The Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Society, or Ahnenerbe Forschungs-und Lehrgemeinschaft, was founded in July 1935 by Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Wirth (a Dutch historian obsessed with Atlantean mythology), and Richard Walter Darré (creator of the Nazi "blood and soil" ideology and head of the Race and Settlement Office).
There is some evidence that the Ahnenerbe existed as early as 1928, when Wirth established the "Hermann Wirth Society" for teaching and spreading his theories. Another candidate for precursor of the Ahnenerbe was a research institute for "spiritual prehistory" created by the German state of Mecklenburg in 1932, when the state was governed by the NSDAP.
The Ahnenerbe was part of Himmler's greater plan for the systematic creation of a "Germanic" culture that would replace Christianity in the Greater Germany to exist after the war, a kind of SS-religion that would form the basis of the new world order. This new culture would be based on the völkisch beliefs of the Nazis, and it was the role of the Ahnenerbe to marshal scientific research in an interdisciplinary program to reject the "priggish line of high-school professors" and support the "development of the Germanic heritage". While the Ahnenerbe were fervent Nazis and most of their research was based on racist pseudoscience, they rejected the occult thinking of groups like the Thule Gesellschaft, preferring a pragmatic methodology based on Mendelian genetics, Darwinism, and biology. Fundamentally, the Ahnenerbe was a politically-motivated academic association, albeit with enough funding to go beyond mere lectures and publications to include wide-scale expeditions and experimental research.
Himmler himself served as the "chairman of the Kuratorium" of the Ahnenerbe, and held the real power within the Ahnenerbe. As Reich Manager of the Ahnenerbe, Wolfram Sievers was responsible for all administrative tasks, with day-to-day business matters handled by the deputy "Kurator" Dr. Herrman Reischle. Professor Walter Wüst joined the Ahnenerbe in 1937 and, as trustee and "Kurator" of the organization, replaced Hermann Wirth as its intellectual leader. Wüst had been dean of the University of Munich, and his presence brought a number of reputable academics into the Ahnenerbe. The Ahnenerbe was funded by the Ahnenerbe-Stiftung, the German Forschungsgemeinschaft, member fees, and "from funds of the Reich and from contributions of industry" (including a group of financiers called the Circle of Friends led by Wilhelm Keppler). The budget of the Ahnenerbe was as much as over one million German marks (400,000 American dollars).
Besides financial support, enlistment in the Ahnenerbe was attractive as it placed scholars in the academic elite of Nazi Germany, gaining them the patronage (and sometimes unwelcome attention) of the Reichsführer-SS himself. This academic status did not travel beyond the borders of Nazi-controlled territory, as the Ahnenerbe were considered, even at that time, as a sort of "intellectual criminals". The Ahnenerbe could also be attractive to those seeking to avoid military service, as its work was considered "war essential".
A central function of the Ahnenerbe was the publication of materials as part of the effort to investigate and "revive" Germanic traditions. Before the war, the Ahnenerbe set up its own publishing house in the academic suburb Berlin-Dahlem, and went on to produce a monthly magazine (Germanien), two journals on genealogy (Zeitschrift für Namenforschung and Das Sippenzeichen), and countless monographs.
The Ahnenerbe had fifty different research branches named "Institutes", which carried out more than one hundred extensive research projects. Some of the institutes, particularly those responsible for Tibetan research and archaeological expeditions, could be quite large, but most made do with less than a dozen personnel. For example, the staff for experiments to make sea-water drinkable consisted of a supervisor, three medical chemists, one female assistant, and three non-commissioned officers. The two-year musicology project to study folk music in South Tyrol consisted of one Ahnenerbe researcher and eight local collaborators.
Linguistic study was at the forefront of Ahnenerbe activity. The first institute to be established specialized in the study of Norse runes (the symbol of the Ahnenerbe was the life rune). This institute was under the command of Hermann Wirth until he left the Ahnenerbe in 1937. In 1936, Wirth's successor, Professor Wüst, headed up another institute for broader research in linguistics, where great attention was paid to Sanskrit (Wüst's area-of-expertise) and the connection of the language to the Aryans.
The Institute for Germanic Archaeology was created in 1938. Archaeological excavations were conducted in Germany at Paderborn, Detmold, Haithabu, and at Externsteine. Haithabu, which is still recognized by archaeologists as an important site for medieval Norse artifacts, is in an area of northern Germany near the Danish border, and is very close to Detmold and Externsteine, the site of a much-reputed Aryan temple and which some legends connected with Yggdrasil, the "World-Ash" of Norse mythology. Externsteine is also close to Paderborn and Wewelsburg, and the entire sites compromised for the Ahnenerbe a mythological heartland where the Saxons resisted the Romans and their heirs, the Franks of Charlemagne. The area was also sympathetic to the ideology of the Ahnenerbe, as Detmold was one of the first German states to elect an NSDAP government, and Paderborn and Wewelsburg were strongholds of Prussian beliefs.
During the war, archaeological expeditions were sent to Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Poland, and Rumania with the collaboration of local authorities. The Ahnenerbe also conducted similar operations in occupied Russia and North Africa. They were also very active in the Far East, mostly in Tibet, but the Ahnenerbe did send an expedition to Kafiristan.
A significant amount of Ahnenerbe research involved Tibet, and was carried out by the Sven Hedin Institute for Inner Asian Research. The institute was named for the famous Swedish explorer whose memoirs My Life As An Explorer were popular worldwide for their tales of Hedin's travels throughout Tibet. Hedin's descriptions of hidden cities deep within the Himalayas were as much a source for Nazi interest in Tibet as Blavatsky's theosophical vision of the East. Though never an official member of the Ahnenerbe (the old explorer was in his seventies during the war), Hedin corresponded with the organization and was present when the Institute for Inner Asian Research was formally established in Munich on January 1943.
Hedin's closest contact in the Ahnenerbe was Ernst Schäfer, who commanded the Institute for Inner Asian Research and was eventually responsible for all scientific projects within the Ahnenerbe. Schäfer first visited Tibet in 1930, on an expedition organized by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. In 1931, he returned to Tibet while a member of the American Brooke Dolan expedition that also visited Siberia and China (another Brooke Dolan expedition funded by the OSS travelled to Tibet in 1942, following in the footsteps of the 1939 SS-Tibet mission). He joined the Nazi Party after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, as well as the SS, rising to the rank of Sturmbannführer in 1942. Schäfer travelled throughout the East and Central Tibet from 1934 to 1936, and lead an ambitious Ahnenerbe-sponsored expedition into the Himalayas in 1939. In Tibet, the Ahnenerbe sought their own twisted brand of Shangri-La, a source of the Germanic superman and a repository of lost Aryan knowledge.
The SS-Tibet expedition led by Schäfer visited Tibet between April 1938 and August 1939. The purpose of the expedition was to acquire flora and fauna specimens, to perform an ethnological survey of the populace, and to gather cultural information on the Tibetans that included everything from their religious practices to the sexual positions used by older monks during homosexual relations with young adepts. There were rumors of secret tasks that included the SS making overtures to the Reting Regent to lay the groundwork for a German invasion of India through Tibet (if such a scheme had been formulated, Stalingrad stopped it cold). Schäfer was also rumored to be tasked with (dis)proving the "missing link" between apes and humans by collecting specimens that would prove his theory that the Abominable Snowman or Yeti was in fact nothing more than a species of bear that roamed between Nepal and Tibet. Schäfer failed to bag his "Yeti" bear, but the expedition did gather over fifty live animals that were sent back to Germany. Another interesting acquisition of the expedition was the 108-volume sacred document of the Tibetans, the Kangschur. Besides espionage and hunting for the Abominable Snowman, the SS-Tibet expedition may have also been involved in "geophysical" research to prove the "World Ice Theory", which may have included the search for fossilized remains of "giants" as part of the cosmology of the theory (more below).
The Ahnenerbe had an Institute to study the Eddas (considered by Himmler a sacred text) and Iceland itself, which the Ahnenerbe considered something of a holy land, like Tibet. Based on the ariosophical beliefs like those that gave rise to the Thule Gesellschaft, the Ahnenerbe saw Iceland as the last surviving connection with Thule, the mystical homeland of the pure Germanic race of prehistory. The Eddas contained secret knowledge for the Ahnenerbe, keys by which they could unlock their ancestral heritage. Besides study of the Eddas, the Ahnenerbe also wanted to study Icelandic artifacts, and, as they had in Tibet, perform "the recording of human images", using calipers to measure facial dimensions based on ethnological pseudoscience.
The Ahnenerbe succeeded in sending a mission to Iceland in 1938, but it was a thorough failure. On orders from Himmler himself, the expedition was to search for a Hof, a place of worship of Norse gods such as Thor and Odin. The expedition ultimately failed as the Reichsbank lacked sufficient amounts of Icelandic kronur to fund their expenses, mainly due to German restrictions on foreign currency. The Icelandic officials also denied the Ahnenerbe permission to excavate in certain areas, and though the Ahnenerbe did find a cave they claimed to be Himmler's Hof, it proved to have not been inhabited before the eighteenth century. The Ahnenerbe lost the opportunity for any further expeditions after Iceland was occupied by the US Marine Corps and British forces in mid-1941 to prevent its invasion by Germany.
Another Institute was devoted to musicology, collecting and analyzing everything from folk music to Gregorian chants (Himmler's pet project) to determine the essence of German music. Folk music was recorded during expeditions in Finland and the Faroe Islands, from ethnic Germans transported from occupied territories, and most significantly, in South Tyrol. The Ahenerbe made sound recordings, transcribed manuscripts and songbooks, and photographed and even made silent films of instrument use and folk dances. The lur, a Bronze Age musical instrument, became central to this research, which concluded that Germanic consonance was in direct conflict to Jewish atonalism. Connections in musical traditions was even used as evidence of a Germanic presence in occupied territories and thus another excuse for the military invasions that established "Greater Germany".
One of the stranger institutes of the Ahnenerbe researched the Welteislehre (World Ice Theory) of Hanns Hörbiger, under the command of Dr. Hans Robert Scultetus. This truly odd theory was based on the Blavatsky thesis that there had been several moons in the past, that the approach of these moons results in a polar shift and a cataclysmic Ice Age, which are responsible for the fall and rise of the various root-races of Theosophy. According to the theory, the world itself was created when a giant chunk of ice collided with the sun. Hörbiger died in 1931, but his theory was adopted by some Theosophists, South American occultists who used it to prove the existence of Andean civilization with parallels to Atlantis and Thule (this may have been part of the reason behind Ahnenerbe expeditions to South America), and by Himmler and the Ahnenerbe, as "our Nordic ancestors grew strong amidst the ice and snow, and this is why a belief in a world of ice is the natural heritage of Nordic men". The Ahnenerbe were most concerned with practical applications of the World Ice Theory focused on meteorology, vital to military operations. Scultetus sent Edmund Kiß, a German playwright well-known for his novels on Atlantis, to Abyssinia to find evidence to support the World Ice Theory. German rocketry may have even been delayed because of fears based on Hörbiger's theory that a rocket released into space would initiate a global catastrophe.
The most infamous section of the Ahnenerbe was the Institute for Scientific Research for Military Purposes, which carried out experiments under "Secret" or "Top Secret" classification and was funded by the Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht. This "research" included hideous experiments on live human beings, prisoners procured by the Ahnenerbe from Dachau and other concentration camps. Over one hundred skeletons were collected by Professor August Hirt, several from live subjects, and he was assisted in his work by former ethnologists of the SS-Tibet expedition of 1939. Hirt was also involved in the feeding of mescaline to concentration camp inmates to determine its effects.
The most notorious among those who worked in the Institute for Scientific Research for Military Purposes was Dr. Sigmund Rascher, a Luftwaffe medical officer, a Hauptsturmführer in the SS, and a member of the Ahnenerbe. Rascher was in charge of the Institute's experiments at Dachau, and was the first to request "test subjects", who were frozen in low-pressure chambers and vats of icy water, and then experimented upon with attempts to rewarm them using sleeping bags, boiling water, and intercourse with incarcerated prostitutes from the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Those who survived the experiments were shot. Rascher also had the skulls of "test subjects" split open while conscious to examine their brains. He developed the standard form of cynanide capsules used by the SS, one of which would be used by Himmler to commit suicide. In 1945, Rascher was executed by the SS due to a plot with his wife to pass off kidnapped children as their own.
The Ahnenerbe also had institutes conducting Celtic studies, investigating popular traditions, and assisting in the creation of the SS-Order Castle at Wewelsburg. It was rumored that the foreign expeditions of the Ahnenerbe were a cover for German espionage, but there is no evidence of significant intelligence activity. The Ahnenerbe was also responsible for "cultural-political" (kulturpolitisch) missions in occupied "Germanic" countries (ie. Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands), spreading propaganda throughout the local population and recruiting for the volunteer divisions of the Waffen-SS. These missions worked with local pro-German political factions and academics to "revive" and promote Germanic culture and spread Nazi ideology. This was carried out through academic journals, popular magazines, exhibitions, and lectures which promoted the Ahnenerbe viewpoint, as well as censoring those academics that did not fall into line. Another wartime function of the Ahnenerbe was the acquisition of artifacts, as they seized and collected documents, paintings, sculpture, pottery and other items considered "Germanic" and "returned" them to Nazi Germany.
The interest of the Ahnenerbe in Germanic history and pre-history often put them at odds with others involved in such research. Chief among their rivals was Alfred Rosenberg, who was butting heads with Hermann Wirth even before the Ahnenerbe was created. Another rival of a sort was Karl Maria Wiligut, or "Weisthor", the head of the Department for Pre- and Early History in the RuSHA (Race and Settlement Office) and Himmler's personal Aryan mystic. The Ahnenerbe was forced to work with Wiligut due to the his close association with the Reichsführer-SS, though they considered Wiligut and his associates to be the "worst kind of fantasist". This attitude was typical of the academics in the Ahnenerbe, who bemoaned occult interest in the topics they studied, feeling that it impeded the "science" of their research. It is interesting to note that Wiligut fell from power in 1939, just one year before the Ahnenerbe was officially made a department of the SS.
To avoid Allied bombing, the Ahnenerbe relocated to Waischenfeld in Franconia on August 1943. There they remained until American forces took the city in April 1945. The war ended before the Ahnenerbe found another permanent home, and, during the interim period, a great number of documents were destroyed. Had the Ahnenerbe survived the war, Himmler planned to use its members to staff an SS-University at Leyden in the Netherlands. Those that survived the war were either tried for war crimes, or faded back into academia under their own or false names.
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But beneath the tread of marching feet and the rumble of tanks on Nuremberg's Zeppelin Field, there pulsed the rhythms of a different and much older set of beliefs, a philosophy that animated the Nazi Party's early ideologues and, crucially, the man who stood behind Hitler himself – Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS.
These beliefs were anything but technological. They were a curious mixture of ancient Teutonic myth, Eastern mysticism and late 19th-century anthropology. Whether Adolf Hitler took them wholly seriously is open to debate. But Heinrich Himmler certainly did. They lay at the heart of the SS empire he created and which became the most dreaded arm of the Nazi state. They were also the mainspring behind a Nazi expedition to secure the secrets of a lost super-race in the mountains of Tibet.
Heinrich Himmler was a member of the Thule Society, an extreme German nationalist group founded in 1910 by Felix Niedner. It was named after the mythical land of Hyperborea-Thule, which some of the society's devotees identified with Iceland and Greenland, said by them to be the remnants of the lost kingdom of Atlantis. Others claimed that the people of Thule had survived to become a subterranean super-race. They were brought to life by the English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in his 1871 science fiction novel The Coming Race, as the 'Vril-ya', would-be world conquerors imbued with psychokinetic power (vril).
At the turn of the century, the notion of the Ubermensch (superman) was taken up by many philosophers, notably Friedrich Nietzsche. It also found favour with the peddlers of a perverted form of Darwinism: another Englishman, the philosopher Houston Stewart Chamberlain, believed in the racial superiority of the 'Aryan' people who inhabited northern Europe.
This struck a chord with the Thule Society. Its members identified the Teuton tribes who, in AD 9, had defeated the Roman legions in the Teutoburg forest as descendants of the lost super-race of Hyperborea-Thule, guardians of the secrets of vril.
An ancient Indian symbol of good luck, the Swastika was also the traditional symbol of Thor, the Norse god of thunder, and was favoured by German neo-pagan movement of the early 20th century, who called it the Hakenkreutz. In similar fashion, the Hakenkreutz was adopted by the Thule Society, whose members, like the neo-pagans, had a strong anti-Christian streak.
In 1920, a member of the Thule Society, Friedrick Krohn, suggested to Adolf Hitler that the nascent Nazi Party adopt the Hakenkreutz as its 'logo'. Hitler placed it on a white circle against a red background, to compete with the hammer and sickle of the Communist Party. Thus an ancient and beneficent sign of good luck became one of the most potent and evil designs of the 20th century.
Origins of the Aryan race
By the early 1920s, a toxic mix of racial theory and Teutonic mysticism had seeped into the philosophy of the Nazis, who were then jostling with a range of rivals for supremacy on the political far right of the Weimar Republic.
A savage twist was given to Nazi thinking in 1923. While incarcerated in Landsberg Prison, Hitler immersed himself in the writings of Professor Karl Haushofer. Hitler's close associate Rudolf Hess then introduced him to Haushofer, a former soldier, a scholar and the founder of the Vril Society, which sought contacts with subterranean super-beings to learn from them the ancient secrets of Thule. The Vril Society also asserted a central Asian origin of the Aryan race, and Haushofer claimed to have visited Tibet in pursuit of evidence for this.
Haushofer was also a persuasive advocate of Lebensraum (living space), a theory that had been a prominent strand of German imperialist ideology since the 1890s and had gained common currency on the German political right. Proponents of Lebensraum demanded the German recolonisation of the Slav lands conquered by the Teutonic knights in the Middle Ages and the reuniting of the ethnic German populations of eastern Europe and European Russia.
Hitler was already familiar with these theories, but Haushofer's work undoubtedly provided some of the ideological underpinning of what would evolve into Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Hitler, the arch-propagandist, recognised the powerful appeal to the German mind of the antediluvian primitivism espoused by the followers of Thule and Vril. It legitimised the desire of a defeated people (the Germans in 1918) to reassume the mantle of greatness (of the Teuton victors over the Romans). And it dovetailed with the oft-stated Nazi belief that that its creed was 'more than a religion: it is the determination to create a new man'.
Enforcer of racial doctrine
In 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, the fantasies of Himmler and the Thule Society became reality. Tasked with the imposition of the Nazi diktat – and, in particular, racial purity – was Himmler's SS (an abbreviation of Schutzstaffel, protection squadrons), which had begun life as Hitler's 300-strong personal bodyguard. By 1939, the SS numbered some 500,000 men, and in World War II, its armed formations (collectively known as the Waffen SS) would fight alongside the regular armed forces of the Third Reich – seen by Himmler as the reincarnation of the Teutonic knights and the knights of the Round Table celebrated in Arthurian legend.
The Camelot of the SS was to be the castle at Wewelsburg, near the Teutoburg forest, which became a shrine to Himmler's belief in a new world order. Wewelsburg was to be at its epicentre, a pagan powerhouse that some thought would eventually house the Holy Grail for which King Arthur's knights had quested.
There was an overpoweringly dark side to this vision. In World War II, the SS was the principal enforcer of Nazi racial doctrine. They staffed the Reich's concentration and extermination camps, where they conducted cruel experiments to demonstrate 'Aryan' racial superiority, and formed the core of the Einsatzgruppen (special formations) that were responsible for cleansing eastern Europe of Jews.
The Ahnenerbe and Tibet
The SS had another arm, the Ahnenerbe Forschungs und Lehrgemeinschaft (Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Society). Founded in 1935 with Hitler's blessing, Himmler merged it with the SS two years later. The Ahnenerbe's overriding task was to provide scientific, anthropological and archaeological evidence to support the theories of the Thule Society and, in so doing, determine the origins of the 'Aryan' race.
Some devotees of Nazi racial theory believed that the answer to this mystery lay in the lost city of Atlantis. This they identified as the mythical land of Thule, lying between Greenland and Iceland, and it was the putative destination of at least one Nazi expedition.
However, Karl Haushofer was convinced that the key to the harnessing of the power of vril lay in Tibet. He was supported by the Swedish explorer and Nazi sympathiser Sven Hedin, who had led several expeditions to Tibet. Hitler thought so highly of Hedin that he had invited him to give the opening address at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. In January 1943, Hedin was present when the Ahnenerbe's Lehr und Forschungsstätte für Innerasien und Expeditionen – Institute for Inner Asian Research – was formally established.
The expedition to Tibet
In 1938, the Tibetans were putting out feelers to Germany, and to Germany's allies, the Japanese, as counterbalances to the influence in the region of Britain and China. In that year, the Ahnenerbe mounted an expedition to Tibet led by Ernst Schäfer, a German hunter and biologist who had made two previous expeditions to that part of the world. He would later publish his report of the expedition as Festival of the White Gauze Scarves: A research expedition through Tibet to Lhasa, the holy city of the god realm (1950).
One of the members of the Nazi expedition was the anthropologist Bruno Beger, a supporter of the theory that Tibet was home to the descendants of a 'northern race'. Beger's role was to undertake a scientific investigation of the Tibetan people. During the expedition, he examined the skulls of more than 300 inhabitants of Tibet and Sikkim, and logged their other physical features in minute detail.
He concluded that, in anthropological terms, the Tibetans represented a staging post between the Mongol and European races, with the European racial element manifesting itself most strongly among the Tibetan aristocracy. He believed that, after the final victory of the Third Reich, the Tibetans could play an important role in the region, serving as an allied race in a world dominated by Germany and Japan.
No more Nazi expeditions are known to have been undertaken. However, some writers have advanced theories that there were both earlier and subsequent missions to Tibet.
In his book Spear of Destiny (1973), Trevor Ravenscroft argued that the Germans mounted a series of expeditions between 1926 and 1943. These were, says Ravenscroft, intended to allow the Nazis to maintain contact with their Aryan ancestors, guardians of the occult powers of Vril, who were hidden in underground cities beneath the Himalayas. It is a scenario that evokes Bulwer-Lytton.
Mud huts and stone axes
During World War II, Heinrich Himmler's obsessive search for the origins of the Aryan race led to crackpot archaeological digs in western and southern Russia, the trophies discovered being transported to the SS headquarters at Wewelsburg. The agents of the Ahnenerbe arrived in the wake of the Wehrmacht to ransack these regions for proof of their German origins.
Even Hitler became testy with Himmler's obsession, protesting: 'Why do we call the world's attention to the fact that we have no past? It isn't enough that Romans were erecting great buildings when our forefathers were living in mud huts. Now Himmler is starting to dig up the villages of mud huts, enthusing over every potsherd and stone axe he finds.'
Sentenced to death
The secret power of the Vril-ya could not save the Third Reich. After the Nazis' defeat, the head of the Ahnenerbe, Dr Wolfram Sievers, was brought before a war crimes tribunal. He had been closely involved not only with the Ahnenerbe's archaeologicalactivities but also with the grisly racial experiments in the death camps designed to demonstrate the superiority of the 'Aryan' race. He was found guilty, sentenced to death and executed on 2 June 1948 – the only member of the wartime Ahnenerbe to suffer this punishment.
The archaeological world of the Ahnenerbe died with Hitler, Himmler and Sievers. After the war, many of its leading academic supporters returned to university life, re-emerging in post-war Germany as leading professors. Himmler's Camelot, Wewelsburg Castle, remains a sinister reminder of the twisted powers of a perverted philosophy.