Sma Station

birgit kellner birgit.kellner
Wed Oct 17 06:04:35 EDT 2001

--On Mittwoch, 17. Oktober 2001 09:30 +0100 Gwyn 
<gwyn at> wrote:

> If my history is right, the Nazi connection goes as follows. During the
> Weimar era there were a lot of educated members of the German nation who
> were interested in mysticism and proving connections between it and great
> races. I believe one of these people dug the symbol up from the east. In
> its original form I think it represents the sun as someone mentioned
> earlier. The Nazis inverted it as an inversion of light. This has always
> been my understanding of how the symbol came about, it may be wrong but
> I've asked others and they seem to agree.  People tend to get a little
> upset when they see it in any form, I can remember a friend of mine
> throwing a fit during "Kundun" as the sun logo appears on ceremonial
> garments when the Dalai Lama is first presented. They believed it to be
> "unnecessary".
Can't resist digressing - sorry.

Unfortunately I can't enlighten you on how exactly the Swastika symbol - 
which is, by the way, not Buddhist in origin but is a symbol for the sungod 
Surya of Vedic, pre-Buddhistic times in India - *precisely* made its way to 
Nazi iconography, but the "Nazi connection" to Asia is much more complex 
than this, as is its its evaluation.

In 1935 the Third Reich founded an organization called "Das Ahnenerbe" 
("Ancestral Heritage Society"), designed for exploring the Indo-Germans and 
relating its findings to the people in a simple, accessible manner. The 
organization arose specifically out of Heinrich Himmler's (SS chief) 
mistrust against science and scholarship in general that, he thought, did 
not do enough to pursue national and Nazi interests.
"Ahnenerbe" was a huge organization, occasionally extending over about 40 
to 50 scientific departments. It was integrated in the SS, and its academic 
staff had SS ranks and wore SS uniforms. The degree to which Himmler 
himself was obsessed with Asian wisdom is disputable, but he did once 
remark about the "Karma of Germanhood" which had destined Hitler to save 
the German nation, and once said that Hitler was the reincarnation of one 
of the greatest holy powers. There's also the "Thule Society", of course, a 
secret occult society; but it is disputed amongst historians whether it 
actually had any noticeable influence on high rank Nazis.

Historical complexities: In 1938, Ernst Schaefer led an expedition to India 
and Tibet. Though the expedition members were clearly pleased by occasional 
sightings of Swastikas in Tibet - Schaefer once said to the Tibetan regent 
that his visit to Tibet was to be seen as a meeting of the Western and the 
Eastern Swastika in friendship and piece -, the Swastika did not play as 
great a role in Tibet as often believed. Nor does mythology seem to have 
played a great role as a motivating factor.

The expedition was to serve several scientific goals, not only that of 
measuring skulls: plants were to be brought back so as to allow for the 
cultivation of more resistent crop in Germany, meteorological data was to 
be gathered to enable better predictions of great catastrophes (Himmler 
feared to be too dependent on foreign weather services), and an especially 
strong breed of horses were to be provided for fighting purposes. But the 
relation of the expedition to Himmler and the "Ahnenerbe" was strained; 
though Himmler himself presented all expedition members with woollen 
sweaters beforehand, well staged in front of film cameras, fact is that the 
expedition was funded privately and that "Ahnenerbe" subsequently even 
distanced itself from it.

There's a fascinating film document surviving about the Schaefer expedition 
- "Geheimnis Tibet", Hans Albert Lettow, 1939, 109min. Though the 
passionately delivered commentary does contain several allusions to 
mythical conceptions of Asia and Tibet, one wonders whether these were not 
merely thrown in to satisfy popular tastes of the time; they need not 
reflect a generally mythical outlook on the part of Schaefer and his crew 
who, in their own warped way, seemed to be much more scientifically 

Thus, historical connections nonwithstanding, I think it would be 
problematic to conclude from sources like this film that the mythical 
fascination of Nazis with Asia and, in particular, Tibet, was constitutive 
of Nazi ideology, formed a pervasive trend in the Nazi party/movement, or 
represented a decisive influence on Nazi politics. Historians have not come 
to a clear conclusion on this subject. My personal view is that beliefs 
about Asia or Tibet that were current at the time came to be integrated in 
the overall ideology as was seen fit and were often exploited to make 
ideology more palpable to the "masses". Occult societies such as the "Thule 
society", and rather occult writings seem to have existed on the fringes of 
Nazi political agency rather than constituted its "spiritual" storehouse. 
Apparently, Channel Four did a documentary on this issue, called in a 
somewhat sensationalist manner "Hitler's Search for the Holy Grail", which, 
judging from the description, seems to place a bit too much emphasis on 
mythological aspects (I haven't seen it, so I don't know whether the same 
over-emphasis applies to the actual film, see here for the description:

In fact, the irony is that it's mostly Neonazi writings where an 
ideological/spiritual "Asian connection" is emphasized; fuelled by modern 
esotericism, they seem to read more into it than was there at the time. One 
should not overlook that in the 30s and 40s, there was also an equally 
strong, if not stronger, feeling in Germany of an "Asian threat". One 
author of a book on the connection between Jews and Tibet (!) went as far 
as to suspect "Eastern priests" of wanting to overpower Christianity and 
the Jews, ursurping the symbols of the German people such as - surprise, 
surprise - the Swastika. He demanded that a Buddhist society in Berlin 
should be prohibited from using the Swastika as its symbol. These Eastern 
priests were assumed to be Buddhists, and Buddhism was designed to weaken 
the supreme German spirit. That's another side to conceptions of Asia 
amongst Nazis, one that should also not be ignored.

There's much more to be said on the subject, but I've already strayed far 
enough from the subject-matter of this list, so I'd better stop here.

Best regards,

Birgit Kellner
Institute for South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies
Vienna University

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