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06/12/2013 12:28 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2013

Himmler's Nazi Rituals: The Secret History Of The Spirit World (EXCERPT)

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Excerpt from WHISPERERS: The Secret History of The Spirit World © 2013 by J. H. Brennan. Published by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers Inc., New York, NY. www.overlookpress.com Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

On July 2, 1936, a coterie of high-ranking Nazis, including the national Labor Front leader Robert Ley and Deputy Führer Martin Bormann, descended on the central German city of Quedlinburg as guests of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. They found the streets newly swept and houses freshly painted. Nazi banners hung from the rooftops, and walls along the major thoroughfares were decked with garlands.

The group was greeted by the local chapter of Hitler Youth ranked three abreast with flags hanging from long poles. Accompanying them with lively marching tunes was an SS band. Ranks of steel-helmeted, black-uniformed SS troopers lined their route as Himmler himself led the party through winding cobbled streets to the city’s Castle Hill. The occasion was the one thousandth anniversary of the death of Heinrich the Fowler (876–936 CE), the medieval king who founded the Ottonian dynasty and pushed the Slavic tribes across the River Elbe to establish new boundaries for his budding empire. To the Nazis, he was the most Germanic of all the ancient German kings. For Himmler, there was a more personal interest.

The Reichsführer and his party stopped briefly to admire the city’s magnificent castle, then moved on to their ultimate destination, the medieval Quedlinburg Cathedral. There, in the colonnaded crypt beneath the nave, Himmler laid a wreath on the empty tomb of King Heinrich, praised his courage, and vowed to continue his mission in the east.

To historians, the ceremony at Quedlinburg reflected Himmler’s passion for history and hopes to rebuild Germany in an heroic image, but there seems to have been more to it than that. A year after the wreath-laying, he had the bones of King Heinrich carried into the cathedral in solemn procession to be reinterred in the original tomb.

This was, he announced, a sacred site to which Germans might now make pilgrimage. Another year later, he ordered the cathedral shut to Christian worship and proceeded to turn it into a sort of SS shrine. Himmler was known for his desire to replace Christianity with a more thoroughbred Aryan religion, reviving old German gods like Wotan.

Quedlinburg seems to have been the focus for this ambition. From 1938 to the arrival of American troops in 1945, the cathedral functioned as a mystical Teutonic sanctuary where Christian ritual was abandoned in favor of torch-lit SS ceremonials. In at least one of these, so author Lynn Nicholas assures us, spectators were treated to the apparently magical appearance of the Reichsführer-SS himself . . . through a secret compartment specially built in the church floor.

From a twenty-first-century viewpoint, it all seems rather silly, but in 1972, while researching my own book on the esoteric beliefs and practices of Nazi Germany, I stumbled on an arresting suggestion that changed the whole complexion of these curious antics. Himmler, it seemed, had not confined himself to conjuring tricks. There were intimations that he had held midnight séances in the cathedral crypt designed to put him in contact with the spirit of Heinrich the Fowler, from whom he sought political advice.

I found this revelation chilling. Himmler was not only Reichsführer of the SS but head of the Gestapo — Nazi Germany’s infamous secret police — and the official ultimately responsible for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem,” a program of industrialized murder that resulted in some six million deaths. Was it possible that such a man had based his decisions on the whisperings of a spirit? What struck me as the horror of the situation was its mind-numbing irrationality. This was not a question of whether spirits existed but of Himmler’s perception of them. Had millions died because one silly little man believed he could talk to ghosts?

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