Himmler's Witch Hunt

The Third Reich’s obsession with a pure Germanic past led to a renewed interest in the witch hunts of early modern Germany.

Karl Wolff, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich attend the premiere of the film Verräter (Traitor), Nuremberg, 1936 © akg-images

In the summer of 1936, most observers of Germany were focused on the Berlin Olympics. Beyond establishing Aryan superiority in the field of competition, Chancellor Hitler and his deputies intended to showcase German prosperity under National Socialist rule and refute reports of the mistreatment of Jews and political dissidents. Many bureaux of the regime were simultaneously hard at work behind the scenes systematically disenfranchising, imprisoning and even killing these same ‘enemies of the German People’. Just four miles from the Olympic Stadium, on the fourth floor of a confiscated masonic lodge, a team of 17 SS officers toiled secretly on a mission that came directly from Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. Under the direction of SS-Untersturmführer (equivalent to second lieutenant) Rudolf Levin, the group, mostly young men in their twenties, ploughed daily through stacks of execution reports sent in from around the country, carefully tabulating the essentials on notecards specially designed for this purpose. Levin and his staff spoke openly of genocide and their urgent task of protecting the German people from those who would destroy it. The victims, however, were not the undesirables of the day, but individuals who had died centuries earlier, accused of magic and witchcraft. This was the Special Assignment H (for Hexen, or ‘witches’) unit, whose existence emanated from a strange brew of scholarship, political intrigue, personal ambition and Nazi ideology.

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