(Hugo Jaeger/Getty/LIFE)

Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich
By Eric Kurlander
Yale University Press, 2017

Some of the details in historian Eric Kurlander’s new study of Nazism and the occult, Hitler’s Monsters, sound more like plot points from a Captain America movie than facts from the historical record. Kurlander writes about Nazi scientists hunting for death rays, and about a government team that tried to suss out submarines using a map of the Atlantic and a metal cube on a string. SS officers studied runes, compared themselves to a Hindu warrior caste, and traveled to Tibet in the middle of the war, looking for a lost Aryan tribe. The second most powerful Nazi leader, Heinrich Himmler, was an avid reader of the Bhagavad Gita and had a personal astrologer. There were biodynamic farms at Dachau and Auschwitz.

This isn’t what Americans are accustomed to hearing about the Third Reich. We’re used to understanding Nazis as cruel automatons, and their regime as the horrific triumph of secular rationality and bureaucratic efficiency. Kurlander is documenting something zanier, more particular, and somehow more frightening. His book is a grim museum of Nazi exotica. But it’s also a reminder of the deep connections that sometimes appear between illiberal politics and certain kinds of occult or supernatural beliefs. And it’s the story of what can happen when a fragile democracy, under the strain of economic collapse and rapid cultural upheaval, sees its leadership abandon civic traditions, indulge in vivid fantasies, and lose any stable sense of reality.

Kurlander, a historian at Stetson University in Florida, starts this story in Vienna, in 1909, in the offices of a self-published occult magazine, Ostara. Even back in 1909, Kurlander writes, the little magazine was preoccupied with some now-infamous themes: “the importance of ‘Nordic’ blood purity and the dangers of racial miscegenation; the monstrous perfidy of the ‘Jew’; the deleterious effects of socialism, liberalism, and feminism; and the mystical power of the Indo-European swastika.”

Decades later, the publisher of Ostara, Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, would claim that a young Adolf Hitler had shown up at his office and ordered back issues of the magazine. That story might be apocryphal. But the point stands: Somewhere in the borderlands of folklore, biology, science fiction, parapsychology, and occultism, a handful of fringe thinkers were cooking up a potent, and lethal, political brew.

Kurlander is far from the first scholar to note that Germany in the early twentieth century was a hotbed of unorthodox spiritual exploration. Best known is the British historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s book on the subject, published in 1985 under the sensationalist title The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology, which has been translated into at least eight languages.

The topic is easy to dramatize (and the sensationalism has, at times, earned some well-deserved backlash). Kurlander’s measured history, though, depicts a situation that was more Elks Lodge than Da Vinci Code—a network of clubs and fraternal orders aiming to revive esoteric German folk practices, discover mystical Eastern traditions, and stretch the borders of scientific thinking. The Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s concept of anthroposophy—which today underpins the pedagogy of Waldorf schools—had its followers. So did esoteric orders like the Thule Society, a Nazi precursor that combined anti-Semitism and German nationalism with occult healing and speculation about lost continents.

The emerging Nazi party, or the NSDAP, would draw on the ideology—and sometimes the membership rolls—of various movements in this scene. “As the NSDAP increased in strength … most members of the Thule Society, the Wehrwolf, and the Artamanen were absorbed into the party,” Kurlander writes, referring to other groups that combined esoteric practices with a nationalist völkisch ideology. These groups, he continues, “functioned as a political and cultural laboratory, entertaining fantasies of racial utopia and eastern colonization and helping to fashion the Nazi supernatural imaginary.”

Once in power, National Socialists kept at it. All kinds of senior figures, including Hitler and, most notably, the SS and Gestapo chief, Heinrich Himmler, were open to supernatural theorizing and occult practices, which, Kurlander argues, “found a surprisingly receptive audience in the Third Reich.”

Much of this work fell into an area that Kurlander chooses to call border science—practices that sounded and looked a lot like science, but departed swiftly from empirical standards. There were the Nazi racial theories, of course, but also lesser known concepts like World Ice Theory, which argued that the universe was largely built from ice, and that a series of collisions between frozen celestial bodies had determined the course of geologic and human history. Hitler found this ice theory convincing enough to express public support for the idea and award an honorary doctorate to one of its creators. In 1939, Kurlander reports, a government agency “sponsored a conference focused on using World Ice Theory to predict long-term meteorological events in support of the Luftwaffe”—even though the theory’s creator said he had arrived at his scientific insight, in part, from visions he had in a dream.

What’s so striking here is the almost endless sense of the possible. Again and again, the figures in Kurlander’s book, from minor Nazi officials all the way up to Hitler, seem to have almost no sense that the human will has limits, or that reality should place a check on the kinds of weapons they hope to design, or on the theories they hope to be true. Why shouldn’t there be lost Aryan tribes in the Himalayas, if the Nazi theories suggest their existence there? How couldn’t there be a miracle weapon that would salvage the failing war effort, if the Reich is going to last for ten thousand years? Why not consider the universe to be shaped from collisions of ice, if it fits the official narrative?

To be sure, Nazi authorities actually cracked down on some occult work, especially commercialized practices like astrology. And Germany wasn’t the only country with government programs devoted to sketchy theories. It’s worth recalling that the CIA maintained an extrasensory perception program, which researched whether psychics could view and report on events happening in remote locations, until 1995.

But Kurlander wants to argue that supernatural dabbling was much more than a quirky, incidental part of the Nazi mindset. He insists that, if we are to understand any political regime, we have to think about more than its doctrines and ideological commitments. We also have to think beyond whatever institutional religions it does or does permit. Beyond all of that, we have to understand its imagination. “Every culture,” Kurlander writes, “has its own supernatural imaginary that can, in times of crisis, begin to displace more empirically grounded, nuanced arguments about the challenges that define our socio- and geopolitical reality.”

This talk of “supernatural imaginaries” runs the risk of demonizing the occult—a risk that Kurlander would have done well to address head-on. His is not exactly an anti-occult position, though. I don’t think he would say that tarot readers need to check themselves for secret fascist impulses, or that organic farmers need to examine how closely their CSA marketing pitch reflects an ideology of “blood and soil.” But there are ideas that flourish in the supernatural imaginary of the New Age and the occult that, in certain contexts, can take on political muscle. There’s the old idea, for example that the will can reshape reality (an idea that exists in the borderlands of prosperity gospel preaching and New Thought phenomena like The Secret). There’s the fascination with purity. And there’s the belief in secret histories, secret forces, and secret knowledge.

These concepts are not fringe ways of thinking. They are familiar, I think, in one form or another, to most Americans.

But when do these ideas become dangerous—or at least become vessels for people’s ugliest impulses? We are living in a moment in American history when conspiracy theories and internet-borne fantasies seem to be ascendant. Trust in shared institutions of truth-making and fact-sharing are at a low. Something like Coast to Coast AM radio—the wildly popular nighttime show that features paranormal occurrences and occult theories—does not seem all that far from the White House. After all, both Coast to Coast AM and the president are on very warm terms with the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Let’s avoid glib comparisons here: The Nazis don’t provide a roadmap to this moment. Their world was different, their concerns were different, their culture was not our own. But if Kurlander’s history of that dark period can be a reminder of anything, it’s that a modernizing, industrializing, technologizing world doesn’t banish the supernatural imagination, or guarantee to bring us all in line with a common reality. The world, for many people—perhaps most of us—still feels enchanted, full of rules and forces and possibilities outside the strict empirical norm. Often, that supernatural imagination is wacky and wonderful. But in the wrong hands, it can quickly go to darker places. For better or for worse, ours is not a world free of ghosts.

Michael Schulson is a freelance journalist and a columnist for Undark Magazine. He writes about religion, science, and culture.