The late Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke was a much-respected scholar of Western esoteric traditions, most famous for his book The Occult Roots of Nazism (1985). In this he traced the völkisch and racist nationalist currents of esotericism and ‘Ariosophy’ in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany and Austria, which fed into the early days of Nazism via the Thule Society.

Prior to Goodrick-Clarke’s book, the influence of occult ideas on Nazi Germany had been wildly overstated in pulp fiction and non-fiction. This book acted as a solid reference point to reign in the febrile popular imagination. But it was as important for how it affirmed the influence of esoteric notions on the cultural climate of Nazism.

I read The Occult Roots of Nazism as part of my research into polar myths — the North and South Poles, and the pole star, figure prominently in the far-right imagination. I also looked into Black Sun, a follow-up intended to chart the continuation of Nazi esotericism and religious thinking after 1945. I thought I’d re-read it now in the light of current events.

Writing in 2002, his concluding paragraph refers to his research into the Ariosophists of fin-de-siècle Europe, and says:

But for the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, there would be scant interest in tracing these precursors of National Socialism. We cannot know what the future holds for Western multicultural societies, but the experiment did not fare well in Austria-Hungary, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The multiracial challenges in Western states are much greater, and it is evident that affirmative action and multiculturalism are even leading to a more diffuse hostility toward liberalism. From the retrospective viewpoint of a potentially authoritarian future in 2020 or 2030, these Aryan cults and esoteric Nazism may be documented as early symptoms of major divisive changes in our present-day Western democracies.1

This book is of course even more chilling now than it used to be.

The complete defeat of the Axis Powers in 1945 left the far right in deep disillusionment. Naturally — considering the romantic and fantastical strains in far-right thinking — many reacted to this disillusionment with a doubling-down on illusion. Rumours of Hitler’s survival were just the start. Some, such as Chilean diplomat and occultist Miguel Serrano, fantasised about the Third Reich maintaining a base in Antarctica, regrouping and waiting out liberal dominance. Odd scraps of information about experimental Nazi technology led to a wild proliferation of theories about UFOs and inter-dimensional travel.2 These fantasies ran through post-war alternative sub-cultures, getting boosted by drugs3  and alienation, merging with the explosion of conspiracy theory in the ’90s, and then feeding into the murky depths of the web which have played such a role in fomenting our post-truth present.

Of course not all post-war cultic fascism has been governed by these outlandish fantasies. Many have generally stuck to the standard delusions of racial superiority, a fragile and paranoid view of demographic shifts, and partial interpretations of religion. Christianity, Satanism, paganism: all are twisted to fit the agenda of white supremacy. Goodrick-Clarke documents each strain carefully, detailing their interconnections, and charting their transformations through time.

At times these errant factions are represented by tiny, incredibly marginal memberships, and sometimes you wonder if Goodrick-Clarke’s serious treatment of them lends them more dignity than they deserve. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but Goodrick-Clarke is right to err on the side of treating even those who might be surprised and gratified to form part of a major scholarly study with the seriousness that their poisonous ideas warrants. Even when marginal, far-right activism is littered with examples of the way the ideology fuels very real hatred and murderous violence.

At the same time, as can be seen in the passage quoted above, Goodrick-Clarke’s scholarly remove sometimes leads to positions that hover uneasily between detached realism and slippery appeasement. While always careful to utterly condemn fascism and racism, he concedes here and there that there are legitimate grievances among white populations beset by immigration. This results in a more generalised version of the dispute over whether the Brexit vote was essentially racist, or the voice of a neglected white working class who need to be listened to — and if, as seems likely, it’s a fiendishly complex mixture of the two, how do we coherently respond to it? Stats from both the Brexit and Trump votes suggest that economic hardship wasn’t as decisive a factor as most think, so it seems wise to avoid slipping into the ‘we must listen’ narrative that concedes important ground to racists. When Goodrick-Clarke states that the ‘new religions of white identity’ were becoming ‘all the more virulent for their political marginalization and repression’,4 it’s simultaneously hard to not see the reactionary dynamic, and hard to imagine what he’s advocating in terms of allowing these racists more room in society. I get the sense that Goodrick-Clarke occupied a conservative, perhaps moderate traditionalist position, and was deeply concerned at how extremism and racism might drag his position into the dirt.

The book is divided into chapters dealing with different topics: ‘esoteric Hitlerism’, Nordic racial paganism, Christian racism, black metal, Satanism. And while occasionally certain characters pop up in different contexts (usually far-right internationalists hopping between the US and Europe), the tension between these often contradictory factions is evident. Even the factor that seems to unite them — white supremacy — isn’t without complications. Those who adhere to Aryan supremacy often turn East, embracing the ‘Indo-‘ aspect of Indo-Europeans, and frequently folding Indian esoteric ideas such as kundalini yoga into their bloodline fantasies.

The seismic shock of 9/11 occurred barely a year before this book’s publication, and just gets a mention near the end. Here in 2017, watching post-9/11 Islamophobia fuel the rise of Trump, it’s interesting to find Goodrick-Clarke noting that many neo-Nazis celebrated the attacks:

American neo-Nazi groups of the 1960s were actually ultra-conservative and loyalist patriots. By contrast, the far right today [2002] sees itself not only at war with the U.S. government but with the American people themselves. The neo-Nazis even seek alliances with enemies whose totalitarian, theocratic and millennial instincts are a mirror of their own.5

We also find support among British neo-fascists in the ’70s and ’80s for Islamic anti-western militants. And of course, the common ground of virulent antisemitism drew Nazi occultists towards esoteric Islam as well as Hindu traditions. While the groups discussed are further along the far-right continuum than many of those who are currently colonising Washington, these historical affinities indicate deep contradictions within contemporary fascism. Together with Trump’s uneasy coalition of conservative Christians and devil-may-care libertarians, it’s clear that beneath the triumphalism are numerous fault lines.

But perhaps the most striking thing here, in contrast to the present political climate, is right there in the subtitle: ‘the politics of identity’. We’re now accustomed to this as a shorthand for the interests of oppressed minorities, seen either as corrosive by the right, or as a distraction from class conflict by some on the far left. I’m sure Goodrick-Clarke didn’t intend it, but the book’s focus on the politics of white identity acted as a reminder for me of the real origin of such politics. Forged as post-Columbus Europe cracked the world open to globalism, white identity is the response of materially powerful but psychically fragile populations desperately trying to cope with how the advance of their powers began to destabilise their previously insular Christian world. Simultaneously dealing with the fission of Christianity itself in bloody wars, and science’s undermining of religious belief, Europeans constructed an overwrought, compensating belief in themselves — which the ‘politics of identity’ that people bemoan today are largely a counter-compensation for.

There is, of course, no easy or quick resolution to this dynamic. But any moderation of its excesses begins with clear awareness of those in denial about its roots, who are actively trying to perpetuate it — and in this, Goodrick-Clarke’s book is an excellent and unfortunately timely resource.