Occultism and spiritualism weren’t new on the scene of European society. They had been very popular in Victorian times, and when WWI broke out, people again turned to these practices and belief in search of solace.
The spiritualist movement was founded in 1848 and supported the belief that the personality would survive after death and could be contacted by livings through séance.
The XIX century saw a great advancement in many sciences. Forces that were previously invisible and explained to some extent as ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’, like radiowaves and magnetism, gave rise to the idea that maybe more ‘magical events’ could be explained scientifically. And the advent of the telegraph and the telephone, which allowed communication across distances that were previously considered insurmountable, arose the idea that maybe even the border between the living and the dead could be crossed and communication made possible.
Occultism and spiritualism then became hugely popular with Victorians, but at the end of the century, the interest was waning.
That’s when the Great War occurred.
Occultism and the Great War
When WWI broke out the interest in occultism, although diminished, had not died out. In the terrible event of the war, when nothing was certain, and the life of people could be ended in an instant by any chance event, the possibility to see the future or to communicate with the dead became a way to cope.
Practically no family in Europe came out of the war without having lost at least one member. Many small communities lost most of their young men. Traditional ways of mourn, like prayer and religion, were never abandoned, but as occultism and spiritualism offered the possibility to contact the dead directly, many grieving families turned to them so to be able to speak with their loved ones once more and be reassured that they were well and living a good life on the other side. This was, in fact, the common message that people received: the dead had not suffered, and now they were happy and wished their family to be happy too.
Spiritualism was often called out as a moment of charlatans, and indeed there were lots of shady individuals ready to take advantage of the grief of parents and consorts. But it also received the praise of many famous supporters, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who supported the more emotional side of spiritualism), and Sir Oliver Lodge (who looked at spiritualism more scientifically), both of whom lost their sons in the war.
Scientists taking part in spiritualism were all but unusual. At this liminal time when new scientific frontiers opened up, the demarcation between what today we consider science and what we consider mysticism was still very blurred. Interested in the exploration of these new horizons, many scientists conducted experiments in the fields of telepathy and psychology, but also of physics and long-distance communication. In fact, it was this kind of experimentation that finally created the border between science and mysticism that we are familiar with today.
Religion also sought a similar clear demarcation, which was particularly tricky since both religion and spiritualism believe in the existence of both the world of the living and that of the spirit.
Inside the occult and spiritualist movements, the role of women was particularly relevant. Is it then any surprise that most spiritualists were strong supporters of feminism? These movements somehow contributed to empowering women, and this is one of the reasons why they were considered subversive. But then it’s true that spiritualists tended to have different subversive attitudes toward the accepted social rules.
Occultism in the trenches
It is sometimes argued that occultism and spiritualism were not present in the trenches and that religion was the primary form of spiritual support. But the letters of many soldiers tell a different story. Several forms of superstition – especially concerning safe-keeps and good fortune chasms – were very common, but they were not considered in opposition to religion. Many soldiers just wanted to have an extra chance against the blind luck of the trench fight. Most of these safe-keeps came from home and family and so were considered a strong bond to the reasons why it was worth fighting that war.
Stories of ghosts and apparitions are common both in soldiers’ and official’s letters and it is probably no surprise. The coexistence of living and dead was a daily occurrence in the life of these people. Living and dead shared the same space in the trenches and soldiers could cross that line at any moment on the whim of chance. Nowhere the border between the two worlds was as thin as in the trenches, is it so surprising that soldiers often believed communication between the two was possible? Stories of apparitions, premonitions, warnings from the ‘other side’ abounded in the trenches. Often, like for the loved ones at home, this was a form of finding some peace in the midst of destruction.
Ascension Glossary – German Esoteric Societies
Scribd – Esotericism in Germany and Austria (pdf)
Humanities and Social Sciences Online – The Occult in German Modernity: From Periphery to Center
Everyday Lives in War – The Supernatural and the First World War
US National Library of Medicine – Normalising the Supernatural
World War One Centenary – ‘A solace to a tortured world…’ – The Growing Interest in Spiritualism during and after WW1
Canadian Military History – “Ghosts of the First World War: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in Britain”
New York Times – Arthur Conan Doyle, the Spiritualist Behind the Rational Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle Info – Conan Doyle and Spiritualism
Jay Murray Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995
Sue Bursztynski (@SueBursztynski)
It’s not at all surprising that people who were losing their sons to war would be desperate to think they might be able to communicate with them. Arthur Conan Doyle? A wonderful writer(not just Sherlock Holmes, either – The Lost World is a delightfully entertaining story and he wrote some more stories about Professor Challenger), but he believed in fairies, for goodness sake! If fairies, why not spirits?
It was a general environment of believing in the supernatural, I think. So believing in fairies was very close to believing in spirits. It was basically a belief in a different level of reality.
And we shouldn’t judge with our mind of today, which in part comes from the experimantation scientis made right in those years. From what I’ve read, many scientists, even Nobel prizes, involved themselves with spiritualism, to try and discover whether a communication was actually possible. That’s how many forms of spiritualism and other supernatural belives got separated from science.
This is a form that is popular even today because who wouldn’t want to talk to a loved one especially if you lost one in a war. I feel bad for the people where their sons/brothers went missing and never found. It was very popular during the war and after..I think of Houdini who told his wife he will try to visit her. She went to many seances but he never gave her the hidden words to confirm he did reach out to her.
That’s a fascinating story abotu Houdini. Thanks for sharing.
I’ve read that in the tranches, shells could (and would) disintegrate a man, so that nothing remaind of him. Just to say nothing of the many bodies that were just abandoned in the mud.
Who wouldn’t understand if family and friends felt the need to know more. Especially considerign that WWI was a war that everybody wanted, found it right and supported… at least at the beginning.
The pull of this aspect of the occult and paranormal world is very strong for people who’ve lost loved ones. They’re driven by emotions, not scientific evidence.
Exactly. Especially in an environment where the distiction between sciente and supernatural was still very blurr.
Such a terrible time for the survivors. Are you familiar with The Witch of Lime Street? It’s a book about Houdini and a particular medium he investigated. Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were good friends. Houdini tried to protect him from the charlatans.
Thanks for mentioning it, Lillian. I’ll look up that book. Sounds good.
I knew Houdini exposed many mediums. I didn’t knw he and Conan Doyle were friends.
Oh, it’s so fascinating to see how interested people have been in spiritualism and the occult. And I’m very glad you include Conan Doyle in your post. Ironic, isn’t it, that he had such a passionate interest in the field, but his Sherlock Holmes was so completely focused on the scientific and the logical.
Many people speaking of Conan doyle involvement in the spiritualism movement remark this starck opposition between Shelock Holmes’s rationality and the author’s personal experience. But to some extent, I think this is surprising to us more than it was to his contemporaries. The bounderies were not as clear as we considered them today. As Birgit mentioned above, Houdini, who exposed so many charlatans, still agreed with his wife a way to recognise each other across the line.
Hi Sarah – gosh this interesting to find out more … I didn’t know any of this – I could have guessed it … and certainly knew of the interest at the end of the Victorian period … but yes can also see why people would want to contact their loved ones killed so desperately in War … really informative – thank you – Hilary
I was fascinated by this subject too. I knew the supernatural was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s, and of course the fascination of the Third Reich for the occult is well known, but I hadn’t realised how widespread this feeling was.
What I found particularly fascinating is the idea that scientists considered the possibility that communication between living and dead was actually possible, because of the science advancement. That’s a contradiction in our XXI-century mind, but apparently it wasn’t such for people at that itme.
I guess Spiritualism organized the communication with the dead. I think there have always and will always be people who try to communicate across the line between life and death.
Agree. As there will alwasy be people who deny it, especailly in our materialistic world 😉
JOHN T. SHEA
Intriguing, Sarah. Particularly Conan Doyle’s interest. Margot Kinberg is right. Doyle’s hyper-rational fictional alter-ego Holmes would have exposed such things as frauds or just ignored them!
Readers should Google the story of ‘The Angels of Mons’ about angels coming to the aid of British soldiers at the Battle of Mons, a myth accidentally started by the author Arthur Machen.
I might be wrong, but I think Conan doyle involved himself in spiritualism after stopping writing about Holmes. I’ve been aware of his interetes in the supernatural for a long time and I’ve alwasy had the feelign it was like two different parts of his life. I didn’t know that the intereste in spiritualism was trigger by his son’s death in the trenches, though.
I’ve read about the Angels of Mons in Winter’s book. Besides, it seems that apparitions of batalions of ghosts come to help in the battles were not uncommon on both sides. (hey, this brings to mind the ghost army in The Lord of the Rings. How interesting, I’ve never done the connection before!)
JOHN T. SHEA
Tolkien fought in WW1, of course, and is said to have been inspired by the Angels of Mons stories to create LOTR’s ghost army.
I’ve always viewed this subject with a great deal of skepticism whilst understanding that drive for reassurance. Interesting information about Conan Doyle and Tolkien too.
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I was particularly fascinated by the mix between supernatural and science, which we consider contradictory today, but it seemd to be quite accepted back then.
For some reason I always thought of this as an English peculiarity. Interesting to note that this is was pan-European. We all want to make sense out of needless loss.
From what I understand, the 1920s were a very peculiar time in this sense, where supernatural and new technologies were not completely separated yet.
I found it so interesting that the advancement in so many scientific fields were expected to help sute even emotional distress.