Pulp Science Fiction Under German Totalitarianism

Pulp science fiction — in this case, meaning both serial magazines and stories and films which emphasized action, adventure, and plot at the expense of character and aspirations to Art — has been popular in Germany from the beginning.

While never the most popular genre — mysteries and action/adventure were #1 and #2 — science fiction was consistently popular with the German pulp-reading public. From 1901, when the first German SF pulp called Aus dem Reiche der Phantasie appeared, to 1926, when the situation for German pulp publishers changed permanently for the worse, pulp science fiction consistently appeared in Germany.

Images via Micky the Pixel on Flickr.

Even during World War I, when the German government attempted to aggressively regulate and censor the pulp press, pulp SF appeared, both as ongoing series and as recurring concepts and themes in non-SF pulps. Two of the more popular science fiction pulps were the anonymously-written Hans Stark, Der Fliegerteufel #1-30 (1914), about a German teenager who uses a high-tech submersible plane to fight evil. And the anonymously-written Detektiv John Spurlock #1-36 (1915), whose star fights an invasion of H.G. Wells' Martians and discovers the formula that turned Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.

Pulp Science Fiction Under German Totalitarianism

But many of the most popular pulps in other genres had a significant amount of science fiction. The boys' adventure pulp Horst Kraft der Pfadfinder (150 issues, 1913-1916) had the titular teenaged explorer encounter lost races, hidden cities, and mad scientists in addition to science fictional catastrophes like the flooding of the Brazilian pampas. C.L. Pankin's French Foreign Legion pulp Erlebnisse Deutscher Fremdenlegionäre (40 issues, 1914-1915) had its Legionnaire hero fight vampires, lost race Romans in the Sahara, and Muslim rebels with high-tech explosives in Algiers. Even the propaganda pulps used SF tropes: The anonymously-written General Villa, der Mexikanische Rebellenführer #1-12 (1914-1916), a fictionalization of the exploits of Pancho Villa (1878-1923), had Villa finding lost race Mayans and fighting witches and death-ray-wielding Japanese spies.

Pulp Science Fiction Under German Totalitarianism

Nor did German films stint on the pulp fantastic. Popular filmmaker Joe May (1880-1954) had two popular series about detectives modeled on Sherlock Holmes and Nick Carter: the 50-film Stuart Webbs series and the 28-film Joe Deebs series. Both Webbs and Deebs had an array of James Bondian gadgets of their own design, from phials of oxygen to miniature acetylene torches to bullet-proof vests.

Pulp Science Fiction Under German Totalitarianism

When the war ended, the German pulp industry bloomed, with seven new science fiction pulps appearing from 1919-1922 and fantastic tropes and concepts appearing in numerous other non-sf pulps. But as the economic situation in Germany worsened in the early 1920s, the number of pulps being published declined, both science fiction pulps and the overall number. Then, in 1926, an academic- and educator-led drive against schund und schmutz (trash and smut) literature — that is, pulps and other cheap, sensational literature — became the "Gesetz zur Bewahrung der Jugend vor Schund- und Schmutzschriften," a law allowing for regulation and censorship of popular literature. This led to a two-year slump in the German pulps, and while the pulp publishers began to recover in 1928, increasing amounts of external pressure were placed on pulp publishers.

This was not the first time the German government had tried to pressure pulp publishers. During the first three years of World War I, the government wanted the pulps to be more patriotic and German-oriented, and tried to force the pulp publishers to change the heroes — many of the pulp heroes weren't German. The pulp publishers' response was to change the titles of the pulps, so that they sounded more Germanic, but not the contents of the pulps. The German government, preoccupied with the war, didn't notice that only the title of the pulps had changed and was satisfied with the pulp publishers' actions.

Pulp Science Fiction Under German Totalitarianism

But the German government during World War I had been that of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Nazis, who came to power in 1933, were not so easily fooled, or so relatively mild in their demands. Almost immediately after taking power, the Nazis began pressuring German publishers to make their magazines and heroes more properly German and more properly fascist.

Most publishers ordered only minor changes to their pulps; the pulps were profitable during a time of economic hardship, so why change a good thing? And some publishers refused outright. Walther Kabel's detective character Harald Harst, a prosecutor-turned-Holmesian consulting detective, was among the two or three most popular characters in the German pulps, the German equivalent to British detective icon Sexton Blake. Harst's pulp, Der Detektiv, had been running since 1919, and had featured ample amounts of science fiction with its mysteries. Everything from mad scientist-bio-engineered giant foxes to air pirates to a "sand clock" made of cosmic crystals which, when held, visualized thoughts and allows for clairvoyance appeared in Der Detektiv.

But the German government deemed Harst too "intellectual" and pressured Verlag Moderner Lektüre, the publisher of Der Detektiv, to change Harst. Kabel refused to do so, and Verlag Moderner Lektüre ordered Kabel to kill Harst, which Kabel abruptly did in Der Detektiv #372, the pulp's final issue. The American pulp comparison would have been the American government ordering the death of The Shadow.

Pulp Science Fiction Under German Totalitarianism

During this initial phase of the Nazi government, the degree to which the Nazi ideology manifested itself in the pulps was sometimes the product of the publishers and sometimes the product of the writers. But just as often, pulp SF remained relatively free of fascist ideology. Interestingly, some of the most popular sf pulps were as free of fascist ideology as it was possible to be in Germany in 1933, 1934, and 1935. Three of the most popular pulps in Germany during these years were Elisabeth von Aspern's Tom Shark, der König der Detektivs (#1-553, 1928-1939), about a Sexton Blake-like German Great Detective; Alfred Bienengraber's John Kling's Erinnerungen (#1-215, 1931-1939), about a Sexton Blake-like German Great Detective; and Wilhelm and Hans Reinhard's Rolf Torrings Abenteuer (#1-446, 1930-1939), about a German Great White Hunter.

Pulp Science Fiction Under German Totalitarianism

All of those regularly featured fantastic tropes, themes, and plotlines: Tom Shark tangled with mad scientists and plague-weapon-wielding Yellow Perils; John Kling fought Satan, Madame Satan, and the Three Eyed Buddha, an atomic-powered city on whose walls appear the words "mene mene tekel," a mad scientist whose robot goes on a killing rampage in Berlin, a Chinese Yellow Peril with an atomic-powered submarine, and a city of lost race Mayans; and Rolf Torring is given a magic belt which grants him control over wild animals, discovers a hidden city whose inhabitants have a variety of psychic powers and whose servants are mummies they have reanimated. During the 1933-1935 period, fascist ideology made no appearance in any of these pulps.

Pulp Science Fiction Under German Totalitarianism

On the other hand, two of the most popular series during this time period were Edmund Kiss' four-novel series (1930-1939) about the Ases, a group of Stone Age Aryans, and Paul Alfred Müller-Murnau's Sun Koh, Die Erbe von Atlantis (#1-150, 1933-1936), and both were deeply saturated with fascist ideology. Kiss' novels describe the rise of an Aryan Atlantis in pre-history, with "slant-eyed brown skins" serving the "blonds with narrow skulls" as slaves, the eventual destruction of Atlantis because of the appearance of a new moon, and the founding of Germany by the survivors of the Ases, with a final message about the fitness of fascist expansion. The hero of Sun Koh — a blatant copy of Doc Savage — is the direct descendant of the "Mayan Kings" who is found, amnesiac, in the ruins of the last Mayan city and raised in secret to be the savior of the world. Sun Koh is the subject of many prophecies in the older cultures of the world, and natives around the world worship him as the "son of the sun." The series workes toward the climax of Atlantis rising from its grave at the center of the hollow earth, and Sun Koh uses the science of alien astronauts, including Martian anti-gravity material and weapons made from lethal sound waves, to lead the Aryan race into the future.

Pulp Science Fiction Under German Totalitarianism

And many of those sf pulps which were not overtly fascist still had fascist or pro-Nazi overtones. Hans Heuer's Herr Seltrup Braucht Geld (1933), about a Dr. Mabuse-like crime lord seeking to corner the world market in gold, had anti-Semitism (Seltrup is Jewish) accompanying its science fictional aspects. Hans Mahner-Mons' series of novels, which ran from 1927 to 1951, about a German private detective investigating séances, voodoo, and mad scientists, repeatedly emphasizes the superiority of Aryans to the "dirty" races. And Wilhelm and Hans Reinhard's Jörn Farrow's U-Boot Abenteuer (#1-357, 1932-1937), about the teenaged captain of a technologically-advanced submarine, had the requisite encounters with giant squid, Kraken, Yellow Perils, and alien slavers, as well as a meeting with Captain Mors and Rolf Torring. But Jörn Farrow also repeated the stabbed-in-the-back myth beloved of German soldiers after World War One as well as emphasized the nobility of the German war effort — it was revealed in Rolf Torring #92 that Jörn's father is a U-boat captain named Hans Farrow. Following World War I, Hans Farrow retreated from the victorious Allied forces and hid, with his crew, in a South Sea atoll which Jules Verne's Captain Nemo had formerly used.

In 1935, the government passed a strict preventative censorship law which required that all magazines be submitted to the government for approval before publication. The pulp publishers' response was to try their trick of twenty years' previous: change the names of the pulps but not the content of the pulps. The government's censors were not fooled, and the government, angered, put much greater pressure on the publishers. And then the government proclaimed 1936 to be "the Year of the German Jungvolk," with the aims that all of the German children and teenagers who were not already part of Hitler Youth would join it, and that all youth dissidence and all causes of youth dissidence would be eliminated.

The publishers grudgingly went along with the government's demands. Some of the pulps became more overtly pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic, and anti-Communist, while others didn't mention Jews, Communists, gays, Slavs, or other enemies of the State but did take a generally more reactionary position. In 1939, after the beginning of World War Two, a new law forced pulp publishers to make both the titles and the contents of their magazines more ideologically correct — heroes with English-sounding names were outlawed. The very popular Alaska-Jim of Alaska-Jim, Ein Held der Kanadischen Polizei #1-227 (written by Willi Richard Sachse, Fritz Barthel, and Lisa Barthel Winkler from 1935 to 1939), was a frontiersman in Canada in the 1880s. But Alaska-Jim was Canadian with a real name of "Jim Hoover," which violated the new law — so Verlagshaus Freya, the publisher of Alaska-Jim, cancelled Alaska-Jim and replaced it with Sturmvögel (#1-82, 1939-1941), about Rolf Rauhaar, a.k.a. "Rolf Kraft," a German adventuring in Canada and demonstrating the superiority of German immigrants and the inferiority of British and Canadians.

Not every German pulp with fantastic content turned fascist. Up until their end, in 1939, both Tom Shark and John Kling remained as free as realistically possible of fascist content. (The lack of pro-Nazi ideology is what got Tom Shark cancelled, in fact–the German government ordered its cancellation on those grounds). Otto Neitsch's very popular (at least fifteen novels published during the 1930s) series of Westerns, about German-American cowboy William Hay, was pure Western without any contemporary politics. And the anonymously-written Die Abenteuer Des Billy Jenkins (#1-264, 1934-1939), about the famous circus rider and animal trainer Billy Jenkins (1885-1954), told stories about Jenkins — a secret agent of the U.S. government posing as a wanted criminal and wandering cowboy and investing haunted houses, decayed graveyards, zombies, and mad scientists using killer plagues to wipe out gold mines — without indulging in pro-Nazi propaganda.

But most German sf pulps were at least partially infected with fascist ideology. Rolf Torrings Abenteuer became increasingly racist (as well as increasingly fantastic) and repeatedly expressed the message, through Torring, that Germany needed to colonize Africa for the good of the natives. Crime thrillers like Peter Matthews' Seespinne am Abend (1938) made the gangster terrorizing the North Sea with his high-tech ship Jewish. And Westerns like Lisa Barthel Winkler's in Bob Hunter auf Indianerpfaden (#1-111, 1937-1939) included the usual lost race Aztecs and black Amazon tribes, but also stressed the racial superiority of Hunter (a German-American), the racial inferiority of other ethnicities, and the moral necessity for Germany to spread its civilization.

Even more common during these years was for pulps to become outright mouthpieces for fascist ideology. Emblematic of them was the sequel to Sun Koh, Paul Alfred Müller-Murnau's Jan Mayen, Der Herr der Atomkraft (#1-120, 1936-1938). Mayen is the heir of Thule (Greenland), and after the requisite adventures (including a trip into the Hollow Earth via a tunnel in Greenland) and meeting with Sun Koh, Mayen discovers that his destiny is to lead the Aryan race into the future. Mayen and Koh use an orbital solar mirror to turn Greenland into arable land, and help raise Atlantis from the sea. To an even greater degree than Sun Koh, Jan Mayen advocates for eugenics and portrays non-whites as cravenly welcoming a strong, Aryan, fascist figure to lead them.

Karl Richard's Frank Fabers Abenteuer (#1-52, 1939-1940), about a German-American adventurer who finds hidden cities in Mexico and occult warlords (known as the "White Devil") in Kurdistan, was deemed not ideologically pure enough and was replaced by Fred Faber's Abenteuer (#53-124, 1940-1941), about a German explorer and adventurer fighting high-tech Communists in Spain and Jewish-backed Ovambo rebels in German South-West Africa. John Kling was replaced by Paul Oskar Erttmann's Hein Class (#1-158, 1936-1937, 1939-1941), about a sailor in the German navy who finds adventure, often fantastic, in every port, and whose triumphs are often explained as being the result of his Aryan superiority. And Tom Shark was replaced by Elisabeth von Aspern's Wolf Greif (#1-61, 1939-1941), about a German member of the Rio de Janeiro police force. In that role, Greif and his German reporter Watson, Peter Strunz, find monster sharks, lost race Inca, and Jewish serial killers.

Most of the German pulps were cancelled in the months following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, but a few kept going until the end of the war, when Allied press laws forced the cancellation of the German pulps. 21 pulps were published in Germany in 1940, 17 in 1941, 9 in 1942, 6 in 1943, 6 in 1944, and 4 in 1945. Of these, only six were hero pulps: Bob Hill (24 issues, 1940-1941), a western; Frank Fabers Abenteuer; Fred Fabers Abenteuer; Hein Class; Wolf Greif; Sturmvögel; and Robert Ramm (10 issues, 1939-1940), the government-ordered replacement for Billy Jenkins. None of these were published after the German invasion of the U.S.S.R. Those pulps which were published were adventure, general fiction, and war pulps, but even in those the fantastic occasionally appeared, although not with any regular frequency, and not after mid-1944.

This was part one of a series on pulp SF under totalitarianism. Next time, I'll discuss pulp SF in the U.S.S.R.