While in power, Himmler founded the Ahnenerbe, an organization dedicated to conducting archaeological expeditions into early German history. Himmler hoped that by finding evidence of how advanced early Germanic civilization was, they could score a great propaganda victory in their mission to establish Germans as a “master race.”
Hitler, however, took a much more critical view of these missions. He once remarked that the expeditions were a waste of time since the early Germans were obviously much less advanced than the Romans and Himmler’s archaeology expeditions did nothing but prove it.
But Himmler wasn’t just seeking archaeological evidence of German civilization. He also became obsessed with the idea of the Holy Grail. However, Himmler’s interest in the Grail doesn’t seem to have been based on the promise of mystical power. Instead, Himmler seems to have been interested in the Grail because of an opera. The Grail featured heavily in Wagner’s opera Parsifal. And this work seems to have sparked Himmler’s interest in acquiring the Grail as a sort of victory for German culture.
The person Himmler picked to find the Grail was Otto Rahn. Rahn was born in 1904 in Michaelstadt, Germany. From an early age, he was captivated by tales of King Arthur and his knights, as well as their quest for the Holy Grail. At university, Rahn took an interest in the history of the Cathars, a group of Chrisitan heretics who were the target of a Crusade during the Middle Ages. Rahn became convinced that Cathar documents proved that they had once held the Holy Grail and that the Crusade was an attempt by the Catholic Church to seize it.
In 1931, Rahn traveled to the Cathar stronghold of Montségur, in the Pyrenees region of France. Rahn believed that since Montségur was the last Cathar castle to fall to the Crusaders, then it must have been where they stored the secret of the Holy Grail. Rahn spent several years exploring Cathar ruins and wrote a book on the possible link between the Cathars and the Grail titled “The Crusade Against the Grail.” In spite of Rahn’s efforts, he made little progress in his quest and quickly found himself running low on funds.
That changed one day when Rahn received a mysterious telegram. The message stated that the sender was a great admirer of Rahn’s book and offered him 1,000 Reichsmarks a month to write a second. All Rahn needed to do to collect the sum was appear at a nondescript address in Berlin.
Upon arriving, Rahn was greeted by Heinrich Himmler himself who went on at length about his own search for the Holy Grail and surprised Rahn by reciting large passages of his book from memory. Himmler was convinced that Rahn was the right man to find the artifact, and he offered him everything he needed to do it.