Search the Anthropology Review Database

(cover picture) Sunner, Rudiger
2009 Black Sun: The Mythological Background of National Socialism. Brooklyn, New York: Icarus Films.

Notes: DVD, 90 minutes
Reviewed 30 Dec 2010 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
National socialism and occultism
National socialism - History
Racism - Germany - History
Racism - Austria - History
Nationalism - Germany - History
Nationalism - Austria - History

ABSTRACT:    This important film explores the pre-Nazi historical and religious roots of the ideology of German superiority, raising alarming points about the susceptibility of humans to mythological beliefs and causes.

From Ernst Cassirer to Rollo May to Joseph Campbell, observers of the human condition have stressed not only the power of myth but the cry for myth. The myth need not be a religious one—although that is by far the most potent and convincing kind—but it does need to provide a story, a lineage, a model, and a goal. It is an orienting story, particularly in a disorienting time.

Everyone knows about the Nazi party in Germany, and many know about the appropriation of symbols like the swastika and about the staging of huge visually-impressive events. But, the narrator of “Black Sun” claims, most of the world, including most contemporary Germans, do not know the full extent of the mythological roots of Nazism. We tend to think of it as little more than a virulent political ideology, and therefore as an aberration, not as a religious commitment to a people, a history, and a future.

Jumping off from a book called The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on Nazi Ideology, the filmmaker retraces his own intellectual journey to the heart of Nazi philosophy and mythology. The journey takes us to ancient pre-Christian culture, a world of Celtic traditions and runes and esoteric beliefs—including, interestingly, some later Christian ones like the ‘holy grail.’ As others have noted, before National Socialism was a formal movement, the literature of the early 1900s suggested “a strange feeling of revival, a mixture of dissatisfaction and fervent pathos,” and not only in Germany. People met in small groups in Germany (and elsewhere) seeking “mystical experiences out beyond the large cities,” that is, some kind of tie to the ancient and ‘authentic’ culture before modernity. The poet Goethe sensed it much earlier: “People of all classes feel a strong yearning to free themselves from the rational world and to be placed in a world of immediacy. They see today’s civilization as cold and dark. The religion they are being offered is nothing but a system of thoughts they can view in many different ways.” The blatant similarity between that time and our own makes the narrator wonder, “When does spiritual pursuit suddenly turn into fanaticism and violence?”

The first step in the story of German/Nazi mythology is Theosophy, and the film discusses Helena Blavatsky and her travels through Asia, which shaped our “present-day esoteric scene.” She claimed to find libraries of lost civilizations thousands of years old and believed that survivors of Atlantis and Hyperborea “passed on their magical knowledge and founded the so-called ‘Aryan Race.’” The swastika, for instance, was seen “as a symbol of impending spiritual renewal.” Such theories were food for a moment when society’s breakdown was causing fear and anxiety, and they provided some of the details that would eventually coalesce into Nazi philosophy, such as the feebleness of Africans and the corruption of Jews.

German figures extended these lines of thought. Guido von List, an Austrian, also sought the divine in nature and the ancient Wotan religion, which had been wiped out by Christianity. He believed that giants from Atlantis had arranged the stones of the Austrian forest, and he claimed to translate the mysterious runes, which offered “insights into the invisible powers of nature” or what he called “signs of salvation.” List also interpreted the Icelandic Edda myths as true stories of battles between lower and higher races; clearly the mythology was beginning to transform into racist ideology. Happily but vainly, the film includes a modern specialist on runes who discusses what we really know about them, which does not support the Nazi/Germanic interpretation (obviously).

In more ways than one, the First World War was a watershed; for the Germanic mythologists, it was a purification against socialism and miscegenation. Another influential thinker who emerged in that time was Adolf Lanz, who was particularly fascinated by medieval knightly orders. For him, the knights were Germanic champions, enemies of the inferior races; these inferior races were subhumans created when Nordic god-men had sex with animals (why they would do that is not immediately clear). Lanz thought that ancient Assyrian carvings conveyed the same meaning, depicting animal-like people. Lanz therefore founded his own religious order and supplied it with such writings as “The Ancient Homeland and the History of the Heroic Blond Race” and “Sexuality and Love among Blonds and Dark-Skinned People.” He even bought a castle and converted it to new Templar order, where “In songs, they called upon God to annihilate the inferior races.” Fatefully, the film maintains, in 1932 Hitler was a follower. The young Hitler read Lanz and actually sought him out. Hitler’s Vienna, according to the film, offended the young idealist with its extremes of wealthy and poverty. As a result, he “fled into a dream world of the past,” including old Hapsburg glory. Another key component of this dream-past was the legend of the Nordic kingdom of Thule. Rudolf von Sebottendorff believed that the European megaliths were evidence of super Nordic people, who had placed the stone (like Stonehenge). The legend “fostered the spiritual basis for fighting the Jews,” which was exacerbated by a 1918 overthrow in Munich that left a Jewish council in power. This was the worst thing that the Thule Society could imagine, and it mobilized them to start the counter-revolution. Hitler reportedly attended some of the meetings of the Thule Society and in 1920 formed the National Socialist, or Nazi, Party as branch of larger organization. So, “Long before 1933, spiritual preparations had been made for the coming of a Messianic leader who would defend the ‘Aryan light.’” Hitler could easily step into that role, but without exploiting the mythology behind it. A key to the enthusiasm among the German people for Nazi teachings was the overt and highly self-conscious use of grand symbolism and ritual. “The Nazis used big mythological pictures and appealed to archaic levels of the subconscious.” Hitler and his party put on vast happenings and ceremonies, and the film depicts one particularly powerful festival of light. Sadly and ironically, right-wing extremists and ultranationalists have always been especially clever and effective about such techniques, while liberals and secularists have been less skillful: as the film quotes Ernst Bloch, “If the humanists had created more impressive pictures, the Nazis would never have come to power.” It also warns us that “A society that doesn’t take archetypes, myths, and symbols seriously will possibly be jumped by them from behind”—behind in both senses of the term, including the reactionary-political sense. Another strategy, well known and portrayed throughout the movie, was the use of architecture intended to convey power and eternity: “The gigantic buildings were to recall the huge god-men of Atlantis or Thule.”

But it is not enough to announce and begin to act on a mythology; in our world of facts and science, one must prove it too. So, with the belief in Atlantis as the ancient home of the Germanic race, Himmler opened the “Ancestral Heritage” institute in 1935 to conduct research on the origins of Germanic (read ‘human’) culture. The film shows scenes from a Nazi documentary that argued that Nordic culture (represented by Stonehenge) was older than and far advanced beyond Egyptian and other ‘southern’ societies. Indeed, the first “cultural impulses” of humanity came from the North. This led Nazi scholars to search for ancient Germanic religion in Europe and even to mount expeditions to find Atlantis—which might have been in Germany, or Peru, or Tibet! The film includes some fascinating old footage of scientists carrying out anthropometrical investigations on Tibetan folks.

But there was also plenty to interest mythological scientists or scientific mythologists on their own continent, like the European rock formations that they took as ancient sculptures. Studies were conducted on a location called Extersteine in the Teutoburger Wood as a possible ancient Aryan site. Archaeological excavations were done but no evidence was found. However, as the film emphasizes, beliefs and interpretations do not depend on the facts; instead, they are rather freer without the facts. Hence, after the discrediting of Nazi ideology, contemporary “neo-heathens” and “post-hippies” (to use the terms from the film) still return to the site today, and several minutes are spent watching and talking to these folks who are some paradoxical combination of hippies and nationalists. Ultimately the narrator puts his finger on the essence of the thing: “Who cares if there’s no proof that this was a Germanic place of worship?” When you are dreaming, facts don’t matter; they only tend to wake you up. Tragically then, “Instead of looking for real knowledge about Germanic religious practices, people have transformed this place into a legend itself by projecting all of their own wishes into it. They prefer the appeal of a nebulous and dreamy state than to consciously examine the archaic picture world of the past.” One mid-century version of this attitude was the Nazi cult of King Heinrich I (d. 936), who supposedly defended Germans against the “Eastern threat.” He was a hero to Himmler (who actually thought he was Heinrich reincarnated), and his burial site at Quedlinburg Cathedral became a Nazi shrine. This and other tactics were employed to connect the Nazi party and especially the SS to a long and noble Germanic ancestry, including of course those archaic signs and symbols, like runes.

Most surprisingly of all, the Christian legend of the Holy Grail was absorbed and re-interpreted to prove Aryan superiority: Otto Rahn, for instance, decided that the grail was somewhere in Pyrenees and searched for it there. Rahn revered Himmler as a saint, and Himmler supported him until Himmler learned of Rahn’s homosexuality, which was a whole other problem for Nazis. At any rate, a formidable building was constructed at Wewelsburg as a training facility and college for SS officers (built, the film noted, by concentration camp labor). Among its impressive yet disturbing features was the “Black Sun” design on the floor of a main cult room. According to the film right-wing groups today still refer to it as symbol of “the pure light of the North and the superior knowledge of Thule which Europe should call to mind in times of decadence and materialism in order to draw strength from its origins”—and they frequently break in to perform ceremonies.

No presentation on Nazi atrocities, or the atrociousness of Nazi ideology, would be complete without some mention of the brutal human experiments that were conducted on prisoners. Wolfram Sievers, director of Ancestral Heritage, was sentenced to death at Nuremberg for his role in those experiments, but his response to the sentence was typical of the true believer: “I’ve always wanted to die for the Empire of the Heavenly. There is no guilt, no matter how great it is, that can go through the timeless time of fire without being completely atoned…. In the name of God, I’ll set off on that journey.”

At the end of the film, the narrator muses on the existence and appeal of Nazi mythology, deciding that “The Third Reich offered a substitute religion at a time of spiritual void, and it promised to satisfy desires that went beyond the purely material ones. After the disaster, people sought refuge among new gods: prosperity and technology, music and movies from other countries’ dream factories.” It is not entirely clear whether he exhibits some sympathy for the Germans when he adds that the abuses of the Nazis have placed a taboo on “the great feelings, ideals, and visions which still exist today.” Either way, “A new search has begun for salvation, spiritual leaders, and inspiration.” Or more accurately, the same search is still underway and has never ended. Rather, the film both directly and indirectly raises two crucial points: human individuals are easily inclined to sacrifice their individuality, their very will, to a higher cause (which need not be pleasant or true) and times of change and losses of meaning encourage people to find or create their own anchors, their own myths, their own realities. As long as those two conditions exist—which, at this point, seems like forever—the possibility of an odious mythology like Nazism will be with us.

Level/Use: Suitable for high school classes and for college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of mythology, anthropology of war, anthropology of mass movements, and European/German/20th century studies, as well as general audiences.