South Asian religious traditions have long attracted admirers from the West, but none have been as flamboyant or as dangerous as Maximiani Portaz (1905-1982). This French convert to Hinduism believed that Hitler had been an avatar of Vishnu sent to prepare for the end of the Kali Yuga – the last of the four stages the world goes through according to Hindu scriptures. Her ideas, known as Esoteric Hitlerism, are now making a surprising comeback on the internet.

Before becoming a far-right mystic, Portaz was on track for a brilliant academic career. She earned a master’s degree in chemistry and a doctorate in the philosophy of mathematics, but underwent a spiritual crisis at the end of her studies. She abandoned academic life, renounced her French citizenship, and became fascinated by the rising Nazi Party in Germany. The Nazis held that the Aryan race was the basis of all civilisation, so Portaz went to India in 1932 to discover the supposed Aryan homeland for herself. She fell in love with India. Changing her name to Savitri Devi, she converted to Hinduism, married the nationalist activist Asit Krishna Mukherji, and dedicated herself to freeing the subcontinent from both British imperialism and Christianity, which she condemned as an anti-Aryan faith.

Esoteric Hitlerism

As a Nazi sympathizer and supporter of Indian nationalism, Devi saw the outbreak of World War II in 1939 as a golden opportunity. After an unsatisfying meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in the fall of 1941, Devi and her husband embraced Subhas Chandra Bose. They were instrumental in setting up his first meetings with the Japanese government. Devi was so committed to the Third Reich that she continued to fight for it even after its defeat in 1945. She returned to Europe, distributing pro-Nazi propaganda in the ruins of German cities. She was arrested, and after a few years in prison, passed the rest of her life between France and India.

As she reflected on the war during her imprisonment, Devi decided that the Nazis had been fighting not for mere political power, but for a spiritual ideal that few had understood. Combining Nazi ideology with elements of Hindu theology, she began publishing numerous books that claimed to reveal the hidden message of the Nazi cause. Hitler, she claimed, was no mere mortal: he was an avatar of Vishnu, sent to clear the way for Kalki, Vishnu’s final avatar, who will end the Kali Yuga and renew the cosmic cycle. Hitler’s apparent defeat in the political realm, then, had been in fact a spiritual victory hastening the salvation of the universe.

Toward the end of her life, Devi became interested in the United States, seeing it as fertile ground for her doctrine. She is even buried in Virginia, next to the grave of prominent American neo-Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell. And, just as she predicted, America has begun to welcome Devi’s teaching. After years of being relegated to the fringes of far-right occultism, her writings have re-emerged in recent years as an inspiration to the alt-right, a new movement of fascists and white nationalists based in North America. Rising to the attention of the mainstream media in the wake of the Trump campaign, the alt-right combines an ironic, playful style with an appeal to spiritual ideals.

The alt-right spin

One of the most important thinkers on the alt-right, Greg Johnson, has spent the last several years promoting Devi’s ideas through his web-journal Counter-Currents and associated publishing house. Johnson holds that Esoteric Hitlerism is a form of spirituality designed for white people, an Indo-European religion emphasising violence, power and virility. Johnson also suggests that Devi’s faith solves a critical problem for neo-Nazi movements: the fact that fascism seems to have failed so utterly, and caused so much horrible suffering. If, as Devi claimed, Hitler was not a failed leader but a successful herald of a new golden age, then fascism may be able to rise again.

While Counter-Currents publishes high-brow articles on Esoteric Hitlerism, other leading alt-right sites such as reach a broad audience by promoting Esoteric Kekism, a parody religion based on Devi’s work, centered on semi-ironic memes of Hitler and Vishnu. These images play for laughs (the word “kek” means “lol”), but, like other popular memes showing Donald Trump as a God-Emperor, are far more than silly humor. They use Devi’s ideas to steadily break down taboos about Hitler, making Nazism seem more acceptable to conservatives raised to think of the Third Reich as a symbol of evil. Perhaps, just as Devi was right that the United States would one day accept her ideas, she might also have been right that the end of the Third Reich was just the beginning for fascism.