GODS AND BEASTS -- THE NAZIS AND THE OCCULT
CHAPTER 2: Giants in the Earth
There were giants in the earth in those days.
German occult groups did not appear out of nowhere. They had historical antecedents. The new Aryan hero trumpeted by List and Lanz owed his birth to the unholy marriage of early Hindu ideas of racial purity and Darwin's concept of evolution, which was consummated in the nineteenth-century Europe where German romantics, in particular, were fascinated with racial theories.
The nineteenth century was remarkable for great change. In Germany the change was more drastic than in the rest of Europe. Its people had been more completely under the sway of the past; the Middle Ages had still been dominant in agriculture and industry. The Thirty Years' War, which began in 1618, had consolidated land holdings into fewer and fewer hands, and the land reforms which followed only served to crush the people lower down on the social scale. The industrial revolution happened more rapidly in Germany than anywhere else. It went from mining 1.5 million metric tons of coal in 1850, for instance, to 30 million in 1871. From a backward, predominantly agricultural country, it grew almost overnight into a modern industrial state, much as Japan and Sweden did in the twentieth century. Mass migrations of people from country to city severed traditional ties. Scientific discovery brought a sharp decline in religious faith, and there was a search for new values with which to identify. The state, assuming more and more control, seemed bent on crushing individuality.
The European romantics, wincing at the bitter fruits of modern "progress," delighted in the exoticisms of the East. European rule in the Orient, travel, and translations of the Oriental classics helped lift the veils from the faces of the ancient Eastern civilizations. What the Europeans caught a glimpse of was a kind of serenity which had disappeared from the West and which was very much desired. So great was the Eastern influence that Victor Hugo observed in 1829: "In the age of Louis XIV, all the world was Hellenist; now it is orientalist."
Napoleon's army, entering Egypt in 1798, found the Rosetta Stone, which scholars labored to decipher. When Champollion solved the riddle, the long-lost tongue of that ancient civilization was loosened and the way opened for the great achievements of the modern science of Egyptology. German archaeologists went along with the Prussian king's expedition in 1842 and further refined the study.
The Germans also made important contributions to understanding the real nature of Islamic literature and thought. Persian love poems, called ghazals, had the greatest effect on German poets. The most brilliant of the Persian poems were Sufi. In the Sufi tradition, the poems were interpreted as allegorical and mystical revelations of the divine. German poet-scholars made use of them to such an extent that Heinrich Heine admonished: "These poor poets eat too freely of the fruit they steal from the garden groves of Shiraz, and then they vomit ghazals."
The Muslims had prejudiced the Europeans against the Hindus, whom they regarded as superstitious and degraded. But with the translation of ancient Sanskrit texts, India began to exert a fascination on the West.
The philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder read Indian philosophy with enthusiasm and managed to inspire the German romantics, who were markedly different from the romantics in Europe at large -- more given to morbid bitterness. Herder cautioned them not to be frightened by supernatural elements such as gods moving among men or nature personified. These, he said, were depictions of actual experiences, for on that paradisical river, the Ganges, the golden age still existed. The romantics could not have been more pleased, longing as they were for just such a golden age. "It is to the East," wrote Friedrich Schlegel in 1800, "that we must look for the supreme Romanticism."
A French version of the Upanishads awakened Arthur Schopenhauer to the wisdom of the East. His pessimistic view of a demonic will, blind and insatiable, compelling all things to share in its own futile unrest, had a tremendous influence on German thought, falling in with the disappointed mood of the age. Schopenhauer's sterile negation of life was soon imitated by like minds. The cessation of activity, for the sake of eventual purification, had a definite appeal for tired, hopeless people who could now enjoy renunciation under the cloak of Orientalism. The historian Benedetto Croce observed that this often led to a "sad and bitter sensuality, of decay and death ... tinged with Satanism and sadism."
The spiritual journey to the East, undertaken by many German scholars, philosophers, and men of letters, brought a new mythology to a politically, economically, and socially despairing country: a mystical view that all finitude is the result of a fall from the absolute and that the effects of the Fall have to be repaired by the course of history. These writers began to glorify the Middle Ages as a period of dialogue with God, when men, art, and religion had been unified. To restore the lost innocence became their aim.
Asia's effect on the West took a terrible turn when the ancient Hindu doctrine of the race purity of the ruling class was rationalized by the Germans to demonstrate Aryan superiority over the Jews. In the mid-1800's, German philologists had theorized that their noble Aryan forebears in India had the same mystical symbols and gods as the ancient Germans. A French diplomat and Orientalist, Arthur de Gobineau, made race the determining characteristic in the rise and fall of civilizations. Gobineau's theory was that the racially pure Aryans were bastardized by alien racial elements, producing, by the process of civilization, a decadent people. It was the Semites, he said, hybridized by blacks, who were responsible for the Fall.
Gobineau's work not only gave an air of pseudo-respectability to the budding anti-Semitism in Germany, it provided a convenient rationale for the economic and social fall of the nobleman -- for his failure to return to paradise. Even the caste system in India, he claimed, had not been sufficiently stringent to protect the ruling elite from the defiling blood of the dark-skinned races they had subjugated. His ideas penetrated throughout Germany. The German romantics, given a shot in the arm by Gobineau, could now view themselves as a natural aristocracy replacing the older, outmoded feudal aristocracy, which no longer accorded well with the idea of progress. After all, the Teutons, whom Gobineau equated with the Aryans, were the superior race. This idea was eagerly seized on and was buttressed by the growing resentment against the Jews.
In the early nineteenth century, the Jews had begun to move toward equality and citizenship in Germany. Before then, the mass of them lived in ghettos behind walls, were taxed heavily, and were barred from any work but peddling and petty trade except for a select few, and even then under prohibitions which gave them a bare subsistence. Even the more fortunate, like the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, at the height of his fame in 1776, reported that to enter Dresden he was forced to pay "a head tax" equivalent to that set for "a Polish cow."
Ludwig Boerne, a satirist born in 1786, writing of his boyhood memories in a Frankfurt ghetto, recalls:
After the German emancipation of the Jews, which took several decades to complete, there was a huge influx of Jews from the Eastern European countries, which were still guilty of fierce persecutions. Life in Germany was more hospitable to them. But in time, the majority of Germans, scratching out a bare living themselves, began to resent them. Boerne understood well the hostility of these Germans, who flattered themselves that no matter how low their estate, they were at least not members of an inferior race:
Gobineau became the prophet for all these "poor Germans" and provided them with a philosophy which preached the nobility of the Aryan by simple virtue of his birth. From this eminent source they learned that contamination of race would lead to the certain decline of Germany.
The growing volkisch movement began an active battle against the Jews, the defilers of their blood, reinforced by a pseudo-scholarly writer who satisfied their desire for academic respectability. Rightist Pan-German groups also bolstered their ideology by citing the dubious philosophical, historical, and scientific analyses laid out by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an Englishman in love with German culture.
Though painfully dull, his two-volume Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1900, had a strange appeal. He told a mass society, at the mercy of the impersonal forces which were crushing it, that the Teutons were indomitable master builders, that in mysticism was freedom, that "every Mystic is, whether he will or not, a born Anti-Semite," and that Darwin's theory of natural selection justifies the stricture against mingling of the races.
Even before Chamberlain, volkisch thinkers had tried to weave together lessons from history proving the heroism of the ancient Germanic past. Many of them were admirers of the Theosophical Society, which combined for the first time certain elements into a cohesive system considered by some people to be the beginning of modern occultism.
The Theosophical Society was organized in New York City in 1875 by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a Russian expatriate countess known to her disciples as H. P. B. At seventeen, her family had forced her to marry an elderly Russian general, whom she promptly deserted. Headstrong, convinced that she had mediumistic powers, and versed in many languages, she wandered about Europe and the East, and decided at age forty to come to New York to investigate spiritualism, which had become an American craze. Her mission, a Society historian observed, was "to explain its phenomena, expose its frauds, to enlarge its spiritual scope, and to give it the dignity in the world of science which was its due." Depleted of financial resources, if not of energy, she delivered up an unlikely package of Hinduism, Gnosticism, and pseudoscience which had a tremendous impact on the intelligentsia of the West. She even converted the Indians themselves to the "ancient wisdom" in modern dress. Her ideas, about ancient lost races with secret knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality, the immortal soul perfecting itself through endless rebirths, and mastery of superhuman powers which could unlock the secrets of the universe, if they had been presented by traditional organized religions, would not have been credited. But people were perfectly willing to suspend disbelief of a huge Russian countess with magnetic eyes who smoked cigars and used bawdy language.
Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859, had widened the chasm between science and religion. H. P. B. leaped across that chasm with a spiritual concept of evolution. Men could become divine, she said, by advancing in an evolutionary process which was part of an elaborate cosmology affecting whole races.
It was possible to thwart evolution, however. Like most occultists, she believed in the old Gnostic doctrine that there were two worlds, one good and one evil.
In Gnostic thinking, spirit and matter were opposed to each other, matter being an interruption of the order of the cosmos -- a fall, and therefore evil. The Gnostics posited three classes: spiritual, or pneumatic, men; animal, or psychic, men; and carnal, or physical, men. The last were said to be wholly material and could not be saved, their nature being evil; they had not a single spark of the divine in them.
Matter, according to the Gnostics, was not the creation of the supreme god but of a demiurge, an inferior divinity. A famous medieval Gnostic sect, the Cathars, came to identify the Old Testament god, Jehovah, with the demiurge, the creator of the material world, and therefore the equivalent of Satan. Within Gnosticism, then, existed the idea that the Jewish god was really the devil, responsible for all the evil in the world.
Without intending to arouse hatred against the Jews [???], H. P. B. repeated this Gnostic thinking in her book The Secret Doctrine:
She talked of a race of giants that existed in ancient days and argued that the occasional appearance of giants in modern times proved that species tend to revert to the original type. She held that since the days of the giants, whose descendants the Aryans were, there had been an unbroken succession of semi-immortal "adepts" living in secret cities in Tibetan mountains. It was they who had appointed her as their emissary.
Because of the flamboyance of her personality, if not her prose, H. P. B. became the model for other aspiring occultist leaders. She had somehow managed to make magic, witchcraft, and alchemy respectable. With the support of educated people, her ideas spread. She brought to the last decades of the nineteenth century a universal palliative for the materialism from which it was suffering.
The volkisch writers made capital of both Theosophy and Darwinism. Darwin's book had been hailed in Germany with an acclamation in startling contrast to the storm of protest which greeted it elsewhere. In place of a dogmatic Christian theology preaching a millennium, there came a conviction that human society was moving blindly toward some ideal goal. The struggle for existence, palpable to every German, justified itself in this evolutionary scheme of nature. Origin of Species sold briskly in Germany. The Germans eagerly pressed Darwin with their own writings on the subject, lauding his work. It was said that although Darwin was English, Darwinism really came into its own in Germany. As one German scientist pointed out: "You are still discussing in England whether or not the theory of Darwin can be true. We have got a long way beyond that stage here. His theory is now our common starting point."
To a growing body of anthropological concepts was now fused the idea that the karma of the Aryans was to engage in a race struggle to the death against the Jews. Germans, the fittest to survive, were destined to become the saviors of the human race. For this, Guido von List preached, they would need a "strong man from above," who would be reincarnated from an ancient soldier. List's study of the origins of Jewish mysticism had taught him the importance of imbuing a people with a Messianic hope. When the world is changing and the old knowledge becomes suspect, it is necessary to herald the coming of a Messiah so that the traditional verities may be adapted to new conditions. List gave the Germans, in effect, an opportunity to become competitors of the Jews for the honor of "chosen people." His secular Messianic nationalism was taken seriously by many confused apostles. The German people were to take their place at the head of all nations, act as their leader, and move them toward civilization. They were the chosen people, and soon a Fuhrer would arise among them who, in turn, would lead the Messianic nation.
Just before World War I, then, side by side with an awakening interest in occultism went an interest in racist-nationalism. Germany's supremacy was "proved" by the ideas and events of the distant past, when the Teutons lived close to nature and far from modern artificiality. The call of the elemental, the breath of the woodland, the simple poetry of Wanderlust, of joyous roving, asserted themselves. The folktales and folk songs issuing from the lips of peasants became sacred. Primitive German institutions and folklore were eagerly studied. Whereas, for primitive peoples, nature often represented primordial chaos, and therefore the enemy, these neo-primitives idealized nature and anathematized the city as profane, an aberrant discovery of modern man in his wickedness. Imagination, feeling, and will attributed to Natural Man, were placed above reason, which was held responsible for the psychic disorders of civilized man. The irrational was recognized as a source of illumination. List and his Theosophical friends claimed to have a "secret science" by which they could intuit the past and divine its meaning. Through extrasensory powers, they could communicate with the ghosts which hovered around ancient soil and in the cracks of ancient buildings. Innocent and pastoral at first, this movement back to nature and simplicity gradually grew more and more patriotic, more and more "German," to the exclusion of other races, and more and more anti-Semitic.
Both the occult and the racist-nationalist movements were hostile to modernity. Both promised a millennium. If all the former were not anti-Semitic, all the latter were. They saw in the Jew the exemplar of the modern man: urban, alienated from the soil, materialistic. Both movements were essentially conservative, in that they harked back to a golden age. The groups often intertwined. Under the influence of List and Lanz, whose works they studied, volkisch youth groups pressed for the expulsion of Jews from their organizations, from university life, and from the government. Admirers and disciples of both men became agitators for a final solution to the Jewish problem. Some saw that solution only in extermination.
Both also hailed the Middle Ages with uncritical admiration. Whereas the rest of Europe tended to brand that period as an era of darkness from which it had been happy to emerge, and to hold up the Renaissance as worthy of adoration, Germans idealized the Middle Ages as the most illustrious period of their history. The hierarchic structure of medieval society appealed to their longing for political security. Their morbid worship of the twelfth-century German Crusaders, the Order of Teutonic Knights, for instance, was based on its mystical hierarchical structure, its secrecy, and its supernatural claims to world domination. Indeed, according to some people, the "thousand-year conspiracy" of conquest which the Teutonic Knights had threatened did persist into the twentieth century.
The marriage of occultism and nationalism is not as uneasy as it might appear on the surface. Each represents a nostalgia for a lost paradisical state, and a commitment to restoring that state in some millennial time. It is natural for people who feel uncertain about the future to look back sentimentally to a glorified past which they will try to relive. The Irish Theosophist William Sharp (who also wrote under the name Fiona MacLeod) was a nationalist-occultist who understood the connection between the patriotic longing and the longing for the occult:
It is not at all unusual to find such feelings of Weltschmerz in those periods when reason seems to have failed us and death and disorder wait to swallow us up. At such times, an interest in the occult gains ground steadily and tries to reintegrate the shattered cosmos.
This was the climate in Germany before World War I, and the war intensified it.