Israeli Artist Explores What Draws neo-Nazis to the Prehistoric Site of Externsteine

Karen Russo challenges prehistoric perceptions in a new video, part of an exhibition in Jerusalem.

Avner Shapira
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Last year, the directors of the Externsteine nature reserve decided to prohibit people from lighting fires or erecting tents at the site, located in the Teutoburg Forest in northern Germany, near the city of Detmold. The official reason was a desire to safeguard the natural environment, but some asserted there was also a political aim: to dampen the celebrations held there by neo-Nazis, neo-pagans and New Agers. Each of these groups gather at the ancient site several times a year and hold popular festivals with a mystic tone.

The ban affected not only participants in such festivities, but also Israeli artist Karen Russo, who planned to document the activities for a video piece on Externsteine, which examines the various traditions that have become attached to it and how these are dealt with today. Russo had to forgo a number of scenes she wanted to film, but she says that the work, named after the site, was never meant to be based exclusively on documentary materials. Many neo-Nazi activities are carried out in secret and she knew it would be difficult to film them.

Her 43-minute video contains interviews with experts juxtaposed with staged excerpts that illustrate the various rites that take place there, along with a poetic narration that interweaves the archaic and destructive practices of contemporary cult members with visions of future utopian communities.

Russo’s work, part of the group exhibition “Mythographies,” is now on display at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design’s Yaffo 23 art space in Jerusalem and will run through June 21. Curated by Roy Brand and Sagit Mezamer, the exhibition seeks to present artistic meeting points between myths and geography, i.e., to examine how a mythical dimension is assimilated within a certain geographic space. Like Russo’s video piece, the other works illuminate the intersection where history meets fantasy, and spotlight the connections among landscape, collective memory and nationalism. In addition to the film, Russo is also presenting a wall collage of images related to German history and the ways in which ostensibly conflicting concepts such as “nature” and “civilization” go together.

Archaeology and the SS

Russo says she was drawn to Externsteine because of the long history of the site, which is comprised of five enormous rock columns of different shapes that together form an imposing wall hundreds of meters long. “The site, whose name means ‘the external rocks,’ is believed to be a prehistoric holy site. Some of the features at the site there indicate it may have been an observatory or place of cosmological significance,” says Russo. “But what really interested me are the excavations that were done by the Nazis and how people related to the place after Nazism was defeated.

“At first I visited to do drawings of the unique rock formations but I kept growing more amazed at what I discovered there. Unlike other places the Nazis tried to turn into German heritage sites and that later became just a historical curiosity, Externsteine is a very lively place. It became a magnet for groups and subgroups that make pilgrimages to it, some openly and some not. Surprisingly, the authorities showed incredible tolerance over the years for all of this, until the ban that was imposed last year, when a lot of police came to the gatherings and tried to hinder them from taking place.”

The site draws about a million visitors a year, for a variety of reasons. Most are tourists who come to admire the beauty of the majestic rock formations that jut out from the flat, forested landscape. Others are attracted by the more mysterious features of the site, such as a temple-like chamber situated at the top of the largest rock column, which some theorize was once used as an altar for sacrifices. Carved in the wall above that chamber is a hole that points precisely at the location of the sunrise on the longest day of the year. Other intriguing elements include a bas-relief depicting Christ’s descent from the cross, and a grave-like structure that has no clear explanation.

Some visitors are drawn to Externsteine because of the theory, popular in 16th-century Germany, that the site was the location of the pagan shrine known as the Irminsul − the great wooden “pillar of the world” that was ordered cut down in the eighth century by King Charlemagne as part of his war on the Saxon pagan tribes and their form of worship.

The uprooting of the symbols sacred to pagans signified Christianity’s victory over the German peoples. Some come to Externsteine to meditate and find points of energy in the rocks; some are curious about the cosmological theories related to the site; others believe it is connected in some way to the pyramids in Egypt, and there are even some who consider the place a burial ground for extraterrestrials.

But Russo’s interest focused mainly on Externsteine as a unique example of the Nazis’ attempt to offer historical and archaeological proof of Aryan superiority. In her research for the work, she relied upon Heather Pringle’s 2006 book, “The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust,” which describes Das Ahnenerbe, the research institute founded by Heinrich Himmler, the SS commander and senior Nazi official. “The institute funded and employed many scientists, including anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists and botanists, with the aim of tracing the roots of the Aryan race and providing a scientific seal of approval for the Nazi ideology,” says Russo. “In fact, the institute and its scientists were creating myths and distorting history for the political needs of the Third Reich.”

In the case of Externsteine, adds Russo, “the ancient history of the rock formations is shrouded in obscurity and archaeological digs have not yielded any clear findings. The prevailing theory is that the site was a pagan temple used by Germanic cults until the eighth century, and that afterward, in medieval times, it was used by monks and Christian hermits. But Himmler declared it a holy site to the ancient Germans and recruited archaeologists to justify his claim.”

In the video, Russo speaks with historians and experts who have studied the site, including the German archaeologist Uta Halle, who points an accusing finger at the archaeologists who collaborated with Himmler. “Halle maintains that archaeologists in the Nazi period had just as much a part in fabricating history as the SS did,” says Russo. “She says archaeologists were responsible for a large portion of the distortions and for the uncritical way in which they fed nationalist ideas. Halle discovered that all the evidence uncovered in excavations at the site during the Nazi period dated from no earlier than the 11th century, and artifacts from the 16th century and beyond were also found; there wasn’t a single artifact from prehistoric times. At a conference arranged by the SS there were some archaeologists who refused to confirm the findings regarding the site’s antiquity, but this fact was obscured and most of the archaeologists did not try to refute the myth.”

The grandson

Russo, 38, graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in 1998. She works in a variety of media, including drawing, painting, video and installations. Her work has been shown in many exhibitions in Israel and abroad. For the past nine years she has lived in London with her husband, American artist Doug Fishbone. They have a baby daughter.

Russo’s “Externsteine” was first shown last year at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of the exhibition “Cabinets of Wonder in Contemporary Art − From Astonishment to Disenchantment.” It is currently also on show in Lincoln, England, in the comprehensive exhibition “The World is Almost Six Thousand Years Old,” curated by British curator Tom Morton, about the mutual historic and contemporary relations between art and archaeology. Russo says that in some ways, the film is a continuation of her earlier works “that deal with the question of how our culture portrays everything it marks as anomalous, faulty, excessive and uncontrollable; on the one hand − what is considered a legitimate expression of the culture, and on the other, what is excluded from this definition.”

In the case of Externsteine, a central figure in the discussion of the site’s past and the mystery that surrounds it is the German amateur archaeologist Wilhelm Teudt, who in the 1920s, before the rise of Nazism, conducted studies with a mystical bent. He claimed that Externsteine was a ritual site of ancient Germanic civilization and formulated a theory about places possessing a mystical energy that were established in the same region in Germany. “His theory gained momentum in the 1930s, was adopted by Himmler and led to a combination of nationalist ideas with esoteric cults,” says Russo.

In the film she interviews Teudt’s grandson, Jurgen Mische. “It wasn’t easy to persuade him to be interviewed. He was very wary at first,” she says. “He was disdainful of the idea that someone like me, who isn’t German, could understand the magic of the place. Like many others who are part of the groups that study the place and believe in its cosmological mystical nature, he is cautious about publicly expressing these ideas and suspicious of what he and his colleagues see as distortions made by mainstream scientists for political reasons.

“The grandson is an interesting example of the spell that’s woven by engaging in the forbidden, in something the authorities supposedly don’t want the public to know about,” she adds. “Surprisingly, unlike other descendants of people who collaborated with the Nazis, he does not disavow his grandfather’s legacy, but rather insists on defending it. He didn’t want to talk about any political aspect of his grandfather’s work or to express any remorse. Teudt’s family was also hurt when the city of Detmold decided a few years ago to revoke the honorary title the city had awarded the grandfather during the Nazi period. Eventually, after we had some serious talks, the grandson agreed to be interviewed for the film, although there were many subjects that he wouldn’t talk about, and he also chose his words very carefully in talking about the site’s prehistory. I had the feeling that the things he wasn’t saying were of much more importance than the things he was saying.

“I made it clear to him that I was approaching the piece as an artist, not as a researcher or someone working in service of one side or another. One of my motivations in making the film was curiosity about the way people project their political or intellectual ideology onto the rocks at the place − in other words, to examine the bond between history and nature. At the same time, I also wanted to see how myths speak through us. I didn’t rule out from the start the idea that perhaps there is some kind of energy force in this place. One of the issues I wanted to consider was rational civilization’s difficulty in dealing with cultural ‘twilight zones,’ i.e., with spiritualist ideas and with outlooks that sanctify that which is mysterious and outside the bounds of accepted science.”

Not an indictment

The pagan ceremonies held at Externsteine take place three times a year: on the longest day of the year ‏(June 21‏), the shortest day of the year ‏(December 21‏) and on Walpurgis Night ‏(“Night of the Witches”‏) on April 30. The thousands who participate in these ceremonies include not only neo-Nazis but members of an array of mystical and esoteric groups, and groups focused on ecology.

“The sanctification of nature, particularly the forest, has always been a part of the German tradition,” says Russo. “At these celebrations, you find an odd overlap among the different groups and an affinity between pagan identity, political extremism and the rejection of Christianity and of urban culture.”
Not everyone is invited to take part in this great merger: The film relates how in the 1990s the call spread among extreme right-wing activists to ban foreigners who were not German citizens from participating in the celebrations. As the film notes, this was reminiscent of the Nazi-era law barring Jews from entering the site, on the grounds that they were incapable of feeling its cosmic energies.

Despite these efforts at exclusion, Russo’s film is not designed as a sweeping indictment of those who flock to the site. “What interests me,” she says, “is the discussion about the place of mythology: How can German society think anew about images from the heroic Germanic tradition without being dragged into their problematic political implications? In other words, as a society, are we capable of developing a ‘constructivist’ attitude toward myths, an approach that respects their inherent complexity, but without allowing their poetic power to strike us with moral blindness?”

She adds that these questions are relevant not only to German society: “Because archaeological excavations play a central role in the creation of national traditions and in shaping a nation’s intellectual and spiritual capital, this discussion also relates to Israeli society and how archaeology is used to confirm certain political narratives.”    

Pillars on fire. From the video work “Externsteine” by Karen Russo.
Karen Russo. Cultural twilight zones.Credit: Moti Kikion