Friday, January 19, 2018

Nazis and the New Age

Chesterton never wrote "“When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything,” but he well could have. The following is from a review by Philip Jenkins of Eric Kurlander, Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich:
.... Kurlander shows just how extensively occult and esoteric ideas influenced the German leadership in the Nazi era. More accurately, he shows that the power of such ideas in the larger society ran wide and deep, and by no means only among people who placed themselves on the extreme Right. Among many others, these included interests in astrology and parapsychology; “Ario[Aryan]-Germanic paganism, Indo-Aryan spirituality, and the Nazi search for alternative religions;” and a range of pseudo-sciences, including World Ice theory and dowsing. ....

Like all good New Agers, the Nazis were also fascinated by the Mystic Powers of the ancient East, and sought to launch expeditions into deepest Tibet. Had the British not been so firmly in charge of the Indian subcontinent, they would undoubtedly have made their pilgrimages there, like so many other later would-be disciples in search of a guru. Only a very sober reader can address such stories without inevitably thinking back to the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Those occult interests extended to such mythical beings as vampires and werewolves, who to some activists were no mere characters of fiction and metaphor. When the Germans designed what was hoped to be a secret resistance army to oppose the invading Allies, its members joined Operation Werewolf. Borrowed partly from popular culture, vampire imagery shaped Nazi interpretations of the allegedly blood-sucking Jews. ....

At this point, the question obviously arises: did the Nazis really take this stuff seriously? The answer is mixed. Some German activists certainly did, and a few had the ear of key figures in the Nazi regime. Heinrich Himmler could usually be relied on to be a gullible listener. Other Nazi leaders were happy to use the occult ideas to produce propaganda, depicting Hitler as not just a world-historical figure but as a magus. ....

In praising Hitler’s Monsters unreservedly, I do raise one objection, specifically about viewing these German conditions as in any sense unique. Kurlander rightly suggests that esoteric ideas achieved unparalleled influence in Germany, but in many ways, they were no less widespread in other countries, especially the United States. In the first forty years of the twentieth century, the United States was the world capital of all manner of esoteric interests – Rosicrucian, Spiritualist, Theosophical, pseudo-Oriental, Aryan, and what would later be termed New Age. All these ideas inspired numerous sects and cult movements, but a few went on to achieve real mass memberships. In the 1930s, several of these sects were reaching audiences in the millions....

From 1941 to 1945, the Vice President of the United States was Henry A. Wallace, about whom much bad can be said in terms of his secular politics. Very fortunately, he was not permitted to run for a second term, so that when FDR died in 1945, his successor was instead the truly capable Harry Truman. Wallace was deep into Theosophy and other mystical sects. ....

Throughout the West, occult and esoteric ideas were simply in the atmosphere in a way that is hard to reconstruct today. That was a fact of intellectual and cultural life that historians disregard at their peril.