The defeat of the German Empire and its allies in the First World War was a seismic and historic event, marking the emergence of a new paradigm. 

In the aftermath, the victorious Allies imposed a harsh peace on the losers through the infamous Treaty of Versailles. 

In the former German Empire, this led to the shattering of old certainties and the emergence of a new paradigm characterized by economic, political, and societal chaos. 

At the very end of the war, in 1918, a veteran (with a keen eye for art) formed a study group and moved to Munich, then a seething hotbed of political violence, disorder, and bedlam. 

The veteran was contacted by a colleague of higher social standing to organize a Munich branch of their secret society, the Order of the Teutons. 

Not wanting to arouse suspicion or the heavy hand of the law, the two members gave their Munich branch a new name, the "Thule Society" - named after the Greco-Roman name for a mysterious far northern land, "Thule," which many modern academics believe to be either Iceland or Scandinavia

Delegations signing the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors on June 28, 1919. This historic event set the stage for the political and societal upheavals in Germany that led to the rise of groups like the Thule Society. Photo: Helen Johns Kirtland and Lucian Swift Kirtland / US National Archives (Public domain)

Conspiracy and blood 

A common conspiracy theory in the years following the end of the war was that Germany was never defeated on the battlefield but lost the war due to the "November conspiracy" involving a mix of "Jews, politicians, and communists." 

The German Empire was disbanded, territory was ceded to its enemies, new countries emerged on its borders, and its economy (already weakened by years of war) collapsed. 

Antisemitic attitudes, which had sadly always been present in Europe, became increasingly prevalent. 

Germany was believed to have lost the war because it was a society "polluted by Jewish blood."

The Thule Society tapped into these prevailing extremist attitudes by focusing on trying to understand and find the origins of the "Aryan race." 

Members had to sign a "blood declaration of faith," which declared that they, their spouses, families, or ancestors had no "Jewish or colored blood." 

The members delved back into history books and looked at, for example, people from Viking societies as exemplary pillars of the "Aryan race." 

Vikings had explored, fought in, and colonized vast swathes of Europe and its neighboring regions, building a society based on martial values – something that the new Germany, when rid of its "Jewish element," could hope to emulate. 

Arno Breker's sculptures of the Nordic man showcase the aesthetic favored by Hitler, who regarded Breker as his favorite sculptor, echoing the Nazi era's fascination with Nordic mythology. Photo: Viborg / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cultural appropriation of the Vikings 

What separated the Thule Society from other similar extremist right-wing groups formed in Germany during the same era was its mixture of occultist beliefs with the Völkisch movement. 

Since the late 19th century, an ethno-nationalist movement had swept many German-speaking communities, favoring the idea of a "body of the people" characterized by a heady mix of populism, agrarianism, nationalism, and antisemitism. 

The Thule Society was not only seen as the latest offshoot of the Völkisch movement but also added occultist beliefs to the mix. 

Among these was a distorted interpretation of ancient Germanic and Nordic mythology used to reinforce and support contemporary extremist right-wing attitudes.

Members of the society selectively embraced elements of Norse mythology and incorporated them into their toxic narrative of Aryan racial superiority. 

They claimed that the Aryan race had its roots in ancient Germanic cultures, including those Scandinavian societies that produced Vikings. 

Furthermore, the members of the Thule Society romanticized Viking warrior ideals, emphasizing their warrior spirit and valiant deeds as essential characteristics of the Aryan race. 

Scouring the rich tapestry of Norse literature – the legends, myths, poems, sagas, and stories – they cherry-picked examples of what they saw as valiant heroes. 

However, despite the glorification of warriors and war, many of these stories were nuanced and had layered meanings. 

These interpretations were ignored and overlooked to present a very one-sided, machoistic view of Nordic mythology. 

Norse gods like Thor and Odin – powerful male deities – were worshipped and glorified.

Another example of this cultural appropriation by members of the Thule Society from Viking societies was their incorporation of iconography. 

People from Viking societies had developed a sophisticated runic alphabet, used throughout the early medieval period until the Christianization of Scandinavia was completed by the 12th century. 

The Thule Society manipulated several runes in their iconography, including Othala (representing ancestral property, heritage, and homeland) and Tiwaz (associated with the god Tyr, symbolizing honor, justice, and leadership). 

Adolf Hitler delivering a speech at the third Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, 1927. Visible behind him are key Nazi figures including Rudolf Hess, a known member of the Thule Society. Photo: Unknown photographer (Public domain)

Influence on the Nazi Party and beyond 

At its height, the Thule Society had a membership of approximately 1,700 members, a mere drop in the ocean compared to the various socialist and communist parties in Bavaria. 

During the Bavarian revolution of 1919, which created a short-lived though unrecognized socialist Bavarian state, members were embroiled in a failed assassination plot against the prime minister. 

This resulted in a police raid of the Society's premises and the execution of several key members, including co-founder Rudolf von Sebottendorf.

One member who kept out of the revolutionary violence and chaos was Karl Harrer. 

Earlier in the year, he had branched off and started a new party, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers' Party), with Anton Drexler. 

A failed art student turned soldier joined in September of that year: Adolf Hitler. 

This led to the party's rebranding, in February of the following year, as the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers' Party) - commonly known as the Nazis. 

He would lead the party from regional obscurity to national prominence, steering Germany and the world onto a path lined with death, destruction, and war. 

Several key members of the Thule Society would go on to become leading figures in the new Nazi Party, including Hans Frank, Rudolf Hess, and Alfred Rosenberg. 

They would help influence the creation of the party's vitriolic racial ideologies – infamously forming the backbone of the Nuremberg Laws passed in 1935, which stripped German Jews of all civil rights and dignity. 

Alongside these racial ideologies, the former members of the Thule Society also helped popularize a deep love and appreciation of Norse culture and mythology – despite this love being based on twisted interpretations and readings.

In foreshadowing events for much of the late 20th and into the 21st century, Norse mythology and culture became intertwined with extremist far-right ideology and hate

The most recent example of this was the various "Nordic symbols" displayed by far-right extremists during the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2020, following Joe Biden's victory over Donald Trump. 

For more information on the ancient discovery of "Thule," visit the National Geographic UK website here

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