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Nazi archaeology refers to the movement led by various Nazi leaders, archaeologists, and other scholars, such as Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, to research the German past in order to strengthen nationalism.
The search for a strongly nationalistic, Aryan-centric national prehistory began after the loss of World War I in 1918, spurred on the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. At this time the country was in a financial and economic crisis and it was also the time when Adolf Hitler began to rise to power. Although Hitler was behind the Nazi Party's funding for German prehistorical research, the first inflectional prehistorian is said to be Gustaf Kossinna. His ideas and theories were picked up by the Nazi organisations Amt Rosenberg and Germanen-Erbe. Presenting Germany as the place where civilisation began, the Nazis were able to use pseudoarchaeology to persuade the German people.
- The Kulturkreise ("culture circles") theory of Gustaf Kossinna, which stated that recognition of an ethnic region is based on the material culture excavated from an archeological site. This theory was used by the Nazis to justify takeover of foreign lands such as Poland and Czechoslovakia. For example, in his article "The German Ostmark", Kossinna argued that Poland should be a part of German Reich, since any lands where an artifact was titled “Germanic” were therefore ancient Germanic territory, "wrongfully stolen" by "barbarians".
- The Social Diffusion theory, which stated that cultural diffusion occurred by a process whereby influences, ideas and models were passed on by more advanced peoples to the less advanced whom they came into contact with. Examples offered by Kossinna and Alfred Rosenberg presented a history of Germany equivalent to that of the Roman Empire, suggesting that “Germanic people were never destroyers of culture—not like the Romans—and the French in recent times.” Combined with Nazi ideology, this theory gave the perfect foundation for the view of Germany as the locomotive of world civilisation.
- Weltanschauungswissenschaften or World View Sciences, which stated that culture and science were as one, and carried certain "race-inherent values". The theory suggested that older cultural models, such as sagas, stories and legends, should be not only reincorporated into mainstream culture, but that "the guiding principle in Germany must be to emphasise the high cultural level and the cultural self-sufficiency of the Germanic people.” Examples were the use of Aryan-styled regalia such as the swastika, the use of German legends and runic symbols in the SS, and the idea that German scientists and their conclusions were more correct than the views of "lesser-race" scientists.
- Deutsche Reinheit, or Pure German Man, suggesting that Germans were "pure Aryans" who had survived a natural catastrophe and evolved a highly developed culture during their long migration to Germany. It also suggested that Greeks were 'Germanic', claiming evidence that certain "Indogermanic" artifacts could be found in Greece. This theory supported the Kulturkreise theory tangentally, in that archeologists who did not approve of the uses of Kulturkreise theory (moderates) could support this theory.
- The unspoken, unpublished point of Nazi archaeology was summed up in the actions and purpose of the Ahnenerbe, which was the wholesale creation of "archaeology" that would support the propaganda machine of the Nazi regime.
Organisations and Operations
The Ahnenerbe Organisation, formally the Deutsches Ahnenerbe – Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte (German Ancestry - Research Society for Ancient Intellectual History ) was an organisation started as the Research Institute for the Prehistory of Mind and was connected to the SS in 1935 by Walther Darre. In 1936 it was attached to Hitler’s Reichsführer-SS and led by chief of police Heinrich Himmler. By 1937, it was the primary instrument of Nazi archaeology and archaeological propaganda, subsuming smaller organisations like Reinerth's Archaeology Group, and filling its ranks with "investigators". These included people like Herman Wirth, co-founder of the Ahnernerbe, who attempted to prove that Northern Europe was the cradle of Western civilisation. Although it included some real archaeologists with extreme views, such as Hans Reinerth and Oswald Meghin (who became high-ranking party officials due to their cooperation), much of the membership of Ahnenerbe were second-rate archaeologists or untrained researchers, backed up by amateur enthusiasts.
The main goals of the organisation were:
- To study the territory, ideas and achievements of the Indo-Germanic people
- To bring the research findings to life and present them to the German people
- To encourage every German to get involved in the organisation.
Although the organisation claimed to have a research goal, Himmler had no official training in archaeology and was known for his interest in mysticism and the occult. Himmler defined the organisation as working towards a prehistory which would prove the pre-eminence of the Germans and their Germanic predecessors since the beginning of civilisation. He is quoted as saying, “A nation lives happily in the present and the future so long as it is aware of its past and the greatness of its ancestors.”
The Ahnenerbe had difficulty finding scientists to work on the projects and was run largely by scholars from branches of the humanities, which made their research more amateurish. The group went on to be responsible for pseudoarchaeology, illustrated by open-air displays honouring Germanic heritage such as the Externsteine, a sandstone formation that was thought to have been a key Germanic cult site. Another example is the Sachsenhain, where 4500 Saxons were executed as a punishment for Widukind’s uprising. This site was used as an idealised shrine, considered sacred to the Germanic people and highlighting their readiness for self-sacrifice.
Many other sites were censored from the public since they did not have the correct Germanic interpretations. The sites chosen for excavations were limited to those of Germanic superiority such as Erdenburg, were the Ahnenerbe claimed to have clear evidence of the victorious campaign of the Germani against the Romans.
Some of the Ahnenerbe's most extravagant activities include:
- Edmund Kiss tried to travel to Bolivia in 1928 to study the ruins of temples in the Andes mountains. He claimed their similarity to ancient European construction indicated they were designed by Nordic migrants, millions of years earlier.
- In 1938, Franz Altheim and his research partner Erika Trautmann requested the Ahnenerbe sponsor their Middle East trek to study an internal power struggle of the Roman Empire, which they believed was fought between the Nordic and Semitic peoples.
- In 1936 an Ahnenerbe expedition visited the German island of Rügen then Sweden, with the objective of examining rock-art which they concluded was 'proto-Germanic'.
- They took a huge interest in the Bayeux Tapestry, going so far as to attempt archaeological digs to find other contemporary artwork which would support their assertion of Germanic might.
- In 1938 the Ahnenerbe sent an expedition to Tibet with the intention of proving Aryan superiority by confirming the Vril theory, which was based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton's book Vril, the Power of the Coming Race. Their study included measuring the skulls of 376 people and comparing native feature to those associated with Aryans. The expedition's most scientific findings are associated with biological finds.
A smaller, more professional group of archaeologists, at least in their background and training, was led by Rosenberg and part of his Amt Rosenberg organisation, the Reichsbund für Deutsche Vorgeschichte. It was staffed with archaeologists who signed on to some of Rosenberg's later thinking and theory. Rosenberg saw world history as shaped by the eternal fight between the 'Nordic Atlantic', the pure-blooded Nordic people of Atlantis, and the 'Semites', or Jewish people. To him, only the Germanic people brought culture to the world, while Jews brought evil. He speculated that the people of Germany were survivors from Atlantis who had migrated to Germany. He saw Germans as a distinct race, not only in biological terms but in mental phenomena and in their 'will to live'. Hence, he advocated 'race materialism', stating that only the fittest race (Aryans) should survive, a tenet that would later shape the Nazi policy on the Final Solution. The Amt Rosenberg was dedicated to finding archaeological evidence of the superiority of Germanic culture and of Atlantis, and in this it was much aided by (and in turn, gave aid to) the Thule Society.
Goals of Nazi archaeology
To the public
Nazi archaeology was rarely conducted with an eye to pure research, but was a propaganda tool designed to both generate nationalistic pride in Germans and provide scientific excuses for conquest. The German people were drawn to the idea of Germany as the site of the origins of civilisation by several means. For one, there were a series of films put out by Lothar Zotz with titles like Threatened by the Steam Plough, Germany’s Bronze Age, The Flames of Prehistory and On the Trail of the Eastern Germans. These used the appeal of myths, olden times, and German triumph over change to reinforce the idea that German history was something to be proud of, while at the same time taking advantage of the fact that since these periods of history were little known to the general public, they could include heavy doses of propaganda.
Additionally, public journals gained popularity such as Die Kunde (The Message) and Germanen-Erbe (Germanic Heritage). With the journals and films, Germans thought they were being given good visuals and interpretations of different archaeological sites and learning more about 'true' German prehistory.
The Nazis also pushed the public to get involved in the search for the past, using the appeal of patriotism as a tool. For example, the membership flyer of one amateur organisation of the Amt Rosenberg stated, “Responsibility with respect to our indigenous prehistory must again fill every German with pride!” The goal of the organisation was also stated as, “the interpretation and dissemination of unclassified knowledge regarding the history and cultural achievements of our northern Germanic ancestors on German and foreign soil.”
Along with appealing to public patriotism there were open-air museums that reconstructed Neolithic and Bronze Age lake settlements at Unteruhldingen. These public museums also gained immense popularity and pushed the people to believe in and search for their Germanic past.
All of this, gathered together, created a skein of Germanic pride that was used to reinforce the nationalistic, fascist message Adolf Hitler was crafting with his speeches, open-air meetings, and public image.
Prior to the formation of the Ahnenerbe, there was little funding for or interest in Germanic archaeology. This reality made it even easier for the Nazis to push their ethnocentric views onto the uninformed public, but the true effect was felt in some scholarly circles. German scholars who specialised in archaeology had long been envious of the advancements in archaeology their neighbors had made during their excavations in the Middle East; however, such archaeologists could do little.
With Hitler that changed: funds were made available for scholars to make great advancements beyond their neighboring countries. Under Nazi rule, archaeology went from having one chair in prehistory in Marburg in 1933 to having nine chairs in the Reich in 1935. Once archaeology started gaining popularity, scholars were also able to excavate castles, old ruins and the like, and bring back pieces for display in museums.
One example of those changes was that the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (Romano-Germanic Central Museum) in Mainz in 1939 became for a time the Zentralmuseum für deutsche Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Central museum for German pre- and early history). (Note the difference between the original "Römisch-Germanisch" which denotes a historical period, and "deutsche", implying a continuous history and one people. "Anglo-Saxon" and "English" would be rough analogies.)
In their enthusiasm for the Nazi regime's support of archaeology, many German archaeologists became pawns and puppets of the real goals behind the movement. They answered to the requests of the Ahnenerbe, and not always in the interests of pure archaeology.
The nationalistic theories of Gustaf Kossinna about the origins and racial superiority of Germanic peoples influenced many aspects of Nazi ideology and politics. He is also considered to be a precursor of Nazi archaeology. Kossinna was trained as a linguist at universities in Göttingen, Leipzig, Berlin, and Strasbourg but eventually held the chair for Germanic Archeology at the University of Berlin. He laid the groundwork for an ethnocentric German prehistory. One of his theories, the Kulturkreis theory, was a basis on which Nazi archaeology was founded. Kossinna also published books for a general readership which were useful tools for German propaganda and created archaeological expeditions which allowed the Nazis to use Kulturkreis theory as an excuse for territorial expansion. In one of his most popular books, Die deutsche Vorgeschichte—eine hervorragend nationale Wissenschaft (German Prehistory: a Pre-eminently National Discipline), Kossinna puts forward the idea of an Aryan race superior to all peoples, the Germani, and shows Germany as the key to an unwritten history. The point of the book is clear from the beginning as the dedication reads, “To the German people, as a building block in the reconstruction of the externally as well as internally disintegrated fatherland.” Kossinna died in 1931, 13 months before Hitler seized power.
Alfred Rosenberg was a Nazi Party ideologist who supported excavation and the study of provincial Roman Germany. He stated, as a summary of his research and thoughts, that “An individual to whom the tradition of his people and the honor of his people is not a supreme value, has forfeited the right to be protected by that people.” Rosenberg’s perspective on German prehistory led mainly to racist distortion of data which did not directly apply to the Germanic people. Rosenberg’s book Der Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts (The Myth of the Twentieth Century) gave support to the concept of a new Germanic religion. Rosenberg’s theory, Weltanschauungswissenschaften, was implicit in the idea that Germany had the right to crush other nations - or even exterminate them - since German culture was "superior". He also tried to prove that the Nordic-Aryans originated on a lost landmass identified with Atlantis, and that Jesus was not a Jew but an Aryan Amorite.
Hans Reinerth was the main archaeologist Rosenberg used. Reinerth is famous for his excavations at the Federsee and he saw the Nazi Party as a tool he could use to work his way up in society. This is just what occurred, and in 1934 Rosenberg appointed him to the position of “Reich Deputy of German Prehistory”. This made him the spokesman for the “purification and Germanisation of the German prehistory". Reinerth was an adherent of Hitler’s theory of German racial purity. Though this theory never really came into full effect, Reinerth pushed it heavily as Reich Deputy, and encouraged archaeological exploration. His archaeological group, along with the Ahnenerbe organisation, was used to the Nazis' full advantage since it was "professional".
Other Nazi archaeologists
- Arnold, Bettina "The past as propaganda: How Hitler's archaeologists distorted European prehistory to justify racist and territorial goals." Archaeology July/Aug 1992: 30-37
- Hale, Christopher. Himmler's Crusade: The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race, Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2003, ISBN 0-471-26292-7, p. 200
- Kater, Michael, Das “Ahnenerbe” der SS 1935–1945. Ein Beitrag zur Kultur-politik des Dritten Reiches, Munich 1997
- Arnold, Bettina "The past as propaganda: totalitarian archaeology in Nazi Germany." Antiquity Sept/Dec 1990: 464-478
- Heim, Susanne. Autarkie und Ostexpansion. Pflanzenzucht und Agrarforschung im Nationalsozialismus. 2002
- Härke, Heinrich. Archaeology, Ideology, and Society: The German Experience. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2002
- Archaeological Organisations
- Hitler's Willing Archaeologists (How the SS perverted the Paleolithic record to support Nazi ideology) by Heather Pringle in Archaeology, Volume 59, Number 2, March/April 2006.
- A Nordic civilisation on the lost continent of Atlantis in The Daily Telegraph, May 3, 2006.