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Raiders of the Lost Grail

Raiders of the Lost Grail

Berlin between the wars was a city known throughout Europe for its bohemian subculture of young intellectuals. Amongst the personalities who hotly debated the many modernist “isms” that were fracturing the old ideological certainties which had glued together the 19th century, few individuals were more colourful than a dark-haired, green-eyed young man named Otto Wilhelm Rahn. His gaunt figure, swathed in characteristic black coat and fedora, casts a long shadow out of those twilight years, a ‘great silhouette’ around which the most extravagant myths accrued. He was variously said to be a Mason, a Rosicrucian, a Luciferian, an agent of the Thule Gesellschaft, an initiated Cathar and even the leader of an obscure, international secret society. As author Philip Kerr puts it, Rahn’s contemporaries might not have been surprised to see “the Scarlet Woman and the Great Beast come flying out of the front door” of his apartment on Tiergartenstrasse. One of his Nazi peers in Heinrich Himmler’s Black Order remarked in an internal memo that he “half suspected Rahn of being in league with the little people”. To this day, it is widely believed that this enigmatic young man knew the whereabouts of one of the most sacred relics in all Christendom – the Most High Holy Grail. But the truth is stranger still…


 It is no accident that I have come to be the caretaker of SS Obersturmfuhrer Otto Wilhelm Rahn’s memory. Some years ago, I was commissioned by the documentary department of a major British television station to research the back-story behind Stephen Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, to see if it had any basis in historical fact. I was packed off to Europe to track down any surviving archeologists who had been in the pay of Himmler’s Ahnenerbe SS in the hope of obtaining interviews, and perhaps getting to the bottom of whatever the hell it was they thought they were looking for – Ark, Grail, Spear or otherwise. (The ‘Ahnenerbe Forschungs und Lehrgemeinschaft’ in full, or Ancestral Heritage Research and Training Foundation).

I wanted to interview Otto Rahn, whom I believed at the time might still be alive. His name came up again and again, his spectre leading me from France to Germany to Iceland and back, seemingly always one step ahead of me. In the time-warped Cathar stronghold of Montsegur in the French Pyrenees, the former mayor, Marius Mounie, told me that Otto was an old man now but still visited the area often.

I slept in Otto’s bed at Madame Couquet’s auberge; and later, at his niece’s house deep in the Black Forest, I came across the elusive Obersturmfuhrer’s discarded teddy bear. The problem was that if Otto wasn’t exactly alive then he wasn’t, strictly speaking, dead either. There was no death certificate, no formal paperwork that could lay his ghost or put the seal on his baffling legacy.

The only certainty was that he was born on 18 February 1904 in the small town of Michelstadt in Hesse, southern Germany. His childhood appears to have been far from normal. Rejected by his mother and bereaved by the death of his older brother Rudolph, Otto grew into a solitary, introverted boy who assimilated the bare bones of German Romanticism through his avid childhood reading, which included Greek, Roman and Nordic mythology. It must have been hard for him to fit in at school, as his father, Karl, was a magistrate who was often transferred from town to town, making it difficult for Otto to form lasting friendships. His niece, the psychiatrist Ingheborg Rhoemer-Rahn, told me that Otto had inherited ‘second sight’ from his father who, after going blind in later life, grew increasingly convinced that he could “see heaven” or “talk to angels”.

Otto’s generalised affinity with Romanticism became an all-consuming passion for the stories of Parsifal, Lohengrin, the Nibelungenlied and the tales of Jacob and Benjamin Grimm, fellow denizens of the Black Forest, whom he saw as role models in his chosen career as philologist and folklorist. While attending the University of Giessen he was encouraged by his professor, Freiherr Von Gall, to focus his studies on the history of the Cathars, the events of the Albigensian crusade and the massacre that occurred at Montsegur in 1244, effectively putting an end to the Gnostic tradition in southern Europe. Rahn is quoted as saying that “My ancestors are witches and I am a heretic… It was a subject that completely captivated me”.

Otto was further inspired by the work of archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, whose theory that Homer’s Iliad reflected actual historical events led to his sensational ‘discovery’ of the ruins of Troy. Otto dreamed of achieving similar results by proving that there was a factual basis to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic narrative poem Parzival, a 13th-century re-creation of the story of the Holy Grail that had been left unfinished by Chretien de Troyes. Interest in this chivalric romance had been revived in the 19th century by Wagner’s operas, and Otto set out to write a dissertation on Master Kiot, the Languedocian troubadour whose long-lost Grail ballads were said to have inspired Wolfram’s masterpiece.

Otto believed that the Cathars had been in possession of a sacred relic, described variously as a cup, a bowl, a plate, a book, or a hard, dark stone possessed of an extraordinary magical virtue. According to Wolfram’s text, whoever possessed the Grail or came into contact with the relic “would have eternal life and would be healed”. Otto was convinced that the secret of the Grail had been lost when the last of the Cathar parfaits had died on the orders of the Pope and the King of France. He sought to establish a direct link between Montsalvache, the Grail castle of Parzival, and the Cathar fortress of Montsegur, scene of one of the Albigensian crusade’s most protracted sieges.

He observed that the culture of the medieval Cathars bore a strong resemblance to that of the ancient Druids, and believed that their secret wisdom might have been preserved by the troubadours, or minnesingers – the travelling poets and minstrels of medieval Europe. According to Otto, the war of the Roman Catholic Church against the Albigensians was simply a material manifestation of the ongoing apocalyptic struggle between the forces of Light and Darkness upon whose violent interaction everything in our illusory material Universe was predicated. Infinite goodness, the Cathar parfaits reasoned, was incapable of creating evil, hence the darkness, pain and misery in our world was not the will of God, but the work of the Devil, the demiurge who had hijacked creation and whom they referred to as ‘Rex Mundi’, the ruler of the transient, material world. They identified all clerical and secular rulers – principally the Catholic Church – as the personification of this Darkness and believed that it was possible through a form of direct initiation known as the consolamentum, or multiple incarnations, to eventually escape from the cycle of time and the deterministic prison of the material world, to literally return to the stars and the domain of the true, good God.


 Otto Rahn first visited France, where he hoped to continue his increasingly obsessive research, in 1929. During a lengthy stay in Paris, he came into contact with the poet Maurice Magre, a grand historian of the Pyrenees who had already written several books about the crusade against the south, including The Treasure of the Albigensians and The Blood of Toulouse. Magre was a member of a quasi-Masonic secret society known as the Polaires, an esoteric circle whose members believed they were acting under the direct instruction of the ‘ascended masters’, the ‘secret rulers of the world’ with whom they were supposedly able to communicate via a numerical oracle known as the Oracle de Force Astrale. Through this secret society, Otto was introduced to a mysterious Countess, Miriam de Pujol-Murat, who apparently believed herself to be the direct descendent, if not the living reincarnation, of the ‘white lady’ of Montsegur, the castle’s immortal chatelaine, Esclarmonde de Foix, a historic figure whom Rahn equates in his first book with the guardian of the Grail.

The Countess became both a friend and a patron to young Otto, allowing him access to her private library and the use of her car and chauffeur during his initial tour of the Languedoc. During his time in Montsegur, where he lodged in a house belonging to the village priest, Otto came into contact with several key figures in the neo-Cathar revival, including his translator, Rene Nelli, who would later found the Centre for Cathar Studies (Centre d’etudes Cathare) in Carcassonne, as well as Rudolph Steiner’s principal disciple, Deodat Roche, who played an instrumental role in disseminating the Anthroposophical Society’s teachings in the South of France. Otto’s attempts to buy land in the area, on a site overlooking the ruins of the heretic citadel, were thwarted by the locals, who effectively closed ranks against him. The memory of World War I was still too fresh for the Montsegurians to admit a German into their tiny, insular community and there was, perhaps, something vaguely sinister about Otto’s manner that failed to inspire their trust. A difference of opinion with Magre and Roche seems to have led to Otto’s abrupt departure from the isolated Cathar enclave, and in the spring of 1932 he relocated to the crumbling spa town of Ussat-les-Bains, where he took over the lease on a small hotel that was to become his base of operations in the area.

Rahn’s research took several years, during which time he travelled widely and took hundreds of photographs although, curiously, there is no evidence that he had any visible means of support during this period. His family was middle class at best and thoroughly incapable of underwriting Otto’s extravagant lifestyle, leading one to the inescapable conclusion that Otto must have been on the payroll of some undisclosed organisation or private benefactor. A possible clue to the source of his largesse might be found in the jumper that Otto frequently wore at the time, knitted by his mother and emblazoned with a prominent double ‘sieg’ rune, known to be one of the symbols of the Thule Society. It has been supposed that Rahn was in fact dispatched to the South of France on a secret mission to infiltrate the neo-Cathar movement and turn it towards the fledgling Nazi cause.

“Besides, he was apparently haunted by demons”, Madame Suzie Nelli, the widow of Otto’s translator, told me. “Sometimes when he was alone he would cry out. He had presences – things like that. For me he was a little like the Antichrist. A prisoner of the forces of evil…”

It is unclear whether or not Otto was formally initiated into the Polaires, who were actively conducting a series of ‘archeological’ digs on the Countess’s property at the Chateau of Lordat, in the hope of uncovering the lost Gnostic gospel of Saint John or even the tomb of Christian Rosenkreutz, the apocryphal founder of the Rosicrucian Order. On 6 March 1932, an article appeared in a local newspaper, La Depeche<, under the heading “Is this a modern gold rush?” and claiming that a shadowy international secret society under the direction of a German individual named ‘Rams’ was energetically digging up the caves in the area. A second article appeared in the following issue under the title “Who are the Polaires? And what is Mr. Rahu doing in Ussat?” On 10 March, a lengthy rebuttal appeared which began with the words: “My dear sirs… you are entirely mistaken. My name is Rahn, not Rams…”

The French Polaires were disbanded in the 1960s, although a sister lodge continues to thrive in the United Kingdom. When I had the opportunity to interview one of its present-day high priests – who still affects the silver pentagram and turquoise robes of his Gallic forebears – about whether or not Otto Rahn had been one of the organisation’s former leaders, he was evasive, insisting that all record of the lodge’s early membership had been lost during the war. Something in the priest’s manner – the momentary flash of fear in his eyes at the mention of Otto’s name – indicated that this was somewhat less than the whole truth…


 Modern-day Ussat-les-Bains is eerily reminiscent of Stephen King’s fictional town of Salem’s Lot. The church is pockmarked with bullet holes and has obviously not been used for Christian worship in quite some time. The gothic Bavarian-style houses are shuttered and silent, although it is hard to escape the sensation that their occupants are hiding in the cellars or quietly watching from behind drawn blinds. Even in the full heat of summer, a chill shadow seems to hang over this narrow valley. The area is one of the largest limestone regions in Europe and Otto based himself here in order to explore and excavate the caverns that honeycomb the surrounding mountains.

His plans brought him into contact with Antonin Gadal, the minister of tourism for the area and self-proclaimed patriarch of the neo-Cathars. Gadal claimed to have been the recipient of an oral tradition passed down to him by an old, blind man named Adolphe ‘Papa’ Garigou, whom he had taken care of in his youth. Gadal believed that the nearby caves had played an important initiatory role in the medieval Cathar faith and that their lightless galleries still hid their lost treasure – possibly even the Holy Grail itself, which, according to popular tradition, had been smuggled out of Montsegur shortly before the castle’s fall. Otto found in Gadal a kindred spirit under whose patronage he was able to carry his investigations to their logical conclusion.

There are countless rumours concerning Otto’s activities during this period. He was accompanied by a sizable entourage, including a “woman from Paris who wore too much make-up”, a mysterious individual known as “Mr Baby” and a 7ft-tall Somali bartender-turned-bodyguard named Habdu, who saved Otto’s life after they became trapped by rising flood waters in the grotto of Fontanet, a location of particular significance to Rahn’s ongoing research. It was here that Otto and Gadal uncovered a cache of meteorites associated with the ancient worship of Cybele, or Kubaba, the mountain mother, and closely linked with both the black stone of the Kaaba and the “hard, dark stone” described in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s text. These hyper-dense extraterrestrial artefacts, known to the ancients as “Lapis Excoercis” or “Lapis Exilis”, never seem to rust or tarnish; when agitated, their surface ‘bleeds’ a bright red ferrous solution, 99 per cent pure iron and said to possess a quasi-magical healing virtue. Gadal described these magnetic stones as the “Graal Pyrenean” and after the war, when he assumed leadership of the European Rosicrucian movement, he had the largest of the meteorites removed to the Netherlands, where it currently serves as an altar in their temple in Amsterdam.

It is hard to know what Otto and his mentor really found in those caves, and entry to the Grotto of Fontanet remains barred to this day by a locked gate. Gadal himself is hardly the most credible of witnesses, having been caught red-handed a few years later burying jade ornaments purchased at a museum auction, apparently to shore up his theories of a direct link between the Cathars and the science and sorcery of ancient Egypt. Otto denies having had anything to do with Gadal, claiming in his book to have explored the caves alone, accompanied only by his faithful cat, although surviving correspondence clearly indicates a close relationship between the two men.

Otto must have attached a great deal of importance to the graffiti he found lining the cave walls, taking dozens of photographs, many of them still in his niece’s possession, each one neatly labelled in the vanished Obersturmfuhrer’s own wilting handwriting. He seemed to have believed that the Cathars and the Templars shared hiding places and that these scrawled sigils proved an obscure linkage between them, a connection apparently vital to the ancient lineage of the modern-day Freemasons. Some think that it was really Otto and Gadal who secretly tagged the cave walls with crudely rendered designer esoterica. Joseph Mandemant, the leader of a local historical society, insisted that he had caught Otto in the act, scribbling the “face of Beatrice” in the centre of a curious octagonal depression found on the wall of the Bethlehem Grotto, a cavern in Ussat named after the ray of light that falls on a natural stone altar on 25 December every year. Mandemant claims to have hauled the young German out of the cave by the scruff of his neck and “thrown his crayons after him”.


 In 1932, Otto Rahn left the South of France in a hurry, dogged by rumours of financial problems and possible legal proceedings against him. For a while, his movements are all but impossible to track. Evidently, he did not depart the country immediately, for in October of that year the author Isabelle Sandy mentions in a letter that Otto is staying with her in Paris and that “A valuable treasure has been returned to us, without diplomats and without fuss and that is the result of an incomparable success.”

One of Otto’s few surviving companions from the period was Professor Paul Alexis Ladame, journalist, radio man and former lecturer at Geneva University on the “methodology of information and disinformation”. The Sun was already setting over Lake Geneva and the cluttered office shelving off into shadow when we first spoke in 1998. Paul’s voice was a hoarse whisper, his face almost lost in the gathering gloom. He had recently had his left foot amputated, and in a cruel twist of fate a routine tracheotomy had severed all but one of his vocal chords. I was eager to speak to him nonetheless and, fortunately, he seemed equally keen to unburden himself.

“That was my friend… Otto Rahn…” Paul pushed a faded photograph across the tabletop. A young man with dark hair, approximately my own age, standing in the octagonal depression above the altar in the grotto of Ussat, arms outstretched to form a pentagram.

“Gadal took this picture, back in ’33. It was his initiation.”

“What about Beatrice?”


“The drawing on the cave wall?”

Paul looked at me blankly.

“I mean there are frequent Dante references in his work. In the radio show he recorded for you the year afterwards, he mentions a rock at the mouth of the cave that resembled a three-headed dog…”

“I won’t play those games. He was a good man. He deserved better.”

“Perhaps he imagined that he was already living in Hell and Beatrice symbolised a way out of the cycle, a way back to God?”

Paul shook his head slowly. “He never used the word God. For him, Lucifer was something like a god. God could be anything to anyone. God is a chemical in which we swim…”

Paul claimed to have been present when the snapshot was taken, but his grasp on the events in Ussat-les-Bains and the provenance of the meteoric artefacts retrieved from Fontanet was disconcertingly vague, nor did the figure standing in the pentagram quite resemble the other images of Otto that had come into my possession. His niece, Ingheborg, confirmed my suspicions, holding her pendulum over the snapshot for a beat or two before pronouncing: “Otto would never wear tennis shoes.”

It took another nine months to prove that the man in the photograph was in fact an individual named Karl Rinderknecht, an adherent of Gadal’s ‘Lectorium Rosicrucianum’, a movement founded in the Netherlands in 1924 that the ambitious minister of tourism had reformed along his own neo-Cathar lines. To this day, members are compelled to make the pilgrimage to Ussat-les-Bains and stand in the stone pentagram in order to emerge as “new men”. What baffled me most about the whole fandango was why Paul had been so determined to convince me, with virtually his dying breath, that his ‘friend’ Otto Rahn had been a fully initiated member.

Standing once more before the pentagram in the Bethlehem grotto, I tried in vain to piece the puzzle together in my head. It was tempting to dismiss the rumours of Otto finding the ‘treasure of the ages’ as another bizarre hoax, yet certain aspects of the story refused to be explained away. I had seen the meteoric artefacts for myself and indeed had two of the ‘bleeding stones’ in my possession; yet it was impossible to believe that I truly held the secret of life eternal in my grasp. Feeling a little worn out by it all, I lay down on the stone altar, watching the blackbirds nesting in the eaves of the cavern’s vaulted roof. It was a hot, early summer afternoon and I must have drifted off to sleep. When I came to and returned my gaze to the pentagram, I felt a sudden, giddy rush of deja vu.

Crossing to the wall, I reached out, finding worn handholds in the stone that enabled me to pull myself up to the same height as the pentagram. I unfastened my canteen and, washing away the dust of decades, saw at once the outlines of a face, exactly where I had imagined it to be: a single, surviving angelic eye staring back at me from out of the past. The image of a hope that never quite dried up – the face of Beatrice, whose memory guided Dante like a star on his journey to Hell.


 Within a year of leaving France, Otto was back in Germany. He made a point of visiting the remote castle of Germelshausen, where Christian Rosenkreutz was said to have been born. After recording a series of programmes for his friend Paul Ladame at Radio Geneva (including the provocatively titled “What happened to me in the Pyrenean cave!”) he seems to have sojourned at Montserrat in Spain, the shrine of the Black Madonna and repository of one of the largest collections of medieval manuscripts in the world. His first book, an insightful account of the persecution of the Cathars entitled Crusade Against the Grail appeared in the autumn of 1934, from Urban Verlag in Freiburg, to critical acclaim and fair-to-middling sales.

The following summer found Otto in Italy, this time in the company of the Tantric magician and committed pagan imperialist Baron Giulio (Julius) Evola. Something seems to have gone a little awry with his vacation plans, and another one of Otto’s associates, Dr Adolphe Frise, describes how he was forced to rescue his friend from Milan and drive him hastily back to his home in Bad Homberg. Frise claims that Otto seemed visibly upset and chain-smoked throughout the journey, muttering darkly about how he was caught up in something he was not at liberty to explain. The true import of his words is lost to us, but back in Germany the forces of history were on the move. The German parliament, the Reichstag, had just been destroyed in a fire that would allow the National Socialist German Worker’s Party to consolidate its hold on the levers of power. Within a few weeks, Otto would find himself summoned to Berlin for an urgent meeting with Reichsfuhrer SS Himmler, who inducted him into the Black Order without further ado. To what extent his Nazi masters truly believed that Otto might know the physical whereabouts of the Holy Grail remains a mystery, but his subsequent rise through the ranks cleared the way for the young adept to bring his research to its logical conclusion and ultimately set in motion the macabre and tragic events that were to follow…


 Otto’s first book, Crusade Against the Grail (1934) had attempted to link Wolfram von Eschenbach’s troubadour epic Parzival with the brutal repression of the European Gnostic-pagan tradition by the forces of the Holy Roman Church, a subject dear to Himmler’s heart. The book had been read by a young SS driver-secretary, Gabrielle Winckler-Dechend, who gave a copy to her superior, the ageing rune mage Colonel Karl Maria Wiligut-Weisthor, then the head of Section VIII (Archives) at the Race and Settlement Main Office, who passed it on to the Reichsfuhrer SS.

Wiligut-Weisthor was one of the most bizarre and colourful figures to have been drawn to the black flame of Himmler’s Nazi Camelot. Born as Karl Maria Wiligut in Vienna in 1866, he believed himself to be the “secret king of Germany”, the last descendant of an extinct line of royalty stemming from the ancient Germanic sages, the Uiligotis of the Asa-Uana-Sippe. He not only claimed to have been tutored in the runes and initiated from an early age into the secrets of his family, but also to possess clairvoyant abilities. By faith he was an Irminist, an adherent of the pagan deity Krist, whose worship he believed had been hijacked and ruthlessly distorted by the Christians. Following a family tradition, he had joined the Austro-Hungarian army at the age of 14 and held a series of commands spanning 40 years of loyal military service. He was repeatedly decorated for bravery in WWI and after being demobbed seems to have developed the conviction that he could remember all of his past lives, experiencing total recall of over 8,000 years of Germanic history. His subsequent desire to father a son who might inherit his ancestral memories placed his marriage under considerable strain.

Wiligut blamed his wife’s inability to conceive a healthy boy child on a Zionist-Masonic-Catholic conspiracy, which he also believed was responsible for the collapse of the Habsburg dynasty and his homeland’s ignominious defeat in the war. He began to grow increasingly violent, and after repeatedly threatening to kill his wife he was confined to an asylum in Salzburg and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with megalomaniacal tendencies. On his release, he emigrated to Germany, where he rapidly became a celebrity among the volkisch groups of the day, such as the Free Sons of the North and Baltic Seas and the Edda Society. In 1933, his old friend Richard Anders, who was now serving as an SS officer, introduced him to Heinrich Himmler, whose growing fascination with the occult traditions of old Europe set him apart from the other, more pragmatic members of Hitler’s inner circle. Himmler was labouring under the apprehension that he was the reincarnation of King Heinrich of Saxony at the time and seems to have been deeply impressed by this weird old man, who was duly recruited into the SS under the pseudonym ‘Weisthor’ (literally ‘Thor, the wise warrior’) and installed as the head of a newly created Department for Pre and Early History within the Race and Settlement Main Office in Munich.

There is no doubt that Wiligut-Weisthor, dubbed “Himmler’s Rasputin” by popular historians, was seen as something of a mentor figure by the Reichsfuhrer and accordingly came to wield considerable influence within the Order. He was rapidly promoted from the rank of SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer (captain) to SS-Brigadefuhrer (Brigadier), proving instrumental not only in the design of the SS uniform and ‘Totenkopfring’ (death’s head ring) which bore his family seal, but in the purchase and restoration of the Schloss Wewelsburg to serve as the SS Order castle. The former seat of the 16th-century bishops and witch-hunters of Paderborn, with its round table and ritual chamber in the basement of the north-facing tower, was clearly intended to become both the headquarters of Himmler’s nascent warrior knight dynasty and the geographic centre of a New World Order, over whose quasi-pagan birth rites Wiligut-Weisthor presided like some deranged cross between a Nazi Aleister Crowley and Uncle Fester from The Addams Family.

It comes as little surprise that Wiligut-Weisthor adored Otto’s book, which was swiftly prescribed as required reading at a certain level of promotion within the SS. After a complex vetting process, Otto was recruited onto Himmler’s personal staff as a junior non-commissioned officer, becoming a full member of the SS in 1936. Although he was never a card-carrying member of the Nazi party and found the uniform he was forced to wear “faintly ridiculous”, he must have been elated that sufficient funding had finally been allocated for him to be able to continue his research in France, Italy and Iceland. Like Wiligut-Weisthor, he saw the rise of the Hitler dictatorship as a means to an end, a golden opportunity to avenge his ancestors and oversee the destruction of organised religion, even Christianity itself, clearing the way for a new pan-European paganism designed and directed by his black-garbed masters, whom he imagined to be the servitors of an unknown god whose messiah was Lucifer rather than Jesus.


 Otto was only too aware of the Faustian nature of the bargain he had accepted and indeed paraphrases Goethe at length in his second book, The Court of Lucifer (Schwarzhaupter Verlag, Leipzig, 1937):

“Give me your hand, Faust! Let us leave Rome and seek out together the mountain of assembly in the most distant midnight… I was looking for divinity and instead I find myself at the gates of Hell. But still I may continue to walk, to fall, even in flames – If there exists a way towards Heaven then it crosses Hell, at least it does for me! Well then, I dare!”

Knowing that to refuse such an offer from Himmler would be to run the risk of possible imprisonment or even execution, Otto threw himself instead into the continued pursuit of the mysterious Cathar treasure he believed to be the Grail, communicating his findings to Weisthor in coded dispatches that were to be shared with no one other than Himmler, so secret were their contents. In one message addressed to Weisthor in October 1935 and signed by Otto with a hearty “heil Hitler”, the young Grail historian requests permission to travel to Odenwald, Westerwald, Sporkenburg, Drutgerestein, Steimel, Hellenborn, Wilderstein and the ruins of Wildenborg castle near Amorbach, where Wolfram von Eschenbach first penned his epic Grail romance. In the same missive, Otto mentions his pressing need to visit the stone circles of Dornburg and Willnesdorf, the former seat of the German heretics and birthplace of the mythical Christian Rosenkreutz, along with several other locations so secret that they could “only be mentioned orally”. The subsequent journey is noted in a report to Himmler dated 19 October 1935, and Himmler’s journal for 3 November 1935 remarks: “Report back and to be kept secret.”

These must have been heady years for Otto, and by all accounts he travelled incessantly. He planned to collaborate with the composer Hans Pfitzner to write a new opera telling the tale of the Cathars, and in July 1936 embarked on his most ambitious excursion to date, setting sail with a team of fellow SS men for the Arctic circle. Women were not allowed on the ship, which apparently flew a mysterious blue swastika rather than the familiar black and red sigil of Hitler’s Reich. This voyage to the far north, the Ultima Thule of his ancestors, was to form the final passage in The Court of Lucifer, a rather insubstantial travelogue thrown together under the egis of his Nazi supervisors and delivered just in time for an arbitrarily chosen deadline of 31 October – the pagan festival of Samhain. Typically, Otto’s text is less than clear about the true purpose of his journey, and speculation has been rife over the years as to whether he had hoped to find vestiges of some lost Aryan homeland hidden beneath the ice mantle, a gateway to the ‘Hollow Earth’ or was simply taking part in an obscure bonding exercise based on the Eddas.

In 2006, I had the opportunity to retrace Otto’s steps to Laugarvatin, Reykholt and the desolate shores of the Greenland Sea where the trail finally petered out. On the verge of a subterranean lake deep beneath the steaming flanks of Mount Kufla, I saw curious pictoglyphs and queer, Elfin faces carved into the volcanic rock, possibly the visible signs of a long-vanished civilisation. Whether or not they constituted material proof of Otto’s claims or were merely vestiges of another elaborate hoax is impossible to say without recourse to carbon-dating or further academic investigation. One of the things that always intrigued me about Otto’s case, and kept me on the trail over the years, was the odd physicality of his quest. Rather than a metaphor or spiritual ideal, there was always the implication that his Grail had a tangible presence in the material world. In his work, he often refers to the sacred treasure as the stone that fell from Lucifer’s crown, an actual meteoric stone that fell from the sky. I had two of these alien artefacts in my possession, souvenirs of Otto’s earlier excavations in the grotto of Fontanet, but still failed to understand what the young SS officer had hoped to achieve here, in this wilderness of lava and broken scree at the uttermost end of the Earth. He had planned to join the dots in his third book, Orpheus – a Journey to Hell and Beyond, a magnum opus whose first pages were written at the Icelandic North Cape on the Arctic Polar Circle. While the text of this exegesis was apparently completed on his return to Germany, it was, sadly, never to see print and the original manuscript seems to have disappeared without a trace.


 Quite what went wrong for Otto remains a matter of speculation, although perhaps the Grail-obsessed Reichsfuhrer SS was not well pleased with his Grail-hunter’s inability to come up with concrete results. As Himmler encountered difficulties in finding hard evidence to support his Aryan theories, so he began to grow increasingly impatient with Otto. After a brief promotional tour during which he visited schools and town halls to lecture a baffled public on the “Lucifer problem”, Otto found himself posted to more conventional duties.

According to author Christian Bernadac, Otto was forced to participate in the Nazi breeding programme known as the lebensborn (in which ‘racially pure’ women were encouraged to have children secretly fathered by SS officers) before being enrolled into a gruelling exercise regime at Buchenwald designed to “toughen him up” for active military service. On 1 September 1937, Otto was implicated in a disciplinary hearing held for one of his black-garbed comrades, Karl Mahler of Arolsen, who was accused, in an investigation backed by Martin Bormann’s private office, of “dishonourable conduct”. Bormann’s staff were engaged in gathering data to discredit the SS, which was threatening to become a virtual state within a state. It is hard to know at this distance what Otto’s role might have been in this infraction, whether it involved mistreatment of the prisoners or alleged homosexuality, as Reich historian Hans Jurgen Lange suggests. In a signed declaration, Otto was forced to swear off alcohol for two years and, as punishment, was stripped of his rank and reassigned to guard duty at the concentration camp at Dachau.

The issue of Otto’s sexual orientation is still hotly disputed. His former publisher, Albert von Haller, told me that Otto had been openly gay and insisted, perhaps a little too stridently, that this had been the true cause of his downfall. Weisthor’s former secretary Gabrielle Winckler-Dechend, on the other hand, seemed to go out of her way to refute the allegations. She recalled the time she had spent with Otto at the Race and Settlement Office fondly, claiming that he had often flirted with her. It may be necessary to take her testimony with a pinch of salt, however, as she also maintained that Otto had been gifted with ‘second sight’ – inherited from his father – and had communicated with her telepathically from across the street one night on the way home from a screening of Ernst Schafer’s SS-produced documentary Geheimnis Tibet as proof of his abilities to duplicate the powers of the lamas. Unfortunately for Gabrielle’s claims, Geheimnis Tibet only premiered in 1942, some three years after Otto’s disappearance and alleged demise. Gabriella refused to believe that Himmler could ever have done anything to harm Otto, whom she insisted had remained an ardent supporter of the black order to the end. Furthermore, she claimed that Otto had spoken of Dachau only in the most glowing terms and during his time there had paid particular attention to the planting of an extensive herb garden. Otto had a keen interest in naturopathy and herb lore and, according to Gabrielle, had seen his tour of duty in the camp as a chance to both creatively utilise the labour force and re-educate the prisoners.

Dachau at this time was filled with German ‘political’ prisoners (i.e., opponents of the Nazi regime); this only changed after Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, when the genocidal persecution of the German Jews began in earnest. Despite Gabrielle’s claims to the contrary, what Otto saw and experienced in the camp left him chronically depressed. He wrote repeatedly to Himmler’s personal adjutant, Karl Wolff, asking to be released from his duties so that he might complete his third book, but by now he had lost the ear of the Reichsfuhrer and his requests were ignored. His disillusionment with the Nazi regime became complete when he was asked to submit his ‘Ahnenpass’, the grotesque genealogical document that all German citizens were required to fill out in order to prove their racial purity. Possibly Otto was unaware of his mother’s Jewish roots until he conducted the necessary research to complete the form, but the irony would not have escaped him that his cherished lifework had served to contribute to the ideological underpinnings of the holocaust that was even now bearing down on him and the old, pre-war world he held so dear. For Otto Rahn, the initiatory journey ended in a precipice.

Richard StanleyCuriously, I have a copy of Otto’s Ahnenpass in my possession, and it is evident that, while he filled out the form, it was never stamped or approved. Quite how it ended up on file amongst the other public records remains a mystery. Certainly, to have submitted such a document, containing clear proof of his Semitic ancestry, would have been tantamount to suicide. After a reportedly staged marriage, to a young divorcee from Luneberg named Asta Bach, failed to ‘rehabilitate’ Otto in the eyes of his superiors, he was left with no other choice other than to resign from the SS. “It is no longer possible,” he wrote, “to live in the country that my homeland has become. On my return to Munich it all came back to me. The bloody events to which I had borne witness. I could no longer sleep nor eat. It was as if a nightmare lay upon me…” In a handwritten memo addressed to Karl Wolff and dated 28 February 1939, Otto asked to be allowed to leave the SS for “reasons so serious they can only be communicated orally”. His discharge was granted by Himmler on 17 March. The Reichsfuhrer pencilled a single word in the margin – “Ja” – before initialling the request, which was backdated to 22 February – although by then Otto Rahn was in all likelihood already dead.


 The testimony of Otto’s two publishers only serves further to muddy the picture of his final days. The publisher of The Court of Lucifer, Albert von Haller, reports having last seen Otto in Dortmund in early March at the home of writer friend and fellow Luciferian, Kurt Eggars. Albert was in no doubt that Otto was now on the run from the SS. “He looked terrible. His hair and his clothes were a mess,” he told me, claiming that he considered lending Otto his passport so that he might escape to France. Kurt supposedly advised him against this harebrained and somewhat unlikely course of action, warning that Otto was already under surveillance and that “when he is caught your passport will be found and then you’ll be in it just like me!”

“I understood”, said Albert, averting his gaze, “and did nothing…”

Otto Vogelsang, publisher of Otto’s first book, Crusade Against the Grail, claims to have met with his former client a few days later on 8 March at the Hotel Zahringer in Freiburg. He insists that Otto appeared “relaxed and happy” and seemed “confident about his future”. Otto left the hotel at around 11pm, apparently intending to take the train back to Munich. He seems, instead, to have travelled into the Austrian Tyrol. A postcard received shortly afterwards by his old friend Antonin Gadal in the French Pyrenees contained only four terse words: “I miss your country.”

For some reason, Otto appears to have left the bus at Soll and continued his final journey on foot. The mountains here are little more than 2,000m high, a walk in the park for a man like Otto. The last people to speak to him were the children of a Tyrolean farmer who saw a figure dressed in black emerge from the snowbound woods outside their cottage on the late afternoon of 13 March 1939. The stranger came within 30m of the house, stood still for a moment, and looked at his gold watch. He seemed to be in a hurry and paused just long enough to ask the children if they knew the time. Then he turned and went down the valley towards the stream where they watered the cows. After that, he seemed to disappear. As the shadows lengthened and a storm began to close in, the children’s parents searched in vain for the mysterious hiker but were surprised to find that he had left no footprints in the snow.

“In mid March 1939 by the Rechauerhof lay a metre of snow,” explained Peter Maier, trudging uphill across the frozen pine needles. “The next farmyard was an hour and a half away. He must have gone upstream, walking in the water so as not to leave any tracks. My brother and I found him three months later when the spring thaw came, sitting just there under the tree, covered by his coat.” Peter graciously pointed out the spot. The view was breathtaking. Looking down one could see across two different valleys, as far as the frontier. “We recognised him by his coat and hat. It was the man who had passed by our house. Next to his body lay two medicine bottles, one empty and the other half empty. He was identified by his passport which was still in his breast pocket…”

I don’t know what was in those medicine bottles, but according to the subsequent police report filed in Soll the pills didn’t kill him. He froze to death. The 35-year-old Grail historian was buried at the base of the Kufstein, where he lay until the end of the war when his body was moved to the family plot in Darmstadt. For reasons that remain unclear, no formal death certificate was ever issued. Whether he was the victim of foul play or had voluntarily chosen to leave a world he saw disintegrating around him remains a matter of debate. The fact that Wiligut-Weisthor was forced to retire from the SS that same month suggests that perhaps Otto did discover something in the course of his travels – something that led to both men being abruptly silenced.

The following May, a terse obituary appeared in the Volkische Beobachter: “In a snowstorm in the mountains this March SS. Obersturmfuhrer Otto Rahn tragically departed this life. We mourn our dead comrade, decent SS man and writer of noted historical scholarly works.” The obituary was signed by Karl Wolff, Himmler’s Chief of Personal Staff. Wolff is an interesting choice to have penned Otto’s death notice, considering the role he seems to have played in bringing about Wiligut-Weisthor’s downfall and the subsequently dismantling of the Ahnenerbe SS’s prehistory department. The previous November, Wolff had paid a personal call on Wiligut-Weisthor’s estranged wife Malwinne in Salzburg, taking the opportunity provided by the Anschluss, Germany’s political union with Austria, to pull her husband’s psychiatric records, which were subsequently dumped on Himmler’s desk, an action that made the ageing rune mage’s continued presence in the SS politically untenable. It is widely assumed that Wolff had been acting in concert with a rival faction within the SS, one actively opposed to the pagan and Luciferian elements within the black order and aiming to systematically discredit and destroy them. Wiligut-Weisthor was too important to Himmler to be killed. Instead, he was quietly sequestered and shuffled from one SS safe house to another throughout the war, before dying on his assistant’s couch in the winter of 1946. While Wiligut-Weisthor was an 80-year-old man with a history of psychiatric illness, Otto Rahn might have proved more of a liability and – so the story goes – had to be eradicated, and all trace of his research erased from the face of the Earth.

After the war, Otto’s work – tainted by its association with Nazi ideology – fell into obscurity, although his memory continued to live on in popular culture, giving rise to any number of fanciful tales concerning various treasures lost and found, warm water lakes concealed beneath the permafrost, subterranean UFO bases, dinosaur survival and ritual murder. In 1964, an organisation known as the Nerother Bund, an offshoot of the German ramblers’ association, the Wandervogel, under the direction of a certain Pater Martin Kuhn, constructed the world’s only known monument to Otto in the forest of the Hunsruck. At the base of a circular pedestal of stones taken from the heretic citadel of Montsegur appears a simple, sobering inscription drawn from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival: “Caution – these ways lead astray!”

Some think that Otto escaped Germany by assuming the identity of his dead brother Rudolph, surviving the war to become the head of Coca-Cola Europe, a theory that has by now been widely discredited. Others believe that he really did find the Grail and with it the secret of life eternal.

Standing at his family grave in Darmstadt, I suspected his remains are probably interred there. Of course, you would have to exhume the body and examine his teeth or DNA to be absolutely certain. The only thing you can really be sure of is that, despite his many sins, Otto Rahn died a martyr’s death and hence deserves to sit amongst the elect of his unknown religion.

I left him a bunch of roses and 12 crow feathers I had collected from the floor of the cave in Ussat-les-Bains. Then, turning away, I walked back towards the car.

By Richard Stanley    May 2011
Illustration by Gerard Goffaux