Otto Eckhart’s Ordeal is a historical novel by Nail Edworthy, dealing with the Nazi hunt for the Holy Grail. It answers the question, ‘what if Indiana Jones was told through the Nazis’ point of view?’
Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. In 1937, Otto Eckhart is a young German historian, eager to get his book about ancient civilizations published, but with little success. That is, until he is summoned to meet with Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS and the Gestapo. Himmler is as eagar to locate relics of ancient civilizations as Otto is, but one in particular stands out – the Holy Grail. Should the Nazis gain control of the ancient chalice, it will be a major propaganda victory for the Third Reich.
Being naïve and a little dense, Otto agrees to help and is given the honorary rank of Haupsturmfuehrer (Captain) in the SS, even wearing the iconic black uniform on occasion. There are actually quite a few scenes in Nazi Germany, showing off the climate and atmosphere of the time. However, there is also an undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek humor throughout the book. It’s very wry, but never completely farcical. For example, here’s a quote:
‘And right here,’ – and he swept his hand along the length of the altar stone – ‘Right here, Eckhart. This is where the Holy Grail will sit, guarded by the light of the Eternal Flame. Forever Otto.’
‘Once they have fixed the gas.’
‘Well, obviously, you clot-head.’
See what I mean?
There is a good amount of location hopping – Berlin, the Odenwald mountain range, Wewelsburg Castle – but we spend a lot of time in the Languedoc region of southern France. There are many theories that the Holy Grail wound up there, so Otto investigates. Unfortunately, he comes up empty-handed and finds himself more entertained by the colorful villages who surround him, most of all the local “werewolf” named Poilu. Of course, he suffers from hypertrichosis, the genetic “werewolf disorder” which causes extreme amounts of hair to grow from all parts of one’s body. History buffs will note that the word “poilu” means “hairy one” and was a nickname for French soldiers in the First World War.
There are other characters such as Himmler’s secretary Ingrid who Otto develops a romantic relationship with. A more sinister force is Detective Inspector Muller, who is there to keep an eye on Otto’s work. Of course, the expedition is a total failure and Otto receives a threatening letter from Reichsfuehrer Himmler admonishing him on his lack of success and palling around with Poilu.
To prevent his family from falling into ‘protective custody’ Otto devises a scheme to simply forge his own Holy Grail. He knows what Himmler wants, i.e. ancient artifacts hinting at the superiority of the Ayran race, and decides to give it to him. But will Himmler see through his ruse?
Otto Eckhart is based on Otto Rahn, a real-life Medievalist who was recruited into the Ahnenerbe, a research organization run by the SS. Its purpose was to uncover evidence of Ayran civilization, thereby proving the superiority of the so-called master race. It’s probably best that Edworthy created a fictionalized version of Rahn, allowing him greater storytelling freedom. Otto Eckhart’s Ordeal is an interesting bit of wry historical fiction.