The Romantic period of the 1840s, which saw revolutions sweep across Europe in 1848, coincided with the 600th anniversary of the fall of the Cathar fortress of Montsegur. Many republican revolutionaries saw the Cathars as the forerunners of the anticlerical radicals who stormed the Bastille in 1789. Momentarily freed from the censorship of reactionary Catholicism, many academics took a fresh look at the Cathars’ tragic story, and this renewed interest in the Albigensian crusade provided Rahn with several important cornerstones for his book.
Prominent among these works are the monumental five volumes of L’Histoire des Albigeois (1870-1881) by Napoleon Peyrat (1809-1881).6 An authentic Romantic historian in the tradition of Michelet, the Ariege-born Peyrat became a Protestant pastor in 1831, and was close to the anticlerical poet Beranger. His first major work, Les Pasteurs du desert (1842), deals with the revolt of the Protestant camisards and cevenols in the seventeenth century. Curiously, just like Otto Rahn, Peyrat was convinced that he was descended from Cathar heretics. This obsession led him to spend forty years researching and writing the history of the Cathars (the last volume of L’Histoire des Albigeois was published posthumously). Although Peyrat certainly popularized the fortress of Montsegur as the symbol of Cathar resistance, his works, like Rahn’s book, are well supported by solid research in the archives of the Inquisition that are still kept in Carcassonne.
Rahn’s theological ideas were greatly influenced by Ernest Renan (1823- 1892). The beliefs he expressed in his series, L’Histoire des Origines du Chretianisme [The History of the Origins of Christianity], which included his most famous work, La Vie de Jesus (1863), were quite close to the liberal Protestant school (David Friedrich Strauss and others). A tremendous success, La Vie de Jesus sold nearly 5,000 copies per week. But Catholics were enraged: between 1863 and 1864, an incredible 300 books and booklets were published denouncing his “blasphemy” and “mistakes.” But the book was published again and again; today, forty-five different editions have come out, with the most recent appearing in 2005.
Another important source from this period was Beitrage zur Sektengeschichte des Mittlealters [Essays on the History of Sects in the Middle Ages] (1890) by the Bavarian theologian Ignaz von Dollinger (1799-1890). The son of a medical professor, Dollinger was elected in 1848 to the liberal National Assembly in Frankfurt, where he defended the separation of church and state. Vehemently opposed to the doctrine of Papal infallibility, he took part in the first Vatican Council in 1869-1870. Although the Pope excommunicated Dollinger on April 17,1871, he was named rector of the Munich University in 1872. Today, he is remembered as a pioneer of the German ecumenical movement.
Otto Wilhelm Rahn was born in 1904 in Michelstadt in the German state of Hesse, an area brimming with tales of medieval chivalry. Rahn’s father Karl introduced his son to the legends of Parzival, Lohengrin, and naturally Siegfried and the Nibelungenlied during their walks in the Odenwald forest. Rahn later explained, “My ancestors were pagans, and my grandparents were heretics.” His family’s home was not far from Marburg am Lahn, where the insidious Inquisitor Konrad had terrorized the court of the Landgrave of Thiiringia in the thirteenth century. Rahn long considered writing a historical novel about the “magister,” who was responsible for (among other things) beating the Landgrave’s wife (later Saint) Elizabeth of Hungary to death and burning hundreds of German Cathars at the stake before a group of knights killed him.
Rahn’s favorite professor, Baron von Gall, a lecturer in theology at the University of Giessen, greatly impressed him with his descriptions of the tragedy of Catharism. Rahn wrote, “It was a subject that completely captivated me.” After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in 1922 and pursuing further studies at the Universities of Heidelberg, Giessen, and Freiburg, Rahn was ready to begin his travels abroad. When a French family invited him to visit Geneva in 1931, he gravitated to the French Pyrenees to begin his own investigations.
Before leaving for the south of France, Rahn asked a Swiss friend, Paul- Alexis Ladame (1909-2000), to accompany him because Ladame had some experience in speleology and mountaineering. He was also descended from an old Cathar family (the name was originally La Dama) that escaped from Beziers to Switzerland during the crusade. We owe a lot to him. Long after his friend’s death, Ladame wrote down his vital recollections of Rahn and their Pyrenean explorations in several entertaining works. His last work, Quand le Laurier Reverdira, recalled a Cathar adage: “In 700 years, when the laurel grows green again” [al cap de set cent ans, lo laurel verdejara]—the final words of the last Cathar Perfectus, Guilhem de Belibaste, before he was burned alive.
Accompanied at times by Rahn’s friend and mentor, Antonin Gadal, they conducted extensive explorations of the Montsegur area. In the grottoes of the Sabarthes they were thunderstruck when they visited a huge cavern called “the Cathedral” by the locals. In it were a large stalagmite called “The Altar” and another known as “The Tomb of Hercules.” The forest around the legendary castle of Muntsalvaesche was called Briciljan. Near Montsegur is a small forest called the Priscilien Wood. As evidence accumulated, the Wagnerian mists cleared: Wolfram had based his story on fact. Rahn confidently proclaimed that the fortress castle of Montsegur in the French Pyrenees was the Temple of the Grail, and that mystical Cathar Christianity, based on the veneration of the Holy Spirit as symbolized by the Mani, was the Church of the Holy Grail. The gates of Lucifer’s kingdom had been thrown open; the result was Crusade Against the Grail.
Soon the book came to the attention of the leaders of the Third Reich. According to Ladame, Rahn explained that he had received a mysterious telegram while he was in Paris. As usual, he was depressed because he was having difficulty finding backers for a French translation of Crusade. The person who wrote the telegram did not give his name, but offered Rahn 1,000 Reichsmarks per month to write a sequel to the book. A little later, money was wired to Paris so that he could settle his affairs in France and return to Germany to a specific address in Berlin: 7, Prinz Albrechtstrasse. When Rahn finally turned up, he was shocked to learn that the telegram’s sender was none other than Heinrich Himmler! The head of the SS welcomed him personally and invited the young author to join the SS as a civilian historian and archeologist. Rahn later told Ladame, “What was I supposed to do? Turn him down?”
In an effort aimed at reinforcing National Socialist ideology, the SS was organizing expeditions all over the globe to trace the origins of the Indo- Europeans. Dr. Ernst Schafer led a famous German-Himalayan expedition to prove that Tibet was the cradle of the Arya, and to investigate the legend of the “Abominable Snowman.” Another expedition visited the South Pole and studded the polar cap with small swastika flags. An elderly colonel in the former Austro- Hungarian army, Karl Maria Wiligut, better known as “Weisthor,” became Himmler’s esoteric “lord” of runology. At Wiligut’s insistence, Rahn participated in a German expedition to Iceland to research the origin of the Eddas and the birthplace of Stalde Snorri Sturluson—despite the fact that he was becoming disaffected with the Nazi elite.
Thanks to his position as Himmler’s archaeologist specializing in the legend of the Grail, Rahn had become a sort of Nazi shooting star, giving lectures and radio talks about his explorations. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, he began to move in circles that were openly opposed to the regime. This came to the attention of Adolf Hitler at least once, when Rahn invited regime opponents like the post- Romantic composer Hans Pfiztner to the 1938 inauguration of the Haus der deutsche Kunst in Munich. Rahn’s friendship with Adolf Frise must have also come to Himmler’s attention; Frise, whose real name was Adolf Altengartner, was the publisher of Robert Musil’s famous novel A Man Without Qualities. The author was living in exile in Switzerland, bitterly opposed to the Nazis and Hitler’s Anschluss that had incorporated their Austrian homeland into the Nazi Reich.
Rahn’s second book, Luzifers Hofgesind, eine Reise zu den guten Geistern Europas [Lucifer's Court, a Journey to Europe's Good Spirits], appeared in Leipzig in 1937; it remains controversial to this day. The intinerary of his European journey included Bingen, Paris, Toulouse, Marseille, Milan, Rome, Verona, Brixen, Geneva, Worms, Michelstadt, Burg Wildenberg near Amorbach, Giessen Marburg Goslar, Cologne, Berlin, Warnemunde, Edinburgh, Reykyavik, and Reykholt. In the book, Rahn does not identify Lucifer with the Devil; for him, Lucifer was the Pyrenean Abellio or the Greek God Apollo—all bearers of light.
Nevertheless, the book contains at least one passage that is openly anti- Semitic, which led Paul Ladame to conclude that the Nazis had tampered with the final draft of the manuscript. Many years later he was quoted as saying, “Otto Rahn would never have written that.” Apparently, Rahn dictated much of the book to his secretary, who was keeping an eye on his activities for Himmler.
More and more, Rahn yearned for a golden renaissance of traditional values based on the unity of France and Germany under neo-Cathar beliefs, and opposed the pernicious policies that were leading Europe to war. He was convinced that the intolerance inherent in the Old Testament was essentially responsible for the constant cycles of ethnic and genocidal violence throughout history. In fact, there is a strange symmetry between Hitler’s war, which resulted in the Holocaust, and the Papal crusade against the Cathars, which obliterated Occitan civilization. After apparently quarreling with Himmler (which led to a tour of duty as a camp guard as punishment), amid accusations of homosexuality and possible Jewish heritage, he resigned from his post early in 1939. He wrote, “There is much sorrow in my country. Impossible for a tolerant, liberal man like me to live in the nation that my native country has become.”
Trapped and overpowered by a malicious culture, Otto Wilhelm Rahn died in the snow of the Wilderkaiser on March 13, 1939, almost the anniversary of the fall of Montsegur. An apparent suicide, he ended his life in the style of the ritual Cathar endura. When he learned of Rahn’s death, Antonin Gadal wrote, “Otto Rahn’s suffering was over.” Rahn was buried in 1940 in Darmstadt. As Karl Rittersbacher concluded, “the transit of this soul, in eternal search for a new and desired spirituality that he could not find on Earth, reminds me as if a benevolent angel of death had brought him the consolamentum.”
As he explains in his prologue to Crusade, Otto Rahn did not wish to point an accusing finger. For multiple reasons he wanted to chart a new path toward the future—and come to terms with human destiny. By addressing such problems as our own mortality, so essential to the human condition, Crusade contains a powerful message for our greedy and narcissistic society. “For some time now, I have resided in the mountains of the Tabor. Often, deeply moved, I have wandered through the crystal halls and marble crypts of the caves of the heretics, moving aside the bones of ‘Pure Ones’ and knights fallen in ‘the fight for the spirit,’ my steps echoing on the wet floor in the emptiness. Then I stop—listening— half expecting a troubadour to sing a sonnet in honor of the supreme Minne, that sublime love that converted men into gods.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Rahn’s medieval world resembled that of his time, and our own, in its moral hypocrisy. With a remarkable sense of drama, he shows how the Cathars’ genuine values were totally irrelevant to the despotic Pope and his power-hungry henchmen. He constantly contrasts the depravity of the Holy See and Saint Dominic’s instrument for repression—the Inquisition—with the symbolic purity of the Grail. And yet, throughout the book, the mystery of the Cathar Mani or “Gral” lacks a single, sharply defined description. What was it?
In Parzival, Wolfram describes how a Kabbalistic astronomer named Flegetanis described the Gral as a “stone from the stars” to another Minnesinger named Kyot who in turn related the story to Wolfram. Frequently, I have deliberately left the spelling of “Grail” in its middle German equivalent to emphasize that we are dealing with the legend of a “grail,” and not the Holy Grail, the chalice that Joseph of Arimathea used to catch the blood of Jesus when he died on the cross. Like many others, Rahn was convinced that the founders of the church simply Christianized a pagan symbol. In Crusade, Rahn develops the Grail into an icon for the survival of the human soul. In this way, he is able to convey its dazzling yet indefinable power over the Cathars. Robert Graves wrote, “Symbolism or allegory is ‘truer’ than realism in that the former allows more possibilities or interpretations. And more possibilities—implying greater freedom and less context dependence—translate to a greater truth. Accordingly, it has been said, ‘The more numerous the poetic meanings that could be concentrated in a sacred name; the greater was its power.’” In this way, the Gral is perhaps the most powerful symbol of all for a simple reason: nobody has ever seen it.