The Ahnenerbe - 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

The Ahnenerbe
Runology in the Age of the Third Reich

The official designation of this office was originally the Studiengesellschaft für Geistesgeschichte “Deutsches Ahnenerbe” (Society for the Study of Humanities “German Ancestral Heritage”). It was a quasi-independent department, more akin to a think tank, which operated within the SS. The scientific purview of the Ahnenerbe encompassed all of what we call the humanities (including history, folklore, religious studies, symbology, musicology, etc.) as well as racial and ecological studies. In postwar sensationalistic literature it has been falsely referred to as the “occult bureau.” The history and wide scope of this organization is substantially outlined in Michael Kater’s 1974 book (second edition, 1997), while the runological dimension is delineated in Ulrich Hunger’s Die Runenkunde im Dritten Reich (1984, 171—289). In general, it appears that Himmler’s vision was a broad one that included many mysterious areas of interest—and ones that also interested lay-investigators of dubious qualifications. Himmler recruited these latter types, but he planned to replace them once qualified academics could be developed to investigate these areas more scientifically and reliably. Men such as Wiligut clearly fell into this unscientific category. Some of the older spirit of the Listian enthusiasm for the supposed runic aspects of heraldry could be found in work done by Karl Konrad Ruppel for the Ahnenerbe, such as Die Hausmarke, das Symbol der germanischen Sippe (The House-Mark, the Symbol of the Germanic Clan) in 1939. Franz Altheim, who was primarily a classicist, also wrote Vom Ursprung der Runen (On the Origin of the Runes) for the Ahnenerbe in 1939, a work that bolstered the theory of a North Etruscan origin for the runes.


Figure 8.1. The quasi-runic colophon of the Ahnenerbe

Of course, the leading force behind the Ahnenerbe was Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. He was someone whose talents lay in the fields of organization and management rather than original creativity or research. He apparently applied the same organizational skills to ancestral research as he did to mass murder. Himmler was primarily a political activist, but he also had deep and longstanding interests in alternative philosophies and sciences. He was active in the Artamanen Gesellschaft (Artaman League), founded by Willibald Hentschel, which advocated the colonization of territory through the settlement of polygamous agrarian communities, as outlined in Hentschel’s book Mittgart (1904). The Artamanen Gesellschaft was later absorbed into the Hitler Youth of the NSDAP in 1934.

The most conspicuous example of runic esotericism to be found within the official operations of the Nazi Party itself is found in the case of Karl Maria Wiligut, already outlined above. His case is very unique in that he is clearly a representative of the earlier twentieth-century school of visionary or poetic interpretation of the runic (or pseudorunic) “tradition” who serendipitously found his way into official circles.

Although the Nazis never developed an official and established system of National Socialist runology, many uses of the runes are to be found in official documents and publications.

The Sig-rune was seen as the rune of victory (Ger. Sieg), the Tyr- rune was the rune of the struggle (Ger. Kampf), the Othil-rune was the symbol of blood and soil, and the Hagal-rune was that of salvation (and/or racial purity). The name of the s-rune (ᛋ) actually means “sun,” but because of the spelling of the Old English rune-name (sigel, pron. [SEE-yell]) the association between the German word Sieg (victory) and this rune was made long before the Nazis.


Fig. 8.2. Design of the runic death’s head ring by Wiligut

Wiligut explained the meaning of the symbols on the Totenkopfring of the SS in a manuscript (see Hunger 1984, 149—51) as follows:

ᛋᛋ = “The creative spirit must be victorious.”

Image = “Man, be one with God, with the Eternal.”

ᚼ = “Enclose the All in yourself and you will command the All.”

ᛋᛋ + t/a = [victory] tyr = os = “Be guileless, brave and true.” “The power of your spirit makes you free.”

In his article “Unsere Stellung zu den Runen” (Our Attitude toward the Runes), Karl Theodor Weigel applied the following meanings to certain runes.

ᛋᛋ = In the meaning of victorious power.

ᚼ = “For the protection of the wearer against an enemy.”

ᛋᛋ [misinterpreted as a single rune, gibor] = “victorious power of the personality.”

ᛏ/f = ᛏ = Preparedness for self-sacrifice unto death + f = well-being, riches. (Weigel 1936, 57)

Among the most popular conclusions reached within the National Socialist understanding of the runes was that they were primarily to be connected with prehistoric ideograms. This idea is rooted in the work of Herman Wirth as outlined in his monumental 1931 to 1936 Die heilige Urschrift der Menschheit (The Holy Primordial Script of Mankind). Wirth was among the founders of the Ahnenerbe in 1935 and headed that organization until 1938, when he was forced out due to his unorthodox beliefs—as far as the National Socialist ideology was concerned—regarding ancient Germanic matriarchy and pacifism. Wirth’s methodology had the underlying rationale and function of opening his line of reasoning to a widely comparative approach focused on the physical shapes of the symbols. This allowed him to reach conclusions relatively free of the constraints of rigorous rules of philology.

This allowed for a freer range of ideas to be applied to the symbols. Wirth’s influence was not entirely responsible for the interest of both Arntz and Krause in the concept of Begriffsrunen (the use of individual runes to stand for the meaning of their names or for related formulaic words), though such an interpretation certainly became highly regarded during these times. The idea of runes as ideograms standing for their names is an undeniable part of scientific runology; however, the idea that they are based on older, pre-runic ideograms of rather subjective value is a different matter.

From the standpoint of the use of runes for purposes of what might be called overt propaganda, or simply the branding of NS programs and concepts, the runes constituted a ready-made set of symbols that were both meaningful and attractive to the eye. Some of the most common runic symbols used during the Nazi era were:

ᛋᛋ Schutzstaffel (Protection Division)

ᛏ = Hitler-Jugend leadership badge

ᛉ = Life

ᛣ = Death (origin of the Peace Sign; see appendix)

ᛟ = Homeland

ᚼ = Lebensborn

The Lebensborn (Life’s Wellspring) was an SS program designed to raise the birthrate of Aryan children. Unwed motherhood was encouraged through sexual liaisons with SS-men, and babies were supplied to SS families for adoption.

Here are a number of other runic explanations from Fritz Weitzel’s 1939 small tract Die Gestaltung der Feste im Jahres- und Lebenslauf in der ᛋᛋ-Familie (The Planning of Ceremonies in the Course of the Year and of Life in the SS Family):

ᚼ Hagal-rune means: “The All-surrounding.” Hagal (Germanic) literally means “I destroy.” Through the destruction of the enemy, all- surrounding peace is ensured.

ᛋ Sig-rune means “Victorious sun” and signifies the indwelling strength that assures victory. “The two Sig-runes on the banners of the ᛋᛋ express the old formula ’sig und sal,’ which is the salvation that lies implicitly in the certainty of the sun’s victory.” (K. Th. Weigel)

Image Gibor-rune is made up from the Sig-rune and the Is-rune. It is therefore a combined rune. The Is (ice)-rune is the north—south line of the circle of the year and symbolizes “life”; in human terms: the living personality. The Gibor-rune therefore stands for the victoryassuring strength of the personality.

ᛏ Tyr-rune: It symbolizes the Germanic god of war, Tyr (= Ziu = Zeus) and signifies preparedness to sacrifice oneself unto death for the redemption of honor.

ᚠ Fa-(Fe-)-rune: “Fe” is contained in the Germanic word feod = farm animals. It symbolizes all movable farming goods, livestock, wealth. The Fa- and Tyr-runes together mean: self-sacrifice unto death, despite any cherished material goods.

ᛉ Man-rune: With its up-stretched arms, it shows the birth of a living creature. (Cf. the heraldic symbol of the Lily.)

ᛣ Yr-rune: With its downward-pointing arms, it indicates the death of a creature. Man- and Yr-runes are taken from the six-spoked wheel of the year. (Cf. the Is- and Hagal-runes.)

ᛝ Ing-rune: Ing means “to be born,” “to stem from,” and can still be found in this meaning as a suffix to hundreds of words in today’s German language. The rune shows the interconnection of two life- bearers and is therefore used as a wedding-rune.

Image Odal-rune: Odal or Alod is the Germanic word for the allodium of the clan. It also stands for this meaning. It encompasses everything that we understand in the concepts allodium, soil, homeland. (Weitzel 1939, 41—43)

Obviously, many of these interpretations will rightly strike the scientific runologist as fanciful and subjective. The Nazi rune-symbolists were not concerned with accuracy but rather only effectiveness in their efforts to convey subtle messages to the viewer. The runes and various runelike symbols became iconic slogans that spoke directly to the unconscious minds of the individuals viewing them. It is also clear that the meanings of the runes and runic symbolism varied among National Socialist writers and that there was no overriding orthodoxy with regard to runic symbolism.

By the same token, it can also be seen that the esoteric use of the runes by the Nazis was far more sophisticated and subtle than most people normally think, but it was also of a distinctive nature. The main use of runes did not involve sitting around casting runic spells, doing runic yoga, or chanting runic mantras in any organized way. The spell was a much larger operation. It was virtually identical to what we call “branding” in the advertising world today. Runes and runelike aesthetics were used to attract an already Germanophilic population to the cause and repel those who were not attuned to this aesthetic. The symbol of the swastika (Ger. Hakenkreuz), which the National Socialist Movement adopted at the suggestion of Hitler himself in 1920, became its chief logo. Certain circles, cells, or offices within organizations such as the Ahnenerbe may or may not have explored the esoteric side of the runes further. But if they did it was most likely just a holdover from their previous interests in such things stemming from their younger days.

The role of the Nazis in the Germanic revival and the revival of the runes was often a damaging one. These things were evolving naturally and broadly in Germany in the early twentieth century. They were highjacked by the National Socialist ideology (with its preconceived and often erroneous doctrines about race, religion, myth, and history) and many enthusiasts of the Germanic revival were co-opted by this political wave, although not all of them were accepted or promoted (as we have seen in the examples of figures like F. B. Marby and Heinar Schilling). Certainly, opponents of the legitimate and independent Germanic and runic revival have enthusiastically attempted to use the black mark of Nazism to stain our cause in more recent years as well. The only positive way forward is through understanding the real truth of these matters in context.