A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Excerpted from The Master Plan by Heather Pringle.
How the SS perverted the Paleolithic record to support Nazi ideology
In 1935, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo and the SS, founded an elite Nazi research institute called the Ahnenerbe. Its name came from a rather obscure German word, Ahnenerbe (pronounced AH-nen-AIR-buh), meaning "something inherited from the forefathers." The official mission of the Ahnenerbe was to unearth new evidence of the accomplishments and deeds of Germanic ancestors "using exact scientific methods."
In reality, the Ahnenerbe was in the business of mythmaking. Its prominent researchers devoted themselves to distorting the truth and churning out carefully tailored evidence to support the ideas of Adolf Hitler, who believed that only the Aryans--a fictional "Nordic" race of tall, flaxen-haired men and women from northern Europe--possessed the genius needed to create civilization. Most modern Germans, he claimed, were descended from these ancient Aryans. But scholars had failed to uncover any proof of a such a master race lighting the torch of civilization and giving birth to all the refinements of human culture. The answer to this problem, in Himmler's mind, lay in more German scholarship--scholarship of the right political stripe. So he created the Ahnenerbe, which he conceived of as a research organization brimming with brilliant mavericks and brainy young upstarts who would publicly unveil a new portrait of the ancient world, one in which Aryans would be seen coining civilization and bringing light to inferior races, just as Hitler claimed.
Before 1938, the Ahnenerbe largely confined its studies to ancient texts, rock engravings, and folklore. But in February of that year, Himmler transferred the Excavations Department of the SS into the Ahnenerbe. Himmler had created the department to sponsor or direct archaeological digs at major sites in Germany. He intended these excavations to be exemplars of German research where SS men could be trained in the science of recovering the ancient Germanic past from the ground. The department had financed 18 excavations, from an ancient hill fortress at Alt-Christburg in Prussia to a major Viking trading post at Haithabu in northern Germany, not far from the Danish border. The Excavations Department brought new scientific acumen to the Ahnenerbe. Its staff consisted of dirt archaeologists trained in analyzing bits of ancient stone, bone, and ceramics. This new expertise, Himmler hoped, would help reconstruct the lives of Germany's ancestors before the first written histories and greatly extend knowledge of the mythical "Nordic" race. Indeed, one of the Ahnenerbe's most ambitious young researchers, archaeologist Assien Bohmers, claimed he could trace "Nordic" origins all the way back to the Paleolithic era in Germany, when woolly mammoths and cave bears wandered the chill tundra.
Based in Vancouver, Heather Pringle is a science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years.