The Thule Society has long been a part of Nazi pop culture. Known formally as the Studiengruppe für germanisches Altertum, the group was active in Munich for a short period immediately following WWI and is best known for being the “parent” organization that spawned the NSDAP in 1919. The group required prospective members to sign a “declaration of faith” concerning their bloodline and peddled alternative, largely misguided theories of “Aryan” history and origins. Several prominent members were killed during the Bavarian Soviet of 1919, and the group gradually faded into obscurity after 1920.
The Myth and Legend of Thule
But did you know that the legends of Thule were already an important theme of German Romanticism during the 18th and 19th centuries?
To briefly recap, Thule is a mythical land in the far north of Europe first described by the Greek sailor Pytheas of Massalia (now Marseilles, France) circa 300 B.C. None of his original works survive, but Pytheas is quoted by Strabo, Pliny and Diodorus of Sicily. Pythias explored the northern shores of Europe, sailing the coasts of Britain, the Baltic Sea and ultimately traveling as far north as the “frozen sea” where, paraphrasing, “the midsummer Sun never sets when the Sun is the sign of the Crab” (summer solstice). The location of Thule, which Pytheas described as being six days sail north of Britain, has never been positively identified — it’s possible he was describing either Iceland or the coast of Norway. 
By the time the Nazis got their hands on Thule, it had been transformed from an obscure geographical oddity of antiquity into the magical home of the Aryan race — a sort of Aryan Atlantis — a place where magical Aryan supermen still lived in subterranean caverns wielding superhuman psychic and technological powers beyond the reckoning of mere mortals, and patiently awaiting the day when a Nordic Aryan Atlantean Messiah would “racially cleanse” the Nordic races, thereby allowing the Thuleans to return to and rule the surface world. Sound familiar?
Tracing the history of this mythological transformation would make for interesting reading — usually this level of myth-making requires heavy involvement from state-run intelligence agencies, especially when Messianic promises are being made. The history of the Thule Gesellschaft itself is interesting in its own right, as the group’s members included very prominent European aristocracy. The Thule Gesellschaft was also involved militarily in fighting the Bavarian Soviet, and in the February 1919 assassination of Kurt Eisner, the socialist Minister President of Bavaria.
Yet in spite of all of this, the merging of Thule into German cultural consciousness seems to have begun innocently enough. On July 18, 1774, Goethe composed the poem Geistesgruß, inspired by the sight of Lahneck Castle while traveling along the river Lahn:
|Hoch auf dem alten Thurme steht
Des Helden edler Geist,
Der, wie das Schiff vorübergeht,
Es wohl zu fahren heißt.
|High up on the ancient tower stands
A hero’s noble ghost,
Who, whenever a ship drifts by,
Bids it farewell on its journey
|Sieh, diese Sehne war so stark,
Dieß Herz so fest und wild,
Die Knochen voll von Rittermark,
Der Becher angefüllt.
|Behold, this tendon was once strong,
This heart so firm and fierce,
These bones full of Knight’s marrow,
The cup was overflowing.
|Mein halbes Leben stürmt’ ich fort,
Verdehnt’ die Hälft’ in Ruh,
Und du, du Menschen-Schifflein dort,
Fahr’ immer, immer zu!
|Half my life I stormed away,
The other half I spent in peace,
And you, you little man-made boat there,
Journey ever, ever forth!
Shortly thereafter, Goethe composed a second poem, Der Konig in Thule:
|Es war ein König in Thule,
Gar treu bis an das Grab,
Dem sterbend seine Buhle
einen goldnen Becher gab.
|There was a king in Thule,
Even faithful till the grave,
To whom his dying paramour,
A golden goblet gave.
|Es ging ihm nichts darüber,
Er leert’ ihn jeden Schmaus;
Die Augen gingen ihm über,
So oft er trank daraus.
|Nothing was more precious to him,
He drained it at every feast;
His eyes (with tears) ran over,
As oft as he drank thereof.
|Und als er kam zu sterben,
Zählt’ er seine Städt’ im Reich,
Gönnt’ alles seinen Erben,
Den Becher nicht zugleich.
|When came his time of dying,
The towns in his kingdom he told,
Nothing else to his heir denying
Except the goblet of gold.
|Er saß beim Königsmahle,
Die Ritter um ihn her,
Auf hohem Vätersaale,
Dort auf dem Schloß am Meer.
|He sat at the royal banquet
With his knights of high degree,
In the lofty hall of his fathers
In the castle by the sea.
|Dort stand der alte Zecher,
Trank letzte Lebensglut,
Und warf den heiligen Becher
Hinunter in die Flut.
|There stood the old reveler,
And drank the last glow of life,
And hurled the hallowed goblet
Into the tide beneath.
|Er sah ihn stürzen, trinken
Und sinken tief ins Meer,
die Augen täten ihm sinken,
Trank nie einen Tropfen mehr.
|He saw it plunging and filling,
And sinking deep in the sea:
Then fell his eyelids for ever,
And he never drank a droplet more.
Goethe would later re-use this same poem in Faust (Part I, Lines 2759–82), thereby forever cementing the legend of Thule into German literary consciousness.
What’s interesting is that Goethe never intended for this second poem to be set in Thule. Rather, he intended it instead as a sequel to Geistesgruß, and for the king in question to be the deceased ruler of Lahneck –– note the allusion to the “cup that overfloweth” on line 8 of the first poem. It was Johann Gottfried Herder, Goethe’s good friend and likewise a well-known poet and literati of the day, who convinced Goethe to change the poem’s setting to the mythical Thule.
Herder was an interesting personality in his own right, and it’s probably worth doing a deep-dive blog post on him at some point in future. For now, the most interesting callout about Herder is that despite being an ardent German nationalist, he held some political views which would seem rather inconsistent from the standpoint of German nationalism:
- Jewish Zionism — He was probably one of the first Gentile Zionists, believing that Christendom owed the Jews a debt for centuries of mistreatment, and that Christians should actively assist Jews who wish to return to Palestine and establish a Jewish homeland there. He also believed that Jews living in Germany should have full political and civil rights alongside ethnic Germans.
- Slavic Supremacy — He prophesied that the Slavic nations of the East would one day rise up and conquer the whole of (Western) Europe. He believed that Western Europe would turn from Christianity and ultimately rot away owing to decadence and immorality, while Eastern Europe would remain true to their religion and idealism and eventually become the superpower of Europe. 
Goethe’s Der König in Thule has been set to music by a number of composers over the years. The most beautiful, I think, and probably the most iconic is the work produced by Franz Schubert in 1816:
A more comprehensive list of composers who have set the poem to music, taken from the Wikipedia site, is as follows: 
- Karl Siegmund von Seckendorff (1782)
- Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1809)
- Carl Friedrich Zelter (1812) [link]
- Franz Schubert (1816) (D. 367, Op. 5, No. 5) [link]
- Friedrich Silcher (1823)
- Hector Berlioz, Marguertie’s aria in the opera La damnation de Faust [link]
- Heinrich Marschner
- Franz Liszt (1843), Buch der Lieder, S. 531 [link]
- Robert Schumann, Op. 67, No. 1 (1849) [link]
- Charles Gounod, Marguerite’s aria in the 1859 opera Faust [link]
- Anastazy Wilhelm Dreszer
- Jules Massenet, unperformed 1866 opera La coupe du roi de Thulé
- Hans von Bülow
- Hans Sommer (1920 or 1921)
- The Scottish Gaelic name for Iceland is Innis Tìle, which means “Island of Thule”.
- Source: By Holger Weinandt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10418857
- It’s interesting that the famous Fatima Prophecies of 1917, specifically the second one, could be read as prophesying essentially the same thing — that Russia eventually conquers the whole of Western Europe and cleanses the West of its decadence and immortality.
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Der_K%C3%B6nig_in_Thule