A system of medieval courts in the old German duchy of Westphalia, east of the Rhine, the Vehmgerichte or “Vehm Courts” traditionally traced their origin back to Charlemagne. They first surface in written sources in the fourteenth century, when the chronicler Henry of Hervorden mentions them, and numerous sources from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries refer to them. The Protestant Reformation seems to have crippled them, and whatever remained of them was swept away in the carnage of the Thirty Years War (1618–48).

The Vehm courts operated outside the ordinary judicial system but not outside the law. They were headed by “free judges” supported by a group of assessors. They met at dawn in the open air, and those accused of crimes under their purview were ordered to present themselves to the tribunal. If they appeared, they faced trial and would be freed if they proved their innocence, but those who failed to appear were hunted down and hanged. The Vehm had jurisdiction over religious crimes such as heresy, apostasy, perjury, and witchcraft, and serious civil crimes including rape, robbery, and murder.

The Vehm’s reputation for secret justice gave them a strong appeal to the far right in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The National Socialist movement in Germany exploited the reputation of the Vehm in its propaganda, and more recent extremists from the Phineas Priesthood to neo-Nazi secret societies have also attempted to wrap themselves in the mantle of the Westphalian free judges. See National Socialism; neo-Nazi secret societies.


In a 1947 article in the American pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction, rocket engineer Willy Ley mentioned a small group active in Berlin during the 1930s that he called the Wahrheitsgesellschaft (Truth Society). According to Ley, members meditated on a bisected apple in order to gain control of the mysterious power of “vril.” Post-war books on the Nazi-occult connection built this brief reference into a claim that the organization, renamed the Vril Society, was closely affiliated with the Thule Society and the Nazi hierarchy itself and played an important role in the Third Reich’s plans for world domination, putting the Nazis in contact with occult forces and reverse engineering alien technology from Aldebaran to equip the Third Reich with flying saucers. See National Socialism; Thule Society; unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

The reality of the Vril Society was a good deal less impressive. Its formal name was Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft ‘Das Kommende Deutschland’ (Reich Working Group ‘The Coming Germany’); one of hundreds of little occult societies in Weimer Germany, it was sponsored by the astrological publisher Wilhelm Becker. The group put out a magazine, which apparently folded after one issue. In 1930 it also published two pamphlets, Vril: Die kosmische Urkraft (Vril: The Primal Cosmic Power) and Weltdynamismus (World Dynamism), claiming to reveal the secrets of Atlantean free energy technology. A section of the latter pamphlet shows a bisected apple as a symbol of the free energy field surrounding the earth. While this confirms Ley’s account, it does nothing to back up the extravagant claims made for the Vril Society’s activities and influence by later writers.

Further reading: Goodrick-Clarke 2002.