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Now in paperback, the groundbreaking history of the Nazi research institute whose work helped lead to the extermination of millions
For those who thought the zealous Nazi archaeologists in Raiders of the Lost Ark were a screenwriter's fabrication, journalist Heather Pringle has the chilling, real story. In 1935, Heinrich Himmler — chief of the SS and architect of the death camps — founded the Ahnenerbe, a research institute that manufactured archaeological evidence to support the notion of Aryan superiority. His team of adventurers, mystics, and reputable scholars was charged with traveling the globe to compile "proof" that a race of blondhaired, blue-eyed conquerors had dominated the world in prehistoric times. The identification of their descendants and the eradication of all others became the cornerstone of the Nazi agenda.
Drawing on Pringle's extensive original research, including interviews with surviving members of the Ahnenerbe, The Master Plan is a page-turning story of delusion and excess, of scientific and political abuse on a global scale.
IN THE FALL OF 1938, in the small industrial town of Offenbach am Main just outside Frankfurt, the renowned firm of Gebruder Klingspor received an important commission from one of the most prominent men of the Third Reich. The owner of the business, Karl Klingspor, was an influential typographer and aesthete, a master of ink and paper who transformed the creative fantasies of others into some of the most beautiful books of his age. To seduce the eye, Klingspor retained artists and painters to design sleek new typefaces so words would scroll stylishly across the page. To woo the sense of touch, he selected handmade papers of unusual size and heft-rich and thick and textured. For Klingspor and his colleagues, making a book was rather like making love, and bibliophiles from Berlin to Boston sighed with pleasure as they thumbed through his exquisite productions.
The commission in question had arrived from Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo, the Security Service, and the Security Squad or SS, a paramilitary organization that ran Germany's concentration camps, controlled a profitable network of business enterprises, and provided Adolf Hitler's personal bodyguard. The Reichsfuhrer-SS was abusy man, but he remained, in his personal life, something of a bookworm. He read avidly, owned a substantial private library, and carried his favorite volumes with him wherever he traveled. He often recommended books to his subordinates and presented copies as gifts to family members and close associates. It was in this frame of mind that he resolved to produce a special gift for Hitler on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday.
For months, prominent Nazis had been drawing up plans for a gala celebration for Hitler, searching feverishly for presents. The leaders of the Confederation of German Industry had quietly purchased the complete manuscript scores of Richard Wagner's early operas, as well as fair copies of parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen, the composer's masterpiece. Rudolf Hess had acquired a rare collection of letters written by one of Hitler's heroes, Frederick the Great, the eighteenth-century monarch who transformed Prussia into a major European power. And the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi party, had thrown caution completely to the wind, building the Eagle's Nest, a teahouse and conference center situated atop a mountain near the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden.
Himmler had no intention of being left out of this slavish display. He planned to present a fine equestrian portrait of Frederick the Great by the German artist Adolf von Menzel, a painting that would fit nicely into Hitler's private study. But he also wanted to give Hitler something more personal, a set of leather-bound books that would artfully present the SS chief's lesser-known contributions to Hitler's Nazi state. The most important of these books, he decided, would be a large portfolio produced by the creative staff of Gebruder Klingspor. It would be entitled:
The Research and Educational Society, The Ahnenerbe:
Evolution, Essence, Effect.
The Ahnenerbe was an elite Nazi research institute that Himmler had founded in 1935 with a small group of associates. Its name derived 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 twofold. First, the institute was to unearth new evidence of the accomplishments and deeds of Germany's ancestors, as far back as the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age if possible, "using exact scientific methods." Second, it was to convey these findings to the German public by means of magazine articles, books, museum shows, and scientific conferences.
In reality, however, the elite organization was in the business of mythmaking. Its prominent researchers devoted themselves to distorting the truth and churning out carefully tailored evidence to support the racial ideas of Adolf Hitler. Some scholars twisted their findings consciously; others warped them without thought, unaware that their political views drastically shaped their research. But all proved adept at this manipulation, and for this reason, Himmler prized the institute. He made it an integral part of the SS and housed it in a grand villa in one of Berlin's wealthiest neighborhoods. He equipped it with laboratories, libraries, museum workshops, and ample funds for foreign research, and personally befriended several of its senior scientists. By 1939, the Ahnenerbe would count 137 German scholars and scientists on its payroll and employ another 82 support workers-filmmakers, photographers, artists, sculptors, librarians, laboratory technicians, accountants, and secretaries.
THE NAZI LEADERSHIP went to enormous lengths to maintain a public facade of rationality, fairness, and middle-class decency. Hitler and the senior members of his government craved admiration and respect from the world, and to obtain it they continually attempted to display their political ideas-particularly on the subject of race-in the best possible light. To assist in this difficult work, they actively recruited German scholars and scientists who could command respect both at home and abroad and make Nazi ideas sound plausible and reasonable to others.
Those who studied the ancient past figured prominently in these recruitment efforts, for Adolf Hitler held strong views on prehistory and history. He believed that all humankind in its astonishing richness and complexity, all human societies in the past, from the Sumerians on their ziggurats to the Incas in their mountain citadels, could be parsed into just three groups. These he described as "the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture." Hitler was convinced, based on his own highly selective reading of history, that only one racial group fell into the first category. These were the Aryans, a fictional race of tall, willowy, flaxen-haired men and women from northern Europe. According to Hitler, only the Aryans had possessed the spark of genius needed to create civilization; invent music, literature, the visual arts, agriculture, and architecture; and advance humanity by putting their shoulders to the heavy wheel of progress. Most modern Germans, Hitler claimed, descended from the ancient Aryans, and as such they had inherited their forefathers' brilliance.
This was the most positive side of the human ledger. On the negative side, Hitler placed the Jews. These, he claimed, were the destroyers of culture. He insisted upon categorizing all the world's Jews together as a single race, although scholars of the day agreed they were a diverse collection of peoples united by their religious faith. Hitler declared that the Jews posed a serious threat to humankind, insisting that they possessed a singular talent for undermining and corrupting the cultures of other races. He was especially fond of likening "the Jew" to a type of germ-"a noxious bacillus [that] keeps spreading as soon as a favorable medium invites him. And the effect of his existence is also like that of spongers; wherever he appears, the host people dies out after a shorter or longer period."
Serious scientists and scholars outside Germany in the 1930s dismissed these ideas as nonsense. There was simply no disputing, for example, that Jews had contributed brilliantly to human civilization. Between 1901 and 1939 alone, twenty-one Jewish scientists and scholars won Nobel Prizes, from Albert Einstein for his contributions to theoretical physics to Otto Loewi for his pioneering work on the chemical transmission of nerve impulses. Indeed, nearly 30 percent of all Nobel laureates from Germany during this period were Jewish, although Jews accounted for just 1 percent of the German population.
Hitler's notions about the Aryans were equally far-fetched. Scholars had failed to uncover any proof of a tall, blond-haired race of ur-Germans who first lit the torch of civilization and gave birth to all the refinements of human culture. The first cities, the first system of writing, the first successes in agriculture had all arisen along the green river valleys and hills of the Near East and Asia, many thousands of miles away from the dark, cold forests of northern Europe. And this knowledge posed a problem for ardent Nazis, such as Himmler, who took an interest in scholarship and intellectual discourse. How could they persuasively portray ancient Germans and their modern descendants as a master race if indeed they had played little, if any, part in the great early advances of human civilization?
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. He conceived of this research organization as an elite think tank, a place brimming with brilliant mavericks and brainy young upstarts-up-and-comers who would give traditional science a thorough cleansing. Men of this ilk would not balk at sweeping away centuries of careful scholarship like so much dust and useless debris. With much fanfare, they would publicly unveil a new portrait of the ancient world, one in which a tall, blond race of ur-Germans would be seen coining civilization and bringing light to inferior races, just as Hitler claimed.
This was the primary work of the Ahnenerbe. Privately, however, Himmler nurtured another hope for his creation. He believed, like many other prominent Nazis, that an almost magical elixir-pure Aryan blood-once flowed through the veins of the ancient Germanic tribes. Undiluted and undefiled by later racial mixing, this superior hemoglobin supplied Germany's ancestors with heightened powers of creativity and intelligence, or so Himmler supposed. If Ahnenerbe researchers could recover this primeval Germanic knowledge through archaeology and other sciences, then they might find superior ways of growing grain, breeding livestock, healing the ill, designing weapons, or regulating society. All this would greatly benefit the Reich.
For this important work, Ahnenerbe officials recruited a diverse assortment of scholars and scientists-archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, classicists, Orientalists, runologists, biologists, musicologists, philologists, geologists, zoologists, botanists, linguists, folklorists, geneticists, astronomers, doctors, and historians. Himmler intended them to work together, sharing their findings. Each researcher, he suggested, would contribute a part of what he sometimes liked to call the "hundreds of thousands of little mosaic stones, which portray the true picture of the origins of the world."
Despite his many pressing responsibilities, Himmler clucked contentedly over the scholars' reports and papers. He pondered their many theories, paid careful heed to their conclusions, and often discussed their ideas with his SS subordinates over dinner. And when the opportunity presented itself, he employed their research to fuel and justify the Holocaust.
* * *
I FIRST LEARNED of Himmler's calculating use of the past while researching a book on mummies and mummy scientists. I was holed up at the time in a tourist hotel in the small city of Assen in the eastern Netherlands. I had journeyed there to see some of the world's most famous mummies, the ancient dead of Europe's northern peat bogs. Preserved naturally by the bogs' dark, clear broth, dozens of Roman-era men and women had resisted oblivion for nearly two thousand years. But what struck me most about these resilient survivors was not so much their immortality, impressive as it was, but the violent way in which many had met their end- garroted, stabbed, slashed, decapitated, and hung.
At the museum in Assen, I bought a book by a Dutch archaeologist, Wijnand van der Sanden, describing the history and science of these strange cadavers. That evening in my hotel, I pulled the book from my bag, curious to see how van der Sanden interpreted the gruesome deaths. I put my feet up on the bed and began casually thumbing through the pages. One section of the book in particular caught my attention. It concerned a speech that Himmler had given behind closed doors in February 1937 to a group of senior officers at the SS officer-training school at Bad Tolz. In this address, Himmler aired his personal views on homosexuality.
The Reichsfuhrer-SS regarded gay men as a great blight upon society. They contributed little more than red ink, in his opinion, to "the sexual balance sheet," rarely fathering children. This was a serious failing in the Third Reich, where fatherhood was deemed one of the prime patriotic duties of all German men. Worse still, Himmler was convinced that homo-sexuality was a communicable disease. He believed it could infect straight men and he worried that it might reach epidemic proportions in Germany, particularly in such hotbeds of male bonding as the SS. If this happened, he warned, homosexuality could weaken the essential fiber of the SS, destroying one of the most powerful arms of the Nazi state.
During his speech at Bad Tolz, Himmler mulled over methods of eradicating this imaginary peril from the Reich. And this was where the bog bodies came in. Researchers had long pondered the violent deaths of these ancient Europeans, developing competing hypotheses to explain them. Some archaeologists thought these people were murdered prisoners of war. Others argued that they were honored members of society selected as precious sacrifices to the gods. But a few German researchers, including one of Himmler's favorite young archaeologists, Herbert Jankuhn, advocated a much harsher hypothesis. Jankuhn believed these individuals were social pariahs, specifically deserters and homosexuals put to death for their transgressions against ancient Germanic laws.
Excerpted from THE MASTER PLAN by HEATHER PRINGLE Copyright © 2006 by Heather Pringle. Excerpted by permission.
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