Ritual–Its Dark or Shadow Side (Consider Hitler)

Proof of the power of ritual can be found in its opposite where instead of using ceremony and ritual to awaken consciousness and to invite joy, creativity and healing into the community, ritual is used to enforce ideas of hatred or racism, superiority or fear and to conjure up feelings of togetherness that are based on hatred.

The Nazi party rally grounds at Nuremberg, 1934. Photo from the Russian historical site Feldgrau.info, on Wikimedia Commons.

Such is the case with Adolf Hitler.  Hitler and his henchmen actually borrowed from certain Roman Catholic ritualists to create their “Rallies” to whip up energy and often hysteria in honoring the “fuehrer” and denouncing his enemies.  I describe these Hitlerian rituals in our Daily Meditations earlier this year and I think that in the context of the themes of Celebration and Ceremony we are currently discussing it is important to repeat some of those observations here.

The rituals drew 140,000 people at a time and the Nazis published a  handbook for these ceremonies in 1932, titled the National Socialist Ceremonials. Hitler played preacher at these services, and his oratory evoked a “hysterical response…a mutual frenzy,” with his audience according to observers.

Nuremberg Party Rally of the NSDAP, “Party Rally of Honor,” with anti-aircraft headlights, 9/8/1936. Photo from German Federal Archive, on Wikimedia Commons.

At the annual Nuremberg rally 130 search lights were placed around a field at 40 foot intervals. The light beams extended 25,000 feet into the air and merged at the top to create “a luminous dome effect, a cathedral of light” that hovered over Hitler. A newspaper in 1937 reported:

For a moment there is dead silence….The wide stadium now acts as a mighty gothic tower of light.  From the spotlight there emanates a bluish-violet light…a hundred and forty thousand…cannot free themselves from this moment.

Hitler had seizures while preaching from the podium where he would both writhe in fury and charm the crowds.  He utilized the then newly invented media of radio and film to preach his version of truth.  One observer called him “the master-enchanter and the high priest of the religious mysteries of Nazidom.” 

“Gott Mit Uns” – “God with Us”- Hitler’s slogan conflating Nazism with Christianity. Image from Failure of Conscience and the #Holocaust on TheHolocaustAndChurch.com

His dominant message as preacher invoked language of “demons” and “devils” on numerous occasions.  He literally demonized the Jews whom he called “the devil” constantly.  Berman says, “all this was cosmological for Hitler, and he said as much on several occasions.”  Indeed, demonology was the “main them” of Hitler’s ranting. “The age of actual demons was long over” so Hitler created new demons—the Jews.  Hitler saw his work as a new kind of humanity and a bigger religion than religion itself.  National Socialism, he preached “is more than a political movement…It is more even than a religion.”

There is a shadow side to ritual as there is to all things humans give birth to.  What is its overall purpose?  Whom is it serving?  Clearly Hitler’s rituals were serving the ego of one person that in turn fed the fears and projections of millions.

There are sober lessons here surely about the power of ritual and the misuse of ceremonial power.  As the medievals used to say, “the corruption of the best is the worst.”

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, pp. 394-398.

Banner Image: Hitler Youth give the Nazi salute at a rally in the Lustgarden in Berlin, May 1, 1933. Photo from the German Federal Archives, on Wikimedia Commons

Do you sense that invoking the shadow power of rituals is behind us—or does it still lurk in our midst?  Would a healthy cosmology and a healthy set of values based on the common good heal the temptation to ritualize the negative in human beings?

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6 thoughts on “Ritual–Its Dark or Shadow Side (Consider Hitler)”

  1. Avatar

    The echo of a horrendous past is certainly trying to resurface in an enactment attempting to be staged right now. The awake aware consciousness of the many will subdue the subversion of the few. Regardless of how things may appear, the forward momentum celebrating a union of polarity is occurring and will triumph through the presence of love.

  2. Avatar

    I continue to struggle with my own contrariness with regard to Cosmic Masses, so much so that I am terribly embarrassed to admit it. I love dancing to jazz and rock music in a secular setting, so why do I feel this resistance to collective dancing in a sacred setting? Does anyone else feel this way? So in the context of today’s meditation on Hitler’s rallies, I’m asking myself if in this lifetime or some other I experienced the misuse of frenzy or communal “agreement” to promote a dangerous ideology. Even chanting in a group sometimes brings up these feelings. I’d sure like some help on this.

  3. Avatar

    When I studied Speech, or Rhetoric (the art of persuasion), I learned that good rhetoric is heart-felt and mind created and this is obviously true. We learned that deceivers were called Sophists in ancient Greece where I was taught that the ‘subject of rhetoric’ started at Plato’s Academy. Sophists are sophisticated liars. After we get to certain levels of achieved “goodness” it is extremely sad to see people create crimes that go against the human heart. It is said that the average person cannot tell truth from falsehood and this is what Hitler focused on.

  4. Avatar
    Bertina M Povenmire

    While rituals can be fun entertainment and an enjoyable way to connect with “our” group, we should always be aware that these rituals exclude “the others”. I’m not saying that we should stop rituals altogether, but we should make sure that they do not become an end in themselves, more important than the true essence of our striving toward connectedness, inclusion with all human beings. As Buddhism has taught for a long time and quantum physics is now showing scientifically, we are all connected, and until we acknowledge that, the peace we sing about and pray for is not going to happen. Certainly we need to be very sensitive to any hateful, divisive features when they creep into our rituals. Trump’s rallies were very much replicas of those Hitler rallies. Opponents were made into ogres and witches: The incantation : “Lock her up!” has now progressed to “Off with their heads and put them up on the lamp posts!” Let’s make the world great again? Which reminds me of one of the very early ritual rallies, where the Jews yelled: “Crucify him!”

    While I am very comfortable and content with my likeminded friends who share similar interests and hobbies, I believe we must make an effort to grasp our interconnectedness for the sake of our own and our children’s peace and survival.

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