In Central Germany's Alma valley, a striking 17th-century castle overlooks the picture-postcard scenery that stretches in every direction; jutting majestically above green trees and bathed in sunshine, it looks more like something out of Cinderella than a former Nazi headquarters. And yet the story of Wewelsburg Castle is irretrievably intertwined with the insanity and cruelty at the very heart of the Third Reich.
In 1933, SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, the second most powerful man in Germany, chose the stronghold as the site of a new Nazi Mecca, a place he planned to transform into the very "centre of the world". His efforts to turn this vision into reality would claim the lives of over 1,200 people.
Over the years, Wewelsburg has become a symbol of the alleged Nazi obsession with the occult. (See FT81: 37-40; 175:34-35; 48-52) Some have claimed that Himmler chose the site because it lies on a nexus of 'ley' energies; others have suggested that bizarre rituals were carried out there by cults within the Nazi party. It has even been alleged 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.
While the reality is considerably more mundane than some of these outlandish theories would have us believe, it is ultimately no less bizarre.
Wewelsburg lies in Westphalia – "the land of Hermann and Widukind", as Himmler himself put it. Himmler had been considering two other sites as centres for the SS, but after viewing Wewelsburg on 3 November 1933, during a tour of the Reich, he made his decision that same night. In August 1934, the SS leased the castle from the District of Buren for 100 years, for the nominal sum of one Reichsmark per year.
Wewelsburg no doubt appealed to Himmler on many different levels. Originally constructed between 1603 and 1609, the Weser Renaissance-style castle was intended to serve as a second residence for the Prince Bishop of Paderborn. It was built on the site of an earlier Saxon stronghold; archæologists discovered a Stone Age burial pit containing dozens of human remains when they excavated the foundations. Nearby digs had uncovered Neanderthal skulls, as well as items of Bronze Age jewellery and other signs of early human habitation.
During the 17th century, the castle played a key role in the witchcraft trials sweeping across Europe. The persecution of witches had been particularly ferocious in Germany; especially in territories presided over by the Catholic Prince Bishops. Some estimates place the number of 'witches' who perished at the stake as high as 100,000. In Westphalia, local women accused of witchcraft were held in Wewelsburg's dungeons and confessions were extracted under torture in an adjoining courtroom. Many of them were subsequently executed at the castle.
The surrounding area was similarly rich in historical significance. Nearby was the Teutoburg Forest, widely believed to have been the site of the legendary battle in which the united Germanic tribes defeated the Roman legions of Varus, forever establishing the border between the Roman Empire and Germania. Also, just miles away, was Externsteine, a distinctive natural rock formation that had been used as a place of habitation and pre-Christian worship since Neolithic times. The Ahnenerbe would later excavate the site, unsuccessfully attempting to prove it had been a religious centre of immense importance to an advanced prehistoric German civilisation.
This combination of historical significance and mythic resonance held an obvious appeal for the Reichsführer, who entertained a lavish fantasy life in stark contrast to his public image of a prim and clerkish bureaucrat.
Born in Munich on 7 October 1900, Himmler came from a resolutely middle class, conservative Catholic background. He was originally a devout Catholic, a loyal patriot and something of a romantic idealist, given to a Volkisch view of Germany's history and virtues, but not, at this stage, any kind of fanatic.
As a boy, he dreamt of leading the life of a simple farmer, but in adolescence this gave way to the desire for a military career as an officer in the armed forces, an ambition confirmed by the outbreak of World War I. Eventually, in 1918, he was accepted into officer training school with the 11th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, but the war ended before he could complete his training and earn his commission
His military ambitions thwarted by the Versailles treaty, Himmler instead turned to politics, becoming increasingly involved with various right wing nationalist paramilitaries and political parties; this eventually led him to join Ernst Röhm's SA (Sturmabteilung) and the National Socialist Party. Himmler gradually turned his back on Catholicism and his parents' more traditional brand of nationalism, becoming increasingly indoctrinated into the anti-Communist, anti-Semitic party line. During Hitler's unsuccessful Beer Hall putsch of 1923, Himmler was at the head of Röhm's Riechskriegflagge as they marched on the War Ministry buildings in Munich, wielding a banner bearing the Imperial ensign.
Himmler subsequently gained a reputation for his loyalty and efficiency, and rose rapidly through the Party's ranks. On 20 January 1929 he was appointed SS-Reichsführer having previously served as Deputy Reichsführer. Originally conceived of as protection squads for party leaders, Himmler came to view the SS (Schutzstaffel) as a 'Knightly Order' – a racial elite in the mould of the ancient Aryan warrior caste, the Kshatriya, as well as the mediæval Teutonic Knights and Knights Templar.
Under Himmler, stringent new rules were established regarding recruitment. Enlisted men had to prove the 'purity' of their family line back to at least 1800, officers as far back as 1750. Their wives – whether current or prospective – were required to do the same.
In peacetime, the SS was to function as an internal security force responsible for enforcing conformity and spearheading the purification of the race; in wartime, as a ferociously fanatical defender of Germany's borders.
The SS was also the means through which Himmler hoped to accomplish an even greater project. Just as Hitler and the Nazi party had replaced the Church in his own loyalties, so Himmler sought to supplant Christianity with a pseudo-pagan state religion based on an idealised view of prehistoric German culture, emphasising racial purity and the innate superiority of the German people.
Himmler saw the SS as the ideological vanguard of this new religion, and the instrument through which the German people would be indoctrinated into it. In addition to 'Party' holidays – the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch and the Führer's birthday – Himmler established festivals on the Summer and Winter Solstices incorporating elements of pagan ritual, including sun and nature worship. Such celebrations were always characterised by a strong SS presence.
SS Officers, meanwhile, were wed in secular ceremonies with distinctly pagan overtones, and their children 'baptised' in similarly pagan-influenced naming rituals. Many of these ceremonies eventually took place at Wewelsburg, often presided over by Himmler himself, along with his personal 'magus', Karl Maria Wiligut.
By 1934, Wewelsburg Castle had been derelict for many years, so Himmler commissioned an extensive programme of reconstruction and refurbishment. Initially, he appears to have been interested in developing the site as a 'Reich School for SS Leaders' – an officer's college for 'ideological education', managed through the Race and Settlement Office. SS-Brigadeführer Walter Schellenberg, testifying at the Nuremburg trials after the war, described a curriculum consisting of "spiritual training and meditation exercises". Most important of all was instruction in the correct Weltanschauung ('world-view' or ideology).
Eventually though, this relatively modest ambition gave way to a much grander vision. In February 1935, the Wewelsburg project was brought under the direct control of the Reichsführer's personal staff, in line with Himmler's evolving conception of it. Himmler had begun to see Wewelsburg as the 'seat' of his Knightly Order – a cross between Camelot and Marienburg – which would eventually evolve into a vast Teutonic Mecca, the spiritual centre of the Aryan world.
The estimated cost of Himmler's grandiose plans was an absurd 250 million Reichsmarks. Simply refurbishing the old castle was now just the start; Himmler intended to expand the site so it absorbed the nearby village of Wewelsburg, whose inhabitants were to be moved to a new 'model village' nearby. The site would be, in effect, an SS City, with the triangular castle forming an arrowhead that would be surrounded by accommodation, offices and facilities that would sprawl across the valley.
Such ambitious plans required workers. In 1939, a concentration camp was established in the nearby Niederhagen Forest, with most of the prisoners coming from the Sachsenhausen camp in Berlin. Two years later it was given independent status for financial reasons, and re-designated KZ (Konzentrationlager) Niederhagen. Whilst it was the smallest camp of its kind in Germany, its regime was no less brutal than those of Auschwitz or Belsen. Of the 3,900 prisoners interned there, 1,285 of them died; many were simply worked to death, while others were starved or shot.
The extent to which Himmler realised his vision for Wewelsburg is debatable, although it's clear that the reality fell some considerable way short of the dream.
The focal point of the Wewelsburg complex was to be the Obergruppenführersaal – a stone-lined chamber in the North Tower in which Himmler had installed an oaken Arthurian round table seating 12. Formerly the Prince Bishop's chapel, the hall was intended to be used as a meeting place for the 12 most senior SS officers. It was used for this purpose only once, during March 1941, to brief the Gruppenführer on the role of the SS in Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia.
A stylised swastika – incorporating a sun wheel design and the SS victory runes – dominated the chamber's floor, while the walls were adorned with the senior Gruppenführers' coats of arms. Of course, most of the SS elite – including Himmler himself – were from middle-class rather than aristocratic backgrounds, and lacked hereditary coats of arms; Ahnenerbe experts were given the job of providing original designs for them.
Directly below the Obergruppenführersaal was the 'crypt' or 'land of the dead' – a large, circular chamber with 12 granite columns and a domed ceiling adorned with another swastika design. Here, in a stone well-like structure, the ashes of senior SS officers were to be interred upon their deaths, ensuring they remained with the Order forever. An 'eternal flame' was to be installed in the centre of the room, although this project was never completed. Although there have been rumours of rituals conducted in this chamber, even a cursory glance at it today confirms it was still under construction when it fell to the Allies.
Wewelsburg also served as the repository for the SS Death's Head rings – Totenkopfring – presented to SS officers after three years of service. Formed of a band of oakleaves engraved with a death's head and runes, the rings were further testament to Himmler's obsession with Germanic mythology, in which Thor was said to possess a pure silver ring on which oaths were sworn. When an SS officer died, his ring would be returned to the store at Wewelsburg.
Each of the Gruppenführers' rooms commemorated a different hero from Germanic mythology and history – Widukind, Henry the Lion, and even King Arthur – furnished in period fashion and stocked with books and documents pertaining to the room's subject. Himmler's own room was dedicated to the Saxon King Heinrich I, known as 'the Fowler', who led the German defence against a Magyar invasion during the 10th century, and laid the foundation of what was to become the Holy Roman Empire. While rumours that Himmler thought of himself as the literal reincarnation of the Fowler are likely to have been exaggerated, Himmler undoubtedly took great pleasure in being identified with 'King Heinrich', seeing himself as a kind of 'spiritual' heir to his namesake and as a contemporary defender of Germany from the hordes from the East. On the 1000th anniversary of Heinrich's death, in July 1936, Himmler inaugurated a remembrance festival at Quedlingburg, once the King's seat, complete with wreath-laying and the reading of a eulogy by Himmler in Quedlingburg Cathedral.
Himmler's plans for Wewelsburg were continually evolving, and there was undoubtedly an impulsive, whimsical dimension to his thinking. While inspecting the castle in 1938, he casually requested SS Gruppenführer Taubert – the officer in charge of the site's ongoing development – to look into the possibility of installing a planetarium, another outrageously expensive addition to the project. He also requested a strong room to serve as the equivalent of a mediæval treasure keep, in line with his conception of Wewelsburg as the seat of a knightly order.
Neither project was to be completed, however. Work on Wewelsburg came to an abrupt halt in 1943; with the tide of the war turning against the Axis powers, resources were needed urgently elsewhere. It seems that Himmler always held out hope of reviving the project, and in February 1944 he wrote to Taubert to say that in spite of his busy schedule his thoughts often turned to Wewelsburg, and he dearly hoped his plans for it could be resumed after the war. Of course, this was not to be.
In March 1945, the Allied advance reached Wewelsburg and the castle was surrounded by American armour. Himmler, anxious that his dream should not fall into the possession of the enemy, dispatched a hand-picked group of SS commandos to deny it to them. After an initial attempt to slip past the American forces failed, the unit recruited a locally born SS man who guided them past the Allied cordon. On 31 March 1945 – Easter Sunday – the unit destroyed most of the castle with explosives, and escaped back behind German lines. Only the castle's North Tower escaped relatively unscathed, sparking speculation in some circles that it must have had magical properties to escape destruction. On 2 April, the Americans freed the remaining 42 prisoners at KZ Niederhagen. Himmler took his own life with a poison capsule just two months later, while in Allied custody.
Wewelsburg was initially an enigma to the Allied forces. Allied intelligence had been largely oblivious to its existence prior to its capture. Whilst it was clearly of great importance to the Reichsführer, nothing was known of its true purpose until SS officers began to testify about it at the Nuremburg trials; in particular, the testimony of Walter Schellenberg provides us with much of what we now know about the site.
Reconstruction of the castle began in 1949 and was completed in 1979. Today, Wewelsburg is a popular tourist attraction in its own right. The castle itself houses a youth hostel and a museum charting the history of the area, while the former SS guardhouse has been converted into a museum that deals specifically with the Nazi regime, providing a chilling reminder of the madness behind Himmler's vision.
The North Tower is closed to the public, but the Obergruppenführersaal and the crypt directly below it can be viewed through iron gates; the cathedral-like acoustics, dim lighting and sombre surroundings all add to the strong impression the place creates.
Inside the guardhouse museum models, photographs and SS paraphernalia paint a picture of what life was like at Wewelsburg during Himmler's era. Many of the exhibits are mundane – photographs of SS wedding ceremonies, Himmler's rune-inscribed teapot and cutlery – but none the less chilling for that.
Perhaps the museum's most disturbing holdings are the records of those workers who died in the effort to transform the castle into Himmler's Teutonic Mecca. The meticulous files of the camp administration form a cold, matter-of-fact record of routine atrocity: starvation, beatings, torture and executions.
There is nothing here to suggest the castle deserves its spooky reputation as a Nazi occult headquarters, but in the litany of horrors related at the Nuremberg trials, Wewelsburg in particular appeared to exemplify the grandiose, delusional madness of the Third Reich.