Feature Articles – The Wewelsburg: the Nazi Grail Castle
It is said that the Wewelsburg was going to be the “Grail Castle” of the Nazi regime, once it had established itself as rulers of the world. Is this true, and, if so, what was their ambition in this vast building project?
by Philip Coppens
It is clear that any Grail Castle to be built would have a geometrical design, and in the case of the Wewelsburg, that is a triangle. For Himmler, the Wewelsburg was not so much the location where the Grail was hidden, but where his Grail Order – the SS, the Schutzstaffel – and its sacred treasures – rumoured to be the Spear of Destiny – would be brought, and from which the magical power of the Nazi regime would radiate out.
The castle was not built by the Nazi regime; its history started several centuries before the National Socialists came to power in 1933. In its current form, the castle was built from 1603 to 1609, as a secondary residence for Fürstbischof Theodor von Fürstenberg, the prince-bishop of Paderborn, whose primary residence was the castle at Neuhaus. However, there existed a castle on the site from the 9th century onwards. At the time, it withheld an invasion of the Huns, its location near what was believed to be the site where the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest occurred. This battle occurred in 9 AD, when various Germanic tribes made an alliance and ambushed and destroyed three Roman legions. The battle was the start of a seven year long war, whereby the Rhine became the boundary of the Roman Empire. It should therefore not come as a surprise that it was seen as a symbol of German unity and a demonstration that a united Germany could conquer all – as it was, of course, felt it would do again. For much of the 19th century, the castle remained unused, with the exception of the apartment for the Catholic vicar. In fact, it was unused until 1925, when it was clear that some action was required, as otherwise it would turn into ruin. Hence, in 1932, the Landrat, the head of the rural district administration, wanted to move an 80 man division of the FAD, the Voluntary Labour Service, into the castle. This organisation was for jobless men who found employment as emergency workers and with their arrival, the council was hoping that their presence would save at least a part of the maintenance expenses it was incurring. However, negotiations were long and eventually fell through in the autumn of 1933.
It was Hermann Bartels, Himmler’s architect, who used the construction plans completed by the district building authority, hoping to convert the Wewelsburg in the SS Reich Leaders’ School – Reichsführerschule SS. In the spring of 1933, Himmler had tried to acquire Schwalenberg Castle, but negotiations broke down in the autumn.
It was apparently Von Oeynhausen, the National Socialist District President in Minden, who had been Hitler’s host during the important Lippe elections that had helped Hitler into power, who drew Himmler’s attention to the Wewelsburg. Himmler visited the castle for the first time on November 3, 1933 and seemed to agree that the Wewelsburg should become the site for SS training. The courses taught at the castle would be on prehistory, mythology and archaeology – topics that are hard to define as providing military advantages, but which fit right in with Himmler’s drive to bring back the “good old days”. Bartels’ plans were submitted in December, and on January 25, 1934, seventy members of the FAD finally moved into the rooms of the former youth hostel in the east wing and began excavating the castle moat.
Germany and the SS of 1933 were vastly different from 1940 or 1844. For example, at the time, the SS and Himmler, the Reichsfuhrer of the SS, was subordinate to the Chief of Staff of the SA, but after the murder of the top SA leaders in the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler issued a decree on July 20, 1934, stating that the SS would become an independent organisation within the National Socialist Party. This rise in status was reflected in a rise in membership, from 280 in January 1929 to over 2000 by 1930, 10,000 in 1931, 30,000 in 1932 and 52,000 in 1933. It is clear that a corps that had originally been created to guard Hitler, was now much more. And, as always, whenever an organisation looses touch with its original goal, danger lurks ahead. So, in 1934, Himmler signed a 100-mark 100-year lease with the Paderborn district, to renovate the castle, making it into the Reichsführerschule SS. Manfred von Knobbelsdorff was the first SS Castle Captain. He was the brother-in-law of the leader of the SS Office for Racial Questions Richard Walter Darré, whose Office was formally in charge of the Wewelsburg.
Von Knobbelsdorff moved into his apartment in the south wing of the castle, together with his wife Ilse and children, in August 1934. His functions included marrying SS officers, as the Wewelsburg was promoted as a wedding venue. Prospective spouses nevertheless first had to submit evidence of their Aryan descent on the basis of genealogical tables. Himmler forbade SS officers to have a Christian wedding, and he saw no need for a priest to survey their union. But despite these instructions, several SS officers did have a traditional wedding. Indeed, apart from being the elite, the SS should also be seen as a dating agency. SS bachelors were told they should marry as fast as possible. Promiscuity and premarital sex were allowed and the men should have at least four children, if possible men; again, whether they were born in or out of wedlock did not matter. Von Knobbelsdorff also held “midsummer ceremonies”, to replace the Christian St John the Baptist’s day. The new religion of the Nazi regime is often referred to as the “Irminen belief”, though specific details about what it contained and which ceremonies were performed at the castle – if any – remain elusive.
The Irminen belief was largely the brainchild of Karl Maria Wiligut. Wiligut – nicknamed Weisthor and often labelled Himmler’s Rasputin –claimed that the site of the Wewelsburg was important, referring to an old Westphalian legend, the Battle at the Birch Tree, which stated that an army from the East would be beaten by an army of the West – which Weisthor obviously identified with Germany. And perhaps one should indeed see Germany’s expansionism that was the Second World War as its prerequisite so that it would represent a united West that would battle with the East. From the little information that is available, it is known that in the spring of 1935, Wiligut moved to Berlin, where he worked in the office of Karl Wolff, chief adjutant of SS. It is known that Wolff visited the Wewelsburg, as he is shown in a photograph when Dr. Robert Ley’s visited the castle in 1937. The visit occurred after Himmler had issued an SS order on November 6, 1935, expressly prohibiting any visits to view Wewelsburg Castle. Himmler himself had two rooms on the first floor and in the south-west tower furnished for his personal needs. He rarely travelled to the castle himself, however; only 19 visits, mostly brief – lasting from roughly one to three days – occurred between 1933 and 1942.
Manfred von Knobelsdorff was also a friend of Wiligut and it was largely he who apparently attempted to practice Wiligut’s Irminism by performing various rituals in the Wewelsburg. These included a baptismal ceremony for Karl Wolff’s eldest son on January 4, 1937, attended by SS noteworthies Reinhard Heydrich and Karl Diebitsch. Again, little more than that is known. Today, the Wewelsburg is part museum, part youth hostel, part bar-restaurant. In origin, the main part of the castle was not only for housing some of the SS leaders or for social functions; a vast library was being gathered, linked with a series of study rooms, some of which carried names such as “Gral” (Grail), “König Artus” (King Arthur), “König Heinrich” (King Henry), “Heinrich der Löwe” (Henry the Lion), “Widukind”, “Christoph Kolumbus” (Christopher Columbus), “Arier” (Aryan), “Jahrlauf” (run of the year), “Runen” (runes), “Westfalen” (Westphalia) and “Deutscher Orden” (Teutonic Order).
The SS officers carried a “Totenkopfringe”, the Death’s Head ring, which was designed by Weisthor. The Wewelsburg was to be the place for preserving the rings of those SS officers that had fallen. The SS officers had to make provisions that, upon their death, the ring would be returned to the Wewelsburg, in accordance with the stipulations in their diploma. When American soldiers arrived at the castle in April 1945, they found hundreds of SS Death’s Head Rings, taking them back to the US as souvenirs. Apparently, they remain precious artefacts – though no doubt Ebay will not carry many of these rings. The central focus of the Nazis’ redesign of the castle was the North Tower, which would form the nucleus of a sanctuary that would measure 1.27 km in diameter. Bartels, in architectural plans of 1941, described his ideas: “The point of departure for the entire design is the centre of the north tower of Wewelsburg Castle, the ground plan of which forms an isosceles triangle. The perpendicular of this isosceles triangle points in the same direction as the direction of the main access road, which is to run for two kilometres in a north-westerly direction in a straight line towards the Castle, and is to be designed as a magnificent avenue with four rows of trees. To the south it is to link up with an access road to the Rhynern-Kassel Reichsautobahn. The Castle grounds proper will be enclosed by a circle with a radius of 430 m and completed with a wall with 18 towers. In the Castle grounds a large number of buildings will be erected that will exclusively serve the purposes of the Reichsführung of the SS.
The main road of the future village will pass round the median point of the north tower of Wewelsburg Castle and have a radius of 635 m. This main road will be linked to the Castle grounds by 3 radial roads and special gates. The SS settlement is to be situated in the north west, the actual core of the village in the north, and the SS barracks to the west of the Castle grounds. An exclusive residential suburb for high-ranking SS leaders is planned, between the barracks and the village, in the present common forest. Large farm units, especially hereditary farms, are to be established to the south-west of the Castle grounds. They are to be laid out at a later date in the form of a well-ordered, scattered settlements with approximately 3-4 units grouped around road junctions.”
It meant that the estate had the shape of a spear, underlining the unconfirmed belief that the site would become the location where the Spear of Destiny would be held. One story goes that Hitler saw his future when he visited the Museum in Vienna where the Spear was on display, and that he became convinced that whoever possessed it, controlled the fate of the world. That the Wewelsburg was going to be the New Jerusalem and the centre of Germany is in evidence as from 1941 onwards, the architects called the complex the “Centre of the World”. In line with sacred mythology, the design would sit on a mountain, surrounded by a lake, as there were plans to flood the valley. This meant that the entire village population had to be bought, the inhabitants relocated, something which the villagers were obviously not too pleased about, specifically as the village was 98% Catholic and thus frowned upon the presence of the SS with its pagan rituals in their midst. Indeed, it seems that despite having the SS as neighbours, the villagers continued to practice their Catholic beliefs in the church that is only yards away from the entrance to the Wewelsburg. Bartels’ grandiose vision has led to various theories that do underline the ambition of the project, but have bypassed the realities of the project. First of all, as mentioned, only seventy “volunteers” at first began construction work on the castle. This labour force was joined by more workers through the creation of a concentration/labour camp. The arrival of a 100 men strong command of concentration camp inmates in Wewelsburg, from Sachenshausen in May 1939, brought the first “slave labour”. They were there to help with the quarrying and construction work.
Control of the project was transferred from the SS Office for Racial Questions, to Himmler in 1935. The following year, Himmler created the “Society for the Preservation and Promotion of German Cultural Monuments”, a society specifically created for and charged with the Wewelsburg development. Though its chairman was Himmler, operational management was in the hands of the Administration Leader of the SS, Oswald Pohl, with Bartels being employed full-time. Throughout the project, the Society would remain in charge of the project.
When the inmates first arrived, as the building sites were across the village, it meant that it allowed villagers and visitors to see the work in progress and see the inmates. The arrival of the inmates was touted in the local press as part of the establishment of a penal camp, nothing more, and indeed, in 1939, those sent to the camp were almost exclusively inmates wearing the green triangle of prisoners on preventive detention, i.e. professional criminals, i.e. people who merely had a criminal record and were arrested because of that. Twice, inmates escaped and in January 1940, the second attempt caused unrest with the local population, whereby the entire command was transferred back to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in February. Seventy new inmates, all Jehovah’s Witnesses, came to replace them. They disapproved of escapes for religious reasons, and were considered to be industrious and disciplined inmates. As a consequence, more such inmates arrived, some 300 in total. The Crypt When the war broke out, a new type of prisoner entered the camp: Sinti and Roma, as well as Soviet prisoners of war; only 12 Jews are known to have been interred in this camp, and all of them died. The new prisoners were ordered to work, but were also often beaten and mistreated, because of their perceived racial inferiority. It meant that they had little energy to do the actual work, and most died after a few weeks or months of forced labour. Indeed, as any line manager knows: mistreatment of staff will result in below par results from the employees. Hence, and for the first time, there was a sharp increase in the death rate at the camp.
Meanwhile, Himmler had labelled the camp “Niederhagen Concentration Camp” and made it into an independent camp, which meant that 600,000 Reichsmark were refunded from the German government, providing more cash for what was – contrary to popular belief – a privately-funded project. Himmler apparently personally chose the old forest name Niederhagen so that the people would not associate Wewelsburg Castle with a camp, and of course to make sure his self-interest in this decision was not too obvious.
Of the 3900 prisoners held during the camp’s existence, from 1939 to 1943, 1285 of them died and 56 were formally executed. The cemetery crematoria in Dortmund and Bielefeld were from 1941 onwards largely unable to cope with the number of dead and the SS felt that the overland transport was too conspicuous and expensive, so a crematorium was established in the camp itself in 1942. However, there was no cemetery, so the ashes were scattered or used as fertiliser in the camp nursery.
The camp was closed in 1943 with most of the prisoners resettled in Buchenwald, though several dozen prisoners remained behind, housed in the Wewelsburg itself. What was meant to become the centre of the Nazi dream, the “Temple of the SS”, became a posh concentration camp. In 1943, when the project was “temporarily” stopped, only the North Tower was completed, and even then, the upper levels were left unfinished. As mentioned, the tower marked the veritable centre of the world, starting in the crypt, which was in origin but a cistern. This was redesigned as a circular vault, in which twelve seats were placed – references to King Arthur and the Twelve Knights of the Round Table? The SS was divided into twelve main departments (SS-Hauptämter), hence each seat might have been for each of these twelve leaders.
In the centre of the ceiling, there is a swastika, the symbol par excellence of the Nazi party. The swastika symbolised the creative, active life force, but, of course, it would become seen as a symbol of mass killing. Though there is no round table, there is a circular depression in the centre of the room, which in its centre is believed to have held an eternal flame. Joachim Escher, an inmate, said how in the crypt, “we had to lower the floor, and it was made of rock. We used drills in places and sometimes crowbars, picks and pitching tools, and then it was all put on hand barrows and we had to get it outside, then it was tipped out, it was pretty hard work.”
The vault, which some have labelled the “Himmler Crypt”, was, according to some claims, going to be the site where Himmler was going to be interred after his death. It is known that Himmler believed that he was the incarnation of Heinrich I, the founder and first king of the medieval German state, who was apparently the king to whom the vault was going to be dedicated. Equally, it was Himmler’s belief that Heinrich I protected Germany from invaders from the East. Others argue that when one of the leading SS officers died, his ashes were planned to be interred in the castle. There is speculation that the urns of dead SS leaders would have been placed on the pedestals in the vault, but there is no evidence that if these plans existed, they were ever executed. It is nevertheless known that the vault was meant to resemble the famed Mycenean domed tombs.
The swastika in the crypt’s ceiling is physically linked with a sun wheel that is embedded in the centre of the marble floor of the Obergruppenführersaal above. This is a hall with twelve columns and twelve niches, which after the war and until 1986, was actually transformed into a church. The sun wheel is sometimes referred to as the “Black Sun” and originally, a golden disc was placed in the middle of the ornament. Allegedly, the room has similarities with the Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna.
Finally, the never completed upper floors were meant to be used as a meeting hall for the entire corps of the SS Gruppenführer. The top of the tower was to be completed by a huge dome with a structure containing windows (lanterns) to illuminate the interior, but, equally, this was never accomplished. The Obergruppenführersaal As grandiose as the ambitions were for the Wewelsburg, it is alas too rarely underlined that this was a private project, and not one driven, managed or supported by the Nazi regime, however high Himmler ranked in that regime. In fact, Himmler and co. were often challenged, and were constantly on the look-out for more funding; Hitler is said to have been little impressed with Himmler’s private religious obsessions.
In 1933, Bartels’ original plans for the North Tower were vetoed by the Staatskonservator, who rejected the construction of a perron more than nine metres deep in the castle inner court as an entrance to the vault. Consequently, Bartels began work without building permission, making an opening in the 2.40m wall at the foot of the tower. Only in 1941 did he submit the plans again, and this time, indeed, they were accepted.
The Wewelsburg project was originally costed at 112,800 Reichsmark. Himmler generally financed the project from Party grants and public subsidies, though some private donations were also given. But the costs soon escalated (the Society having to pay for the operation of the concentration camp, until it became run by the state), with costs for the building and the land acquisition to rocket to 15 million RM. In 1938, the society borrowed its first major loan from the Dresdner Bank, in the form a personal loan to Himmler worth no less than 11 million RM (ca. 60 million USD today). However, in the autumn of 1944, Bartels put the cost at 250 million RM and stated that it would take twenty years to complete. Such an overrun makes the usual problems seen during building works for Olympic Games shrink to insignificance.
However, by 1944, all work on the project had stopped, with the concentration camp closed in 1943. The dream had to be put on hold, as all labour and resource was redirected to winning the war; the Wewelsburg, it was clear, would be completed once the war was won. The 1944 plans were nevertheless updated, and even included designs for an airport. Though the crypt and the Obergruppenführersaal were completed, it is said that the rooms of the North Tower were never used. There were meant to be annual gatherings of the SS in the castle, but only one, in 1941, is known to have occurred. We already know that Himmler himself rarely visited the castle and, in retrospect, it should perhaps be seen as an ambition that would get his attention once Germany had indeed assumed the role of victor, as prophesized in the local legend – but for which he had little time until that victory was achieved. In the end, of course, he faced defeat.
When the Nazi regime was about to fall, on Good Friday, March 30, 1945, Himmler ordered Heinz Macher to come to his headquarters in Brenzlau near Szczecin. He ordered him to destroy the Wewelsburg. That evening, the second Castle Captain Siegfried Taubert, who had been elected as SS Group Leader at the Conference of Group Leaders on November 8-9, 1938, fled. Heinz Macher arrived in Paderborn with three jeeps around 10am Easter Saturday, and by 1pm, the team was at the castle, beginning to place its explosives. However, Macher did not have sufficient ammunition, so his team had to resort to tank mines, with which they managed only to explode the southeast tower. It was therefore decided to burn the castle. Once the fire was underway, Macher left, reporting to Himmler in person on Easter Sunday afternoon, upon which he was promoted to SS Sturmbannfuhrer. When the following day, the US Third Infantry Division seized the grounds, they found it completed gutted by fire, only the outside walls remaining. After the war, the Crypt was used to mount an artistic memorial to the cruelties of the regime, but the local population demanded its removal. Since, other such initiatives to commemorate the dead have been equally torpedoed by the local people, apparently because they largely want to forget the past, seeing they too were largely victims of Himmler’s ambitions for the site.
On June 29, 1950, the castle was reopened as a museum and youth hostel, while the Niederhagen Camp kitchen had been renovated into a village fire station. In 1973, a two-year project was begun to restore the North Tower, and by 1977 it had been decided to restore the entire site as a war monument. It opened on March 20, 1982.
The site continues to intrigue the visitors – and especially, apparently, the English and American visitors. As is the case for the totality of World War II, which continues to fascination the Anglo-Saxon mindset more than any other nation, it has made the Wewelsburg into something far grander than it ever was. Indeed, for some, the Wewelsburg is this enigmatic “Grail Castle” built by the Nazis; the local authorities want to see it as a reminder of how cruel Mankind can become. But perhaps it should be seen for what it was: a talisman of the power of the SS. As such, the Wewelsburg “fell” in 1943, and it was clearly an omen of what would befall the SS soon afterwards. And hence, indeed, it was a magical talisman after all.