Book Review: 'Heinrich Tränker' by Volker Lechler - Part 1
How do you review a book that begins to dismantle the myths of an entire tradition? A tradition that depends so much on the numinous, the ill-defined such as Western Ritual Magic. A tradition that was only able to develop in the absence of books like this.
Such books are the results of decades of research, countless hours, weeks and months in old archives, of reading, re-reading and cross-referencing handwritten notes, letters and biographical evidence left behind by their now famous authors. Such books begin to replace myth with fact and craving for a mythical past with the knowledge of what truly happened. It is books like these that make the busts of our ancestors tumble and threaten to reduce them to what they truly were - people who struggled to understand the path of magic just as we do today. Yet, maybe even more drastic to some, books like these threaten to make entire lodge egregores tumble and fall - in the bright light of historic facts, in the mirror that reveals our ancestors’ flaws and lies born from their desire to recreate a romantic past rather than recognising it for what it was.
I am honestly asking, how do you review such a book? Especially for a mainly English speaking audience when the book covers the life and magico-mystical work of one Heinrich Tränker of whom few people outside of the German speaking countries ever heard? (Note: Heinrich Tränker doesn’t even have his own entry in the English-language wikipedia as of today.) Well, I guess my answer is I am not really sure how to best approach this. Yet I’ll try my very best to share at least a few flashlights of insight and significant connections that dawned on me while reading these wonderful 600+ pages over recent weeks…
In doing so, allow me to approach this in two parts. In this first part I am aiming to share a general introduction to who Heinrich Tränker was and why he and his work are of significance to any occult practitioner in the West. In the second part of the review I will take a closer look at Tränker’s personal work, the inner philosophy and outer school of magic he helped to establish and what we can learn from it almost a hundred years later.
My main intend in writing this review is also twofold. Firstly, my aim is to draw as much attention to Mr. Lechler’s liminal publication as possible, ideally attention beyond the German speaking countries. Without a doubt this is the most significant and best written book on the modern history of Western Magic I have come across. Secondly, I would love to support a subtle breakdown of the language barriers that still separate the English from the German speaking tradition of Western Ritual Magic. Having read, studied and practiced in both I can see how much there is to learn from both ends - and how many of the stories we tell ourselves within the confines of one national culture need rewriting in the bright light of historic facts.
I am deeply thankful to Mr. Lechler and Mr. Kistemann for spending all the years they did in preparing such an important publication for a notoriously small audience.
2. On Heinrich Tränker and the early 20th century Occult Revival
Heinrich Tränker (6.8.1880 - 22.5.1956) was a German bookseller, antiquarian and prominent occultist of his time. In the 1920s he was the founder of the ‘Collegium Pansophicum’ as well as the ‘Allgemeine Pansophische Schule’ (General School of Pansophia) which quickly turned into fertile soil to attract, shape and grow many occultists who became formative for the tradition of Western Magic in the German speaking countries as we know it today. Tränker also was named X° (Rex Summus) of the Ordo Templi Orientis by Theodor Reuss in May 1920; this happened however purely via written communication and without the two of them ever meeting in person or Tränker playing an active role in the affairs of the order. The main context in which Tränker’s name tends to appear in English speaking publications is his involvement in what came to be known later on as the ‘Weida Conference’ in 1925. But more about this later on.
To my knowledge Mr. Lechler’s book is the first attempt to write a full biography of Heinrich Tränker. Previous attempts by Adolf Hemberger and Peter König to establish an overview of critical source texts and biographical material have to be called out. However, neither of them seemed to aim to unite all of this material in a truly critical study of Tränker’s life, applying academic standards and providing meticulous research in terms of references of sources. And so this is the huge gap that Mr. Lechler’s book is filling. In doing so, however, it not only lays out and then cuts through the maze of historic and occult material that brings to life the personality of Mr. Tränker, his lifelong relationships as well as his unique vision of the mystical path and its particular history. As mentioned above, the impact of Mr. Lechler’s book goes way beyond this: It ultimately challenges many of the founding-myths surrounding the re-emergence of the magical tradition in the German speaking countries during the period from the late 19th century to the early 1960s.
The reason for such broad and significant impact can be found in two main criteria. Firstly, it is grounded in Mr. Tränker’s obsession with old books, occult, magical, mystical and most importantly Rosicrucian manuscripts. In accumulating one of the most significant libraries on these subjects in his time he himself turned into the hub around which many of the spokes of occult currents and traditions of his time revolved. If you lived in the 1920s to 1950s in the German speaking countries and were seriously interested in the occult, theosophic, rosicrucian or pansophic path Mr. Tränker’s name or one of his many pseudonyms would be amongst the first things you’d hear when asking for guidance. Not necessarily because of his gift in lecturing, giving public speeches or even running occult lodges - all of which he did for most of his adult life yet with debatable skills at best. Instead he turned into such hub mainly because of his vast amount of occult resources, source texts and seemingly unlimited knowledge of it.
Think about - in a world without Facebook, the internet and Google-Books one of the scarcest, yet most essential resources of all was knowledge. Especially if it was occult by nature, stemming from mainly oral traditions initially and rarely had ever been published or held in open libraries before. The mysteries during these times still seemed to sleep between the covers of a book. Just think of the mysterious Cipher manuscripts, the Book of Abramelin the Mage or the rediscovered diaries of Dr. John Dee. Even most of the English speaking magical traditions seek reference to a mythical origin-story by using the gateway of ancient manuscripts and long lost books… And Heinrich Tränker in his time and for the German speaking countries in particular was the guardian of the threshold, the holder of the keys to most of this arcane knowledge.
Now, let me highlight a couple of the spokes that turned the wheel of our tradition and are essentially connected to Mr. Tränker’s work and influence. Should you be able to read German of course I strongly recommend to buy and read Mr. Lechler’s book for as long as copies are available. What I can provide in the following is nothing but a few snapshots to illustrate the importance of Mr. Tränker’s influence:
- The Theosophic Society in Germany: Tränker was a member of the Theosophic Society from around 1902 until the 1920s. It was here that he met significant mentors of his such as Otto Gebhardi and first came in touch with the Rosicrucian philosophy and the teachings of the so called Asiatic Brethren. In 1908 he founded his own academic second-hand bookshop and in the following year already was a founding member and director of the ‘Theosophische Kultur-Verlag’; i.e. one of the publishing arms of the Theosophic Society in Germany. It was during these years (1909-1914) that Tränker begun to lay the foundation to his significant library of occult and philosophical writings. Unfortunately when he left in 1914 he had accumulated significant financial losses to the publishing house he headed and the suspicion was brought up that these losses in return were directly linked to the gains of Tränker’s private and strictly catalog-based second-hand bookshop.
- Zentrale für praktischen Okkultismus (Centre for practical Occultism): It was around 1910 when Tränker came up with another idea that was intended to serve multiple purposes at the same time. His ‘Centre for practical Occultism’ was a venture that offered individual advise on almost any occult subject. All one had to do was to send a letter to its ‘headquarter’, i.e. Tränker’s address at the time in Leipzig and include the fee as well as return postage. Tränker would then reply to each letter - drawing most of his knowledge from his already extensive library of occult source works. Beside the fact that such a venture put his library to financial use without needing to borrow any of the books, it also helped broadening Tränker’s own social network and reputation in occult circles. As so often in his life Tränker aimed to combine the knowledge of the past with the reality and needs of an emerging modern society.
- The Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, AMORC: The story of the connection between Tränker and Harvey Spencer Lewis is one of the many truly fascinating chapters of the book. It reveals so much about the genuine desire of both men to create continuation in the teachings and organisation of what they believed to be the authentic Rosicrucians. Yet, equipped with Volker Lechler’s precise historical knowledge and his meticulous research we quickly learn to see how perception created reality for both of them rather than the other way around.
It was Spencer Lewis who contacted Tränker in 1930, seeking for someone to help establish AMORC in Germany as well as - and seemingly even more importantly - to provide legitimate acknowledgement of his claim to continue a direct line of ancient Rosicrucians. The following exchange of letters between Spencer Lewis and Tränker is a testament to the fact how wonderful people can argue about what basically is an imagined past. Tränker claimed authority over the true history of the Rosicrucians and quickly dismantled Spencer Lewis’ rosicrucian genealogy. He then pointed out what he believed to be the authentic sources and unbroken chain of Rosicrucian philosophy and teachings. It has to be highlighted that Tränker was convinced these sources were to be found in Germany and the German philosophers of the past only. We will hear more about this assumed German pedigree later on. Finally, the exchange between both men resulted in Spencer Lewis buying a significant amount of doublets from Tränker’s library. An outcome that certainly had its financial benefit for Tränker. However, in return it allowed Spencer Lewis to come up with the following announcement in his November 1930 edition of the ‘Rosicrucian Digest’:
“I wish that we could tell our members at the present time of the many valuable books, manuscripts and papers of rare teachings, and marvellous knowledge that are now revealed to us and the rest of the world from the archives and ‘tomb’ of the original R.-C. foundations.” (Lechler, p.406)
Spencer Lewis also offered membership in his AMORC to Tränker and asked if they wouldn’t want to confirm each other in writing that they actually were true Rosicrucians. (Isn’t this lovely? It makes me want to hug, Mr. Lewis!) However, Tränker rejected both, having had found his own mystery school of Pansophia at the time already and replied to Spencer Lewis:
“Mutual confirmations, charters, etc. we do not need; instead we will see how the spirit of the rosy-cross will turn the inside to the outside and wether we will recognise each other in front the gates of the City of the Pyramids.” (Lechler, p.406)
- The Ordo Templi Orientis and the ‘Weida Conference’: When Theodor Reuss, the founder of the OTO died in 1923, Aleister Crowley, Frater Achad and Heinrich Tränker were under the impression they were the only remaining X° of the small and highly fragmented order at the time. Thus in their eyes it fell to them to decide who should become the next worldwide Outer Head of the Order (OHO, also known as Frater Superior). Crowley represented the order for Ireland and the British Islands, Frater Achad for America and Canada (as well as deputy rights for Ireland and the British Islands granted by Crowley) and Tränker for Germany. Neither of them seemed to know about the Swiss OTO lodges at this point. Tränker himself on the other hand only knew of three remaining OTO members in Germany and felt that the order had been crippled from the beginning by Reuss’ imbalanced character. Therefore he was happy for Achad and Crowley to agree on the succession between themselves. Still, he suggested for everyone to come together and discuss the matter jointly - most likely as he hoped to generate official support for his Pansophic movement.
Now, fast forward two years into 1925 and zoom into a small, god-forsaken village close to the Czech-German border, Hohenleuben. This is where one the strangest episodes of our 20th century history in Western Magic is about to begin. It remains to be hoped that at some not so distant point in the future a gifted stage-play author will grab this wonderful material and craft a whole evening of splendid entertainment from it: In June 1925 after many letters and loop ways Crowley is finally about to arrive in Hohenleuben to meet Heinrich Tränker. However, one has to remember that Tränker didn’t speak any English - all letters had between him and Achad or Crowley had been translated by third persons. Also, at this point in 1925 he, like many others, did not know that Aleister Crowley was the same person as the author of the writings signed with the names of either Perdurabo or To Mega Therion. Finally, what Tränker equally didn’t expect was the fact that Crowley was at least equally attracted by Tränker’s occult knowledge as he was by claims the latter had made in letters to him: to be able to easily raise 100.000 Marks if needed at any point in time. As we all know, Crowley was never shy to ask for other people to fund his private life - pardon me! - the Great Work.
Much to Tränker’s surprise Crowley didn’t arrive on his own but under the entourage of three other people - all of whom would stay at his remote home for several weeks and turn the house into a beeyard of occult students who came to see the ‘Great Beast’ with their own eyes. Of course this was not at all what Tränker, a lover of books, Rosicrucian wisdom and seclusion, had intended when he invited Crowley. Nor was it what his wife or domestic budget had been prepared for… The following pages in Lechler’s book begin to reconstruct the events of these weeks in minute detail, quote and cross-reference letters written by eye witnesses in later years, some of them never published before, and uncover countless inconsistencies and a lot of wishful thinking in earlier publications on the matter.
What remains after all are the ghosts of two occult scholars of very different practice and pedigree who crossed their paths in the most surreal context one could imagine: Neither of them speaking the language of the other, depending on constant simultaneous translation, locked into the boundaries of the most down-to-earth living conditions of Tränker’s modest house in the middle of nowhere, half an hour march away from the next trafficable street. One of them used to being flattered, the other used to being left alone. One of them on a journey to become the next living Redeemer, the other on a journey to help everyone redeem themselves. One of them having soaked up most of his occult knowledge while traveling around the globe and leading a lifestyle where every minute was practice, the other having breathed in most of his wisdom from the pages of ancient manuscripts, living a lifestyle where every minute was reflection…
After they had fallen out, after Crowley and his entourage had moved to a friend’s house in the nearby town of Weida, the fundamental difference between these two great minds became more and more apparent. Crowley had quickly spotted the vulnerable points in Tränker’s personality as well as the resources the latter held confined and was reluctant to contribute to Crowley’s Great Work. Thus he asked Tränker in one of the many letters they exchanged during these weeks
- to sell off his entire vast and extraordinary valuable library as the books had become a demon constraining him,
- to use this money to pay all his debts and found a headquarter for the order in Weida where he would be able to work for free,
- to contribute all the remaining funds to Crowley’s work and
- to send his rigid wife on at least a yearlong journey, of course on her own, in order to overcome her small-mindedness and allow her to unfold her to discover her true will.
Tränker in return had equally strong opinions on significant decisions Crowley should take. He asked Crowley
- to accept the burden and responsibilities of his current life and willingly consent to carry these alone instead of asking for constant support from others,
- to establish at least a full year of silence on any matters of his magical orders,
- to handover the entire material of the magical order Argentum Astrum to Tränker in German translation,
- to continue to allow Tränker to publish all of this lodge material in the German speaking countries and finally
- to exclude any material relating to his Liber al vel Legis as Tränker disregarded this work in particular and, as he expressed it, “had no use for it” (Lechler, p.306).
Now, as readers we hold the privilege of a historic perspective; we know the subsequent life-events of both protagonists as they unfolded from 1925 onwards until the end of their lifetimes. It is fair to say that both of them had laid the foundations as well as most of the granular details of their magical heritages at this time of their lives already.
It is deeply ironic - but for either of them to truly break through to a new level of insights and perspective on their magical paths the recommendations they gave to each other might have been perfectly reasonable advice? For Crowley to finally begin to stand on his own feet and stop living of other people’s budgets would have meant a huge change of lifestyle; that combined with a year of silence on all matters of his magical orders might have given us a very different version of himself during the last 22 years of his life? Equally so for Tränker: to depart from what had become the foundation and source of all of his knowledge, his valuable library, to also depart from his constraining wife and to begin to draw wisdom from practice and deeds rather than reflections and words would certainly have changed the last 31 years of his life in no insignificant ways. It seems sometimes our enemies see the clearest what is truly holding us back? And it is our decision how to deal with the uncomfortable truth they represent to us which determines the events in our lives to come.
Ironically much of the advise Crowley and Tränker gave to each other was used as a script for their future years but whatever force governed their fates: Tränker indeed divorced from his wife and lost the majority of his beloved library during WWII to the Nazis. Crowley ended up in poverty, forgotten by most and veiled in unintended silence.
- Fraternitas Saturni: There is no need to highlight much of the connection between Tränker’s work and the origins of the notoriously famous German magical order ‘Fraternitas Saturni’. This particular event is touched upon several times in the current first volume and will be covered in extensive detail in Lechler's forthcoming second volume of the series ‘Building blocks of the Occult Lodges’ (Bausteine zum okkulten Logenwesen). This second volume is planned for early 2014 already and will focus on the constitutional years of the FS in particular. However, in order to share some perspective for the English speaking audience let me highlight a few key aspects of Tränker’s contribution.
As we will see in the second part of this book review Tränker founded many Pansophic lodges across Germany in the early 1920s. One of these independently operating lodges was located out of Berlin from 1924 until 1926 and called ‘Pansophic lodge of the light-seeking brethren Orient Berlin’ (Pansophische Loge der lichtsuchenden Brüder Orient Berlin). It was founded and led by one Eugen Grosche (1888 - 1964), who in later years would be contributing significantly to the landscape of German language magical publications under the pen-name of ‘Gregor A Gregorius’ (Latin for ‘The Taller amongst the Tall’).
Speaking in general terms it’s fair to say the foundation of the Fraternitas Saturni was a direct result of the closing of the Pansophic lodge in Berlin in 1926. Both, the closing down of one lodge and the opening of a new order had been undertaken by the same protagonists indeed. But what had led to these events? In particular - we learn from the puzzle pieced together in Lechler’s book from countless personal letters between the protagonists - it was Grosche’s dissatisfaction with the lack of guidance from Tränker on matters of the Pansophic lodge.
With this critique we are hitting upon one of the particular approaches of Tränker that lift him beyond the tides of his time: Tränker believed that none of the Pansophic lodges should be directed centrally by him or anybody else as far as their practice and activities were concerned. He saw his role as the provider of the essential Pansophic philosophy around which all of the local activities were meant to rotate; as well as the provider of much of the reading material for each lodge and a loose framework of group rituals. Yet, he emphasised to each ‘Master of the Chair’ that these rituals were not meant to be followed by the letter. Instead each lodge should feel free to adjust and evolve them based on their own studies and progress towards the vision of a Pansophic ideal.
Essentially what we find in Tränker is a man whose occult philosophy emerged in the pre-industrial centuries; however, his approach to teaching it pointed beyond the age of modernism already. At the same time Tränker lacked behind and saw beyond his own time: His loose leadership style of the Pansophic lodges resembles the working approach we encounter again decades later amongst many Chaos-Magicians in the 1980s. If we open the boundaries further, we even find a similar approach in corporate environments today where companies such as Google aim to increase their output of innovation and break-through thinking by breaking down divisional barriers as well as reducing directive leadership to a minimum. What Grosche and many others at the time weren’t ready for was the painful realisation that no leader and no lodge - wether they operate in the occult or everyday realm - are able to point us to our path. What they can do, however, is to equip us with knowledge, tools, resources and a network of like minded people. From the remaining letters and lodge instructions it seems such an idea was pretty close to what Tränker intended for his Pansophic lodges.
“Each lodge is independent in all of its activities and assumes a name as a first step. (…) Anytype of organisation that is rigid, fixed, heavy-handed or material has to be avoided. Because over time it would result in the inability to follow the impulses of the Spirit which itself is absolutely free.” (Tränker, Instructions for setting up a pansophic lodge, quoted after Lechler, p.207, translated by Fra.Acher)
In Lechler’s forthcoming 2nd volume we will learn a lot about how the original order of the Fraternitas Saturni had been set up. It certainly will be telling to see how much time its leaders spent with erecting new operating structures for all of its members to adopt and subject themselves to - versus how much time they spent supporting them to try to fly without such crutches?
Throughout his lifetime Heinrich Tränker stood firmly grounded with one feet in the 16th century and with the other in the future. Which is maybe why connecting with the present tense was the hardest thing for him? And which is maybe also why so many people weren’t ready to follow him to either of these two places? Tränker’s occult legacy therefore remained untold for a very long time - and still does so today outside of the German speaking countries. In this first part of the book review we took a brief glance at how this legacy informed and shaped many of our current occult traditions. In the second upcoming part we will take a closer look at the actual content and premises of Tränker’s Pansophic movement - and if he himself was able to remain true to them.