by Eric Kurlander, Yale, £25
Eric Kurlander has written a compelling, comprehensive study of the role the occult, in all its forms, played during the rise of the Nazi Party and the duration of the Third Reich. The story is as appalling as it is incredible: how could an advanced technological Western country at the start of the 20th century be so credulous towards phenomena so opposed to rationality and science?
That is the question to which Kurlander provides the answers. As he explains, the late 19th and early 20th century in Europe witnessed the collapse of traditional religion: “a reframing and transposition of supernatural thinking from Christianity to occultism, border science and alternative religion”. Such a repudiation of Christian belief was not confined to Nazism – but the Nazi Party was susceptible to the occult as it fused with other notions of “pure” Aryanism, Norse mythology and the parapsychology of Carl Jung. It was Jung who described Hitler as a “truly mystic medicine man … a demi-deity”, a description which Hitler, eager to exploit any fantastical notion if it helped his image as Germany’s “saviour”, was keen to foster.
Cut adrift from their cultural and religious roots, the Nazis leant heavily on occultism, pagan and Eastern religions (from where they took the swastika symbol). Hugh Trevor-Roper described the Third Reich as the “history … of a savage tribe and a primitive superstition”. Belief in astrology affected the highest levels of the party and was used during the war by the German navy and Himmler’s SS. Kurlander’s persuasive thesis is that “without understanding the relationship between Nazism and the supernatural, one cannot fully understand the history of the Third Reich”.
A seminal text was Ernst Schertel’s highly popular work of parapsychology, Magic: History, Theory, Practice. Almost certainly read by Hitler in the mid-1920s, it included statements such as “he who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world”.
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