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Did Hitler’s obsession with the occult lose him the war?

The Nazi war effort relied to an astonishing degree on dowsing, astrology and mysticism, as Eric Kurlander reveals

17 June 2017

9:00 AM

17 June 2017

9:00 AM

Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich Eric Kurlander

Yale, pp.448, £25

When he came to power Hitler had a dowser scour the Reich Chancellery for cancerous ‘death rays’. Before flying to Scotland Rudolf Hess had his horoscope drawn up by a personal astrologer. Himmler backed research on the Holy Grail and medieval devil worship (‘Luciferism’) and sent an SS expedition by the explorer Dr Ernst Schafer to Tibet in 1938 to investigate the ancient Indo-German ‘Aryan’ origins of Buddhism. Himmler also founded the SS Witches Division, which collected evidence in eastern Europe in the second world war that Teutonic ‘wise women’ had been persecuted and burnt in a Jewish-Catholic Inquisition plot against volkisch German culture and blood. In 1939 Goebbles sat up late at night reading the prophecies of Nostradamus, which he revealed to an enthusiastic Führer as evidence that the British were soon to be defeated.

One could be forgiven for thinking the above might be the fevered imaginings of a Hollywood schlock movie producer or the midnight fantasies of a pulp-comic writer. In fact they are the sober truth, just part of the immense trove of bizarre material on Nazis and the supernatural that eight years of research by Eric Kurlander has uncovered.

The British had ASDIC or radar to find German U-boats: the German Navy had the Pendulum Dowsing Institute in Berlin. Here, over a large map of the Atlantic, a one-inch model battleship was moved about, as an expert in pendulum-dowsing swung a metal diviner on string above the map, watched by fascinated German admirals. If the pendulum dowser ‘reacted’ over the toy ship this indicated a genuine British battleship in the vicinity.

The Germans had convinced themselves that the British were finding U-boats by pendulum dowsing. After Mussolini was toppled and arrested, Operation Mars was launched: 40 experienced astrologers, tarot-card readers, magicians and dowsers were released from concentration camps and installed in a villa in Berlin’s Wannsee, under the leadership of top magician Wilhelm Wulf. ‘Find the Duce!’ were their orders. ‘These magicians cost the SS a pretty penny,’ complained the SS General Schellenberg; ‘they demanded — and got — huge quantities of luxury food, alcohol and tobacco before they could start work.’ A large map of Italy was unrolled and the pendulum dowsers started swinging the lead in an attempt to find the whereabouts of the Italian dictator. In the end Otto Skorzeny’s commandos found the Duce and rescued him, but Wulf avoided returning to Sachsenhausen, and was soon working for Himmler as his personal astrologer, claiming it was he who had found Mussolini through magic.


Professor Kurlander traces supernatural belief in Nazi Germany to the counter-cultural, mystical theories which abounded in fin-de-siècle Austria and Weimar Germany. Helena Blavatsky’s Great White Brotherhood of hidden Mahatmas in Tibet, and Rudolf Steiner’s theories of anthroposophy and bio-dynamic blood and soil agriculture were two such strands.

Central to the Nazis’ mystical beliefs was World Ice Theory, propounded in the 1912 book Glacial Cosmogony by Hanns Hörbiger. This held that white ‘Aryan’ man was not descended from the apes, as were other inferior races, but rather came from ‘divine sperma’ brought to earth by meteors. These developed into the godlike Supermen of the ancient civilisation of Atlantis-Thule which employed parapsychology and mystical electricity ‘like Thor’s hammer’. Atlantis was destroyed by ‘icy moons’ crashing into earth, and refugee Supermen established Buddhism and Hinduism in Tibet and the Himalayas and Shintoism in Japan. Jesus Christ was a White ‘Aryan’ of Atlantean descent, as were the Knights Templar and the Cathars, who held the mysteries of ancient Thule in the Holy Grail. The white Supermen were locked in a struggle for mastery with the ape-like ‘Tschandala’ or ‘monstrous humanoids’ — Jews, Slavs, blacks and ‘mongrel breeds’.

This overtly racist worldview was believed in by Hitler, Hess, Himmler and other senior Nazis. Julius Streicher was convinced that Jews gave off a particular odour and that he could ‘smell out a Jew’ at several metres, like the medieval witch-sniffers. Himmler tried to get World Ice Theory taught instead of Darwinian evolution in German universities. This theory explains why Himmler felt able to enrol Arabs, Indians and even Turkestaners in SS units. It also justified genocide, horrific medical experiments and mass population displacements, and convinced Hitler that ‘Nordics’ could tolerate cold better than ‘Slavs’, with dire results at Stalingrad. Himmler wasted much time and money on research into magic rays which he hoped would find oil and gold in the Rhine.

Kurlander believes that Nazi reliance on magic encouraged the development of pointless and wasteful ‘wonder weapons’ such as the V1 and V2 rockets, which killed many civilians but did not affect the Allied war effort. Not all Nazis believed in this tosh. Speer, Bormann and Heydrich attempted purges of magicians and astrologers, especially in the Hess Action, after the flight of the Deputy Führer to Scotland. Thousands were rounded up and put in camps, but within months most were free again, many working for Himmler. In 1943, at a time of acute labour shortage, an estimated 3,000 tarot-card readers were still working in Berlin alone.

The British knew all about the Nazi weakness for magic and parachuted faked copies of the astrological magazine Zenit into Germany which contained decidedly pessimistic horoscopes for Hitler and his acolytes.

Deeply researched, convincingly authenticated, this extraordinary study of the magical and supernatural at the highest levels of Nazi Germany will astonish — and provide scholars and the general reader with much food for thought. Without such widespread crackpot beliefs the Nazis might just have won the war. ‘Every German has one foot in Atlantis, where he sees a better fatherland,’ claimed the renegade, defrocked Nazi Herman Rauschning. Thank heavens they did.

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