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.
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.
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.”
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?