Many have been surprised and fascinated by the fact that murderers like Heinrich Himmler, one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, were also dedicated family men - a subject that recently reignited public interest because letters between Himmler and his wife resurfaced in Tel Aviv.
Attempts to explain this seeming contradiction, as well as other aspects of Nazi leaders, have typically focused on rational reasoning. Only a decade ago did a growing number of historians begin paying attention to the Third Reich’s irrational aspects.
The late historian George Mosse, an authority on Nazi Germany, wrote 50 years ago that historians were not paying enough attention to the mystic sides of Nazism because they saw anti-intellectual and irrational elements in them. They tended to think, he argued, that a historian must focus on the more rational aspects of life, but such was not the case regarding the Third Reich. This opinion was deemed strange and unacceptable in 1960.
As such, the best of the historical, philosophical and sociological disciplines were called upon to understand the Nazi regime through the lens of rationalism. Acts or opinions that did not sit right with Western rationalism were not researched by the academic research guilds. They were left in the hands of those considered third-rate or pop culture researchers, whose books were cheaper than those released by academic publishing houses. For example, the research of Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, published in the 2001 book “Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity,” was deemed a nonacademic book, and is not generally found on the syllabus of academic courses.
Literature dealing with esoteric dogma, satanic cults and mysticism created a broad space for discussion on worship of the kind found among the Nazi leadership. Popular culture has also dealt often with this satanic, mystical aspect of Nazism. Computer games, neo-folk bands and pornographic literature in the style of Stalag fiction all emphasized mystic, satanic, spiritualistic and dark aspects in the Third Reich. However, academic research has until recently tended to deride Nazi or post-Nazi pop culture.
Now many researchers have come to recognize the fact that we don’t have enough tools to explain everything that happened between 1933 and 1945, as Tel Aviv University historian Shulamit Volkov wrote a number of years ago. One example of this is the popularity of satanic cults among SS officers.
The best legal minds, doctors and scientists volunteered for the SS and became officers. The inner circle of SS head Heinrich Himmler included jurists and doctors who led the campaigns of destruction or were commanders of concentration and death camps.
Between 1936 and 1941, some of these people met in Wewelsburg Castle in northwestern Germany once a year, under Himmler's command, to take part in satanic rituals and read cultish texts of Germanic tribes. With Himmler as King Arthur and 12 SS officers as the 12 knights, these Nazi leaders gathered annually in knights' gear at a round table and tried to channel the pagan heroes of German legend.
The castle was the pseudo-religious holy center of the SS. It was built in the late Middle Ages, and its walls were decorated with the symbol of the Indo-European “black sun” symbol, similar to the swastika.
The castle was believed to be in the area where the German hero Arminius, also called Hermann der Cherusker, defeated the Roman army in year 9 CE essentially liberating the Germans from Roman rule. According to German legend, one of the castle’s rooms served as a center of worship of the Holy Grail.
Heinrich Himmler saw himself as a descendant of Henry the Fowler, king of Germany and founder of the German nation, according to German tradition. In the 10th century, Henry (Heinrich in German) destroyed the Slavic tribes in eastern Germany. Quedlinburg Abbey in Saxony, where the earlier Heinrich is buried, was a spiritual site for Himmler and his men.
A labor camp was built in the area, where thousands of slave workers expanded the castle so it could be a gathering place for the SS. On the eve of Germany's June 1941 invasion of Russia, SS leaders held their final meeting in the castle. After explaining the goal of the invasion and the role of SS death squads in liquidating the Jewish and Slavic population, Himmler and his men stood in the Holy Grail room to receive inspiration ahead of what they saw as the greatest moment in German history.
Himmler ordered parts of the castle destroyed in 1945. It now serves as a history museum of the SS and a meeting place for neo-Nazis, neo-folk bands, white supremacist groups and satanic, mystic and spiritualist groups.
It is these corners of history that attest to the important place of mystic faith in the worldview of the Nazi elite. Increased research in this field could shed more light on our understanding of Nazi leaders and their motivations, including what appear to be serious contradictions in their behavior.
The writer is a lecturer in cultural and historical studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.