Historian Eric Kurlander spoke to Slate.com’s Rebecca Onion about his book, Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, and how German Nazis’ belief in the paranormal is echoed in President Donald Trump’s fervently devoted followers of 2017.
The Nazis under Hitler embraced what Kurlander calls “border science,” which operates on the fringes of real science, but under a “faith-based epistemology” that believes magic and miracles underlie scientific facts. It differs from pseudoscience in that pseudoscience tries to operate within the strictures of established science — and usually fails.
An example of border scientific thinking is what is known as “World Ice Theory,” which maintains that all of the cosmos was created by the collision of two stars, which threw off icy moons and planets.
As Onion noted, the theory “happened to align with ideas from Nordic mythology, so it got a lot of support from the Nazis.”
Kurlander said that in the wake of World War I, border thinking “was wildly popular among völkisch and esoterically inclined thinkers, like engineers, who didn’t quite understand modern physics but understood enough technical jargon to kind of glom onto the ideas and argue that they were valid as an alternative to ‘Jewish physics.’”
German Nazis embraced these myths and falsehoods about themselves because they were pleasing to their idea of Germany and Germanic culture as inspired and especially adored by God. They also embraced the idea of “root races” and superior classes of human beings. The Aryan races was purportedly bless by God and handed the responsibility of dominating and eliminating their inferiors.
Trump followers’ American exceptionalism and the belief that the United States were blessed by God to rule over the world doesn’t differ terribly from this Nazi ideology — extreme nationalism unchecked by facts or science.
Trump has requisitioned millions of dollars in federal funds to prove things that aren’t true, like his formulation of a “vote fraud” commission to investigate the 3 million or so “illegal” voters that Trump believes cost him the popular vote.
Kurlander said, “In the 1930s Hitler and [Heinrich] Himmler gave an honorary doctoral title to the living co-progenitor of World Ice Theory, or ‘Glacial Cosmogony’ as they called it, Philip Fauth. They put him and Hans Robert Scultetus, who was trained as a meteorologist, in charge of a World Ice Division in ’35 or ’36 within the Ahnenerbe, Himmler’s giant Institute for Ancestral Research. The sole purpose of the division was to coordinate and propagate World Ice Theory as official Nazi doctrine.”
Furthermore, the entire “master race” myth, explained Kurlander, “was founded at least as much on ideas drawn from Indo-Aryan religion, Nordic mythology and occult or border-scientific doctrines as it was on modern biology or eugenics.”
Onion asked, “One of the things that makes liberals, lefties, centrists feel so frustrated in encountering an administration that is anti-reality, is the feeling that nothing you will say can make a difference.”
Kurlander said that in reaching out to people who have rejected reason in favor of their feelings and accepted them as fact as to be careful not to fully demonize them and dismiss everything they believe as nonsense.
You will gain credibility with those people, he said, through “not exaggerating or demonizing certain things that are really legitimate points of view, even if you disagree with them, and then being careful to explain your terms when you want to identify fascist, or racist, or supernaturalist thinking.”