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The Consolation of Theosophy II

The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology; The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890-1935

by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke
New York University Press, 293 pp., $15.95 (paper)

The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement

by Richard Noll
Princeton University Press, 387 pp., $27.95

Remembering Anna O.: A Century of Mystification

by Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, translated by Kirby Olson, in collaboration with Xavier Callahan
Routledge, 144 pp., $14.95 (paper)


With the publication in 1995 of Peter Washington’s admirable study Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon,1 readers now at last have access to a judicious as well as an entertaining account of Theosophy, a late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century movement that conjoined religious syncretism to esotericism on the one hand and liberal idealism on the other. The Theosophical Society was created in 1875 by Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who exerted a charismatic sway over converts until her death in 1891. In England, the United States, and India as well as elsewhere, Washington shows, Theosophy generated much bizarre metaphysics, absurd pomp, and petty factionalism, but it also exerted a surprisingly invigorating effect within the lives of many adherents. And its political influence, too, appears to have been largely benign; Theosophy allied itself not just with moralizing personal betterment but also with pacific internationalism and the self-determination of colonized “natives.”

Or so the indigenous activists were at first led to believe. But as they sooner or later discovered, Theosophy was never meant to be a catalyst of revolution. Madame Blavatsky had no taste for violence or even for social disorder, and her anti-imperialism was so flimsy and opportunistic that at different times she volunteered to serve as both a British and a Russian spy.2 And more generally, Theosophy sent the world a mixed message about human equality—a contradiction, we might say, between brotherhood and “the Brotherhood,” those distant Mahatmas who allegedly served as deputies of the Rulers of the Universe and who deigned to communicate telepathically only with the top level of Theosophical initiates.

As Washington observes, furthermore, the emergence from Central Asian obscurity of the conflict-thirsty G.I. Gurdjieff during World War I suggested, however faintly, a potential opening of Theosophy toward the militant right. In practice, to be sure, Gurdjieff remained a one-man movement and took little interest in the great powers and their bloodbaths. Indeed, whether he found himself in the turmoil of revolutionary Russia or in Nazi-occupied Paris, he showed a notable talent for placating whichever Caesar happened to be ruling at the moment. But Washington perceptively glimpses an affinity between Gurdjieffian cruelty and the ethos of purgative primitivism that led D.H. Lawrence among others—and the later Yeats could have been mentioned in the same connection—to flirt with proto-fascist authoritarianism as an alternative to bourgeois soul-death.

Nor should we ever be surprised when occultism does link arms with reactionary ideologies. Sooner or later, the gnostic habit of thought battens upon vitalism, the belief in a life force that cries out to be unshackled from convention. And fascist doctrine stands ready to give vitalism a nationalistic and nostalgic twist: we must inhale the spirit of our warrior ancestors, who knew no democratic legalism and harbored no pity for the unfit and the foreign.

As it happens, this is something more than a theoretical scenario. If we retrace our steps to the 1880s and follow the vogue of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888) not in England or America but in Germany, we encounter a sinister and portentous counter-history that rates only a passing footnote in Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon and no mention at all in books by esoteric devotees. Astonishingly, the most hellish of all totalitarian ideologies, Nazism, bore more than a casual relationship to ideas of Blavatsky’s that she had promulgated with a very different politics in mind.

The second volume of The Secret Doctrine featured an evolutionary myth about our planet’s seven “root-races,” five of which had already made their successive debuts. Humanity, Blavatsky revealed, had declined to a spiritual nadir with race number four but was now on the rise again, as our own fifth root-race worked its way toward superior incarnations that would eventually produce the god-men of root-race seven. Our ancestors’ greatest disgrace, furthermore, was thought to have occurred when the slimy Lemurians of root-race four had interbred with still lower creatures. And although that fateful miscegenation had occurred eons before the Theosophical Society began preaching racial harmony, the chief magi who dispensed wisdom to Blavatsky by thought transference from Asia, Koot Hoomi and Morya, had allegedly disclosed to her colleague A.P. Sinnett that one “sub-race” within the fifth root-race—namely, the Aryan—possessed the highest spiritual potentiality.

Of course, Theosophical notions about race hadn’t been flashed directly from heaven or even from Tibet. They were related, however loosely, to academically fashionable inquiries into the origins of modern languages, myths, and religions by such scholars as Jakob Grimm, August Schleicher, and Max Müller. Comparative linguistics appeared to show that a primordial ethnic group—often designated by that same name, Aryan—spoke the tongue from which every later Indo-European strain derived. And parallel investigations of folk tales and belief systems also yielded family trees, suggesting that modern cultural divergence, with all its potential for fatal scapegoating, was less a matter of geography and tradition than of persistent, indeed ineradicable, hereditary traits. Much Victorian academic discourse thus tended toward racist stereotyping, even before Darwinian theory inadvertently exacerbated matters by supplying a biological dimension to the game of invidious classification. With the advent of Social Darwinism, people who already felt that Africans, Chinese, and Jews were throwback types, and who correspondingly regarded their own Caucasian race as humanity’s advancing edge, could couch their prejudices in the idiom of natural selection.

Such was the volatile climate into which Blavatsky’s insouciantly improvised theology, history, and anthropology were launched. For a few years, to be sure, her influence looked harmless enough. When, with Olcott’s assistance, the first German Theosophical Society was founded in 1884, its initial appeal was felt mainly by members of the left-liberal Lebensreform movement, who were typically fond of rural communes, vegetarianism, alternative medicine, nudism, and the like. But as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke shows in his fine 1985 study, The Occult Roots of Nazism, Theosophy was to make its strongest impact on the völkisch right, which was nationalistic, hierarchical, authoritarian, racist, and obsessed with modern degeneracy from an ideal past that had supposedly been ruled by Aryans in the narrower Teutonic sense of the term.

The Secret Doctrine needed only minor revision to be accepted as a liberating gospel by radically reactionary “Ariosophists”—Austrian and German followers of Guido von List (1848-1919) and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels (1874-1954), who in the years before the Great War began prophesying what Goodrick-Clarke calls “a coming era of German world rule.” Like Blavatsky, the Ariosophists despised the Church, which they regarded as having empowered a sickly underclass and as having hijacked and corrupted a Germanic sun-worshiping cult that deserved to be revived as such. Blavatsky’s fancy that humans had descended from gods became serviceable when it was scaled down to include only people of a certain lineage. As for her secret brotherhood, it found an exact counterpart in the German esotericists’ posited corps of ancient Aryan man-spirits known as Armanen. And her idea of race mixing as the root of decadence struck a responsive chord in thinkers who were unsure of their own social credentials, eager to find an all-purpose explanation for the troubles of modernity, and vexed by the close Central European presence of Slavs and Jews, who impressed them as being ever more numerous, alien, and controlling.

The Occult Roots of Nazism traces the path by which Ariosophists, who were more interested in nostalgic gestures than in day-to-day politics, passed along their myths and symbols to more militant anti-Semitic and nationalist organizations, which in turn lent inspiration to the Nazi party after the bitter debacle of World War I. Among the symbols thus transmitted, none stirred more emotion than the swastika, which Blavatsky herself had helped to raise to prominence, incorporating it into the very seal of the Theosophical Society. Originally an Eastern sign of fertility and fortune, that emblem meant for Blavat-sky’s followers the spinning electro-spiritual force by whose means the Sons of God and their executive agent, Fohat, set and kept our universe in motion.

By the time that Hitler personally put his finishing touches on the Nazi emblem, Ariosophists had long since identified the swastika with a Teutonic rune whose meaning, it was thought, had been rendered inaccessible for millennia thanks to the supplanting of Aryans by inferior races. Hitler placed the swastika within a red field signifying the purity of Aryan blood and, within that, a white disk that stood for the sun. But the swastika itself still meant roughly what it had conveyed to Blavatsky, the principle of sun-based holy energy. Simply, that principle had now become the property of a single culture. For a fervent Hitlerite, to contemplate the Nazi flag was to be mystically transported into the Ur-German heroic past—and, not incidentally, to harden one’s heart against groups that were disqualified by ancestry from an intuitive rapport with Wotan worship and its runes.

Goodrick-Clarke is scrupulously reluctant to conclude that the various lodges and orders of occult German nationalism directly produced the Nazi phenomenon. It is true that Heinrich Himmler retained his own private occultist and allowed him to develop much of the symbolic bric-a-brac of the initiatory, blood-conscious, mystery-minded SS. But as Goodrick-Clarke stresses, Hitler was from the outset a modernizer and a mass-party man; he ordered the lodges closed as soon as he took power, while mobilizing for his own ends the völkisch and xenophobic sentiment that Ariosophists had cultivated in a more backward-looking spirit. What Teutonic occultism offered the Third Reich, then, was chiefly a set of metaphors and legends that blended into a psychologically potent cocktail of resentment, pride, and longing for a homogeneous martial state. The eclectic, self-amused, live-and-let-live Blavatsky would have been appalled by what she had accidentally set in motion.

Even so, we should not overlook the broad epistemic likeness between Theosophical dreamers and the ideologues who smoothed the way for the terroristic Nazi state. The common factor was their shared rejection of rational empiricism. By pretending that reliable knowledge can be obtained through such means as clairvoyant trances and astrological casting, the original Theosophists encouraged their German colleagues to “uncover” in prehistory just what they pleased; and the resultant myth of how Aryan hegemony was broken by quasi-simian races formed a template for the infectious post-World War I story of betrayal by Jewish materialists and the vindictive Allies. The whole visionary apparatus—the vitalistic sun cult, the mystic brotherhood, the pygmy usurpers, the lost ancient continents, the millennial cycles, even the idea of a conspiracy by a cabalistic “Great International Party” of diabolical antitraditionalists—was already there in The Secret Doctrine. There needed only a specific historical grudge and a fevered demagogue to set in motion the march toward paranoid eugenics and actual extermination of the “polluting” social elements.


We need to remind ourselves, after such an example, that esoterically acquired convictions are not always and everywhere a menace. In a stable democracy such as our own, manifest occultism tends to produce more amusement than terror. And, in fact, a direct line of descent connects Theosophy to an array of ludicrous and generally harmless New Age practices that now surround us, from astrology, crystal gazing, homeopathy, and pyramid power to Wicca nature worship, prophecy, channeling, past-life regression, goddess theology, belief in extraterrestrial visitation, and obeisance to self-designated gurus and ascended masters. (Indeed, two of Blavatsky’s own Masters have reappeared in person, ageless and helpful as ever, in the Great White Brotherhood that is said to guide our American contemporary Elizabeth Clare Prophet, a k a Guru Ma.) Although one can agree with Carl Sagan’s contention, in his recent book The Demon-Haunted World, that such fads reflect a popular revolt against science and a lamentable resurgence of superstition, it would be perverse to mention them in the same breath with Nazi ideology.3

  1. 1

    See my review in the last issue.

  2. 2

    See K. Paul Johnson, The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge (State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 213-214, 226-227.

  3. 3

    Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Random House, 1996).

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