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The Magical Thinking of the Far Right

What is behind the relationship between far-right movements and the images and symbols of the occult?

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I truly believe, in my heart and soul, that the Aryan race descends from another planet, another universe, that our himmlische Vater sent us here to save and redeem this world, for the benefit of all mankind.
—Internet commenter, 2018

A religion must speak a man’s language.
—Heinrich Himmler

1

Was the man insane? Possibly. He had been confined in the asylum for three years, after all—locked up against his will. In 1924 the court had declared him unfit to look after himself, and there were people in Salzburg, where he lived, who said that it was his wife who’d had him committed, who said that his cruelty and grandiosity and paranoia had gotten worse and worse until he became impossible to live with. And then, many of the things he said sounded insane. He said the Bible had first been written in German. He said he was a secret king, the last heir of a line of wise magician-lords stretching back to the dawn of history. He said the Jews and the Catholics had joined in a conspiracy to persecute him. He said his magical powers gave him the ability to enter the memories of his ancestors, and that doing so had shown him a time 228,000 years ago, when three suns burned in the sky and dwarves and giants walked the earth.

The doctors called him a schizophrenic. Maybe he was. But there were reasons to think his apparent madness was really something else. His history, for one. The man was a lifelong army officer until his retirement in 1919, and he was a highly effective one, decorated multiple times during the Great War, in which he saw combat. Perhaps, you might think, the stress of the war had shattered him. But he was organized and capable of cogent thought. He could carry on perfectly normal-seeming conversations when he chose to. He acted, in other words, less like a someone suffering from uncontrollable delusions than like a sane person who has chosen, for whatever reason, to portray himself as a martyred lord of ancient German magic.

The time and place might have had something to do with it. Austria in the early 20th century was a fertile ground for every type of occultism, spiritualism, and esotericism. Secret societies, ritual brotherhoods, and magical orders might not have been mainstream, exactly, but interest in the supernatural was widespread enough not to be seen as bizarre. The Association for Occultism had a lending library in Vienna. Educated people went to séances, in salons full of incense and pearls. Reading groups convened to discuss Madame Blavatsky’s theosophical books. Periodicals with names like Die Sphinx and Die Gnosis fed the appetite for the esoteric. Stories of secret histories, knowledge recovered from past lives, and the factual validity of folklore and myth were part of the cultural atmosphere. The man in the asylum was, in a way, merely participating in one of the governing narratives of the moment.

His paranoia regarding Jews and Catholics was also of the moment. Many of these manifestations of occultism were profoundly, even foundationally, racist. For decades, ethnically German Austrians had felt their status and security ebbing within the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. They had the most money, they owned the most property, and they wielded the most power, but migration had changed the demographic makeup of many parts of the empire, including Vienna. Legal reforms had given the Slavs and other groups new standing. Then World War I came, and the empire itself disintegrated. Occultism gives its practitioners the feeling of having discovered a true, fixed, and unified cosmic order, which exists in secret beneath the false, unfixed, and disunified flux of everyday life. Occultism thus tends to thrive at moments of intense societal anxiety, when empires are falling, when cultures are changing in radical ways. The stories occult movements tell tend to relate directly to the external insecurities the occult movement exists to ameliorate.

In the years before and after the First World War, the occult story many German-speaking Austrians discovered they wanted to hear was one in which the “Aryan race” stood at the heroic center of an enchanted universe. The hope of the world lay in pan-German nationalism, and this was not merely an interpretation or an opinion but a truth ordained by the cycles of history and myth. The only thing that had prevented the great German nation from fulfilling its great destiny was the nefarious plotting of lower human types. Movements arose around the idea that Christ had been German (Irminism); that the true gods were those of the Nordic pantheon (Odinism); that the pagan past of the German people and their runic magic could point the way to a new religion of sun worship (Armanism). Writers associated with these movements argued that the extermination of the Jews would bring about a magical Aryan renewal. They rhapsodized about the power of a little-known mystical symbol, the swastika.

The man in the asylum had published articles and poetry on runic magic and other esoteric themes. He maintained correspondences with scholarly, or pseudo-scholarly, esotericists. He had founded an anti-Semitic league in Salzburg and edited an anti-Semitic newspaper called The Iron Broom. His insane-sounding statements, in other words, looked from one angle less like the expressions of an individual mental aberration and more like the results of a zealous commitment to a shared fantasy, a will toward apocalyptic violence that many Germans had begun to explain, to themselves and to each other, in mythic and magical terms.

The man’s name was Karl Maria Wiligut. In 1927, when he was 61, he was released from the mental hospital. In 1932 he left his family and moved, alone, to Germany. Two years after that he was a senior officer in the SS and a trusted advisor to Heinrich Himmler, the second-most powerful man in the Third Reich.

2

Lately I’ve been reading books about the Nazis’ fascination with the occult. I haven’t had a reason for this, unless the reason is all around me. In the weeks since I first picked up Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism, 11 Jews were killed in their synagogue in Pittsburgh; the Trump administration “quietly resumed” its policy of taking children from their parents at the border; the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil, with the help of misinformation spread through WhatsApp; Italy’s right-wing government dismissed its entire scientific advisory panel; the president of the United States publicly defended a Saudi regime that assassinated a journalist and dismembered his body; and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents used tear gas on migrant families. In a season of violence and delusion, it makes sense to look at any source that might help to clarify the nightmare.

If you haven’t kept up with academic research on Third Reich occultism, it probably sounds sort of pulpy and frivolous—Indiana Jones stuff, a Hollywood exaggeration to make history’s worst villains look even more slushily wicked. Going through the bibliography, though, I came away wondering whether the opposite might be true, whether the perceived sensationalism of the subject might have caused earlier scholars to downplay its breadth. Goodrick-Clarke’s book, published in 1985, argued that occultism shaped the cultural context in which the Nazis rose to power but had limited influence over their actions. In Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, published by Yale University Press last year, Eric Kurlander shows that Hitler’s regime was in fact informed by the occult at the operational level.

For instance: the Witch Division (Hexen-Sonderauftrages) of the SS. This was a group of 14 researchers charged with “collecting, purchasing, and/or stealing” archival material on Germanic witches, with the parallel goal of ascertaining how the weak religions of Christianity and Judaism had managed to defeat “the dominant Aryan-German religion of Nature.” Their conclusion, after reviewing more than 30,000 historical documents, was that witches were ancient guardians of Aryan faith, and that this faith had been damaged when witchcraft became associated with Satan. Seventeenth-century witch trials, they inferred, had been part of an anti-German conspiracy conceived by Jews and carried out by the Catholic Church.

Or consider Operation Mars. When Mussolini was toppled and arrested in 1943, the Nazis took several dozen sorcerers, astrologers, and tarot card readers out of concentration camps and brought them to a villa in Berlin’s Wannsee district. Their orders: Find out where Il Duce was imprisoned. Himmler promised these magicians freedom and a hundred thousand reichsmarks if they succeeded. Their leader, a man named Wilhelm Wulf, spent a month making occult calculations. A seer named Curt Münch had a map of Italy unrolled in the villa. He slowly waved a pendulum over its surface. When the pendulum ceased to vibrate over a dead spot in the Abruzzo mountains, Münch declared that Mussolini must be there.

This technique—pendulum dowsing—was also used by the German navy to hunt battleships. At the Pendulum Institute in Berlin, Kulander writes, “a ‘strange band’ of psychics, pendulum users, Tattwa researchers, astrologists and astronomers, ballisticians, and mathematicians” convened to search for enemy ships by supernatural means. One of their methods involved sliding a toy battleship over a huge map of the Atlantic. At each location, a pendulum was swung over the battleship; if the pendulum reacted, the law of radiesthesia must mean there was a real ship in that spot. This technique produced no results. Nevertheless, the SS forced dowsers to stand for hours and days with their arms stretched out over the map, in case a quiver in the pendulum produced intelligence that could be passed on to the U-boats.

Himmler, the head of the SS and the Gestapo, was the Nazi leader most obsessed with the occult. He employed a personal astrologer, believed in runic magic, and devoted huge sums to esoteric research. He sent an expedition to Tibet to explore the putative Aryan roots of Buddhism. He fixated on the Holy Grail myth and conceived of the SS as a hierophantic religious order akin to the Knights Templar. But Himmler wasn’t alone in his otherworldly pursuits among high-ranking Nazis. Joseph Goebbels studied Nostradamus and employed astrologers in the propaganda office. Hitler had the Reich chancellery dowsed for “death rays.” It’s thought that as a young man in Austria, Hitler read, and possibly visited the editor of, the occult magazine Ostara, which advocated genocide against Jews and featured illustrations of Teutonic warriors protecting half-naked blond women from leering ape-men. The Nazi Party itself emerged partly from an occult group, the Thule Society, that formed near the end of World War I in Munich.

It’s not right, of course, to say that occultism created Nazism. The fin de siècle vogue for spiritualism and hermetic orders flourished in many countries, not only German-speaking ones. Britain managed not to warp into fascism after W.B. Yeats joined the Golden Dawn. But the relationship between the Nazis and the mystic-apocalyptic fantasy realm of Aryan supremacy wasn’t casual, either. So much of the occult revival in Germany and Austria was devoted to the question of “racial origins”—a question of identity. Who are the German people, where did they come from, and why are they special? To pose the question at all was already a concession to wish- fulfillment, which might be why it was so easy to frame in an occult context. Occult thinking, unlike modes of inquiry that required critical skepticism (or, say, evidence), was able to bypass rational objection and speak directly to the wish. You do have a special destiny, because unlike the other races, yours was descended not from apes but from “divine sperma” that fell from the sky in a meteor; I saw it in a vision. You are justified in using violence to take what you want, because the cosmic cycle that began with the fall of Atlantis demands an Aryan utopia to redeem the world. If you cross-reference the Sanskrit Vedas with the runic glyphs ...

Language is an instrument of perception, not only of description. You see what you have words for. A kind of half-sublimated occultism became a major component of the Nazis’ language, reflected in the symbols they used, the insignia they wore, the metaphors through which they expressed their intentions. But when a large number of people choose to participate in a delusion, a kind of mental infrastructure of fantasy takes hold, and conclusions arrived at by dream logic become difficult to question. You struggle to say “Maybe the dowsing institute is preposterous” because, after all, you have chosen to believe in the superhumanity of the white race, and preserving the one belief requires that you entertain the other. Murdering large numbers of people becomes plausible by the same chain of association.

3

I was curious to what extent this infrastructure of fantasy continues to operate within today’s far-right resurgence, so I spent some time following the Asatru movement online. Asatru is a neo-pagan group founded by the American heathen leader Stephen McNallen in the 1970s, the successor organization to his earlier Viking Brotherhood. In some ways, the story of Asatru is profoundly a story of the 1970s. McNallen served in the Army, read a lot of books while stationed in West Germany, got discharged, hitchhiked across the Sahara Desert, grew a beard—so far, not atypical hippie-dropout-intellectual stuff, only McNallen came back from his wanderings fired with the belief that humans of Northern European DNA had an intrinsic link to the gods of the Norse pantheon. Asatru is an interesting group to look into because it’s in the center of a lot of debates about race and heritage within neo-paganism—it has enemies on both the left and the right.

The subculture of contemporary paganism is massively fractured. This is partly for the obvious reason (it’s paganism) but largely because of ideas like McNallen’s, which he calls “metagenetics.” Once you reject modernity in all its forms, once you begin to idealize an imagined, pre-Christian, ancestral past, are you defining your movement along inherently racial lines? Or is it possible for people to pick and choose which pagan deities they worship? People who adopt the view that religion is an expression of a collective racial unconscious are called völkisch pagans; people who adopt the view that the gods are open to all are universalists. People who adopt the view that they are proud of their own (generally white-European) heritage but also able to respect the heritage of others are in the middle, and are known as tribalists. I don’t have any recent demographic data, but it’s generally understood that a good chunk of neo-paganism has been colonized by the far right.

On the Asatru subreddit (yes, this exists; it’s hard to reject modernity in all its forms), alongside questions like “How do you make offerings to the gods—what types and how,” there’s a topic called “Do I have to be of European origin?” A poster called Genghis112, who self-describes as “of Asian origin but very interested in Norse paganism,” asks whether someone from an Asian background can “practice and connect with Norse deities.” Most of the responses say yes, absolutely. “Thor is the protector of all of humanity,” one poster writes, “No one group has a monopoly on any religion.” Others disagree: “Norse-paganism is about honoring your ancestors so no, look into your old ancestors’ faith.” An argument breaks out about whether völkisch pagans are inherently white separatists. “What’s wrong with that?” roidsquestionmark replies, “I prefer to spend time with other europeans.” A few posts on from there and the posters are talking about whether someone who is 51 percent European can worship European gods: “At what point is one’s noble whiteness watered down to the point where the gods will ostensibly no longer treat with you?”

For his part, McNallen insists that metagenetics isn’t a racialist concept. In his writing, white gods may be for white people, but other groups have their own ancestral traditions, and those traditions are worthy of respect. There’s an insincere, separate-but-equal quality to this justification, I think. But McNallen has nevertheless left himself open to attack both from völkisch pagans, who want him to proclaim the superiority of the Aryan soul-mind, and from universalists, who don’t want race to be an issue at all.

McNallen’s odd position as a pagan centrist doesn’t hold up to a great deal of scrutiny, however—or maybe the center within neo-paganism is simply much farther to the right. He has spoken out against what he fears is the coming extinction of the white race and against the rising political power of American racial minorities. According to Jennifer Snook in her book American Heathens, he articulates “white American resentment of a perceived loss of status and privilege in modern, multicultural society in particularly divisive political times” (sound familiar?). The idea of metagenetics has circulated within alt-right discourse; it’s been enthusiastically promoted, for instance, on the Swedish alt-right social media channel Red Ice TV. This year the Southern Poverty Law Center designated the Asatru Folk Assembly as a hate group.

On the AFA’s website, McNallen has sold an occultist journal called Tyr: Myth—Culture—Tradition, published by his friend Michael Moynihan. I’ve been reading through Tyr’s back issues for a while now; it’s a trip. Tyr’s purpose, according to its editors, is to re-sacralize the world by resolving mind-body dualism along tribalist pagan lines. Everyone involved strenuously rejects what McNallen calls the “Nazi-Odinist identification,” and the general tone is scholarly almost to the point of quaintness. But I keep coming across praise in Tyr for Julius Evola, the Italian philosopher and fascist intellectual who lived from 1898 to 1974. Evola was a serious and passionate esotericist who experienced a Buddhist awakening while mountain climbing, then went on to write influential works on Tantra, hermetic magic, and alchemy. He also worked in Mussolini’s Race Office, wrote an approving preface to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, wrote an article called “Woman as Thing” (“La donna come cosa”), and so opposed democracy and equality that he described himself as a “spiritual racist.” Evola was a huge influence on the alt-right leader Richard Spencer. Stephen Bannon has admiringly cited his works.

You don’t have to look hard, it turns out, to find evidence of the same old pseudo-mystic sludge beneath the culture of the modern far-right. It’s on biker sigils. It’s in Twitch avatars. It’s in 4chan memes. Its character, outside actual völkisch pagan sects, is more diffuse, more postmodern, wrapped in more layers of irony. But the same sense of latent doom is there, too. It always has been. When the white-supremacist terror group called the Silent Brotherhood, also known as The Order, was suppressed in 1984 after murdering a Jewish radio host, half its inner leadership circle identified as Odinist. Even the fact that the alt-right movement initially organized itself largely around video game chauvinism tells you something about its relationship to fantasy, its desperate need to be given a special destiny. Actually, it’s about ethics in heathenism!

Karl Maria Wiligut, the man released from the Salzburg asylum in 1927, believed he had a very special destiny. He was a secret king, after all. He spent several years in the SS, where he was eventually promoted to brigadier, advising Himmler on esoterica. The stylized SS insignia, a double-sig rune, had been taken from the work of another occultist, but Wiligut designed the Totenkopfring, the death’s-head ring, that was given to select men in the order. It was with Wiligut that Himmler planned to transform Wewelsburg Castle, in Westphalia, into the SS’s ritual fortress, with a chest designed to hold the death’s-head rings of dead officers forever, to signify their eternal membership in the brotherhood. At Wewelsburg, Wiligut presided over pagan wedding ceremonies for SS officers, officiating, Goodrick-Clarke writes, with “an ivory-handled stick bound with blue ribbon and carved with runes.”

But then, in late 1938, Himmler’s adjutant visited Wiligut’s wife in Salzburg. He learned about Wiligut’s confinement in the mental hospital and the schizophrenia diagnosis—an embarrassment for the order. Soon after, Wiligut retired, though he continued to advise Himmler informally. His later years “are a record of oblivion and pitiable wanderings.” After the war, he had a stroke in a refugee camp run by the English. He returned to Salzburg, but missed Germany; he traveled back to Germany and died shortly after his arrival.

“The unknown is the largest need of the intellect,” Emily Dickinson wrote. I happen to believe that this is true; but the kind of esotericism that thrives on the far right has never had the slightest interest in the unknown. It wants to be told the news it wants to hear, and the atmosphere of mystery it cultivates—like the pseudo-science to which it often gives rise—only exists to provide obvious lies with a vague cover of authority, a comfortably blurred prestige. The varieties of false knowledge in this world are infinite; one of the most dangerous is the knowledge that answers desire. Policies begin in dreams.

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