Otto Rahn, the descendant of Jews who sought the Holy Grail for the Nazis

It is often said that the inspiration of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for the plot of the first Indiana Jones film, in search of the lost ark, was partly the figure of Otto Rahn. The filmmakers never corroborated it, but those who say so may simply establish a resemblance in the fact that this writer is often credited with finding an alleged Cathar treasure. But the fact is that Rahn, curiously, was a true expert in the Holy Grail, the macguffin around which the third title of that film saga would revolve.

Otto Wilhelm Rahn became famous for his close collaboration with the Hitler regime in that bizarre fondness that the Nazis had for the esoteric and history as the cultural substrate of their ideology. This hobby was reflected in the creation of a society called Ahnenerbe, integrated into the SS and heir to the Thule Society, which was dedicated to conducting studies on occultism and folklore that would explain the origin of the Aryan race. The Ahnenerbe picked up the baton and devoted itself to research on “the northern Indo-Germanic race”, organizing pseudoscientific archaeological and anthropological expeditions all over the world.

Emblems of the Thule Society and the Anhenerbe/Images: 1-NsMn in Wikimedia Commons and 2-: Malyszkz in Wikimedia Commons

that vibe volkisch had to inevitably influence that young man, born in the German city of Michelstadt in 1904 into a middle-class family, who between 1922 and 1926 studied law at the universities of Giessen, Freiburg and Heidelberg to satisfy his father’s wish (judge in Mainz), but that, in reality, he felt much more attracted to other subjects such as history or Germanic philology, attending classes on these subjects.

In fact, it was during his stay in Giessen that he began to study what would become his great specialty, the Albigensian heresy, at the request of his religion teacher, who was also a professor of history. Catharism captivated him from the first moment, as he himself admitted: an ascetic and Gnostic movement with Manichean influences in which the world was conceived as divided into two conceptions, one being spiritual (Heaven, souls… created by God) and another is material (wars, the Catholic Church… work of the Devil). All this in the Middle Ages, between the 10th and 12th centuries.

His study constituted for Rahn the culmination of an entire mental evasion that in a certain way had begun as a child -lonely and sickly- with the feverish reading of legends and mythologies to abstract himself from the horrors of the First World War. The reference is not gratuitous because of all these myths he was especially captivated by that of Parsifal, in the version of the medieval poet Wolfram von Eschenbach: entitled Parzival, it was an epic poem from the 13th century (inspired by the novel Perceval or the story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes), who had become quite a best seller in Germany because Richard Wagner had adapted it to opera.

Perhaps that is why Rahn had that inclination for Parsifal, since he had also studied music and it seems that he was a good pianist. In any case, the review of that work comes in connection with a trip he made to the south of France in 1929 to investigate on-site the theme of the Albigensians, even settling for a time in Lavelanet, in the heart of Languedoc, where this heresy had spread most intensely. Rahn, who was accompanied by the French historian Antonin Gadal, an expert on the subject with several published works and who also had a taste for the mystical, thought that there was a link between Parsifal and the Cathars.

Montsegur Castle/Photo: Gerbil on Wikimedia Commons

For him, that sect constituted an evolved form of Druidism, not only in concepts but also in the same architectural constructions and other aspects, suggesting that the link between the two would be the Holy Grail. Rahn supposed that this precious object, so symbolic and important in medieval imagery but never found, could still be buried among the ruins of Montsegur, the walled town that constituted the last position of resistance of the Cathars against the crusade decreed by Pope Innocent III. to finish them off.

The legend said that they kept a fabulous treasure of which “a stone fallen from heaven” was part, which Rahn identified with the Grail that Parsifal found in a castle on the Monstsalvat (Wild Mountain); the fact that Montsegur was located at the top of Mount Pog was another element that came in handy to arrive at that forced deduction, in which he theorized about the existence of two different grails, the chalice and a stele. To prolong and finance his stay he opened a small hotel in 1932 and began digging. But he did not find anything that he was looking for and also had to close to return to Germany escaping from justice for the debts incurred.

However, he had already got his career back on track. As a result of that trip he would publish two books that were quite successful. The first came out in 1933 with the title Kreuzzug gegen den Gral (Crusade against the Grail) and the second in 1937 as Luzifers Hofgesind (The Court of Lucifer). They weren’t translated into English but it didn’t matter either because Hitler had just come to power and the Nazis took an interest in his work. Heinrich Himmler personally contacted him to invite him to join the SS and commission him to search for the holy chalice. A detail: when the head of the SS visited the Montserrat Monastery in 1940 he carried under his arm a copy of Luzifers Hofgesinda work that he had ordered to be distributed among all the officers of the order.

Rahn was dead by then, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. He for the moment he listened to his new patron and joined the SS as unteroffizier (inexperienced non-commissioned officer), becoming a full member in 1936 with the rank of obersturmfuhrer (first lieutenant). However, the great paradox was that this medievalist scholar raised almost to the status of prophet of Nazism detested that condition and felt profoundly alien to that organization. Not only for political reasons but also because, according to his publisher, he was clearly homosexual (although not all scholars are sure of this) and furthermore he could not prove four generations of racially pure ancestry, as required of the SS, since he descended from Jews by mother’s side.

Sickly and a compulsive smoker, he had taken refuge from his uncomfortable situation in drinking -something that would take its toll on him, as we will see- and he hated both physical exercise and weapons, which led him not to participate in any of the camps organized by the SS every summer. His thing was study and now that he had a specific mission he applied himself fully to it, making new trips to various corners of Europe (France, Italy, Iceland) to carry out archaeological excavations. All were a failure in terms of results; the Holy Grail did not appear, Himmler got tired of it and everything ended up going wrong.

In 1937, after a forceful drunkenness that led him to be accused of “dishonorable conduct” by a colleague, Karl Mahler (perhaps for exposing his sexual tastes), he was demoted, prohibited from tasting alcohol for two years, married to the young Asta Bach and was sent to Dachau for three months as a guard. The name still has sinister resonances: it was a concentration camp located north of Munich and opened four years earlier to lock up political prisoners, to whom the following year were added communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, gypsies, homosexuals… It had not yet been converted into an extermination camp, something that would come in 1941, when Nazi barbarism began medical experiments with captives and installed crematorium ovens.

Although he did not see that phase, his experience in that place was unpleasant enough to make him definitely abhor Nazism, leaving his wife, making contact with opposition circles and resigning from the SS in February 1939. . The gruppenfuhrer Karl Wolff, Himmler’s chief of staff, passed it on to his superior, who laconically accepted with a simple ‘yes’. Shortly thereafter, rumors began to circulate airing her homosexuality and speculating about her Jewish ancestors, prompting the Gestapo to turn their attention to him.

Suicide was apparently suggested to him as an honorable way out, a typical procedure as would later be seen in Rommel’s case. Rahn requested to retire to Languedoc and live discreetly dedicated to research but was denied; it was death with honor by his own hand or prosecution and execution. At the beginning of March 1939, Rahn left Germany and disappeared for two weeks, until on the 13th of that month he was found dead, frozen, on the slopes of the Wilden Kaiser mountain, in the Austrian Alps, near the Tyrolean town of Soell.

There are different versions about the details because no death certificate was made: one proposes that he took a dose of poison, although witnesses said that he had two bottles of medicine with him, which would suggest that he took his own life heeding the suggestion of the SS; at least that was the official opinion, although it could also have been an accident (perhaps another one of his drunken sprees). Whatever the explanation, for many it was not just any death. Let’s see why.

The chosen date was suspiciously close to that of the fall of the Montsegur fortress in the hands of the Crusaders (which would be three days later in the year 1244) and there are those who believe that the circumstances surrounding the death bore a certain similarity to a Cathar ritual called endure, which involved the practice of a final total fast as a means of mystical delivery of the last breath of life to God. The endure it was the culmination -or substitution, at times- of a process known as consolamentum, the only sacrament that was practiced in that faith; a combination of baptism, communion and extreme unction that used to be applied to new devotees or those who were about to die. Thus, Rahn would have chosen to leave this world in imitation of that tradition.


Otto Rahn and the Quest for the Grail. The Amazing Life of the Real Indiana Jones (Nigel Gradon)/Otto Rahn and the Quest for the Holy Grail (M. Sabeheddin in New Dawn Magazine)/The Occult Roots of Nazism. Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology (Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke)/The Cathars. the perfect heresy (Stephen O’Shea)/The Christianities Defeated (Antonio Pinero Saenz)/Wikipedia