from the world's big
The Nazis' love affair with the occult
Why were the Nazis so enamored with the occult, pseudoscience, and magic?
- The idea of the Nazi's obsession with the occult has been a popular one amongst the public, but there's a lot of misinformation out there about how involved the Nazis actually were in the occult.
- There are some truly bizarre theories out there about the Nazis, such as the idea that Hitler was possessed by a demon or that the Nazi conquest of Europe was powered by the magical Spear of Destiny.
- While these more fantastical theories may not have any basis in reality, there are many real ties between occult societies, racist thinking, and the Nazis during the 20th and 19th century.
Compared to other crimes horrific in their scope, the Holocaust and its Nazi perpetrators stood out primarily for the detached, technical, and scientific nature of the genocide. But while the actual mechanics of the Holocaust were planned with a cruel and meticulous rationality, the Nazis were fundamentally unscientific, picking and choosing beliefs founded on pseudoscience in order to support their worldview. It's no wonder, then, that they would have had an enduring obsession with the occult. However, there is a lot of unfounded speculation out there about the Nazis and esoteric societies, rituals, and so on. Exactly how involved were the Nazis with the occult?
Descended from Atlanteans
As it turns out, the Nazi party incorporated occultism from its very start. The political group that would eventually become the Nazi party (the German Worker's Party, or DAP) was founded in part by individuals from the Thule Society, an esoteric group dedicated to studying the mythological origins of the Aryan race. Several prominent Nazis were either members or active within the society, including Rudolph Hess, who would become the deputy further to Hitler; Alfred Rosenburg, head of the ministry that oversaw Nazi Germany's occupied territories in Eastern Europe; and Dietrich Eckhart, who founded the DAP.
The Thule society's primary focus was on the study of Ariosophy, referring to wisdom regarding the Aryans founded by occultists Guido von List and Lanz von Liebenfels. These individual's beliefs would come to inform significant aspects of the Nazi state, such as von List's belief in the power of magical runes. The most glaring example of this would be the twin "sig" runes that formed the SS insignia.
Von Liebenfels argued that that the Aryan people were intentionally bred via electricity by interstellar deities called Theozoa, while the other races were the result of interbreeding between humanity and ape-men. According to Liebenfels, gradual interbreeding had robbed the Aryans of their magical powers. Liebenfels would also circulate a magazine called Ostara based on these beliefs, whose readership included a young Adolf Hitler.
In addition to embracing these occult ideas, the Thule Society also believed that a proto-Aryan race lived on the island of Thule, a mythological northern island that is probably more familiar by its alternate names: Hyperborea or Atlantis.
A death's head ring, or totenkopfring, with the "sig" rune visible. Karl Maria Wiligut played a role in the design of such rings.
Yet despite all of its connections to the origins of Nazism, the Thule Society eventually dissolved prior to Hitler's rise to power. In fact, a great number of German occult societies were shut down, though not because of a sudden surge of skepticism or rational belief. Instead, occult-related activities and organizations were often suppressed in Nazi Germany at the behest of Heinrich Himmler's Rasputin-like personal occultist, Karl Maria Wiligut. The point of this was to ensure that Wiligut's own brand of occultism would be the eminent philosophy of the Nazis.
Wiligut had developed a religion centered on worshipping the Germanic god Irmin. According to Wiligut, German culture dated back to 228,000 BC, a period of time when the Earth had three suns and was populated by giants, dwarfs, and other mythical creatures. He also claimed to be descended from a line of kings from this period of time. It should also be noted that Wiligut was a diagnosed schizophrenic.
Himmler, who was an avid follower of the occult, consulted Wiligut on a wide variety of issues. Using Wiligut's prophecies, Himmler chose the castle Wewelsburg to serve as a base of operations for his SS troops and established a room in the castle with a crystal representing the Holy Grail. Wiligut also helped in the design of the rune-covered death's head rings that the SS troops wore, personal awards that Himmler issued himself.
Himmler was particularly attracted to Wiligut's brand of paganism, as he disliked the Judaic origins of Christianity. After the end of the WWII, Himmler believed that the "old Germanic gods will be restored." Leveraging his influence and his boss's desire to see a Germanic paganism, Wiligut attempted to stamp out competing philosophies to his Irminism.
Stranger and stranger
There are some wackier theories out there about the role that the occult played in Nazism, most of which have little evidence to support them. Perhaps the most extreme and, in a way, comforting example would be the idea that Hitler was possessed by a demon, a theory based mainly off of a passage Hitler underlined in a copy of a book titled Magic: History, Theory and Practice, reading, "He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world."
There have also been rumors of an occult society based on Vril, a magical substance described in the book The Coming Race. This 19th century work of fiction describes a traveler exploring a cave who becomes lost and discovers subterranean civilization peopled by supernatural beings called the Vril-Ya. In the novel, these beings made use of a fluid called Vril, which they could telepathically manipulate to heal, destroy, or change their surroundings. Although the existence of an occult society focused on a supposedly real version of Vril are unverified, it's not difficult to imagine that such a society could have found purchase in the occult-obsessed Nazi society.
Further speculation abounds. Some contend that Hitler and the Thule Society worked together to secretly found a secret, totalitarian global government referred to as the New World Order. Others claim that (in)famous occultist Aleister Crowley had made contact with Hitler, or that Hitler had been trained in mind control techniques to control the crowds of Germans he addressed during his speeches. Still others claim that Hitler possessed the Spear of Destiny, the spear that pierced Christ when he was crucified and is claimed to magically guarantee its wielder victory in all their exploits, with the caveat that if they lose the lance they will die.
There are a number of successively stranger and stranger theories about the Nazis and their connection with the occult, a great deal of which have no basis in reality. But developing fantastical, magical theories about how the Nazis came about and how they succeeded in sowing so much horror and destruction is comforting. If they possessed occult power, then we wouldn't have to confront the horrible truth — that regular, flesh-and-blood humans are capable of terrible things all on their own.
- Why the Nazis were obsessed with finding the lost city of Atlantis ... ›
- Was Hitler Really An Atheist? Probably Not. - Big Think ›
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
In more than a dozen countries as far apart as Portugal and Russia, 'Smith' is the most popular occupational surname
- 'Smith' is not just the most common surname in many English-speaking countries
- In local translations, it's also the most common occupational surname in a large part of Europe
- Ironically, Smiths are so ubiquitous today because smiths were so special a few centuries ago
Meet the Smiths, Millers, Priests and Imams - the most popular occupational surnames across Europe.
Image: Marcin Ciura<p>Although very few people are smiths by profession these days, there are millions of Smiths by surname the world over. It's the most popular surname in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the second most popular surname in Canada and the fifth most popular one in Ireland. And they're a thriving bunch, at least in the U.S.: the 2010 Census (1) counted 2,442,977 Americans called Smith, 2.8% more than in 2000.</p><p>Curiously, 'Smith' also is one of the most popular surnames across most of Europe –translated in the various local vernaculars, of course. This map shows the most common occupational surnames in each country. By colour-coding the professions, this map shows a remarkable pro-smith consistency across Europe – as well as some curious regional exceptions.</p>
‘Smith’ popular throughout Europe<p>'Smith', in all its variations, is the most popular occupational surname throughout Europe. Not just in the UK, but also in:</p> <ul><li>Belgium (<em>Desmet</em>) and Luxembourg, (<em>Schmitt</em>);</li> <li>France (<em>Lefebvre</em>), Italy (<em>Ferrari</em>) and Portugal (<em>Ferreira</em>);</li> <li>Slovenia (<em>Kovačič</em>), Croatia (<em>Kovačevič</em>), Hungary (<em>Kovács</em>), Slovakia (<em>Kováč</em>), Poland (<em>Kowalski</em>), Lithuania (<em>Kavaliauskas</em>), Latvia (<em>Kalējs</em>) and Belarus (<em>Kavalyov</em>);</li> <li>Estonia (<em>Sepp</em>); and</li> <li>Russia (<em>Kuznetsov</em>).</li></ul>
‘Miller’ on top in many Germanic-language countries<p>'Miller' is the most popular occupational surname in many Germanic-language countries, but also in Spain and Ukraine (perhaps because the grain in both countries is mainly in the plain):</p> <ul><li>There's <em>Müller</em> (in Germany and Switzerland), <em>M</em><em>ø</em><em>ller</em> (in Denmark and Norway) and <em>Möller</em> (Sweden);</li> <li><em>Molina</em> (in Spain – the map also shows the most popular surname in Catalonia/Catalan: <em>Ferrer</em>, i.e. 'Smith'); and</li> <li><em>Melnik</em> (in Ukraine).</li></ul>
Clergy surnames rule in the Balkans<p>Catholic clergy must remain celibate, so 'Priest' as a surname is rare to non-existent throughout Europe. Except in the Balkans, where Catholicism is largely absent. Here, the Orthodox and Islamic clergies have passed on the title from father to son, eventually as a surname, to popular effect. Orthodox clergy are addressed as <em>papa</em> or <em>pope</em> (which means 'father' – so the surname rather redundantly translates to 'father's son'). Islamic teachers or imams are known by the Turkish/Persian term <em>hodzha</em>. An overview:</p> <ul><li><em>Popov</em> (in Bulgaria), <em>Popovic</em> (in both Serbia and Montenegro), <em>Popovski</em> (in Macedonia);</li> <li><em>Popa</em> (in Romania); </li> <li><em>Papadopoulos</em> (in Greece); and</li> <li><em>Hodžić</em> (in Bosnia-Herzegovina), <em>Hoxha</em> (in both Kosovo and Albania).</li></ul>
Landowners and other professions<p>Austria and the Czech Republic have different national languages but are neighbours and share a lot of history. Could that explain why they have a similar most popular occupational surname, for 'landowner'?</p> <ul><li><em>Huber</em> (in Austria) and</li> <li><em>Dvořák</em> (in the Czech Republic).</li></ul> <p>Just four professions, that wraps up all but five countries on this map. Those five each have their very own most popular occupational surname:</p> <ul><li><em>Bakker</em> (in the Netherlands): 'Baker'</li> <li><em>Kinnunen</em> (in Finland): 'Skinner'</li> <li><em>Ceban</em> (in Moldova): 'Shepherd'</li> <li><em>Avci</em> (in Turkey): 'Hunter'</li> <li><em>Murphy</em> (in Ireland): 'Sea Warrior' </li></ul>
Even more Smiths<p>Judging from the popularity of these surnames, your generic European village of a few centuries ago really couldn't do without a smithy. It was a much more essential craft even than that of the miller (or the baker, who put the miller's flour to good use) – except in the Balkans, where spiritual sustenance apparently sated a greater need. On the outskirts of <em>Anytown, Europe</em> live the shepherd and the hunter, the skinner and the pirate.<br></p><p>A bit too simplistic? Perhaps not simplistic enough. This map could have been dominated by even more Smiths. As the original poster explains, he always picked the most frequent version of an occupational surname, even if multiple variants point to a more popular alternative. </p><p>In the Netherlands, for instance, people with the surnames <em>Smit, Smits, Smid, de Smit, Smet </em>and <em>Smith</em> collectively outnumber those with the surnames <em>Bakker, Bekker, de Bakker</em> and <em>Backer</em>. So, the Netherlands could be considered another win for 'Smith' – except that the variant <em>Bakker</em> is more frequent than any other single variant.</p><p>Same story in Germany: added up, there are more people named <em>Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz </em>and <em>Schmid</em> than <em>Müller</em>. Ditto for Spain: <em>Herrero, Herrera </em>and <em>Ferrer</em> together outnumber <em>Molina</em>. Also in Finland, where <em>Seppä</em>, <em>Seppälä</em> and <em>Seppänen</em> together have a higher count than <em>Kinnunen</em>. </p>
Smiths in other cultures<p>'Smith' was a crucial occupation in other cultures too, judging from the familiar ring it has in these languages:<br></p><ul><li><em></em><em>Demirci</em> (Turkish)</li><li><em>Hadad</em> (Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic)</li><li><em>Nalbani</em> (Albanian)</li><li><em>McGowan</em> (Gaelic)</li><li><em>Faber</em> (Latin)<span></span></li></ul>
Other most popular surnames<p>Take note, though: 'Smith' may be the most popular surname in in the Anglosphere, this map does not mean to show that its variants in French, Russian and other languages also are the most popular surnames in the countries marked grey. They are merely the most popular <em>occupational</em> surnames.<br></p><p>As this sample of most common ones for each country shows, surnames can refer to a host of other things. Personal qualities or physical attributes, for example:</p> <ul><li>Russia: <em>Smirnov</em> ('the quiet one')</li> <li>Turkey: <em>Yilmaz</em> ('unflinching')</li> <li>Hungary: <em>Nagy</em> ('big')</li> <li>Italy: <em>Rossi/Russo</em> ('red', in northern and southern Italy, respectively)</li></ul> <p>Another option: the origin of the name-bearer (be it a place or a person):</p> <ul><li>Sweden: <em>Andersson</em> ('son of Anders')</li> <li>Slovakia: <em>Horvath</em> ('Croat')</li> <li>Kosovo: <em>Krasniqi</em> (refers to the Krasniq tribe and their mountainous home region)</li> <li>Portugal: <em>Silva</em> ('woodland')</li> <li>Latvia: <em>Bērziņš</em> ('little birch tree')</li> <li>Estonia: <em>Tamm</em> ('oak')</li></ul> <p>But sometimes, even for the most popular ones, the exact origin of the surname is lost in time:</p> <ul><li>Spain: <em>Garcia</em> (originally Basque, possibly meaning 'young', 'bear' or 'young bear')</li> <li>Finland: <em>Korhonen</em> ('hard of hearing' or 'dim-witted'; 'village elder'; 'proud'; 'upright'). </li></ul>
Smith popularity theory<p>So why exactly is Smith – and not Miller, for example – the most popular surname in many English-speaking countries? The theory propounded by historian C.M. Matthews in <em>History Today</em> (July 1967) probably also holds for the other-language variants so popular throughout Europe:<br></p><blockquote>"The reason for (the) multiplicity (of the surname 'Smith') is not so much that metal-workers were numerous as that they were important and widespread. On the skill of the smith, both rich and poor depended for the most essential things of life, the tools of husbandry and the weapons of hunting and war. Every community in the land must have one, every castle, every manor; and so distinctive was his trade that he would seldom need another name".<em></em></blockquote><p>That does not mean all people with the surname have a forefather who forged iron into weapons and farm tools. Especially in North America, 'Smith' was adopted by many people precisely because it was already common – as a secret identity or to blend in, for example by natives, slaves and immigrants.</p>
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.