Did Nazis really try to make zombies? The real history behind one of our weirdest WWII obsessions

From comics to video games to Indiana Jones, the occult pursuits of Nazi villains continue to fascinate us

Published August 22, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)


From the pages of "Hellboy" and the pixilated corridors of "Wolfenstein 3D," popular culture has wondered whether the Nazis, who had no shortage of well-documented kooky ideas, might have researched the possibility of reanimating the dead. Nazi zombies make for a grabber of a headline, but what real evidence is there that raising the dead was on the agenda for even the most outrageous among the Nazis?

We can begin with the conclusion, because that is really just the start. No reliable evidence has been found that the Nazis tried to raise the dead. But though even asking the question may sound preposterous, a world of people believe that such a program was in the works — and knowing what facts we do about Nazi research and beliefs, this concept is entirely plausible.

The idea that the Nazis looked into the possibility of raising the dead might sound like an outtake from an Indiana Jones movie. But this is only because those plots were inspired by real, but little-known, facts. The Nazis did, in fact, have teams of researchers hunting for supernatural treasures, religious relics and entrances to a magical land of telepathic faeries and giants (I wish I were making this up). Relatively few people are aware of a very real organization that was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones plots: the Nazi Ahnenerbe, or the Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Organization. (I wrote about the Ahnenerbe in my book "Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece.")

The Ahnenerbe (which literally means “Inheritance of the Forefathers”) was a research group into the paranormal, established by order of SS head Heinrich Himmler on 1 July 1935. It was expanded during the Second World War on direct orders from Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s interest in the occult, and the interest of many of the Nazi leaders (Himmler foremost among them) is well-documented. The Nazi Party actually began as an occult fraternity, before it morphed into a political party. Himmler’s SS, ostensibly Hitler’s bodyguard but in practice the leading special forces of the Nazi Army, was conceived of and designed based on occult beliefs. Wewelsburg, the castle headquarters of the SS, was the site of initiation rituals for SS “knights” that were modeled on Arthurian legend. The magical powers of runes were invoked, and the Ahnenerbe logo sports rune-style lettering. Psychics and astrologers were employed to attack the enemy and plan tactics based on the alignment of the stars. Nazis tried to create super-soldiers, using steroids and drug cocktails, in a twisted interpretation of Nietzsche’s übermensch.

What really got the Indiana Jones plots flowing were real Nazi expeditions launched through the Ahnenerbe. To Tibet, to search for traces of the original, uncorrupted Aryan race, and for a creature called the Yeti, what we would call the Abominable Snowman. To Ethiopia, in search of the Ark of the Covenant. To steal the Spear of Destiny from its display among the Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Emperor at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, the lance which Longinus used to pierce Christ’s side as Christ hung on the cross, and which would disappear from a locked vault in Nurnberg at the end of the war. To the Languedoc, to find the Holy Grail. Indiana Jones’ nemesis, the Nazi archaeologist Belloq, may have been inspired by Otto Rahn, a member of the Ahnenerbe who spent years in search of the Holy Grail and who penned several fascinating books on the Cathars, Templars and a cult built around Lucifer, who was a god of light appropriated by early Christians and equated with the Devil (Dan Brown, I hope you’re taking notes). It is certainly possible that Hitler believed that The Ghent Altarpiece contained a coded map to supernatural treasure, as some have posited. The Ahnenerbe was hard at work looking for a secret code in the Icelandic saga "The Eddas," which many Nazi officials thought would reveal the entrance to the magical land of Thule, a sort of Middle Earth full of telepathic giants and faeries, which they believed to be the very real place of origin of the Aryans. If they could find this entrance, then the Nazis might accelerate their Aryan breeding program, and recover the supernatural powers of flight, telepathy and telekinesis that they believed their ancestors in Thule possessed, and which was lost due to interbreeding with “lesser” races.

As kooky as all this may sound (and it sounds extremely kooky), such things were fervently believed by some powerful people in the Nazi Party — so much so that huge sums of money were invested into research, along with hundreds of workers and scientists. Michael Kater, a professor who publishes extensively on Nazi Germany and who penned a book on the Ahnenerbe, underscores that the occult obsession was limited primarily to a few individuals, albeit individuals with a great deal of power. “Apart from Himmler and the Ahnenerbe, there is not a shred of evidence that ‘intellectuals’ or culture brokers of the Third Reich would have been concerned with this question (of the dead, the zombies, or the occult, for that matter).” But because of the interest from Hitler and Himmler, above all — and, frankly, the weirdness of some of their beliefs and practices — popular culture has latched onto this almost two-dimensional mad villainy and assigned it to Nazis in general. Which brings us to zombies.

The pseudo-scientific institute of the Ahnenerbe, acting out Himmler’s fantasies and theories, both sought supernatural advantages for the Nazi war effort, but also had a propagandistic agenda, to seek “scientific” evidence to support Nazi beliefs, like Aryan racial superiority. These experiments on human subjects, many concentration camp inmates, provide a horrifying constellation of facts that can lead to the theory about Nazi experiments to reanimate the dead. This popular myth, embraced in video games and comic books, is actually a plausible conclusion when one considers a thicket of facts that weave around it. Let us examine the facts that are established, and see how they lead to the “Nazi zombies” theory — which, whether true or not, tells us interesting things about the way we think about the Nazis today.


On 28 April 1945, at a munitions factory depot called Bernterode, in the German region of Thuringia, 40,000 tons of ammunition were found. Inside the mine, investigating American officers noticed what looked like a brick wall, painted over to match the color of the mineshaft. The wall turned out to be 5 feet thick, the mortar between the bricks not yet fully hardened. Breaking through with pickaxes and hammers, the officers uncovered several vaults containing a wealth of Nazi regalia, including a long hall hung with Nazi banners and filled with uniforms, as well as hundreds of stolen artworks: tapestries, books, paintings, decorative arts, most of it looted from the nearby Hohenzollern Museum. In a separate chamber, they came upon a ghoulish spectacle: four monumental coffins, containing the skeletons of the 17th century Prussian king, Frederick the Great, Field Marshall von Hindenburg, and his wife. The Nazis had seized human relics of deceased Teutonic warlords. The fourth coffin was empty, but bore an engraved plate with the name of its intended occupant: Adolf Hitler. The return of these corpses to their proper resting places was a military operation called “Operation Bodysnatch,” as termed by "Monuments Man" Captain Everett P. Lesley, Jr.

It was never clear what the Nazis planned to use these disinterred bodies for, but conspiracy theorists offered no shortage of suggestions. In 1950, a Life magazine writer speculated that “the corpses were to be concealed until some future movement when their reappearance could be timed by resurgent Nazis to fire another German generation to rise and conquer again.” This article’s specific wording, “rise and conquer again,” which was read by hundreds of thousands when it first came out, could be interpreted either metaphorically or literally — and this is perhaps where the idea that the Nazis hid the bodies in hopes of resurrecting their fallen warlords came to be. Add this to the gruesome experiments in which some Ahnenerbe researchers were engaged, and this “Nazi zombie” theory gets easier to understand.

Wolfram Sievers, director of Ahnenerbe and, in 1943, the Institute for Military Scientific Research Interrogation at Nuremberg, oversaw a particularly horrific program of medical testing on concentration camp inmates, some of which ran parallel to the concept of raising the dead.

There were three main categories of unethical medical experiments carried out by Nazi scientists, most of which were done under the supervision of Sievers and the Ahnenerbe (as well as, famously, by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz). Prisoners were used as some laboratories might experiment on animals.

The first category was survival testing. The idea was to determine the human survival thresholds for Nazi soldiers. One example was an experiment to determine the altitude at which air force crews could safely parachute. Prisoners were placed in low-pressure chambers to replicate the thin atmosphere of flight, and observed to see when organs began to fail. Sievers’ most infamous experiments at Dachau were to determine the temperature at which the human body would fail, in the case of hypothermia, and also how best to resuscitate a nearly-frozen human. A body temperature probe was inserted into the rectum of prisoners, who were then frozen in a variety of manners (for example, immersion in ice water or standing naked in the snow). It was established that consciousness was lost, followed quickly by death, when body temperature reached 25 C. Bodies of the nearly-frozen were then brought back up in temperature through a variety of similarly unpleasant manners, such as immersion in near-boiling water. Himmler himself suggested the most bizarre, but least cruel, method of reviving a hypothermic — by obliging him to have sex in a warm bed with multiple ladies. This was actually practiced (and seemed to work, at least better than the other methods). But the very idea that experiments were undertaken to kill or almost kill, humans through freezing, and then determine how best to resuscitate them, bring them back to life, is not a long leap to the reanimation of the clinically dead.

The second category of tests included those with pharmaceuticals and experimental surgeries, with inmates used like lab rats. Doctors tested immunizations against contagious diseases like malaria, typhus, hepatitis and tuberculosis, injecting prisoners and exposing them to diseases, then observing what happened. Procedural experiments, like those involving bone-grafting without anesthetic, which took place at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp, could also fall into this category. Antidotes were sought to chemical weapons like mustard gas and phosgene, with no regard for the well-being of those experimented upon. Keeping in mind the Nazi policy of using prisoners of “lesser” races for economic benefit (this is why concentration camp victims were often kept just alive enough to provide free labor, rather than universally being killed upon capture), this prisoner-as-guinea-pig approach fits into this perverse logic.

November 1944 saw an experiment with a cocktail drug called D-IX, at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. D-IX included cocaine and a stimulant called pervitine. The Luftwaffe (Nazi air force) had been supplied with 29 million pervitine pills from April-December 1939 alone, with the pill codenamed “obm.” Its use left the soldiers addicted, but did succeed in extending attention spans, reducing the need for sleep and food and giving a dramatic increase in stamina. 18 prisoners were given D-IX pills and forced to march while wearing backpacks loaded with 20 kilos of material — after taking the pills, they were able to march, without rest, up to 90 kilometers a day. The goal was to determine the outer limit of stamina induced by the pills. The D-IX pill proper, launched March 16th, 1944, included in each pill 5 mg of cocaine, 3 mg of pervitine, 5 mg of eucodal (a morphine-based painkiller) and synthetic cocaine. It was tested in the field with the Forelle diversionary unit of submariners. The experimentation and use of the pills, both on prisoners and soldiers, was considered very successful, and a plan was put in place to supply pills to the whole Nazi army, but the Allied victory months later stopped this. These pills sought to create super soldiers, in a contorted interpretation of the Nietzschean übermensch.

The third category was racial, or ideological testing, famously overseen by Josef Mengele, who experimented on twins and gypsies, to see how different races responded to contagious diseases. Mass-sterilization experiments on Jews and gypsies provided a sort of photo-negative to one of Himmler’s pet projects, called Lebensborn. It was a breeding program in which racially-ideal Aryan men and women (tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, strong Nordic bone structure) were obliged to breed, in order to produce more, and purer, Aryan children. This was part and parcel with the belief that the Aryans of the 20th century were descended from an ancient race with superhuman powers — and that these powers had been gradually lost through interbreeding with “lower” races. If the “pollution” of these other races could be bred out, through generations of Aryans mixing only with other Aryans, then perhaps these powers could be regained? This, too, has an echo of resurrection to it. Resurrecting the lost purity of the original Aryans from Thule, and bringing back their superhuman powers, through breeding programs with pure-blooded Aryans.


With all this in mind, but with the acknowledgment that no extant document attests to such a “Nazi zombie” program, we come to what may be the more interesting question. We think of the Nazis as crazy, cartoonishly-evil super villains. And many were. The facts attest that they were capable of lunatic theories and illogic. They are confirmed to have believed things no less fanciful than reanimating the dead. But what does this tell us about how we consider them today?

There is two-part danger to our tendency to lump “the Nazis” into a collective, super-evil entity. By dismissing a complex, layered political party, which featured millions of people who, personally, ran a nuanced gamut from good to evil, under the banner of “the Nazis,” we tend to pass over the behavior of individuals within that umbrella term. Each person under the auspices of Nazi Germany was three-dimensional, even the comic book super-villains like Himmler and Sievers. People made decisions within the context of the political atmosphere, acting better or worse than was expected or commanded of them. There were nurses who took it upon themselves to euthanize unwanted wounded, not because they were ordered to do so, but because they felt it was “right.” There were Germans who refused to follow orders, or who helped victims escape. The cauldron of the Second World War provoked bestial behavior in individuals, not just in big-name villains, and prompted acts of good amidst the turmoil. To lump so many millions of three-dimensional humans together under the banner of Nazi Germany both excuses the evil behavior and dismisses the good. It also risks dismissing the slow-build of Nazi power with a flick of the wrist: as if it was born of a cartoonish madness that could not happen again (whereas North Korea or ISIS, for example, seem to be incubators of similar behavior).

Michael Kater concurs: “When you think of it, there is also a self-exculpatory element here.  If you can blame Nazi zombies for all the evil, you can take blame away from the Nazi humans.  Hegel never said that zombies were responsible for evil humans' actions.” The sort of man-monsters who could concoct the Holocaust could surely have tried to raise an army of undead, but this idea further pushes them away from the feeling that they were real people, and that their ideas and era could, if we are not careful, resurface.

Kater continues, “What interests me in all this is not why the Nazis were guided by secret forces hiding in Tibet or under the ground (of course they were not), but why people think they were.  One can take what circumstantial evidence one has and tie all this to mass psychology and actual history, or such.  I do not know how many times I have been asked about the Nazis and the occult during my career (ever since I published the Ahnenerbe book in 1974, and then some). If people cannot explain something in ordinary, human, terms, they come up with conspiracy theories.  Creationists need religion.” The Nazis seem so evil to us, that we tend to make of them a cartoon construct, emphasizing the real (though less-widespread than is generally imagined) influence of supernatural beliefs.  Kater draws a parallel to the theories that rise up in other horrifying historical events. “One such instance was after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  These are incidents so gross that something super-natural must be behind them.  However, it is really true: history writes the best, or the most gruesome, novels; makes the best films.”

At the end of the day, we can say without doubt that certain influential Nazis very much believed in the occult, and founded a research institute, the Ahnenerbe, to look into it. They engaged in experiments as bizarre and gruesome as trying to raise the dead, and they may well have toyed with that idea as well, although documentary evidence of it has not survived. But our mental construct of the Nazis, and the way popular culture assigns to them a two-dimensional, comic book type of evil, is as interesting, if not more so, than the question of whether they sought to raise a zombie army or animate their long-dead Teutonic warlords.

By Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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