The Nazis have always made great villains and for good reason. Their twisted philosophies, seemingly all-encompassing presence during World War II, their ruthlessness, and their numerous secret projects have all sort of wreathed them with this ominous air of evil and inscrutable mystique. Throw in stories of unleashing top secret super weapons, occult powers, secret underground lairs, and quests for powerful ancient artifacts and you have the perfect recipe for a mysterious villainous organization. Yet the movie portrayal of Nazis is not always as completely so far removed from reality as one might think. Indeed, the Nazis were deep into research, expeditions, and experiments that are just as fantastic and at times downright absurd as any fiction involving them, and they were involved in the dark world of the weird and the occult to a degree many might not be aware of. Truth is indeed sometimes stranger than fiction, and man’s propensity for evil knows few boundaries. It is a potent combination that makes the reality of the Nazis something at once stranger and far more terrifying than any movie depiction of them.
Hitler and many of the Nazi leaders had an interest in the occult that is quite well documented, and in fact the Nazi Party had originally started as a sort of occult fraternity in the days before their meteoric rise to a devastating political force. This intense interest in the occult and the arcane led to the significant expansion of a secret cabal known as the Ahnenerbe, which had been originally founded on July 1, 1935, by Heinrich Himmler, who would later become the notorious leader of the SS, along with Herman Wirth, and Richard Walther Darré. The Ahnenerbe literally means "inherited from the forefathers,” and started out ostensibly as an institute dedicated to researching the archeological, anthropological, and cultural history of Germanic heritage, but in actuality it was more to find evidence that would support the German theory that the Aryan race was a superior and god-like people from whom the Germans descended. In this sense, they were more an agent of propaganda looking to find so-called scientific evidence or proof to support their twisted ideologies. To this end, this shadowy organization funded numerous expeditions and archeological digs all over the world in places as far flung as Germany, Greece, Poland, Iceland, Romania, Croatia, Africa, Russia, Tibet, and many others, looking for lost arcane runes, artifacts, relics or ruins that would bolster their claims that they were the prefect race above all others. Tibet was of special importance to the Ahnenerbe, as it was believed that it was here that a mysterious lost civilization existed that had been the origins of the pure, perfect Aryan race and which perhaps still lived in vast subterranean cities.
It was not long before the operations of the Ahnenerbe branched out from their brand of “science” and out into the outer edges of the occult, and perhaps considering the pedigree of its founding fathers it is no surprise. Herman Wirth was a Dutch historian obsessed with finding the location of Atlantis, and future SS leader Himmler had an intense well-known fascination with all things occult to a disturbing degree. In fact, Himmler was somewhat of a crackpot, who had grand desires to one day replace the Christian religion with one of his own making, and he was one of the driving forces behind the Ahnenerbe’s steady divergence from its original purpose and increasing role as a tool of the occult. As this ominous organization pulsed and grew, it fanned out around the world on numerous fantastic quests that seem like something straight out of an Indiana Jones film. They delved into the remote areas of the world looking for lost lands, various ancient relics, mystical texts, magical items, weird curiosities, bizarre paranornmal locations, and strange supernatural artifacts of all kinds. With the official Nazi endorsement and expansion of the institute, the Ahnenerbe expanded to approximately 50 branches dealing with everything from long range weather prediction, to archeology, to ESP research and the supernatural, and substantially stepped up their operations, scouring the far flung corners of the earth in search of a wide variety of such legendary wonders as the Holy Grail, the location of Atlantis, and the Spear of Destiny, with which Longinus had stabbed into Christ’s side as he suffered upon the cross. The group also searched for various portals to other realms, as well as for ancient lost lands, including Atlantis and expeditions influenced by an equally mysterious organization known as the Thule Society looking for a fantastical land called Thule, which was believed to be the true birthplace of the Aryan race and the discovery of which would endow them with vast superhuman powers such as telekinesis, telepathy, and flight, abilities which they had lost over centuries of mixing with “lesser races.”
So far, so creepy, but it doesn’t end there. Their strong desire to find new, secret weapons extended into the organization’s “scientific” divisions, which actively sought to develop top secret new technologies based on ancient lost or forbidden knowledge, mystical texts, alien technologies, and their own secret research. The group was heavily involved with various areas of bizarre pseudoscience, including finding crashed UFOS and the study of far out theories such as what was known as the World Ice Theory, which proposed that Earth had been created when a massive chunk of ice had impacted with the sun and that the planet had several moons orbiting it which could result in polar shifts and cataclysmic disasters. The Ahnenerbe was also interested in harnessing the power of the occult, magic, and psychic powers for use as weapons against their enemies, and to this end there were various programs devoted to such pursuits, including trying to develop psychic assassins who could kill with their minds, using astral projection to spy on the enemy, astrology to help plan strategies, the use of magic spells as weapons, and the divination of the future, among other various such bizarre projects. The organization also allegedly tried to harness the power of runes, a fact reflected in the use of rune-like lettering in the organization’s logo. There has also been much speculation that the group was heavily interested in finding and utilizing alien technology for numerous weapons programs. This may all seem absurd, but none of this was a joke to the Nazis, and many in power fervently believed in these numerous quests and projects, pouring a great deal of money, manpower, and resources into them.
Since these were the Nazis we’re dealing with, of course the Ahnenerbe’s malevolent dealings extended to human experimentation, and there were various sinister experiments to this effect carried out in their dark, secret lairs and laboratories. This is especially noticeable with the Ahnenerbe’s incorporation of the Institut für Wehrwissenschaftliche Zweckforschung ("Institute for Military Scientific Research") during World War II, which was tasked with all manner of shady military research and development, and began a dark era of gruesome experiments on the bedraggled prisoners of concentration camps. Most of these projects had mixed results and were of questionable goals, yet all of them were truly ruthless and demonstrative of a profound and disturbing lack of respect for human life, perhaps fitting since the Nazis did not regard their prisoners as really human at all.
One of the most notorious instances of the Ahnenerbe’s use of humans as test subjects was a project to determine the physical limits of pilots who were flying ever more advanced aircraft for the Luftwaffe. The series of experiments was overseen by Ahnenerbe director Wolfram Sievers and carried out by the notorious SS doctor Sigmund Rascher, and involved the use of concentration camp prisoners requested for this purpose from Himmler himself, as no one was crazy enough to be willing to volunteer for such a dangerous project. Rascher was granted unlimited access to helpless prisoners for use in his demented experiments, and he began putting them into portable vacuum chambers that resembled medieval torture devices and were designed to simulate differing altitudes in flight. The prisoners were locked into the chambers against their will and the pressure was subsequently drastically altered between high altitude and low altitude settings in order to simulate the rapid rises of advanced aircraft as well as a state of freefall without oxygen for the purpose of analyzing the effects upon the human body. It is somewhat unsurprising that most of these test subjects did not survive these demanding, inhumane trials which pushed them past their physiological limits, and Rascher was remarkably cruel even to those who did. When Himmler suggested that, as payment for their services, survivors of the experiments have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment rather than the inevitable death they had faced before Rascher refused, saying that the prisoners were all Poles and Russians who deserved no amnesty or mercy. Surviving these experiments probably meant further torture and a death worse than what the vacuum chambers had to offer. Indeed Rascher’s face was not one that any prisoner looked forward to seeing.
Rascher’s thirst for human suffering was seemingly unquenchable, and he would indeed go on to be involved in other hideous human experiments as well. In one such experiment, over 300 prisoners were used to try to ascertain how long German pilots could be expected to survive if shot down above freezing water. The test subjects were subjected to freezing conditions by being left naked in the frigid cold for up to 14 hours straight or fully immersed in freezing water for 3 hours at a time, all the while being monitored with electrodes, after which numerous different methods were tried to revive them, such as scalding hot water baths or other more unorthodox methods like being sandwiched between naked women, who also all happened to be concentration camp prisoners. Yet another experiment involved shooting prisoners in the chest or neck in order to test out a substance called Polygal, which was made from beets and apple pectin and designed to stop bleeding by quickly coagulating blood. The drug was administered in capsule form and was a product Rascher believed would be revolutionary for treating gunshot wounds or for use in surgery. In some cases the test subjects had their limbs brutally amputated without anesthetic in order to test Polygal, which Rascher was so hopeful about and eager to manufacture that he actually set up a company for this purpose. Although Polygal would never be mass produced, the capsule design led to the invention of the infamous cyanide capsule. Other human experiments investigated various possible cures for deadly diseases used in biological weapons and antidotes for a wide variety of chemical weapons and poisons, all of which involved injecting or otherwise exposing unwilling prisoner test subjects to various pathogens, poisons, and lethal chemicals. Showing that even in death there was no rest, many of the dead produced by these cruel and misguided experiments would go on to become part of a macabre collection of Jewish skeletons that was kept to be used for further research.
Another area of inquiry into somehow manipulating the human form was undertaken by Josef Mengele, a notoriously sadistic physician in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Mengele was particularly interested in identical twins and their connections, and performed experiments on hundreds of pairs of identical twins, mostly small children. These experiments sought to do things such as change eye color and explore their possible psychic connection, for instance measuring if one twin had any measurable reaction to pain or distress inflicted on the other. Others were more medical in nature. One experiment involved infecting one twin with a horrific disease such as typhus or malaria and transfusing blood from the other to see if it would cure them. There were also attempts to graft amputated body parts from one twin onto the other or in one case to even surgically join both twins together in a grotesque conjoined abomination which the subjects mercifully did not have to endure for long before perishing. It is not totally clear what the ultimate horrific aim of this twin experimentation was, but typically when one of the twins died, the other would be put down with a chloroform injection to the heart and both of their bodies would be dissected for comparative analysis, the data of which mostly remained top secret.
The use of human experimentation by the Ahnenerbe did not stop at finding human limits, reviving near dead subjects, the possibly psychic connection between twins, or anticoagulation agents, cures, and antidotes. There was always the desire to improve the human form and create some sort of super soldier as well. One way it was believed humans could become more powerful was by a very selective breeding process to produce “pure Aryan” people, a project which was called Lebensborn and which involved forcing ideal specimens to have children in order to remove “impurities” in the master race which were dampening human potential. The Ahnenerbe believed that this would unlock vast superhuman psychic powers that had been lost long ago due to the dilution of their true heritage and help them once again rule the world over “lesser races.” On many occasions, those who were deemed to be perfect specimens according to the deranged criteria of the Nazis, such as blue eyes, blonde hair, and Nordic features, did not even willingly volunteer to enter the program, but were rather kidnapped or otherwise forced, often taken away from their families.
Yet all of this would take many generations of careful breeding to come to fruition, and some within the organization were looking for more immediate results. One program developed with the intent of creating super soldiers with enhanced physical capabilities and without fear or limits for use in the battlefield involved the use of an experimental drug called D-IX, which consisted of a wild cocktail of cocaine, a potent stimulant known as pervitine, and a powerful painkiller called eucodal. Basically it was super speed rolled up with strong painkillers. It was believed that D-IX would significantly increase focus, concentration, fearlessness, heroism, and self-confidence, as well as boost stamina and strength, negate pain, and reduce hunger, thirst, and the need for sleep. It was first tested on prisoners at Sachsenhausen concentration camp and showed such promising results that it was soon administered to military volunteers. Soldiers were given the capsules and then forced to take long treks over harsh terrain with fully loaded packs, and indeed D-IX showed a dramatic increase in stamina and attention span in the test subjects, allowing them to march nonstop for up to 80 miles before collapsing, although it did lead them to become hopelessly addicted to the drug. Nevertheless, D-IX was considered a resounding success and officially used in the field to a limited degree starting from March 16th, 1944, with only the Allied victory preventing it from being truly mass produced and squashing the ultimate plan to supply the super drug to the entire Nazi military force.
Although D-IX did in fact exist, and did actually seem to work, there are other alleged experiments which are a bit murkier and indeed more steeped in the mysterious. Allegedly an American historian by the name of Jeff Strasberg wrote a book entitled The Secret Weapon of the Soviets, which supposedly delves into super soldier programs conducted by the Soviet Union but also makes mention of some decidedly bizarre experiments carried out by the Germans as well. It is claimed that in 1945, American forces raided a highly secret research facility in Germany that allegedly held some rather strange discoveries. Apparently the Americans found within the hidden lab various bodies from Soviet troops that were in differing stages of dissection, and that these bodies had bones which had been replaced with or enhanced by some sort of steel prosthesis, including one corpse which was claimed to have metal ribs. It would appear from this story that the Nazis had been studying and perhaps trying to duplicate this metal to bone grafting technology that the Russians had allegedly developed. Additionally it was claimed that there were also found the bodies of dwarves for apparent use as pilots which would take up less space and use less fuel. It sounds all very spectacular and certainly creepy, and the tale has circulated widely on the Internet, but one problem that has been pointed out is that the historian Strasberg and his alleged book don’t seem to actually exist. This could mean that it is a totally fabricated story or, as some conspiracy theorists would like to believe, that the book and its author were erased by parties who did not want the information known, further deepening the mystery behind these rather sensational claims.
Even murkier still are the persistent rumors whispered by some conspiracy theorists speculating that the Nazis were even involved with reviving dead animals and even humans through unknown enigmatic means. One interesting tidbit related to this is the finding made on 28 April 1945, when Allied forces captured a munitions factory depot named Bernterode, located in the German region of Thuringia. As some American officers explored a tunnel within the factory, they discovered a brick wall disguised to look like part of the rock which was 5 feet thick. When the mysterious wall was broken down, a vast chamber was revealed containing a trove of an immense amount of stolen artwork and relics, as well as many Nazi banners and a large number of new uniforms. In one adjoining chamber there were found to be four enormous coffins, with three of them containing the remains of the 17th century Prussian king, Frederick the Great, as well as Field Marshall von Hindenburg and his wife. The fourth coffin was empty and held a plaque engraved with Adolph Hitler’s name. Although it is unknown for what reason these remains were being kept for, some have suggested that the Nazis, specifically the Ahnenerbe, had plans to somehow resurrect or clone them at a later time. An Aug 23, 2015 article by Noah Charney for Salon magazine entitled Did Nazis really try to make zombies? The real history behind one of our weirdest WWII obsessions, points to this speculation as being largely a literal interpretation of an article in Life magazine from the 50s, in which it is stated:
The corpses were to be concealed until some future movement when their reappearance could be timed by resurgent Nazis to fire another German generation to rise and conquer again.
This article could have been taken to mean that the Ahnenerbe literally expected to bring their leaders back to life, with all of the uniforms meant for a new army or even some sort of undead legion. Indeed one persistent rumor among some conspiracy theorists is that the Ahnenerbe actively engaged in projects seeking to create mindless zombies to unleash upon the enemy. As ridiculous as it may sound, these would not have necessarily been zombies in the sense that they were raised from the dead, but rather could have been subjects that had been “zombified” somehow. This could have entailed some sort of medical procedure to annihilate intellect and reduce a human being to its very base, primal functions or an engineered virus such as rabies which could turn humans into mindless savages. Were the Nazis trying to raise the dead or create some sort of zombies? The evidence is tenuous at best, yet it is unknown just to what extent Nazi human experimentation reached.
Perhaps these stories of superhuman warriors with metal skeletons and talk of reviving the dead or creating an army of zombies is where the mystique and myth surrounding the mysterious Ahnenerbe begin to overshadow the reality. The strong tendency to embellish and add to the mythos of such a mysterious and undoubtedly evil organization certainly exists. There is very little hard evidence to support or give veracity to any of this and it seems like a stretch, complete hogwash even, but there were indeed many strange avenues of research pursued by the highly secretive Ahnenerbe that make it seem as though the Nazis perhaps weren’t above trying. They were most definitely and undoubtedly deeply involved with various projects researching and investigating the occult and supernatural, as well as with a wide range of secret weapons and medical experiments so who knows what they might have managed to uncover or achieve? It is quite likely we’ll never know for sure. With the end of World War II, the enigmatic Ahnenerbe dissolved and it is thought that most of the data, documents, ancient texts and artifacts that they had accrued over the years were destroyed or hidden rather than be allowed to possibly fall into Allied hands. With no real evidence remaining to fully illuminate the extent of their research or successes, we are left with a lot of often unchecked speculation and rumors swirling in the void of anything concrete. This loss of evidence, along with the irresistible dark legend of the Ahnenerbe, with all of its occult research, evil human experiments, and secret expeditions, has caused the organization to become cast into shadows and highly steeped in mystery and myth over the ensuing years.
With so many secret projects and conspiracy theories attached to this shadowy, sinister group, and with so much rumor and folklore surrounding it, the Ahnenerbe has become a larger than life specter for which it is often very difficult to separate fact from fiction or to untangle the reality from the myths and tall tales. It has become an intangible evil force lying within the shadows between reality and fantasy, what we know and don’t know, gathering stories, rumors and strange tales that seem to gravitate towards it like a black hole and it is not surprising at all that it has become the perfect inspiration for a generation of movie villains. There is just something about the Nazis and the various menacing, impenetrable mysteries of their research projects into the unknown that pokes, prods and stirs the imagination. One can only hope that the reality behind the fiction never rears its head again, but it seems that there are times when such evil gushes forth into our world that is worse and more wicked than any film. It seems to me that for all of the tales of the weapons, zombies, super soldiers, or supernatural threats from beyond our reality that were rumored to be posed by the Ahnenerbe, no matter how much of these tales is real or fabricated, one thing that is certainly clear is that there is something far more dangerous than any of them; the real evil that lurks within the heart of mankind, lumbering about down in our depths like a monster prowling the deep ocean abyss, waiting for its time to come up.