April 02nd, 2008
As depicted in Raiders in the Lost Ark, Adolf Hitler’s SS (Security Squad) was not only infamous for running the concentration camps and gas chambers, and for serving as the Fuhrer’s bodyguards: the world’s most notorious police force also played a key role in unearthing antiquities to ostensibly prove Aryan links to ancestral greatness.
In 1935, Hitler sanctioned an obscure but powerful research arm of the SS, the Ahnenerbe—a word meaning “something inherited from the forefathers”—to uncover ancestral treasures, to reconnect with past glories, and to present the Third Reich as a model for fairness and middle-class decency.
This ‘Nazi think tank’ recruited scholars to invent crackpot theories and to undertake archaeological digs around the world in order to authenticate Hitler’s view of Aryans as a master race (tall, blonde and blue-eyed men and women who were the geniuses of civilization). With extensive documentation, Heather Pringle’s The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust (Viking $35) unravels the little-known story of the Ahnenerbe, a ridiculous but lethal construct that used bogus science to corroborate racism and justify the murder of six millions Jews, intellectuals, gypsies (Roma) and homosexuals.
The dreamer and mover behind the Ahnenerbe was Heinrich Himmler. A thin, pale man who headed the SS, Himmler never exercised and his head was too big for his body. He was nonetheless obsessed with Aryan perfection.
It was Himmler who decided his SS men ought to look elegant in newly designed black uniforms from Hugo Boss, set off nicely by a silver death’s-head on their hats. This look, according to Himmler, would engender fear in men and “success with the girls.” Also an avid reader, Himmler maintained a list of his favourite books to recommend to others. If television had existed back in the 1930s, the exceedingly vain Himmler would likely have had his own interview program to showcase his favourite authors—the Nazi equivalent of the Oprah Book Club.
Himmler originally wanted Ahnenerbe-sponsored research to stimulate his SS men to learn more about Germanic folklore, religion and farming techniques, encouraging them to procreate the values of the Aryan race.
• In 1930s, Ahnenerbe resurrected the debunked notion that measuring cranial features could effectively indicate intelligence and superiority. Nazi scholars hoped to discover racial data that might be useful in justifying the removal of all “mixed-races” from the Reich.
• In order to channel ancient knowledge, one of Himmler’s scholars, Karl-Maria Wiligut, would go into trances. A violent alcoholic and ex-mental patient, Wiligut changed his name to Wise Thor.
• Equally bogus, the prehistorian Herman Wirth claimed to have unearthed an ancient holy script that would help Germany resurrect its former greatness. Other notables were the classical scholar Franz Altheim and his lover, the rock art researcher Erika Trautmann, who had turned down a proposal of marriage from Hermann Goring.
• To explain the origins of the universe, Himmler and Hitler were particularly excited about the Ahnenerbe-sponsored “World Ice Theory.” Its chief proponent, Hans Horbiger, prided himself on never performing calculations and thought mathematics was “deceptive.”
The Ahnenerbe’s researchers plundered foreign museums, art galleries, churches and private homes carting off valuable relics and masterworks of art. But with the onset of World War II, the activities of the Ahnenerbe became far more sinister.
• The Ahnenerbe began using prisoners as guinea pigs to measure the effects of mustard gas and typhus.
• When some SS members complained about the stress of shooting large numbers of women, children and babies in the Crimean, Himmler’s henchmen in the Ahnenerbe ranks introduced mobile gassing wagons that could kill 80 people at once. With three mobile wagons in the Crimea, the SS was able to kill nearly 40,000 people, mainly Jews.
• Human endurance at extremely high altitudes was tested using concentration camp prisoners in a vacuum chamber, resulting in extreme suffering and many deaths. Painful sterilization experiments were also conducted on humans.
• Himmler’s “scientists” were also keen to know how long parachuting aviators could survive in freezing waters and still be revived. Male prisoners were placed in ice cold tanks for hours and then laid on beds where naked female prisoners were instructed to warm them up and engage in sex.
Originally reliant on grants from a scientific and agricultural agency, Ahnenerbe also received financial help from corporate donors that included BMW. One of the organization’s key sources of loot was Adolf Hitler’s chauffeur. In 1936, when Nazi party member Anton Loibl wasn’t driving the Fuhrer to and from work, he was moonlighting as an inventor. One of his inventions was the shiny piece of glass now commonly mounted on bicycles to make them more visible at night. When Himmler learned of Loibl’s “bicycle reflector” innovation, he inked a deal to produce the new product. As head of the German police, Himmler was able to insure the passing of a new traffic law that required all new German bicycles to have a reflector.
By 1942, Himmler was trapped in a frustrating marriage to a 50-year-old. Wanting more children, he took his blond secretary, twelve years younger, as his mistress. She became ensconced in a mansion where he called her Little Bunny.
When Gerda Bormann and her children dropped by for a visit, Little Bunny showed them a special room where a chair was made of human legs and feet. There was also copy of Mein Kampf with a cover made from human skin. According to Pringle, even the children of Martin Bormann, a man known as the “zealous executor,” were creeped out.
In 1945, Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in their bunker beneath Berlin, and Heinrich Himmler fled using an identification card he stole from a police officer. After only a few weeks on the run as a member of the Nazi guerrilla movement called Werwolf, Himmler devised a scheme to gain his freedom: He would offer his services to the occupying British and American forces, organizing Werwolf to fight against Communism. When this offer was rejected, Himmler swallowed a cyanide capsule during a medical examination and strip search.
Some of the Ahnenerbe scholars were arrested, tried, disgraced, executed or killed themselves, but others enjoyed highly-respected careers. In the last chapter, Heather Pringle tracks down 90-year-old Ahnenerbe member Bruno Berger in a quiet German town. Berger, a so-called expert in racial studies, only displayed emotion when discussing the war crime trial he had endured, muttering about “how the law is biased.” During several hours of conversation, he was unrepentant, believing that Jews should be regarded as a mongrel race.
The Master Plan is a restrained work of reportage, without proselytizing or exploitation, but, on page 316, Pringle cites a 1971 survey that once revealed fifty per cent of the German population believed “National Socialism [Nazism] was fundamentally a good idea which was merely badly carried out.”
Essay Date: 2006