Runology in Germany - Runology in the Age of the Third Reich

Revival of the Runes: The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes - Stephen E. Flowers Ph.D. 2021

Runology in Germany
Runology in the Age of the Third Reich


It would be a huge error to assume that all runology pursued in the time of the National Socialist regime in Germany was somehow “Nazi runology.” There was something—or there were some things—that might be characterized as National Socialist runology, as we shall see, but it bears little resemblance to what most sensationalists would have us believe. For example, speculation has run wild over the supposed connections between the runic occultism and National Socialism. This speculation comes from those who are fearful of it, as well as from those who actually promote the idea. When dealing with the possibilities residing in the world of occult/esoteric orders and groups, and the people who formed them, there is an inherent difficulty in sorting out fact from fiction, history from propaganda.

The best sources for becoming familiar with the general context of these ideas are The Occult Roots of Nazism by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (1985) and The Secret King by Flowers and Moynihan (2007). The former book is comprehensive but a bit tainted by its own Marxist roots, while the latter book is specifically focused on the person and writings of Karl Maria Wiligut and also contains an introductory section that provides a critical overview of the idea of “Nazi occultism.” When attempting to analyze the phenomenon of Nazi occultism, it is useful to understand that the generation of men responsible for National Socialism in Germany was by and large a product of the broad Neo- Romantic cultural Reformbewegung (Reform Movement), which, as we have noted, began as early as 1880. For this movement—which was also the deep-root of what we call the Green Movement today—the ideas of indigenous qualities and features of culture, land, flora and fauna, and so forth were consistently evaluated as superior to those imported from the outside—simply because they were indigenous. Things from the outside were seen in terms of being “invasive species.” Such ideas extended themselves to the runes, as these were seen as the indigenous Germanic way of writing.

With regard to the whole study of the Nazis and the occult, a great deal of misinformation and sensationalism, as well as obsessive interpretations, have been pumped out over the years. I try to present a comprehensive view of this topic in my forthcoming detailed study of the subject of Nazi occultism, which will appear sometime after 2021. In The Secret King we offered a first glimpse of a rational approach to the study of this topic. The key to understanding the history of these ideas is to recognize that the facts, history, myths, and legends actually stem from quite disparate sources: (1) the prehistory of ideas that formed a basis for National Socialist ideology; (2) actual contemporaneous activity with within Nazi Germany; (3) contemporaneous anti-German propaganda; (4) postwar pro-Nazi interpretations, often fantastical in tone; and (5) postwar anti- Nazi interpretations, often likewise fantastical in tone.

These sources, and how they intermingle with one another in the popular imagination of today, make for some fairly sensationalistic mythologizing. The runes have sometimes been caught up in this intellectual tangle.

Strictly within the confines of documented Third Reich history, runology can be seen as a complex topic. It basically existed on three different levels: (1) the purely academic-scientific, (2) the lay-scientific, and (3) the esoteric.

When considering the involvement of the Nazis with matters of esoteric or alternative interpretations of history and symbolism, it is always valuable to keep in mind that the generation of 1914 (those old enough to have fought in the Great War) grew up amid the cultural current of the Life-Reform Movement, which was also a time marked by certain popular ideas about Germanentum (“Germanicness,” loosely translated) and runes.

Certainly, runological scholars involved in academic studies at universities, such as Wolfgang Krause, received more attention than ever before, but they were largely left unencumbered by politics to pursue their scientific ends. This fact shows that on one level the Nazis realized these studies had some validity. However, the Party also virtually installed men who had formerly been what we might call lay investigators (self-appointed, self-taught, experts who were without academic credentials) in academic posts. A detailed history of this phase of the work of the infamous Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) office of the SS and of the Institut für Runenforschung (Institute for Runic Research) are to be found in Ulrich Hunger’s 1984 dissertation Die Runenkunde im Dritten Reich (Runology in the Third Reich). The third, or esoteric, level of study appears to have been restricted and highly sensitive, even within the confines of Party politics, and therefore quite secret.

During the period of the National Socialist regime in Germany there was certainly a great proliferation of written works, many of them by leading scholars, designed to popularize awareness of the runes and runic history. These included Wolfgang Krause’s 1935 Was man in Runen ritzte (What Was Carved in Runes), Helmut Arntz’s 1938 Die Runenschrift (Runic Writing), Wilhelm Weber’s 1941 Kleine Runenkunde (A Brief Runology), Schilling’s 1937 Kleine Runenkunde (A Brief Runology), and Konstantin Reichhardt’s 1936 Runenkunde (Runology). Notable about these works is that they have no excessive esoteric dimensions but usually do not deny the spiritual dimension of the runes, either.

One of the most significant and general misunderstandings of runology in the period of the Third Reich is the claim that it essentially represents a direct continuation of the esoteric school of thought founded by Guido von List. To be sure, List instilled in a whole generation a newfound enthusiasm for the secrets of the runes, but an actual examination of all materials developed just prior to and during the time of the Nazi regime in Germany shows that the Armanen tradition of List was influential but not determinative. Nazi runology is not the same as Listian runology, either in aim or form. As a general assessment, I think it would be fair to say that List’s ideas and methods were far too mystical to be suited to the kind of ideas being pursued by National Socialism as a political movement. By the same token, however, a number of List’s ideas and terms did find their way into the jargon of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), albeit in a rather piecemeal way (Lenthe 2018, 222—38).

The runes constitute a cultural feature that was treated on two distinctly different levels during the time of the Third Reich: (1) for public consumption and for purposes of education in the ideology of the movement and (2) as a private, inner, pursuit of the elite of the Party, such as the SS under Heinrich Himmler.

Actual magical or esoteric applications of the runes and rune magic as such seems to have been a minor obsession of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. For a time, his chief adviser in this pursuit was the mysterious Karl Maria Wiligut (1866—1946). Wiligut also wrote under the names Jarl Widar, Weisthor, and Lobesam.

But who was this Wiligut, and where did he come from? This information was obscured at the time and intentionally so. Following his retirement from the Austrian army in 1919, he was a participant in esoteric runic circles in Germany and Austria. But Wiligut’s career in the world of mysticism had started much earlier with the publication of his book titled Seyfrids Runen (1903), which appears to have been influenced by the earlier writings of Guido von List. He started his own esoteric study circle in Salzburg in the first years of the 1920s. His unorthodox teachings, coupled with marital problems, resulted in him being involuntarily committed to a mental institution from 1924 to 1927. After his release, he went to Munich, where one of his students was Richard Anders, a member of the SS who introduced Wiligut to Heinrich Himmler. Wiligut himself was inducted into the SS in 1933, and he became an adviser to Himmler on matters relating to runic symbolism, ritual, and esoteric history. For the next six years Wiligut was Himmler’s mentor concerning these areas, and he designed the “death’s head” ring (Totenkopfring) of the SS. But he was also an influence for the suppression of rival runic esotericists, such as Siegfried Kummer and Friedrich Marby, as well as for the protection of the members of the Edda Gesellschaft (Edda Society), a study group founded by Rudolf Gorsleben and with which Wiligut was affiliated.*9 Wiligut’s past caught up with him when Karl Wolff, chief of Himmler’s personal staff, made others aware of Wiligut’s record with regard to mental illness. The old man had to leave Himmler’s service. The story of Wiligut and translations of his esoteric work are all contained in the aforementioned book The Secret King.

The most systematic presentation of anything that approaches a coherent runology by Wiligut was published in his 1934 article “Whispering of Gotos—Rune Knowledge.” This appeared in Hagal 11 and is translated in the pages of The Secret King (Flowers and Moynihan 2007, 92—94). Wiligut reveals a decidedly hieroglyphic approach to the runes, which emphasizes the idea that they represent a development of natural and metaphysical forces in an evolutionary pattern of unfoldment. It is evident here that Wiligut was greatly influenced by the runology of Guido von List but had his own unique interpretation of the organization of the runic symbols.

Obviously, as we have learned over the course of this book, the Nazis did not invent interest in the runes. This had been growing of its own accord for centuries. They did, however, exploit the already existing popularity of runic signs and designs among a certain segment of the German population, and they did so for propagandistic purposes. It must be acknowledged that the Nazis themselves were also to a great extent the products of the general cultural atmosphere of the earlier part of the twentieth century when runes had reached a high level of popularity in the hands of rune-esotericists such as Guido von List and many others.

This popularity of runes, especially in the area of general interest and quasi-academic presentations, enjoyed a great upswing in the early years of the Nazi regime. The three levels of interest in runes—the academic, lay-academic, and popular/esoteric—were all well represented during this period. The most influential academic figures of the time were Helmut Arntz (in Giessen) and Wolfgang Krause (in Göttingen). For the most part the studies completed by these academic figures still hold up in the light of scientific scrutiny today, and both remain respected figures in the history of runology. Arntz suffered significant setbacks in his career during these years as it was suspected that he was an Achteljude (one-eighth Jewish); in other words, one of his great-grandparents was Jewish. Krause headed the Institut für Runenforschung (Institute for Runic Research) at the University of Göttingen and was himself actually inducted into the Ahnenerbe early in 1943 (Hunger 1984, 224), but his membership was entirely within his role as a scholar. Both Krause and Arntz were open-minded as to the possible magico-mythic significance of runes and runic inscriptions, and both emphasized the idea that the individual runes conveyed (through the power of their names) mythic or ideographic content.

The National Socialists made sweeping and sudden changes to the structures of all cultural institutions, and the universities were no exception. Academic departments were politicized and “purified” racially: Jewish professors were expelled, and often in their place were appointed lay enthusiasts, marked more by their ideological fervor than their academic qualifications. Among these were men such as Karl Theodor Weigel (SS-Hauptsturmbannführer), who headed the Lehr-und Forschungsstätte für Runenund Sinnbildkunde (Instructional and Research Institute for Runology and Symbology). Weigel had no higher academic degree, but he was a dedicated lay-folklorist who collected images of medieval folk art supposedly connected with the ancient Germanic past. The collection of his images (drawings and photographs) is still housed at the University of Göttingen as the Weigel-Archiv im Seminar für Volkskunde (Weigel Archive in the Department for Folklore).

The politicizing of science is a trend and drift that is in no way unique to the Nazis. The same phenomenon, albeit with a different orientation, was at work in Soviet Russia: Stalin and certain Soviet linguists tried to implement the systematic instrumentalization of everything, and language was a key component. Similar tendencies can even be discerned in today’s Western academic world, which has also become an environment obsessed with political outcomes and matters of race, ethnicity, and biological identity—although in a manner entirely inverse to the aims of National Socialism. Stalin’s admirers in the Anglo-American academy used these ideas in the past, and we can see them being used today in our politics (and in our universities). Language is used to frame political realities and define the debates by defining (or redefining) the words and phrases used in those debates.


Groups dedicated to the pursuit of the esoteric qualities of the runes were actually severely curtailed during the Nazi regime. Publications by members of these circles also became rare. There were two kinds of runic esotericism: that which was approved by the government and that which was rejected by officials. Independently minded men such as Marby and Kummer fell into the latter category. Things that were tinged with the overtly magical were the most singled out for disapproval—apparently on the theory that they were dangerous to the order and direction of the collectivist philosophy and agenda of the Party. Widespread magical and mystical ideas only encourage individualized experience and subjective understandings, both of which were antithetical to the program of the Party.

The serious advocates of totalitarian philosophies tend to encourage wild and subjective approaches to reality in years prior to their actual assumption of absolute control, as such trends are useful in creating cultural chaos, which makes the host culture weak and full of self-doubt. Then, when absolute power is obtained, such features are systematically bought under ideological control or eliminated. The same process occurred in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, where all sorts of avantgarde ideas were supported in the years of Lenin, only to be crushed under Stalin. These trends can be seen as a sobering warning from history.

Runes were generally popular in Germany during the Nazi era. An example of one of the popularizers was Heinar Schilling (1894—1955), who constitutes an interesting case study for the period. Schilling began his writing career in 1908. All in all, his output would equal approximately one hundred works. He served in the First World War and was later sympathetic toward pacifistic ideas in Expressionistic circles in Dresden. He was a friend of the artist Otto Dix, who painted a portrait of Schilling. Politically, he was involved in socialistic and even communistic ideas at that time. But from 1920 onward he drifted away from this political sphere and in the direction of nationalistic ideology. He began writing in earnest about ancient Germanic history and culture beginning in 1922. By 1930 he had gravitated toward the National Socialist movement, but he did not formally join the Party until after Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933. He wrote a column for the SS magazine Das Schwarze Korps. Interestingly, Schilling rejected Nazi racist ideology! He was eventually sentenced to a prison term for intellectual sabotage. His main offense was his support for the idea of monarchy. He was stripped of his membership in the Party in 1942 but also given the title of “professor” for his work on German prehistory. After the war, as his property was in the Soviet occupation zone, his real estate was seized and his archive was plundered. He escaped to the West and lived out his days as a librarian at the Glücksburg palace in Schleswig-Holstein. One of Schilling’s most obvious contributions to the popularization of runes is his 1937 work Kleine Runenkunde. An introductory paragraph from his seventy-seven—page book is representative of the general tenor of this kind of literature of the time.

Rune—the word alone, through its similarity of sound with the anciently related “rown” (whisper), fills us with trembling feelings of awe and mystery. Yet these were the austere letters of our own fore- fathers, with their strict signs so characteristically corresponding to the temperament of Nordic man that made up the script used by the Germanic folk before we adopted the Judeo-classical culture. These truly original “letters”—for our German word Buchstabe (letter) also originates from the time when the runes were being used, since according to holy practice, the individual signs were carved onto staves of beech (Ger. Buche) wood—and the not all too numerous inscriptions in this alphabet are therefore the oldest evidence for our own particular form of writing. Therefore, it is more necessary than ever before not to remain ignorant of these mysterious signs, especially since they belong to the most valuable and authentic inheritance of our race.

This book was originally intended as a sort of official runology of the Ahnenerbe, but it was ultimately rejected for this role because Schilling’s views regarding the runes did not correspond exactly with those of Himmler (Kater 1997, 72).