According to an interesting new article, the Third Reich’s obsession with a ‘pure’ Germanic past led to a renewed interest in the witch hunts that took place in early modern Germany. Writing in the new issue of History Today (September, 2019), historian Joel F. Harrington describes how the Nazis established a secret bureau to gather evidence of historic witch hunts, and this was not just simply to satisfy their now well-known curiosity with the occult.
During the 1930s, a team of seventeen SS officers worked secretly for a unit called the ‘Special Assignment H’ unit (H for Hexen, or ‘witches’), carrying out a project that was ordered directly by Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS (pictured), and overseen by SS officer Rudolf Levin.
As Harrington notes, the special group, which consisted mainly of young men in their twenties, ‘ploughed daily through stacks of execution reports sent in from around the country, carefully tabulating the essentials on notecards specially designed for this purpose’. What exactly was the purpose? In essence, members of the special unit were compiling information on individuals who had been accused of magic and witchcraft centuries earlier. In other words, the unit’s objective involved assembling, at Himmler’s behest, a kind of database of all known witchcraft trials and executions.
Apparently, over the course of the mid to late 1930s, the H unit combed archives and libraries in Germany and other countries to create over 33,000 index cards, together with supporting documentation, as well as a huge library on witchcraft.
As a number of historians have observed, Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) had a fascination with the occult in all its forms, and some of this was introduced into the culture and rituals of the inner circle of the SS. However, the special H unit was not just a symptom of this, but was rooted in Nazi ideological obsessions with ‘race’ and, to use Himmler’s own words, Germany’s so-called ‘eternal foes, the Jews’. In Himmler’s distorted racial version of history, the Jews had played a role throughout the centuries in torturing and killing tens of thousands of German mothers and daughters through witchcraft trials. And he was determined to demonstrate this ‘scientifically’.
Himmler’s claims, in turn, had their roots in the views of Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946), the Nazi party’s main ideologue and author of the infamous book The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), a near-unreadable book which was often seen, after Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1924), as one of the main racial ‘bibles’ of the Third Reich.
Rosenberg (pictured) had put much energy into promoting what might be termed the ‘racialisation’ of the witch craze in German history. Showing complete contempt for the established scholarly view of witches and the past in Germany, Rosenberg instead falsified history and alleged that the Jews, via ‘witch-hunting’, had carried out a form of genocide against German womanhood.
Influenced by this thesis, Himmler had thus set up the Special Assignment H unit as a supposedly scientific unit to analyse ‘the political, social and economic causes and consequences of the witch trials’.
Although Rudolf Levin, the unit’s head, appeared determined to keep the project afloat when the War broke out (he had, for example, lots of plans for new publications, including a picture-book series on witches and devils), Himmler’s priorities gradually shifted on to more pressing aspects of the Third Reich’s anti-Semitism, such as the ‘Final Solution’. In February, 1943, the special unit was officially suspended on the grounds that it was not conducting ‘work essential to the war’.
As Harrington rightly points out, compared to most other SS endeavours, the Special Assignment H unit and its witch project appeared naïve, even comical. However, what it also demonstrated to chilling and frightening effect was how Nazi ideology, intent on ‘proving’ German racial superiority against the supposed machinations of Jews in the past, ruthlessly exploited ‘scholarly’ and scientific methods.
‘Himmler’s Witch Hunt’, by Joel F. Harrington, can be read in the new issue of History Today, Vol.60, no.9 (September, 2019).
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: Wikimedia Commons)