the much later Third Reich, which indeed treated him with some hostility. Rather, he was an unusually shrewd political operative at a critical formative period, whose personal courage kept him battling in Red Munich long after many others had retreated. One wonders exactly what situation would have awaited the inexperienced Hitler had Sebottendorf not laid this groundwork.

* * * * *

Anyone trying to arrive at a rational understanding of this important period has been painfully aware of the jabberwock literature that has held the floor since the Second World War, ranging from popular novels through journalistic exposes to solemn histories, and treating of everything from “Holocaust studies” through postwar “Nazi war criminal” skullduggeries.

Although it may seem extreme to link a Lucy Dawidowicz with the latest Hitler-is-alive tabloid tale, the fact is that they are on a continuum of literature which enforces a Manichean, total-evil view of the National Socialist era, from the academic down to the comic-book levels, a peculiar situation that does not exist in any other known area of inquiry.

Moreover, it is not that the literary establishment simply neglects to repudiate this trashier output. In fact, it has actively promoted it. The books in question are published by major houses, and get conventional review and promotional attention. Such a state of affairs would never exist in regard to sensationalized titles critical of Israeli Zionism, for example. Clearly, then, a Revisionist laying to rest of this material is long overdue; the present book, despite its lacks, is a start.

Goodrick-Clarke traces the origin of the Lovecraftian school of Third Reich historiography to the self-proclaimed German rocket engineer, Willy Ley, who emigrated here in 1935 and spent the ensuing years working on Hollywood science fiction films. In 1947, Ley wrote an article for a “pulp” fantasy magazine ridiculing pseudoscience in Germany, which he claimed included a Berlin sect attempting to conjure up the mysterious vril force described by British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his The Coming Race (1871), supposedly conveying to its adepts total power over the world.

This was sufficient to spark off, in 1960, the first and probably most enduring of the genre, The Morning of the Magicians by French journalists Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. A vast farrago of misquotations, sheer fabrications and exclamation points, this opus touched base on the major points that were to become standard for the type:

  • The rise and early success of National Socialism were due, not to sober choice by the German electorate, followed by hard work of a capable people, but to supernatural forces;
  • The forces are described as either discarnate, like Bulwer’s vril, or as the doings of godlike “ascended masters” in some remote and exotic location, usually Tibet;
  • It is possible to get into contact with this power, identified by Pauwels and Bergier as “the Master of the World or the King of Fear,” and as it were plug in on the current for one’s own ends in the mundane world;
  • Such liaison was a top-priority project of the German government, despite its other distractions;
  • The government’s channel was the Thule Society, which in turn was the creature of the two evil geniuses, the playwright and early Hitler friend, Dietrich Eckart, and a professor of geopolitics at the University of Munich, Dr. Karl Haushofer. They used the Thule Society to control the state through Hitler, who is invariably described in the canon as a semi-hysterical “mediumistic” personality.

Later savants, such as Dietrich Bronder in his Before Hitler Came (1964), with its title rather crassly lifted from Sebottendorf’s 1933 memoir, introduced the Ariosophical dimension of List and Lanz, including the pair in the Thule clique, along with Hitler, Mussolini, Göring and a who’s who of Axis luminaries. With this, the menu was complete and numerous others could begin rehashing it, most notably Michel-Jean Angebert, The Occult and the Third Reich (1971); Trevor Ravenscroft, The Spear of Destiny (1972), and J.H. Brennan, Occult Reich (1974).

Placing his magnifying glass on the “MOM” genre, Goodrick-Clarke reports as follows:

  • There was no Vril Society or “Luminous Lodge,” as the fabulists call it, although there was a “Lumenclub” in Vienna for some years after 1932, acting as a front for the banned National Socialist Party;
  • Prof. Haushofer did endorse a thrust to the east, into Soviet territory, but strictly for obvious geopolitical reasons; his alleged goal of reaching the ascended masters in the Orient is “entirely false;” according to Goodrick-Clarke;
  • Dietrich Eckart (who died in 1923), along with the young Alfred Rosenberg, attended a few early Thule meetings as guests but there is no evidence linking other Party leaders, or List, Lanz or Haushofer, with the group;
  • The Thule Society was disbanded around 1925 because of declining membership and was never reorganized.

We certainly owe something to Goodrick-Clarke for so expertly skewering this pernicious nonsense, which has even tripped up major-league historians like Joachim Fest, although he does not follow through on the truly important question. The inimitable Holocaust, spotlighted by all these “schlock” authors as the result of the national demonic possession, still sits enshrined in its increasingly shopworn hideousness, even here.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 121-127.