Kurlander groups all these — as well as the Nazi obsession with the Holy Grail, witchcraft, Luciferianism, World Ice Theory, anti-gravity machines, astrology and pagan religions — under the rubric "the supernatural imaginary." He begins his study with Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, champion of Ariosophy, "an esoteric doctrine that prophesied the resurgence of a lost Aryan civilization peopled by Nordic 'God Men.' " According to Lanz, in 1909 he gave some issues of his magazine Ostara to a pale, shabbily dressed young man named Adolf Hitler. Of course, the future Führer may have just wanted the magazine for the pictures, since it was illustrated with — shades of Frank Frazetta! — "muscular Aryan cavaliers defending scantily clad blonde women from the advances of hideous-looking 'ape-men.' "
As the author of "The Theozoology, or the Science of Sodom's Apelings and the God's Electrons," Lanz frequently referred to "lesser breeds" as "Tschandals," a derogatory term taken from the Hindu codes of Manu. Manu? In German theosophical circles it was commonly believed that India and Tibet preserved the hidden enclaves of ancient Atlanteans or even living Secret Masters. One lunatic named Guido von List "proved" that Baldur, Jesus, Buddha, Osiris and Moses were all pure-blooded Aryans. Witches were simply Earth mothers and practitioners of a traditional Indo-Germanic religion that Judeo-Christianity tried to eradicate. (This is similar to the long discredited thesis of Margaret Murray's 1921 book, "The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.") With growing frequency, the Jews were deemed the most pernicious Tschandals. Kurlander paraphrases the British racist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who blustered that "heroic Aryans" sought "higher knowledge and creativity fuelled by their superior 'racial soul,' " while "monstrous Semites" were "civilization-destroying materialists who lacked the capacity for transcendence."
Throughout, Kurlander underscores the dangers of insane nationalism. Georg Kenstler proclaimed — with horrific consequences — that German territorial superiority required "Lebensraum," or "living space." Walther Darré affirmed the ultra-patriotic, almost mystical association of "Blut und boden," or blood and soil. Erik Hanussen, the country's "most flamboyant clairvoyant," helped convince "millions of Germans that they were the 'Chosen People' and that the downfall of 1918 would be reversed by Hitler's ability to make 'the impossible possible.' "
As Kurlander stresses, Hitler's rise to power resulted from multiple factors — Germany's military defeat, onerous war reparations, economic chaos — but esoteric mumbo-jumbo clearly played its part. He examines the popularity of the extremist horror writer Hanns Heinz Ewers and parses the racist imagery of expressionist films such as "Nosferatu " and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Hitler apparently studied Ernst Schertel's "Magic" as a self-help manual, underlining personally useful passages, among them "He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world." Such a channeling of demonic power or "mana" has always been central to occultism. The psychologist Carl Jung would even assert that Hitler was a medium, a "mouthpiece of the gods of old."
It may seem paradoxical that once firmly in charge, Hitler turned against astrology, tarot reading and all "commercial" uses of the supernatural. In fact, he feared that these could be used to manipulate the public in ways outside his control. Even professional magicians were legally compelled to demonstrate how their tricks were accomplished. Still, Hitler and his inner circle continued to firmly support "scientific occultism." In the mid-1930s, for instance, Rudolf Hess hoped to create a Central Institute for Occultism.
As late as 1942, Hitler could declare himself a "supporter" of World Ice Theory. "Glacial cosmogony," as it was also known, maintained that "icy moons had crashed into the earth," causing floods and geophysical damage, but also bringing "living kernels" from outer space that would evolve into Aryan superbeings. According to SS chief Heinrich Himmler, perhaps the most ardent Nazi occultist, these Ur-Aryans possessed paranormal powers and extraordinary weapons, one dimly recalled as Thor's thunder hammer. Himmler would send an expedition to Tibet to search for traces of this primordial civilization.
In general, the Third Reich embraced crackpot doctrines "that buttressed its racial, political, and ideological goals." These goals eventually included concentration camps, monstrous human experiments and the "Final Solution." An entire people was horribly demonized solely because of their religion and ethnicity. This couldn't happen now, could it? Some Nazis continued their grandiose self-mythologizing even when the war was lost, viewing the destruction raining down around them as a Wagnerian "Twilight of the Gods."
Eric Kurlander has written a scholarly book that reveals — to borrow Joseph Conrad's phrase — the fascination of the abomination. But he also shows how swiftly irrational ideas can take hold, even in an age before social media. As the Reich's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels reportedly declared, "If you repeat a lie a thousand times, people are bound to start believing it."
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays for Style.
A Supernatural History of the Third Reich
By Eric Kurlander
Yale. 422 pp. $35