Hitler’s Monsters

I suppose it makes sense that one of the biggest metaphoric monsters in all of history would have had an affinity for literal ones. Hitler’s Monsters, a new book by Eric Kurlander, explores how the Nazi party exploited popular belief in monsters and the occult to sustain its political movement. Vice has an interview with Kurlander up in which he discusses how Hitler and the Nazis employed fantastic tales of vampires and werewolves to create a sort of mythic underpinning for their ideology and policies.

Kurlander quotes pro-Nazi writer Gottfried Benn, who observed, “There tended to be a regression in intellectual advances while those grasping for power… reached backwards in search of mythical continuity.” In Nazi Germany, this meant werewolves, a preference for magic over science, and the influential Thule Society, which traced the Aryan race back to a lost continent, or what Kurlander collectively refers to as “the supernatural imaginary.”

Hitler’s Monsters, which will be published on July 18 by Yale University Press, is the story of a romantic movement—the populist völkisch movement—gone terribly awry, as paramilitary groups coopted magic and religion and effectively banished reality, instead embracing “fantasies of racial faith” like Hanns Hörbiger’s World Ice Theory, which postulated that huge blocks of celestial ice were at the root of all natural science and explained human history. Kurlander also records the attempts of leaders like Reinhard Heinrich to expel occultists from the Party, which proved impossible given that the science-averse Nazi religion depended on superstition to justify itself.

Far from the Hollywood depiction of Nazi sorcerers (Indiana Jones, Wolfenstein 3D, Marvel’s Hydra) or Britain’s harmless-by-comparison Golden Dawn, Nazi magic and mysticism was something far more insidious: an ideology immune to logical contradiction and capable of shaping a faith-based populism rooted in the idea of a common myth and a shared destiny. When I recently spoke to Kurlander over the phone, it became clear that his project was not an idle arcane history of the kind that fills occult bookstores, but a prescient document of how a nation in crisis could come to prefer its own myth over reality, and reap the consequences.

Back in 2016, Augoeides posted an article discussing challenges to the notion that the Nazi regime was literally powered by dark magick. Kurlander’s hypothesis seems to be more on the mark. Whether or not the Nazi leaders really believed in the occult and magical forces, they skillfully made use of popular beliefs in such things as part of their propaganda methods. That may explain why the few Nazis who did believe in such things had trouble being taken seriously above and beyond their ideas being used to promote the party and its agenda. The book sounds like a fascinating treatment of an area of history that is often sensationalized.

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