Essay: David Bowie and the Third Reich

The world mourns David Bowie, and rightly so. He’s had an amazing career and he made the world a little brighter by being in it. He was a source of inspiration for countless musicians and other artists, not to mention an icon for the LGBTQ community. I visited the David Bowie Is exhibition in Groningen last week (which I highly recommend!) and I was delighted to see how he combined making art, theatre, fashion, film, and music; he himself was a masterpiece.

However, a celebrity’s death inevitably also unearths their more problematic characteristics, which people are quick to dismiss in the face of their virtues. In David Bowie’s case, something that came up a lot (which I was hitherto unaware of) was his love for fascism and his admiration of Adolf Hitler, whom he compared to a rock star. His persona the Thin White Duke was modelled on an Aryan Übermensch. It is a delicate subject; there are those who attribute the remarks to “cocaine psychosis and extreme misjudgement”, saying that the media exaggerated and “wilfully misunderstood” them (source). Others are not so quick to forgive Bowie and accuse him of having been a Nazi sympathiser and a white supremacist. What I want to do in this post is merely explain why he was seen as such; in no way do I defend his ideologies just because I like his music, nor will I condemn outright the things he said during a period where he claims to have been “politically naive” and likely under the influence of certain substances.

In a 1975 interview with NME Bowie proclaimed that rock and roll was dead and in need of a dictator, one leading figure to revive rock and roll from its ashes, just like the galvanization that happened in the early 1960s. (source) In 1976, Bowie invented his Thin White Duke persona. He was in the throes of his cocaine addiction, living in L.A., surviving on milk and red peppers, and “in a state of psychic terror” according to his biographer David Buckley. All of this culminated in the slicked-back hair, black-and-white suit and gaunt, pale features that ushered in a new era in Bowie’s career. The red mullet and face makeup of Aladdin Sane were definitely out of the window. The Thin White Duke, Bowie’s self-proclaimed nastiest persona, is a nihilistic and aristocratic “Aryan Superman” who sings about “love, loss and emotion with a profound intensity, but feeling nothing.” (source) Bowie invented him while working on the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. The album Station to Station (1976) drew on themes like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the Nazi fascination with Grail mythology, and Aleister Crowley’s occultism. Could we, for example, take his lyrics from his funky “Golden Years” to refer to the 1000 year Nazi empire? “I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years / Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years.”

Bowie on stage as the Thin White Duke.

While touring with Station to Station, Bowie’s admiration for Adolf Hitler became apparent. In an interview with Playboy, he said:

“Rock stars are fascists. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. . .Look at some of his films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger. It’s astounding. And boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience. Good God! He was no politician. He was a media artist. He used politics and theatrics and created this thing that governed and controlled the show for 12 years. The world will never see his like again. He staged a country […] People aren’t very bright, you know? They say they want freedom, but when they get the chance, they pass up Nietzsche and choose Hitler because he would march into a room to speak and music and lights would come on at strategic moments. It was rather like a rock ‘n roll concert. The kids would get very excited – girls got hot and sweaty and guys wished it was them up there. That, for me, is the rock ‘n roll experience.” (source)

Although the connotation “rock star” seems poorly chosen, there is no doubt about Hitler’s famous charisma, the way he roused millions of people into sharing his ideology, and the adoration from fans – mostly women – he enjoyed. Of course, Hitler greatly benefited from the technology, mainly the radio, and the propaganda carnival headed by Joseph Goebbels. Without these attributes he would certainly have had a much smaller reach. While some view the Germans as having been brainwashed in supporting the Führer and closing their eyes to the dirty underbelly of the Third Reich, the effect of his charisma on a population that was destitute and shamed by the losses inflicted on them during the Great War cannot be understated. The German people weren’t simply brainwashed; the seeds of poison that were sown found fertile soil. They were receptive to anyone that would make them feel like a great people again. The Nazis didn’t stay in power just because the population was afraid of them, but because of a certain intellectual attitude that the both the intellectual civilian and the “working man” had towards their own heritage.

More controversy chased Bowie during his Station to Station tour; Wikipedia mentions an instance where Bowie was detained in Eastern Europe for the possession of Nazi memorabilia (source) and according to his biographer he was quoted in Stockholm in the same month as saying that “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader.” Back on his home soil, a photograph taken as he arrived at Victoria Station in London in an open Mercedes convertible cooked up a storm. Bowie, who later said he was simply caught “mid-wave”, was said to be giving a Nazi salute to the crowd. The ensuing backlash shows that the power of the media cannot be underestimated. Around the same time, he said in an interview with Rolling Stone:

“Who knows? Maybe I’m insane too, it runs in my family, but I always had a repulsive sort of need to be something more than human. I felt very very puny as a human. I thought, ‘Fuck that. I want to be a superman.’ I guess I realised very early that man isn’t a very clever mechanism. I wanted to make better.” (source)

Given his interest in the Nazis during this time, he may actually have meant the idea of the Übermensch when he said “superman”, giving it a shape in the Thin White Duke.

Looking back on the Thin White Duke, Bowie defends himself by admitting that he barely remembers recording Station to Station, and recalls that he was not interested in the atrocities the Nazis had committed but in their obsession with the myth of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. He admitted that the charge of racism “has been raised ‘quite inevitably and rightly'”, but that the very idea of racism didn’t occur to him then, as he was working with black musicians and actually discussing these ideas about the Nazis with them. (source)

The Nazis’ interest in occultism has by now been made public and become the subject of debate. They were not merely, as was stated by the Allied leaders after the Nüremberg Trials that convicted most Nazi leaders, a bunch of megalomaniac bullies who exploited Germany’s economic low point, but “men of the highest caliber; the caliber of the atom splitters and the V-bomb designers.” (source) As the definitive work on this topic, Nicholas Goodrich-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism, states (p. vii): “Only religious beliefs and myth could explain the success of an ideology concerned with special racial and esoteric knowledge, the belief in a nefarious world-conspiracy of scheming Jews and other racial inferiors, and the apocalyptic promise of group salvation in a millenarian apotheosis of the German nation.”  (This absorbing work can be found as a pdf here for those interested.) If we take into account that Nazism was a form of political religiosity and compare it to the wars that are still being fought today in the name of religion, perhaps it doesn’t seem like such a stretch.

So what was it about the Nazi ideology that particularly appealed to Bowie? As stated before, the Nazis’ obsession with King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail interested him most. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade springs to mind, an action film that showed us fanatical Nazis obsessed with finding the Grail, thinking it would give them supernatural powers–and when I started reading about it I realised that this portrayal was not at all far off.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, a tide of general occult revival swept Germany and Austria, which derived its ideology from historic German paganism and theosophy (which tries to understand the mysteries of the universe and the connections between humanity, the universe, and the divine). This amalgam of Germanic mysticism and Germanic culture gave birth to groups of Ariosophists and Armanists (proponents of Aryan-esoteric beliefs connected to the völkisch movement) and rune-occultists. Important elements of their ideologies included the idea of the pure and noble Aryan race and the use of runic symbols and the swastika.  It’s thought that the Ariosophic movement was not a direct influence on Nazi ideologies, but Hitler admits in Mein Kampf to have read readily accessible pamphlets about topics like racial theory  when he lived in Vienna. (source, p. 194) Thus, it’s likely that the similarities between Ariosophy and his own black-and-white visions of a glorious thousand-year Aryan empire, wherein a divinely-ordained master race of blond, blue-eyed Übermenschen were served by enslaved inferior races, concreted and rationalized his worldview. (idem, p. 198)
Hitler was partial to the operas of Richard Wagner and his “chivalrous portrayal of the grail, its guardian knights and their idealism.” He liked the idea of stopping “racial decay” by forming an elite Order around “the holy grail of pure blood.” (idem, p. 197) One of the few pieces of music later deemed appropriate by the Third Reich was Wagner’s Parsifal, an opera in three acts based on the myth of the Arthurian knight Percival and his quest for the grail. The opera was performed 23 times between 1939 and 1942 in the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Wagner was known for his anti-Semitic views and pro-Aryan musical themes; however, there is no proof that Hitler ever read any of Wagner’s political writings, so it was just the music and its themes he liked. (source)
It’s important to remember that many high-ranking Nazis, Himmler and Hitler included, were not of noble birth, but dearly wanted to identify with an aristocratic race of ancestors. They craved a link to the past to make themselves a part of German history.
Germany’s losses in the Great War, economic depression and the Weimar republic were a bigger influence on the policies of the early Nazi party than the völkisch cultural movement. Hitler wasn’t much interested in the prehistoric genealogy of the Aryans beyond his own heritage, but Himmler was. (idem, p. 201-2) SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler searched for ancient myths that corroborated his vision of the noble Aryan race and its supremacy. He founded the Ahnenerbe institute to find proof for the racial heritage of the German people, but it increasingly became an outlet for his pseudo-science. (The Wikipedia article about the Ahnenerbe’s expeditions is fascinating and disturbing). Himmler’s right-hand man was the clinically-diagnosed schizophrenic and megalomaniac Karl Maria Wiligut (later named Weisthor), who initially coined the idea of Wewelsburg as the centre of the Germanic pseudo-religion. (source)
Wild theories surround Himmler’s stronghold, Wewelsburg Castle in Westphalia in central Germany, which according to some he chose “because it lies on a nexus of ‘ley’ energies.” There are rumours of rituals carried out by SS cults at Wewelsburg, and even claims that “the castle’s north tower was such a storehouse of powerful magical energies that all attempts to destroy it at the end of the war were in vain.” Himmler wanted to make the SS not just a racial elite, but a knightly order like the medieval Teutonic Knights: a disciplined and austere military order with secret rituals. Such an order necessitated a quest for knowledge, power, and conquest. The SS’s desire for “Lebensraum im Osten” was based on the Teutonic knights’ battles against the Slavs, which they lost (for example in the Battle of Grunwald). The historical fantasies they based their ideology upon would lead to the murder of millions.
Himmler required every member and their spouse to prove the purity of their bloodline as far back as 1800 (1750 for officers). All this would lead to the establishment of a pseudo-pagan state religion based on ancient Germanic rituals that would eventually supplant Christianity and safeguard the racial superiority of the German people. Wewelsburg was to be its Mecca. Himmler even placed a round oaken table for twelve senior SS officers in the Obergruppenfürhersaal in the north tower, and dedicated each room to a great figure from Germanic mythology. There was a room for King Arthur, one for the Holy Grail, and his own room was dedicated to King Heinrich, the founder of the First Reich: the Holy Roman Empire. (source)
The ideas of the grail and the Aryan knightly order that searched for it was very much alive in academic circles. Some even believed the grail really existed, though many simply saw it as a symbol of a glorious German past. In mythology, the grail represented eternal, spiritual values that the knights, tired of the earthly, materialistic plane, tried to obtain. (source, p. 108) Himmler visited Montserrat Abbey, near Barcelona, because according to Wagner’s Parsifal that was where the Holy Grail, said to have been used by Jesus Christ to consecrate the last supper, was to be found. He came away empty-handed. (source) The branch of archaeology was at that time in full swing, and Germans were excavating traces of the world’s most important sites, such as Babylon and Troy. The Ahnenerbe took advantage of German ubiquity at archaeological sites, and started digging for traces of their own glorious Aryan past.

David Bowie said: “[Hitler] was a perfect figurehead. . .He was a nut and everybody knew he was a nut. They’re not gonna let him run the country.” (source) Be that as it may, it’s shocking to think about Wewelsburg and what it represented: the deadly serious dedication of hundreds of thousands intellectual men imagining themselves to be the heirs of a mythical master race. Everything they did, from every signature on a transportation form, every stone of every edifice, every bullet that was fired, every death, every cup of tea Himmler poured from his special rune-engraved teapot, was in service of this ideal. It can well be imagined that his cocaine habits gave Bowie, who by then was already notoriously sensitive to identity complexes and riding the waves of adoration from millions of fans, the delusional idea that he, too, descended from a superior race that trod on inferiors on its way to the top. However, to my knowledge, for all his controversial statements, he did not act on them; and in the posthumous overviews of his career that are now popping up everywhere, he is praised for accusing MTV of not including enough black artists in their programming (source). Bowie lifted the yoke of the Thin White Duke when he moved to Berlin together with Iggy Pop, and made three albums that are widely considered to be among his best: Low, Heroes and Lodger.

*For more info on the topic I recommend the documentary Hitler’s Search for the Holy Grail, which can be found on YouTube.
**One of my favourite writers, Neil Gaiman, wrote a short story about the Thin White Duke in his new collection, Trigger Warning, and published it when Bowie passed away. It’s a wonderful story about a quest. There are no references to Nazism in there, though. It can be found here.

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