April 20, 2004
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v2.1 Reference

A Science for the Soul

Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern

Germany's painful entry into the modern age elicited many conflicting emotions. Excitement and anxiety about the "disenchantment of the world" predominated, as Germans realized that the triumph of science and reason had made the nation materially powerful while impoverishing it spiritually. Eager to enchant their world anew, many Germans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries responded by turning to a variety of paranormal beliefs and practices—including Theosophy, astrology, psychical research, graphology, dowsing, and spirit healing. No mere fringe phenomenon, the German occult movement had a truly national presence, encompassing hundreds of clubs, businesses, institutes, and publishers providing and consuming occult goods and services.

In A Science for the Soul, historian Corinna Treitel explores the appeal and significance of German occultism in all its varieties between the 1870s and the 1940s, locating its dynamism in the nation's struggle with modernization and the public's dissatisfaction with scientific materialism. Occultism, Treitel notes, served as a bridge between traditional religious beliefs and the values of an increasingly scientific, secular, and liberal society. Drawing on a wealth of archival materials, Treitel describes the individuals and groups who participated in the occult movement, reconstructs their organizational history, and examines the economic and social factors responsible for their success.

Building on this foundation, Treitel turns to the question of how Germans used the occult in three realms of practice: Theosophy, where occult studies were used to achieve spiritual enlightenment; the arts, where occult states of consciousness fueled the creative process of avant-garde painters, writers, and dancers; and the applied sciences, where professionals in psychology, law enforcement, engineering, and medicine employed occult techniques to solve characteristic problems of modernity. In conclusion, Treitel considers the conflicting meanings occultism held for contemporaries by focusing on the anti-spiritualist campaigns mounted by the national press, the Protestant and Catholic Churches, local and national governments, and the Nazi regime, which after years of alternating between affinity and antipathy for occultism, finally crushed the movement by 1945.

Throughout, A Science for the Soul examines German occultism in its broadest cultural setting as a key aspect of German modernism, offering new insights into how Germans met the challenge of pursuing meaningful lives in the modern age.

About the Author

Corinna Treitel is an assistant professor of history at Wellesley College.


"An important addition to the growing historiography that affirms that terms like 'irrationalism' fall short of describing the complex of Nazi Culture during the 1930s and 40s."

- Times Literary Supplement

"Treitel offers a social history of the German occult, panoramic in scope, which seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of a variety of occult organizations and their relationship to Wilhelmine society at large."

- Choice

"A sophisticated and compelling contribution to the intellectual history of modern Germany."

- Kevin Cramer - Canadian Journal of History

"Treitel does a wonderful job of demonstrating the breadth of Germans' interests in the occult and exposing the developing market for spiritualists and their work."

- H. Glenn Penny - Central European History

"Treitel's detailed exploration... provides a valuable contribution to the literature on modern occultism."

- B. J. Gibbons - Historian

"Treitel's book provides much valuable information."

- Leslie Price - Journal of the Society for Psychical Research

"There is much to be admired in this thoroughly researched work."

- Alexander C T Geppert - Medical History

"Skillfully researched, strongly argued, beautifully written, Treitel's book adds to our understanding of the spiritual as a vital presence in modern culture."

- Kevin Repp - Journal of Modern History


"Corinna Treitel's A Science for the Soul is perhaps the most daring and innovative study in modern German cultural history since David Blackbourn's Marpingen. Challenging entrenched myths about occultism's embeddedness in völkisch and anti-modern thought, Treitel shows that the occult sciences were, in fact, comfortably at home in the essentially liberal, consumerist Wilhelmine Empire and played an important role in Germans' adjustment to the modern world. This highly significant insight is supported by research that is both deep and wide-ranging, as the author moves from private séances to university laboratories, from the market for horoscopes to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke."

- Suzanne Marchand, Louisiana State University

"An original and substantial contribution to the field of modern German—and European—cultural and social history. Corinna Treitel's scholarship is sound, her sources extensive and appropriate, and her writing clear and concise."

- Geoffrey Cocks, Albion College
Johns Hopkins University Press
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