The Hitler Icon: How Mount Athos Honored the Führer

 

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An image of Adolf Hitler greeted visitors to Mount Athos in 1941 (Source: Mönchsland Athos)

NOTE: Political instability in Greece during the mid-20th century that affected Mount Athos included Nazi occupation from the Easter season of 1941 through late 1944, followed immediately by the Greek Civil War in a struggle where Communist efforts failed. The Battle of Greece was reported in Time Magazine [see the end of this article]. After the Nazi takeover of Greece, the Epistassia, Athos’s four-member executive committee, formally asked Hitler to place the Autonomous Monastic State under his personal protection, and Hitler agreed. Mount Athos survived World War II nearly untouched, and for the remainder of the war, the monks of Mount Athos referred to Adolf Hitler as “High Protector of the Holy Mountain” (German: Hoher Protektor des heiligen Berges).

In an attempt to defend and justify Mount Athos’ allegiance with Hitler during WWII, Greek Orthodox apologists state that it was simply a strategic measure to protect the mountain from Bulgarian occupation and de-hellenization.1 They criticize the jouranlists who write “negatively” about this incident in Athonite history as “slanderers” and “accusers” of the Church; purposely hiding this important information in an attempt to tarnish Mount Athos’ image. However, these Orthodox apologists fall into the same “sin of concealing facts.” The defenders of Athos fail to mention that in the time leading up to the war—especially during the 30s—the Hagiorites were consumed with fervor and anticipation for Constantinople’s liberation as foretold in spurious prophecies that are not officially accepted by the Orthodox Church or the Church Fathers. Yet, the majority of Athonite monks during the 30s not only believed in them, but felt that they were living through their fulfillment.

The Anonymous Prophesy of 1053,2 was a popular prophecy on everyone’s lips before and during the war. This prophecy was virtually unheard of in the Orthodox world until 1914.3 There was a belief that Germany would be the first country to become Orthodox after the “New European War.”4

A common belief of Athonite monks during the 30s, as conveyed in various publications by pilgrims of that era was:

“You know Germany is going to become Orthodox very soon. The Holy Fathers have prophesied it. It is said that there is now a great king ruling in Germany, who slaughters all the Jews and Bolsheviks. We love him for that. It is the beginning of the prophecy.”5

The Triple Occupation of Greece by the Axis Powers (1941-1944)
Germany (red), Italy (blue), Bulgaria (green).

THERE IS A PIOUS notion out there that organized religion, if practiced devoutly enough, can preserve human beings from immoral thoughts and actions, particularly those stemming from the seductions of supposedly secular political ideologies. The Protestants have their “mighty fortress” of Lutheran song and liturgy, the Catholics have their eternal Vatican, and the Greek Orthodox Church preserves its theological purity in the twenty monasteries of Mount Athos, “the Garden of the Virgins,” on a peninsula in northern Greece, where all females – including dogs and cats – are banished from the premises so as to protect the monks from any impure sensations.* However, even the most cursory glance at the historical record reveals that the devout are not only as likely as anyone else to fall for a totalitarian bill of goods, they may even be more susceptible than the average citizen.

Mount Athos can serve as a case in point. In the summer of 1941, just months after the German invasion and occupation of Greece, Professor Franz Dölger led an official Nazi expedition to the holy mountain.6 The journey, which focused on historical and theological issues, was officially sponsored by Alfred Rosenberg, Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, and was generously supported by the Wehrmacht. Dölger himself was a distinguished professor of Byzantine studies at the University of Munich from 1931 until his retirement in 1958.

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The expedition report Mönchsland Athos (Athos, Land of Monks), published in 1942

Dölger and his companions, both academic and military, encountered a religious community that was more than willing to embrace Nazism. In fairness to the residents of Mount Athos, we should note that they had good reason to despise Hitler’s nemesis, communism: Stalin was busy confiscating the Russian Orthodox Church’s property and deporting its priests to the gulag, and he had also halted the previously reliable flow of Russian contributions to the monasteries’ upkeep. According to Time Magazine report from 1941, the remarkably naïve monks only knew of Hitler as “a great German king who slays the Bolsheviks and the Jews – a fulfillment of prophecy.” In this, they differed little from the bulk of Catholics and Protestants in Germany and many of the occupied countries. After the Nazi takeover of Greece, the Epistassia, Athos’s four-member executive committee, formally asked Hitler to place the Autonomous Monastic State under his personal protection, a request with which the Führer gladly complied. Mount Athos survived the war nearly untouched, which is more than can be said for the rest of Greece, which lost 11 percent of its population, including virtually all of its Jews.

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Wehrmacht soldiers posing with Greek Orthodox monks in Karyes, Athos Peninsula, Easter 1941

In gratitude for his protection, the monks displayed and revered Hitler images, including not only the one described further down but also a portrait hung directly in the center of a wall of paintings in the great reception room of St Panteleimon monastery, directly beneath a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II (see video clip below).

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Hitler in a place of honor at St. Panteleimon Monastery (1942)
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This picture is taken partner after the Second World War. The portrait of Hitler is Replaced by portraits of Queen Frederica (1917 – 1981) and beside her king Paul (1901 – 1964).

The following is my translation of an excerpt from Prof. Dölger’s account of his visit to Mount Athos as printed in the book Mönchsland Athos (Munich: 1942), the official report of his 1941 visit to the holy mountain:

At the monastery of Konstamonitou, at the place of honor in the reception room, we encountered the image of our Führer.  A monk had discovered a picture in an illustrated magazine and created a pencil drawing based on this model. Elsewhere too we could observe how strongly the personality of the Führer and the Greater German Reich impressed itself upon the imagination of the residents of Mount Athos, at least among those who had not entirely turned away from the world. Upon our arrival at several monasteries and, upon our departure from one (Dionisíu), when we sailed out onto the sea in our little ship, we were greeted by the swastika flag. The Führer is regarded by a great many monks as the “High Protector of the Holy Mountain” who will also hold his protecting hand over the Holy Mountain in the reordering of the world.

We had a delightful experience as we photographed a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary. From the point of view of Athos, it represented an immense concession for us to receive permission to photograph the sacred icon, and monks even helped us in our preparations. One old monk who joined us observed these preparations, shaking his head. Turning to us, he said: “If you want to photograph the Panajía [Virgin Mary], then you will have little luck; for the Panajía has never yet allowed herself to be photographed.” – “But it could be,” he added in a trusting and good-natured manner, “that the Panajía may make an exception for you Germans and allow herself to be photographed, because you Germans, after all, are waging a holy war against Bolshevism, the enemy of God.”

*Banishing the opposite sex from the peninsula might sound like a recipe for boredom, but it appears that the monks knew how to keep busy. According to a Time Magazine article in April 1941, “[a]n alarming number of monks have taken to smoking, alcohol, even narcotics. And the immemorial escape from celibacy has threatened to become a fever sickening the whole ‘Great Academy of the Greek Clergy.’ The Greek press has stormed about the kidnapping of male children for the monks of Athos, and motorboats carrying male prostitutes are constantly reported chugging into the monastery harbors.”

Franz Dölger's Diamonitirion
On the recommendation of Georgios Tsolakoglou, 1st Greek Prime Minister of the occupation, Dölger received a special residence permit.

TWO ARTICLES FROM TIME MAGAZINE

MOUNT ATHOS: Failing Light

Monday, April 28, 1941
TIME Magazine

The Stukas swooped across the Aegean skies like dark, dreadful birds, but they dropped no bombs on the monks of Mount Athos. The motorized Nazi hordes rumbled across the Salonikan peninsula, but they did not invade its 40-mile-long eastern cape where the holy and historic Mount towers in misty beauty above monasteries perching like fabulous castles on crags above the sea. Surrounded by flower-scented glens and gorges, veiled with pine and cypress and chestnut, are great Lavra Monastery, Vatopédi, Simöpetra, bastioned Dionysiou (which proudly possesses the brain and right hand of Saint John the Baptist) and many others, each with its fusty library and gilded Byzantine church.

Last week Adolf Hitler gave no hint of what he proposed to do about this great religious prize which was his for the taking—the autonomous ecclesiastical republic of Mount Athos, 1,000-year-old capital of Greek Orthodoxy, governed by a council consisting of one monk from each of its 20 stony retreats.

The 5,000 bearded, black-robed Greek, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Rumanian monks who live on Mount Athos arrived there for many reasons—religion, disappointment in love, political conspiracy, seeking sanctuary against political or criminal punishment. They include several former Greek lunchroom proprietors who fled the clatter of U.S. civilization. They live in two kinds of monasteries: cenobite (communistic) and idiorrhythmic (allowing private property, which reverts to the monastery). Many of them lead a truly monkish life of prayer and Church scholarship, a shabby life without bathing or toothbrushing, with a meatless diet and only brief snatches of sleep, because “sleep inflames the body.” They live on contributions and on the making and selling of wine, farm products, religious paintings and trinkets. Some are so ignorant or unworldly that they have heard only vaguely of Adolf Hitler—”a great German king who slays the Bolsheviks and the Jews—a fulfillment of prophecy.”

But in recent years the world has been altogether too much with Mount Athos to please its pure in heart. For one thing, the world’s sad economy has impoverished the religious life even more than need be. Joseph Stalin has stopped the steady flow of Russian funds into Mount Athos, and war and world depression have sharply cut all other income. The ancient sins of luxury have been increasingly apparent both outside and inside the holy ground. Vigorous young monks are rare. “We need young men today more than ever,” one Athonite has said, “but they prefer to fatten their ephemeral bodies and clothe them in silk shirts and ties.”

On the Mount itself, one of the wealthier monasteries has permitted itself all manner of worldly indulgences—central plumbing, mirrors, electric lights, newspapers, motorboats, wine-pressing machinery (instead of the industrious barefoot method). An alarming number of monks have taken to smoking, alcohol, even narcotics. And the immemorial escape from celibacy has threatened to become a fever sickening the whole “Great Academy of the Greek Clergy.” The Greek press has stormed about the kidnapping of male children for the monks of Athos, and motorboats carrying male prostitutes are constantly reported chugging into the monastery harbors.

Today many Greek laymen regard Mount Athos as a senile, decadent, insufferable vestige of its past. If Adolf Hitler decides to dim this “Lighthouse of the Aegean,” this greatest of world monastic experiments, he may well be doing only what the Greek Government would presently have done itself.

The Tragos ('Magna Carta') of Athos opened for Dölger.
The Tragos (‘Magna Carta’) of Athos opened for Dölger.

GREECE: Flight from Mt. Athos

Monday, July 13, 1942
TIME Magazine

Peter the Athonite came first to Mount Athos in the 9th Century and lived there for 50 years, battling devils and beasts in a cave high above Homer’s wine-dark sea. Then came Euthemius and Joseph, who sought eternal bliss by moving about on their hands and knees eating grass. All this was centuries after Xerxes’ legions invaded Greece, and, of course, centuries before Nazi Panzer divisions.

From the time of Peter the Athonite to Adolf the paper hanger, the great rocky promontory of Athos, jutting into the Aegean like a prong of Poseidon’s three-forked scepter, has been a place of refuge -for men only. No woman has knowingly been allowed to desecrate by her presence the huge cluster of monasteries atop the Holy Mountain, where bearded, black-cowled priests withdraw from worldly pleasures in the spiritual home of the Greek Orthodox Church. Even female cats and dogs and beasts of the field are barred, “so that their mating may not furnish an outlandish spectacle to souls which detest all forms of indecency. . . .”

Last week, from three priests who fled to an even more ancient home of Christian religion, there came the first account of what Europe’s new barbarians had done to the cloistered life of Mount Athos. For some 90 days & nights the priests had navigated nearly 1,000 miles of island-cluttered seas, and at last beached their 15-ft. open boat on the sands near Haifa in Palestine. There they told how ruck-sacked Nazi youths in peacetime had accepted the monasteries’ humble hospitality and returned as soldiers to pillage and defile. Great iron bells that for centuries sounded matins and vespers had been carried away, to be melted down for the Nazi war machine. Priceless icons, illuminated manuscripts handed down from Byzantine emperors, and religious treasures* had been gathered as loot and shipped to Berlin. These things had driven them, sick at heart, from beloved mountain valleys thick with arbutus and carefully laid out for the husbanding of vineyards and olive groves within sight of the slopes of Mt. Olympus and the plains of Troy. At the islands where their boat touched, peasants fed them and gave them shelter.

Greek Orthodox Church officials, believing the perilous voyage of the priests was divinely guided, ordered that their fragile boat be taken overland and placed as a shrine in the waters of the river Jordan, a trumpet’s blow from Jericho.

But German bombs last week struck in Haifa and there was a clash of great armies in the land of Egypt.

Possibly these were omens that the new shrine might soon, in 1942, have no more power to stop warring men than had the words of Him who, some 1,900 years ago, had gone up from the multitude and proclaimed: “Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.”

Forced landing of the German plane 57 Juncker at the beach in front of the monastery of Aghios Pavlos
Forced landing of the German plane 57 Juncker at the beach in front of the monastery of Aghios Pavlos

During the occupation, a German plane Juncker damaged 57 landed on the beach in front of the St. Paul’s Monastery. Among the crew of the plane there was also a female soldier. To respect the rule of Avaton, the female German had to stay in an old fisherman’s hut on stilts near the beach of the plane, during the repair time. This cabin was then declared as not belonging to the monastic community. The German therefore have not touched the ground of Mount Athos, the rule of Avaton was respected even by the Germans during the war.

*Most famed of Mount Athos’ religious relics: the camel-hair girdle which legend says the Virgin gave to doubting Thomas; pieces of the True Cross; the skull of St. Basil the Great; the brains of St. John the Baptist; the three gifts of the Magi (gold, frankincense and myrrh).

German officers and soldiers on Mount Athos (1943)
German officers and soldiers on Mount Athos (1943)

NOTES

  1. See: Η επιστολή του Αγίου Όρους προς τον Χίτλερ
  2. The Anonymous Prophecy of 1054 is a manuscript found in the Library of Koutloumousiou Monastery, Mt. Athos.
  3. Archimandrite Neilos Sotiropoulos writes in his book, The Coming Two Edge Sword: “The prophecy texts preserved are found in Northern Epirus, Epirus, and western Macedonia. They were found and are located in the Holy Monastery of Naum, Ochrid. It was found in Northern Epirus by the priest-monk, Archimandrite Neophytos Kalofountis, who served there as a soldier in 1914 after the liberation of Ioannina.
  • The ever-memorable lay-preacher, Demetrios Panagopoulos recorded another copy in his book, Saints and Sages Concerning What Will Happen in the Future. The text is continuous and not divided into verses or enumerated. He mentions that “it is found at the Holy Monastery Kozani.” This copy of the prophecy is obviously by an uneducated writer [i.e. not Panagopoulos, but the prophecy text he used]; it inadvertently has spelling errors and variations in a few words, though without changing the meaning. It was found written on a papyrus. At the end of the text, it bears the timeline of being written in 1503 AD, while in the caption it states 1053 AD.
  • The Old Calendarist Bishop of Kalamata, Gregorios, records another copy of the prophecy text in his book, “What We and Our Children Will See.” It reports that it is found in the Holy Serbian Monastery, Kozani. The text has minimal differences from the previous in words and spelling errors without changing the meaning.
  • Another text is found in a village of the prefecture of Kozani and is also written on papyrus. In 1937, a Gendarme appeared at a village house to collect tax. An old woman, the only inhabitant of the house, told him she had paid the tax. The Gendarme asked for the receipt. The old lady, not knowing letters advised him to search the chest to find it. He emptied all the documents onto the floor. He found the receipt and congratulated the old woman. He also noticed an ancient document of prophecy amongst the papers. He took it, copied it and circulated it in many copies. In 1962, a Macedonian journalist published the text of this prophecy in a pamphlet with still more annotations. A Thessalonian gave me this booklet in 1972.
  • Also, the Hagiorite Monk, Nektarios Katsaros’ small booklet, “Prophecies Concerning Constantinople’s Liberation” also contains this prophecy. I bought this book in 1957 at Karyes, Mount Athos where I went and was tonsured a monk.”
  • Some books state that there is a copy of this prophecy in the Library at the Holy Monastery of Koutloumousiou, Mount Athos.
  1. The “New European War” is now considered to be a prophecy of World War II as it occurred after the “Great European War” which is considered to be a prophecy of World War I.
  2. Ralph H. Brewster, The 6,000 Beards of Athos, p.
  3. “In the spring of 1941 the Germans invaded and occupied Greece”, Father Maximos said to Bob Simon.
    They marched up the Acropolis, raised the swastika beside the Parthenon and were about to invade. The monks asked for a meeting with Nazi officers who told them to appeal to Hitler himself.
    The monks wrote Hitler a letter. “And in the letter, the monks identified themselves. They said, ‘This is who we are.’ And they asked Hitler to place the Holy Mountain under his personal protection,” Father Maximos said.
    When asked what kind of response they got, Father Maximos said, “It seems that Hitler liked the idea. He accepted the invitation to become the personal protector of the Holy Mountain.”
    Hitler sent a team of German academics to Mount Athos. They took 1,800 pictures of the mountain’s treasures, and it wasn’t because they enjoyed photography – Hitler wanted the monasteries’ riches in Berlin.
    “The professors were sent as an advance team to catalogue the treasures of the Holy Mountain so that a selection of things could be looted”, Father Maximos explained.
    But it didn’t happen that way and not a single item was taken.
    Father Maximos believes they have the Russians to thank for that: by the time the Nazi scholars completed their work, Hitler was bogged down in Russia and wasn’t thinking about icons.
  4. 1 August 1943, a helpful German soldier showing a copy of Signal in Greek to an orthodox resident of the ancient monastic state of Mount Athos.
    1 August 1943, a helpful German soldier showing a copy of Signal in Greek to an orthodox resident of the ancient monastic state of Mount Athos.
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0tYWPPl4qE
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