Eric Kurlander is historian and professor at the Stetson University in Florida. He specialized on German history in the 19th and early 20th century, including National Socialism. He claims that "there exists no comprehensive study of the relationship between Nazism and the supernatural. Hitler's Monsters is the first book to address this ... relationship from the party's origins to the end of the Second World War." (p. xiv)
This is a very bold claim, considering the rich literature on the subject, such as Goodrick-Clarke's excellent standard text book The Occult Roots of Nazism, or Heather Pringle's less scientific but certainly comprehensive The Master Plan: Himmler's scholars and the Holocaust. Both books are mentioned by Kurlander: Goodrick-Clarke as "the best and most nuanced book to examine the relationship between Nazism and the supernatural" (p. xiii). But this is said only to devalue this book immediately in the next lines, while Heather Pringle's less scientific work is praised without reservations (p. xx).
This way of praising his own book and of dealing with the existing literature foreshadows what Kurlander will have to say: There will be bold claims, there will be less scientific claims, and there will be a method of voicing nuances and knowledge about the scientific state of the art, but only to ignore and to override them despite of the voiced understanding. The method is repeated time and again: For example, Kurlander correctly says that popular movies and novels as well as allegedly factual documentaries often exaggerate and claim the existence of a "hidden history" of National Socialism (p. x). But despite these words, most of these exaggerations and most of the "hidden history" can be found in Kurlander's book as well.
But the worst problem of all is this: By drawing heavily on the eerie fascination of connecting National Socialism with the occult as the alleged foundation of the Nazi ideology, the real foundations of the terrible ideology, that National Socialism is, are obscured. These real foundations are a romantic anti-rationalism, a pseudoscientific biologism and a ruthless Social Darwinism. But these foundations are not put in the foreground, here, and the occult aspects are not downplayed as marginal. Thus, the readers cannot avoid to get the impression that the occult was at the basis of National Socialism. And this is just wrong. To misguide the readers concerning the true nature of National Socialism and the true reasons for its crimes is downright irresponsible. Though Kurlander's claim in the introduction is not completely wrong: "that no mass political movement drew as consciously or consistently as the Nazis on what I call the 'supernatural imaginary' – occultism, and 'border science', pagan, New Age, and Eastern religions, folklore, mythology, and many other supernatural doctrines" (p. xi), but omitting to put this in relation to the real foundations of National Socialism creates a completely wrong picture.
Closely connected to this problem is another problem with this book: It confuses categories all the time. There is especially a lack of a clear distinction between
The book discusses these categories shortly in the introduction (p. xiv ff.), but only to lump everything together under the label "Supernatural". Again, we have an example of a demonstration of a nuanced understanding, only to ignore it in the following.
Another confusion of categories is the confusion of the importance of Nazi officials and how and when they expressed their beliefs. It is quite a difference whether Adolf Hitler himself expresses a belief, or if any second or third rank Nazi official expresses a belief. And it is a big difference, whether a belief is expressed in a public speech, or in private. And it is also a difference whether a belief is expressed in early years, which hints to a foundational belief, or only in the last years, which hints to a later development without any impact on the formation of National Socialism as an ideology. We observe that Eric Kurlander has not wasted too much time on differentiating these categories.
Kurlander draws a completely wrong picture of the formation of Hitler's ideology and thus of its very nature. Kurlander exaggerates the influence of Ariosophy on Hitler, while downplaying at the same time the fact, that Hitler was heavily influenced and much earlier influenced by the doctrines of the Austrian politician Georg Ritter von Schönerer (p. 4, 56). Schönerer is mentioned only in passing as one of many! This is not acceptable. The central role of Richard Wagner is also not sufficiently expressed.
Concerning the Thule Society, every pseudoscientific myth on this topic seems to be repeated by Kurlander (p. 39 ff., 45). The Thule Society is depicted as heavily influenced by Blavatsky's theosophy and Austrian ariosophy. This is just wrong. The Thule Sociey was pseudoscientific but not occult. – Furthermore, the formation of Hitler's party according to Kurlander looks like a secret master plan of the Thule Society, as if Hitler was chosen by the Thule Society to fulfil their plans. Also this is just wrong. Hitler was never member of the Thule Society, and not chosen by the Thule Society. Quite the contrary. The Thule Society died away, and Hitler took over parts of the "empty hull" of Thule Society's organizational elements (e.g. the journal), filling it with his own ideas. Also Rosenberg was not a member of the Thule Society, as is claimed here.
In the introduction, it is said that during the Second World War "Hitler and Himmler sponsored" the World Ice Theory (p. xi). This is factually wrong. It was Himmler who sponsored the World Ice Theory. But of Hitler, there is only a very late and private statement, that he cautiously considers to accept the World Ice Theory. This is a big difference. The World Ice Theory has nothing to do with the foundations of National Socialism.
Kurlander has observed that Hitler had read the book Magic: History, Theory, Practice by Ernst Schertel (German: Magie – Geschichte, Theorie, Praxis, 1923). We know this because Hitler underlined some passages in the book. Kurlander cites e.g. this line: "He who does not carry demonic seed within him will never give birth to a new world." (p. x) and talks of annotations by Hitler (p. 58 f.). This book and these sentences look very occult, indeed. – But they are not. First of all, Kurlander relies on Timothy Ryback's Hitler's Private Library, and there the sentence above is given. But Ryback is wrong and so is Kurlander, since the sentence does not exist in Schertel's book, and also the alleged annotations by Hitler do not exist. Only some underlinings exist. – Furthermore, Erwin Schertel was not advocating the belief in magic! Erwin Schertel was rather a psychologist than an occult thinker. He used words such as "demonic" or "magic" as chiffres for the subconscience and talks about "evil" lower instincts. But this is not magic at all, it is at worst some kind of "dark" psychology. Erwin Schertel advocated to unleash the forces of the irrational to achieve something great. This is certainly an evil idea, but it is not magic. It is close to modern ideas of brainstorming or immoral Public Relations technologies. But Kurlander's readers are not told this.
As so often, Kurlander puts forward a more nuanced view about Hitler, but only to ignore it: "I do not mean to suggest that Hitler had the same unqualified investment in occult and border scientific thinking as Himmler, Hess, or Darré." (p. 59) It would have been better to explicitly cite Hitler's statements about science which look quite rational and downright anti-mystic. Hitler was a believer of certain pseudoscientific theories, such as racism and biologism, which he believed to be rational, and in some supernatural god or fate in a more traditional sense, but Hitler was not at all a believer in the occult. Kurlander neglects to make this clear. Instead, he writes time and again sentences like this: "Hitler was not as invested in Tibetan Buddhism or Atlantean mythologies as Hess or Himmler. But he shared the quasi-mystical fascination of many other Nazis with Tibet, following European expeditions carefully." (p. 189) Sentences like this are completely misleading, if not downright wrong.
The first disappointment concerning this topic is again a confusion of categories. Kurlander writes about Blavatsky's theosophy: "Especially relevant here is the role of the lost civilization of Atlantis, or Thule in the theosophic view." (p. 16) What now? Atlantis or Thule? This is not the same! And if this makes no big difference, then "Atlantis" and "Thule" would be no realities anymore, but only mere chiffres. But Kurlander never sorts this out. He continues with this confusion: "For Blavatsky and her followers, Atlantis may have correlated with the mythic Buddhist lands of 'Shambala' and the capital city of Agarthi in Hindu tradition" (p. 16). Please note the "may have": Did Blavatsky do this, or did she not? We are not told. Kurlander continues: "Lanz und List viewed Atlantis as the North Atlantic island civilization of Thule." (p. 16) Now, this is a clear statement after all confusion! Only, that Lanz and List did not influence National Socialism, as Kurlander thinks. And no source is given. Honestly speaking, it is doubtful that Lanz and List did express such a clear statement about Atlantis and Thule. But alas. And Lanz and List allegedly viewed Helgoland as the possible remainder of Atlantis, says Kurlander (p. 16). But this is again completely wrong! The first one, who saw Atlantis in Helgoland, was Heinrich Pudor 1936, and he was censored by the Nazi regime. Only after the Second World War, Jürgen Spanuth made the idea of Helgoland being Atlantis popular. And so, Kurlander concludes: "Via ariosophy and World Ice Theory, the idea of an Ur-Aryan Atlantis (Thule) found its way, in turn, into Nazi theories on race and space." (p. 17). Just wrong. And the source given in footnote 108 for this statement is a radio manuscript of a German local radio broadcast station, without giving author or year of the radio manuscript. I am sorry, but this is not science.
Later, Kurlander continues the confusion, by claiming that Blavatsky's Atlantis belief was allegedly introduced into the Thule Society (p. 39). Again, the difference of Thule and Atlantis is not sorted out. And concerning the famous Nazi expedition to Tibet, Kurlander claims that Blavatsky's ideas of Atlantis were behind it (p. 16). This may be true for the private intentions of Himmler who sponsored this expedition, but Kurlander knows nothing about the fact, that the leader of the expedition rejected such ideas and was successful to reject Edmund Kiss as a member of the expedition, who believed in Atlantis. And furthermore, Kurlander knows nothing about the scientific theories of French scientists from around 1800 about humankind coming from the North, wandering to the Himalayas, and splitting there into various peoples. This is the true background behind it all.
It is quite astonishing, that this book does not talk much more about Atlantis, after this introduction of Atlantis as an alleged basic belief of National Socialism. Only few pages touch upon the topic in the following. The reason is simple: It just was not a basic belief. The initial claim is just wrong. And therefore, there is not much to talk about.
Even more astonishing is, that also Heinrich Himmler's Atlantis belief is mentiond only in passing! When introducing Himmler as a believer in the occult, there is mention of 'border scientific' doctrines, the Holy Grail, witchcraft, and medieval devil worship – but Atlantis is not mentioned (p. x). Only on page 206 we get to know in passing that Himmler believed in Atlantis. This book is so bad, that it even fails where there was a real Atlantis belief of an important Nazi official. The reason is simple: If your claim is that a belief in Atlantis is at the core of National Socialism, then you cannot point out that a certain National Socialist believed in Atlantis – while others did not. The initial wrong claim of a general Atlantis belief of National Socialism lead to this downplaying of the case of Heinrich Himmler who indeed believed in a pseudoscientific idea of Atlantis.
Concerning Walther Wüst, the president of Himmler's pseudoscientific Ahnenerbe institute, Kurlander makes further mistakes. Kurlander claims: "Wüst saw the Germans as descendants of Atlantis, an ancient Indo-Germanic Empire whose religious teachings survived in South Asian Buddhism, preserved by the monks of Tibet." And: "Wüst argued that the 'Indo-Germanic worldview' stood at the centre of Hitler's ideology." And: "Citing the myth of Atlantis and German fairy tales, Wüst argued that elements of this once transcendent Indo-Aryan civilization still flourished across Europe." (p. 186)
Now, these are very bold claims. The sources given by Kurlander are a speech by Walther Wüst from 1941, and a modern scientific article by Horst Junginger from 2008. When examining Wüst's speech, we do not find any talk about Atlantis in the whole speech. Wüst says explicitly, that nothing is known about the prehistory of the Indogermanic peoples. At the page numbers given in Kurlander's footnotes, Wüst talks about the indogermanic world view of National Socialism. Time and again the key word in Wüst's speech is "indogermanic". And this has nothing to do with Atlantis. The idea of indogermanic peoples coming from the East and spreading into Europe and India is, in the first place, even not a National Socialist belief. And it is in no way an Atlantis belief. It is just science, real science, and this science is valid still today. Of course, Wüst is abusing this science and distorting it according to his needs. But to conclude from the concept "indogermanic" to Atlantis, as Kurlander obviously does, is just wrong. The pages 46-50, given as sources of Wüst's speech in footnote 244, even do not exist in the speech. And when looking up Junginger's article from 2008, to which Kurlander points, then we find again only references to "indogermanic" believes; furthermore, we find that Wüst took over cultural and religious ideas from the Atlantis believer Herman Wirth, but he explicitly rejected Wirth's pseudoscientific ideas (Junginger (2008) pp. 117). We can confirm this: Wüst questioned Wirth's idea of a nordic homeland of the Aryans and preferred to rely on the (in comparison) more sober views of Gustaf Kossina (Wüst (1929) p. 271). And so, nothing is left of Kurlander's bold claims about Walther Wüst and Atlantis.
Finally, we have to consider that Kurlander never mentions the few reluctant if not rejecting words uttered by Alfred Rosenberg about Atlantis, or the clear rejection of an Atlantis belief as expressed by Adolf Hitler in a speech in 1936. Omitting these important sources is not acceptable. If you look for a much better and detailed depiction and discussion of the Atlantis (dis-)belief among National Socialists, then you should look at the book Kritische Geschichte der Meinungen und Hypothesen zu Platons Atlantis by Thorwald C. Franke.
This book is authored by a real scientist and a real historian, and it has as bold claim to be scientific and comprehensive. The book is highly praised in many reviews. And it has been translated into many languages, even Chinese.
But in truth, Eric Kurlander has just written another semi- if not pseudo-scientific book which draws heavily on the eerie fascination of connecting National Socialism with the occult as the alleged foundation of the Nazi ideology, while by doing so obscuring the real foundations of the terrible ideology, that National Socialism is.
A minor detail is that the footnotes are numbered per chapter, so that looking them up is quite cumbersome.
Franke (2016/21): Thorwald C. Franke, Kritische Geschichte der Meinungen und Hypothesen zu Platons Atlantis – von der Antike über das Mittelalter bis zur Moderne, 2nd enhanced edition in two volumes, published by Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2021. First edition was 2016 in one volume. No English translation available yet.
External Web Link
Goodrick-Clarke (1982): Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism, 1982.
Junginger (2008): Horst Junginger, From Buddha to Adolf Hitler: Walther Wüst and the Aryan Tradition, in: Horst Junginger (ed.), The Study of Religion under the Impact of Fascism, Vol. 117 of the series: Studies in the History of Religions, Brill, Leiden 2008; pp. 107-177.
Kurlander (2017): Eric Kurlander, Hitler's Monsters – A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2017.
Wüst (1929): Walther Wüst, Gedanken über Wirths 'Aufgang der Menschheit', in: Zeitschrift für Missionskunde und Religionswissenschaft Year 44 Issues 9 and 10 (1929); pp. 257-274 and 289-307.
Wüst (1941): Walther Wüst, Indogermanisches Bekenntnis – Rede gehalten am 5. Juli 1941 zur feierlichen Übernahme des Rektorats der Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität München, Universitäts-Buchdruckerei Dr. C. Wolf & Sohn, Munich 1941.