Mixing Memory and Desire: Six
VI. The Third Reich's Search for the Grail
Just before World War II, T. H. White was busy writing his version of the Arthurian legend, which would eventually be called The Once and Future King. A pacifist living in Ireland, he used the legend as a way to discuss the rise of fascism in post-World War I Europe. In his tutelage by Merlyn, Arthur (the Wart) is turned into an ant, a goose, and a rook, all with White's intent to explore the various systems of government-ants being totalitarians, geese as anarchists, rooks as democratic.
The theme constantly explored in the books is that "Might doesn't make Right"-Arthur sets up his Round Table as an experiment in non-violent rule. In The Queen of Air and Darkness (first published as The Witch in the Wood in 1939), he even references Hitler (the Austrian who imposed his will on the world) as an example of what happens when people believe that might does make right, contrasting him with Christ (the philosopher who made his ideas available), working on Hitler's own messianic ideas. In White's Camelot, though, the Grail does not make everything right again, for it is Galahad who is the hero-he who is removed from the world, not one with it, like the earlier Perceval. Lancelot and Guenevere are still discovered, Mordred still rises a fascist, nationalistic army against Arthur's more universal kingdom, and all are slaughtered. Finished just before World War II, though much of it unpublished until after the war, The Once and Future King remains as prophetic as Tennyson's Idylls.
Anyone who has seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) remembers watching the Nazis searching for the Grail throughout Europe and the Middle East. What most people don't realize is that such a quest did happen (though there were no American archaeologists trying to stop them), sponsored by Hitler.
One of the reasons that Hitler was so successful in gaining and maintaining such control not only over Germany but Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France, was that he was not only a political figure, but a religious figure. Hitler created a religious myth for his people-a tribal identity. That the German people latched onto this idea isn't so surprising, when one compares a defeated people to a worried child. Myth creates structure, give meaning. When Germany was destroyed in World War I, they were (rather unjustly) made to bear the blame for the entire war (which they didn't even start). A persecuted nation, they were eager to latch on to a figure which told them that they weren't the horrible nation that France and England had made them out to be, that losing the war and the subsequent Great Depression weren't their faults at all. It's a comforting thought, and to a certain extent, a true one-WWI wasn't the fault of Germany alone, but of the rising nation-states, and the nationalism-or really, the subversive need for a tribal identity-that went with it.
Hitler accomplished this rebuilding of a national identity by building upon the Aryan myth which had already been circulating for decades. One of the ways he did this was by introducing new symbols, new relics, a new religion. The first was the swastika. The swastika itself has a long, world-wide history, not only in Germany, or even the Indo-European cultures, but also found in Asia and in pre-Columbian American. It is primarily a sun-wheel, a symbol of light and power. Early Greek Christians even used it as a way to disguise the cross-to them, it was composed of four gammas linked at the base. Another symbol-or really a system of symbols-was the runic writing of the early Teutonic cultures. Runes are a Greco-Phoenician influenced script, used mainly in everyday writingv. In the 19th century, some occult lodges used them as a magical script. Note the look of the letter S-this is the same writing used in the SS-the Schutzstaffel, Himmler's secret police. Hitler also created sacred relics-namely the Munich beer hall flag:
There was, for example, a ceremony which only Hitler was allowed to perform in which he "blessed" new Nazi flags by touching them against the "sacred" flag which had been carried by party members during the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. It was designed to convey the idea that the supposed "sacred" nature of the first flag could somehow, as if by magic, convey something of its "sacred" nature to the other Nazi flags which were to fly over the nation. (Kalogonis para 7).
One of the beliefs of the Thule society which made its way into Nazism was that Aryan symbols had been stolen by Christianity and had to be reclaimed. One of those symbols was the swastika; another was the Holy Grail. Hitler already had the relic claiming to be the Holy Lance, a piece of metal which supposedly also belonged to Charlemagne; now he needed the Grail.
Set on this quest was Otto Rahn. Rahn believed the Grail not only to be a real object, but to have been in the possession of the Albigensians, also called the Cathars. He even went so far as to identify Montsegur, a Cathar stronghold, with von Eschenbach's Munsalvaesche. The Cathars were heretics, believing in "a doctrine similar to the Manichaean dualistic system of material evil and spiritual good. They held the coexistence of these two principles, represented by God and the Evil One, light and dark, the soul and the body, the next life and this life, peace and war, and the like. ...They comprised two classes, believers and Perfect, the former much more numerous, making up a catechumenate not bound by the stricter rules observed by the Perfect." ("Albigenses" para 1-2).
Jean Markale also points out the Manichaean undertones to Parzival: there is an obsession duality, with the battle between Good and Evil, Dark and Light, Christian and Pagan, Amfortas and Klingsor, Parzival and Feirfiz; there is the obsession with spiritual-not sexual-purity; even the insistence that the Grail was the stone from Lucifer's crown (which also has certain alchemical overtones, namely the Philosopher's Stone) (Markale 132-136). Parzival would go on to inspire not only Wagner and Eliot, but Hitler.
And it's no surprise that the Templars would be involved in Parzival-in Wolfram's time, they were paragons of the warrior-priest, the physical embodiments of St. Michael the Archangel, who drove Lucifer into hell. Not only that, but the family which first furnished Chrètien with the story of the Grail-that of Henry II of England-were descended of the first Templars. However, the Templars take on a more bizarre meaning than Wolfram may have intended. Despised as heretics not unlike the Cathars, the Templars were forced to disband in 1312-only ten years before the end of the crusade against the Cathars. Some Templars were known to have fled for Scotland, which at the time was in opposition to Rome. Whether true or not, many Freemasons-particularly those of the Scottish Rite-trace their origin to these fugitive knights. From the Freemasons came the magical lodges of the 19th century, and hence the Thule Society.
So when Otto Rahn went traipsing about the French countryside, looking for the Holy Grail, he had a long history of occultists with him. Curiously, he died while climbing in the Alps on March 13, 1939, six-an-a-half months before the start of World War II. Some wonder if he had taken his fascination with the Cathars so far as to commit suicide before what he saw was the coming tragedy of war.
Rahn wasn't the only one interested in the Grail. Hitler was also quite influenced by the Grail legend, as derived from his love of Wagner, as he is quoted below:
You ought to understand Parzival differently from the way it is generally interpreted. ...It is not a Christian, Schopenhauerian religion of compassion, but the pure and aristocratic blood that is glorified. To guard and glorify this is a task for which the brotherhood of initiates has gathered itself together. There the king suffers the incurable sickness of corrupted blood. ...We, all of us, suffer from that sickness of contaminated mixed blood. How can we purify ourselves and atone? ...How is one to stop racial decay? Politically we have acted: no equality no democracy. But what about the masses of the people? Should one let them go their way, or should one stop them? Should we form an elect group of real initiates? An order, the fraternity of templars around the Grail of pure blood? (Whitmont 162-163).
These "templars" would become the Ordensburgen of the SS. Heinrich Himmler, founder of the SS, was not only a student of the occult and member of Thule, but a fanatic of Arthurian legend:
"In 1934 Himmler selected a cliff top castle in Westphalia to serve as the SS high temple. Known as Wewelsburg, the seventeenth century castle cost more than three million dollars to renovate, even though the labour was extracted free from concentration camp inmates. The sanctum included a 12,000 volume library of Aryan lore and a large dining hall with a King Arthur like round table for Himmler and twelve trusted lieutenants. Reportedly, each knight of Himmler's round table received a coat of arms. At the man's death, his emblem was to be incinerated in a pit in the Supreme Leaders' Hall and the ashes placed in an urn atop one of twelve pedestals there. The castle at Wewelsburg served as both a retreat for Himmler and as a centre for racial research" (Arnott para 10-12).
That Leaders Hall was intended to hold not only ashes, but the Holy Grail itself, once Otto Rahn found it ("Otto Rahn" para 13). To some, like Himmler, the Grail was a real object, not just the symbol of pure blood, which it was to Hilter. Of course, the finding of a real, physical Grail never came to be, but it shows the extent to which the Nazis were willing to believe in the myth. According to one website, however, "There was a Grail in Wewelsburg but it was just a huge rock crystal" ("Otto Rahn para 27). Curiously, this corresponds to von Eschenbach's idea that the Grail is a stone, not a cup or platter.
Mixing Memory and Desire: Seven