How Hitler Won Germans Over With His 'Scientific Religion'

The Nazis conducted experiments on her mother and nailed her father's tongue to a wall. And yet, Israeli lecturer Tamar Ketko still managed to be shocked by what she found in Nazi textbooks she discovered in a Zurich library cellar.

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German girls shown in physical training at the Reich's Colonial School for Women, in this undated photo, Rendsburg, Germany.
German girls shown in physical training at the Reich's Colonial School for Women, in this undated photo, Rendsburg, Germany.Credit: AP
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Talking to: Dr. Tamar Ketko, lecturer in philosophy of history and of education at Kibbutzim College of Education, in Tel Aviv; heads the college’s honors program. Where: A Tel Aviv café. When: Thursday at 6 P.M.

Your book “Ice Creatures: The Nazi Educational System” (Resling Books, Hebrew) contains previously unpublished, very extreme passages from Nazi textbooks that you found 20 years ago. How did you locate the books?

After the war, it was illegal to be in possession of these books in Germany. I looked for them in libraries and archives. The people I dealt with were angry that this was what I was looking for, and didn’t want to help me. It turned out that many of the textbooks had been smuggled out of Germany to South America and to Switzerland. I continued my search in the National Library in Zurich, and there, too, the librarian was taken aback at my request but referred me to an elderly German woman. We went down to the cellar, and I couldn’t believe my eyes: masses of books, all with swastikas on their covers. A true treasure.

You write that you were shocked by the books’ contents. What kind of books were they?

They ranged from books for early childhood to instructional booklets for teachers, and of course textbooks for primary and high schools and for higher education. I told the German woman that I wanted history books, and she produced them for me. I will never forget the air of reverence with which she held the books, with such delicacy. Her hands, in rubber gloves, shook. She made me put on gloves, too, of course. I sat down and started to read. I was utterly shocked – at actually having found the textbooks and at what I read. “It can’t be,” I said to myself.

Dr. Tamar Katko.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

What couldn’t be?

I asked the librarian: “Are you sure these are textbooks?” She confirmed that they were. For example, one book stated, “In the beginning, God created the German. From ice he created him.” I went back to the librarian and told her I needed textbooks. “These are textbooks!” she replied. “This is what they learned!”

Here, too, our children are taught that “In the beginning God created”

Here it’s taught in Torah lessons; in Nazi Germany it was part of the history curriculum. And when I got to the biology books, my hair stood on end. For example, a textbook for the fourth grade explained the concept of racial purity: why the German people must be kept separate, especially from the Jews. Another book explains how to identify a member of the Aryan race: height of forehead, distance between nose and lip, depth of chin cleft. There were drawings. Also the shape of the legs: These are legs of the Aryan genome, those are not. These are toes of the Aryan race, those are not. Anatomy.

That’s appalling, but not necessarily surprising.

Education is a dangerous thing. Educators made it possible for Hitler to succeed; without them it simply would not have happened – not as it did, not on that scale and with those results. Nazi education simply recreated the Germans. It succeeded in a way we can’t comprehend and it resulted in almost 70 million people killed and murdered in World War II. The victory of Nazism [in Germany] was above all an educational revolution.

You discuss how history was rewritten in order to serve the narrative of the master race and the need to purge the world of the other races.

Yes, it was a mishmash of utter fantasies alongside facts. According to these books, Julius Caesar was Aryan; Napoleon was Aryan, and that was the secret of his success; Abraham Lincoln was Aryan, and was called Abraham Linkhorn. By the way, he actually was of German descent, and from their point of view, he represented the Aryan race in the United States.

Here’s a quotation from a sixth-grade history textbook: “The collapse of German society and of the German economy was the deliberate result of the Jews When will the savior come who will do battle against these forces of hell, the Jews? Now we hear his footsteps. He is arriving to save us. Awake, Germany, the redeemer has come. The truth is coming to light. The Nordic Aryan race shall yet rule the world.”

That book was written by Hilke Dreyer, the chief scientist in the Reich Education Ministry. He was in charge of a series of books that explained to children why the improvement and flourishing of the Aryan race was contingent on the extermination of the Jewish race. You have to understand that these books were not only in the schoolchildren’s satchel or in the school library. They were not considered propaganda; they were part of the official curriculum. Parents, grandparents, the children’s whole milieu, knew what they were learning and memorizing and what they studied for before exams, and proudly reinforced and supported them. The Germans like to read. They were accustomed to treating books of thought, science and research with great respect, sanctity and utter seriousness.

Everyone read and talked about this material – in newspapers, in movie theaters, in offices, on the radio and in the theater. And not with skepticism, puzzlement or ridicule. It’s not sufficient to say that all the horrors occurred only because of despair, a dire economic situation and Nazi terror. Terror does not recruit 60 million people for such theories and for belief in a leader like this to the point of sacrificing their lives for him. For them, Nazism was the absolute truth. Period. It wasn't just education and training that made millions of students believe in it, not with such totality. They saw the light, they were strengthened in their belief and upheld scrupulously the “new scientific religion.”

This is a passage from a fourth-grade textbook: “Germany being on the brink of an abyss, Divine providence sent the German people a great leader, Adolf Hitler, descendant of the Nordic Aryan race May you be able to give yourselves limitlessly for the sake of the Fuehrer Do not forget that treason against a leader like this will bring perdition and bitter revenge down on you, for he was sent to save the nation Only the Germans can understand his sublime language And now, children, so can you.”

That’s a quote from a book by the historian Dr. Herbert Göbel that was published in particular for primary-school students and was included in courses for teachers. That material was distributed by order in all the schools as part of a rigorous curriculum that was worked on by the finest researchers, pedagogues, scientists and educational personnel in Germany. Their task was to rewrite all the textbooks, and ensure that all students in the Third Reich without exception were examined on them.

Schoolchildren do the Nazi salute in Berlin, 1934.Credit: German Federal Archives / Wikimedia Commons

To simplify, the principal themes of the curriculum were education to cultivate the German body and spirit, education for martyrdom and sacrifice for the sake of the homeland and the Fuehrer. The doctrine of racial purity and improvement was taught from the first grade, along with the need to remove the Jewish threat and veneration of the Fuehrer as a savior. The texts are very messianic.

And very scientific. They are constantly marked by that contrast. For Dr. Gobel, for example, Hitler was a miracle, a meteor. Not for messianic, mythic or fantasy purposes, but according to the science of history itself. He based all these propositions on a host of examples and analyses that drew on the findings of institutes that were established to study the history of the Aryan race, with a vast investment by archaeologists, physicians, geneticists, physicists and Germany’s leading historians. Their work was highly regarded in Germany and internationally even before the Nazis’ rise to power. They were considered reliable and credible sources in science, philosophy and history. There was no chance that anyone would cast doubt on these texts, on top of which they received a budget, authorization and the seal of the Education Ministry and of Hitler himself. Like the word of the living God.

It’s a kind of rationalization of messianism. There are many cults like this, in which the “mission” is backed by pseudo-scientific knowledge. For example, Heaven’s Gate, whose members committed suicide [in 1997] in order to undertake a space journey. The leader does not necessarily grab people at their weak spot. On the contrary, he grabs them where they feel smart and superior. He speaks to them in high language.

The Nazis deciphered some sort of riddle about the machine called man and the maximization of man’s natural, genetic, physical and mental abilities. I believe that this is why it grabbed such intelligent people, the elites, tens of thousands of academics, musicians, philosophers, writers, scientists. They could have packed their things and fled. They had options elsewhere. These were people who should have asked themselves what they were doing in this circus, with the mustachioed man who preached to them all day on the radio, explaining to them that they were created from ice. That they were different.

Then why didn’t they leave?

A group of children stand behind the barbed wire fence at Auschwitz just after the death camp was liberated by the Soviet army in January, 1945.Credit: AP

Because Hitler, in his genius, understood that the language that would grab the elites most powerfully was the language of science. After all, what did he want most? For them to take him seriously. He had no problem with the masses and the workers. His problem was with the intellectuals: how to reformat them, as we would say today. His solution was that he would not come to them with a political agenda, but rather with a different scientific religion that reordered the world. All this required evidence and proof, so they simply produced it. Professors in the most prestigious universities offered seminars, and their students did research and doctoral theses that were bound in leather, asserting that in order to rediscover this special Aryan genome, it was necessary to take action internationally. First to isolate the German people from the other races and then to improve the race.

Jews were seen as a genetic mutation whose role was finished. The role of the Jews was to safeguard knowledge for the Aryan people – in the kabbala, by the very fact of writing, for the Jews had been able to read and write when most of mankind was illiterate. That role was now done with. They are an unsuccessful genetic mutation of ours with other races – the fact is that they are scattered across the globe. Now they must be got rid of, because they are carrying our Aryan knowledge in a defective body. I am talking about the content of lectures in universities, not speeches in the cellar of a secret society.

Ariosophic theories

Let’s talk about the practical implementation of this approach, the takeover of the education system. The education system was standardized – all the schools were political, along the party’s lines, and the same subjects were taught at the same time throughout the Reich. All other schools – Catholic, democratic, special education – were shut down. In fact, what happened to the children who were in special education?

Some were put to death, others were incarcerated. They were isolated. The children of Germany underwent a selection process, based on their abilities and the homes they came from. They were then divided among schools in which there was a long school day, until the evening, or others that were full-time boarding facilities. In addition to the material they were stuffed with, they underwent exhausting physical training. After school, from the age of 6, they were sent to the Hitler youth movements or to engage in party activity. When they arrived home in the evening, they were worn out. The idea was not to leave them even a minute of spare time. The youths who completed those tracks successfully went on to attend university equivalents in isolated fortresses, in boarding-school conditions.

You describe a totally militarized daily regimen in the boarding schools, beginning at 6 A.M. and concluding at 10 P.M. – studies, training, drills, cleaning. A quarter of an hour’s break in the morning and evening, half an hour at midday.

Everything was done by the clock. There was no such thing as “I haven’t finished.” For Hitler, this was the breeding ground for the resurgent Aryan race, the nation’s future. They underwent training like an elite commando unit: climbing, riding, wrestling. They went home twice a year for a 48-hour break.

I found the most jolting sentence in the book to be a quote from Hitler to his opponents: “Your child belongs to us already... What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing else but this new community” [English translation from “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” by William L. Shirer].

That comment sums up the whole book and the whole frame of mind. It is the key to Nazi education. You, the mother, are nothing but a receptacle. You brought this child into the world. Now he is ours.

Perhaps you can explain a little about the Ariosophic theories that underlie the textbooks.

Next to nothing has been published about this in Hebrew, or in general. The Ariosophic movements study the source of the peoples descended from the Aryan race. It’s a whole philosophy whose basis is the idea that a certain archetype of human beings exist, whose source is not on Earth. The exponents of this doctrine believe that they are the descendants of beings who came to Earth and mated with what they found here. The offspring is the primal ancestor of the Aryan race.

The result, in any event, is not a human being.

It’s the Übermensch. These theories were presented to Hitler by researchers, thinkers and philosophers. Hitler and his close circle were drawn to it with the intensity of people who become religiously observant and think they have found the Truth.

You write that an analysis of the material in the textbooks and in Nazi thought, and Hitler’s forewords to the books makes it all but certain that he, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels and many others led a double life: leaders and commanders in public, members of a fanatic pagan cult in secret.

They transformed pagan ritual into a language. Think of the Nazi salute, which was second nature in the grocery store, in the line for the doctor, when you enter the office. There were oaths, and whoever joined these societies had to swear that no Jewish blood or any other blood other than pure German blood flowed in him, his wife and his children’s blood up to three generations back. The wedding ceremonies of high-ranking Nazi officers were also conducted in that style or with that language.

Hitler Youth in Worm, Germany, 1933.Credit: German Federal Archives / Wikimedia Commons

There’s a frightening wedding scene in Erik Larson’s book “In the Garden of Beasts.”

Yes, and one that seems mythic. The groom uttered his vows to the bride in Runic, the ancient Nordic language. Similar rituals existed in ceremonies of promotions in rank. The famous SS lightning rods? They are actually letters of the Runic alphabet. There were two symbols like that on every collar and belt buckle; girls wove them onto their bras. Even bread bore the image of a swastika or other symbol. They ate the symbol. Nazism, that pagan science, became part of their genome. It wasn’t just some ceremony they did and then went home. It was the routine, it was their life, children came home at night from their groups, after it was drummed into them all day, to parents who were up to their necks in it.

They believed that more developed beings existed in other galaxies who were the fathers of their nation. They claimed that it took light-years to make the journey each way, and that their founding fathers were now on the way back. It sounds wacky, but for Adolf Hitler it was pure science. Himmler sent a research delegation of scientists and archaeologists to the Himalayas, in order to prove that this was the origin of the ancient Germans and that their anatomical structure was different.

They believed that they had superhuman abilities.

Yes, that they possessed quasi-electromagnetic traits, or the ability to hypnotize. Himmler was very obsessive scientifically; he was in contact with many scientists around the world. His conjecture was that people who carried the genetic makeup of the Aryan race could, for example, read other people’s thoughts. The brain sciences of our time developed in the Nazis’ research institutes.

I didn’t realize that.

Well, what was Auschwitz?

A laboratory?

The biggest-ever laboratory for experiments on human beings. Do you know what a luxury it is for a scientist to perform experiments on living people? Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, twins, dwarfs, optics, plastic surgery, skin grafts and organ transplants. Where was all that done? In Auschwitz ... How did medicine suddenly leap forward by hundreds of years? What I’m saying now is horrible, but my parents were there, next to these medical institutes, they saw everything. My father, who was an inmate in Auschwitz, worked closely with one of those physicians. With his own eyes he saw what they did there.

What did he see?

All kinds of crossbreeding within families: father and daughter, twins. They wanted to see what kind of fetus would emerge, study its genetic features, what it received from each side. They studied all kinds of stages of pregnancy. Jews were perceived as raw material. When my father asked, “How can you burn people?” his commanding officer replied, “How can you eat a chicken? What difference is there between a cow and a Jewish woman?” That was their approach. That’s the education they received. The same was true regarding Gypsies or handicapped people. By the way, the first killings in Germany occurred long before the war broke out. In 1938, hundreds of thousands of people who were insane, homosexual or mentally retarded, as well as exceptionally ugly people were exterminated.

A Lebensborn birth house in Nazi Germany, created with intention of raising the birth rate of 'Aryan' children from extramarital relations of 'racially pure and healthy' parents.Credit: German Federal Archives / Wikimedia Commons

Eugenics – to improve the race.

Or euthanasia. The race has to be cleansed. The superfluous sentiments the world received from the Jewish soul have to be eliminated. No compassion. Do you want people to be healthy? Stop being compassionate. Sentiments are the most dangerous barriers to the development of the Aryan human race. The super-race. The whole Nazi hierarchy was ordered to name their firstborn child after one of the goddesses of Odin’s planet.

The Valkyries.

Himmler’s daughter, who is still alive, is named Gudrun. She supports the Nazi movements, gets Nazi criminals released from prison and finances them. She remains convinced that everyone else is wrong and that her father was right.

Mother and Mengele

And hovering in the background is your own personal story. The Holocaust was talked about in your home.

All the time. My beautiful mother was the singer and pianist for Dr. Mengele. He played the violin, Dr. Mengele. Sometimes he joined her in playing, and of course performed experiments on her. He told her, “I will prove to you that it is possible to starve and despite that you will play wonderfully, because the spirit is stronger than the body. The moment you hit a false note, my dog will deal with you.” And in fact, when she hit a false note – because she had tuberculosis and was reduced to a skeleton – the dog simply attacked her.

She told you this?

She lived it. We had a piano in the house, and she would wake up every night in the middle of the night and play her repertoire. That’s what I remember from the moment I was born. My father was in the Sonderkommando, one of the commanders of the Sonderkommando uprising, almost the only one who survived. They didn’t want to kill him; they only hammered his tongue into the wall with a nail, so that he would be mute, so he would not be able to talk and tell what he saw.

My home was a bubble that was brought from there. Outside people behaved the way they did in Israel, but in the house everything was different. My mother’s language was German. I only learned Hebrew when I entered preschool. If there was money, they would buy an opera record. My father discussed with me from age zero the philosophy of Kant and Hegel in German. They wanted to give me the basis for a better education, from their point of view. The Ordnung was implanted in me: Everything in its place. My son’s commanding officer in the [Israeli] army told me: No matter what kind of hole we’re in, his bed is always neatly made. Shoes shined, one next to the other. I asked him: Would you like to see our home? That’s German education. Order. Systematization. Always demand more from yourself.

You also saw the dark and dangerous side of that education.

What’s dangerous is the connection between high intelligence and fanaticism. As a political tool, as an instrument to rule. People are drawn to it. Humans are addictive beings. Just give them essence and reason, and they’re yours. My father understood that. I was brought up not to become addicted to anything. My father told me: You won’t drink, you won’t puncture the body, you must always be in control, always with eyes open. Don’t be deluded, don’t let anyone dull your senses. Ever. He would wake me up and take me out for training in fields: What time is it? Tell me without a clock, look at the moon.

He wanted to save you.

Yes. So I would not become a follower of something. He knew that ideologies are perilous, that rulers can be dangerous. So you are not to go that way. You will not listen to anyone. You will always know what you are doing at all times. You will not be influenced by anyone. You will not be conquered by anyone.

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