AS THE Nazis tightened their grip on Germany in the Thirties the leader of the SS attended a presentation in Berlin. Heinrich Himmler could barely contain his excitement as a young archaeologist spouted an outlandish theory. He claimed to know the location of the mythical city of Atlantis, where a master race had lived before their island paradise was engulfed by the sea. A handful of survivors escaped and roamed the far corners of the Earth, sowing the seeds of their civilisation.
For Himmler and his cronies it was the perfect solution. At the heart of the Nazi creed was the conviction that the Aryan race, from which true Germans were said to be descended, was superior to all others. Yet there was one huge stumbling block. No one had ever uncovered any temples, scriptures or artefacts to prove this ancient civilisation existed. But if they found the evidence the Nazis could establish their own religion to replace Christianity.
For the next decade Himmler led a shadowy project devoted to this bizarre theory. An SS unit called the Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage), comprising archaeologists and scientists, scoured the globe hunting for proof of the lost Aryans of Atlantis. Also driving this secret mission, a Channel 5 documentary reveals tonight, was the lure of securing the greatest prize of all – the Holy Grail.
The work of the Ahnenerbe only came to light in 1945 when US soldiers uncovered thousands of files in a cave in central Germany. The contents were to shed light on why the Nazis started the Holocaust.
The archaeologist who unwittingly lit the touch paper was Herman Wirth, a scholar of ancient religions.
He believed the discovery of similar-looking symbols in different parts of the world was no coincidence.
Linking them was a single race, which had lived in Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Portugal and Britain. Wirth proposed an expedition to prove that survivors from Atlantis had fled to high parts of the world, determined never again to be caught out by the sea. He was sure descendants were living in Tibet.
He found an enthusiastic sponsor in Himmler and in 1938 five SS scientists set off for the Himalayas.
Sir Richard Evans, a historian at Cambridge University, says: “The Nazis saw world history in terms of a struggle between races and survival of the fittest. They thought all races were inferior to the Aryans.
“Himmler wanted to press forward with a new religion, including sun worship and old gods. He wanted the SS to become a kind of cult, or Aryan aristocracy.”
IN the countdown to the Second World War all sorts of other expeditions, aimed at proving the Aryan theory, were launched. As well as Tibet, the SS scientists travelled to Sweden, Scotland, Iceland and France.
In Tibet the SS team set about studying the local people. Using a checklist of facial features they concluded that the Tibetans were descended from the Aryans. When members of the expedition arrived back in Munich a few weeks before the outbreak of war in 1939, they were treated like heroes.
“Hitler and his anthropologists thought that by measuring people’s heads you could tell which race they were,” adds Sir Richard. “What makes it so sinister is the idea of a racial hierarchy with the Aryans at the top. The Nazis viewed mixing races as a road to catastrophe.”
It’s claimed that this expedition, which Himmler believed proved the existence of Atlantis, also led to the liquidation of an entire race. He was convinced the study in the Himalayas also showed how the Aryan master race had been weakened after the survivors of Atlantis mixed with Tibetans. He became obsessed with racial purity and believed Jesus was descended from Aryan, not Jewish, stock.
Himmler also enlisted Otto Rahn, a historian, who was fascinated by the legend of King Arthur. Rahn was an eccentric who wore a black fedora hat and has been described as the Nazi Indiana Jones. He was certainly the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s hero and, like Indiana in the Last Crusade movie, was obsessed with finding the Holy Grail. Rahn’s research suggested that the last keepers of the Grail were the Cathars, who were wiped out in the 13th century.
Legend had it that the Grail, which is supposed to have been the cup or bowl used by Christ to consecrate the Last Supper and to have mystical powers, was spirited away and hidden in a cave.
Rahn studied the Arthurian stories for clues and concluded that the resting place was a ruined castle, Montsegur in the French Pyrenees. He had dedicated his life to uncovering the Grail but had run out of funds, until he was invited to meet Himmler in 1934. Rahn agreed to join the SS if the Nazis put up the cash to continue the search.
It is also claimed that Himmler made a wartime visit to another possible Grail location, Montserrat Abbey near Barcelona, in 1940.
Himmler believed that finding the Holy Grail would give him super-human powers and help Germany win the war. And so confident was he of finding it that he had prepared a castle, Wewelsburg in Westphalia, for its arrival. In the basement was an empty plinth where it would sit. Elsewhere, no stone was left unturned in the bid to prove that the Aryans had once ruled the world and the SS scientists of the Ahnenerbe had a vast budget.
When the Nazi war machine rolled eastwards to conquer the Soviet Union in 1941, the archaeologists were in their wake using slave labourers to dig up evidence of “German superior race-colonies” that inhabited the lands in the distant past. But the supposed success of the Tibet expedition was a rare breakthrough.
Himmler tired of Herman Wirth and he was fired while the hapless Otto Rahn suffered an even worse fate. Friends insist he was an honourable man who joined the SS only because it would allow him to continue his work. Realising that he had made a pact with the devil the 35-year-old tried to resign from the SS and effectively signed his own death warrant.
A furious Himmler, also frustrated by Rahn’s failure to deliver the Holy Grail, took his revenge by making him become a guard at one of the first concentration camps. One day Rahn took a handful of sleeping pills and walked into the Alps, where he sat down and froze to death.
Nazi Quest For The Holy Grail is on Channel 5 tonight at 9pm.