But in many ways, Otto Rahn was an unlikely candidate to lead an SS expedition. To begin with, he was openly homosexual. This was a serious crime in the German Reich, and homosexuals were a frequent target of the Gestapo, or German secret police, who sent thousands of people to concentration camps on the grounds of their sexuality. Rahn himself was also anti-Nazi.
He frequently attended dinners held by anti-Nazi intellectuals and frequently spoke critically of the regime to friends. But for Himmler, Rahn’s possible usefulness in finding the grail outweighed his political leanings.
So, in 1936, Himmler had Otto Rahn formally inducted into the SS. As Rahn explained it to friends at the time, he felt that he had little choice in the matter, saying “A man has to eat. What was I supposed to do? Turn Himmler down?” Rahn no doubt had a point. After all, the Nazis weren’t the type of people who would willingly let you turn them down. Any German who ran afoul of the Nazis ran the risk of ending up in a concentration camp, as Rahn discovered just a year later.
By 1937, Rahn had conducted a large number of expeditions to look for the Grail, ranging as far as Iceland in search of the artifact. But every time, he had come up empty-handed. All he had produced was a second book on the subject, which Himmler was as smitten with as the first, distributing 5,000 leather-bound copies to other top Nazis.
But as the expeditions mounted without success, Himmler grew increasingly angry with Rahn. Himmler had been so convinced that the Grail was within his grasp that he ordered a castle constructed to house it in an underground room surrounded by busts of SS officials and Rahn’s failure to produce the Grail was an embarrassment to Himmler.
This surety that Rahn would find the grail had made Himmler willing to overlook Rahn’s sexuality and politics, but his failure to produce results soon led to him falling out with the Nazi Party. Finally, after a drunk Rahn was discovered in a romantic encounter with another man, Himmler lost his patience and punished Rahn by transferring him to guard duty at the Dachau Concentration Camp.
Rahn would spend three months there becoming increasingly anguished at the suffering he witnessed. He even remarked to a friend about his situation ‘I have much sorrow in my country. [It is]… impossible for a tolerant, liberal man like me to live in the nation that my native country has become.”
In 1939, he wrote to Himmler, resigning his position in the SS. Himmler accepted the resignation but then sent the secret police to arrest Rahn. Faced with the choice of suicide or a concentration camp, Rahn chose the former. That winter, Rahn hiked to the top of a frozen Austrian mountain that he often visited and laid down in the snow. His body was later recovered there, frozen to death. He wanted to die in his favorite place in the world. And in many ways, Rahn’s strange story and tragic end demonstrate the deadly-serious side of the bizarre Nazi fascination with the occult.