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Cite as: Ward, Vanessa. 2008. Nationalist Uses of the Atlantis Myth in a Nordic Framework. PARA Research Paper A-10.

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Nationalist Uses of the Atlantis Myth in a Nordic Framework


Vanessa Ward

January 26, 2008

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            In a theoretical arena where it is difficult to prove any hypothesis beyond all doubt, interpreting the archaeological record of the distant past can be a highly speculative and, in some circumstances, dangerous activity.  The malleability of myth and the lack of written records make it especially vulnerable to appropriation by a nationalist agenda, particularly in the search for superior origins.  The perception of lacking a past, as exemplified by German National Socialists in the Third Reich, makes an exalted origin story all the more coveted.  What grander origin story than to claim descent from the lost kingdom of Atlantis, described so impressively by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato?  The Atlantis myth has been used in various nationalistic contexts, but perhaps never more forcefully and with such widespread ramifications than in seventeenth century Sweden and, in particular, Nazi Germany.  The use of the Nordic interpretation of Atlantis as a nationalist tool in Sweden provided the background for its much more lethal use in the Third Reich.  The theories of Olof Rudbeck, the Swedish engineer of the “Atlantis in the North” interpretation of Plato’s account, influenced the ideas of prominent German figures in the Third Reich, such as Schafer, Kiss, Wirth, Huth, and most importantly Himmler – the mastermind of the intellectual basis for German racial superiority.

            The first recorded mention of Atlantis is in Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, in which he describes a powerful rival of ancient Athens that existed beyond the Pillars of Hercules (assumed by most scholars to be the Straits of Gibraltar), before its decline into debasement attracted the anger of the gods and assumedly brought about its destruction (Forsyth 1980: 8-29).  Often seen as an allegory used by Plato to explore his notion of the ideal state and to critique the Athenian society of his day, many others have read his story literally, though quite often taking liberties with his location of Atlantis.  Olof Rudbeck (1630-1702), the anatomist, botanist, and eventual rector of Uppsala University in Sweden, was one such man.  He devoted the later part of his life to the search for lost Atlantis and believed himself to have found it – in his beloved homeland of Sweden with Old Uppsala as its capital, no less.  In his hefty four-volume work, Atlantica, the first volume of which was published in 1679 in Latin and Old Swedish, he proposed that one of Noah’s heirs, Japheth, settled in Sweden after the Biblical flood and fathered Atlas, the first king of Atlantis (Vidal-Naquet 1992: 318).  To him, the abundance of Sweden’s natural resources corresponded to the bounty of Atlantis.  He wrote, “Our banks and possessions are in the mountains and the forest rich with metals and wild animals, the lakes filled with fish, and the air filled with birds” (qtd. in Ekman 1962: 62).  Rudbeck’s pride in Sweden arose out of the period of military achievements and economic prosperity that began during the reign of Gustavus Adolphus (1611-1632), which Swedish historians refer to as the “Age of Greatness” (King 2005: 14).  As a relative newcomer to power, Sweden was often viewed by the rest of Europe as an “upstart nation”, prompting Rudbeck’s nationalist attempts to prove that the other European powers in fact owed their cultural heritage to the North (Ekman 1962: 59). 

            Rudbeck’s primary lines of evidence for his theory of a Nordic Atlantis were linguistic and geographical.  Using supposed similarities between particular Nordic runes and Greek and Roman letters, he proposed a Scandinavian origin for the alphabet (Ekman 1962: 61).  He equated Plato’s Atlas with the mythological Swedish king Atle who, according to the Norse Eddas in which he is mentioned, also ruled a flourishing kingdom that was eventually destroyed due to his own greed (King 2005: 146-147).  The discrepancy in names was compensated for by the fact that, as Plato himself had attested, the names had been translated from Atlantean to Egyptian and finally to Greek, via Solon’s interpretation of their meanings (Forsyth 1980: 20).  Rudbeck pointed out that Sweden even had its own Atlas Mountains, the Atlefjall, and that an old name for Sweden was Atland (King 2005: 147).  He circumvented the geographic problem of Plato’s location being beyond the Pillars of Hercules by arguing that this phrase was used to refer to numerous straits other than the Straits of Gibraltar.  He located the specific Pillars of Hercules referred to in the Atlantis story as the Oresund, perilous straits that separated Denmark and Sweden (King 2005: 149).  Again taking a philological approach, Rudbeck asserted that though the Greek word used by Plato to describe Atlantis, nesos (νήσος), was most often translated as “island”, it could also be translated as “peninsula” – a more fitting interpretation for a Swedish Atlantis (King 2005: 146).  As proof for the validity of this translation, he pointed to the fact that the same term “νήσος” was used in Greek texts to refer to the Peloponnesian peninsula. 

            Rudbeck’s Nordic-Atlantean theories, a product of his genuine love of country, were appropriated by the nineteenth century mystic Madame Helena Blavatsky and through the influence of Theosophy, of which she was the co-founder, eventually reached Nazi intellectuals.  Theosophy was an esoteric philosophical and religious movement that, as a conglomeration of various occult beliefs and mystical traditions borrowed from around the world, remained largely undefined (Cranston 1993: 145).  The opportunity for diverse interpretations this allowed and its exaltation of the Aryan race made Theosophy particularly appealing to early German nationalists.  Vidal-Naquet (1992) claims that, “The last disciples of Rudbeck were to be found among Hitler’s National Socialists even before they came to power” (323).  One such disciple was Alfred Rosenburg who argued in his book, Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), that the people of Atlantis were Aryans and had spread over much of the civilized world including Palestine, implying that Jesus himself, a foreigner, was likely to have been Aryan instead of Jewish (Vidal-Naquet 1992: 323).  Theosophy became popular in Germany after 1933 when citizens were encouraged by the new administration of the Third Reich to discard Christianity, with its weighty Jewish influence, and find an alternative religious system (Hale 2003: 26).  Blavatsky herself, though of Russian heritage, had claim to German blood from her father’s side of the family, who were descendents of the Hahn’s – well known German counts and countesses (Cranston 1993: 5).  In her book, The Secret Doctrine, published in 1888 with the Tibetan symbol of the swastika on the cover, Blavatsky proclaimed that the people of Atlantis were a fourth root race in a series of evolutionary stages, succeeded by the Aryans (Hale 2003: 25-26).  She placed the location of Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean, and described how the Atlanteans’ ambition and misuse of power led to their divinely orchestrated destruction.  From this point she continued where Plato left off, describing how an elite priesthood escaped the submergence and took refuge in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, before settling in Shambhala, a mythical place in the Himalayas.  The Aryans, a new race in Northern Asia, inherited the wisdom of these surviving Atlanteans and spread southwest bringing this wisdom with them (Hale 2003: 26).  Her theories had a significant impact on German thought, at all levels of the emerging Nazi power structure.

            One such figure, at the highest rungs of power, was Heinrich Himmler himself.  Convoluted occult beliefs such as Blavatsky’s appealed to him; he had been involved in numerous occult societies in the early 1920’s, including the prodigious Artamanen-Gesellschaft (Hale 2003: 30).  This society, which drew in part on Blavatsky’s work, incorporated Nordic mysticism into a glorified German folk culture.  Himmler was fascinated by the Atlantis myth, eastern mysticism, and pseudoscientific theories, such as the World Ice Theory – a glacial cosmogony developed by the Austrian engineer Horbiger in which the driving creative force in the universe was a constant conflict between fire and ice (Hale 2003: 118).  Conjectures such as this were especially appealing because they rejected the “Jewish” science of widely accepted theories like Einstein’s. 

Himmler set up the Ahnenerbe, the national heritage institute, as a part of the SS in order to indulge his somewhat peculiar interests and to provide support for Hitler’s claims of racial superiority.  Through the Ahnenerbe, archaeologists were sent to diverse geographic regions to find evidence of scattered Aryan populations.  Himmler’s primary training had been in agriculture and the military; he was not well versed in international historical scholarship (Oesterle 1994: 198).  As such, he preferred to surround himself with scientists and scholars of questionable scientific practice, rather than recognized authorities, who would not scorn his odd beliefs and interests (Oesterle 1994: 198).

            Himmler oversaw a number of expeditions led by his favoured archaeologists, scientists, and scholars, to regions that he believed might have a connection to Atlantis and the ancient Aryans.  Hitler, not altogether approving of these archaeological interests, may have been unaware of some of the uses to which Himmler was putting SS resources.  Hale (2003) asserts that, “Archaeological digs in search of Aryan remains and cult objects obsessed Himmler to such a degree that it provoked even Hitler’s scorn” (123).  One of the Ahnenerbe expeditions that seems to have been dearest to Himmler’s heart was the Tibet project, led by the ambitious ornithologist, hunter, and adventurer Ernst Schafer.  This expedition, influenced by Blavatsky’s theory of Atlantean precursors to Aryan wisdom living in the Himalayas, even included a stop in the Gobi Desert (Pringle 2006: 150).  Schafer’s team included both an entomologist and a geophysicist, demonstrating the holistic and somewhat ambiguous nature of an expedition that sought to take advantage of any and all research opportunities that might present themselves along the way.  The team also included the anthropologist Bruno Beger, who was responsible for investigating potential Nordic fossils and skeletons, as well as studying the local Tibetans through various “racial scientific” methods such as craniometry, composing trait lists, taking bodily measurements, and molding face masks (Hale 2003: 129).  While not personally believing in Aryan-Atlantean remnants in Tibet, Schafer seems to have kept his scepticism to himself so as to enjoy the continued support of the SS leader (Pringle 2006: 150).  This demonstrates that individual scholars may have supported the National Socialist use of the Atlantis myth in their research without actually being indoctrinated into it themselves.  It is also likely that the Tibet expedition had aims completely unrelated to Atlantis, such as political and military espionage (Hale 2003: 15).

Edmund Kiss, another favourite of Himmler, was a far more fervent believer in the myth of Atlantis.  He proposed, along with his friend the Austrian amateur archaeologist Posnansky, that the Andean city of Tiwanaku had been built by Nordic survivors of Atlantis (Hale 2003: 119-120).  During his independent trip to Tiwanaku in 1928, Kiss believed himself to have found a calendrical inscription on the Gateway to the Sun that portrayed the Earth’s primordial conditions, thus making Tiwanaku millions of years old (Pringle 2006: 182).  He also claimed to have found a large sculpture of a man’s head that clearly reflected Nordic facial characteristics.  He said that the art and architecture of Tiwanaku were “probably the creations of Nordic men who arrived in the Andean highlands as representatives of a special civilization” (qtd. in Pringle 2006: 181).  Kiss and Posnansky rejected any claim that indigenous Andeans were responsible for the origination of Tiwanaku, and suggested that the immigrant Aryans had engaged the locals to help with the basic construction (Pringle 2006: 181).  Kiss’ ideas were popularized in a series of fantasy novels, and Die Hitler Jugend, the official Hitler Youth magazine, ran well received articles on his research (Pringle 2006: 182).      

Perhaps most similar to the seventeenth century theories of Olof Rudbeck are those of Herman Wirth, who was placed in charge of the Ahnenerbe by Himmler in 1935 (Pringle 2006: 62).  He fervently believed that the original Atlanteans were a circumpolar Nordic people, whose continent of Atlantis ended up in the Atlantic Ocean due to his imagined process of polar shift (Hale 2003: 86).  Like the majority of other hyperdiffusionists who promoted the Atlantis myth, he proposed that the ancient Atlantean system of runes became the basis of all writing systems that later developed (Tumasonis 1992: 85).  To confirm his theories, he undertook the first major Ahnenerbe expedition in search of Aryans abroad – to Bohuslan in southwestern Sweden, to study the region’s thousands of granite engravings (Pringle 2006: 62).  He interpreted the numerous circular designs and disc shapes he observed as ideograms for the sun, claiming that they traced its annual movements across the sky (Pringle 2006: 72).  Based on the long periods of darkness in the North followed by periods of light, the worship of a Nordic rebirth or resurrection god seemed logical to Wirth, whom he referred to as Odal (Tumasonis 1992: 85).  Thus, the monotheistic religion of Nordic Atlantis preceded that of Christian monotheism; the notion of divine resurrection came from the North. 

Wirth’s theories drew attention and support from prominent German figures other than Himmler, such as the coffee mogul Ludwig Roselius.  As part of his architectural building project, the Bottcherstrasse, Roselius included a building called the Haus Atlantis, to be built by the architect Hoetger and dedicated to Wirth’s research (Tumasonis 1992: 87).  Unfortunately for the three of them, Hitler despised the “decadent” and “idolatrous” architecture of the Bottcherstrasse (Tumasonis 1992: 89).  Exasperated with Wirth’s open animosity towards the Catholic and Protestant churches which seemed likely to incite conflict, and his portrayal of ancient Aryan civilization as a matriarchy, Hitler publicly denounced both Roselius and Wirth at a party convention in 1936 (Pringle 2006: 91-92).  While Himmler favoured Wirth, he valued his precious Ahnenerbe much more.  To avoid further derision from Hitler and the Reich education minister Harmjanz, who scorned Wirth’s theories, Himmler decided to silence Wirth and withdraw any further support for him (Oesterle 1994: 205).  This illustrates that there was not a unified view of German origins and the Atlantis myth even at the top of the power hierarchy.  It seems that as far as most Nazi officials were concerned, the myth of Atlantis was accepted only so long as it promoted Aryan racial superiority, rather than for any historical merit in and of itself.

Based on his secondary studies of the North Atlantic Ocean floor, Wirth had estimated that Atlantis, after its continental shift, had stretched from Iceland to the Azores islands.  The only parts to remain above water after the submergence were Cape Verde and the Canary Islands (Pringle 2006: 60-61).  Influenced by this theory, a former protégée of Wirth’s, Otto Huth, planned an expedition to the Canary Islands that would include an archaeologist to search for potsherds and stone tools similar in form to those of the ancient Nordic peoples.  Inspired by accounts written by some early European explorers who described the Canary Islanders as being blond and fair skinned, Huth proclaimed, “Separated from the disturbances of European world history, the ancient Nordic civilization blossomed undisturbed on the happy islands until it was destroyed” (qtd. in Pringle 2006: 187).  The discovery of mummies with pale hair further encouraged this sort of speculation, despite the warnings of the American anthropologist Hooton that chemically based preservatives and the effects of time could bleach the hair (Pringle 2006: 186).  As so many of his colleagues before him, Huth simply ignored or rationalized any evidence contrary to his belief in a dispersed Nordic Atlantean civilization.

That the Nordic Atlantis myth could be have been applied to such geographically diverse and unrelated areas as the Canary Islands, Tibet, Tiwanaku, and Sweden, profoundly demonstrates the malleability of mythic history to fit almost any requirements in the construction of a national origin story of monumental proportions.  The nationalistic use of the Atlantis myth in seventeenth century Sweden and in Nazi Germany also illustrates the power of individual agency in shaping history.  Olof Rudbeck almost single-handedly developed the Swedish-Nordic interpretation of Atlantis that trickled down to Nazi Germany, and without Himmler’s obsessive fascination with an Aryan connection to Atlantis, it is doubtful that this theory would have been so influential.  Inherent in these Atlantean origin stories are an assumption of some form of racial and ideological continuity from the distant past and a belief in hyperdiffusionism – that some peoples are dispensers of culture while other peoples simply pick up the scraps.  In response to Himmler’s intense interest in German prehistory, Hitler once complained, “Why do we call the whole world’s attention to the fact that we have no past?” (qtd. in Pringle 2006: 66).  It was precisely this ingrained assumption of lacking a history that Himmler was striving to wipe out with his conjectures of an exalted past, a past that would place the Aryans in the role of cultural dispensers on a scale of unbeatable proportions.     




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