In the half-century or so after the end of the Second World War, it was uncontroversial to infer from Third Reich historiography that what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945 was a partial attempt to revive the pre-Christian spirituality of the Germans. That is to say, National Socialism was, at least in part, a pagan ideology. Contemporary detractors of National Socialism made similar claims. We can clearly infer from a speech given by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in the regime’s early years (“Is it Pagan?”) that opposition parties had previously charged the NSDAP with paganism, or at least un-Christian religious behaviour. In recent years, revisionists from both the mainstream and the radical Christian political Right have instead attempted to portray National Socialism as a Christian endeavour. The revisionists presumably have their reasons for doing this, although their pseudo-reasoning is often oxymoronic as is the case in Michael Burleigh’s supercilious book (The Third Reich: A New History; 2000). Burleigh’s central hypothesis is that Nazism (and Communism) constitutes a “political religion”, yet he goes on to imply that Nazism was indeed a Christian endeavour in his repeated attempts to draw the reader’s attention to the Christianity of the ideology’s prime drivers. Alternatively, the Christian radical Right’s revisionist hypotheses appear to draw inspiration from the Catholic roots of senior cadres like Heinrich Himmler and The Chief himself, and the incidental displays of public Christianity found in any Western country. They also rely on the erroneous assertion that sources demonstrating senior Nazi figures’ ferocious criticism of the church are false, or have been embellished in some conspiratorial manner. Needless to say, these arguments aren’t particularly strong either.
Contemporary observers and, generally speaking, most informed commentators throughout the post-war period unanimously reject the revisionist position. Cambridge fellow Hilda Ellis Davidson (1914 – 2006), perhaps England’s and Europe’s preeminent scholar of Paganism in the 20th century, writes confidently that ‘The Nazis tried to revive the myths of ancient Germany in their ideology…’ (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, p9; 1964), a view shared by The New York Times no less, who described German solstice celebrations in some detail while remarking that ‘Paganism is no longer regarded in Germany as something humorous’ (“Paganism Becomes Serious For the Reich”, Albion Ross; June 30, 1935). Contemporary opponents of National Socialism outside of Germany often framed the war against Germany as a ‘defence of Christian civilisation against Nazi barbarism’, with Winston Churchill – admittedly not famed for his honesty – frequently utilising this narrative, along with many pro-war statesmen on either side of the Atlantic. But perhaps the best sources of knowledge in this area are first hand. We generally need look no further than the horse’s mouth, as it were, to discover a range of religious views amongst the upper echelons of the Nazi regime; Hitler himself was scathingly critical of the church’s opposition to science, and extremely perceptive in his repeated use of the word ‘moribund’ to describe modern Christianity, views shared by his sycophant Martin Bormann. Hitler was particularly critical of Christianity’s levelling effect (‘Bolshevism is the illegitimate child of Christianity’; Table Talk p49). Views such as these may be found on a scale from broadly pious Christians, who generally derived from the Prussian-esque officer class, to more pagan-aligned ministers such as Dr Alfred Rosenberg (Amt Rosenberg¹, Minister for the Eastern Territories) and Heinrich Himmler. It is with the Reichsführer-SS that the following discussion is concerned, in direct and indirect ways.
While the revisionist claims about National Socialism’s Christian nature are irretrievably fallacious, it must be conceded that the Third Reich was not governed by Pagans, nor can it be said that Hitler or any other minister with grand responsibility attempted to impose Germanic paganism on the population at large. We have from his own mouth Hitler’s assertion that ‘…nothing would be more foolish than to re-establish the worship of Wotan’ (Table Talk, p104; 1941-44), and so, we cannot be under any illusion as to where he stood as the supreme commander of all Germans. We do see, however, strong evidence of Jonathan Bowden’s thesis that National Socialism contains both an exoteric and esoteric component (Savitri Devi: Daughter of the Black Sun; New Right 2010). This becomes most apparent through studying Heinrich Himmler’s Schutzstaffel (“SS”), an organisation which comprised the absolute elite of German society who were inducted into a semi-spiritual order focused primarily upon ‘the old ways’. The SS was the esoteric vanguard of National Socialism; it was the wellspring from which pagan ideas emerged anew in 20th century Germany, and the vector through which Himmler et al. reintroduced a specific non-Christian religiosity.
In Germany, a new sect shall be born which shall renew ancient pagan times.– Nostradamus
It is beyond the scope of this article to meticulously explore Himmler’s personal beliefs. Instead, we might look at anecdotal evidence of SS paganism, followed by more literary sources.
It is known by its infamy that Himmler’s SS purchased Wewelsburg Castle in 1934. It was initially purchased as an SS school of sorts (SS-Schule, Haus Wewelsburg), although it swiftly defined its focus more narrowly and became home to initiation rituals – which combined elements of paganism with rites akin to those of the Templar Knights and Teutonic Order – and study of a specific kind; folklore, genealogy, and history. Himmler had the Black Sun (Schwarze Sonne; Sonnenrad) emblazoned into the floor of the castle’s hall, which is a well-known solar symbol of Germanic- and Indo-European pre-Christian religion. In 1935, the Reichsführer-SS also started Ahnenerbe (lit. “ancestral heritage”), an organisation under the dominion of the SS envisaged to be the primary academic body for investigating the origins of the Aryans. As a part of this, Himmler commissioned Arnold Ruge in 1936 to curate the ‘Witchcraft Project’ to investigate the burnings of German women charged with witchcraft in the middle-ages. Himmler had identified a female ancestor called Passanquay burned for witchcraft. There was another, discovered in 1939; as David Irving writes, ‘Reinhard Heydrich would derive satisfaction from informing him in May 1939 of another unfortunate, Margareth Himbler, of Markelsheim, burned as a witch on April 4th 1629…’ (True Himmler, p46; 2021). One suspects that the Reichsführer-SS would not have been especially displeased with this revelation. He’d hired Ruge to report on his historical findings with a quite obvious bias towards the witches. Inevitably, the Catholic Church and the Jews were identified as the culprits for this persecution. In any case, this brief narration of Himmler’s fascination with German witches serves as context for the wider non-Christian religiosity that the SS exemplified.
An invaluable source for SS religiosity is the handbook issues to SS men and their families in 1939. The short book’s full title is The Celebrations in the Life of the SS Family (Die Gestaltung der Feste im Jahres und Lebenslauf in der SS-Familie; 1939), authored by an leading SS figure called Fritz Weitzel almost certainly with Himmler’s patronage. It deals primarily with religious festivals, and provides a brief contextualising history of the pre-Christian origins of popular celebrations such as Easter, Christmas and the Summer Solstice. Its tone is far less vitriolic against Christianity than were the utterances of their clique in private, but it nevertheless repudiates in an indirect way the Christianity of festivals. It instructs SS men to observe Yuletide, Easter and the Summer Solstice, amongst others, and gives fairly detailed guidance on how they ought to be properly celebrated. Yuletide, for example, is described as a solar festival; ‘…the time of Yuletide is starting, with its knowledge of the rising of the sun from its sleep, of the renewal after the wintry death, of the birth of light from the darkness of the long nights’ (§. 3). It instructs SS families on the creation and maintenance of an altar (§. 22 The Jul and SS Corner) and ancestor worship, a central theme of paganism (§. 23 The Family Book). It then goes on to briefly describe the history and importance of the Germanic runes (§. 24) in a section that describes the swastika as ‘…the sign of the sacred cycle of the Sun and which therefore may be looked upon as the symbol of the ideology of the Nordic Race’. It covers a litany of other areas, notably the authorisation of SS leaders to officiate marriages. The book is curious for its mention of God in the singular, which is perhaps a nod to Wralda, the supreme deity of the form of paganism Heinrich Himmler was said to favour.
There is evidence for this claim that the God referred to is not the Christian conception thereof. ‘In October 1934, he [Himmler] insisted that clergy … and theology students must quit the SS’, writes Peter Longerich in his conformist but factually precise and well-sourced biography (Heinrich Himmler, p219; 2021). It has also been reported in documentaries that secret orders for the destruction of France’s churches were given to the SS sometime between the Fall of France (1940) and 1944.
Another source of quasi-pagan ideas within National Socialism was Dr Rosenberg, mentioned in paragraph 2. His book, Myth of the Twentieth Century (Der Mythos des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts; 1930), is oftentimes an open critique of Christianity, and a tacit idealisation of the pre-Christian “Nordic” peoples. He endeavours to demonstrate the spiritual link between a people’s blood and the character of their religiosity, and the pre-Christian pagan ethics visible in the works of figures such as Meister Eckhart (Eckhart von Hockheim OP). There is little evidence that Rosenberg was a practising pagan as such, and he was more philosopher than theologian, but his contribution to the ideas behind the esoteric aspects of National Socialism is undeniable. It may also be said that Dr Hans Günther provided an intellectual foundation for certain aspects of this esotericism, although he was more widely known for his scientific work. In 1940 he was awarded the Goethe Medal for Arts and Science, predominantly for his anthropological studies in the field of what is called, in the modern parlance, Scientific Racism. It is a great shame that his book The Religious Attitudes of the Indo-Europeans wasn’t published until 1967, because it offers no record of whether the ideas contained therein contributed to the esoteric religiosity of the National Socialists.
The Myth is the Myth of the Blood, which, under the sign of the Swastika, released the World Revolution. It is the awakening of the Soul of the Race, which, after a long period of slumber, victoriously put an End to Racial Chaos.Alfred Rosenberg, Myth of the Twentieth Century
The esoteric aspect of National Socialism is conspicuous, ironically, to the student of the period. Its exoteric juxtaposition is the politicisation of the church by the regime; the Hitler government attempted to unify the Protestant denominations into a singular Reich Church, which would abide by the exoteric religiosity of ‘Positive Christianity’, while persecuting the Catholic Church and its clergy for their perceived commitment to a foreign body, namely the Vatican and Pius XI. Hitler’s public policy, supported by his private musings, suggest an eventual desire for a deist alignment of the German people, a sort of non-denominational religiosity removed from the influences of church structures but with a firm belief in the Providence that The Chief so frequently referenced. In 1941, Hitler was reported as saying ‘…the … way of getting rid of Christianity is to allow it to die out little by little’. However, he goes on to say ‘One may ask whether the disappearance of Christianity would entail the disappearance of belief in God. That is not to be desired’ (Table Talk, p104). Professor Jakob Wilhelm Hauer’s German Faith Movement was never favoured or preferentially advertised by the regime, and at its height had a maximum of 200,000 followers, demonstrating a lack of exoteric appeal for the pagan esotericism of the elite.
It is unfortunate that modern scholars fail to separate the two aspects of National Socialism. We see increasingly absurd documentaries describing the ‘Occult Roots of Nazism’ and Hitler’s ability to entrance an audience, which are superficial presentations of a very complex issue. They should, perhaps, refer more readily to Dr Carl Jung’s 1936 essay (Wotan) which concisely identified the hidden forces at play in Germany, not through observations of the behaviour of the SS or individual personalities, but the analytical observations of the German people as a whole. Jung correctly identified the presence of Myth in the collective unconscious of the German people, in the form of the Wotan archetype. However, it should be noted that Jung’s essay was written in a quasi-polemic tone, and he described what he observed with the German word Ergriffenheit, which is roughly translated to ideological possession, or the state of being possessed. He did commend the German Faith Movement for recognising this possession and attempting to reconcile that in the conscious realm, and it might be said that the SS acted in a similar way, although this is adjacent rather than causal to the debate on esoteric German religiosity.
To summarise, we must conclude that the reinstatement of paganism en masse was never the policy of NSDAP officials. There is, however, an identifiable dividing line between National Socialism for the masses, and the National Socialism practised by an elite exemplified by the Schutzstaffel. The SS reinvigorated the pagan festivals of ancient Germany while the masses engaged in a desultory prolongation of the Christian faith while gradually being weened off of the churches by the hidden hand of the Nazi State. All available sources demonstrate the hostility of the Reichsführer-SS towards the Christian church. We can see clearly that Himmler envisaged his racial elite to represent a National Socialist vanguard steeped in esoteric doctrine and ritual based on a quasi-monotheistic paganism typical of an elite caste (see: Mithraism in Ancient Rome), which in turn drew its inspiration from the Nordic myths of Germany’s ancestors.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest entry in this series on National Socialism, and the longer form essay. Revisit the site regularly for more updates on this theme, as well as other series such as Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious and Against Democracy.
¹Commissar for the Supervision of Intellectual and Ideological Education of the NSDAP, AKA “Rosenberg Office”