A tale of scholarly detection illuminating a little-explored corner of Third Reich history: the use of pseudoscience in the service of ideology.
Weedy and weak, a schoolyard snitch with a fanatical devotion to record-keeping, Heinrich Himmler seemed an unlikely choice to command the elite praetorian guard called the SS. Yet, writes Canadian scholar Pringle (The Mummy Congress, 2001), he was also fanatically devoted to Hitler. Moreover, he had a knack for shoring up fragments of Nazi ideology with fragments of half-learning that seemed self-evident to true believers. Thus, Himmler established a think tank that he called the Ahnenerbe (a “rather obscure German word . . . meaning ‘something inherited from the forefathers’ ”). In time, the institute would employ more than 130 historians, linguists, geographers, agronomists, folklorists and classicists with an eye to producing evidence that the so-called Aryan peoples were the font of civilization. Like Himmler, the Ahnenerbe faculty members had their own agendas, self-preservation high among them, but in the end, their body of learning was meant to be put to one collective end: to provide a kind of “Aryan education” for future generations of SS soldiers, who would use it to settle on the fertile steppes of Eurasia and there produce prodigious crops and a perfect race of latter-day Aryans. Ominously, the Ahnenerbe also provided scholarly justification, of a kind, for the elimination of the peoples who already happened to occupy that land. As Raiders of the Lost Ark had it, Ahnenerbe scholars mounted or planned to mount archaeological and scientific expeditions to the Arctic, Tibet, Africa and South America before the war confined them to German territories. Amazingly, most of those who survived the war “escaped virtually unscathed from denazification,” and the postwar Allied occupation government even branded one of the institute’s most virulent and vocal racists a “political victim of the Third Reich.”
A highly readable contribution to the literature of Nazism’s intellectual history, such as it is.