Himmler’s plans for the SS were in many ways dominated by his genuine belief that the Black Order constituted a brotherhood which was spiritually descended from the heroes of pagan and medieval Germany. This view of a mythical Germanic past linked to the present by invisible bonds of race and will was not unique to Himmler, and was shared by many of his contemporaries. During the nineteenth century, Germany had witnessed a resurgence of nationalism and in the progression towards a unified Reich there had grown a tremendous interest in medieval history and ancient Teutonic legend. The general fascination was fired by the operatic works of Richard Wagner (1813–83), a rabid anti-Semite whose heroes such as Parsifal and Lohengrin were the epitomes of knightly chivalry, continually battling against the forces of evil. Wagner’s last and epic work, however, entitled Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), was set in the murky world of Dark Age fables. Its four great interconnected operas, Rheingold, Die Walküre (which includes a Valkyrie named Siegrune!), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, were acted out in a land of gods, giants, dragons, supermen and slavish subhuman dwarves, where a magical ring and enchanted sword bestowed limitless power and invincibility upon their owners. The Ring Cycle had a timeless message about the human desire for influence and wealth at the expense of all other things, but the moral of the tale was soon lost in its telling, as the operas with their sublime music captivated and bewitched those who attended them, and instilled in the audiences a feeling of racial unity and national identity which seemed to extend back to the beginning of mankind. Hitler himself was inspired in his youth by Wagner’s music, and it was while he was entranced by it that he conceived his great plans for the future of Germany. He said years later, ‘For me, Wagner was someone godly and his music is my religion. I go to his concerts as others go to church’.
Over 120,000 Germans enjoyed an impressive neo-pagan summer solstice celebration in the Berlin Olympic Stadium on 21 June 1939. The event was organised jointly by the SS and the Ministry of Propaganda.
Exalted by the works of Wagner and by the writings of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), whose Man and Superman divided the world into masters and slaves and foresaw the coming of a great leader who would build a new order of ‘Übermenschen’, a number of German nationalists founded the Thule Society in Berlin in 1912. The Society took its name from the legendary ‘Ultima Thule’ or ‘Land at the End of the World’, supposedly the birthplace of the Germanic race, and its primary purpose was to serve as a literary circle for the study of ancient German history and customs. After 1918, it became fanatically anti-Bolshevik and anti-Semitic, and eventually propounded the aim of unifying Europe under the leadership of a Great Germanic Reich. Significantly, the symbol of the Thule Society was a sunwheel swastika.
The Bavarian branch of the Society was small, but its membership was hand-picked and included Himmler, Hess and Röhm. The nobility, the judiciary, higher academics, leading industrialists and army and police officers were all represented, to the virtual exclusion of the lower classes. Thule conducted open nationalistic propaganda through its own newspaper, the Munich Völkischer Beobachter, edited by Dietrich Eckart (who later coined the Nazi battle-cry ‘Deutschland Erwache!’ or ‘Germany Awake!’), and set up a secret intelligence service which infiltrated communist groups. It maintained and financed three Freikorps units, i.e. Oberland, Reichskriegsflagge and Wiking, and to win popular support to its cause promoted the German Workers’ Party under ‘front-man’ Anton Drexler in 1919. When Drexler’s party was taken over by Hitler and expanded under its new name as the NSDAP, it completely absorbed the Thule Society, together with its newspaper, nationalist programme and racist policies.
Through his association with Thule, Himmler became obsessed with pagan Germanic culture, an obsession which grew ever stronger as the years went by and one which came to influence his entire way of life and that of the SS. During the early 1930s, the Reichsführer established an SS-sponsored Society for the Care of German Historic Monuments and acquired a publishing house, Nordland-Verlag, to spread his ideas to the general public. Plans for the systematic creation of a cultural framework to replace Christianity, referred to as the Development of the German Heritage, were worked out between Himmler’s personal staff and selected academics in 1937. A new moral philosophy based on the supposed beliefs of the old Germanic tribes was formulated, and two pagan rites, the summer and winter solstices, were revived to replace Christian festivals. The summer event centred around sporting activities and the winter one, the Yule, was a time devoted to the honouring of ancestors. God became ‘Got’ in SS circles (allegedly the old Germanic spelling), to distinguish the pagan SS god from the conventional Christian ‘Gott’, a suggestion which came from Karl Diebitsch during his preparation of new SS wedding and child-naming ceremonies.
What distinguished Himmler from Rosenberg, Darré and the other blood mystics was the flair he brought to the practical task of realising his vision of a pagan Germanic Reich. The Reichsführer was considered a persuasive speaker, with his light Bavarian accent, and, more importantly, he clearly believed in everything he said at the moment he said it. No man looked less like his job or appeared more normal than the SS chief. He successfully convinced ultratraditionalists that they were the vanguard of the new Germany, while at the same time providing the young with the glamour of a dark and secret Order sworn to a pagan creed running counter to the rules of bourgeois Christian society. He also appealed to most women, tracing as he did the origin of the subjugation and undervaluation of women to the teachings of the Christian Church. The Church leadership, he asserted, had always been nothing more than a glorified homosexual male fraternity which on that basis had terrorised the people for a thousand years, to the extent of burning 150,000 good German women (not men, he emphasised) as witches. Far better to be pagan than Christian, he declared over the radio in 1937. Far better to worship the certainties of nature and ancestors than an unseen deity and its bogus representatives on earth. For a Volk which honoured its ancestors, and sought to honour itself, would always produce children, and so that Volk would have eternal life. It is evident that Himmler truly saw himself as founder of a new Pagan Order which would eventually spread across Europe and last at least as long as the German millennium being ushered in by Adolf Hitler. As late as 1944, Himmler spoke of the paganisation of Europe being a ‘never-ending task which will fully occupy the tenth or twentieth Reichsführer after me’.
While paganism dominated the spiritual side of his adult life, Himmler’s first historical love was medievalism. As a child the young Heinrich had followed in his father’s footsteps by collecting small and inexpensive medieval artefacts. At school, he read avidly about the arrival of Vikings in the Lake Ladoga area around the year 700, their adoption of the name Rus, and how their descendants, the Norse tribe known as Russians, repelled the Mongols and settled all across the east from the Baltic to the Black Sea. He was also fascinated by the tale of Rurik the Dane, founder of Novgorod and Kiev around 856, and the story of the Saxon king Heinrich I, ‘The Fowler’, elected King of All Germany in 919, who had checked the incursions of Bohemians and Magyars from the east and laid the basis of the German Confederation of Princes which became, under his son Otto, the Holy Roman Empire. The aspect of medieval history which captured the boy Himmler’s imagination completely, however, was that of the Order of Teutonic Knights, or Deutsche Ritterorden, founded by Heinrich Walpot von Bassenheim in 1198. Like the other hospital Orders of the time, i.e. the Knights of St John and the Templars, it was established to aid western knights who had been wounded or fallen sick during the Crusades. However, unlike the others, the Teutonic Order was distinguished by the fact that it was exclusively Germanic in its recruitment. In 1211, the Golden Bull of Rimini entrusted to its knights the colonisation of the Slavonic lands to the east of the Elbe. Under its Grand Master, Hermann von Salza, the Order immediately undertook a programme of German expansion, extending domination over Prussia and the Baltic states. It reached its height in the second half of the fourteenth century, but was brought to a sudden end in 1410. On 15 July that year, the Teutonic Knights were crushed at Tannenberg by a coalition of Poles, Lithuanians and Mongols. The power of the Order was broken, but the memory of its valorous deeds under the badge of the black cross never ceased to haunt German dreams thereafter.
It seemed to the adolescent Himmler that all of German medieval life had centred around the constant struggle between Norseman and Mongol, between Teuton and Slav, and he longed to continue the historic mission of his forefathers. Even as a nineteen-year-old student, he wrote in his diary that he hoped one day to live his life in the east and to fight his battles ‘as a German far from beautiful Germany’. Himmler eventually harnessed this romantic view of history to provide an attractive integrating factor for his SS, recruited as it was from all walks of life. It was not by chance that the SS colours, black and white, were those formerly worn by the Teutonic Knights, who simply handed them down to Prussia. And when Himmler later talked about blood as the symbol of honour and fidelity, he was again appealing to medieval tradition. The mysticism of the Blutfahne itself harked back to the chivalric initiation ceremony by which the feudal suzerain was linked to his vassal by sword, fire and blood. For the SS, the Führer was their liege lord.
When his power was consolidated in 1934, Himmler’s early medieval fantasies could be realised and given free rein. Obsessed by the old legend that a Westphalian castle would be the sole survivor of the next Slavonic assault from the east, the Reichsführer scoured western Germany until he found the ruined mountain fortress of Wewelsburg near Paderborn, named after the robber knight Wewel von Büren, which had been a focus of Saxon resistance to the Huns and had been rebuilt in triangular form in the seventeenth century. Following the example of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order who built his headquarters at Marienburg, Himmler determined to convert Wewelsburg into the stronghold of the SS. The castle was duly purchased and the architect Hermann Bartels, a Standartenführer on the Persönlicher Stab RfSS, was given 12 million Reichsmarks and set to work creating a ceremonial retreat for his master.
Entering the finished complex in 1937 was like stepping back in time. A grand staircase was bordered by a banister of forged iron, decorated with runic motifs, and the walls of the entrance hall were hung with huge tapestries depicting Germanic and rural scenes. All the woodwork was of oak and everywhere stood marble statues of Heinrich I, Friedrich von Hohenstaufen and other German heroes. Each room was furnished in medieval style. The 100 × 145 ft dining room held a massive circular Arthurian table in solid oak, around which Himmler and his twelve senior SS Obergruppenführer of the day occasionally held conferences seated on high-backed pig-skin chairs bearing the names of their owner knights. A fire crackled in the monumental chimney, and behind each general hung his SS coat of arms, specially designed by Karl Diebitsch. The dining room stood above a stone basement with 5 ft thick walls, from which a flight of steps led down to a well-like crypt housing twelve granite columns and known as the ‘Realm of the Dead’. The idea was that when each of the twelve SS lords died, his body would be cremated and his ashes entombed in one of these obelisks. Himmler’s private apartments within the fortress were particularly sumptuous and adjoined a gold and silver strongroom, a hall for his extensive collection of medieval weaponry, a library with more than 12,000 books and an awesome chamber where the Extraordinary SS and Police Court could be convened in special circumstances. There were also magnificent guest rooms set aside for Adolf Hitler, who never appeared at the castle, giving rise to the local village rumour that one day the Führer would be buried there. Himmler intended that Wewelsburg should ultimately be used as a Reichshaus der SS-Gruppenführer or SS Generals’ Residence, but the outbreak of the war saw its establishment as SS-Schule Haus Wewelsburg, a staff college for senior SS officers and academic research facility for the SS. Its commandant was SS-Obergruppenführer Siegfried Taubert, who was formerly Heydrich’s chief of staff and was father-in-law of Ernst-Robert Grawitz, the SS medical chief.
Oak carving featuring a sword, shield, steel helmet and runes, typical of the pseudo-medieval wall decorations which adorned Himmler’s castle at Wewelsburg.
A large section of Wewelsburg Castle was dedicated to the Saxon ruler Heinrich I. The Reichsführer approved of the fact that his men nicknamed him ‘King Heinrich’, and came to see himself as the spiritual reincarnation of The Fowler and the embodiment of his aims to consolidate Germany against the hordes from the east. On 2 July 1936, the thousandth anniversary of the King’s death, Himmler inaugurated a solemn remembrance festival at Quedlinburg, once Heinrich’s seat, and in 1938 he founded the King Heinrich Memorial Trust to revive the principles and deeds of The Fowler. Numerous SS badges were subsequently struck to commemorate Heinrich as ‘Ewig das Reich’ or ‘The Eternity of the Reich’. To instil a general feeling of knighthood in all his junior officers and men, the majority of whom never even saw the splendour of Wewelsburg, Himmler rewarded them with the three less grandiose trappings of dagger, sword and ring. That mystical combination, harking back to a warrior aristocracy and the legend of Nibelung, was to symbolise the Ritterschaft of the new SS Order, at one and the same time both new and yet rooted in the most ancient Germanic past.
Himmler’s crippling enthusiasm for German history, the ideals of which were to form the basis of the new era, led to his foundation of the Ahnenerbe- Forschungs- und Lehrgemeinschaft, usually abbreviated to Ahnenerbe, the Society for the Research and Teaching of Ancestral Heritage. Its first President was Dr Hermann Wirth, a university lecturer known for his controversial work on the Middle Ages and Germanic antiquity. Wirth had joined the NSDAP in 1925, left in 1926, and reenrolled in 1933. His book, What is the German Soul?, was dismissed as claptrap by Rosenberg, but Wirth managed to seduce Himmler with the promise that he could study and research Nordic history for the purpose of verifying National Socialist and SS theories by scientific proof. Obergruppenführer Darré of RuSHA also became interested in the scheme, and his assistance was of enormous value since, as Minister of Agriculture, he had huge financial resources at his disposal. It was he who actually paid for the setting up and commissioning of the Society in July 1935, under the auspices of his Ministry.
Himmler delivering a eulogy on Heinrich I in Quedlinburg Cathedral, 2 July 1936. Behind him, from left to right, stand Frick, Daluege, Bouhler, Darré and Heydrich.
The following year, however, differences of opinion appeared between Himmler, who saw the German as a nomadic warrior ever in search of new lands, and Darré, who saw him as sedentary and firmly rooted to his own soil. This conceptual argument was to have a profound effect on Ahnenerbe. In November 1936 it was integrated into the Abteilung für Kulturelle Forschung (Section for Cultural Research) of the Persönlicher Stab RfSS, and a few months later, when the split between Himmler and Darré reached breaking point, the Reichsführer appointed SS-Stand-artenführer Bruno Galke as a special representative to the Society to undermine Darré’s influence. One of Galke’s first measures was totally to discredit Wirth, who was Darré’s eyes and ears in the Society. Wirth was subsequently dismissed and replaced as President of Ahnenerbe by Prof. Dr Walther Wüst, Dean of Munich University, who occupied the Chair of Aryan Culture and Linguistics and who had a much larger audience in academic circles. He was also an SS-Oberführer, whose first loyalty was to Himmler.
After his speech (see p. 120) the Reichsführer laid a wreath on the King’s tomb.
With Wirth gone and Darré’s power over Ahnenerbe cancelled out, the Reichsführer-SS proceeded to restructure the Society during the summer of 1937, establishing its new and independent headquarters at 16 Pücklerstrasse, Berlin-Dahlem. Himmler reserved overall control for himself, with the title of Curator, but the day-to-day management was carried out by Wüst, Galke and SS-Standartenführer Wolfram Sievers of the Persönlicher Stab RfSS. Wüst was responsible for the direction of scientific activity, Galke was the Treasurer, and Sievers took charge of general organisational matters. The latter was one of the most talented administrators in the Reich, and had many influential contacts among financiers and industrialists as well as access to the Sipo and SD. He soon established a foundation of companies which were prepared to make massive monetary contributions to the Society. Other funds were found from the coffers of the Sicherheitsdienst, thanks to Sievers’ friendship with SS-Oberführer Prof. Dr Franz Six, who was responsible to the SD for overseeing university policies.
Himmler salutes ‘The Fowler’ after the wreath-laying ceremony depicted on p. 121, with Karl Wolff, Gauleiter Rudolf Jordan and Reinhard Heydrich behind. The blank collar patch worn by the SS officer on the left indicates in this case not membership of the SD, as often erroneously assumed, but his attachment to the Reichsführer’s Personal Staff.
At the end of 1937, Himmler defined the purpose of the reconstituted Ahnenerbe. It was to carry out research into ancient history by studying facts from a scientific and ideological point of view, in an objective manner and without falsification. It was also to be responsible for the setting up in each SS Oberabschnitt of educational and cultural centres devoted to German greatness and the Germanic past. The first such centre was duly established at Sachsenhain by Verden, with the reconstruction of a prehistoric Saxon village which included in its displays a 5,000-year-old plough and runic inscriptions carved in stone. The whole idea was to show every German that the wealth of his land and culture were the makings of his own ancestors, not things which had been brought in by the Romans or other outsiders.
All of Germany’s archaeological excavations were soon put into the hands of the Society. Their overall direction was entrusted first to SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr Rolf Höhne, who was personally responsible for researches at Quedlinburg to find the remains of Henry The Fowler, then to Obersturmbannführer Prof. Dr Hans Schleif, who organised digs in the Teutoburg Forest where the Germans of Arminius (or Hermann) had crushed the Roman legions of Quintus Varus in AD 9. Schleif later teamed up with Obersturmbannführer Prof. Dr Herbert Jankuhn to excavate the Viking site of Haithabu in Schleswig, a wall built by King Godfred in the ninth century to defend the Danes against the incursions of the Carolingian Franks. In time, Ahnenerbe organised similar excavations in Austria, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Poland, Serbia and southern Russia, and sponsored associated expeditions to the Near East and Tibet to look for signs of an ancient Nordic presence in these areas.
From 1939, the remit of Ahnenerbe was considerably enlarged. Himmler was no longer content to be restricted to Dark Age history and Middle Age heraldry. He now hoped to prove by scientific means the racial hypothesis of National Socialism. In conjunction with the SD, the Society would also look into other matters, such as astronomy, control of the weather, the extraction of petrol from coal, the occult and herbal remedies (Himmler’s wife being a qualified homoeopath). Ahnenerbe expanded to include more than fifty departments, employing over thirty university professors. The Reichsführer showed evidence of quite a surprising amount of liberalism in their appointment, and drew a fairly vague line between research ability on the one hand and political reliability on the other. However, the contract he required his academics to sign stipulated that their findings could never be published if they turned out to be contrary to SS ideology.
Willrich print showing SS-Mann Hans Brütt, a peasant farmer from Grethof. The frontal style of this drawing is intentionally reminiscent of medieval Viking and Norman sculpture. Note also the pseudo-runic caption to the portrait.
One of the most controversial figures among the new researchers was SS-Sturmbannführer Dr August Hirt, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Strasbourg, where SS students were particularly numerous. With Himmler’s support, it was Hirt who collected thousands of human skulls at Auschwitz for the purpose of making comparative anthropomorphic measurements. He later toured various battlefronts where the Wehrmacht’s foreign volunteers were deployed, to study the performance and behaviour of combatants as a function of their racial categories. Other anatomical specialists from Ahnenerbe occupied themselves by examining body parts of different races, while SS-Sturmbannführer Dr Ernst Schäfer was commissioned to develop a special breed of horse on the Russian steppes for military use in extremely cold weather.
In July 1938, an SS-sponsored parade celebrating ‘2000 Years of German Culture’ was held in Munich. Pseudo-medieval and Nazi symbolism mingled on an awesome scale throughout the event.
The war’s principal sector of scientific research, that of secret weapons, fell under the authority of Ahnenerbe in 1944. Up to the middle of that year, the V1 and V2 rocket development programmes at Peenemünde had been directed by Prof. Dr Wernher Freiherr von Braun, who was loyal first and foremost to the Wehrmacht even though he was an SS-Sturmbannführer on the staff of Oberabschnitt Ostsee. Himmler knew that the Reich was by then laying all its hopes on secret weapons, and after the army plot to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944 he took personal control of the Peenemünde operation from von Braun and placed it under SS-Gruppenführer Dr Hans Kammler. The V1 and V2 programmes fully occupied the best minds of Ahnenerbe for the remainder of the war.
Towards the end of the war, when Himmler was overwhelmed by his military and police responsibilities, he said that reading Ahnenerbe reports was his only real pleasure and his only relaxation. He revelled in the discourses on ancestral tombs, Germanic customs and marriage ceremonies. In a long and critical letter to Wüst and Sievers dated 17 August 1944, he referred to the tradition of newly married couples copulating on the tombs of their ancestors at the time of the new moon, and suggested that research on wild animals might prove whether or not the new moon was particularly favourable to fertility. Himmler wrote:
A series of plastic badges sold for the benefit of the Nazi Charities Campaign, organised by SS-Gruppenführer Erich Hilgenfeldt. They reproduce finds from SS archaeological digs in Germany, Rome and Greece, and portray the use and development of the swastika in antiquity. Such projects were dear to Himmler’s heart.
No good blood must be allowed to die without having been fruitful. Our SS must be sufficiently strong and vigorous so that each generation can, without argument, offer up two or three sons per family on the field of battle without exhausting the torrent of Germanic blood. We are going to create the chance for the Germanic people and for Europe as a whole, directed by the Germanic people, to build an Order which will, for generations, be able to fight victoriously against all Asiatic aggression. Woe to us if the Germanic people cannot win this battle. It will be the end of beauty, of culture and of creative thought on this earth. We struggle for that future only so that we can maintain the heritage of our most noble ancestors. I consider it necessary for the life of our people to teach all this to our grandsons, so that they may understand the difficulties of their ancestors and willingly enter into the SS way of life.