Wewelsburg Castle in northwestern Germany was the spiritual home of Hitler's murderous SS and ever since 1945, neo-Nazis and Satanists have spun myths about torch-lit ceremonies and ancient Nordic rituals that supposedly went on behind its walls.
The 17th century triangular building was converted in the 1930s by thousands of slave laborers working with a bizarre blueprint devised by Heinrich Himmler, the diminutive leader of the organization that epitomized the evil of Hitler's killing machine.
There can be no doubt that the place lends itself to fantasy. A dark, eerily echoing crypt with 12 pedestals around the wall and a gas pipe for an eternal flame in the center stands at the base of the north tower. On the floor above, in the circular "Hall of SS Generals," the occult symbol of a "Black Sun" is set into the marble floor.
The place has exuded a dark fascination for the last six decades. Satanists lured by the pagan symbolism have broken into the crypt to celebrate black masses, and far-right sympathizers still make pilgrimages to Wewelsburg, where they mix in with ordinary visitors and marvel at what Himmler wanted to turn into a "Reich House of SS Generals."
Standing in the center of the crypt, the echo of one's voice is amplified so forcefully that it seems disturbingly alien as it reverberates around the domed chamber.
What was it all meant for? Mystical pagan rituals to invoke Norse gods? Ceremonies to mourn the glorious fallen?
Historians are certain that no such gatherings ever took place here, and suspect that even Himmler hadn't made up his mind how the two chambers were to be used. They have devised a major new permanent exhibition, due to open on April 15, to explode the myths attached to Wewelsburg and to explore the history of one of the most powerful and dreadful organizations of the Nazi regime.
Boom in Nazi Research
Shamed by the Holocaust, Germany struggled for decades to find appropriate ways of dealing with its Nazi sites. The Wewelsburg exhibition is part of a trend over the last 15 years to devise new museums at places like Hitler's Berghof Alpine retreat, the Nuremberg rally ground and the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. The aim is to explain the sites to generations born after the Third Reich, and to incorporate the latest historical research and more modern exhibition techniques such as audiovisual and interactive exhibits.
"Looking at the perpetrators and visiting their sites makes you think about how you might have behaved at the time," Jan Erik Schulte, an expert on the SS who helped devise the Wewelsburg exhibition, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's always easier to identify with the victims, to feel sorrow. But it's the perpetrators, and our confrontation with them, that pose the really existential questions."
Schulte, a historian at the Ruhr University in Bochum, said there had been a boom in research into the Nazi period since the 1990s, in many cases conducted by a younger generation of historians, and that the insights gained had led to an overhaul of museums and exhibitions at the main sites. "The research has also been motivated by the fact that many of the surviving eyewitnesses won't be around for much longer, and there's a last opportunity to talk to them."
From Bodyguard to Murderous Army
The SS, short for Schutzstaffel or Protection Squadron, was founded in 1925 as a kind of Praetorian Guard for Hitler. Restricted to tall, fit men of Aryan descent, it was steeped in Nazi ideology about the supremacy of the master race, and tried to underline its elite status by concocting pseudo-religious symbolism based on Norse mythology.
The SS symbol itself, now banned in Germany, consisted of Nordic runes. The SS mushroomed into a massive organization that guarded the concentration camps, conducted mass executions in occupied territories and fielded almost one million men in "Waffen SS" units renowned for their brutality.
The exhibition charts the origins and the exponential growth of the SS and provides details on the careers of dozens of leading SS members both during and after the war. Men like Josef "Sepp" Dietrich, an SS tank commander who was sentenced in 1946 to life imprisonment for his role in the execution of 70 American prisoners of war, and paroled in 1955. A committed Nazi until the end of his life, he died in 1966 and thousands of Waffen SS veterans attended his funeral.
Or Reinhard Heydrich, an SS general who was instrumental in organizing the Holocaust, and who was assassinated in Prague in 1942. Or Hans Ernst Schneider, an SS captain on Himmler's staff who evaded capture by changing his name to Hans Schwerte in 1946. He went on to pursue a successful academic career, becoming dean of Aachen Technical University and even winning the West German Federal Cross of Merit in 1983. Students unmasked him in the early 1990s and he was stripped of his civil service pension.