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Otto Rahn: author, poet, Grail seeker, SS officer

The German author Otto Rahn wrote a series of books on the Grail, which he believed was physically real, and not merely the figment of medieval authors’ imagination. His quest took him to the South of France, where his excavations have since fuelled speculation that he and the Nazi regime of his time “might” have uncovered the Grail.

Philip Coppens

In February 2007, Montserrat Rico Góngora published “The Desecrated Abbey”, in which he claimed that Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s second-in-command and head of the Nazi SS, had made a secret wartime mission to an abbey in Spain, in search of the Holy Grail. Góngora even interviewed Andreu Ripol Noble, a former monk and the only person that spoke German, who was ordered by his superiors to guide Himmler during the visit in 1940. Ripol related that Himmler came to Montserrat inspired by Richard Wagner’s opera “Parsifal”, which mentions that the Holy Grail could be kept in “the marvellous castle of Montsalvat in the Pyrenees” – the mountain range that marks the border between France and Spain.
What is less know, is that Himmler visited other castles in the area, including that of Quermanco, north of Girona. A photograph exists of Himmler in front of the castle. The photo shows Himmler is holding a book in his hand by Otto Rahn, a German SS officer who had lived in Southern France and who was convinced that the Grail was not simply the figment of medieval authors’ imagination, but a real, physical artefact, hidden somewhere in or near the Pyrenees. It was Rahn that set Himmler on his Grail Quest.

Nigel Graddon, author of “Otto Rahn and the Quest for the Grail”, describes his subject as “an academic, historian, author, mediaevalist, philologist, Grail hunter, sleuth, explorer, genealogist, screenwriter, philosopher, metaphysician and mystic and, despite the foregoing, indecipherable and indefinable.”
Rahn should be seen in the same category as Ernest Schäfer, an ambitious zoologist who specialised in ornithology and big-game hunting. Together with Bruno Beger, Schäfer went on an expedition to Tibet in 1938-1939; other expeditions included Heinrich Harrer’s trip, immortalised as “Seven Years in Tibet”. Harrer’s expedition, nevertheless, did not have the official stamp of approval of the Schäfer Expedition, both from Himmler and the Ahnenerbe, the research bureau in charge of proving that the old Germany myths were historical fact.
Schäfer’s mission was to reach Lhasa, a daring task in those days. Some speculate Hitler was trying to find out whether Tibet would be willing to wage war with India, while others argue that making contact with Tibetan mystics was the main ambition. Either way, Schäfer succeeded, largely using the Nazi Party as a financier for his private ambitions.

While Schäfer was trying to reach Lhasa and the Tibetan mystics, Rahn was trying to find the Holy Grail and had embedded himself into a group of French experts on Catharism, a heretical movement that the Church tried to stamp out in the 13th century by organising a most vicious crusade, which resulted in a months’ long siege of the last Cathar stronghold, Montségur, a castle on a 3000 foot mountain.
Rahn was born in 1904 in Michelstadt, a small town not far from Frankfurt. It was his father Karl who introduced him to the great German legends of Parzival, Lohengrin, and the Nibelungenlied. After obtaining his bachelor in 1922, and further studies at the Universities of Heidelberg, Giessen, and Freiburg, he travelled abroad. When a French family invited him to visit Geneva in 1931, the travel bug soon led him to France, and then onwards to the Pyrenees.
In the Pyrenees, Rahn became part of the revival of Catharism, largely by befriending Antonin Gadal, one of its leading researchers. Gadal grew up in the house next to the Tarasconian historian Adolphe Garrigou, who should be seen as the real spark that ignited interest in Catharism. Rather than just an aberration of Christianity, these Gadal and Garrigou began to define Catharism as unique religion, coming from the East, that taught a doctrine of love, respect, gender equality and so much more, which had to be destroyed by the Catholic Church, which realised that without action, it would loose its support and power, with Catharism becoming the new religion that could easily conquer Europe.

The end result of all of Rahn’s acquired knowledge was “Crusade Against the Grail” [Kreuzzug gegen den Gral], which was published in 1933 and which made him into a relatively well-known author in Germany. In the book, Rahn argued that the Grail Castle was physically real, was Montségur, and that the Cathars were the guardians of this sacred relic. These conclusions echoed what Gadal and others were writing in France, and Rahn should largely be seen as the promoter of the “Cathar Pyrenean cause” within Germany.
Alas, the Germany of the 1930s saw the escalation of Hitler and Himmler’s search for an “Aryan past”, in which the Grail was a treasured myth. And though at first sight it might seem more French than German, Wagner himself was inspired by the writings of Wolfram von Eschenbach, one of the principle authors on the Grail – and a fellow German.

There has been endless speculation whether Rahn came to France as part of a Nazi plot – or spy – or whether it was only after the publication of his book that he was enrolled as a valuable Nazi propaganda asset. The evidence suggests the latter scenario was more likely, if only because Rahn is known to have had serious financial problems, often having to borrow money to make his trips – and often unable to pay people back. If the Nazis wanted him in the south of France, it is likely they would have guaranteed his presence, simply by paying him to get there – and be able to stay there. But a quick survey of his travels makes it immediately apparent Rahn was never “their man” on the ground.
The link between Rahn and the SS was especially promoted by Col. Howard Buechner in his 1991 book “Emerald Cup – Ark of Gold. The Quest of SS Lt. Otto Rahn of the Third Reich”. The book was clearly inspired by “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, and focused on the Treasure of Solomon and the role of Rahn in finding the treasure of Montségur, and the Nazis subsequently recovering it. Buechner argued that the Wewelsburg, the “Grail Castle” of the SS, was intended to become its final resting place, though in the same book, Buechner argues that it is more likely that the castle would welcome the Holy Lance, whereby the Cup of Christ would only be recovered by Otto Skorzeny in 1944 from Montségur and taken a secret location.
Buechner’s claims are, in some circles, gospel. But Buechner is in truth a very controversial figure. In 1986, he wrote “The Hour of the Avenger”, in which he claimed that 520 Prisoners of War had been intentionally killed by American soldiers after the Dachau concentration camp had surrendered to the American troops. The man Buechner held responsible for this massacre was 1st Lt. Jack Bushyhead, a "full-blooded Cherokee Indian". Buechner claimed that Bushyhead avenged the horrors inflicted on the Native Americans and acted out of kinship with the Jews.
It is a tall claim to make, and one unsupported by any evidence. Though the US Army did investigate claims of alleged mistreatment of German guards at Dachau, there are no reports or references to an incident in which 346 SS men were shot at the coal yard wall. Buechner himself, in testimony given during that 1945 investigation, never referred to this incident. He only wrote about it in 1986 in his self-published book. In his book, "The Day the Thunderbird Cried", David L. Israel wrote: “Buechner's inaccuracies and arbitrary use of figures in citing the untrue story about the total liquidation of all SS troops found in Dachau was eagerly accepted by Revisionist organizations and exploited to meet their own distorted stories of Dachau. However, in a report published by the Dachau International Committee it is clearly stated that 160 German prisoners were utilized in cleaning up the camp in the days following liberation.”

Col. Howard Buechner

So Buechner’s biography of Rahn and his role within the SS is not only controversial, but also inaccurate. Furthermore, whether or not Rahn was sent to France on an SS mission only takes away from what we know about his exploits there. For example, in March 1932 a controversy broke out in a local newspaper, “La Depeche”, which published articles about the activities of a group of Polaires that were excavating in Montségur. Otto Rahn was mentioned – though his name twice misspelled, once as Rams, once as Rahu. It was said that he was the leader of this group, and his German nationality was underlined, as there was still much anti-German sentiment amongst the French population because of the First World War. Gadal wrote a letter to the paper in Rahn's defence, saying that his visit had nothing to do with the Polaires, and Rahn himself subsequently wrote in that his stay in France was totally legitimate, that he had never heard of the Polaires before coming to the Ariège, and that he was simply a writer interested in the Cathars.
Indeed, Rahn became involved with the Polaires, and several authors have made controversy out of a molehill. Still, the Polaires were an interesting group, who were indeed doing excavations at Montségur, not for the Grail, but for “the Oracle”, which they believed would enable communication with Agartha, a mythical place in the Tibetan Himalayas, and the “Masters of the World” that had apparently taken up residence there. We can only wonder whether Schäfer’s mission had anything to do with them.
The Polaires believed that the Pog of Montségur was specifically important because the Pyrenean mountain acted as a type of “relay mountain” for messages that were to be communicated to – if not from – the Agartha Masters in their Himalayan stronghold.

Though Rahn was officially not a member of the Polaires, that in itself is a technicality: he definitely knew everyone involved. It had been Maurice Magre who had encouraged Rahn, at that time researching at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, to leave the books behind and do work on the ground. Magre was a member of the Polaires and he introduced Rahn to the likes of Countess Pujol-Murat, who not only financed the excavations, but who was claimed to be the incarnation of Esclarmonde de Foix, one of the last Cathar heretics that had taken refuge in Montségur. Rahn had a deep Platonic friendship with her – Rahn known to have been gay. In this circle was also Arthur Caussou, who told Rahn that Esclarmonde de Foix had been none other than the character Repanse de Joie, the Grail Maiden of the Grail novels. And it is here that the backbone of his 1933 book was born, and the belief that the Grail was physically real.

Much of the information about Rahn’s personal life comes from Paul Ladame, a trusted friend of Rahn. Though Ladame only knew Rahn while the latter was in France, Ladame unexpectedly crossed his friend in a Berlin street during the 1936 Olympic Games, but was surprised to see him in a black SS uniform. Ladame said Rahn was ill at ease to be seen like that, but claimed he had received “a mysterious telegram while he was in Paris. As usual, he was depressed because he was having difficulties finding backers for a French translation of Crusade. He was so poor that he had to pawn his watch to buy bread. The person who wrote the telegram did not give his name, but offered him 1000 Reichsmarks per month to write a sequel to the book.” After the money was transferred, Rahn was told to return to Germany, 7, Prinz Albrechtstrasse, in Berlin. The man who welcomed him there was Heinrich Himmler himself, who invited him to join the SS as a civilian historian and archaeologist. Rahn told Ladame: “What was I supposed to do? Turn him down?” Thus, Rahn became the SS expert on the Grail and, it seems, a friend of Himmler.
Rahn has often been depicted as a vagabond, largely because he indeed seemed unable to work with money. Still, his promotion to the inner circle of the SS – working closely for Himmler – should not have come as a total surprise. In 1933, following the publication of his book, Rahn was making new friends in the broadcasting world. These included Sven Schacht, son of bank-president
Hjalmar Schacht, a man who was up close and personal with the Nazi elite.

Rahn’s second book, “Lucifer’s Court, a Journey to Europe’s Good Spirits” [Luzifers Hofgesind, eine Reise zu den guten Geistern Europas] was published in 1937. The book is largely a travel diary – including his participation in an SS expedition to Iceland, no doubt in search of evidence for “Thule” – and is largely in the same line as his Grail book. This time, rather than identify Lucifer with the Devil, he identifies him with the Pyrenean Abellio or the Greek God Apollo – all light bearers.
Some believe that Rahn purely wrote the book for the money and that it was largely a critique of the Nazi party – which he may have held to be the true court of the devil. There is evidence that some amendments to the manuscript were made, specifically anti-Jewish sentiments, to make it fit into the Nazi party line.

Though Rahn had made it to the higher ranks of the Nazi elite, it is not altogether clear what happened next. Some claim that after the publication of the book, there was a frank exchange of words with Himmler, resulting in Rahn’s guard duty at Dachau concentration camp as a penalty for this disobedience. Others merely see his military service at the Dachau in late 1937 as something every SS officer had to do, and Rahn was no different. Indeed, it is likely that this posting was postponed as long as possible, so that Rahn could finish the book. Furthermore, after his service at Dachau ended, he was granted leave to devote himself totally to his writing. But soon after, in February 1939, he resigned from the SS, dying shortly afterwards on March 13, 1939 on the mountains near Kufstein.
The precise details of his death are unknown and have been the subject of immense speculation. Some speak of an accident, others of murder, though the conclusion that it was suicide is nevertheless the most likely.
But Rahn would remain a man of mystery even in death. French author Christian Bernadac believes his death was merely part of a larger Nazi ploy, with Rahn changing his name to Rudolph Rahn, who died in 1975. As there are photographs of both men, their difference in appearance is explained by Rahn having received extensive cosmetic surgery. However, that Rahn died in 1939 is the most likely option; if he was alive, why would Himmler, in 1940, have had to resort to Rahn’s book while visiting the various Cathar strongholds in the Pyrenees – if the author himself was still alive?

So what is the appeal of Rahn? Today, it is largely the question whether the Nazis were purely monsters, or whether they were obsessed with sacred relics and went to any lengths in order to attain them.
It is definitely a fact that in his time, Rahn popularised the notion that the characters described by Wolfram von Eschenbach in his Grail account were not fictional, but were fictionalised: that, in origin, they were Albigensian Cathars, and that Montségur was the Grail Castle.
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke in “The Occult Roots of Nazism. Secret Aryan cults and their influence on Nazi ideology” underlines that Rahn, Himmler and Weisthor, who was labelled Himmler’s Rasputin, were like-minded individuals, working closely together. He observed: “This common ground concerns the search for a lost Germanic tradition, supposedly obscured or destroyed by the Catholic Church and other hostile interests. In September 1935 Rahn wrote excitedly to Weisthor about the places he was visiting in his hunt for grail traditions in Germany, asking complete confidence in the matter with the exception of Himmler. The attempt to discover such a tradition indicates the passion shared by Rahn, Weisthor and Himmler alike. All three men believed a secret key to ancient pagan culture could be found in the present.”

Heinrich Himmler

But in the final analysis, Rahn was an author who became caught up in a national obsession, meeting very important and influential people, but equally realising absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in the case of Nazi Germany, killed without remorse and without reason. Though Dachau in 1939 was not yet the horrendous concentration camp the Americans would discover in 1944, it was nevertheless apparent for any intelligent person what was happening and would happen.
It is therefore likely that unable to extract himself from the cocktail he had created, he knew that suicide was the only way out. And for Nigel Graddon, the little evidence available about Rahn’s death is that his suicide could indeed have been performed conform to how it was believed Cathars had committed suicide. Just like the Cathars preferred suicide over abandoning their faith and purity at the fall of Montségur, so, it seems, Rahn preferred his own spiritual purity rather than aide a regime that aimed for racial purity.

Rahn was dead, but a myth was born, both about himself, and about the quest for a physical Grail. We know Himmler came to the Pyrenees convinced that it was there. In 1943, a group of German geologists, historians and ethnologists camped on Montségur's summit and made searches in the vicinity of the Gorge de la Frau. The excavation lasted until November 1943 and resumed in the spring of 1944. What or if they found something is unknown, and as such the subject of intense speculation.
Buechner and others, like Johannes and Peter Fiebag in “The Discovery of the Grail” [Die Entdeckung des Grals], claim that a group of people around Himmler in the last days of the war realised it was now or never if they wanted to recover the Grail from Montségur. They claim that Otto Skorzeny was identified as the expedition leader.
If such a mission was ever going to be organised, Skorzeny would indeed have been the ideal candidate. In July 1943, he was personally selected by Hitler from among six German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) special agents to locate and free the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had been overthrown and imprisoned by the Italian government. On September 12, Skorzeny organised a daring glider-based assault on the Campo Imperatore Hotel at Gran Sasso, where Mussolini was kept. He was rescued without firing a single bullet and Skorzeny escorted him back to Rome.

In his memoirs, Skorzeny makes no mention of any expedition to the Pyrenees, though of course, the question is whether one should expect to see such a mention. On the one hand, Skorzeny had little time for Himmler, who used to irritate him during meetings and official dinners. On the other hand, Skorzeny was married to Schacht’s daughter, and noting that Rahn was a family friend of the Schatchts, perhaps Skorzeny was willing to lead such an expedition because of these family ties?
But by 1944, Germany knew it would loose the war and it was Skorzeny who almost single-handedly had to delay the surrender, so that he had more time to secure the Nazi money for post-war purposes and prepare the so-called Ratlines, which would allow the Nazi leaders to escape to foreign and safe shores. Against this background, Skorzeny would likely have foregone any expedition to retrieve the Grail, knowing it was in a secure location in France already. Instead, he would likely have preferred to use his network after the war, which would not only provide him with a low-profile, local team of specialists, but also with plenty of time to do what he wanted to do. However, there is no evidence he ever did anything.
Instead, on March 16, 1944, Montségur residents gathered on the Pog to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the massacre of Montségur, in which hundreds Cathars preferred to burn at the stake rather than renounce their Cathar faith.
Eyewitnesses state that as noon was approaching, a German Fieseler Storch arrived overhead and put on an impressive aerial display, carving an enormous Celtic cross into the sky, before flying off towards Toulouse. The onlookers bared their heads in respect. Later, authors claimed that the pilot was Skorzeny, or even Rahn – in his new identity – but it is known neither man was in the right location at this time in order to pull of this feat. Instead, it is perhaps best to conclude that the pilot had become exposed to Rahn’s literature and while stationed in France, would have decided to commemorate Catharism in his own special way. If Rahn had still been alive, he would no doubt have appreciated the gesture.

This article appeared in New Dawn, Volume 10, Number 9 (July - August 2008).