My dad went into the Army when he was 20 years old.
This was not necessarily his idea, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise; it was 1943, after all, and the Army needed as many healthy, fit young men as it could get. The war in Europe was starting to turn in the Allies’ favor as they advanced up the boot of Italy, and that meant that every man who could carry a gun was welcome. That Dad was an only child, that his father had recently died, that he was a college sophomore training to be a math teacher – none of that mattered. America called, and so he dutifully reported to Basic, watched Why We Fight, learned to clean and disassemble his carbine in the dark, and shipped out to Nebraska along with his new best friends for more training until his unit was needed.
In many ways Dad was lucky. Unlike my uncle Lou, of whom I’ve written before, Dad was in a unit that didn’t see much combat. This may be why he mustered out with a Good Conduct medal instead of Lou’s battle stars, and why in some ways his war comes across as much less grim than his future brother-in-law’s. For Dad, who was a talented amateur photographer from a young age, not only took his camera with him, he had the time to snap pictures wherever he went.
I’m still researching just what Dad’s unit did so I can put the cache of photos that Dad took between 1943 and 1945 into context, but what I’ve seen so far is a fascinating look at one ordinary young man’s experiences. From joking around with his buddies in Lincoln to snapping everyone’s picture in Avignon, carousing on the beach with lovely young Frenchwomen during a leave to visiting relatives in the Home Counties, posing beneath the Eiffel Tower to catching his buddies asleep – in spite of war, destruction, and danger, Dad seems to have spent as much time enjoying himself as anything else. He might have taken other, less happy pictures, but if he did, either his mother, my mother, or Dad himself didn’t think they were worth preserving.
So far, so good; Dad was far from the only GI to snap a few harmless candids in between bouts of shooting Germans and raiding enemy wine cellars. As precious as these souvenirs are to me, they’re of little interest to anyone who isn’t a social historian…except for one set of tiny black and white photos Dad took in the summer of 1945. These four pictures, each one no larger than 1.5” x 2”, show that even after two years of war, Dad still had his sense of humor, at least when it came to the biggest, baddest Nazi of them all.
For it seems that Dad and his friends, all ordinary young men from the Midwest, were somehow, someway, allowed to tour what was left of Adolf Hitler’s mountaintop retreat at Berchtesgaden.
Berchtesgaden, which Hitler had first turned to because it was close enough to the Austrian border that he could slip into his native land if the Bavarian authorities decided to arrest him as a political agitator, had become the place for senior Nazis to rest, relax, and plan the next stage in world domination, genocide, and art theft. The chalets and cottages weren’t as garish or ostentatious as, say, Herman Goering’s absurdly overblown manor, but they were still far nicer than anything the average German could boast, at least until the RAF bombed the entire complex in April 1945.
Dad, who seems to have taken quite a bit of pleasure in recording both the luxury and the destruction, dutifully labeled each shot of his quartet in his messy, dramatic handwriting: “Hitler’s House” (the remains of the Eagle’s Nest after the Brits took revenge for the Blitz); “Hitler’s Movie Theater” (now occupied by curious GI’s staring at the damaged screen); and “Hitler’s Bathtub” (defaced by a soldier from Titusville, Pennsylvania who somehow managed to get his hands on a grease pencil). Best of all is the dark, obscure photo of what initially appears to be a planter of some sort. Dad labeled this one “Also Hitler’s,” and it takes a few minutes to realize that it’s what’s left of Hitler’s very own private privy, now bereft of water tank, handle, or seat.
I’m working on scanning these pictures (especially the one of Hitler’s toilet), since it’s pretty much certain that I’m the only person in Easthampton, Massachusetts, who owns a photograph of an object so intimately associated with history’s greatest dictator. If nothing else, it’s a way of honoring my father’s little effort in knocking the late and unlamented dictator down a peg (or two, or three….)
Dad may have taken those pictures primarily out of curiosity, but it's pretty clear that at least part of his motive was making fun of the man with the funny little mustache. He was far from alone in deciding that the best way to defang the chief Nazi was to mock him; beginning with a 3 Stooges shortmocking the dictator of "Moronica" (followed shortly by Charlie Chaplin's masterful The Great Dictator), Americans had been bombarded with media representations of Hitler that made him look weak, foolish, or just plain dumb. Whether it was comic books showing a super soldier socking Hitler in the jaw, lowbrow humor involving Hitler's photo pinned to one of the 3 Stooges' posterior, songs about the joys of spitting in the former Austrian's eye, even science fiction about cleverly designed chants driving him even crazier than he already was - for a while it seemed that poking fun at Adolf had supplanted baseball as the Great American Pastime.
And if pro-Nazi groups sent death threats to the Jews who'd come up with the super soldier, or Hitler placed the 3 Stooges on his "to be killed when I conquer the world" list, well, all was fair in the Good War, at least when it came to raising morale on the home front. Even with all the death, the destruction, the sheer evil of the Nazi regime, it was hard not to laugh at how much Hitler himself looked like the Little Tramp, or how dramatically he ranted and raved and all but foamed at the mouth in front of an audience.
The mockery ended around the time the war did, when Allied forces liberated the death camps and saw first-hand what that comical little man's theories had led to. Oh, there's been the occasional attempt at mockery - just think of The Producers, or Hogan's Heroes - but any man who could order something as hideous as Auschwitz wasn't funny, and neither were his followers. Post-war depictions of Hitler have rightly emphasized the horrors that his particular brand of insanity wrought upon the world, whether upon the ordinary citizen, religious, sexual, and racial minorities, or ruined cities, not how ridiculous he was.
At the same time, there's still that faint, all but lost, but unmistakable air of the absurd about the Nazis, especially the way the movement developed until the infamous Night of Broken Glass showed once and for all that that yes, Hitler meant every word he said about his plans for German Jewry. The homoerotic art, the sleekly pompous higher-ups , the dark-haired leader obsessed with blond perfection, the astonishing excuse for science that flourished once most of the intelligentsia had fled for America and Britain -
Tonight I bring you something that might seem impossible: two Nazi-related books So Ridiculous They're Good. One describes a Nazi-endorsed cosmological system straight out of a bad pulp novel, while the other is an occult mess purporting to link Hitler's life story to a medieval artifact -
Glazial-Kosmogonie, by Hans Hörbiger - One night in 1894, an Austrian engineer Hans Hörbiger went out to gaze at the moon. Hörbiger, an engineer by training, knew little about astronomy, but as he contemplated the harsh, brilliant surface, he wondered if perhaps both could be attributed to surface ice.
Now, this is not nearly as foolish an idea as it sounds today; remember, this was the time when respected astronomers like Percival Lowell taught that there were canals on Mars, or that Venus was covered with thick, moist clouds that concealed lush jungles. Hörbiger was far from the only person to think that there might, just might, be ice or water in the otherwise forbidding craters of our little sister world.
Unfortunately for his reputation (but fortunately for lovers of the peculiar), Hörbiger’s theorizing soon jumped an entire school of sharks, if not a veritable kraken. Thanks to a dream involving pendulums suspended in space, he became convinced that not only was there ice on the moon, this meant that conventional beliefs about gravity, the solar system, and cosmology were completely wrong. Now convinced that Sir Isaac Newton, then regarded as the last word on gravitational theory, was an inexplicably popular quack, Hörbiger worked on his ideas solo until 1898, when he met an amateur astronomer named Philipp Fauth. Fauth, who was a schoolteacher, had a small reputation as a lunar cartographer thanks to a large, popular, almost completely correct map he’d published a few years earlier, and so Hörbiger may be forgiven for believing that he knew what he was talking about.
The two men worked, and worked, and in 1912 decided to publish their groundbreaking discoveries as Glazial-Kosmogonie. The book came out to little attention, few reviews, and almost no sales, almost certainly because of beliefs that struck the average scientist then (and now) as little better than the ravings of the insane:
- The solar system originated not in a giant cloud of gas and dust orbiting about what became the Sun, but after a dead, waterlogged (?) star fell into a much larger star.
- The resulting explosion scattered water throughout the cosmos, where it froze into enormous blocks of ice.
- Among these ice blocks are the Milky Way, our solar system, other solar systems, and many, many, many planets that eventually dissolved, or exploded
or were used by God in the mother of all cocktail parties
- Hydrogen gas in the space between planets changes their orbits from nice little Keplerian ellipses to inward spirals. They’re accompanied by yet more ice blocks, some of which they swallow, some of which are actually meteors.
- These meteors sometimes collide with Earth, resulting in hailstorms, or the Sun, where they become vapor that covers Mercury and Venus with “fine ice.”
- What we call “the moon” was actually the sixth terrestrial satellite. It was only captured by Earth in the Cenozoic area, an event that was preserved in the racial memory
- All photographs that purport to show billions and billions of other stars, galaxies, dust clouds, nebulae, etc., were faked by “reactionary” astronomers who were too invested in conventional theory to realize that they’d been hornswoggled by mere mortals like Galileo, Keper, Brahe, Newton, etc. The same applied to anyone who pointed out that the moon’s surface was over 100 degrees centrigrade (well above the melting point of ice), or that there was no possible way his theories made mathematical sense. "Calculation can only lead you astray," Hörbiger sniffed, and went off to publish another book or article.
Curiously enough, these fascinating insights did not immediately inspire every astronomer in Germany to rush out and either dance round the flaming piles of conventional textbooks that were now useless, or drown themselves in the Elbe out of shame at having been so gullible. Much to Hörbiger’s dismay, sales (especially at the universities that were the pride of Germany) remained low, and his masterwork attracted almost no attention.
Of course, a little thing that happened in 1914 called “The Great War” may have factored into this to a certain extent.
Hörbiger was nothing if not determined. He waited until Germany’s political system and economy had stabilized after the Armistice, then set about promoting his wonderful theories to the general public. He was convinced that the ordinary German would prove far more insightful and sympathetic to his ideas than those stuffy Herr Professor Doctors at Heidelberg and Jena and Berlin, which meant better sales, more publicity, and maybe, perhaps, eventually, if enough people saw the merit in his ideas
and clapped their hands and swore they did too believe in fairies, his brilliant theories might finally gain the academic acceptance he craved. Public lectures, movies, radio programs, novels, a newspaper modestly named The Key to the World, even academic journals devoted entirely to the promulgation of what he now called the “Welteislehre (World Ice Theory or WEL)” – Hörbiger spared no expense in getting out the word that stars, comets, and hailstones were pretty much the same thing.
As wrong as he may have been about the cosmos, Hörbiger was right about the German people. Whether it was because of aftereffects of the crushing defeat the Reich had suffered on the Western Front, lingering horror from hyperinflation, or too much exposure to cabarets and Expressionist films, Germans everywhere were soon crying, "Out with astronomical orthodoxy! Give us Hörbiger!" Learned societies sprang up, including the grandly named Komotechnische Gesellschaft (
gesundheit!) in Vienna, and Hörbiger began to enjoy the fruits of his labor at last.
And then an Englishman who’d married Richard Wagner’s stepdaughter learned about the theory, and Hörbiger’s fame was assured.
This gentleman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, was the delicate, dreamy son of a British admiral. Obsessed with Germany, German culture, the German “race,” and at least two German women (both of whom he married), Chamberlain was the author of The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a repulsive, elegantly written disquisition on the virtues of the Aryan race. This book was a great favorite of Adolf Hitler’s, who found much to admire in its glorification of the Master Race and its rejection of the theory of relativity promoted by that notorious Jew Albert Einstein. Rank and file Nazis, playing follow der Fuehrer, agreed, and by the time Hörbiger finally went to the great iceball in the sky in 1931, his followers decided that it was time to ally themselves once and for all with National Socialism.
Soon the WEL was the official Nazi cosmology despite the singular lack of hard evidence that any of it was true. WEL supporters were openly proclaiming that, "Our Nordic ancestors grew strong in ice and snow; belief in the Cosmic Ice is consequently the natural heritage of Nordic Man," and despite Nazi higher-ups like Heinrich Himmler assuring the educated members of the party that no, they didn’t have to throw their heads out the window and believe in the WEL, Hitler’s plans to build a WEL-compatible planetarium in his hometown of Linz made it pretty clear that non-believers should keep their views to themselves. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of ordinary Germans came to believe that Earth had had five previous moons, and if the world at large giggled and almost every decent astronomer or physicist in Germany decamped for the United States, so what?
Unfortunately, what seems to us today like harmless quackery was anything but when Nazi meteorologists decided to apply the WEL to weather forecasting.
During the little conflict called World War II.
On the Russian Front.
Yes, gentle readers, as ridiculous as it sounds, Hans Hörbiger’s crank cosmology was used as the basis for weather predictions that led the Wehrmacht to throw itself toward Moscow and Leningrad with summer uniforms, oil that froze solid at low temperatures, and inadequate supplies. By the time the Russian winter swept down in all its bitter, blasting glory, it was too late for the badly overextended soldiers to do anything but quietly freeze to death while the warmly clad Russians bombed, shot, and sniped them to pieces.
Perhaps embarrassed by their association with the Nazi Party, or simply ashamed of all the death and destruction their ideas had caused, WEL cultists kept their views very, very quiet for several years after Hitler, Himmler, and their truly believing friends had joined Hörbiger in the chilly afterlife. The WEL was far from dead, however, and as late as 1953 over a million people in Germany (no surprise), the United Kingdom (somewhat surprising), and the United States (say what?) were still convinced that the WEL was true.
Whether this has anything to do with the similar (if distressingly Jewish-authored) theories of Immanuel Velikovsky enjoying a ready audience in the United States about ten years after World War II is for better scholars than me for ferret out….
The Spear of Destiny, by Trevor Ravenscroft - One of the best adventure movies of the 1980s, and possibly of all time, is Raiders of the Lost Ark. This brilliant update on old-time serials has everything one could want in an action picture: a dashing scientist with a shy streak, a tough and gorgeous dame with a mean right hook, and a set of eminently hissable Nazi archaeologists who attempt to tamper with Forces They Do Not Understand and get their comeuppance in spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds. It’s tremendous fun, and if the most recent (and dear God, let it be the last) sequel was something of a mess, that doesn’t detract from the glory of the first film.
Few realize that Indiana Jones’ antagonists were inspired by a very real group of Nazis. Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo, believed that Aryan culture had been shortchanged by archaeologist who preferred to concentrate on the trivial contributions of Middle Easterners to early Mediterranean civilization. In 1935 he founded the Ahnenerbe, a "study society for Intellectual Ancient History,” to remedy this sad situation. The Ahnenerbe were sent out into the world with the mission to find any and everything that could be possibly classified as an Aryan artifact, then bring it back to the Fatherland to aid in establishing the hitherto unacknowledged role of Aryans in the founding of civilization.
Himmler’s teams, many of which included trained archaeologists who should have known better, fanned out across the world. Tibet…the Middle East…Sweden… Finland …wherever there was even the slightest hint or rumor of an Aryan or Aryan-related archaeological site, the Ahnenerbe soon followed. And if it turned out that the Aryan site was actually full of artifacts relating to Tibetan Buddhism, or Finnish prehistory, or somesuch nonsense, well, it was up to this intellectual elite to ferret out their true meaning and enlighten the world about the glories of the Aryan past.
Of course the Ahnenerbe did not neglect the Reich itself. Their scientists uncovered much interesting, if all too frequently bogus, information at allegedly Christian sites throughout Germany, Austria, the Crimea, France, and Italy. They also served as expert consultants to the great ingathering of German art to the Reich during World War II that has become notorious as “The Rape of Europa,” as works by Germans, or showing German history, or that once belonged to Germans several hundred years earlier, “repatriated” to Germany for inclusion in Hitler’s proposed Museum of German Art in Linz. Never mind that the owners of this art frequently weren’t paid (wealthy Jews), or that some of these works had been commissioned by non-Germans (Veit Stoss’s altar for a cathedral in Krakow), or had never even been in Germany (the Bayeux Tapestry, which qualified because the Normans were actually Franks, or Vikings, or something).
And then there was the greatest collection of all: the crown jewels of the Habsburg emperors.
This remarkable collection, which includes two crowns, the coronation regalia of the Holy Roman Emperors, divers reliquaries, a couple of swords (one of which supposedly had belonged to Charlemagne, although this was disputed by the French), and the Imperial Orb, was preserved at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna after the fall of the Habsburgs in 1918. Hitler, who regarded himself as the spiritual and political heir to the Habsburgs and the Hohenzollerns, reclaimed the collection after the Anschluss in 1938 and returned them to their ancient home of Nuremberg. By a remarkable coincidence (ha!), Nuremberg was the spiritual home of the Nazi Party, site of their annual rallies so memorably chronicled in Triumph of the Will and other light entertainment.
For all his flaws, Hitler was not stupid, at least until he decided to believe his WEL meteorological reports and send his troops off across the Russian steppes in their summer uniforms. Although he owned the Austrian regalia, he never actually went through with a coronation ceremony, although there have been rumors for years that either he or his buddy Himmler considered the idea. German-American art historian Walter Horn, who was instrumental in tracking the collection down after V-E Day, was convinced that Himmler, who espoused all sorts of weird occult beliefs, had planned to use certain items from the collection as the foundation for a quasi-chivalric order of elite SS officers who would succeed the Teutonic Knights and rule the Reich for generations to come.
For it seems that both Himmler, a failed chicken farmer who looked about as deadly as, well, a chicken, and Hitler, who looked just as crazy as he actually was, were utterly convinced that these objects, as well as much of what the Ahnenerbe had managed to accumulate, were more than just objects. They were foci of mystical and occult powers, used by Aryan occult masters for centuries to consolidate and center their power over the Master Race and its subject peoples.
Those who think that this sounds utterly ridiculous, that no modern politician could possibly believe in such nonsense, should keep in mind that Ronald Reagan regularly scheduled important bill signings in accordance with astrological advice, that George W. Bush’s administration appointed numerous Christian Reconstructionists and their allies to high office with an eye to dismantling non-Christian science and health education, and Hillary Rodham Clinton reportedly held a couple of séances in the White House while she was First Lady. The only difference is that American politicians aren’t in the habit of wearing George Washington’s Masonic apron during Cabinet meetings, donning Abraham Lincoln's stovepipe hat, or smoking Kennedy's fine Cuban cigars.
Also, America hasn’t been around long enough to have what is purportedly a relic dating back to the Crucifixion itself.
I refer, of course, to the legendary Spear of Destiny. This ancient weapon, which belonged to the Holy Roman Emperors for generations, was long rumored to be the Holy Lance itself, the weapon used by the centurion Longinus to stab the dying Jesus as he hung on the Cross. It come had to the Habsburgs almost a thousand years earlier, during the reign of Otto the Great, founder of the empire that was neither holy, nor Roman, nor actually an empire, and its loss was considered deadly to the wielder (see: Frederick Barbarossa dropping it while fording a stream and promptly being swept down stream to drown). That there are at least four other Holy Lances in various European countries (including one in the Vatican that had as good, or possibly better, a claim to authenticity), or that the Lance itself seems to have been made around six hundred years after the Crucifixion, does not seem to have made much of a difference to the Habsburg relic’s reputation. Even today, ten years after chemical and archaeological analysis clearly showed that, at best, the Viennese lance contains a 1st century CE Roman nail that might or might not have been used to crucify Jesus, the mystical glow that pervades the Spear in occult and New Age circles shines as bright as ever.
For this, we must thank the late, great Trevor Ravenscroft. For it is Ravenscroft’s 1973 book The Spear of Destiny and his somewhat later follow up The Mark of the Beast that irrevocably linked the Holy Lance to the Nazis in the public eye.
Ravenscroft’s story as exciting, and as accurate, as the average airport paperback about mystical conspiracies involving secret government agencies, evil operatives, and Occult Powers Man Was Not Meant To Use. He claimed that during the years Adolf Hitler spent as a starving artist in Vienna prior to the Great War, he saw the Holy Lance during a tour of the Kunsthistoriches Museum, heard a guide state that whomever possessed the Lance would rule the world, and immediately resolved that he would do both.
"I knew with immediacy that this was an important moment in my life, and yet I could not divine why an outwardly Christian symbol should make such an impression on me," said the young Adolf, and even though he had no political experience, no money, and no friends except for a couple of (Jewish) art dealers who helped sell his watercolors to unsuspecting tourists, he knew that he had somehow, some way, learned his true destiny.
Ravenscroft, who somehow knew exactly what Hitler said and thought despite a complete lack of anything that approached a historically accurate source, went on to record how Hitler spent the next three years obsessed with the Lance. The future dictator visited it numerous times, researched its illustrious history, and even fell into a trance wherein he supposedly received mystical confirmation that the Lance had " a mighty presence around it -- the same awesome presence which [he] had experienced inwardly on those rare occasions in [his] life when [he] had sensed that a great destiny awaited [him]."
Alas, neither Hitler (nor Ravenscroft) seemed to know, or care, that the Spear of Destiny hadn’t done the Habsburgs much good in the end; leadership of the German-speaking world had shifted to the upstart Hohenzollerns, the bright and promising Crown Prince Rudolf had blown his brains out after shooting his teenage mistress, and the last emperor had abdicated after the Armistice. Ravenscroft attempted to get around this sad decline by claiming that the Spear was actually controlled by an evil spirit (in which case one has to get around its possession by devout Christians like Maria Theresa, or enlightened despots like her son Joseph II) and the focus of all of human aspirations (even though a large proportion of humanity has never even heard of it).
Perhaps oddest of all, Ravenscroft claims that one of Hitler’s motives for starting World War II was to possess the Spear…even though it came into Nazi hands over a year before the invasion of Poland. It’s also hard to reconcile the assertion that whomever possesses the Lance will possess the world with Hitler’s defeat on the battlefield and his eventual suicide, both of which took place while the Lance was safely tucked away in a bomb-proof bunker in Nuremberg. Of course the latter took place on the very same day that the American conquerors rolled into the shattered remnants of Nuremberg…but the next person who allegedly possessed it, General George S. Patton (!), never held political power, wasn’t even the overall commander of the Allied forces, and died shortly after the war in a car crash, none of which really supported Ravenscroft’s assertions.
Worst of all, the American government, which Ravenscroft claimed reached the heights of global power thanks to its possession of the Lance, never actually owned it or any of the other Habsburg regalia. It might have been in their keeping during the last few months of the war (or, why Ravenscroft gleefully claimed that the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was at least partially thanks to the evil influence of the Lance, never mind that Harry Truman was several thousand miles and an ocean away from its mystical powers when he gave the order that sent the Enola Gay aloft), but the Americans never considered it their rightful spoils. It was returned to Vienna as soon as was practical, where it remains to this day.
If anyone truly can claim that Austria is now the dominant country in the EU, let alone the world, I have yet to hear of it.
Do you own any strange books by or about the Nazis? A copy of the National Lampoon parody claiming that someone had written a book about Hitler's secret canine air corps? A well-thumbed copy of Trevor Ravenscroft? A DVD of the 3 Stooges literally and figuratively kicking Hitler in a delicate area? Come gather round the field telephone and share...
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