Writing historical fiction and historical fantasy can sometimes lead to the discovery of less-than-pleasant characters.
Yesterday I made the acquaintance of someone I only knew passingly: Savitri Devi – the woman who, among other things, was convinced that Hitler was an avatar (or incarnation) of Vishnu. Which I’d file under crackpot were it not for the fact that the lady in question is a character worth of pulp fiction, and shows us an aspect of history some of us might have missed.
Born of a Greek/Italian French father and an English mother, Savitri Devi started out as Maximiani Julia Portas in 1905. Graduated in chemistry and philosophy inLyon, she went on an archaeological expedition to Grece and developed an early interest in Aryan culture because of Schlieman’s discovery of a swastika in Anatolia.
Having renounced her French nationality to become a Greek national, she moved close to National Socialist political positions and travelled to India in search of the roots of the Aryan civilisation. She converted to Hinduism (if, most likely, her own version of Hinduism), and she was a spy for the Axis in India, keeping an eye on the British.
And at this point, we have all the right elements for a derring-do story: archaeology, espionage, the Nazi and the British, exotic India, ancient religions…
It would be easy to imagine Julia Portas as something of a female René Belloq, if you will allow me the Indiana Jones reference – with the difference, I now realise, that Belloq was not a Nazi: he was a self-serving egomaniac willing to ally himself with anyone he could use as a tool for his purposes.
Savitri Devi – the Hindu name Julia Portas assumed on her conversion – on the other hand, was a true believer and was involved during wartime with the pro-Nazi fringes of the Indian nationalists. Indeed, she married one of them.
After the war, she travelled to Europe and was caught distributing Nazi propaganda leaflets in Germany in 1949 – not a good idea, that cost her eight months in prison (where she made friends with other Nazis and former SS) and then she was expelled.
She would later help the underground railroad allowing Nazi war criminals to escape from Europe.
But the expression “true believer” I used not randomly – Savitri Devi did have a sort of religious view of Hitler and his life, and indeed she described her visit to Nazi-related sites in the following years (using a Greek passport to sidestep expulsion) as a “pilgrimage”.
The sort of animal rights activist that supports the death penalty for humans that do not respect nature, Savitri Devi produced quite a bit of literature in her time, her most famous book being probably The Lightning and the Sun, a rather chilling synthesis of Hinduism and Nazism, expounding a cyclical view of history and a curious historical/anthropological theory that sees Genghis Kahn, Akenathon and Hitler as three examples of possible historical action1.
She also identifies Hitler as an avatar of Vishnu, and prophesizes the coming of Kalki, the tenth and future avatar of Vishnu again2. Hitler 2, the Return, in other words.
All of which would be quite fun and all that – pulp history in its proper sense: historical facts that would fit into a pulp novel – were this a novel, but it is not.
And if the book about Savitri Devi written by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Hitler’s Priestess: Savitri Devi, the Hindu-Aryan Myth, and Neo-Nazism is indeed quite an interesting read, I can’t but feel a chill at the idea of this strange mixture of spirituality and evil.
The character of Savitri Devi and her development through the first half of the twentieth century from nationalist to prophet of the second coming of Hitler is certainly just another piece in the puzzle of that strange underworld in which occultism, racism, political power and resistance to Enlightenment and progress mixed and mingled and spawned unnameable horrors. Dennis Wheatley built a literary career and a string of bestsellers out of such an occult hodge-podge, and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created a successful movie franchise. But that was, of course, pulp fiction.
Once again, I find it both fascinates me and creeps me out, this mix of Nazism and spurious spirituality, and I recognise this facet of history as an excellent source of inspiration for horror and fantasy stories, but with a chill running down my spine as the thought that this is the sort of stuff against which my grandfather fought.