“The Spear of Destiny”: Hitler, the Hapsburgs and the Holy Grail
Although ‘serious historians’ don’t like to discuss it, ‘alternative historians’ have presented evidence that the Nazis had more than a passing interest in the occult and pseudosciences that overlap with it. Beginning with Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s Le Matin des Magiciens, a number of writers have explored these themes in some detail, although they often lay stress on different aspects of mystical claims. In many cases, the writer’s own specific religious, mystical or occult beliefs colour their accounts.
One classic of the genre is Trevor Ravenscroft’s (1921-1989) The Spear of Destiny: the occult power behind the spear which pierced the side of Christ (Neville Spearman, 1972). This focuses on the alleged occult power of a spear, known as the Holy Lance of Vienna (or the Hofburg Spear), which forms part of the regalia of the Hapsburg monarchs and with which, according to Ravenscroft, Hitler was obsessed. The basic details have been repeated by other writers within the ‘occult history’ genre, for whom Ravenscroft appears to be regarded as a reliable authority.
Outline of Ravenscroft’s account
Trevor Ravenscroft begins his book by introducing us to Dr Walter Johannes Stein (1891-1957), whom he portrays as his spiritual mentor. He tells how Stein had intended to begin work on a book on the theme of The Spear of Destiny in 1957, but collapsed only three days after making the decision to do so and died in hospital soon after. Ravenscroft is claiming to act almost as a posthumous amanuensis for the book. As we will see, this is highly significant.
The early part of the book is effectively a biography of the years Adolf Hitler spent in Vienna as a down-and-out, an understandably poorly documented period of the future Führer’s life. Ravenscroft’s religious beliefs shine through the writing, which is peppered with exclamation marks, and it soon becomes clear that he wishes to explain Hitler’s peculiar evil as a result of Satanic possession or, at least, influence. There is remarkably little discussion of the Spear, given that it is supposed to be the focus of the book. We are given a brief account of Hitler’s first view of the Spear and that is about it for Part One.
Nevertheless, in this section of the book, Ravenscroft has much to say about Hitler’s alleged interest in the Grail, although it is a very different sort of Grail from that of the Arthurian legends: this one is more related to medieval alchemy. It was this interest that is said to have brought Hitler into contact with Walter Stein in 1911, when Ravenscroft claims that Stein purchased a copy of a nineteenth-century edition of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s (c 1170 – c 1220) Parzival, with learned but troubling annotations in Hitler’s handwriting, from a dingy second-hand bookshop.
Part Two of the book introduces us to Dietrich Eckart (1868-1923), Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke (1848-1916) and the Thule-Gesellschaft, among numerous other characters and organisations. Once again, the Spear is almost absent and Ravenscroft concentrates on the influence of the various éminences grises whom he portrays as nurturing the evil spirit in possession of Adolf Hitler, who is little more than an empty vessel for a demonically orchestrated plan. It is remarkably dull stuff, but I don’t understand why people are obsessed with the Nazis to the point that the “History” sections of many bookshops are filled mostly with books about them.
The third and final part of the book returns to Walter Stein and his alleged interest in the Spear. We are told that Stein was a reincarnation of Hugo of Tours, an obscure contemporary of Charlemagne, who, according to Stein, had been instrumental in bringing various relics (including the Pręputium Domini, allegedly the foreskin of Jesus) to France. Then we return to Nazi history and racial theories, which Ravenscroft traces back to Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) and her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine. There is no critical evaluation of Blavatsky or her ideas of human development that run completely counter to anything understood by twentieth-century anthropologists. We are told about Hilter’s special hatred for Rudolf Steiner and of Steiner’s own interest in the Spear before returning to Nazi history and the rise of Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945). Himmler’s antiquarian obsessions are well known and included an interest in the Hapsburg regalia, of which the Spear is a part. Finally, on page 316, we are told how Hitler took the Spear from its case in the Schatzkammer (Treasury) of the Hofburg Museum on the day of his entry to Vienna following the Anschluss that incorporated Austria into Greater Germany. Then we lose sight of it again until the end of the Second World War, when it was allegedly discovered by Lieutenant Walter William Horn (1908-1995) at the very moment of Hitler’s suicide on 30 April 1945.
Problems with Ravenscroft’s account
It is evident from an early stage in the book that Trevor Ravenscroft was a follower of Anthroposophy, an offshoot of Theosophy that combines many of Helena Blavatsky’s eccentric ideas about the development of humanity with a more radically Christian viewpoint. This by itself ought not to disqualify the book as a work of serious history: instead, we should be alerted to the special colouring it lends to some of his analyses. Nevertheless, this is not the only problem with the book.
A greater problem with The Spear of Destiny is that Ravenscroft writes in a style that is decidedly novelistic, reporting not only direct speech in whole conversations, but also thoughts and motivations. This is a phenomenon I have noted before, where a detailed and circumstantial account turns out to have been written originally as fiction but repeated, misunderstood (perhaps wilfully), by an ‘alternative’ writer. This is clearly not the case here, as Ravenscroft is the primary authority and he is not repeating or rewriting someone else’s text. This technique is perhaps closer to that used by Gérard de Sède in Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château, in his reproduction of whole conversations whose content he cannot possibly have known.
The problems grow when we discover that, despite his lengthy description of his first meeting with Walter Stein and their developing relationship, Trevor Ravenscroft and Stein never actually met. Ravenscroft does seem to have had access to Stein’s papers, through his widow, but he admitted in 1982 that his contact with the man himself was conducted entirely through a medium: in other words, he was in contact with Walter Stein’s spirit. This is thus a form of historical research conducted by séance!
There are also gross historical errors that ought never to have made it into the book. The most significant of these is the date at which Walter Horn discovered the Hapsburg imperial regalia, including the Spear: it was not, as Ravenscroft states, at the exact moment of Hitler’s suicide but in 1946. This easily verifiable fact has been altered to suit the narrative of the book, according to which the Spear has an occult power that gives great power to whoever possesses it.
The Spear itself
Even if we allow that Ravenscroft embellished his story, at the very least, is there any evidence that the Vienna Lance is what Ravenscroft claimed it to be, the spear (λόγχῃ) that, according to the Gospel According to Saint John (XIX.34), pierced the side of the dead Jesus, as he hung on the cross? Is there any evidence to connect it with a Roman soldier (often given the rank of centurion) named Longinus in christian mythology (Gospel of Nicodemus A Text XVI.9, B text XI.1)? We are entering a murky world of objects that were venerated in the medieval church as relics, tangible links with the stories of the Bible.
The first issue to address is that, as with so many religious relics, the Vienna Lance is not the only one. There are at least three others, including one in St Peter’s (Vatican City) and another in Vagharshapat (Վաղարշապատ, Armenia). The question of identity does not seem to have occurred to Trevor Ravenscroft, yet, if the idea that the very spear that pierced the side of Jesus has an occult power, the identity of the specific object is crucial to its possession of any such power (assuming, against all probability, that this sort of occult power has any reality). So, what is the claim of the Vienna Lance to be that very spear?
The Vienna Lance is first attested in the reign of Otto I (912-973, “The Great”) as Holy Roman Emperor (961-973). It became part of the Reichskleinodien (official regalia) of the Empire in 1424, when Sigismund of Luxembourg (1368-1437, Emperor 1433-1437) assembled a group of artefacts to be kept in Nürnberg (Nuremberg, Germany) as the official coronation and ceremonial accoutrements of the Emperor. During the Revolutionary Wars of 1796, when the French army was close to Nürnberg, the Reichkleinodien were given to Aloys Freiherr von Hügel (1754-1825) for transport to Vienna, where they remained until 1938. In that year, the Nazi hierarchy took the collection to Nürnberg, where they were hidden on the Allies’ advance toward the city in 1945. They were recovered thanks to the efforts of Walter Horn, a medievalist working in the US Army, whose knowledge of both the history of the Holy Roman Empire and the German language, was able to ascertain their hiding place in 1946. They were returned to Vienna and remain in the Schatzenkammer in the Hofburg Museum.
That much is the recent history of the Vienna Lance. However, if it is the spear that was thrust into the dying body of Jesus on the cross, its history must be traced back farther than Otto I in the later tenth century CE. According to Trevor Ravenscroft, Walter Stein believed it to be among the relics brought to France by the shadowy Hugo of Tours. This much is possible; the Hofburg Museum has long believed it to be of Carolingian date (eighth or ninth century). However, it was examined by Robert Feather in 2003 as part of a television documentary and shown to be of a seventh-century type. It has been plausibly identified as a lance used in Lombard king-making, although it has been modified to take a nail of Roman type (said to be one of the nails from the True Cross), effectively christianising an originally pagan object. Charlemagne was crowned King of the Lombards in 774, which provides a context for its incorporation into the imperial regalia.
The other lances have equally complex histories, none of which take us back any farther than the Early Middle Ages. They are not relevant to the story of the “Spear of Destiny”, as no claims have been made for their occult power. What this means, though, is that Ravenscroft’s claims are, essentially, rubbish. The spear he alleges so obsessed Hitler is an early medieval artefact, of probably Lombard origin; its connection with christian myth is a later accretion.
Some have suggested that Ravenscroft was writing fiction. There is even a suggestion that Ravenscroft’s publisher persuaded him to market what was written as a novel as non-fiction, but this does not seem to be borne out by the evidence. Instead, it seems to be the work of a fantasist, making claims to possess knowledge hidden from others. The case is closed.
I have been working on this post for almost a month. I have found it hard going and it has turned more into a duty than a pleasure. This seems to be more than my utter lack of interest in the Nazis (other than distaste for their twisted ideology and willing adoption of any old bit of pseudoscience and Bad Archaeology that would prop up their pernicious and wrong claims for German racial superiority), but I can’t work out what has held me back. Perhaps I needed time to think about how best to write this in a way that was not plain sneering, something I always try to avoid, no matter how ludicrous the claim I am examining.