Secret Nazis and the return of the Ancient Aliens
Tonight, Syfy’s otherwise delightful series Resident Alien is scheduled to air an episode in which Harry (Alan Tudyk) attends a UFO conference and meets Ancient Aliens star Giorgio Tsoukalos. The series has made sometimes unpleasant use of ancient astronaut theory material in framing the backstory for its lead character’s extraterrestrial history as an alien visitor stranded on Earth. However, it is disappointing and somewhat shameful that the show would openly embrace Ancient Aliens, a series that the Southern Poverty Law Center and a number of anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians have decried for its use of racist tropes and Victorian-era arguments born of imperialist and colonialist anti-indigenous narratives.
Nurtured by neo-Nazi's like Ernst Zundel, Wilhelm Landig, and Rudolf J. Mund, who argued that Nazis invented flying saucers had taken their breakthrough technology to bases deep under the South Pole including the inventions of Erich von Däniken whose origins we will explore, the American History Channel has a series titled "Ancient Aliens" that claims to explore the controversial theory that extraterrestrials have visited Earth for millions of years from the age of the dinosaurs to ancient Egypt and present what as we will see can best be described as a sensationalized bricolage.
Thus the series, among others, veers into claims that Greek stories dating to 2000 B.C. tell of the god Hephaestus refer to creating robots to build weapons and the bronze giant Talos. In Egypt, the Pyramid Texts say that the god Osiris was dismembered, reassembled, and brought back to life just like a machine. And from there jumps to such questions as if sophisticated robots really did exist in the ancient world–what function did they serve? Who built them? And what happened to them?
Like a ride on von Däniken's the chariot of the gods and the Ancient Alien, theory see the clip from the upcoming episode of Resident Alien. In the teaser trailer for Episode 9, Harry (Alan Tudyk) faces alien expert and internet legend Giorgio Tsoukalos. The latter carries most of the conversation, explaining how technologically advanced aliens might have visited ancient cultures while an enthralled Harry munches down on a delicious Edible Arrangement. At last, the good doctor speaks up and tells Giorgio that he "should be on television." After all of the tasty fruits are consumed, Harry exits stage right, leaving behind the honeydew, which, in his opinion, tastes "like old women's perfume."
So, were prehistoric humans visited by peoples from beyond the stars? To quote Palmer from John Carpenter's The Thing, "They're falling out of the skies like flies. The government knows all about it ... They practically own South America. I mean, they taught the Incas everything they knew."
"In my opinion, it would be fairly boring and kind of an insult in the face of creation if Earth [was] the only game in town," Tsoukalos remarked in 2019. "So, the idea that perhaps other extra-terrestrial intelligence civilizations exist throughout our galaxy — and perhaps even throughout the universe — and that we are just one tiny cogwheel in this gigantic mechanism is wonderful."
In the 1960s and 70s, Erich von Daniken and Zecharia Sitchin twist myths about Aryan visitors from a lost civilization predating the last Ice Age. These visitors to Mesoamerica didn’t come from Atlantis but the sky. Bestsellers like von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods (seven million sold and counting) popularized the idea that Aryan-looking aliens brought science and technology to primitive peoples worldwide. In recent years, Graham Hancock has repackaged Ancient Astronaut Theory for a new generation in his bestselling Fingerprints of the Gods and through steady work as a History Channel talking head.
While somewhat different from its precursors, which we described, today’s far-right is divided on Ancient Astronaut theory. On the one hand, it denies agency to brown-skinned peoples and features Aryan-looking heroes, which they consider good. Still, it also deprives ancient (human) Aryans of the accomplishments credited to them so lavishly in Atlantis and other theories.
The relationship between esotericism and far-right extremism can be investigated from both a historical and a contemporary perspective. Thus for example is there a relationship between National Socialism and currents such as Theosophy and Anthroposophy, but especially Ariosophy. Whereby both esotericism and National Socialism are often misleadingly regarded as the 'other' of European or American culture: The links between them prove to be culturally ordinary. The emergence of international far-right and neo-Nazi networks in the post-war period shows that widespread perceptions of Nazi occultism were, often on the one hand, the result of pop-cultural notions, and of far-right discourses on the other. Today, their influence cannot mostly be noted in subcultural or socially marginal contexts, but also in world politics.
Consider the case of Patrick Chouinard, a prolific writer who operates the alt-history sites RenegadeTribune.com and ancientaryans.com. (The latter site’s symbol, the Norse rune, was also the logo of the Nazi Ahnenerbe.) Like the Nazis, the sites are dedicated to recapturing a lost, pure Aryan civilization — one respectful of but not dependent on alien life. In September, Chouinard cast a critical eye on the upcoming tenth season of the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens in an article titled “Are Ancient Aliens Theorists Selling Our People Short?”
Chouinard believes they are. He cites an old episode of the H2’s In Search of Aliens. The hosts, Giorgio Tsoukalos and David Childress (see above), explore the alleged mystery of some “elongated skulls” discovered in Peru. Chouinard scoffs at the hosts’ conclusion that the skulls belonged to aliens. Rather, he argued, reconstructions “show a very Nordic facial structure with [a] huge cranium.” This could be proof, furthermore, of “a separate branch of the White race the went along its own evolutionary path over 5,000 years ago.”
And who, you might wonder, does Chouinard believe is behind the Ancient Alien Theory that is “selling his people short”? “The Jews,” writes Chouinard, “are using … the ancient alien camp to confound our race to the point that we deny our own accomplishments. The White race did not need ancient aliens to build our ancient civilizations or found other civilizations in the Earth's remote corners. Our race is capable of so much more.” In 2018, it was dangerous in alt-ancient history circles to completely discount Ancient Aliens. Chouinard knows this. Rather than risk alienating his readers, he concedes, “It is possible that visitations from extraterrestrials did happen in ancient times, [but] I will not conclude that the majority of our accomplishments as a race can be attributed to extraterrestrials.”
Massive and hopelessly intricate cover-ups. Nefarious alien races with gnomish physical features. Tales of secret Nazi super-technologies. It was always inevitable that the UFO and far-right scenes would end up in bed together. UFO culture cast a shadow over everything in the postwar years, and as noted above, the far-right has never been a stranger to the supernatural. In Conspiracy, the historian Michael Barkun locates the early 1990s as the decade this convergence accelerated. Books like William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse and journals published by Gyeorgos Ceres Hatonn described UFO conspiracies that fit snugly into the New World Order conspiracy template, heavily influencing that decade’s militia movement. (Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was reportedly a fan of Cooper’s radio show.)
But the seeds of this union are much deeper in the postwar record. One of the most important early UFO writers in the early 1950s, William Dudley Pelley, as detailed here, was an American occultist and fascist; his most important disciple, George Hunt Williamson, produced Byzantine UFO theories that incorporated anti-Semitic themes. Williamson’s 1958 book, UFOs Confidential, claimed every government on earth was under the control of a handful of (mostly Jewish) “international bankers,” which, for some reason, the author believed included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Lying naked on a marble slab, with two men in white uniforms attending to him, they told Pelley to neither be afraid nor try to see everything in the first "seven minutes."One of the white-clad individuals told Pelley that everyone has lived hundreds of times before because earth is a classroom where souls learn and move up the spiritual hierarchy. This hierarchy accounts for human races, which are simply "great classifications of humanity epitomizing gradations of spiritual development, starting with the black man and proceeding upward in cycles to the white."
Another at the time famous figure was George Adamski. He first founded an organization called the Royal Order of Tibet, to disseminate the messages of the Theosophical Masters. In the 1940’s he wrote a short story revolving around spiritual contacts with mysterious, highly evolved beings. A decade later, the same claims would once again be presented, but this time as biographical facts of Adamski’s own life. Other texts from the period of this involvement with the Royal Order of Tibet were reworked and the Oriental Mahatmas were replaced with aliens.
Pelley and Williamson’s successors are not always or even often so blatantly anti-Semitic. But the fingerprints of anti-Semites are visible in the works of influential modern UFO writers like Jim Marrs and Jim Keith. These fingerprints appear in what Barkun calls “refracted racism and anti-Semitism,” in which old tropes are repackaged as an episode of the X-Files. This repackaging often includes not very subtle distinctions between “benevolent” aliens (tall, Aryan-looking) and “malevolent” aliens (short, grotesque, often in league with “international bankers”).
More than anyone else, the British conspiracist David Icke has popularized the Alien version of the New World Order conspiracy. The former sportscaster’s elaborate theory is the Sgt. Peppers album-cover of the genre, featuring the Masons, the Vatican, the Illuminati, the House of Windsor — everyone is there. At the center of the theory is an alien race of lizard people from the fifth-dimension. Though Icke has always denied trafficking in anti-Semitism, he has endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion — the famous forgery and foundational text of modern anti-Semitism — choosing to call it “The Illuminati Protocols.” This is Barkun’s “refraction,” in action, and Icke’s shadow is long indeed, visible across the far-right media spectrum.
Another inevitable development in postwar conspiracy subculture was the rise of a belief in secret Nazi bases underneath Antarctica. The idea of a “hollow” or “inner” earth was a key tenet of nineteenth-century occultism. It reemerged as a setting for escaped Nazi scientists working in secret technology and weapons labs in the postwar years.
The legend took root during the mid-1970s, nurtured by the Canadian neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel, Wilhelm Landig, and Rudolf J. Mund, who argued that Nazis invented flying saucers had taken their breakthrough technology to bases deep under the South Pole. The Third Reich was interested in a possible base at the South Pole. A few high-level Nazis did escape to Argentina, whose national territory includes Antarctica's slice extending to the South Pole. Zundel and his successors have infused these facts with Victorian inner-earth legends and then marinated them over multiple viewings of the 1968 B-flick, They Saved Hitler’s Brain. Versions of the theory remain popular on neo-Nazi alt-history sites, and in recent years British tabloids like the Mirror and Daily Star have found click-bait gold in spreading them.
The story’s persistence led Colin Summerhayes of Cambridge University’s Polar Research Institute to look into the matter. In a 2006 edition of The Polar Record, Summerhayes presented his heavily footnoted and researched conclusion that secret Nazi bases do not exist and have never existed, on or below Antarctica. As exhaustive as it was, it is unlikely Summerhayes’ study had much impact among the theory’s adherents. It was, after all, competing with an ever-expanding glut of “hidden history” books, podcasts, and websites. One of many such titles to appear that year was SS Brotherhood of the Bell: The Nazi's Incredible Secret Technology, penned by Joseph P. Farrell, a prolific alt-historian and regular on Red Ice Radio.
Akin also to books we highlighted in an earlier section that involves pseudoarchaeology, and pseudoscience, left out from the History Channel series is the actual history of the idea of Ancient Aliens theory. This whereby science fiction fans will be aware of the work of the English author H.G. Wells. And the fact that his most well-known story, War of the Worlds (1897), is in part remembered for its 1938 radio adaptation directed by Orson Welles, which caused widespread panic across the United States as listeners who tuned in to only a portion of the show perceived as fact the fictional news broadcast about a Martian invasion. The publication history of War of the Worlds is typical of Victorian and Edwardian fiction: rather than being issued as a single volume, it was published in a serialized form, in the War of the Worlds in Pearson’s Magazine April-December 1897.
As soon as the Worlds' initial publication of Wars ended in December 1897, the American magazine New York Evening Journal began publishing an unauthorized version of the story with the title changed to Fighters from Mars or the Worlds War. Although the Martian invasion setting had been changed from Surrey to New York, the story was broadly similar. A second unauthorized publication of the story, Fighters from Mars, or the War of the Worlds in and near Boston, was published by the Boston Post starting in January 1898.
Once the Fighters' run from Mars had been finished in both magazines, a sequel to Wells’ story appeared. It was written by a lesser-known sci-fi author, Garret P. Serviss (1851–1929), entitled Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898). It may seem somewhat incongruous to cast Thomas Edison as the protagonist in a space opera. Still, Serviss was writing within an established literary genre known as ‘edinsonades.’ These had been born out of a fascination with science and engineering, which is also visible in many works by the French author Jules Verne. In the same way that not all ‘robinsonades’ focus on Robinson Crusoe's character, not all ‘edinsonades’ focus on the character of Thomas Edison. However, a shared element of all the stories explores new technologies. The protagonist is usually a brilliant inventor (sometimes Thomas Edison himself) who uses his inventions to overcome various perils and explore unknown lands and worlds.
Edison’s Conquest of Mars is a direct sequel to War of the Worlds and concerns the human response to the aborted Martian invasion of earth. Humanity’s leaders (represented by the President of the United States, Queen Victoria, the Emperor of Japan, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany) unite the planet’s population to launch a pre-emptive attack on Mars. Leading the assault is the American inventor Thomas Edison, who studies abandoned Martian equipment to develop the necessary tools (including ray guns). During the attack on Mars, the expeditionary force encounter a population of human slaves taken thousands of years in the past by another Martian raid. The slaves tell their human saviors that during this ancient invasion of Earth, the Martians constructed mountains of stone-blocks and a large statue carved in their leader's shape. At this stage, one of the earth scientists realizes which structures this ancient legend alludes to:
‘Gentlemen, gentlemen,’ he cried, ‘is it that you do not understand? This Land of Sand and a wonderful fertilizing river – what can it be? Gentlemen, it is Egypt! These mountains of rock that the Martians have erected, what are they? Gentlemen, they are the great mystery of the land of the Nile, the Pyramids. The gigantic statue of their leader that they at the foot of their artificial mountains have set up – gentlemen, what is that? It is the Sphinx!’1
In these sentences, we witness the birth of what became an addition to the field of Pyramidology: the Ancient Astronaut theory, which holds that ancient civilizations were visited by advanced aliens who in various ways helped to develop their societies. In Egypt’s case, this theory's proponents generally hypothesize that the Egyptians did not build the pyramids and other monuments. Still, they were constructed – as Serviss suggested – by an alien race.
However, Serviss’s story was fiction. There is no evidence he seriously believed the notion that aliens had visited earth in the ancient past, no more than Jules Verne believed that an obsessive submarine captain cruised around the Seven Seas in an electrically powered submarine. It would be nearly half-a-decade before anyone proposed the Ancient Astronaut theory in earnest.
The man credited with bringing Serviss’ fictional creation into the realm of factual publication was the British journalist Harold T. Wilkins (1891–1960). Wilkins published a broad catalog of books on pseudoscience, borrowing liberally from previous authors (and in fact plagiarizing some of them word for word). He created a hodgepodge of pseudoscientific ramblings centered for the most part around the notion of White Gods in the context of ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica. Wilkins claimed that the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs' great monuments had been built by a now-vanished white race who had been worshiped as gods (and who were also associated with Atlantis). The Italian writer Peter Kolosimo would later adjust this idea of the White Gods in his book Not of This World (1969), suggesting that they were not human but alien in origin. In rapid succession from 1954–1955, Wilkins published three books: Flying Saucers on the Attack, Flying Saucers on the Moon, and Flying Saucers Uncensored. Despite their rather sensational titles, these books were intended to be taken as serious factual contributions. While Wilkins did not overmuch discuss ancient Egypt, he was among the first to seriously propose that aliens had visited ancient races and influenced human history:
Maybe, there is life on some other planet; for, how otherwise, shall we explain, what may not necessarily be total legend and myth in the strange stories, of ancient South American prehistory, about fire falling from the sky, seemingly by design and not an accident, and not as the incalculable explosions of great meteorites, aerolites, comets or planetoids upon ancient South American cities? 2
Wilkins’s theories were so outlandish that they were not taken seriously by the academic establishment. However, they did find a willing audience among the general public in the UFO-obsessed aftermath of the famous Roswell Crash in 1947. However, true widespread acceptance of the Ancient Astronaut theory as fact among huge swathes of the Western world population did not begin until more than a decade after Wilkins published his book. More than anyone else, the man helped perpetuate the myth of alien beings visiting the Earth in its ancient past – a man who makes most archaeologists and Egyptologists sigh and roll their eyes – is the Swiss author Erich von Däniken. Däniken, a convicted thief and fraudster, began his crusade to spread his theories about ancient aliens in the late 1960s. In 1968, he published the hugely influential Chariots of the Gods, a book that continues to sell throughout the world. Where his inspiration Wilkins only hinted at ancient encounters with extra-terrestrial beings, Däniken made these encounters a cornerstone of his life’s work. The pyramids in Egypt, the Easter Island statues, the Nazca Lines; there is almost no end to the (non-Western)3 monuments which, according to Däniken, could not possibly have been constructed by humans without the aid of alien visitors.
Däniken’s theories are based on a mixture of willful misrepresentation of data, an extremely biased selection of evidence, and a downright refusal to engage with anything that challenges his basic narrative. His theories about the Great Pyramid of Giza provide an excellent case study. In essence, Däniken claims that the Egyptians could not possibly have built this structure because:
There is no evidence of the workers who worked on it.
1. The Egyptians did not have the tools required to construct the pyramid.
2. The Egyptians built the Great Pyramid perfectly in their first attempt.
All three conditionals are, to Däniken, evidence that the Egyptians had outside helped to build the Great Pyramid, that they followed the instructions of a technologically advanced alien race.
So far, so good. The issue with these three tenets of Däniken’s theory is that they are completely incorrect. Over twenty years, Excavations conducted on the plateau near the Giza pyramids at Heit el-Ghurab have revealed a vast town built to house the workers who constructed the Great Pyramid. Discoveries at Wadi el-Jarf of an account of the transport of stone blocks for the building site, written by Merer, one of the officials involved in constructing the Great Pyramid, provide further evidence for the pyramid workers and their organization. Chisel-marks found on the blocks used to build the pyramid and the vast scars in the nearby limestone quarry at Tura show beyond a doubt that the stones were quarried using very ‘Earthly’ bronze chisels. And finally, the idea that the Egyptians built the Great Pyramid perfect from the word go is a complete fallacy. The earliest pyramidical structure is the so-called Step Pyramid of Djoser, built a century before the Great Pyramid at Giza. After constructing the Step Pyramid, the Egyptians built no less than three pyramids for his successor, Sneferu: the Meidum Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid, and the Red Pyramid. These structures show clearly how the idea of pyramid construction evolved from a fairly simple idea of putting gradually smaller mastabas (flat rectangles of mudbrick) on top of one another to achieve a stepped effect, and even show the trial and error process experienced by their designers: the Bent Pyramid was originally built using a wrong angle, which had to be rectified half-way through construction, giving the finished pyramid a decidedly lopsided appearance.
Däniken’s theories, despite their serious flaws, however, continued to go from strength to strength. As is known, Von Däniken later became a co-founder of the Archaeology, Astronautics, and SETI Research Association (AAS RA). He designed Mystery Park (now known as Jungfrau Park), a theme park located in Interlaken, Switzerland, that opened in May 2003.
Various authors echoed his theories and have inspired movies and TV shows, including the hilariously kitschy Canadian sci-fi series Stargate SG-1 and its successors. Däniken’s books still sell like hotcakes, and since 2009 he has served as one of the producers on the above-mentioned History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, a show which now seeks to spread the pseudoscientific and pseudoarchaeological theories of Däniken and his disciples as far and wide as possible. And to the horror of many archaeologists, it appears to be working. Chapman University conducts an annual survey of supernatural beliefs and conspiracy theories prevalent among the American public. Among these, they measure how many percent of the population believe that aliens visited the Earth during our ancient past and influenced human history. In 2015, that number was 20.3 percent; in 2016, it had grown to 27 percent; in 2017, it grew again to 35 percent; then in 2018, it had grown to a whopping 41 percent. Another benchmark – belief in the existence of technologically advanced ancient societies such as Atlantis – grew from 39.6 percent in 2016 to a majority of 57 percent in 2018, and so on.
The beliefs of the general public about the effect of extraterrestrial contact have also been studied. A poll of the United States and Chinese university students in 2000 provides factor analysis of responses to questions about, inter alia, the participants' belief that extraterrestrial life exists in the Universe, that such life may be intelligent, and that humans will eventually make contact with it. The study shows significant weighted correlations between participants' belief that extraterrestrial contact may either conflict with or enrich their personal religious beliefs and how conservative such religious beliefs are. The more conservative the respondents, the more harmful they considered extraterrestrial contact to be. Other significant correlation patterns indicate that students believed that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence might be futile or even harmful.
On top of this, the inherent racism and colonialism in most current pseudoarchaeological theories cannot and should also not be denied. One of the central themes of many of the theories dreamt up concerning the origins of the Giza Pyramids was that the Egyptians themselves could not have possibly built them. To John Taylor (The Great Pyramid: Why Was It Built and Who Built it?) Joseph Seis (Great Pyramid of Egypt, Miracle in Stone: Secrets and Advanced Knowledge) and Charles Taze Russell (God's Stone Witness and Prophet), their architect, could be found among the Biblical patriarchs. To Ignatius L. Donnelly, Newton Hall, and Edgar Cayce, the pyramids' origin could be found in Atlantis's study. To later writers like the above-mentioned Wilkins, Peter Kolosimo (pseudonym of Pier Domenico Colosimo), and von Däniken, they were built by ancient astronauts, aliens, and White Gods in various guises. In fact, one can be forgiven for thinking that certain white and mostly Western scholars and pseudo-scholars would rather tie themselves into fantastical and illogical knots than admit that non-European people were perfectly capable of undertaking grand construction projects long before the advent of what we refer to as Western Civilization.
Interestingly, Däniken and his acolytes have never suggested that aliens descended to help the Greeks build the Pantheon or the Romans build the Colosseum. Nor did little green men help the various Italian architects build St Peter’s Cathedral. And they arguably could have used the help – the construction of the basilica took 120 years (from 1506–1626). Stonehenge appears to be the only monument in Western Europe to have received widespread attention from the ‘Ancient Astronaut’ contingent of the pseudoscientific community. Evidently, white people, on the whole, don’t need help from alien beings to build stuff, according to Däniken’s flock.
In fact, von Däniken has made several claims over the years that are insensitive to Black people, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, including his claims that the “Black race” is a “failure” and his attacks on a supposed “feminist world dictate” for androgyny.
By giving Ancient Aliens’ biggest star, a platform to enhance the show’s pop culture status as “fun” and silly, Resident Alien is only helping to normalize racist claims that indigenous people were not capable of developing their own cultures without outside intervention.
1. G.P. Serviss, 1947 (book edition), Edison’s Conquest of Mars, Carcosa House.
2.H.T. Wilkins, 1954, Flying Saucers on the Attack, London, 159.