WALL STREET JOURNAL
January 27, 2006
A DEADLY DESIRE TO DO SOME DIGGING
JOHN J. MILLER
THE MASTER PLAN
By Heather Pringle
(Hyperion, 463 pages, $24.95)
Near the beginning of the 1981 film “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” two men from U.S. Army Intelligence confer with Indiana Jones, the relic-hunting professor. “Over the last two years, the Nazis have had teams of archaeologists running around the world looking for all kinds of religious artifacts,” says one of them. “Hitler’s a nut on the subject. Crazy. He’s obsessed with the occult.”
The movie is of course sheer fantasy. Yet there is a kernel of truth in this snatch of dialogue. In the late 1930s, the Nazis really did have teams of archaeologists running around the world. For the most part they weren’t looking for religious artifacts but rather for evidence of Aryan racial superiority. And it wasn’t Adolf Hitler who was obsessed with these excursions but rather his brutal henchman, Heinrich Himmler.
It would be wrong to say that only Hollywood screenwriters have cared about the doings of Nazi archaeologists. Until recently, however, the subject has not received much attention in Germany or elsewhere. With “The Master Plan,” veteran science reporter Heather Pringle, a contributing editor at Discover magazine, has written an authoritative account of how the Third Reich tried to turn the scientific study of ancient peoples and cultures into another propaganda tool.
At the center of this Nazi effort was a research organization called the Ahnenerbe (“something inherited from the forefathers”), which dedicated itself to the proposition that all men aren’t created equal — and specifically to the notion that a race of blond-haired and blue-eyed proto-Germans was the true author of civilization. As Hitler wrote in “Mein Kampf”: “All human culture, all the results of art, science, and technology that we see before us, are almost exclusively the creative product of the Aryan.”
Archaeology has always been a magnet for crackpots and fabulists, with their tales of vanished continents and their visions of alien encounters. Perhaps the attraction is natural, given how the field mixes fact with speculation at the borderline of an unknowable past. Whereas most archaeologists try to draw rational conclusions from specific but often spotty evidence, the Ahnenerbe did the reverse: It began with Hitler’s conclusion and worked backward, trying to find the proof for something that simply wasn’t true.
Ms. Pringle first heard about the Ahnenerbe while working on “The Mummy Congress” (2001). For that book she had traveled to the Netherlands to study bog bodies — corpses preserved for centuries in the peat bogs of northern Europe. Many had met violent ends. They may have been sacrificial victims or criminals with death sentences.
Himmler had his own theory about the bog bodies: Most, he claimed, were homosexuals who were punished for social transgressions. An archaeologist associated with the Ahnenerbe had convinced him of this point, and Himmler justified his own treatment of homosexuals — perhaps 15,000 were marked with pink triangles and sent to concentration camps — by arguing that their persecution was a traditional northern European practice. “In Himmler’s hands,” writes Ms. Pringle, “the distant past had become a lethal weapon against the living.”
By 1939, the Ahnenerbe was “an elite think tank” with considerable resources: Its ranks included 137 scholars and scientists as well as 82 members of a support staff. On first glance, a few appeared to conduct authentic research as they examined runic symbols in Sweden, recorded folk songs in Finland and investigated cave art in France. Yet virtually everything they did was colored by the Nazi goal of demonstrating that a mythical race of Aryans was the mainspring of human accomplishment.
Some of their ideas were downright cockamamie. One fellow believed that Tiwanaku, a ruined city on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, was built by Aryan colonists more than a million years ago. (This delusion so entranced Himmler that he special-ordered a leather-bound book on the topic and gave it to Hitler as a Christmas gift.) Other members of the Ahnenerbe claimed that Atlantis was the Aryans’ lost homeland and that the Canary Islands were its last remnants. An expedition to Tibet hunted “for traces of primeval Nordic overlords.”
During the war, the activities of the Ahnenerbe grew increasingly sinister. Its members began by plundering Polish churches and museums. Later there were gruesome medical experiments on prisoners. An effort to define the immutable racial characteristics of Jews led to something called the Jewish Skeleton Collection. People were measured in the flesh, murdered in gas chambers and measured again with the flesh removed.
What motivated the staff members of the Ahnenerbe? Some were just cranks whose theories might be laughed off if they weren’t tainted by racism. Others were intelligent men who must have recognized the devil’s bargain they had made with Nazism. “I still do not understand why they did what they did,” writes Ms. Pringle in her conclusion, “why they willingly contributed to such evil.”
It is one of the great conundrums of the Holocaust. Whatever the reasons for this bizarre and despicable behavior — professional ambition, moral blindness — the record of the Ahnenerbe calls to mind a line from the third Indiana Jones movie: “Nazis. I hate these guys.”
Mr. Miller writes for National Review and is the author, most recently, of “A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America” (Encounter).