After the advent of Christianity, Germanic mythology largely faded into nonexistence. With Christianity’s monotheistic focus, there was no room for the Norse pantheon, and it simply became a relic of the past, a simple set of myths that the heathens once believed. However, Germanic mythology made a startling revival after Germany, reeling from the embarrassment of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, sought to reinvigorate its people by re-exploring its roots to boost nationalism. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s right-hand man, was at the forefront of this revival attempt (Bovey, 50). Many of Himmler’s attempts at revival were entrenched in some form of Norse mythology, and the Ahnenerbe, the S.S., and the Wewelsburg Castle were three particularly prolific examples of the way in which he wove Norse mythology into mainstream Nazism. The prominence and negative reputation of all three, among others, caused Norse mythology to become unjustly deeply associated with Nazism, misinterpreted as malignant, and rendered taboo for decades to come.
The Inclusion of Norse Myth in Nazism
As Heinrich Himmler was Hitler’s right-hand man, he had the ability to create government departments as he saw fit, and one such department that resulted was the Ahnenerbe, otherwise known as the Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Organization (Levenda, 167). Sprouting from Himmler’s love of Norse paganism, it began as a small organization in 1935 with the purpose of researching the heritage of the German people and educating the German people of the Aryan superiority. Over time, it evolved to encompass over fifty departments and an annual budget of 1 million Reichsmarks, allowing both Himmler to realize his academic and religious obsessions in a scholarly manner and the Nazi government to overtake and control academia (Epstein, 78). Although the Ahnenerbe did conduct legitimate research, it had a poor scholarly reputation; one researcher, Ernst Schafer, remarked that few researchers had ever read scholarly books on what they were researching, instead deriving conclusions based on occultist beliefs. Many of its researchers genuinely believed in and researched incredible ideas, such as leading three expeditions to Tibet, supposedly because Tibet had both the last Aryans and an underground world ruled by priests (Brysac and Meyer, 512). Particular focus was given to the runes and Germanic lore, which the Ahnenerbe believed to hold special significance if only interpreted correctly (Kirkpatrick, 109). Runes found in the Middle East, for instance, prompted the Nazis to conclude that the Norse, who also wrote in runes, had been in the Middle East at one point, furthering their theory that the Aryan race was the master race (Yenne, 140). They also believed that artifacts like the Holy Lance and Crown Jewels had mystical properties and that by measuring ancient monuments, they could uncover sacred geometry. By researching their heritage and uncovering its secrets, the Ahnenerbe scholars believed, it would be possible to reacquaint modern society with the “Volk spirit” of old. So deeply entrenched was paganism in the Ahnenerbe that it became almost the embodiment of a Nazi religion, called by theologians the “German Christian movement” (Kirkpatrick, 109-113). Some scholars even believe the activities of the Ahnenerbe serve as the best argument for the Nazis’ cult status (Levenda, 183). The conclusions the Ahnenerbe came to about the Germanic religion—namely, that they embraced earthly and physical things—only added to the Nazis’ hatred of Judaism, which was considered antihuman and antibody. According to the findings of the Ahnenerbe, Germanic paganism was “worldly,” focusing only on what was immediately present on the earth and embracing it as good, while Judaism focused on more mystical and nontangible elements. Moreover, they claimed, Jews were weak compared to German pagans; the former had been waiting for thousands of years for the arrival of a savior, while German pagans were self-sufficient and in no need of being saved from anything (Arvidsson, 189). The Ahnenerbe proceeded to feed all of these incredible conclusions to the public in education and literature, and because the Ahnenerbe was government-funded, there were no scholarly voices to refute the bogus and occultist claims (Epstein, 79). Researchers who disagreed with the findings lost their positions, and new scholars could only obtain teaching positions by espousing the Ahnenerbe’s findings, thereby effectively creating an academic community that unanimously supported the Ahnenerbe and discouraged legitimate research (Kirkpatrick, 104).
The Ahnenerbe, however, was not the only government branch to be intimately acquainted with Norse paganism. The infamous S.S., unsurprisingly also headed by Himmler, sported many pagan influences. Himmler, who wanted the S.S. to resemble a Nordic knightly order (Klimczuk and Warner, 63-64), gave the S.S. a Thor-inspired thunderbolt as a symbol (Strmiska, 26), and ordered the Ahnenerbe to find runes that resembled the symbol to solidify the S.S.’s Germanic roots (Arnold and Hassman, 78). Himmler applied runes to the S.S. where he could, such on the hilts of their swords (Williamson, 99), the gravestones of fallen S.S. men, and as a symbol of the S.S.’s Lebensborn (Levanda, 168). To the best of his S.S. men, he gave pagan-inspired totenkopf rings, which became highly sought-after (Klimczuk and Warner, 65). The S.S.’s association with paganism did not end there, however. Himmler actively tried to make the S.S. religiously pagan and even based the structure of the group off the Order of Jesuits, albeit with Nordic elements (Williamson, 30). While doing so, he actively encouraged his men to break ties with the Christian church and subscribe to pagan rituals instead (Levanda, 176).
As Himmler had high expectations for the S.S., he anticipated that his envisioned knightly order would need an appropriate home. Karl Wiligut, a schizophrenic S.S. member known as “Himmler’s Rasputin” because of how greatly Himmler trusted him, pointed Himmler towards the Wewelsburg Castle. The four-hundred-year-old Wewelsburg Castle was conveniently located where a massive war was predicted to occur by an old Teutonic legend Himmler believed (Klimczuk & Warner, 65). 250 million Reichsmarks and three years’ worth of concentration camp workers’ labor were poured into the project, converting the Wewelsburg Castle into a castle full of specially designed rooms for paganism. The basement, for instance, was to commemorate deceased S.S. heroes and the place in which Himmler planned to be interred. In the meantime, it was dedicated to Heinrich I, a German king from the 800s whom Himmler believed himself to be the reincarnation of and with whose spirit he held conversations (Klimczuk & Warner, 65). On the ground floor, there were twelve rooms for each member of the Inner Twelve, which Himmler decorated according to different ancient Germanic figures. A strange symbol known as the Black Sun adorned the floor of the Marble Hall (Falk, 141), and the dining hall possessed a large table where Himmler planned to conduct Teutonic rituals. The activities in the castle complemented the pagan building, with Christmas substituted with the winter solstice and S.S. weddings and christening of Lebensborn children celebrated with pagan rituals (Levenda, 75-77). Some scholars have even claimed men were beheaded and their blood drunk as part of rituals (Yenne, 115). Himmler longed for a castle that could be home to Teutonic knights, and the Wewelsburg Castle certainly fit the bill.
Understandably, Nordic mythology suffered a great blow to its reputation because of the Nazis’ use. After the fall of Nazi Germany, Norse mythology became taboo and avoided in academia, and academics preferred to simply forget about scholarly efforts made during this time, even if the efforts were notable and worthy (Joenniemi and Lenti, 143). Fearing being labeled a Nazi sympathizer, research stagnated (Arnold, 564). Expeditions for Norse archeological remains all but died (Joenniemi and Lenti, 143), and Indo-European studies gained a negative reputation that it still has not yet completely shrugged off (Strmiska, 24). The public perception of Norse mythology also suffered greatly, in large part because of how well-known things like the S.S. and the Wewelsburg Castle are. Even though Norse mythology is harmless and simply had the misfortune of being bastardized by the Nazis, most people associated it with Nazism and racism anyway, and while its reputation has improved over the years, the association still stubbornly remains (Strmiska, 192). Only in the 80s and 90s did Norse mythology finally lose some of its taboo with the rise of Asatru worshippers (Greer, 39), who believe that Nazi use of Norse myth delayed the rise of Asatru by decades. The bad reputation is certainly not helped any by present-day Neo-Nazis. Although most people who believe in Norse mythology are well-intentioned, there is a sizable portion that practices the religion with anti-Semite influences and identifies with Neo-Nazi and Satanist groups in addition to paganism (Lewis, 35). Although former members claim the vast majority of followers are not racist, many have abandoned the religion anyway because they feared other people general public prejudging them as racists merely because of their religious convictions (Strmiska, l93). The religion’s erroneous connection to Nazism and poor public image is further encouraged by Neo-Nazis who continue to flaunt the Nazis’ association with mythology by flocking to sites of neo-pagan importance to pay respect to Hitler and his minions. In addition to the Wewelsburg Castle giving testament to the Nazis’ use of Norse mythology simply by way of its design, a large portion of Wewelsburg Castle’s visitors are, in fact, Neo-Nazis visiting both to honor Hitler and to perform religious rites at what was meant to be a pagan paradise (Crossland).
Given these state of events, it is only natural that Norse mythology ended up with the reputation that it did. Seeing as how Himmler was Hitler’s right-hand man, it is unsurprising that among the most well-known aspects of the Nazi regime would be Himmler’s projects. What with Himmler’s infatuation with Norse mythology, mythology found itself weaved in with these prominent aspects and its presence easily noted by anyone familiar with Nazism. Norse mythology’s influence on academics in the Ahnenerbe meant it severely distorted academia and halted legitimate research, earning the scorn of academics later. Additionally, its connection to the notorious and deadly S.S. meant its reputation was sullied in the eyes of the public, and even after the fall of the Third Reich, undeniable proof of a connection still lived on in the form of the Wewelsburg Castle, a timeless memorial to and reminder of Nazi infatuation. Those three things, among others, effectively wedded Norse mythology to Nazism. The connection would not have such a deleterious effect, however, if not for the reputation of Nazism itself. Obviously, with the legacy of eugenics, ethnic genocide and essential nationwide brainwashing, Nazism hardly possesses anything other than an immensely negative reputation, and anything associated with it is obviously affected by this reputation to some degree. With Norse mythology’s strong connection to Nazism, it only makes sense that this negative reputation would rub off on it and cause it to become taboo as a result, with those who might have otherwise been interested in the myths avoiding it for fear of being labeled a Nazi sympathizer. It is a truly lamentable state of events, as Norse myth certainly does not espouse or encourage Nazi ideals yet, because of its misuse, was misinterpreted as such. It will be a burden Norse mythology will carry for the rest of eternity.
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Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 12, 2013:
Haberdasher this is masterful! Any words from me in comment would be superfluous.
Jing, the Swastika was an Indian symbol of life, not Norse.
I agree the Nazis embracing the mythology of pre-Christian Scandinavia 'did it' for students of Viking culture in the wake of WWII. It was only when the likes of Magnus Magnusson broached the subject in his BBC TV series in the late 70's that the Vikings made a come-back.
To be honest, the Norsemen wouldn't have been comfortable in Himmler's company. They would have given the Nazis a very wide berth! By and large the top Nazis didn't look like the 'Master Race' they made out to be, Himmler the sallow, failed chicken farmer, Goering the oversized former WWI fighter ace, Goebbels with his club foot, Heydrich with his eyes too close together... and Eichmann, he was just a glorified dispatch clerk who knew about railway timetables. The Nazis in the dock at Nuremberg looked a pathetic bunch.
Jing on June 08, 2012:
Interesting article. Indeed, the Nazis' really did a lot of damage on the image of Norse mythology. Just recently i saw the movie Thor,and apparently Hollywood had to omit the Swastika sign (the symbol of thor's Hammer and a major ceromonial amblem of the slain in norse mythology) and replaced it with a triquetra. wth!?
SL on March 06, 2011:
Swindlers-psychiatrists have reached nazis! I hope, Karl Wiligut has sent them in a crematorium.
Multiman on February 11, 2011:
Interesting aspects of the occult as well.