Although Miller had never bothered to think about it, it was once out of these and other oceans of pine and beech that the old Germanic tribes had swarmed to be checked by Caesar at the Rhine. Later, converted to Christianity, they had paid lip service by day to the Prince of Peace, dreaming only in the dark hours of the ancient gods of strength and lust and power. It was this ancient atavism, the worship in the dark of the private gods of screaming endless trees, that Hitler had ignited with a magic touch.

—Frederick Forsyth, The Odessa File (chapter 17), 1972; with hyperlinks added

Is this literally true — that paganism/animism, residual from before the spread of Christianity, was partially responsible for the German populace's receptivity to Hitler — or is it a bit of invention? Or perhaps somewhere in between: it's not literally true as stated, but somehow metaphorically true?

  • 7
    The Odessa File is a work of fiction, not a work of history. It is a thriller, written by a journalist. The question is still valid, but part of historiography is analyzing the source material for potential bias. There is no presumption that the assertions presented in the novel serve any purpose other than to entertain and to activate the reader's atavistic impulses.
    – MCW
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 11:17

5 Answers 5


No, residual paganism was not a factor in Hitler's rise to power.

As far as anyone can say, that is. This theory you reference posits that the German people claimed to be Christian, yet practiced secret worship "in the dark" to pagan gods. No one can prove that no German ever worshipped a pagan god in secret.

But we can say this much: Christianity was firmly established in Germany after their pagan age, as firmly as it was established in any Christian country. Great Christian thinkers have come from Germany (such as Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoffer). The majority of the population has openly practiced Christianity for many centuries. And now, with the state no longer requiring the practice of Christianity, we see that only a vanishingly small number of Germans practice some kind of Teutonic pagan rites.

Strength and power have always held an allure to mankind, both in ancient times and in the modern age. Hitler and his kind didn't lust after power because some ancient ancestors of theirs did -- they lusted after power all on their own. Using the imagery of the ancient Germanic people was just a prop, theatrics by the Nazi movement. What appealed to people was the idea of a strong, stable German state.

  • 2
    +1, and thanks. Your line "Using the imagery of the ancient Germanic people was just a prop, theatrics by the Nazi movement" implies that the Forsyth quote I started from has a basis (albeit in Nazi propaganda rather than in fact), something that I didn't know and that, by itself, sort of answers my question.
    – msh210
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 7:02
  • @msh210, I'm glad it was of use.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 7:04
  • Possibly the theory implyes that some elements of pre-Christian culture were incorporated in German Christianity or worldview rather that they still covertly practised pagan rites?
    – Anixx
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 13:53
  • 1
    Good answer. +1. However, Bonhoffer might not be the best example, as Hitler had him executed.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 14:14
  • 2
    @T.E.D., Bonhoffer is an example of how Germany had strong Christian thinkers. The fact that Hitler was opposed to such thinkers should come as a surprise to no one.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 17:35

Continental Germany in fact converted to Christianity about the same time as the Anglo-Saxon peoples in England. It was only the Nordic countries, and some Eastern European ones, that came to Christianity significanly later.

So any residual paganisim is just as likely to exist in the (English-speaking) author's own culture, if not moreso.

Generally, I think the entire quoted passage is an attempt to distance the more repellent actions of wartime Germany from the author's own culture. It's all about the author's own insecurities, and has nothing to do with actual German culture.

The thought of a person much like oneself commiting atrocities is something a lot of people can't handle, so they have to find ways to make the perpetrator different somehow. The truth is there is nothing particularly special about Germans that makes them more likely to commit atrocities than your typical middle-american, African, Asian, Southeast Asian, or anybody else. We are all the same species, and we all have it in us.


Is this literally true — that paganism/animism, residual from before the spread of Christianity, was partially responsible for the German populace's receptivity to Hitler — or is it a bit of invention?

No, there was or is no real residual paganism, if by residual you mean that there's some unbroken continuity between pre-christian belief systems and modern pagans

Or perhaps somewhere in between: it's not literally true as stated, but somehow metaphorically true?

Something like this: Romaticism in the 19th century had a strong streak of romticizing pre-christian culture. This ties in with later antisemitism, where progress and liberalism where seen as a bad, corrosive influence on the pure German people and associated with the jews. This is the type of thiinking found in the antisemite work 'The protocols of the Elders of Zion'. So far, we are not talking about a solely German phenomenon.

Starting in the late 19th century, you had several occultist far right organizations like the Germanenorden and it's follow up, the Thule Gesellschaft (the latter used some symbols later to be used by the nazis, like the swastika).

What is important is that these groups and other occultists did not have any direct coontinuity with pagan customs. Instead, we have (mostly) well to do folks with a christian education. They are somehow unconfortable the way western societies are developüing, and look to an idealized past.

While this kind of anti-modern thinking, clad in pagan or pseudo pagan prose was (and is) part of nazism (and other fascisms, look at Julio Evola for a prominent thinker along similar lines), it would be wrong to attribute Hitler's rise to power to it. This kind of pseudo-paganism was always a fringe phenomenon.


Partly Responsible? No more "responsible" than dozens of other social, cultural, economic and political factors

While Forsythe's assertion as written is piece of artistic license, there was an association of pre-Christian symbolism, as reflected in such cultural icons as Richard Wagner's operas featuring pre-Christian German legends such as Der_Ring_des_Nibelungen.

Cultural nationalism had been a factor in the previous century's establishment of the German Reich (Bismarck and the Kaisers). Hitler wasn't doing anything new, he was building on what Bismarck had managed about a half of a century before Hitler tried his hand at establishing a long lasting Reich. Cultural nationalism was one of his many themes used for political purposes.

... in the early phase, cultural nationalists worked to recover or re-invent traditional cultural stories in order to argue for the importance of their people’s cultural experience. Then they used this unified canon (an established past) as a point to rally their people (an activist present) to forge a united nation (a proposed future). We see this pattern in Wagner as well.

Hitler and his party appealed to (among other things) nationalism in their efforts to take Germany in their political direction. FWIW, Wagner's legacy has in the last half of a century certainly come under fire, in part due to an association with nationalism and anti Semitism, which is also associated with Hitler and the Third Reich.

Your question suggests that one should consider the social context when that novel was published.

I read The Odessa File shortly after it came out. (Early 1970's.) At that time, the hunt of for some of the Nazis who had escaped to Argentina, Brazil, and elsewhere was alive in the Western context. It was also in the news now and again as various SS or other sorts were found.

This was an era when WW II movies were still very popular (The Longest Day, Raid on Rommel, the Dirty Dozen, the Boys from Brazil were all contemporary films to the novel's release). The Nazi was a standard trope-villain in both film and literature. (Robert Ludlum featured a few Nazis as the bad guys, or shadow bad guys, in his books, also popular at the time).

Given the time of Fortsythe's book's publication, his alluding to that symbolism -- the pre-Christian Germanic Volk and their legends/paganism -- is not a surprise. It was par for the course in that time and place for fictional treatments of the Third Reich. Given the sales of the book, and the movie after, it was part of a successful formula used by Forsythe and others.

  • 2
    Yes. National pre-histories have nothing to do with the character of modern nations. However nineteenth-century national imaginations of pre-history elements did perhaps become embedded in national psyches. When the British (or Americans) talk about Magna Carta, it is more about a nineteenth-century imagined Magna Carta, than the actual thirteenth-century historical event. Equally the origins of the German 20th century can be seen more in the nation's uncompleted nineteenth-century unification, despite its having been aided by images of pre-historic eagles etc. (cont)
    – WS2
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 23:13
  • 1
    And as for anti-Semitism, one must remember that the identification of "an enemy within" (Reichsfiend) was a Bismarkian legacy - found inter alia in his Kulturkampf against Roman Catholics.
    – WS2
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 23:26
  • 1
    @WS2 I don't underestimate the power of the national myth (whatever it is). See the Kosovo example, your well cited point on the Magna Carta is another variation on the same theme. While it is easy for any of us to try to categorize cause and effect in simplest terms, real culture, real history, and real people are a bit more complicated than that. Reductionism sells(in part) because it doesn't demand too much of the reader. Forsythe's throw away fit a formula. Anti Semitism been around Germany for some centuries Mainz/1st Crusade era is but one example. Commented May 18, 2016 at 1:57
  • 1
    Anti-Semitism existed across Europe for centuries. My only point was that the idea of "an enemy within" (Reichsfiend), in the context of a modern industrial state, was particularly developed, and has its genesis in late-nineteenth-century Germany. It was not something that arose out of, or was present in, Napoleonic Europe. For national myths Eric Hobsbawm in Hobsbawm & Ranger The Invention of Tradition is very useful.
    – WS2
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 14:59

I would say that the opposite would be true. The German anti-Semitism was firmly rooted in good old Christian anti-Semitism. What it made the German anti-Semitism special was that it also targeted those who converted to Christianity, but it did so by claiming they only paid lip service and that they were still Jewish.

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