Read an Excerpt
the Prologue: The Nazi Curse on Germanic Mythology
We must understand there can be no reconciliation without remembrance.
President Richard Von Weiszacker
I began to look into the mythology of my Germanic ancestors, I encountered a wall of anxiety and resistance, both in myself and in others with whom I shared my interest. The resistance centers around the assumed association between
Nordic-Germanic mythology and the ideology of the German National Socialists. I
observed that this perception was held by Germans and non-Germans alike, and that my own uneasiness about this association was not in the least mitigated by my awareness of being only half German. It was as if to engage this mythology was to open a gate onto a slippery downward slope of ideas that ended in the genocidal "final solution." For many, similar disquiet applies to the music of Richard Wagner, a known anti-Semite who was admired by Hitler and who wrote operas based on Germanic myths, and to the philosophy of Friedrich
Nietzsche, whose concept of the
seems uncomfortably close to Nazi ideas about Aryan racial superiority. In view of these associations, a mythology that interested Nietzsche, Wagner, and the
Nazis is understandably suspect. I felt compelled to try to understand the nature of this association, and would like now to share with the reader the process of this disturbing but unavoidable inquiry.
concluded fairly soon that close, unbiased examination does not support the view that Germanic myth, supplemented by Nietzsche's philosophy and Wagner's operas, was the mass-psychological motivational impulse for the genocidal holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. In searching for writings that would document the supposed psychological affinity of Nazi ideas with Germanic myth,
I found nothing beyond assertions, with little or no evidence to support them,
that such an affinity exists. In discussions with friends in Germany who expressed uneasiness about engaging with Germanic myth, I argued that we should not let the Nazis' perverse misappropriation of this mythic complex alienate us from the rich and beautiful mythology of our ancestors. It became clear that the discomfort with Germanic myth was only part of a much larger complex of difficult and highly charged feelings about Germany's recent past, and that these feelings needed to be confronted.
Swiss writer Margaret Burn has written a study of Germanic mythology in which she attempted to disentangle the mythology from the distortions that derive from the associations with Nietzsche, Wagner, and the Nazis.
The assumption that Nietzsche's philosophy, supposedly based on Germanic myth, is aligned with the Nazi ideology is a distortion both of Nietzsche and of
Germanic myth. Nietzsche was trained as a classical philologist, who based his ideas about "master morality" and "slave morality" on Greek and Roman literature. It has been proven that he had only minimal acquaintance with Nordic literature, mythology, or sagas. Nietzsche's concept of the
"superhuman" had nothing to do with assumed superiority or dominance over others. Rather, it was the statement of a psychological ideal of self-mastery. In scattered passages, Nietzsche uses characteristically inflated and dramatic language to describe the Germanic warriors who overcame the Roman legions during the period of the great migrations, speaking of them as
"magnificent blond beasts," aggressively lusting after plunder and destruction and taking pleasure in killing and cruelty. There is nothing uniquely Germanic about the cruelty and destructiveness of men in war, however,
and the Nazi ideologues who appropriated such passages took pains to screen out
Nietzsche's scathing attacks on German nationalism and his condemnation of anti-Semitism.
The situation with Wagner is a bit more complex. Wagner was a fervent promoter of
German nationalism and anti-Semitism, he wrote an extraordinary series of four long operas—the
—explicitly derived from Germanic myth, and he was greatly admired by Hitler and his followers. Even though it seems probable that Hitler's admiration was as much a result of Wagner's racist politics as his art, for some, Wagner's known anti-Semitism is sufficient to close off any attraction to or interest in his music. However, recent scholarship argues against reading the later emergence of Nazism back into Wagner's life and work, concluding that "there is, in fact, very little in Wagner's art that, without forced speculation, can be related to his racist views."
For whatever reason, attitudes towards Wagner's "total artworks," as be called them, tend toward extremes—people either admire or dislike them intensely. The rhapsodic intensity of his music seems to provoke a kind of total immersion in a stream of passionate emotions, which makes a more reflective attitude toward the underlying symbolism almost impossible.
From the point of view of aesthetic appreciation of the operas, it makes no difference that Wagner altered and adapted Nordic myths, creating a story with mythic undertones that has its own integrity. From the point of view of appreciating the original and enduring significance of Nordic-Germanic myths,
it is important to remember that Wagner was a product of his time, the German
Late Romantic period, and that his art was an expression of the
the spirit of that time. Although he studied the
and the sagas, in some respects Wagner's myth departs significantly from those sources. One of these departures is the central conflict in the Ring between the desire for love and the desire for power and wealth. This is a modern,
European, romantic theme quite foreign to the animistic-shamanistic worldview of the ancient Germans. A second major departure is Wagner's transformation of the ragnarök, originally a prophetic vision of the ending and renewal of the world, into the "twilight of the gods" (
in which the old gods are defeated and the world is destroyed, a vision that has much
more in common with Christian eschatological ideas than it does with Nordic-Germanic religion.
It is known that C. G. Jung, although also primarily a classicist, had a profound interest in Germanic mythology, as he did in all the great mythological traditions. In 1936, Jung published a paper, "On Wotan," in which he postulated a psychological affinity between the mythic figure of the Germanic storm god and the Nazis' growing popularity.
Jung referred to a "roaring storm in the primordial forest of the unconscious" that was associated with an awakening of the archetypal force of "Wotan, the restless wandering mischief-maker, sowing dissent and practicing sorcery." Jung is referring here to only one aspect of the
Wotan/Odin complex, namely, the late medieval legend of "the wild hunt." According to this legend, the howling storms of the midwinter season were imagined to be Wotan and his ghostly band of hunter-warriors,
riding with storm winds through the nocturnal woods. Jung connected this image of the wandering storm-god with three twentieth-century wandering phenomena:
the youthful groups of wandering nature enthusiasts, the thousands of unemployed workers wandering the roads of Germany during the 1920s, and the tens of thousands of marchers organized by the Nazis during the 1930s. Leaving aside the selectivity involved in picking only this one aspect of the multifaceted character of Odin/Wotan, I would have to concur with Margaret Burn that these passages are not only unconvincing as collective psychology, but they also show a surprising lack of compassion and a kind of bourgeois condescension toward people not of his class.
By focusing only on the terrible, frenzied storm-god aspect of Wotan, Jung seems to have bought into the Christian demonization of this versatile deity:
"Wotan . . . is a fundamental attribute of the German psyche, a psychic factor of irrationality, a kind of cyclone which blows off the pressure of civilization." He argued that the kind of "seizing" and
"being seized" associated with Wotan inspiration, traditionally, also called "frenzy" (German
could be seen again in the "seizing" by Hitler of the German masses:
"I venture the heretical suggestion that old Wotan, with his irrational and unfathomable character, explains more of National Socialism than all three rational factors (the economic, the political and the psychological) put together." It is true that Hitler was able to exert a quasi-hypnotic spell on his listeners, as can be seen in documentary footage of his speeches, and his inflated dominance delusions had a strong appeal to the legions suffering economic depression and the political humiliation caused by the treaty of
Versailles. However, I fail to see the supposed irrational "ecstatic frenzy" of the Nazi phenomenon. On the contrary, what has impressed most holocaust students is the cold, methodical rationality of the genocide program they carried out, what Hannah Arendt called the "banality of evil" in the minds of bureaucrats who were "just following orders."
Jung's theory that archetypal Wotan energy or frenzy was stirring again in Nazism has been repeated and cited by a number of authors, but Jung did not again refer to it in his postwar analysis of the Third Reich. In that essay, titled
"After the Catastrophe," Jung concentrated on the theme of individual and collective responsibility and guilt, and he described Hitler's pathology in purely psychological terms, as a kind of hysterical neurosis. He drew no parallels to Wotan energy, and his prior assertions had perhaps come to embarrass him. Most recently, the historian Morris Berman, in his search for the psychohistorical roots of Nazism, wrote that he found Jung's theory
"overwhelmingly convincing," in that "it speaks to the hidden,
somatic sources of Nazism." In Berman's view, Nazism combined bureaucratic and romantic/demonic elements to produce what was "a secular variety of religious apocalyptic," akin to other heretical movements involving "ascent experiences," such as Gnosticism and Catharism. Not that Germans were "in a state of Wotanic frenzy most of the time; Wotan was rather an undercurrent and an inspiration that the Nazis occasionally tapped, for example, at the Nuremberg rallies."
There is no evidence whatsoever of any element of "Wotan inspiration" in the accounts of the party rallies, not even in Berman's own description. These rallies involved thousands of uninformed soldiers and party members marching in lockstep formations, with flags and standards, at night carrying flaming torches as searchlights illuminated the stadium, and a crowd responding to the
Führer's hypnotic oratory with repeated shouts of
As we shall see when we come to study the myths of Odin in more detail, there is really nothing in the character of Odin/Wotan, the god of highly individualistic warrior-shamans, inspired poets, wandering seers and truth-seeking sorcerers that even remotely resembles this kind of mass demonstration. We are dealing here with an unprecedented mass-psychological phenomenon of the twentieth century, in which the submersion of individual identities in that of the
and the Führer was orchestrated with all the theatrical techniques of modern propaganda. To say that the mind-changing experience of a convert to Nazism is an ascent experience akin to gnostic revelation or an ecstatic frenzy akin to those of ancient Wotan cults is to indulge in pure speculation that can never be verified or disproven.