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Sir Percival in the Third Reich

percival ahnenerbe otto rahn

I already confessed that Indiana Jones and the mythical artefacts he chases across the world were a childhood love of mine. The two movies where he must outrun the Nazis are by far my favourites.

But did you know the Nazis’ interest in the Grail was historically accurate?


The mastermind behind the search for the Grail wasn’t Hitler himself, but rather his henchman, Himmler. Himmler is best known as the leader of the SS, the famous black-clad soldiers in their Hugo Boss-designed uniforms. He was also obsessed with occultism and legends that confirmed the Aryan heritage as the Nazis saw it.

To this end, Himmler established a research organisation in 1933: the Ahnenerbe. It encompassed far more than archaeological and occult research – in fact, it was involved in anything that Himmler believed would “further humanity”, or rather the Aryan race.

While academic in nature, the Ahnenerbe was part of the SS organisation and likewise based at Wewelsburg castle. Himmler had the castle renovated. Part of those renovations involved preparing a room known as the Grail Room, where a dais had been prepared to hold the Grail once it was found.

But what he was looking for wasn’t the cup of Christ.

The Shape of the Grail

Himmler didn’t want the Grail out of religious piety. In fact, he disliked Christianity because of its Semitic roots. To him the Grail was not a relic, but a source of power with which to vanquish the enemies of the Third Reich. Neither did he believe it to be a cup. According to him, the Grail was a stone; a gem fallen from the crown of Lucifel. No, that isn’t a typo: he believed that Lucifer was, as the name suggests, the “Bringer of Light”. Not the devil, but a teacher of mystic knowledge.

It is likely he got these notions of Lucifer, the Grail and mystic knowledge from a rather obscure book that was published in the early 1930s: Crusade Against the Grail. Its author was a young mythologist and historian who had spent much of his life studying the legends of the ancient German tribes as well as the history of the Cathars of the Languedoc, in the south of France.

This author was Otto Rahn.

The “Real” Indiana Jones

It is said that Rahn was a major inspiration for Indiana Jones. His research certainly influenced the premise of Raiders of the Lost Ark and of course The Holy Grail. The man himself never lived to see that legacy. He didn’t even live to see the start of World War II.

Six years earlier, in 1933, Rahn was struggling to raise interest for his newly-published work. He had very little success, until he received an anonymous telegram instructing him to come to an address in Berlin, all expenses paid. Rahn went, and was met by Himmler himself. Himmler loved Rahn’s research and offered him a job as researcher. It meant Rahn would have to become an officer in the SS, but the Ahnenerbe would fund his work. Himmler even commissioned Rahn to write a second book.

Rahn agreed, but not out of conviction: “A man has to eat. What was I supposed to do? Turn Himmler down?”, he said on the matter.

The Legend of Parsifal

Why was Rahn’s research so influential? Because of sheer blind faith.

Even as a boy, Rahn had been determined to find the Grail. He was convinced even then that the legend of Parsifal (Percival in English) as handed down by the medieval troubadour Wolfram von Eschenbach contained hidden clues to the location of the Grail.

It is here that the Grail became linked to the Cathars of the Languedoc, and specifically to Montsegur. Rahn was certain he would find the Grail there, so he wrote in his first book.

Legends that are roadmaps to hidden treasure, Herr Kalbrandt. In their legends, passed on by Wolfram von Eschenbach and his peers, the Cathars predicted the existence of the Grail Castle, a mighty vestige atop a mountain. A paradise of remembrance and insight, far from the rest of the world. Below it, deep within the mountain, they predicted tunnels of knowledge.’ Wüst grinned like a cat that got the cream. ‘Why, Obersturmführer Rahn has already entertained us with a description of the vaults beneath our very feet.’

The Kalbrandt Institute Archives – Book II: Monsters, File C/37065/SAJ

The true problem was that Himmler took Rahn’s reasonings as gospel. He believed Rahn’s musings were not ideas, but facts. Hence he insisted Rahn continued his work. Rahn travelled to France, and to various other places, searching for the Grail. He found nothing. Legends and tenuous connections between German legends, with Parsifal at its centre. But no Grail, and no evidence of its existence.

Meanwhile, Himmler had that dais prepared for the day Rahn brought the Grail to its “rightful home” in Wewelsburg…

Tragic Ending

So much blind faith could only end in tragedy. And it did.

To say Rahn’s relationship with the SS was forced is an understatement. He was openly homosexual and outspoken about his anti-Nazi sympathies. As punishment – or perhaps a warning – he was stationed at the Dachau concentration camp for some time, but this only made him so appalled that he tried to resign from the SS.

But no one left the SS. Ever. In March 1939, Rahn was found frozen in the mountains of Tyrol. His death was reportedly suicide…


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