Guido von List (1848-1919) was best known for his synthesis of populist German nationalist mythology with Theosophy and occultism.
Guido von List: Early Life
Guido von List was born in Vienna, Austria, on 5 October 1848, to a wealthy merchant family descended from a long line of traders. List developed a love of nature from an early age, inspired by family outings around Vienna. He would express his appreciation of nature through various art forms. His surviving works portray natural landscapes as well as modern architecture and prehistoric monuments. List claimed that it was during a family visit to the catacombs of St Stephen’s Cathedral as a young teenager in 1862, that his desire to see the revival of the ancient Germanic worship of Wotan (also known as Odin) was awakened. He swore an oath, kneeling before a ruined ancient altar, to one day build a temple to Wotan. Although Guido’s family was Roman Catholic, his father’s motivation for visiting St Stephen’s Cathedral was not shared by List, who later described this moment as a personal conversion experience.
List’s artistic and academic ambitions conflicted with his father’s desire to see him join the family’s leather mercantile business. Guido was the eldest son (and therefore heir of the family’s legacy) and he eventually capitulated to his father’s pressure to enter a life of commerce. List’s commitment to his father’s business did not hamper his personal goals, and he would dedicate his leisure time to outdoor sports and excursions. He would take these opportunities to worship nature and exercise his creative gifts in outdoor sketching and writing. His first published piece appeared in the annual of the Austrian Alpine Association. List was secretary of the Association and a renowned rower.
List generally preferred his own company and preferred to venture alone, which earned him a reputation as a mystic loner. He had a tendency to ritualize his romps through nature. List would regularly celebrate the summer solstice. On one such occasion, in 1875, he and some friends came across the ruins of the Roman town of Carnuntum. They decided to camp by the ruins and spent the night drinking. Feeling particularly sentimental, as it was the 1500th anniversary of the Germanic tribe’s victory over the Romans, List started a fire under the Pagan Gate. He then proceeded to bury eight wine bottles in the shape of a swastika.
List’s fascination with nature provided him with an escape from what he saw as “the foggy shroud of the metropolis” and its “fearful scenes of the wild pursuit of profit”. It is difficult to determine how much of his hostility towards modernity was a reaction against the parental pressure he felt to confirm to a career as a merchant until the death of his father in 1877. At this point, List focused on his journalistic endeavors and lived a modest life with his first wife, Helene, whom he married in 1878. He went on to publish a number of articles about the Austrian countryside in various nationalist newspapers. List saw all of nature through a pagan lens, and was fascinated by the mythological roots of the names and customs associated with local land. His early articles bore the hallmarks of a völkisch perspective of nature and the land, weaving together national landmarks with the ancient mythology and characters of the Teutons. List began to draw from (and romanticize) Germanic history, beginning with the battle with the Romans that he had commemorated during that summer solstice in 1875. This inspired him to write a two-volume historical novel, Carnuntum (1888).
The Germanic nationalist movement in Austria found his deceptively appealing portrayal of history particularly inspiring, given his inclusion of Austrian-settled tribes in the victory over the Romans. List was able to construct an unbroken tribal line from prior even to the Roman occupation which continued to the present day. List described the development of this tribe (or “high civilization”) as having been obstructed on two occasions, both of which he attributed to Rome. The first impediment to this civilization he dated during the Roman colonization on Pannonia (between 100 A.D. and 375 A.D.), and the second by “the other Rome”, which he associated with the coming of Catholicism to Austria. Therefore, he saw the current cultural climate as oppressive and stifling of the Germanic civilization. List’s mythology became the bedrock upon which the German nationalist movement would begin to build its case for a union between German-speaking Austria and the German Reich. The German-speaking population of Austria was encouraged to reclaim their German heritage and identity amidst the multi-national empire of the Habsburgs. List’s magic and folklore-filled journalism was used to support the Pan-German cause throughout the 1890’s.
He began to teach about the ancient priesthood of Wotan, which he claimed was the national Teutonic religion and was a foundation of his political mythology. List gave lectures and wrote mythological plays and poems which were performed at nationalistic festivals. Simultaneously, he produced more romantic stories during this period. One such novel, Jung Diethers Heimkehr (Young Diether’s Homecoming, 1894) was about a young Teuton who had been forcibly converted to Christianity in fifth-century Austria. The story climaxed with Diether’s return to his native pagan religion, which, like a modern-day prodigal son, was accompanied with joyous celebration. List’s literature was revered by the nationalist newspapers and a great number of his works continued to be published and celebrated throughout the 1890’s.
List re-married in 1899, to Anna Wittek, an actress who had given dramatic readings of List’s poetry in the past. As Wittek was a Lutheran, List’s wedding celebration was held in a Protestant church in Bohemia. His wife’s rejection of the Catholicism, that had been associated with the multi-national empire, was common among Austrian Pan-Germans in the late 1890’s, but List remained fervently pagan throughout this period of mass-conversion to Protestantism and continued to reject any form of Christianity.
Perhaps as a result of marrying an actress, List now focused on producing dramatic plays throughout the early 1900’s. During this stage-focused period of creativity, his obsession with Carnuntum resurfaced and he requested the reconstruction of a Roman amphitheater. List called this project the “New Carnuntum” and he intended to use the amphitheater to produce a number of productions to promote his heroic Germanic mythologies. An occult Wotanist motif tied it all together.
Guido von List: The Founding of the List Society
In 1902, List underwent eye surgery to relieve a cataract, blinding him for eleven months. Throughout this enforced period of rest, and inspired by the ideas of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, List began to ponder the origin and secret meaning of runes and language. By 1903, List developed a theory of the origins of the Aryan proto-language and sent his manuscript to the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna. Here List’s ideas began to exhibit a strong Theosophical influence on the origins of the cosmos and the role (and occult meanings) of ancient letters, runes, and glyphs such as the swastika. The Academy returned his manuscript, seemingly disregarding it as pseudo-scientific. However, an occult magazine in Vienna, Die Gnosis found his theory appealing and published an article by List summarizing his ideas. It was at around this time that List began to take on the aristocratic title ‘von’, perhaps due to his identifying with the ancient nobility of the Wotanist priesthood. He considered the priesthood to be the elite, the founders of the first aristocracy of the Germanic tribe. He may have also been influenced by his friend, Lan von Liebenfels, who had also decided to adopt the title in 1903.
In December 1904, the matter of the Academy’s rejection of List’s manuscript was raised in parliament and the uproar associated with this perceived injustice led to the founding of the List Society (Guido-von-List-Gesellschaft), which supported List in his research into the ancient occultic past of the Germans. The List Society was supported by a number of prominent nationalist individuals from influential fields, including politics and education. The List Society was also championed by several leading occultists, including the master of an occult lodge in Berlin. The Society continued to attract new membership among the influential, who funded List’s series of occult interpretations of the ancient Ario-Germanic nation. In Das Geheinnis der Runen (1908), List outlined his doctrines on everything from racial purity to the immortality of the soul and the cycle of reincarnation. Throughout the next few years, List fully assimilated the teachings of Blavatsky and her cosmology, including her concept of the evolution of “Root Races”. In this worldview, the Ario-Germans represented the dominant fifth Root Race of the current “round”. The ancient runes, swastika and other occultic glyphs would now be identified by List as ancient Aryan symbols.
List elevated the Wotanist priesthood to the status of elite gnostic initiates, which he called the Armanenschaft. He re-interpreted much of the Western esoteric tradition in light of the existence of the Armanenschaft, with their historic role of ensuring the occult survival of the Germanic world’s ancient theocracy being crucial and ongoing. He claimed that the model of initiation and ritual present in Freemasonry and that the ancient secrets of the Armanenschaft could also be found encoded in the poetry, architecture, folklore and symbolism of the historic German nation. Other carriers of this ancient wisdom as interpreted by List were the Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance, as well as the Jewish Kabbalists – the latter of whom he claimed had received their teachings from the Germanic priests during the hostile Christian takeover of the land. List continued to appropriate the many other significant esoteric traditions of the past into his Armanist history (such as Rosicrucianism) as the Armanenschaft struggled to survive persecution under Catholic rule.
Guido von List: Influence on the Founding of the Nazi Party and Ariosophy
In 1911, List founded a secret inner order of the List Society known as the Hoher Armanen-Orden (HAO) based on Kabbalistic principles. The List Society was a significant influence in the promoting List’s ideas to the radical nationalist secret societies in Germany before 1914, as well as the founding of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. List’s concept of an occultic national history was also influential to Ariosophists of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
List’s health deteriorated significantly at the age of 70 during the food shortages in 1918 Vienna. He was eventually diagnosed with lung inflammation, and died in Berlin on May 17, 1919. His obituary was published in a völkisch newspaper, the Münchener Beobachter, which, in the following year, became the official Nazi party organ and remained a staunch Nazi newspaper until 1945.
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