Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin: Art, Sex, and Magick in the Weimar Republic by Tobias Churton (Inner Traditions, 2014)
The Beast in Berlin covers the years 1930-32 when Aleister Crowley lived in Germany. The author, Tobias Church, accomplished an outstanding job in detailing the daily activities of Uncle Al. Crowley tried to run the remnants of his mystical order, survive on whatever money he could solicit and pursue his abilities as a portrait artist. Churton had an extensive access to the letters and diaries of Crowley during this point in his life. He was able to reconstruct Crowley’s daily activities while he lived in Germany.
The book contrasts Crowley’s activities with what took place in Germany at the same time. While The Master Therion was moving from one romantic interlude to the next, Germany was in the grip of an economic crisis that would usher in the Nazi era. Crowley managed to leave the country just in time as Hitler and Company assumed control less than a year later. This was the period of Weimar Republic Germany where the country was in the grip of street battles between socialists of the national and communist variety. Crowley didn’t seem to pay much attention to what happened around him, other than to make a passing reference to the level of violence.
The author is able to talk about Crowley’s relationship with British Intelligence while he was in Germany. Crowley spent a considerable amount of hours writing letters to a contact he had known as “Nick”, who was an officer in British Intelligence. He reported on activities of British communists and other revolutionaries. Church doesn’t seem to think Crowley ever received payment for his spy activities; he just did them out of a sense of patriotic duty. I believe that no money was ever recorded, but was handed over in cash. Possibly, it was charged to accounts we still don’t know about. At this point in his life, Crowley was broke and constantly trying to find ways to generate cash. A few notes slipped to him in an envelope would have spotted him for a few weeks.
The central focus of the book is the art exhibition Crowley held in the Porza gallery, which opened on Oct 11, 1931. The Porza association was a collection of modernists’ artists who sought to break the traditional boundaries of art and painting. Crowley was able to contribute 73 paintings to his exhibit. Churton does his best to document each one of them, but most haven’t survived the passage of time. Many are thought to be in private collections.
Here is an example of Churton’s description of one painting:
“The Holy Family is a work in black crayon depicting two alarming- looking women, though one might be male or androgynous. The lascivious-looking mother figure (?), possibly of African origin, wears a plain headscarf over long hair. We see only heads and shoulders. They smile rather sinisterly, even deliriously, over what looks like a disturbingly mature, very round-faced “baby,” possibly in a cradle. The other head, seen from the front, grins ecstatically, as if bobbing, at the viewer: Crowley’s point of view, perhaps. He/she looks like one of Crowley’s more Secret Chief–like self-portraits. The “baby” also has bulbously rounded, Crowleyan, Asian, and all-knowing characteristics. The figures are framed by what appears to be an overarching, diamond-encrusted tree trunk and branch that makes the dense-grained, heavy image resemble an unsettling wave. The background consists of those curious Crowleyan phallic or poppy-like cupolas that emerge out of serrated mountains, perhaps like an otherworldly city seen in an astral vision, with Himalayan peaks in the distance. The image is satirical, as is the title. The hint is of a perverted Christmas crib scene, but we cannot be sure. Crowley’s sardonicism and peculiar vision is startling. Its disconcerting, black-humorous elements would definitely upset Mrs. Grundy, but she wouldn’t like Otto Dix either.”
Crowley spent much of his time in Germany with a multitude of women. He was married to Maria Teresa Sanchez when he traveled to Germany and left her to be with the much younger Hani Jaeger. Many of his activities are recorded in his personal journals. The author spends a considerable amount of time on Crowley’s sexual mysticism in the chapter entitled “Thoroughly Modern Magus”. In the section on the “Ninth Degree”, he writes:
“The tetragrammaton formula not only reveals the essence of the high magick in principle but underlies the fact that ninth-degree magick is by its nature sacred, that is, it is a sacrament: the taking of a thing common in nature and raising it to its highest source and controlling, hidden principle; the making of something apparently inert into a thing of radiant power. The spiritual power may then act upon the creation. Priests do it with bread and wine in Catholic rites; Thelemites do it with the creative act of love, and the language is often similar, though the Thelemite has recognized that the Catholic imposition of the sense of sin regarding sexuality has relegated to the gutter something fit for the altar.”
In other words,”Love is the Law, Love Under Will”. This phrase is repeated often by those who venerate Uncle Al.
The final chapter, “Lost People”, talks about what happened when some of Crowley’s followers in Germany went over to the Dark Side after Schicklgruber assumed power. Uncle Al was forced to write several firebrand letters to his follower Martha Kuntzel when she decided Hitler was the Crowned and Conquering Child. Crowley had no love of the Triumph of the Will. Karl Germer, who led his German section, found himself a long time guest of the Gestapo when he returned to Germany in 1936 to get an immigration situation adjusted. At least he survived the concentration camps; many didn’t.
The Beast in Berlin is detailed look at the daily activities of the man responsible for the 20th century occult revival. Whether or not you agree with everything he did or said is immaterial to his influence.