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Otto Rahn and the Third Reich’s Hunt for the Holy Grail: Proper Indiana Jones Stuff

In the early days of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler and his inner circle were obsessed with finding the Holy Grail. They believed the Grail could grant them supernatural powers and help them win the war.

So, they turned to Otto Rahn to help them find it. Rahn was a German archaeologist who studied the Grail legend extensively. He was also a member of the Nazi party, and he was willing to do whatever it took to help his country win the war.

Otto Rahn was born in 1904 in the Oldenwald, a mountainous region of southwestern Germany full of medieval history and legend. From a young age he was fascinated by stories of Germanic heroes, particularly Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century epic poem Parzival, which tells the tale of the Arthurian hero Percival and his search for the Holy Grail.

As a boy, Rahn assumed these tales to be just tales. But that all changed while studying philology at the University of Giessen. There he learned of the exploits of German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who 60 years earlier had followed the clues in Homer’s Iliad to find the ruins of ancient Troy, previously thought to be a myth.

It was in university that he also learned of the Cathars, a religious sect that arose in southern France during the 13th century, and was subsequently exterminated by the Catholic Church in what is remembered as the Albigensian Crusade.

These two revelations had a profound effect on the young Rahn. Through a close study of Eschenbach’s work, coupled with some very selective reasoning, he concluded that the Cathars had in fact been the true keepers of the Grail. Just like his hero Schliemann, he would use the facts behind the fiction to locate Christianity’s holiest relic.

In 1931, Rahn travelled to Montségur in the Pyrenees to explore the ruins of one of the last Cathar strongholds and one of the Albigensian Crusade’s most brutal events. In 1244, the castle was captured by Catholic forces after a prolonged siege, and 200 unrepentant Cathars were burned alive together in what is remembered as the “Field of the Burned.” However, local legend has it that four Cathar knights managed to scale down the castle walls and escape with a number of treasures, including the grail.

Rahn found a few hidden tunnels and chambers at the site, but nothing else. Undaunted, in 1933 he published his first book, Crusade Against the Grail, in which he chronicled his explorations and expounded on his theories. The book sold poorly, but it gained Rahn an unlikely admirer and powerful patron: Heinrich Himmler.

Heinrich Himmler

The head of the notorious Nazi Schutzstaffel or SS, Himmler had a well-documented obsession with myth, mysticism and the occult. He was also fascinated with the grail legend and devoted considerable resources to locating it. At Wewelsburg castle, his citadel in central Germany, he even constructed a dedicated “Grail Room” in which he intended to store the relic, as well as a “General’s Hall” ringed with 12 columns in obvious reference to the Knights of the Round Table.

Himmler soon summoned Rahn to a private meeting during which he expressed his admiration for the author’s work and offered to bankroll his future research on the condition that he produces another book by 1937 and a third by 1939. He even organized for Rahn a private office and personal secretary.

Rahn accepted, though he must have known he was making a deal with the devil and his life would never be the same. Almost immediately, Rahn noticed that he and those closest to him were under surveillance. “What was I supposed to do, turn him down?” he later confided to a friend.

Aside from continuing his research on the Cathars and the Grail, Rahn was assigned additional tasks, such as researching the Himmler family genealogy and travelling to Iceland as part of an SS expedition to study the Norse sagas. During the latter, he was reportedly so bored and depressed and by the desolate landscape that loudly exclaimed: “I want to see trees!” Despite his lack of enthusiasm, Rahn seemed to have performed his duties reasonably well because in 1936 Himmler had him formally inducted into the SS. The following year he duly delivered his next book, Lucifer’s Court, in which he introduced his theory that the fabled “Prince of Darkness” was actually a positive spiritual figure who was misappropriated and distorted by Christianity.

Wewelsburg castle

This book too failed to find a popular audience, but in the insane world of Nazi pseudo-academia, Rahn became a celebrity, highly sought-after for lectures and speaking engagements. Himmler, whose opinion was the only one that truly mattered, was so thrilled with the book that he ordered 100 copies printed on luxury parchment, and even presented a copy bound in finest pigskin to Hitler for his birthday.

Unfortunately for Rahn, it was now while he was at the height of professional success that his personal life now began to unravel with dire consequences.

A small, sensitive and bookish man, Rahn never quite fit in with the boorish, bullnecked bullies of the SS. He was also a heavy drinker, openly liberal in his political views, and gay. In a letter to a friend he wrote shortly before entering Himmler’s service, he remarked sadly that: “It is impossible for a tolerant and generous person to stay for long in this country, which used to be my wonderful homeland.”

In Otto Rahn & The Quest for the Holy Grail, author Nigel Graddon posits that Rahn never had any sympathy for the Nazis and saw them only as a source of research funding and financial support. On one occasion, when spotted by an old acquaintance in his black SS uniform, complete with ceremonial dagger and swastika armband, Rahn reportedly just shrugged and sighed: “One must eat.”

Himmler, knew all about Rahn’s personal life, and he was willing to overlook it so long as he kept producing books and research. When a homosexual tryst came to light shortly before the release of Lucifer’s Court, Himmler forbade Rahn from drinking and forced him to do a few months of guard duty, but otherwise forgave him.

A Nazi-era postage stamp commemorating the Holy Grail.

By 1938, however, Rahn had begun to shirk his duties. He began spending more and more time outside of Germany in politically questionable company, and was even reported to be sharing confidential and embarrassing information about the SS. Worse yet, he had still failed to provide the Nazis with proof of his own “Aryan” heritage, sparking rumours of Jewish ancestry.

When a second affair came to light, this time with a high-ranking member of the Luftwaffe, a furious Himmler ordered Rahn to do guard duty at the Buchenwald concentration camp. What he saw there horrified him, and his already delicate mental state began to rapidly decline. In February of 1939, he abruptly resigned from the SS.

In the weeks following, Rahn’s friends reported him to be suffering from extreme nervous agitation and on the verge of a mental breakdown. He fled south to the town of Söll in the Austrian alps. There, sometime in mid-March, he followed a stony path into the mountains and weeks later was found frozen to death.

What exactly happened to Rahn has never been fully determined. Many speculate that once he left the SS, his sexual orientation and political views made him a marked man. Rather than face the horrors of the concentration camps that he had witnessed firsthand, he took his own life.

Proponents of this theory note that his death occurred near the anniversary of the fall of Montségur. They presume he committed the “Endura,” a Cathar form of ritual suicide by cold and starvation. It would have been a fitting if tragic end for a man who had devoted so much of his life to the mysterious sect.

But others argue that the body that was found frozen in the mountains was not in fact Rahn’s, and that he had instead faked his own death. They note that though the body that was recovered was buried at the Rahn family grave in Darmstadt, no official death certificate was ever produced.

Rumours swirled for years that he had assumed a new identity and was hidden by friends in one of the mystic and esoteric circles in which he was known to travel. Others continue to theorize that Otto Rahn and Rudolf Rahn, the similar looking German ambassador to Italy who died in 1975, were in fact the same person. There is even a story of him dying in a car accident in Iran in 1959.

Feeding these rumours is the extent to which Himmler went to posthumously rehabilitate Rahn and cover up any of his misdeeds. An obituary in the SS newspaper Das Schwarzes Korps, attributed his death to a sudden snowstorm and described him as “a decent SS-member and the creator of marvellous historic and scientific works.” Himmler kept Rahn’s works in print right to the end of the war when paper in Germany was increasingly scarce, and in 1944 a large outstanding debt he owed to Himmler was mysteriously and anonymously paid.


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