Ahnenerbe

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Ahnenerbe Emblem[1]

Introduction

As the Nazi party rose to power during the early 1930s, Germans still struggled to appear or act as a unified state. After the nation had experienced the humiliation of the World War I, the Nazi party capitalized on the opportunity to paint Jews as the root of all evils including the collapse of Germany in an effort to unify "pure" Germans. Hitler's claim that pure Germans descended from the sacred Nordic Aryans possessing the knowledge required to create civilization needed supporting evidence from scholars to convince the public.[2] However, given the sheer inaccuracy and myth of this claim, scholars could not produce any corroborating material evidence. In response to this failure, The Deutsches Ahnenerbe—Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte (German Ancestral Heritage – Society for the Study of the History of Primeval Ideas), later shortened to simply Deutsches Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage Society) was founded in 1935 under the direction of Heinrich Himmler. Over the course of the 1930s, the Ahnenerbe researchers "devoted themselves to distorting the truth and churning out carefully tailored evidence to support the racial ideas of Adolf Hitler."[3] The organization became the scholarly mechanism for which Himmler could also indulge his obsession with "unveil[ing] a new portrait of the ancient world, one in which Aryans would be seen coining civilization and bringing light to inferior to races."[4] The Ahnenerbe was eventually incorporated into the Excavations Department of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) in 1938 as a tool dedicated to the scientific and archaeological research proving the superiority of the Aryan Race. The organization had three major overarching goals while it was in operation [5]:

  • To study the space, ideas, and achievements of the Indo-Germanic peoples.
  • To bring the research findings to life and present them to the German people.
  • To encourage every German to get involved in the process.

At its height, the organization was comprised of a wide range of professionals from archaeologists to botanists; however, the dominant pseudo-archaeological narrative situated itself around territory, religion, and race. Himmler utilized the Ahnenerbe and its consequent activities to assist in the justifying the military conquests and war crimes against Jews during World War II.

Context

Aryan Race Myth

While most commonly associated with Nazis and the Holocaust, the idea of a blond hair, blue-eyed Aryan race originates much earlier with Helena Blavatsky. Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 and published her book The Secret Doctrine in 1888 in which she detailed 7 stages of development of the human race otherwise known as the root races. "Aryan" is referred to as the 5th root race from roughly 100,000 years ago. Blavatsky claimed that Aryans were the first humans that were clean in spirit with higher levels of intellect. Aryans had supposedly stopped the "downward arc of involution" of the first four root races and kickstarted the beginnings of true civilization.[6] However, the Aryan civilization was never found leaving Himmler and other fantasists convinced traces of Aryan existence was still waiting to be discovered.

Heinrich Himmler

Heinrich Himmler[7]

Often cited as the mastermind of the Holocaust and the Final Solution, Himmler was fascinated and heavily influenced by Blavatsky. Himmler was convinced that Germans were the descendants of the mythical Aryan race and German lands were the true cradle of civilization. He became determined to "unearth the glories of Aryan prehistory" as a means of strengthening not only Nazi power but collective German nationalism.[8] Himmler considered himself "not as the fantasist he was but as a patron of science" which is why he used his power as head of the SS to declare the work of the Ahnenerbe essential.[9] Himmler wanted to return to the pagan and farming lifestyle of the past German glory years to rebuild the once great Aryan society. He felt the modern teachings of equality was causing the decay of Germans. While Himmler was aware of Hitler's blatant criticisms of Ahnenerbe activities, he was able to persuade the Fuhrer of its propaganda significance. However, Hitler did not hide his opinions even as the organization expanded in size and power:

"Why do we call the whole world's attention to the fact that we have no past? It's bad enough that the Romans were erecting great buildings when our forefathers were still living in mud huts; now Himmler is starting to dig up these villages of mud huts and enthusing over every potsherd and stone axe he finds."[10]

Structure and Expansion

Around the conclusion of World War I, the archaeological study of prehistory was on the upturn with the new ethnohistorical approach, and its ability to heal German morale.[11] As a result, in its infancy, the Ahnenerbe remained a small section of amateur prehistory scholars or archaeologists as Himmler's personal pet project. As the Nazi party began to gain more traction and power, the organization began to expand as younger prehistory archaeologists wanted to benefit from the association with the party and receive the state funding they previously lacked.[12] Himmler, seeing the growth in power of the Nazi party, decided to centralize the organization under the control of the state by incorporating it in his SS.

The inclusion of the Excavations Department brought not only new scholars into its activities but also new expertise broadening the Ahnenerbe's capabilities. Himmler took this newfound opportunity and financed 18 excavations across the world to help reconstruct German prehistory.[13] Prior to combining with the Excavations Department, the Ahnenerbe primarily focused on studying ancient texts, rock engravings, and folklore. However, as soon as the organization became part of the larger Nazi machine, Himmler was all in. Himmler made clear the importance of the organization by housing it in one of Berlin's wealthiest neighborhoods.[14] By 1939, the Ahnenerbe rapidly expanded to 137 German scholars and scientists including but not limited to "archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, classicists, orientalists, runologists, biologists, musiclogists, philologists, geologists, zoologists, botanists, linguists, folklorists, geneticists, astronomers, doctors, and historians."[15] The wide range of professionals working to for Himmler created a bubbling issue of financing the branch. Originally, the organization was funded by the German Research Foundation and the Reich Agricultural Organization.[16]. However, given the extravagant offices and significant costs associated with excavations, Himmler was forced to find tax-free funding in which he found one of his solutions in setting up the Ahnenerbe Foundation. But, Himmler quickly learned that independent donations to the organization was insuffcient. He then used his political power to assist Anton Loibl in pushing through a patent for bike reflectors and passed a traffic law requiring all bikes to have Loibl's device.[17] He managed to gain some revenue from his scheme, but the organization was eventually driven to commit fraud by the approval of Himmler himself.[18] The fraud proved successful and the organization continued to operate with a rough annual budget of 1 million Deutsch marks.[19]

Pseudo-archeological Narrative

The activities of the Ahnenerbe as a whole were ultimately rooted in racist, ethnically violent, pure anti-archaeological nationalist motivations. Physical manipulation of material culture and published lies all contributed to the ultimate death of millions of Jews while satisfying Himmler's own personal mythical obsessions. While the overarching assignment of the Ahnenerbe was to find support of German descent from the Aryan race, they also served as tool of justification for the military movements of the Nazi's throughout World War II. They managed to do so in three major subsections: land, religion, and race.

Territorial Lands

Nazi Empire

Returning to the Aryan Race Myth, Himmler and his employed archaeologists argued that Aryans had migrated from the Nordic countries down into the greater continent in the lands surrounding Greater Germany.[20] However, over the course of centuries of European historical conflicts, the size of recognized German land has decreased. During the war, Hitler declared that Germany needed Lebensraum ('living space') in order to survive which would include the removal of central and east Asian peoples from their land.[21] Himmler and the Ahnenerbe then utilized archaeology to establish historical rights to foreign territory. They pushed the justification that "wherever alleged German artifacts were found, that area could be declared ancient German territory; territory which the people of modern Germany were entitled to."[22] They falsified records and restored "Germanic cultural relics" as a means to justify Nazi expansion across Europe and the displacement of millions of people, often deemed impure Jews to be placed in death camps. Poland was one of the first victims to Nazi expansion in which the 1940-1942 Ahnenerbe excavations produced findings that claimed indigenous people were run out by the "militarily, physically, racially superior Germans"[23] Not only did the removal of central and east Asian peoples satisfy Hitler's desire for living space, it also fueled Himmler's desire to reconstruct the great civilization of the Aryans on Germany's rightful land. Therefore, the Ahnenerbe pushed the notion that any "evidence" of German occupation of land at some point in time meant the Nazis were entitled to reclaim it. Furthermore, the evidence found did not have to be complex but simply enough to manipulate the mind.[24] There was a proposition to send an Ahnenerbe scholar to Poland immediately after Hitler's invasion to "seize all potentially useful materials – “catalogues, reports of grave excavations, drawings and photographs" that could be used "in fabricating evidence for claims that Germany was merely righting an ancient wrong and seizing land that legitimately belonged to it"[25]The pseudo-archaeological narrative surrounding territorial land served as the racist propellent to displace and intern millions of people, Jews in particular.

Religion

Perhaps the most recognized prong of the Nazi doctrine was the declaration against the Jewish religion and race as devilish inferiors. So, it is no surprise that the Ahnenerbe was a heavy hitter in this department. In his desire to restore Germany to its former Aryan glory, Himmler advocated for a revival of pagan practices. Himmler was an adamant opponent to the Judeo-Christian principle of equality and brotherhood between all men. He went as far as to call the Church "an erotic, homosexual league," and "tainted by its Jewish roots."[26] Himmler feared that Germany would suffer the same fate as Tibet, at the mercy of rival Christian imperialist powers, if it prioritized religion.[27] So, Himmler directed the Ahnenerbe to study ancient sites such as the megalithic site in Saxony called Externsteine. Himmler wanted the archaeologists of the SS to transform the site into a center for the new national religion of Germany. In addition, Himmler asserted that the pagan traditions seemed more Aryan including rituals to be directed by the SS such as solstice and christening ceremonies.[28] Himmler used his claims and Ahnenerbe work at prehistoric religious sites to emphasize the evils in particularly Judaism. Religion coupled with the claims over territory stood alone as their own pseudo-archaeological narrative while further fueling the primary racial claims of the Ahnenerbe.

Race

The notion of inequality of races was introduced to the German public much earlier than Hitler and the Nazis, but it was their propaganda that materialized the most salient example of racially drive genocide. Hitler and Himmler were both staunch anti-semitics in believing Jews were inferior, evil, and in no way related to the Aryan race of German ancestry. By the mid-1930s, Nazi oratory had already fostered a German nation that was "aggressively exclusive" at least in their collective conscious.[29] Himmler believed one of the most vital aspects of the Ahnenerbe was to prove Jews were in no way, shape, or form descendant from the same Aryan race as Germans. Himmler instructed the Ahnenerbe archaeologists to demonstrate that Jews were "a rootless desert people who were only at home in the fluid, exploitative world of the city."[30] The Ahnenerbe took this assignment extremely seriously. Members were sent to concentration camps such as Auschwitz to take measurements of Jewish prisoners' skulls before they were sent to the gas chambers.[31] They then compared these measurements to ones taken from men they believe exerted the perfect Aryan facial structures in order to prove Jews were a completely separate race. The Ahnenerbe extended this research beyond the immediate territories surrounding Germany as well. They were just as active in South America and the Middle East. However, their lies about race were the most potent in German occupied land. In his desire to create the perfect Aryan society, Himmler intended to "eradicate every trace of Jewish “vermin” from the Reich, so that there would be no chance of introducing Jewish blood into the new SS colonies."[32] It becomes impossible to ignore the link between the activities of the Ahnenerbe in this department and the unprecedented mass genocide of millions of so-called undesirables for his Aryan society. Himmler morphed archaeology as a tool of destruction and violence rather than a branch of science.

Notable Expeditions and Excavations

While the Ahnenerbe was an active organization throughout the war and across the world, some of their excavations were slightly more notable in their contribution to the overall myth-making.

Tibet

Nazi archaeologist conducting facial measurements[33]

Beginning in 1939, Himmler sent 5 members of the Ahnenerbe to Tibet under the command of Ernst Schafer. Schafer was a zoologist who had convinced Himmler that he had found people living in Tibet who had pure Aryan features.[34] The Tibet Expedition served as the organization's most ambitious quest to discover evidence of the Aryan race. The Europeans ventured into the holy city of Lhasa and took plaster castings of locals' heads among other bodily measurements. Schafer took great care in convincing the Tibetan ministries of the link between Tibet and Germany.[35] After spending months in Tibet, the Europeans had come to the conclusion that Ayrans had changed the course of Asian history, and that their impact is recent given the noticeable features of many Tibetan locals.[36] Himmler was delighted to hear about the trip once the men returned to Germany. Himmler and Schafer talked privately, and over the next few days the "success" of the trip flooded German newspapers.[37]

Deconstructing the Narrative

It is not an overly difficult task to point to the actions of the Ahnenerbe and Himmler as a vital piece of the machine that perpetrated not only mass genocide but brutal territorial conquests. The organization was complicit in providing "evidence" supporting Himmler's fantastical and mythical beliefs of Aryan domination over other races. Deconstructing the narrative of racist, anti-archaeological, and ethnic violence perpetrated by the activities and principles of the Ahnenerbe is not an extensive project yet still a necessary one.

First, it is important to understand who are making these claims and why. In the early years of the Ahnenerbe, majority of the staffed archaeologists were young amateurs simply trying to harness the power of the Nazi organization to make a name for themselves. However, as the organization grew already established scholars began to take notice of the work. Many then joined the Nazi organization as a means of furthering their own careers by churning out politically correct evidence.[38] Already, archaeologists were abandoning the principles of science in favor of career moves by producing inaccurate and poorly supported ideas. To compound the issue, the Ahnenerbe had their own press, the Ahnenerbe-Stiftung Verlag, which allowed them to publish and distribute these claims without any peer review.[39] As the discoveries of the Ahnenerbe penetrated into universities and the general public, the organization began to attract more attention. Recruitment increased as did violence towards Jews. Himmler and the Ahnenerbe achieved their partial goal of uniting "pure" Germans against other undesirables. This left little room for any dissent or opposition to the organization's actions. They were fueled by nationalism and that is precisely what they fostered in a violent manner.

However, the foundation of the Aryan Race Myth has been repeatedly disproven. The myth was constructed as a rebuttal to religious notions of evolution and Charles Darwin's work. So, the Ahnenerbe's work claiming the distinct racial differences and origins of Germans and Jews were incorrect. All humans can be traced back through the same means of evolution and primate ancestry. While prehistory was an emerging field of archaeology, respectable scholars from across the world have also stated that any material culture "found" by the Ahnenerbe was manipulated with a lack of respect for the past.[40]. The Ahnenerbe purposefully contorted material culture to fit into their wider propaganda machine regardless of the archaeological truth. There was no evidence of superior Germans spreading across Europe dominating other cultures, but rather natural causes influenced migrations of peoples. In addition, the hyperdiffusionist beliefs that Ayrans were the sole creators of civilization beginning in Germany has also been proven incorrect. Mesopotamia served as the proven cradle of civilization, but other civilizations developed independently after thousands of years of migrations.

Ultimately, the most important part of deconstructing the Ahnenerbe's narrative is acknowledging the connection to the Holocaust. The primary goal to find traces of a superior race was used to justify the elimination of millions of Jews to satisfy personal beliefs of both Hitler and Himmler. The territorial conquest narrative was a means to intern the millions of displaced peoples and destroy their land. The religious component further painted Jews as backward and demanding equality when Himmler and Hitler believed they did not deserve it. If Germany continued to follow the doctrine of Judeo-Christians they were bound to collapse as a result. Finally, the attempts to prove Jews were descendant from an entirely different race of people that could not be part of Himmler's new Germany was apparent justification for their war crimes. The work of the Ahnenerbe was inextricably pseudo-archaeology with intentions none other than exerting German domination through violence. The scholars engaged were conducting "at best a distortion of scholarship, and at worst a contribution to the legitimazation of a genocidal authoritarian regime."[41]

Legacy

Ahnenerbe Legacy Today[42]

Even though majority of the organization's paperwork and inside secrets were destroyed at the end of World War II, Americans managed to save the papers of Wolfram Sievers. Sievers at one point served as the managing director of the organization.[43] While the Ahnenerbe, itself, has been dead for several decades, its message and tactics have remained a strong fuel for white nationalists and neo-Nazis. The pseudo-archaeological claims of an Aryan race and inferiority of non-whites serve as the foundation for majority of the emerging neo-Nazi groups. The Ahnenerbe demonstrated the power that pseudo-archaeology possesses beyond the simple dissent to respectable archaeological claims. The legacy of the Ahnenerbe is and should remain as the quasi-scholarly arm in Himmler and the Nazi's justification for the mass murder of millions of innocent people.

References

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