On the evening of 22 June 1935 Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, gave a speech at a summer solstice festival held to open the Thingstätte on Heidelberg’s Holy Mountain.
The Thingstätte, (a word with no English translation), was an open air amphitheatre, with banks of stone seats arranged around a central stage with flanking towers, and stands for burning pyres. The whole site had been designed to resemble a human torso, giving further metaphorical weight to its function as a meeting place of the people.
On this evening of the summer solstice, or Sonnenwende, when Goebbels was present, the solstice festival was followed by a play, or Thingspiel. These plays were intended to be different from those presented in indoor theatres, using not individual actors, but groups of people representing human types. ‘Speaking choirs’, in robes and cloaks, delivered chants and incantations to support the narrative, in this case a simple story of the rise of the Nazi Party to power.
Although in his speech Goebbels spoke lyrically, and wrote in his diary how the audience had seen the realisation of ‘a miracle work’, ‘National Socialism in stone’– he was privately unhappy. He was troubled by the development of cultish groups within the Nazi movement, and in addition, visiting Heidelberg had reminded him of his unhappy student days there nearly twenty years earlier, when his first love Anka Stahlerm had broken off their relationship.
The Nazi fascination with the idea of the Thingstätte derived from their identification with the pre-Roman Germanic tribes which had been described by the historian Tacitus in the first century AD. Unimpressed by the Christian virtues of compassion and forgiveness, many Nazis wanted to return to the paganism of their ancestors, based on nature, the sun and the moon. They held that the ancient German tribes had seen these as manifestations of the gods, the sun for example, being the ‘watchful eye’ of Wotan, which awoke life in everything earthly.
The most fanatical paganists wanted to see the Christian calendar, with its festivals of Christmas and Easter, replaced by one based on these imagined older customs, which would centre instead on the movement of the heavenly bodies. They hoped to replace modern political ideas, such as democracy, with an imagined organic relationship between the Führer and Volk, or the leader and his people, and to revert to older practices of law and punishment, such as drowning homosexual men in peat bogs. The Thingstätte was fondly imagined as a place where communities would meet, as Tacitus had written of the Germanic tribes, ‘on fixed days, when the moon is either crescent or nearing her full orb.’
This reversion to Germanic custom was most apparent in particular branches of the Nazi movement, notably in the SS and Hitler Youth, but elements of it found their way into most areas of German life in the 1930s and during the Second World War. Heinrich Himmler, who presided over the growth of the SS into a vast organisation, was particularly fascinated by ancient Germanic customs, sponsoring archaeological investigations which might give weight to his theories. He developed the SS as a closed order with its own rituals, ceremonies, and practices, many based on imagined Germanic precedents.
Readers will be familiar with the symbol of the SS, where the existing Gothic or Roman letters for the abbreviated title of the organisation were replaced by runic figures. Many German typewriters produced in the 1930s had this runic symbol added to their keyboards. Other runic figures, many referring to the sun and the moon, were used within the SS, for example on the headstones placed on the graves of ‘fallen’ SS men, a runic symbol representing the going down of the sun, was frequently used to symbolise the closing of life. The swastika itself may originally have been a symbol of the sun, its four arms representing the seasons, and pointing to the solstices. It was everywhere in Nazi Germany, on flags, buildings, uniforms, and stationery, even in everyday items of furniture and loaves of bread.
Within the Hitler Youth, there was a great emphasis on outdoor activity, camping and hiking. Again the summer solstice was taken up as an important festival, and on camps all over Germany, adolescent boys had to perform the ritual of jumping across the campfire on the night of the solstice, as part of their initiation into manhood. One dreads to think of what other indignities and abuses many of these young people suffered as part of this process.
Representations of the sun and moon, alongside with other symbols derived from nature, such as the oak leaf, were worked into the language of Nazi art and design. In 1940, the leading fine art journal of the ‘Third Reich’ proudly showed pictures of a large chest of drawers which had been specially constructed as a 50th birthday present for an SS Obergruppenführer, and which was decorated with intricate carvings, including alongside various forms of the swastika, images of the sun, of oak leaves, and of animals which symbolised fertility and good luck. This chest of drawers was imagined as a repository for the most important possessions of a peasant family, including the documents which would confirm the family’s racial purity.
The Nazis allowed the formation of a new religious group, the so-called Deutsche Glaubensbewegung or ‘German Faith Movement’. This was actually a coalition of paganist groups which were united largely by their reverence for the German Volk, and their hatred of the Jews. Members of this group wanted to replace elements of Christianity which they perceived as deriving from Judaism with pre-Christian Germanic beliefs. Worship of the sun was central to their doctrine and practice. They celebrated festivals based on the astronomical calendar, wearing cloaks and coarsely woven dresses, and carrying torches. The most well-known of these paganists was Erich Ludendorff, former commander of the German armies in the First World War, who, since taking part in the failed Nazi Putsch of 1923 had busied himself with producing literature attacking Jews, Freemasons, and Jesuits.
But we need to be cautious in even a brief look at how pagan worship of the sun and moon appealed to the Nazis. Hitler himself had no great interest in these ideas, and along with Goebbels, he had no desire to see existing religious beliefs replaced by others. Hitler and Goebbels did despise Christianity, and they shared a pathological hatred of everything Jewish, but they were practical politicians, focused on the day to day concerns of foreign and domestic policy. They recognised that although the Jews in Germany could be isolated and persecuted, the Protestant and Catholic churches had a deep hold on much of the German population, and, for all their resentment of priests, they accepted that they could not get rid of Christianity overnight. More realistically, they planned over decades to undermine the churches and to reduce their influence. And both were frankly sceptical about the bizarre religious notions of some of their colleagues in the Party.
In 1935, shortly after his appearance at the solstice festival in Heidelberg, Goebbels used the annual Party rally at Nuremberg to warn against the development of cults inside the Party. He noted in his diary in 1937, apparently without irony, that Hitler did not want to the Nazi Party ‘made into a religion’, or to be ‘elevated to a god’.
The reversion to sun and moon worship did not catch on with the broader public. The ‘German Faith Movement’ attracted less than 1% of the German population, which remained stubbornly committed for the most part, to the Christian calendar. Even Goebbels had to make concessions to this, giving an annual Christmas speech, and attending Christmas parties for party activists. Himmler’s effort to shift the emphasis in gift-giving within the SS from Christmas to the summer solstice with specially produced ‘midsummer candlesticks’ and ‘midsummer plates’ failed completely.
The dramas acted out in the light of torches at the Thingstätte were boring, and most of the fifty or so of these meeting places which were constructed in the early years of the regime remained little used in the cold and damp German climate. Today the torso-shaped amphitheatre on Heidelberg’s Holy Mountain survives, largely deserted, surrounded by vegetation, littered with empty beer cans left by teenagers, a mute testimony to the attempt to resurrect a pagan religion based on worship of the sun and moon.
An extraordinary collection of photographs of the remains of structures built by the Nazis can be seen at www.thirdreichinruins. The site includes a section on Thingstätte. Be warned about other websites! The subject of religion and the Nazis attracts more than the usual collection of cranks and fanatics!
For more on Joseph Goebbels, including his attitude to religion, see my own Joseph Goebbels: Life and Death (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
If you are interested in Nazi attitudes to religion , see
Doris Bergen, The Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (London and Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996)
Richard Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Or, if you can read German,
Kurt Meier, Kreuz und Hakenkreuz: Die evangelische Kirche im Dritten Reich (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1992)
Toby Thacker July 2013