As Eric Kurlander points out in the opening pages of this book, the image of Nazis engaged in forbidden occult research has become almost a cliché in popular culture, appearing everywhere from the Indiana Jones franchise to such films as Hellboy (2004) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). But with the rare exception of scholars such as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, historians have tended to downplay Nazi interest in the occult, ceding this topic to conspiracy theorists and sensationalist cable documentaries. This is not just a lacuna in historical literature: left unanalyzed, the popular myth of Nazi occultism can suggest that the Nazis were totally other and that fascism arises only among extraordinary individuals preoccupied with highly deviant ideas. This is a comforting idea, but there is little evidence to support it. In this ambitious book, Kurlander seeks to neither dismiss nor overemphasize the significance of supernatural ideas in the rise and fall of the Third Reich, but rather to provide a “comprehensive study of the relationship between Nazism and the supernatural” (xiv). Kurlander also moves beyond the language of “the occult” to emphasize Nazi engagement with “the supernatural imaginary.” The “occult” implies secrets known only to an initiated elite, but Kurlander notes that the Nazis invoked supernatural ideas that were “eminently public and widely popular” (xiv). Much like the terms “cultic milieu” and “occulture” used in the sociology of religion, Kurlander’s supernatural imaginary is broad and includes practices such as dowsing and astrology, “Ariosophy,” attempts to reconstruct Germanic paganism, “border science” (including the bizarre “world ice theory” of Hanns Hörbiger), and even horror movies such as Der Golem (1915) and Nosferatu (1922). Far from the Hollywood image of Nazi elites engaged in secret rituals, Kurlander portrays Nazi engagement with the supernatural as a secret in plain sight. Hitler’s Monsters is organized into three parts, each consisting of three chapters. Part 1 discusses the role of the supernatural milieu in the rise of the Nazi party, part 2 examines the first six years of the Third Reich, and part 3 looks at Nazi engagement with the supernatural during World War II. Chapter 1 examines the nineteenth-century antecedents of supernatural ideas that would eventually interest the Nazis. Chapter 2 discusses occult groups such as the German Order and the Thule Society between 1912 and 1924. Chapter 3 describes how the Nazi party appealed to the supernatural imaginary for propaganda purposes through the seizure of power in 1933. Chapter 4 discusses the regime’s (seemingly paradoxical) efforts to reign in popular occultism, particularly “the Hess action” in which hundreds of astrologers and magicians were arrested after Deputy Führer and avid occultist Rudolf Hess made an unauthorized flight to Scotland in 1941. Kurlander interprets the apparent contradiction of the Nazis arresting occultists as evidence that the occult was seen as a serious subject that should be studied scientifically and not left in the hands of “charlatans.” Chapter 5 examines the proliferation of “border science” between 1933 and 1941, particularly the world ice theory, a pseudo-scientific cosmology that resonated with Norse creation myths. Chapter 6 explores Nazi interest in finding a religious alternative to German Christianity by exploring paganism, early modern witch trials, Asian religions (especially the traditions of Tibet), and “Luciferianism” (a term used by Nazi philologist Otto Rahn in his theories about Cathar and Albigensian heresies). Chapter 8 describes the intersection of supernaturalism with anti-Semitism and ethnic cleansing, including disturbing accounts of border science experiments conducted in concentration camps. Chapter 9 examines the role of the supernatural imaginary at the close of World War II as more resources were allocated to “miracle weapons” that might reverse the course of the war. The supernatural imaginary provided an apocalyptic “twilight” myth through which to interpret German defeat. Partisan resistance was also shaped by this mythology with Nazi special forces identifying as “werewolves” even as Slavic opponents were accused of a sort of literal vampirism. Hitler’s Monsters is overall a thoroughly researched and readable work. Due to the scope of this book and the fact that many of the events and projects discussed were not publically reported, there are bound to be quibbles about some of the more minor details. For example, this reviewer noticed that Kurlander’s discussion of rumors about Nazi anti-gravity devices and other “miracle weapons” briefly includes the theories of what he calls “crypto-historians.” These include somewhat dubious sources such as Reich of the Black Sun (Adventures Unlimited Press, 2015) by Joseph Farrell, The Hunt for the Zero Point: Inside the Classified World of Antigravity (Broadway Books, 2003) by Nick Cook, and others. Kurlander notes that the claims in these books cannot be verified. Perhaps the ideas of the crypto-historians were just too interesting to leave out. Kurlander also relies rather heavily on direct quotations, but as many of his sources are in German, these quotations are actually a resource for non-German-readers. Although Kurlander is writing as a historian and not a sociologist, Hitler’s Monsters is germane to larger discussions in the sociology of religion about disenchantment and reenchantment. The Nazis often invoked the idea of enlightenment (aufklärung) even as they delved into the realms of myth and border science. Rather than suggesting, as some sociologists of religion have, that disenchantment naturally leads to reenchantment, Kurlander opines, “The relative decline or efflorescence of the supernatural—the disenchantment and reenchantment of the world—has more to do with changing social, political, and historical contexts, with culture and ideology, than the ebb and flow of modernity” (xvi). However, this assessment does not mean that history cannot repeat itself. In his conclusion, Kurlander discusses the current boom in paranormal media as well as the emergence of the alt-right (and now, literal violent demonstrations by American neo-Nazis). He rejects outright the notion that an interest in the supernatural naturally leads to political extremism. But he does close his book with this observation: “The reality is that every culture has its own supernatural imaginary which can, in times of crisis, begin to displace more empirically grounded, nuanced arguments about the challenges that define our sociopolitical and geopolitical reality. That the supernatural imaginary is always more malleable, accessible, and open to border scientific reasoning than both traditional religion and modern science makes it all the more dangerous and easier to exploit” (299–300). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 4, 2018
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