I have a power in my soul which is ever receptive to God. I am as certain [of that] as that I am a man, that nothing is so close to me as God. God is closer to me than I am to myself: my being depends on God’s being near me and present to me. — Meister Eckhart (circa 1260-1328)
The scenario is bleak: Consumerism and materialism dominate all aspects of social life. Older people look with alarm at the crumbling of civic and religious institutions. Young people view the future with a sense of foreboding. Politicians appear self-interested, religious leaders hypocritical, business people ever more corrupt. Violence is escalating at home and abroad, with no ready solution in sight. Alienation and disorientation are pervasive.
Whatever similarities we may find in our contemporary predicament, the society I’m describing is 14th-century Germany. As in 21st-century America, many people of the time, feeling battered by the world around them, sought spiritual wisdom and a more profound connection to the divine. In the early 1300s, this meant that a large number of practicing Christians, laypeople and clerics alike, were searching for a more direct and satisfying experience of God’s presence than what they found in familiar institutional practices.
The potential chaos embodied in these grassroots, subjective movements alarmed some Church leaders. From his seat in Avignon, Pope John XXII, while mostly concerned with matters of state, sought to rein in both the “radical” Franciscans, who preached the importance of apostolic poverty, and the women known as beguines, who formed what we would today call intentional religious communities — groups of spiritually likeminded laypeople, rather than members of a formal religious order, who lived and prayed together.
In the midst of this tumult, many Christian seekers in the Rhineland of what is today western Germany found life-altering wisdom in the preaching of a Dominican friar, Eckhart von Hochheim, better known as Meister (“Master”) Eckhart. An acclaimed scholar trained at the University of Paris, Meister Eckhart sought to bring the fruits of his many years of theological and philosophical study and contemplation to lay audiences — an unusual aspiration among priest-scholars, who typically considered such matters beyond the comprehension of average people.
Even more revolutionary was Eckhart’s message. Unlike most preachers of the day, who focused on sin and eternal punishment, he described a process he called “the divine birth,” in which true believers could experience God directly within them. The key lay in letting go of all worldly things, all desires and preconceptions — even one’s image of God himself: “The more completely you are able to draw in your powers to a unity and forget all those things and their images which you have absorbed, and the further you can get from creatures and their images, the nearer you are to this [divine birth] and the readier to receive it.”
Then, he said — “in the midst of silence” — God would come within the soul.
Meister Eckhart’s way to “know” God directly was shaped by two central insights, the products of many years of study and contemplation. The first was that the seeker must “unknow” everything he or she thinks about God. Human language and images are essentially metaphorical, comparing things to one another. But God is completely other. Obviously he is not an old man with a flowing white beard (or even a “he”), but he is also not a being in the sense that we normally mean. It is more accurate, according to Eckhart, to say that God is Being itself, since all existence derives from him. “We should learn not to give God any name . . . for God is above names and ineffable.” In fact, Eckhart warns, “if you think of anything he might be, he is not that.” This deconstruction of images of God, in which we come closer to knowing the ineffable divine by negative attributions — God does not exist in time or space, for instance — than by positive attributions, is known as negative theology, a tradition dating back to St. Augustine.
“We are the cause of all our hindrances. Guard yourself against yourself, then you will have guarded well.” — Meister Eckhart
God’s “unknowability” in word and image was a hard concession for a professional scholar who had invested himself in coming to know God through a rigorous probing of Scripture and Catholic tradition. But the more that Eckhart had tried to approach God rationally, the more frustrated he had become. Instead he came upon a second key insight: One could “know” God through direct experience. Later scholars would call such an approach “mystical,” but a more accurate and less loaded term for what Eckhart meant would be “intuitive”: Rather than trying to know God from the outside, through our senses and intellect, we should try to know him from the inside, from that divine presence already within each of us.
Eckhart called this presence “the divine spark.” He preached that, through a contemplative process of self-emptying, or “letting-go-ness,” the seeker will directly encounter the God within. Only with the death of the old and false self, in theological terms, could the new and true self be born.
The concept traces to St. Paul, who directed Christians to “put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” In Eckhart’s interpretation, the resulting “divine birth” represented no mere metaphor but a direct encounter of the individual soul with the divine. The best news was that God was eager to fully embrace the seeker: “You need not seek him here or there,” he wrote. “He is no further than the door of your heart; there he stands patiently awaiting whoever is ready to open up and let him in. No need to call him from afar: He can hardly wait for you to open up. He longs for you a thousand times more than you long for him.”
Eckhart’s message both excited and unnerved the Christians of his day. Although he never denigrated the external forms of piety around him — he was an active priest — his focus on the internal, on contemplation, was highly unusual, even unsettling to many lay listeners. The Church they knew preached that each person’s salvation depended on the performance of good works and acts of contrition, yet these were absent from Eckhart’s teaching. The Church they knew revolved around the veneration of saints and the celebration of sacraments, yet these played no apparent role in the internal self-transcendence Eckhart described. The Church they knew esteemed monks, nuns and other contemplatives as closer to God than the layperson, yet Eckhart preached that direct experience of God was accessible to any true seeker, regardless of social or religious status.
It is a testament to the truly “catholic” nature of medieval Christianity that what Eckhart called “a wayless way” to divine union — and subsequent commentators would call apophatic or imageless mysticism — coexisted peacefully with Eucharistic devotions, pilgrimages and penitential self-flagellation. Not until late in his life did Eckhart become caught up in an inquisitorial procedure, based largely on local politics, that culminated in several of his statements being condemned in a papal bull as “evil-sounding.” After eliminating these more controversial statements, his disciples Johannes Tauler and Blessed Heinrich Suso continued to attract followers after the master’s death in the late 1320s. Still, after several decades the master himself faded into obscurity.
Fast forward seven centuries and the medieval Dominican friar has emerged as something of a modern spiritual celebrity. Millions of Roman Catholics and other Christians now claim Meister Eckhart as one of their own, not to mention many Zen Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, Advaita Vedanta Hindus, Jewish Cabalists and a variety of other seekers who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In the United States, interest in Eckhart owes much to the popularity of his namesake, Eckhart (born Ulrich) Tolle, a spiritual teacher and author whose beliefs weave together the medieval master’s teachings with an eclectic blend of contemporary Eastern and New Age concepts. Thanks in part to the massively influential endorsement of A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Oprah’s Book Club, the modern Eckhart’s books have together been translated into more than 30 languages and sold some 10 million copies worldwide.
What is it that all these people see in the words of this sage from a distant era? The most common denominator appears to be an attraction to Eckhart’s revolutionary method of direct access to God (or, for some, to ultimate reality) — a profoundly subjective approach that is at once intuitive and pragmatic, philosophical yet non-rational, and above all, universally accessible. Many modern Christian authors, such as the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr — who calls Eckhart a “mystic’s mystic” — view his teachings as part of a long Christian contemplative tradition.
“Where is this hidden God? It is just as if a man were to hide himself and then to give himself away by clearing his throat. God has done the same. No man could ever have found God, but he has revealed his presence.” — Meister Eckhart
Despite that noble pedigree, Meister Eckhart was late to gain notice among modern Christians. His attractiveness to many contemporary Catholics ironically owes much to the post-Vatican II Church’s intensified engagement with other world religions. The Council’s 1965 declaration Nostra aetate (“In Our Time”) is best known for its repudiation of Catholicism’s long tradition of anti-Semitic statements, but it also represented the Church’s first genuine outreach to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Christian religious traditions. By a vote of 2,221 to 88, the Council affirmed that the Holy Spirit can indeed be at work in these faiths as well, although obviously not to the same degree as in Christ’s ordained Church.
Already by that time, several Catholic thinkers had begun to explore affinities with non-Christian religions, particularly those of Asia. One of the most famous of those spiritual explorers, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, engaged extensively with Zen Buddhist teachings before discovering a strikingly similar approach already present within his own tradition: Meister Eckhart. Merton agreed with his frequent correspondent, the Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki, who called Eckhart “the one Zen thinker of the West.”
At the same time that medieval Japanese monks were formulating the core of Zen teaching, Eckhart drew deeply on centuries of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and pagan thought to develop a remarkably similar approach to experience of the divine. “Letting-go-ness” lines up with the Zen “no-mind” (wuxin) as well as the Taoist “no action” (wu wei). Buddhists also appreciate the master’s distinction between the constructed individual identity of each person — what we would call the ego and Eckhart calls the “false self” — and the common nature we all share, the authentic self, which the master identified as divine.
Like his Zen counterparts, Eckhart was wary of God-talk, which he thought more often obscured than revealed the divine, and he aspired to a unity with the ultimate. He called this a “second” or “divine” birth, which is in many ways similar to the Buddhist notion of satori, orenlightenment. The resulting “Christ nature” that he described, echoing St. Paul in Galatians 2:20 (“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”) looks remarkably similar to the internal “Buddha nature” of the Mahayana tradition.
At the same time, Eckhart’s embrace of meditation anticipates by seven centuries its popularity, along with the practice of “mindfulness,” among people of faith as well as among the ever-growing number of New Age seekers, agnostics and avowed atheists and others who list their religious affiliation as “none.”
Obviously many important differences remain between the Catholic Eckhart and other faith traditions, most notably on the role and identity of Christ. But the significant convergences have attracted increasing attention since the 1960s. In that sense, Eckhart, whom Merton called “my life-raft,” has brought the contemplative tradition to non-Catholics while deepening the modern Church’s ecumenical dialogue with other spiritual traditions.
Of course, not all Catholics would view the similarity of Eckhart’s teachings to Zen Buddhist practices as a recommendation. While more ecumenical Catholic writers such as the priests Aelred Graham, OSB, Robert E. Kennedy, S.J., and Richard Rohr celebrate the affinity, other more conservative thinkers, such as James Hitchcock, have remained cautious about a full embrace of the medieval friar (particularly given Eckhart’s sermons on the Godhead, in which detractors detect hints of pantheism).
Other modern advocates of lay contemplative practices — particularly Father Thomas Keating, OCSO, and the other founders of Centering Prayer — have bypassed Eckhart altogether in favor of other mystical writings such as The Cloud of Unknowing, a work composed in Middle English a few decades after Eckhart’s death. Yet during the past 20 years, the tide among Catholics has shifted definitively. The two previous popes have spoken favorably of the once-censured Meister Eckhart, leading the Dominicans to request a formal rehabilitation of their late brother in 1992, only to be informed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2010 that, in the words of Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., former master of the order, “there was really no need, since he had never been condemned by name, just some propositions which he was supposed to have held, and so we are perfectly free to say that he is a good and orthodox theologian.”
“Mysticism” also remains a suspicious concept for many modern people, given its popular association with visions and other supernatural experiences. But Meister Eckhart never claimed any special powers or called himself a mystic — or anything other than a Catholic preacher of the gospel. If he was a mystic, he was a profoundly anti-obscurant, egalitarian and down-to-earth one, rooted in centuries of Catholic contemplative tradition. In that sense he may be the perfect mystic for our own troubled times.
By Joel Harrington in magazine.nd.edu
Joel Harrington is Centennial Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and the author or editor of seven books on premodern Germany. His Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within was published in March 2018 by Penguin Press.
“The castle of the fairy-tale king” seduces more than a million tourists every year with its serene facade and mysterious air featured in postcards, travel guides and products from Walt Disney. The castle holds its own tales which it told to world and some and kept in mystery.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria who designed the castle as his solitary refuge was said to have been driven to insanity. Later in 1886, he was declared to have drowned a mysterious death. A few weeks later, the castle, Neuschwanstein, was opened to the public. Until today, it is among the famous tourist destination in Germany. Beyond the fairy-tale story, the fortress also holds a Nazi past. It was only recently featured in George Clooney’s World War II film, “The Monuments Men”. The film is about a special forces unit with a mission to track and steal back Europe’s stolen art works and treasures during the Second World War.
King Ludwig II did not just build the fortress forever immortalized in tales for royal ceremonies and residential purposes. He designed it particularly to isolate himself from the public. With the same intention as that of the king, the Nazis also chose the site to hide their plunders from the world.
Hitler’s Marching Orders
Hitler ordered the Rosenberg task force to “search lodges, libraries and archives of the occupied territories for material valuable to Germany.” The task force was created for the exclusive purpose of searching and looting art works from around the world. The command was given after German troops attacked France. It was the Fuhrer’s dream to open a “Fuhrer’s Museum” in Linz, Austria displaying all the treasures they have plundered during their war exploits. Acting upon orders, the Nazis looted art works and valuables and kept them hidden in various locations all over Germany including monasteries, salt mines and castles between 1940 and 1945.
“Neuschwanstein castle was chosen as headquarters of the ‘Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg,’ the German art-looting organization,” said an art historian Tanja Bernsau. The castle was also set in an ideal location being near the Austrian border and far from Berlin which are likely targets of Allied attacks. The castle was built with a design similar to that of medieval inspiration. However, the castle was featured with the latest of architectural technology of the time. The castle has central heating, electric bell system for summoning servants and flushing toilets. The cornerstone dated back to 1868. However, the castle was not yet complete. There was still a large part unfinished which could be used for storage.
Tracking Lost Art
In the film, ‘The Monuments Men,’ Rose Valland is played by Cate Blanchett. Most of stolen art works found in the Neuschwanstein were looted from France. It was also the French connection that provided the U.S. Army information that led to the castle. efore the death of Monuments Man and art historian S. Lane Faison, Jr., in 2006, he described their find in an interview for the Archives of American Art. He said that the key to unlocking the discovery was French curator Rose Valland.
“She pretended to be a [Nazi] collaborator,” Faison said of Rose Valland. The curator worked at the Jeu de Paume Museum which was one of the Nazi’s central collection points before the looted items were shipped to Germany. For many years, Valland secretly traced the route of the art work and found out where they ended up eventually.
Salvaging the Loot
Valland then made a report which provided the Allies with information of the looted items leading the U.S. troops to the Bavarian castle. The troops then stormed the hideout in 1945. The troops discovered a vast file of index cards, lists and slides which document in detail stolen items numbering to around 21,000.
Saving Europe’s Art
The crates which contained invaluable pieces of art work were then transferred to the U.S.-directed Central Art Collecting Points. The center is assigned with the restitution or the returning of the items to their original owners. “And that’s where the huge task started,” said Iris Lauterbach of the Central Institute for Art History in Munich. “The works of art had to be inventoried, photographed and restituted one by one. American and German art historians and secretaries worked together to restitute tens of thousands of pieces.”
S. Lane Faison also related how the task came as a daunting mission. Faison returned to Germany in 1951 to transfer the operations initially started by the U.S. to the Germans. “One of the saddest problems was that acres, I think you might say, of furniture just went on and on and on, piled up to the ceiling…and chairs, tables, household things, everything you could think of known to have come from Jewish sources,” Faison said. “But what do you do? And if somebody lost six Louis XV chairs, which ones were they? And did we have them? There was no way – you can’t identify such things.”
The Huge Task Ahead
The mission handed over to the Germans continue to this day. Germany continues the huge task of identification and art restitution. The discovery of stolen art in Germany also continues to be news. The film “Monuments Men” which recently had its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, though interesting and informative of the preservation efforts of the art in war, received its share of criticisms.
“I didn’t like the film,” Iris Lauterbach said. “The film pretends to be based on a true story, but it contains too many fictitious elements.” She shared that the film gave out some informative inputs. Yet she also has some reservations on whether the film connects the European war theater and art to the lay person given the complexities that surround them. The tour of Neuschwanstein will also not be able to provide answers of the lost art works. Tourists will only find themselves amused of the castle tours to the king’s bedroom, the artificial dripstone cave and kitchen all intricately and lavishly laid out. However, the tour does not answer questions on the role of the castle in one of Europe’s darkest episodes.
“We’re not trying to hide that fact,” said castle spokesperson Thomas Rainer. He also said that the management even wants to provide answers to the castle’s role in the Nazi plunder. The director of the Bavarian Palace Museum department recently wrote an essay about art looting and art rescue sites during the Second World War. “But we have more than a million visitors per year and very strict regular tours that last 30 minutes,” Rainer said. “We focus on what we can during that time.”
Why did Hitler crave the missing panel in the famous Ghent Altarpiece? Maybe because the Nazi’s paranormal research group thought the masterpiece contained a map to the Holy Grail.
On the night of 10 April 1934, one of the twelve oak panels that comprise Jan van Eyck’s famous painting, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, was stolen from Saint Bavo Cathedral, in Ghent, Belgium. Often referred to as “The Ghent Altarpiece,” this monumental oil painting is arguably the single most influential painting ever made. It is also the most-frequently stolen, having been burgled, in its entirety or in parts, at least six times—quite a feat, considering that it is the size of a barn door (14 x 11.5 feet) and weighs about two tons. It was the most-desired artwork by the Nazis, including Hitler and his second-in-command, Hermann Göring.
The two Nazi leaders actually raced one another to be the first to steal the altarpiece. The Nazi art theft unit, the ERR, captured it first for Hitler, from its hiding place at Chateau de Pau, in the south of France, where the Belgian government had sent it for safe-keeping. But an emissary from Göring appropriated it for the Luftwaffe head’s massive stolen art collection, which included some seven-thousand masterpieces, displayed at his country estate outside Berlin. Hitler got wind of this, and intercepted the altarpiece, sending it first to Castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, where it was restored, and then for storage in a salt mine in the Austrian Alps near Altaussee, where the twelve-thousand most famous stolen artworks from Nazi-occupied Europe were kept in secret, destined to feature in Hitler’s planned “super museum,” which would be the size of a city, and display every important artwork in the world. From the Altaussee salt mine, the Ghent Altarpiece and its fellow captives were ultimately rescued, thanks to the combined efforts of Austrian miners and a pair of Monuments Men, Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein, who only learned of the Altaussee hoard thanks to a fortuitous toothache that led them to a former SS officer, an art historian who was in hiding as the war drew to a close. The upcoming George Clooney film, The Monuments Men, dramatizes some of these stories, though taking a great many liberties in the process.
The iconography of The Ghent Altarpiece has long fascinated scholars. The painting was immediately the most famous in Europe, when it was completed in 1432. It was the first major oil painting. Oil had been used to bind pigments to paintings since the Middle Ages, but Jan van Eyck was the first to demonstrate the true potential of oils, which permit far greater subtlety and detail than largely-opaque egg-based tempera paint, which was preferred before The Ghent Altarpiece popularized oils. The altarpiece contains over 100 figures, and is an elaborate pantheon of Catholic mysticism—at its center stands a heavenly field, brimming with uniquely-depicted figures around a sacrificial lamb, representative of Christ (the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb from which the work draws it title). The lamb stands upon an altar and bleeds into a chalice—the Holy Grail.
Hitler so craved the Ghent Altarpiece because it was one of the most famous artworks in history, and it was by a Germanic artist, in the realistic, Northern Renaissance style that Hitler preferred. It had also been forcibly repatriated to Belgium after the First World War, before which certain panels of the altarpiece had been displayed in Berlin. The Treaty of Versailles mentioned only four works of cultural heritage, foremost among them The Ghent Altarpiece. Hitler wanted to correct the humiliation inflicted on the German people by the Treaty of Versailles, and recapturing the altarpiece would go some way toward that goal.
But there may also have been a more fantastic reason why Hitler wanted this painting above all others. Rumor had it that he was convinced that the painting contained a coded map to lost Catholic treasures, the so-called Arma Christi, or instruments of Christ’s Passion, including the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Grail, and the Spear of Destiny. Hitler believed that the possession of the Arma Christiwould grant their owner supernatural powers. As the tide of the war turned ever more against the Nazis, Hitler cranked up his efforts to seek some supernatural way to bring victory to the Third Reich.
Cue the soundtrack to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Nazis tried to create super-soldiers, using steroids, in a twisted interpretation of Nietzsche’sübermensch, and they sought to reanimate the dead—coffins of famous Germanic warriors were found hidden in a mine, with plans to bring them back to life at the war’s end.
The idea that the Nazis had teams of researchers hunting for supernatural treasures, religious relics, and entrances to a magical land of telepathic faeries and giants might sound like a bad History Channel documentary, or out-takes from an Indiana Jones movie. But despite the considerable popular interest in all things Nazi-related, and all things supernatural, relatively few people are aware of a very real organization that was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones plots: the Nazi Ahnenerbe, or the Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Organization.
The Ahnenerbe (which literally means “Inheritance of the Forefathers”) was a paranormal research group, established by order of SS head Heinrich Himmler on 1 July 1935. It was expanded during the Second World War on direct orders from the Fuhrer. Hitler and other top Nazi leaders’ (Himmler foremost among them) interest in the occult is well and widely documented. The Nazi Party actually began as an occult fraternity, before it morphed into a political party. Himmler’s SS, ostensibly Hitler’s bodyguard but in practice the leading special forces of the Nazi Army, was wholly designed based on occult beliefs. Wewelsburg, the castle headquarters of the SS, was the site of initiation rituals for twelve SS “knights” that was modeled on Arthurian legend. The magical powers of runes were invoked, and the Ahnenerbe logo features rune-style lettering. Psychics and astrologers were employed to attack the enemy and plan tactics based on the alignment of the stars. Nazis tried to create super-soldiers, using steroids, in a twisted interpretation of Nietzsche’s übermensch, and they sought to reanimate the dead—coffins of famous Germanic warriors were found hidden in a mine, with plans to bring them back to life at the war’s end.
The Ahnenerbe sent expeditions all over the world. To Tibet, to search for traces of the original, uncorrupted Aryan race, and for a creature called the Yeti, what we would call the Abominable Snowman. To Ethiopia, in search of the Ark of the Covenant. To the Languedoc, to find the Holy Grail. To steal the Spear of Destiny, which Longinus used to pierce Christ’s side as Christ hung on the cross, and which disappeared from a locked vault in Nurnberg. To Iceland, to find the entrance to a magical land of telepathic giants and faeries called Thule, which Hitler and most of the Nazi brass believed was the place of origin of the Aryans, and was very real. If they could find this entrance, believed to be accessible via a secret code hidden in a Medieval Icelandic saga called The Eddas, then the Nazis might accelerate their Aryan breeding program, and recover the supernatural powers of flight, telepathy and telekinesis that they believed their ancestors in Thule possessed, and which was lost due to inter-breeding with “lesser” races.
As crazy as all this may sound, it was fervently believed by many in the Nazi Party—so much so that huge sums of money were invested into research, along with hundreds of workers and scientists. This pseudo-scientific institute both sought supernatural advantages for the Nazi war effort, but also had a propagandistic agenda, to seek “scientific” evidence to support Nazi beliefs, like Aryan racial superiority.
With all this in mind, it is entirely plausible that Hitler believed that the Ghent Altarpiece contained a coded map to supernatural treasure. After all, the Ahnenerbe was hard at work looking for a secret entrance to the magical land of Thule in the Icelandic saga, The Eddas. Whether such a map is in The Ghent Altarpiece is another matter, one that scholars dismiss out of hand, though it is tempting to interpret the complex, enigmatic iconography and disguised symbolism of van Eyck’s masterpiece in terms more exotic than those in the average art history textbook. But there is also another component to the story that fuels this theory, and it is linked to the 1934 theft of that single panel.
There has never been a convincing explanation for the motivation for the theft of the Righteous Judges panel, referred to as such because it depicts a group of Biblical wise men (while also hiding several portraits, including one of van Eyck). While the man who masterminded the theft of the Judges panel, Arsene Goedertier, is known, he could not have acted alone, and his motivation is uncertain. The panel was ostensibly stolen in order to ransom it back to the bishopric of Saint Bavo—but Goedertier had more money in his bank account than was asked for in the ransom demand. For lack of a clear motive, various theories have arisen, one of which is linked to a Nazi art detective, Heinrich Köhn, who was sent to Ghent to find the stolen Judges panel several years before the Nazis seized the other eleven panels of the altarpiece.
Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, along with Himmler, conceived of the idea to find the lost Judges panel and give it as a gift to Hitler at the tenth anniversary of his assumption of power in Germany, in 1943. Köhn investigated throughout the city of Ghent, even taking apart portions of the cathedral (for one theory held that the panel had been hidden on-site, never having left Saint Bavo). He found nothing, and was sent to fight in the Eastern Front for his failure. Why would the Nazis wish to locate a single stolen panel? They surely had designs on seizing the entire altarpiece, and did not wish it to be incomplete when they did so. Some have suggested that the coded treasure map leading to the Arma Christiwas missing a key component that was hidden in the Judges panel. In order for the map to bear fruit, that panel was needed. It was stolen in 1934, therefore, to keep it out of Nazi hands, should the nascent Adolf Hitler follow through with his plan to recapture The Ghent Altarpiece and make it the focal point of his super-museum.
While there are plenty of non-supernatural, non-Da Vinci Code-y rationales for Hitler to desire The Ghent Altarpiece above all other objects, it is entirely plausible that Hitler might have believed in the coded treasure map theory. It seems far-fetched to us today, until we consider the other crazy theories that were truly believed by Hitler and his cronies. If The Eddas might contain a code to gain entrance to the magical land of Thule, where Aryan ancestors lived as flying telepathic faeries and giants then, according to Nazi logic, then the world’s most important painting might indeed contain a treasure map leading to the Holy Grail.
Conocer las irracionales creencias del Himmer, el jefe de las SS de los nazis, son fundamentales a la hora de reconstruir el movimiento que llevó al mundo a su perdición. ENIGMAS ofrece un anticipo en exclusiva del libro Las reliquias de Hitler –Ed. Espejo de Tinta–, en donde se expone con todo lujo de detalles en qué delirantes argumentos místicos se fundamentaban quienes cometieron las atrocidades más grandes de la historia.
Himmler vino al mundo el 7 de octubre de 1900 en un confortable apartamento de Munich, en el seno de una familia profundamente católica. Tras la guerra, hacia 1992, este joven introvertido se convirtió en ingeniero agrónomo en la Technische Hochschule, en donde abrazó ideas ultranacionalistas y antisemitas que le llevaron directamente a los movimientos que se oponían a la degradante política de la República de Weimar. Los educados modales de Himmler no impidieron que en septiembre de 1923 se integrara en una unidad del ejército, conocida como Compañía Werner. Se sumó a los hombres de Hitler en el fallido golpe de Estado y formó parte de la tropa encabezada por Röhm que se dirigió al Ministerio de la Guerra. Himmler portaba la bandera…
Es bastante probable que a través de la Sociedad Thule y de su vínculo con Röhm, Himmler llegase al Partido Nazi, donde rápidamente haría carrera y potenciaría las SS –Schuzstafel–, que llegaron a ser consideradas con razón como un Estado dentro del Estado, a semejanza de lo ocurrido en el medievo con los caballeros templarios, puesto que su crecimiento implicó la creación de divisiones diversas que abarcaban aspectos como la cultura, la industria, la investigación histórica y científica, la potenciación del sector agrícola, el deporte, etc, hasta sumar cerca de cuarenta departamentos. Himmler monitorizó a través de las SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt –RSHA– a la temible policía secreta, la Gestapo, así como a la policía criminal Kripo, la policía del orden Orpo, la policía administrativa Verwaltungspolizie, la policía rural Gendarmerie, y un largo etcétera de unidades de control. Además, Himmler codiciaba la idea de crear un Estado SS habitado por la elite y unido al Reich, pero de administración independiente. Esto tal vez explique la complejidad organizativa que alcanzaron las SS, lo que precisamente no acudía en auxilio de su eficacia. No obstante, la mayor parte de la gente continúa hoy en día asociando exclusivamente a éstas con las escuadras de ejecución que, a partir del establecimiento del primer campo de concentración en Dachau, tuvieron por objeto el exterminio de los judíos, la solución final de Hitler que arrancaría en junio de 1942. Y con toda lógica, pues a partir de ese momento el terror se adueñó como nunca de la política nazi, masacrando a millones de seres humanos con el único pretexto de la raza. Se les concebía como animales, como grotescos seres inferiores que no debían inspirar compasión alguna. Su necesario exterminio tras la imposibilidad de deportarlos a todos a un mismo territorio cercado, quizá en África, era la primera parte de un plan mucho mayor que, más allá del antisemitismo, contemplaba el dominio ario sobre las demás razas, todas inferiores…
Wiligut, el Rasputín de Himmler
Aunque no lo habíamos mencionado hasta el momento, Himmler estaba fascinado y obsesionado con las leyendas y las sagas de caballeros heroicos –ya fueran artúricos, templarios o teutones– lo que, unido a sus inquietudes ocultistas, le llevó a revestir a sus SS de una parafernalia repleta de símbolos y barrocas ceremonias.
Uno de los más claros exponentes de esa forma de pensamiento ocultista lo representó la adquisición del castillo de Wewlsburg. Himmler consideró que era el lugar más adecuado para acoger los mayores secretos de la SS. Su forma triangular, la ubicación geográfica en Westfalia y los consejos de los sabios geomantes avalaron la adquisición de la fortaleza bajo el argumento de ser destinada, una vez rehabilitada, a escuela de mandos de las SS.
Uno de los personajes que más influyó en esta lectura hermética de la fortaleza fue, sin duda, Kart Maria Wiligut, su Rasputín particular, un curioso personaje que nació en el seno de una familia vienesa de tradición militar el 10 de diciembre de 1886, y que ingresó a los catorce años en la Escuela Imperial de Cadetes de Viena. Su presencia en diferentes frentes bélicos le hizo ascender a capitán en 1903, a mayor en 1912, y a teniente-coronel y otros grados superiores poco después, hasta que en enero de 1919 se retiró tras cuarenta largos años de servicio. Durante algún tiempo, hasta 1909, Wiligut respondería al nombre simbólico de Lobesam, ya que era miembro de una anodina orden de inspiración masónica conocida como Schilarraffia. Lo más interesante de su biografía es que se presentaba como el último descendiente de los uiligotis, una estirpe de guerreros ancestrales prehistóricos cuya historia, hazañas y legado eran conocidos por nuestro personaje gracias a la clarividente memoria ancestral que afirmaba tener.
El último de los uiligotis se consideraba objeto de una conspiración que pretendía destruir definitivamente su legado; finalmente acabó en un internamiento psiquiátrico en el sanatorio de Salzburgo. Después abandonó Austria y buscó una atmósfera mejor en Berlín en 1932. Esta elección permitió que un viejo amigo, a la sazón oficial de las SS Richard Anders, le pusiera en contacto con Heinrich Himmler. El líder SS quedó impresionado por aquella memoria ancestral que aseguraba posseer nuestro personaje. Decidió que no era buena idea desaprovechar la oportunidad de estar cara a cara con el más remoto pasado germano. Como apunta el estudioso Goodrik-Clarke, “en septiembre de 1933 Wiligut se unió a la SS con el seudónimo de Karl María Weisthor, y ocupó el cargo de director de un Departamento de Prehistoria e Historia Arcaica, dentro de la Secretaría de Raza y Poblamiento de la SS con base en Munich”. Su misión era entregar informes por escrito de sus visiones para que fuesen investigadas, estar plenamente disponible para conversar con Himmler y poco más. La amistad entre ambos fue fructífera, hasta el punto de que el jefe de las escuadras promocionaría al místico al grado de coronel para equiparar su rango al que ostentaba en el ejército austriaco. Su influencia se dejó sentir bastante en la simbología de las SS. Sin ir más lejos, en el buscador del Grial Otto Rahn, así como en el responsable de las investigaciones esotéricas dentro de la SS-Ahnenerbe, Friederich Hielscher. Por cuestiones de edad, el viejo mentor se jubiló, aunque siempre contó con la protección de Himmler y las Schuzstafel. Malamente sobreviviría a la guerra falleciendo el 3 de enero de 1946; su máximo y poderoso admirador lo había hecho en mayo de 1945, cuando se suicidó con cianuro al caer prisionero de los ingleses.
Ahnenerbe, el comité de los sabios
Dentro de los numerosos departamentos que integraban a las SS destaca uno de manera especial, a consecuencia de los contenidos ocultistas que tenían la misión de estudiar. Nos referimos a la “Sociedad para la Investigación y Enseñanza de La Herencia de los Ancestros”, fundada el 1 de julio de 1935 por el propio Himmler, Walter Darré y el profesor holandés Hermann Wirth, quien ya a finales de los años veinte había creado su propia organización con objetivos similares a los que perseguiría la Ahnenerbe bajo patrocinio del Tercer Reich. Como reflejo de las tendencias ramificadoras que como un mal endémico infectaban a las SS, también este departamento contó a su vez con un ingente número de sub-departamentos que sumaban la nada despreciable cifra de 43 equipos dedicados a estudiar aspectos tan diversos como la música tradicional alemana, los vestigios arqueológicos, los emplazamientos religiosos, o ciencias ocultas como la astrología, asuntos relacionados con la botánica, la astronomía o la experimentación biológica. Es en este último terreno es donde la Ahnenerbe escribió su página más atroz, ya que bajo el paraguas de su Instituto de Investigaciones Científicas para la Defensa Nacional se cobijaron auténticos sádicos que no dudaron en usar a los prisioneros judíos de Dachau como carne barata para sus experimentos.
Con frecuencia, este departamento se encontraba en la obligación de investigar asuntos insustanciales o que terminaban siendo un fiasco. Precisamente, Karl Maria Wiligut abrió el camino a un singular personaje que terminaría por agotar la paciencia de los estudiosos al servicio de las SS. Se trataba de Günther Kirchhoff, miembro de la Sociedad List, interesado en la historia mitológica germánica y defensor de la existencia de líneas energéticas que recorrían el planeta. El caso es que éste se reveló como otro iniciado que, siguiendo los pasos de Wiligut, aseguraba tener revelaciones sobre sus ancestros prehistóricos, desvelando a través de voluminosos informes la existencia de complejos religiosos irministas que los miembros de la Ahnenerbe se veían obligados a investigar –sin resultado alguno– por insistencia de Himmler.
Friederich Hielscher, como director del departamento responsable de los estudios esotéricos fue sin duda uno de los personajes que tuvo ante sí los retos más desconcertantes. Su biografía es un misterio, por lo que una vez más ha sido objeto de especulaciones de lo más variopintas, convirtiéndolo en militar dentro de sociedades secretas diversas o en las huestes del mismísimo Satán como mago negro. Bajo su responsabilidad se llevó a cabo, según parece, la búsqueda del Arca de la Alianza, la localización de restos de la Atlántida, la obtención del Grial, el contacto con el gobierno oculto en el Tíbet, y otros proyectos de similar corte. En este contexto hemos de interpretar, por ejemplo, una de las expediciones más intrigantes de las llevadas a cabo por este departamento. Nos referimos a la que encabezada por el naturalista Ernst Schäfer, que buscó en las estribaciones de la áspera tierra tibetana a los ancestros de la raza aria. Le acompañó el doctor Bruno Berger, quien influido por toda la literatura ocultista creía que el precursor de la raza aria podía subsistir en aquellas regiones, lo que daba sentido a las observaciones del yeti. Sea como fuere, los tibetanos veían con agrado lo que los nazis hacían, si bien es cierto que tal vez sólo conocieron una parte mínima de la historia nacionalsocialista… El resto ya lo conocen. Años después, al margen de la contienda que enfrentaría al mundo en una guerra cruenta, hubo otra en la que el ocultismo tuvo un papel fundamental. Pero eso es otra historia…
in Revista “Enigmas”