Near the end of the First World War a twenty-six-year-old veteran and art student, discharged from the German army due to wounds received on the Western Front, proceeded to Munich to seek his fortune. Neither born nor raised in the Reich proper, the ambitious young artist had developed a passion for Pan-Germanic ideology, spending most of his time consuming any literature he could find on the history of the Teutonic people. Shortly after arriving in Bavaria’s capital city, he joined a working group of like-minded nationalists dedicated to forging a Greater Germany devoid of Jews and Communists. Profoundly influenced by the right-wing, occult milieu of prewar Vienna, the working group adopted an elaborate array of folkish (völkisch) ideas, including pseudo-scientific racism and esoteric symbols such as the swastika. Within two years, the young artist had helped transform this discussion circle of a few dozen radical racists into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.
These biographical details describe almost perfectly the political and ideological trajectory of the future Führer of the Nazi movement, Adolf Hitler. Except that the young artist in question was not Adolf Hitler, but Walter Nauhaus, leader of the Germanic Order of the Holy Grail, and co-founder, with Adam Alfred Rudolf Glauer, of the proto-Nazi Thule Society. Walter Nauhaus was a follower of the Wilhelmine-era esoteric philosophy known as “Ariosophy”, developed somewhat independently by two Austrian occultists, Guido Karl Anton List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels. Ariosophy prophesied the resurgence of the ancient Indo-European Aryan race, now embodied by the Germanic people, through adherence to a series of arcane pagan religious practices and strict racial purity. In Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels’ case, these ideas were supplemented by his own occult doctrine of the zoology, which suggested the extraterrestrial origins of the original Aryan “God Men” and recommended the forced sterilization of the biologically inferior. We now know that Adolf Hitler himself, like Walter Nauhaus, read Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels’ semi-pornographic, occult magazine Ostara.
The fact that the early political and ideological trajectories of the prominent occultist Walter Nauhaus and Adolf Hitler overlap so closely raises an old question: what were the links between the Wilhelmine occult movement and the incipient Nazi Party? The preeminent authority on the “occult roots of Nazism”, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, acknowledges the genuine influence of Ariosophic doctrines on National Socialism, which fuelled a complex of “apocalyptic beliefs and fantasies” culminating in the “chiliastic promise of a Third Reich”. Corinna Treitel, on the other hand, denies any special affinities between occultism and Nazism, a relationship she characterizes as one of “escalating hostility”.
Both scholars are to some extent correct. While occult figures undoubtedly played an important role in the early days of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, it is equally clear that leading Nazis criticized and persecuted occult organizations thereafter. Adolf Hitler’s concerted attempt to distance his movement from the Thule Society also gives one pause. After all, the Nazis were never averse to honouring the ideas of marginal figures with esoteric proclivities, including the convicted murderer and former inmate of an insane asylum, Karl Maria Wiligut, or the proponent of “World Ice Theory”, Hans Hörbinger. So when Adolf Hitler in ‘Mein Kampf’ dismisses “racist German wandering scholars […] [who] rave about old Germanic heroism, about dim prehistory, stone axes, spear and shield”, a clear reference to Thulists such as Walter Nauhaus and Adam Alfred Rudolf Glauer, one is compelled to take him at his word.
Nevertheless, the sociopolitical and intellectual networks between the early Nazi Party and the Thule Society — not to mention the later occult and pseudo-scientific movement — were richer and more complex than much recent scholarship would suggest. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party retained closer ties to the Wilhelmine occultist milieu than any mass party of the Weimar era. More importantly, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party went far beyond the obscure theories of “völkisch wandering scholars” to craft a broader, more populist message of imagined völkisch community and supernatural fantasy. Indeed, after breaking with occult figures such as Walter Nauhaus and Adam Alfred Rudolf Glauer, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party developed a malleable discourse that drew on elements of prewar occultism but was also more ideologically eclectic and politically accessible; what I call the “supernatural imaginary”.
Although scholars have frequently employed the “notion of imaginary identification” to explain the allure of fascism, the idea of a “supernatural imaginary” is most similar to the philosopher Charles Margrave Taylor’s definition of a “social imaginary”. For Charles Margrave Taylor, the social imaginary “is how people imagine their social existence, how they integrate with others, and the deeper normative ideas that influence these expectations”. While political ideology “is often the acquisition of a small minority” the social imaginary is shared by a whole society or large group; theory is expressed in theoretical terms while imaginary is described by images and legends; the imaginary is the common understanding that creates possible commonplace actions and a sense of legitimacy that is shared among all.
The social imaginary, according to Charles Margrave Taylor, “can never be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines because of its unlimited and indefinite nature. That is another reason for speaking here of an imaginary and not a theory”.
There are of course important distinctions between Charles Margrave Taylor’s “social imaginary” and the Nazi “supernatural imaginary”. Charles Margrave Taylor links the “social imaginary” explicitly to a post-Enlightenment disenchantment of the world, representing “the end of a certain kind of presence of religion or the divine in public space”. Far from “expel[ling] the world of supernatural forces”, however, National Socialism recast the symbolic order through recourse to popular occultism, folklore and pseudo-science, creating a space in which existing views could be overturned, displaced and modified to fit a Nazi worldview. An alternative to more rational and deterministic ideologies such as “materialistic Marxism” and liberal “finance capitalism”, the Nazi “supernatural imaginary” also challenged traditional Catholic and Protestant worldviews, substituting an array of occult ideas, mythological tropes and pseudo-religious affinities in place of political or ideological coherence.
As the German journalist and unofficial Adolf Hitler biographer Konrad Heiden observed as early as the 1930s, Nazi ideology included elements of “Every kind of political theory, from the most reactionary monarchism to pure anarchy, from unrestricted individualism to the most impersonal and rigid Socialism”. Instead of seeking ideological consistency, fascism sought social and political consensus through the conscious and subconscious use of collective practices, rites and symbols, a ‘network of relationships’ that helped create a ‘relativization of classical dichotomies: of rational and irrational, Left and right, revolutionary and reactionary, modern and anti-modern”.
Hence, in contrast to the esoteric “secret doctrines”, elitist social composition and obscure practices of Wilhelmine occultism, the Nazi “supernatural imaginary” incorporated an eclectic array of popular mythologies and contradictory attitudes towards modernity that helped define the party’s appeal as a dynamic, mass movement. It was precisely this fungibility, this lack of a clear “political religion”, whether Left or right, Christian or pagan, völkisch or cosmopolitan, that made the “supernatural imaginary” so useful in articulating and justifying National Socialism.