Nazi archaeology

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Nazi archaeology was the movement led by various Nazi leaders, such as Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, archaeologists and other scholars to research the German past in order to strengthen nationalism.


The search for a strongly nationalistic, Aryan-centric national prehistory began after Germany's loss in World War I in 1918. At this point, the country faced a severe economic crisis due in part to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Later on, Hitler was behind the Nazi Party's funding for German pre-historical research. The first influential academic engaging in such research is said to be Gustaf Kossinna. His ideas and theories were picked up by the Nazi organisations Amt Rosenberg and Ahnenerbe. Presenting Germany as the place where civilization began, the Nazis added pseudoarchaeology as part of its extensive propagandizing of the German people.[1]


  1. The Kulturkreis ("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".[1]
  2. 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 civilization.[2]
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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[edit]


The emblem of the Ahnenerbe

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 civilization. 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.[3]

The main goals of the organisation were:

  1. To study the territory, ideas and achievements of the Indo-Germanic people
  2. To bring the research findings to life and present them to the German people
  3. 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 that would prove the pre-eminence of the Germans and their Germanic predecessors since the beginning of civilization. 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."[4]

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 and then Sweden, with the objective of examining rock-art which they concluded was 'proto-Germanic'.
  • Nazi theorists took a huge interest in the Bayeux Tapestry, going so far as to attempt archaeological digs to find other contemporary artwork that would support their assertion of Germanic might.[3]
  • 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.

Amt Rosenberg[edit]

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[edit]

To the public[edit]

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 civilization 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.[5]

To archaeologists[edit]

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).[4] (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 Search for Atlantis[edit]

In their search to prove the superiority of the Aryan race, the Nazi party began searching the world for archeological evidence that would prove to the rest of the "inferior" world that the German people were not only a superior race, but that they transcended traditional human standards. One archeological exploit made popular by the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark was the search for the Ark of the Covenant. Another, perhaps less known, exploit was their attempt to discover lost Atlantis. This project, originally headed by Herman Wirth and later taken over by Heinrich Himmler, was a search that lasted for nearly the entire reign of the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler's regime. Wirth did not aspire to the widely held belief that Atlantis was located in the Mediterranean, but rather that it was located somewhere in the North Atlantic region. In Wirth's depiction, Atlantis was a civilization that reached its height approximately 25,000 years before the modern era and was the birthplace of the Nordic race that was destined to control and influence the development of mankind and to act as their sovereign masters...this race was, of course, the Aryan race. Soon after his rise to popularity, some members of the highest echelons in all of Nazi Germany began to acknowledge supposed "truth" behind his bizarre pseudoscientific ideas.

In the year 1935, Heinrich Himmler began a joint effort with Wirth to establish the Ahnenerbe, an elite team of Schutzstaffel (SS) archeologists, scientists, and historians gathered to search sacred archeological sites around the globe for evidence that the Aryans of Atlantis were not a mere work of Nazi propaganda. Himmler desperately wanted to prove that their existence was real and verifiable. As head of the SS, Himmler was enthralled with the prospect of archeological proof to verify Nazi beliefs. Himmler was also one of the staunchest supporters of archeological discovery by the Nazi party, especially those made on pre-historic German land. After the Ahnenerbe was formed they began work on excavation and research into ancient archeological sites, paying especially close attention to those that were believed to be of sacred significance to their ancestors. One particularly significant excavation took place under the command of Nazi archaeologist, Vilhelm Toit. This excavation took place at the Externsteine. The goal of this excursion to the Externsteine was to find evidence that it had been used for sacred ritualistic practices by the ancient Aryan people of Germany thousands of years before it became a significant site to Christianity. During the search for ancient Aryan purity, the Externsteine became a symbol to the people of Nazi Germany; a symbol of pure German blood and ancestry. As the Externsteine excavations continued, they became somewhat of a pet project for Himmler. Shortly after the Externsteine was sealed off to the public for archeological research, rumors began to surface that the people of Germany were not, in fact, of Aryan descent. Faced with this, Himmler began to send teams of his Ahnenerbe researchers across the world to hunt for proof that such claims were false. Ultimately, he failed to provide such evidence.

Haus Atlantis[edit]

In the city of Bremen, Germany stands a unique example of German architecture designed by Bernhard Hoetger and inspired by a fascination with ideas by Herman Wirth that the lost city of Atlantis was originally inhabited by Germanics, making Germans the oldest known race on earth. "Haus Atlantis" or "Atlantis House" was completed in 1931 and was designed with the sole purpose of studying Atlantis and its relation to the Aryan race. The façade of the building was originally adorned by a carved wooden feature depicting the Nordic God Odin (also referred to as "The Atlantis Survivor") crucified on the tree of life. It was destroyed by fire during WWII and was not recreated when the façade was rebuilt in 1954. The architectural masterpiece is composed mostly of glass and steel. Many historians believe that the choice of materials in combination with the interior architecture was intended to represent the Aryan exodus from Atlantis. At the top of the institute there is a room named "The Heaven's Hall.” This room, at the epitome of the building, served as a teaching forum for young Nazi archeologists where they could eagerly absorb the teachings of esteemed figures such as Herman Wirth and Hans Reinerth along with their theories of the Germanic presence in Atlantis.

Notable figures[edit]

Gustaf Kossinna[edit]

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 that 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.[1]

Alfred Rosenberg[edit]

Alfred Rosenberg in 1939

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.[4]

Hans Reinerth[edit]

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".[6]

Herman Wirth[edit]

Herman Wirth was a Dutch-German historian who co-founded the SS organization called Ahnenerbe before being pushed out of the organization by Heinrich Himmler. Wirth began his career as a German soldier in 1914, when he volunteered for service in the German Army and monitored Flemish separatists in German-occupied Belgium. In 1916, after only two years of military service, he was decorated and dismissed from service. Thereafter, he was appointed as a professor and researcher by Wilhelm II and remained in that position until the fall of the Third Reich. Wirth believed that civilization was an affliction that could only be cured by a simpler way of life. Later in life (during the reign of the Third Reich) Wirth was the primary proponent for the idea that the German people descended from Atlantis, more specifically that they descended from Aryan Atlanteans who made a mass exodus from Atlantis at some point. While Wirth was a Nazi archaeologist, he was not well-liked by most of the Nazi party and received criticism from such intellectuals as Bolko von Richthofen, Arthur Hübner, and even Hitler himself, who denounced the institute known as Haus Atlantis in Bremen's Böttcherstraße in his 1936 speech at the Reichsparteitag. Such a disgraceful career led Wirth to be mostly seen as a crank among the Nazi Party. However, Wirth made claims that what may have been his crowning achievement was never published. In 1979 Wirth was interviewed by Chilean neo-Nazi Miguel Serrano. In this interview, Wirth proclaimed that his magnum opus, Palestinabuch had been stolen. While there are indications that Wirth may have actually worked on this book, there is no solid evidence. Even if the book does or did exist, Wirth would never see it published as he died in 1981 in Kusel, Germany. There are, however, still many pseudoarchaeologists out there who seek to find the lost final book of this once-famous Nazi Atlantis truther.

Other Nazi archaeologists[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c 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
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ a b Kater, Michael, Das "Ahnenerbe" der SS 1935–1945. Ein Beitrag zur Kultur-politik des Dritten Reiches, Munich 1997
  4. ^ a b c Arnold, Bettina "The past as propaganda: totalitarian archaeology in Nazi Germany." Antiquity Sept/Dec 1990: 464-478
  5. ^ Heim, Susanne. Autarkie und Ostexpansion. Pflanzenzucht und Agrarforschung im Nationalsozialismus. 2002
  6. ^ Härke, Heinrich. Archaeology, Ideology, and Society: The German Experience. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2002

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