The Thule people died as the first sacrifices for the Swastika. The Thule people were those to whom Hitler first came, and the Thule People were those with whom Hitler first allied himself.
RUDOLF VON SEBOTTENDORFF, Before Hitler Came, 1933
World War I was supposed to be the ‘war to end all wars’. Millions of men, women and children had died during its progress, but while the soldiers who limped home to Britain were at least safe in the knowledge that they had won the war, Germany’s fighting men were afforded no such comfort. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, the German nation was one of, if not the, most law-abiding countries in Europe. Its citizens were hard-working, orderly and well mannered. World War I changed all that. Returning from the battlefields, German soldiers had grown accustomed to levels of violence and scenes of carnage never before experienced. On their return home they faced not a heroes’ welcome, but a disillusioned and divided populace depressed and struggling to survive in a climate of severe economic instability. By April 1921 the Allies had demanded reparations to be paid by Germany to the tune of 132 million gold marks (approximately £6,600 million). This caused the value of the German mark, which in 1918 had stood at the rate of four to the dollar, to spiral out of all control to seventy-five to the dollar. By the summer of 1922 this had almost quadrupled to four hundred. These were dark times indeed for a country more used to leading the world rather than following meekly behind.
The southern city of Munich, perhaps more than any other principal municipality in Germany – the constitution of the Weimar Republic afforded the old German states such as Bavaria, Prussia and Saxony a certain amount of autonomy by giving them their own state governments and representative assemblies – was worst affected by this mood of dissatisfaction and violence. Even during the war, Munich had stood apart from other cities, with Hitler remarking that ‘bad morale and war-weariness were more pronounced in Munich than in the north.’1
One of the symbols adopted by the Thule Society, dating from 1919 and clearly showing a version of the swastika that would be adopted by the Nazis and become one of the most evocative icons of the twentieth century.
Faction-riddled and overrun with disillusioned ex-soldiers and impoverished businessmen, Munich was a hotbed of unrest. In 1918 a Jewish journalist by the name of Karl Eisner led a socialist street revolution and established a Bavarian Republic only to be assassinated barely three months later by Count Anton von Arco-Valley. A Social Democratic government was then established only to collapse after two months when a Soviet Republic took over. Barely a month later this, too, collapsed. Small wonder, then, that against this muddled, divided and divisive background, a group sprang up dedicated to the idea of a strong, single-minded, unassailable Germany. Calling themselves the Thule Society (Thule-Gesellschaft) and meeting in secret, they were to play a significant part in Hitler’s rise to power, fomenting support in the beer halls of Munich, the very establishments where Hitler first began practising his charismatic, rabble-rousing speeches. As the author Joanna Kavenna points out in her book, The Ice Museum, ‘The Thule Society was an early expression of the Nazi fetish for “Aryan” tribes and northern lands, an early elision of an idea of natural purity with a belief in the racial superiority of a people.’2
The Thule Society’s leader and main activist was a man called Rudolf von Sebottendorff. Sebottendorff’s father had been a Silesian railway worker whose last name ‘Glauer’ young Rudolf seemed to have disowned by explaining how, whilst traveling in Turkey as a young man, he had met and been adopted by a Baron Heinrich von Sebottendorff. In fact, delusions of grandeur were never far from von Sebottendorff’s mind, and his adopted persona fitted precisely the type of character his Thule Society aimed to recruit – men of noble lineage, who could trace their families back down through the centuries.
Prior to establishing the Thule Society, having returned from his trip to Turkey, Sebottendorff joined another secret group called the Germanenorden. Formed by a handful of prominent German occultists in 1912 and violently opposed to the Jews, its leader Herman Pohl was obsessed by what he saw as a gradual diffusion of the German race, a slow watering-down of the national blood-lines caused by the introduction of non-Aryan elements. The Germanenorden enjoyed a hierarchical fraternal structure similar to that found in Freemasonry but unlike Freemasonry, the Germanenorden taught its disciples nationalist ideologies based on racial superiority, and most of the group’s literature had an anti-communist, anti-Semitic theme. Sebottendorff fitted in perfectly and soon established his own branch of the group which he named the Thule Society.
Needing an emblem for his new group, Sebottendorff adopted the swastika as the true representation of everything he held dear. Originally the swastika had been an ancient Indian symbol of good luck as well as the traditional symbol of the Norse god of thunder, Thor. In the early twentieth century it had then been taken up by a German neo-pagan movement who named it the Hakenkreutz. Perhaps it was from them that Sebottendorff stole the idea – after all both groups promoted strong anti-Christian ideologies – but it wasn’t until a Thule Society member by the name of Friedrick Krohn suggested to Hitler that he adopt the swastika as his new political party’s emblem, that this now famous insignia grew to be one of the most feared and hated of all twentieth-century symbols.
Thule was a mythical land (sometimes referred to as an island, sometimes believed to incorporate the lost city of Atlantis) in the most northerly regions of the ancient world, a dark, frozen, mysterious region that existed long before man had mapped the globe with any accuracy. The first mention of Thule appeared in the fourth century BC when a Greek explorer called Pytheas boasted of sailing from the warm regions of southern France to Britain and then onwards north for a period of approximately six days until he reached the land of Thule. Once there he reported that Thule’s inhabitants showed him where, on the shortest day of the year, the sun set and how, during the winter everywhere suffered long periods of darkness. But despite Pytheas’s account, ancient mapmakers were still baffled about the exact location of Thule, or if indeed it really existed at all. Britain, Iceland and different parts of Scandinavia were all possible locations, although Pliny the Elder seemed to prefer a less concrete interpretation of the place when he wrote that Thule was the ‘most remote of all those lands recorded’, a country where ‘there are no nights at midsummer when the sun is passing through the sign of the Crab, and on the other hand no days at midwinter, indeed some writers think this is the case for periods of six months at a time without a break.’3
When the Romans first invaded Britain in 55 BC and traveled to the far north of the country, they sent back word that they had conquered Thule. Many travelers, writers and explorers all wrote reports and sent back messages to the effect that Thule existed, not least a group of early medieval Irish clerics who traveled to Iceland on retreat only to send back word that they had reached Thule. And yet one thing eluded everyone: absolute, unequivocal evidence that such a place existed, for not only could no one agree where precisely Thule lay, they couldn’t even settle on how it was spelt. Throughout history Thule’s name has changed drifted from one spelling to another as lazily as the changing of the tides: Thule, Thula, Thila, Tila, Thulé being just a small selection. And so it seemed nothing concrete or factual would ever become known about Thule. Instead it grew into an increasingly mysterious, mythical landscape; a place that hovered on the edge of the known world; a symbol of all that was unreachable and remote. Even in Victorian times, when reason might have suggested that Thule was nothing more than an ancient myth, the explorer Richard Burton included it in his notes. Famously, there is also a mention of Thule in Charlotte Brontë’s ever-popular novel, Jane Eyre. Early in the story the young Jane is seated in her aunt’s library trying to escape the reality of her situation by looking at a book on the Arctic when suddenly a reference is made to the rocks of Thule, a reference that sends her off in transports of delight, imagining the icy far north with its ‘vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space, that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the Pole, and concentrate the multiplied rigors of extreme cold.’4
In other words, over the centuries Thule had come to represent many things to many people; a mythical landscape; a gothic terra incognita; a symbol of remoteness and terror – anyone could interpret the land of Thule in any way they wished and Rudolf von Sebottendorff was no exception. Claiming that his society (only those Germans of pure racial blood over several generations were allowed membership) had been formed so that academics could pursue their interest in the Nordic Sagas, a diary of the group’s meetings from 1919 to 1925 shows a series of lectures on such topics as the original homeland of the Teutons, German poetry, megalithic culture and German myths. But these innocent-seeming agendas hid a much darker secret, one that was far more in keeping with the Germanenorden’s aims – the search for and reinstatement of the Germanic race’s true roots; a search that would eventually call for the expulsion from or, worse still, the annihilation of any ‘alien’ elements within the country. Little wonder that among the society’s members were included prominent industrialists and millionaires, not to mention high-ranking state officials such as Munich’s chief of police. At Thule Society meetings, the guests and guest speakers were men such as Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg (Hitler’s chief propaganda minister) and Dietrich Eckhart.
In fact, it was Alfred Rosenberg who, during the 1920s, ran the Thule Society’s newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter. Set in the kind of heavy, gothic-style typeface so beloved of Nazi and neo-Nazi groups, the paper spouted a mixture of anti-Semitic and anti-communist rhetoric. When, for instance, Kurt Eisner was in control of the local Bavarian government, the Völkischer Beobachter swore that it was a communist-Jewish attempt to ‘take over Bavaria’. They were obsessed by ‘outsiders’ overrunning their country and some journalists even forwarded articles expressing the opinion that Germany had lost the war due to the fact that it was not more firmly rooted to its Teutonic origins. In other words, the Thule Society were mesmerized by the idea of an heroic past, where their forebears lived and died heroic lives. Romantic? Yes. But this is what far right groups of that period tended towards – a sublime vision of mountains and forests that injected into the populace an inner strength; one which could not be defeated.
It was a winning formula. By late 1918 Sebottendorff boasted that the Thule Society had over 200 members. By the autumn of that same year he claimed the number had swelled to over 1,500 in Bavaria alone. Yet it wasn’t all plain sailing, for after Kurt Eisner’s assassination and the setting up of a Soviet Republic in Bavaria, civil unrest broke out. This was helped along by the Freikorps, private armies of disillusioned veterans organized by the far right, who clashed with the communists and fought them tooth and nail. Naturally, the Thule Society sided with the Freikorps, as a consequence of which their head office was raided and several Thule Society members were taken away and executed. Unperturbed by this bloody turn of events, Sebottendorff hailed his fallen men as martyrs, true Germans who were not afraid to stand up for their beliefs.
As Thule group membership grew and initiates continued to do battle with their communist adversaries, so another organization was also beginning its political life, the German Workers’ Party, which would eventually become the National Socialist Workers’ Party, or Nazis. Living in Munich during 1919, Adolf Hitler soon aligned himself with this group. ‘I went through the badly lighted guest-room,’ wrote Hitler in Mein Kampf, describing their first encounter, ‘where not a single guest was to be seen, and searched for the door which led to the side room; and there I was face to face with the Committee. Under the dim light shed by a grimy gas-lamp I could see four people sitting round a table [ … ].’5 Satisfied with their credentials, Hitler joined as the seventh member of the group7 and began his assault on the beer halls of Munich, stirring up his listeners with a stream of racist invective guaranteed to appeal to his lower-middle-class audience. In Mein Kampf, Hitler stated that he was in his early twenties before he became aware of the ‘Jewish problem’, but in light of the fact that he had been raised by an anti-Semitic father, it seems more likely that he had always harbored this deep animosity. The ‘Jewish problem’ became one of Hitler’s life-long obsessions, one which obviously drew him towards the Thule Society whose racist opinions were as virulent as his own. Hitler also expressed an abiding interest in the origins of the Aryan race, a passion he shared with the head of the Gestapo and the Waffen-SS, Heinrich Himmler who, according to the historian Robin Cross, also enjoyed membership of the Thule Society. Both these men knew the powerful appeal of what the Thule Society represented to the average man in the street, particularly in post-war Munich, but also throughout Germany, for Thule doctrine gave support to the idea that Germany could reassume Teutonic supremacy after its shattering defeat in World War I. Both the Thule Society and Hitler, together with his henchmen, were also giving credence to the idea that Nazism wasn’t just a political doctrine or a semi-religious manifesto, it was the means by which a whole race could be reborn.
Hitler with his ministers at a meeting in the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin in 1933. To Hitler’s left stands Hermann Goering, with Alfred Rosenberg looking over Goering’s left shoulder and Heinrich Himmler in uniform on the far right of the picture.
Himmler’s romantic dream was to establish a whole country of blue-eyed, blond heroes, the exact image that the Thule Society promoted by emphasizing their ancient Germanic heritage. But whereas Sebottendorff believed that Thule existed in the far regions of the north – Himmler (and to some extent Hitler) now began to be influenced by yet another Thule Society member, Karl Haushofer, who asserted that the true origins of the Aryan race were more likely to lie in, of all places, Tibet.
In 1933 Hitler assumed the role of Chancellor of Germany, realizing both the Thule Society and Himmler’s dreams. But while the Nazi Party’s sun was in the ascendant, the Thule Society’s light began to fade. Membership dropped off with several ex-Thulites setting up splinter groups to cater for their increasingly bizarre beliefs. Even Sebottendorff didn’t survive, being ousted by his own members and for several years afterwards he disappeared from view as he took to traveling around the world. But if the bricks and mortar that constituted the Thule Society were disintegrating before Sebottendorff’s eyes, Thule Society ideals were by this time flourishing and, more frightening still, being made law.
Given the task of implementing Hitler’s ideologies – particularly those involving racial superiority – in 1929 Himmler became leader of the SS or Schutzstaffel (protection squads) who were modeled on the Teutonic knights of old, supposedly representing a fighting force that was superior in strength to any other in the world. By 1939 the SS numbered approximately 500,000 and were the principal enforcers of the Nazis racial doctrine. It was the SS who ran the majority of Hitler’s concentration and extermination camps as well as forming the Einsatzgruppen (special forces) who were given the task of cleansing eastern Europe of Jews. In January 1937, Himmler made a speech during which he stated that the sole mission of the German people was ‘the struggle for the extermination of any sub-humans, all over the world, who are in league against Germany, which is the nucleus of the Nordic race; against Germany, nucleus of the German nation, against Germany the custodian of human culture; they mean the existence or non-existence of the white man, and we guide his destiny.’6 These could have been the words of any member of the Thule Society so in tune were they with the group’s beliefs, but unlike the Thules, Himmler actually had the power to put his dreams into action. From the outset of his career in office, Himmler pursued his idea of racial selection and introduced special marriage laws which encouraged the coupling of people of ‘high value’. In turn this led to the establishment of a human stud farm known as the Lebensborn.
Initially the Lebensborn, which was set up by Himmler in December 1935, worked with one aim in mind, that of permitting racially pure young girls the possibility of giving birth to a child which would afterwards be adopted by an SS family. But with the passing of time Himmler’s plans grew ever more sinister and on 28 October 1939 he made a speech which included the now famous edict that, ‘it will be the sublime task of German women and girls of good blood acting not frivolously but from a profound moral seriousness to become mothers to children of soldiers setting off to battle.’7 He subsequently turned the Lebensborn into a place where German women with perfect Nordic traits could ‘meet’ SS soldiers with the sole intention of producing children who would then be classed racially superior because of their parentage. Himmler also sanctioned the kidnapping of children who matched the Nazis’ idea of racially pure stock – blond hair and blue eyes – from the Reich’s eastern occupied territories. Thousands of children were transported to the Lebensborn and told that their parents had abandoned them. Afterwards they would be ‘re-educated’ (Germanized) with a few lucky ones being adopted into SS families. The rest, those who refused to co-operate with their kidnappers, were later transported to concentration camps and killed.
But the most extreme example of Himmler’s wickedness occurred in 1942 when an SS unit was sent to the Czech village of Lidice after the assassination of the local SS governor Reinhard Tristan Heydrich in Prague. In reprisal for the killing of Heydrich, the SS executed the entire male population of the village. They then selected ninety-one children whom they considered met the Nazis’ racial standards and these children were taken away to be resettled at the Lebensborn while those left behind were sent to extermination camps.
To this day no one has been able to calculate just how many children were kidnapped from the eastern occupied territories although, in 1946, the estimate ran at approximately 250,000. After the war a mere 25,000 were tracked down and returned to their proper families but many SS parents refused to let their ‘adopted’ children go, with some of the children even refusing to be repatriated because they had been so indoctrinated that they believed themselves to be 100 percent Germanic.
As horrific as the Lebensborn project was, it was only one of many criminal schemes perpetrated during the war in the name of racial purity. What the Thule Society had begun blossomed during the Nazi era in ways unimaginable to most of humanity. On 15 September 1935 Hitler implemented the Nuremberg laws which effectively stripped the Jews of their basic human rights by separating them from the rest of the population. The Jews, though extremely disturbed by the situation, had little choice but to comply. In common with most of the rest of the world, they hadn’t recognized the full implications of what Hitler had said, for hidden in the same speech the Fuhrer explained that if the plans for these arrangements broke down then it would be necessary to pass further laws, ‘handing over the problem to the National Socialist Party for final solution’.8
Hitler’s Aryanization programme continued apace until, on September 1, 1939, the Final Solution started in earnest. Initially the killings were confined to the mentally or physically disabled in what Hitler termed his euthanasia programme, but soon these murders merged with the extermination of the Jews. Killings were carried out by two methods: in gas chambers within the concentration camps and by mobile killing units. The six biggest death camps were Auschwitz, where over one million people died, Majdanek, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno and Sobibor. But the horrors of the gas chambers were not the only atrocities lying in wait for the inmates of these camps. Racially motivated experiments were carried out on a daily basis, for the Party required concrete evidence that proved they were racially superior to all other men. In Mein Kampf Hitler states that ‘anyone who wants to cure this era, which is inwardly sick and rotten, must first of all summon up the courage to make clear the causes of the diseases.’
The Nazis chose to believe that ‘the causes of the diseases’ centered around the Jews, the gypsies, the mentally infirm and any other group they chose to victimize. Thousands of men, women and children were photographed and examined by Nazi doctors, who declared that, among the many other outrageous ‘results’ derived from their experiments, gypsies produced a different blood to the rest of us and were more inclined to criminal behavior.
Alfred Rosenberg had become Nazi Minister for the Baltic States by 1940, when this photograph was taken during a Hitler Youth gathering in Kiev.
At Auschwitz a laboratory was set up (known as Block 10) the main aim of which was to discover a means of mass sterilization, while the infamous Joseph Mengele, who was as obsessed as Himmler with the Nazi ideology of racial purity, began to conduct experiments on identical twins. Each twin would be examined, body part by body part with measurements and notes being taken on the length of the nose, the shape of the mouth, skin coloring, eye coloring and any number of other details. The children would be made to stand for hours whilst these examinations took place, while some unfortunate victims had dye dropped into their eyes which often caused partial loss of sight. These latter experiments were Mengele’s attempts to change the color of Jewish children’s eyes from brown to blue. Two victims, Hedvah and Leah Stern, later recalled that, ‘Mengele was trying to change the color of our eyes. One day, we were given eye-drops. Afterwards, we could not see for several days. We thought the Nazis had made us blind. We were very frightened of the experiments. They took a lot of blood from us. We fainted several times, and the SS guards were very amused. We were not very developed. The Nazis made us remove our clothes, and then they took photographs of us. The SS guards would point to us and laugh. We stood naked in front of these Nazi thugs, shaking from cold and fear, and they laughed.’9
All these experiments were conducted with Himmler’s full approval but they were only one of several research areas in which the Nazis became involved.
Certain sections of the Thule Society, including to some extent Sebottendorff himself, harbored a curious mixture of beliefs that included not only Teutonic myth, but also Eastern mysticism and that all-encompassing, late-nineteenth-century obsession, anthropology. Following on from where the Thule Society left off, Heinrich Himmler continued to study all the above disciplines with the sole intention of supporting his (and the Thule Society’s) theories on the origins of the Aryan race. In 1935 Himmler created yet another branch of the SS, this time called the Ahnenerbe Forschungs und Lehrgemeinschaft – the Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Society.
Much as members of the Thule Society had previously believed, there were those among the Nazi Party who were convinced that the true origins of the Thule lay in the lost but not-so-mythical city of Atlantis located somewhere between Greenland and Iceland. In direct contradiction to this, Karl Haushofer, who was the founder of yet another far-right secret society called the Vril, believed that the origins of the Aryan super-race lay in central Asia or, to be more precise, in Tibet. The Swedish explorer (and practising Nazi), Sven Hedin supported Hausofer in this theory and in 1938 Himmler’s Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Society mounted an expedition to Tibet led by a German naturalist and big-game hunter, Ernst Schäfer, who was once described by a British diplomat as being, ‘volatile, scholarly, vain to the point of childishness, disregardful of social convention or the feelings of others, and first and foremost always a Nazi.’10 The second principal figure on the expedition was Bruno Beger, an anthropologist and member of the SS who believed that the Aryans might well have originated in central Asia because the physical characteristics of Tibetans in particular, with their high cheekbones and, ‘imperious, self-confident behavior’11 mirrored the prototypical Aryan. Beger and his men took over 60,000 photographs, collected numerous moulds of the Tibetans’ faces and shot over 120,000 feet of film after which he concluded that, in anthropological terms, the Tibetans were almost certainly a human type of stepping-stone between the Mongol and European races.
On their return to Germany Himmler declared both men heroes, but although Schäfer remained close to his patron, he never fully understood or agreed with the oncoming Holocaust. In contrast, Bruno Beger continued his studies into the Aryan race by selecting over 100 people from Auschwitz, the majority of whom showed signs of having Asiatic genes, who were studied, photographed, then executed.
Despite the ‘success’ of Schäfer and Beger’s research, however, most people believe that no more Nazi-funded expeditions took place. One exception was the writer Trevor Ravenscroft whose book, Spear of Destiny, argues that between 1926 and 1943 other trips were undertaken, all with the aim of studying the origins of the Aryan race. Whatever the truth, Himmler’s desire to pin-point where his ancestors originated, led him during World War II to commission a series of archaeological digs in western and southern Russia, afterwards shipping back his ‘finds’ to the SS headquarters at Wewelsburg. Many people, including Hitler, considered this a step too far, but Himmler remained undeterred and throughout the war continued his researches into what Sebottendorff would no doubt have termed legitimate Germanic studies.
As for Sebottendorff, by the beginning of the 1930s, just as Hitler was starting to realize his dreams of power, the Thule Society’s influence was dwindling. After being ousted as leader of the society, Sebottendorff grew increasingly bitter towards Germany’s new political movement. Not content simply to fade into the background, he published a book claiming that the origin of the Nazi Party was none other than the Thule Society and that they owed him everything, a theory to which, unsurprisingly, the Nazis took great exception. Sebottendorff’s book was confiscated, and every copy the Nazis could find destroyed, while he himself was placed under arrest by the SS who then ‘persuaded’ him that his best option was to leave Germany for good.
Sebottendorff fled from Germany, a broken, friendless man, taking himself off on a world tour that eventually led him to Istanbul. Shortly after the end of the war, on 9 May 1945, having seen Germany defeated, Sebottendorff died. The circumstances surrouding his demise are somewhat unclear as he drowned whilst swimming in the Bosphorus, but most historians agree that it was probably suicide. Having seen everything he held dear destroyed, there was nothing much left to live for.
An interesting footnote to the Thule Society’s history is the present-day plethora of web sites dedicated not only to the preservation of the Society’s memory, but also (and more disturbingly) to the promulgation of its vile theories. Tap in the words ‘Thule Society’ to any search engine and it brings up a multitude of results, although some of the listed sites present ‘facts’ verging on the ludicrous. The Thule, says one site, were Satanists who practiced Black Magic. Thule Society members also enjoyed a bizarre form of Sexual Magic which ‘awakened penetrating visions into the workings of Evil Intelligences and bestowed phenomenal magical powers’. The Thule Society held occult séances. One site spells Sebottendorff’s name incorrectly not just once but three times; Sebetondof, Sebettenduff and Sebetendorf while another can’t decide when precisely the Thule Society first opened its books, stating that it did so in 1908, and then again in 1910, and then again in 1919. Perhaps realizing that their research isn’t quite up to scratch, further sites fantasize that Hitler, far from dying in his Berlin bunker, is still alive, having escaped Allied forces and flown to Thule, which they generally believe lies in a northerly direction. Indeed, if you believe these sites, Hitler has been living happily on an ice floe for the past sixty years.
But perhaps the most curious of all the claims now available comes from a web site called Unexplained Mysteries which claims that Thule Society members believed the Aryan race originated on another planet or star system called Alderbaran whose inhabitants were blond and blue eyed. Their leader was a woman or ‘queen’ called Isais whilst other eminent Alderbarans included someone called Malok who was ‘the commander of their military presence on earth’.12
Whatever some may believe, the fact is that the original Thule Society was a secretive, far-right organization whose highly suspect beliefs flavored what was to come in Germany for the next decade and a half.