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In the Indiana Jones movies, Indiana is usually searching for a rare artifact with mystical powers while some other nefarious archeologist, usually a Nazi, is trying to find the artifact before Indy.
Believe it or not, that trope of a Nazi archeologist looking for an item of incredible power actually has a kernel of truth to it.
Learn more about Otto Rahn and the real-life Nazi search for the Holy Grail on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Otto Rahn was born in 1904 in Middlestadt, Germany.
He attended the University of Giessen where he earned his degree in philology. FYI, philology is basically the study of linguistics and literature in a historical context.
While at the University of Giessen one of his professors was a Baron von Gall, who introduced him to the Albigensian movement, also known as the Cathars
Before I get too far, I should probably explain who the Cathars were because they are sort of central to the story.
The Cathars were a religious movement that had its heyday from the 11th to the 14th century. They primarily existed in Southern France and Northern Italy.
The Cathars ideology was believed to have come from the east from the Byzantine Empire. It is also known as Albigensianism based on the French city of Albi, where it was centered. If you may have come across the term before, it was probably from the Albigensian Heresy, which is what it was considered by the Catholic Church.
The Cathars had a belief system that differed dramatically from orthodox Christianity.
For starters, they thought there was two twin, opposing deities. One was an evil god who created the world which was the god of the Old Testament. The other was a benign god who created the spirit world and was the god of the New Testament.
As such, all matter and the physical world were considered to be evil.
The Cathars thought that all people were angels who had had literally made a deal with the devil to get corruptible physical bodies. They rejected Christian concepts such as the trinity and the resurrection.
They also had some other really odd beliefs which stemmed from their views. Because the world was bad, they shunned sexual reproduction, which is not really a good way to create a long-term religious movement. Likewise, they shunned meat, cheese, and eggs for the same reason, but they did eat fish.
The Pope eventually issued a crusade against the Cathars and there was a huge massacre in 1209 when 7000 Cathars were killed. The last Cathars leader was executed in 1321, and they eventually died out after existing in very small mountain communities for the next few centuries.
When the Cathars were wiped out, they became a thing of legends and rumors.
Anyways, back to Otto Rahn.
Rahn became obsessed with the Cathars. This was in addition to his previous lifelong fascination with the legends of the holy grail.
Eventually, he became convinced that the Cathars were the last group to have possession of the Holy Grail and there were clues to its location located in the medieval German poem Parzival, written by the German knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach.
Parzival tells the story of one of King Arthur’s knights who searches for the Holy Grail.
In 1931, he set out to find the grail. which he thought was located at Montsegur Castle in Languedoc, France. Montsegur Castle was the last Cathars stronghold in France to fall during the Albigensian crusade.
In 1244, when it fell 200 Cathars were burned alive in what was called the “Field of the Burned.”
He thought that the grail was located somewhere beneath the castle.
He saw himself as a modern-day Heinrich Schliemann, who had discovered the ruins of ancient Troy by refollowing the clues in Homer’s Iliad.
Rahn spent months in the French Pyrenees searching for the grail.
Needless to say, Otto Rahn wasn’t Heinrich Schliemann and he never found the holy grail.
However, Rahn did get one thing out of his adventure. He wrote a book.
In 1933, he release his first book Crusade Against the Grail. A book which, by the way, is still in print and can be purchased on Amazon.
The book didn’t sell very well, but there was one person in particular who became a huge fanboy. A person who was really into mysticism, German fables, and ancient mysteries.
The head of the German SS: Heinrich Himmler.
Himmler too was a big fan of the Holy Grail. He had a personal citadel in Wewelsburg castle in central Germany, and it in he built a ‘grail room” that was a circular room with 12 pillars in a nod to the knights of the round table.
Here I need to explain a bit about the personal life of Otto Rahn. Otto wasn’t what you’d call someone who would be naturally attracted to the Nazi Party.
For starters, he was a left-leaning academic. He attended lectures by anti-Naizi intellectuals and was reported to have expressed anti-Nazi sentiments in private. He also might have had Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side.
Perhaps the biggest thing, however, is that Otto Rahn was an open homosexual. In 1933. In Nazi Germany.
For most people in Rahn’s shoes at that place at that time, life would not have been good. It would probably have involved some sort of combination of arrest, detention, beatings, and possibly an end in a concentration camp.
Because of the support he had from Himmler, Rahn was protected. His theories on the holy grail and his scholarship on medieval German legends fit the Nazi mythology about some pre-Christian, Aryan, nordic civilizations.
Eventually, Otto Rahn was offered a literal deal with the devil.
Himmler offered to sponsor his research and his expeditions to help find the grail, as well as 1,000 Reichsmarks a month.
The only thing that Himmler wanted in return was loyalty. In particular, they wanted Rahn to join the SS.
…and so he did.
It wasn’t something he did out of ideology or loyalty, so much as it was just an offer he couldn’t refuse. He had a patron in one of the most powerful men in Germany who was willing to pay for all the research he ever wanted to conduct.
As he later confided to one of his friends “A man has to eat… What was I supposed to do? Turn Himmler down?”
So he became a member of the SS and they funded his expeditions into France to search for the grail and for continued research into the Cathars.
He also did other academic-related tasks for the SS including doing a genealogy on Himmler and a trip to Iceland to do research on the Nordic sagas.
In 1937, his research resulted in his second book, Lucifer’s Court: A Heretic’s Journey in Search of the Light Bringers. Himmler again loved it and purchased 5,000 leather-bound copies to give to Nazi officials, including Adolph Hitler.
However, he found anti-Semitic additions in the book which he never wrote.
The deal he did with the devil had caught up with him. Later in 1937, he was assigned to be a guard at the Dachau Concentration camp and what he saw there shook him to his core.
He spent three months there and told a friend ‘I have much sorrow in my country. [It is]… impossible for a tolerant, liberal man like me to live in the nation that my native country has become.”
In February 1939, he resigned from the SS. In his resignation letter, he wrote, “I must ask you to [accept] my immediate discharge from the SS. The reasons…are of so grave a nature that I cannot explain them in writing.”
Unfortunately, you can’t just resign from the SS. Once he submitted his resignation, he became wanted by the Gestapo.
Just a few weeks after his resignation, the body of Otto Rahn was found frozen on the side of a mountain in Tyrol, Austria.
Officially, his cause of death was listed as suicide. However, there have been mysteries surrounding his death ever since. Why would he kill himself by exposing himself to the elements on a mountain? Was he trying to escape German territory by fleeing to Italy?
There were even rumors that the body found wasn’t that of Otto Rahn. Some said he became the West German ambassador to Italy after the war, and some say he died in a car crash in Iran in 1958.
No one knows for sure.
Rahn was a thin man who often wore a wide-brimmed hat and looked suspiciously like Major Arnold Ernst Toht in the movie Indiana Jones and the Raids of the Lost Arc.
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, of course, there is literally a search for the holy grail and Nazis who are looking for it.
Rahn became the basis of the Nazi archeologist trope which has appeared in many films over the years.
In the end, Otto Rahn was an academic who was filled with fantastic ideas which turned out not to have been true and paid an incredibly high price in the pursuit of his research.