Hitler's Monsters

A Supernatural History of the Third Reich

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Eric Kurlander
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , July
     2017.
     448 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300189452.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book has been reviewed in JAAR by Joseph Laycock.

Eric Kurlander’s Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich investigates the role of occultism, supernatural thinking, and “border science”—practices that claimed scientific legitimacy, even while violating standards of empirical verification—in Nazi Germany. From the Nazi Party’s origins in the occultist Thule Society in 1918-19 to the “werewolf” mythologies that drove partisan actions in the waning days of the Second World War, Kurlander integrates the burgeoning literature on Nazi Germany and the occult while incorporating new archival evidence. The result is an exhaustively documented study whose core thesis will prove difficult to refute: Nazi ideology and propaganda, the regime’s genocidal war aims, and the leadership’s insistence on pursuing a bloody Endkampf in the face of inevitable defeat depended on supernatural beliefs shared widely by both the National Socialist leadership and the German population.

Hitler’s Monsters is at its most impressive in demonstrating overarching patterns amidst the seemingly chaotic nature of Nazi ideology and policymaking. Kurlander shows that a fascination with the supernatural was present at the outset of the National Socialist movement, and shaped Nazi beliefs about race, space, and national destiny through the end of the war. The occultist Thule Society that sponsored the early German Workers’ Party, the predecessor to Hitler's National Socialist Party, promoted “rabid anti-Semitism and anti-Communism, fanatical hatred of democracy, and dedication to overthrowing the [Weimar] Republic” (46). The Nazi Party’s early supporters were steeped in mythologies of a proto-Germanic civilization that emerged out of an Indo-Aryan race, and many believed Hitler to be gifted with supernatural capabilities. After coming to power, the Nazis organized an expedition to Tibet in search of Indo-Aryan ruins, invested in “biodynamic” agriculture that claimed to activate mystical forces beneath the soil, sponsored research on the pseudoscientific “World Ice Theory,” and performed deadly experiments on concentration camp inmates seeking to revive the deceased or demonstrate the racial inferiority of Jews. Kurlander convincingly argues that no decisive turn against occultism took place. Instead, the selective persecution of movements perceived as challenges to the regime’s authority, especially after 1937, formed the bases for deepening cooperation with occult practitioners during the war (106-29).

While offering a fresh synthesis, Kurlander’s study also returns to older interpretive models. Whereas recent scholarship has argued that border science enabled Europeans to adapt to a modern, post-Christian society (xiii), Kurlander follows the neo-Marxist theorists Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch, who viewed occultism as “a tool for the fascist manipulation of the population” (6) that subverted critical reflection (see Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott, Verso, 2005, 238-44). Departing from historians who have focused on the European and global contexts of colonialism, racial science, and economic crisis within which Nazi Germany took shape, Kurlander emphasizes a peculiarly Austro-German fascination with the supernatural. Readers schooled in the critique of the Sonderweg (special path) paradigm of German history might take issue with Kurlander’s suggestions that the “liberal and cosmopolitan aspects of theosophic thought” were “stronger” in Britain than in Germany (16), or that Germany’s long period of political fragmentation fueled particular skepticism toward modern science (23-24). Nevertheless, Kurlander presents compelling evidence for the depth of interest in the supernatural within both the Nazi Party and German society more broadly. In the early 20th century, “thousands of spiritualists, mediums, and astrologers” worked in Berlin and Munich (14), while during the Second World War, the Nazi leadership eschewed the “Jewish” science of atomic physics to invest in supernatural “death rays” and anti-gravity machines (270-76).

Scholars of religion will likely be most interested in Kurlander’s contribution to discussions about the relationship between the Nazi regime, neo-pagan movements, and Germany’s Protestant and Catholic churches, the focus of chapter 6. Some of Kurlander’s findings will be familiar. For instance, Nazi leaders could express vitriolic hostility toward the institutional (especially Catholic) churches while offering paeans to the authentic Germanic religion of the “Aryan” Jesus (179-83). By showing how Nazi religious views drew on a mélange of motifs from völkisch thought, border science, and Eastern religions as well as Christianity, Kurlander usefully complicates the debate about whether the Nazis were “Christians” or “pagans.” At times, however, Kurlander juxtaposes his nuanced account of occultism against a rather static portrait of “traditional Christianity” (7). His opening chapter explains the popularity of supernatural practices in late 19th-century Germany partly as a reaction to a decline in Christian belief. Yet Germany’s 19th-century churches were incubators for a range of revivalist movements that gave voice to similar anxieties about the rise of modernity—one thinks of the Protestant Great Awakening (Erweckungsbewegung) or the rise in Marian apparitions among Catholics. Even during the Nazi years, the Catholic mystic and stigmatic Therese Neumann von Konnersreuth, whom Kurlander treats only cursorily (292), attracted a wide following in rural Bavaria (Michael E. O'Sullivan, "Disruptive Potential: Therese Neumann of Konnersreuth, National Socialism, and Democracy," in Monica Black and Eric Kurlander, eds., Revisiting the "Nazi Occult": Histories, Realities, Legacies, Camden House, 2015, 181-201). Greater attention to how Christians (and not only the radically pro-Nazi “German Christians”) partook in occult, supernatural, and racialist thinking might temper the conclusion that Nazi crimes depended on a rejection of “Christian morality” (250).

Hitler’s Monsters leaves open the question of how to integrate the supernatural into the mainstream of scholarship on Nazi Germany, where it continues to play a secondary role. While demonstrating the ubiquity of supernatural thinking at the highest levels of the regime, Kurlander recognizes that occultism constitutes only one of multiple factors necessary to explain Nazi atrocities. “The Third Reich’s crimes took on monumental dimensions because the Nazis drew both on border scientific theories peculiar to the Austro-German supernatural imaginary as well asa broader European mix of eugenics, racism, and colonialism” (232). But how precisely did the “supernatural imaginary” affect the decision process leading to the Final Solution, or the operation of particular killing sites? A task for future scholarship will be to complement Kurlander's focus on the elite stratum of Nazi leaders—Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Rosenberg, and Bormann figure prominently in his narrative—with investigations of the role of the supernatural in particular religious communities, localities, or military and SS divisions. Such scholarship will surely begin from Kurlander's learned and wide-ranging study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brandon Bloch is College Fellow in Modern European History at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eric Kurlander is Professor of History at Stetson University. His previous books include The Price of Exclusion: Ethnicity, National Identity, and the Decline of German Liberalism, 1898–1933 and Living With Hitler: Liberal Democrats in the Third Reich (Yale University Press, 2009).

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