The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust
Pringle stumbled across Himmler's twisted misuse of archaeology and other scholarly disciplines while doing other research. Upon turning her attention to the history of the Ahnenerbe, she discovered that little scholarly attention had been focused on the activities and role of this institution. "The Ahnenerbe was one of Himmler's great masterpieces of deception", yet little was known about it among students of WWII or the general public. Pringle, to her credit, set about to help correct that state of affairs.
Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and the Gestapo, founded the Ahnenerbe, a Nazi research institute, in 1935 ("Ahnenerbe" means "something inherited from the forefathers"). The goals of this organization were, ostensibly, to conduct research in a range of disciplines that would shed new light on the ancient ancestors of the German people, and to disseminate this information to the German people.
"In reality, however," asserts Pringle, "the elite organization was in the business of myth-making. Its prominent researchers devoted themselves to distorting the truth and churning out carefully tailored evidence to support the racial ideas of Adolf Hitler". Hitler believed that Aryans were the "founders of culture", and saw Jews as the "destroyers of culture". The researchers of the Ahnenerbe, who numbered 137 individuals by 1939 with a support staff of 82, devoted great effort to tracing out the origins, migrations, accomplishments, and supremacy of the Aryan race. In actuality, the Aryan race has no historical or biological reality, and Pringle points out that scholars in the 1930s had compelling reason to believe, as they do today, that the world's earliest civilizations developed in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, not amongst Aryans of northern Europe.
Himmler pinned another fervent hope on the Ahnenerbe, one that was linked to his conviction that the salvation of Germany ultimately lay in forgoing industrialization and urbanization in favor of returning to its agrarian roots. The Aryans of bygone times had been, in his view, a repository of invaluable knowledge about farming, health care, weaponry, and so forth--knowledge that would have strong value to the Third Reich. Himmler hoped to recover this knowledge through research by archaeologists and other Ahnenerbe scientists. He planned to establish farm colonies in Germany and elsewhere that would be populated by SS men and their families who would be instructed in the lore and wisdom of the ancient Aryans.
Much of this book examines research activities by major Ahnenerbe figures, and presents compelling evidence to support Pringle's claim that research was manipulated to suit political ends. "Some scholars twisted their findings consciously; others warped them without thought, unaware that their political views drastically shaped their research". Ahnenerbe researchers spanned a wide range of disciplines, including archaeology, ethnology, history, classics, Oriental studies, rune stone studies, philology, linguistics, folklore, musicology, geology, zoology, botany, genetics, astronomy, and medicine.
In 1937 Dr. Assien Bohmers, a Dutch archaeologist, uncovered archaeological deposits in Bavaria containing mammoth bones, beads made of mammoth ivory, well made stone tools, and the like. These were identified as the products of the Cro-Magnon people, anatomically and cognitively modern peoples whose name derives from Cro-Magnon rock shelter in France where human skeletal remains had been discovered in 1868. Bohmers argued that the so-called Cro-Magnon race originated in Germany, a conclusion that sat well with Himmler and other German ultranationalists who saw Germany as the seat of human advancement throughout the ages. Bohmers' conclusion was at odds with the views of most German and other European prehistorians of the day, who saw the Cro-Magnon people as having originated somewhere to the east (the archaeological view today). But Bohmers also believed that the Cro-Magnon people evolved from the Neanderthals, and this view did not please Himmler at all. Bohmers, faced with the awkward dilemma of choosing whether and how to reconcile his scientific beliefs with the political views of his superiors, wrote in 1939 to Wolfram Sievers, managing director of the Ahnenerbe, that he "always agreed with the Reichsführer's [Himmler's] and the Ahnenerbe's position" regarding human evolution.
Bohmers' academic credentials and political views mirrored those of several prominent Ahnenerbe figures. He held a doctorate from the University of Amsterdam, and, "Superbly trained as a geologist, he had his pick of jobs in the European oil companies". Bohmers joined the Ahnenerbe early in his career. "Almost certainly his political views [Nazi sympathies] and his sense of opportunism influenced the decision. He dearly hoped that Hitler would unite all the former Frisian lands into one territory", which Bohmers aspired to one day lead. Dr. Walther Wüst, second president of the Ahnenerbe, had held an academic position at Ludwig-Maximilian University (Munich). He admired Hitler and was a member of the Nazi party. Dr. Herbert Jankuhn, "one of the most respected archaeologists in Germany"and an ultranationalist, was appointed in 1940 as head of prehistory at the Ahnenerbe.
Not all Ahnenerbe figures, however, came from an academic background. Several were eccentric or worse. Edmund Kiss, for example, was an architect and writer. He planned a large expedition to the ancient archaeological site of Tiwanaku (Bolivia) because he believed, ludicrously, that Tiwanaku had been a Nordic colony "that dated back more than one million years". Dr. Herman Wirth, the first president of the Ahnenerbe, "was convinced he had found an ancient holy script invented by a lost Nordic civilization in the North Atlantic many thousands of years ago. It was, he claimed, the world's earliest writing". Although prehistorians in Germany and elsewhere in Europe disparaged Wirth's ideas, under the auspices of the Ahnenerbe he undertook an expedition in 1936 to study ancient symbols carved into rocks in Sweden.
Dr. Franz Altheim, a prominent intellectual and classical scholar particularly interested in the Roman Empire, had taught at the University of Frankfurt. Altheim eschewed politics and did not hold Nazi sympathies. Such indifference could not persist, however, as the political climate in Germany hardened. When he came up for an appointment in 1935 as professor at the University of Frankfurt, a colleague wrote a letter criticizing "Altheim's reluctance to incorporate Nazi doctrine into his work". "By 1936", asserts Pringle, "Altheim could no longer shun politics if he wanted to travel abroad and conduct his research unhindered". Two years later Altheim sought funding from the Ahnenerbe to study ancient Roman sites in the Middle East. By then he couched his research in terms sympathetic to the racial agenda of the Nazis, and was moreover, recruited by the Ahnenerbe to spy for Germany during his research trip to the Middle East. Altheim enjoyed, incidentally, a very successful academic career at the Free University (Berlin) after WWII.
After the outbreak of World War II, Ahnenerbe overseas research expeditions were put on hold, and its scholars engaged in activities more closely and urgently tied to Nazi political and military agendas. The Ahnenerbe sent several scholars to Poland to oversee the theft of works of art, museum and library collections and records, archaeological artifacts, and the like, in stiff competition, according to Pringle, with Hermann Göring's team of looters. Dr. Sigmund Rascher, an Ahnenerbe researcher and medical doctor, conducted inhuman medical research on victims at Dachau concentration camp. Dr. Bruno Beger, another Ahnenerbe researcher, collaborated with Dr. August Hirt in planning to assemble a Jewish Skeletal Collection--a reference collection of skeletons of Jews to study for racial traits. Beger personally selected 115 Auschwitz prisoners in 1943 to be killed in a gas chamber for their bones.
Pringle's research into the Ahnenerbe and the activities of its researchers, which she started in 2001, appears to be thorough and meticulous. She interviewed 33 people, and visited archives in Austria, Germany, Finland, Norway, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Bundesarchiv in Berlin, alone, contains some 961 Ahnenerbe files that take up 180 feet of shelf space, even though many documents had been destroyed by Ahnenerbe scientists at the war's end--burned to do away with potentially incriminating materials. The endnotes of her book run 90 pages, and the bibliography of books, articles, and unpublished papers that Pringle and her research team consulted is 21 pages long.
Pringle divides this book into 24 chapters that are woven together to provide a lucid account of the Ahnenerbe, its major research activities, the broader historical context of events, and insight into the personality of major researchers. The final three chapters take the story to the Nuremberg trials, to a review of the post-war lives of the main Ahnenerbe figures, and finally to an interview conducted by Pringle in 2002 with Bruno Beger, then 90 years of age, who had been tried and convicted in 1970-71 for his role in the Jewish Skeleton Collection activities.
Beger's seeming lack of remorse causes Pringle to ponder why he and the others did what they did. For some, sympathy with the views and goals of the Nazi party led to their involvement. It is harder to understand what had motivated some of the others, "highly intelligent men capable of seeing beyond the Nazi rhetoric--to cross such a terrible moral line". She suggests that "some combination of fatal ambition, moral weakness, and unthinking prejudice seems the most likely explanation", but ultimately Pringle finds no easy answer. "I still do not understand why they did what they did, why they willingly contributed to such evil" .
The Master Plan was a revelation to me in several areas. I was unaware that archaeologists and other social scientists had deliberately engaged in research aimed at furthering the Nazi agenda. Nor did I know that Himmler had created a research institution to facilitate such activities. Likewise, I was ignorant of Himmler's vision of restoring Germany to an agrarian society--a goal for which he depended on a cadre of researchers to resurrect the knowledge and wisdom of Germany's ancient inhabitants.
The story of this book raises fundamental issues concerning the interplay between science, politics, academia, and society. Pringle does not explicitly bridge the Nazi past with current scientific controversies and academic responsibilities beyond expressing the ongoing need to heed the lessons of the past. I do not fault her for not engaging with important matters facing academics, politicians, and others in today's world--that lay outside the scope and intent of her book. Nonetheless, Pringle's chronicle of the Ahnenerbe and its figures makes clear that individual scholars' research activities were driven by an interplay of personal political views, scholarly or other ambitions, and concern for academic career security under the prevailing political climate. The Ahnenerbe, for its part, provided opportunity for willing researchers to subvert their research activities to the national political agenda.
Although The Master Plan focuses on events that took place before and during World War II, it is worth contemplating, as Pringle enjoins, what significance this case study, an extreme example, might hold for the conduct and role of academics, science, and politics today. I will raise a few of these issues here, without attempting even superficial exploration. Science, society, and politics share a complex relationship. Much scientific research in the U.S. is undertaken at universities. Much of this research requires substantial funding, and a large share of these funds comes from government sources. Such funding can be subject, indirectly or directly, to political "manipulation" of one form or another. The fields of stem cell research and global warming offer current examples. Disagreements about the appropriateness of stem cell research, among other fields of scientific inquiry, are directly concerned with religious views, ethics, morals, social values, and how these are reflected in the political arena. Universities, thus, are a part of this complex relationship. Moreover, the individual researcher is not exempt from this relationship. Is scientific research entirely objective? Can it be entirely objective? Should it be? Might individual researchers be influenced in their work, consciously or unconsciously, by their social, economic, or political milieu? Answering these questions requires thoughtful, broad-ranging, and open-minded discussion. University researchers are hard working, deeply committed, and chronically short on time. For many, it is hard to find the time to step back and discuss the kinds of topics mentioned above. The Master Plan provides compelling reason that we should find the time to do so every once in a while.
He also worked to limit the influence of “those he deemed scholarly upstarts,” which included cutting communication with the RuSHA office of Karl Maria Wiligut.
The Ahnenerbe had several different institutions or sections for its departments of research.
It recorded folk music in expeditions to Finland and the Faroe Islands, from ethnic Germans of the occupied territories, and in South Tyrol.
The section made sound recordings, transcribed manuscripts and songbooks, and photographed and filmed 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.
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".
Himmler himself served as the "chairman of the Kuratorium" of the Ahnenerbe, and held the real power within the Ahnenerbe.