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The Master Plan

Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust

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The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust (book review)

The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust (book review)

Hyperion Press (c) 2006
Heather Pringle. 2006. The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust. Hyperion Books, New York. ISBN 0-7868-6886-4. 325 pages of text, 138 pages of notes, bibliography, index and acknowledgements.

Himmler's Scholars

Heather Pringle’s new book, The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust, describes the role archaeologists—and the study of archaeology—played in the ideas and the execution of the Third Reich’s Final Solution.

Heinrich Himmler, a member of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle and the man for whom the term ‘murderous bastard’ isn’t nearly strong enough, was an archaeology fan. It was Himmler’s research institute, Das Ahnenerbe ('something inherited from the forefathers') that researched, planned and executed some of the worst atrocities of the Holocaust. The Ahnenerbe employed 137 scholars, including archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, and classicists, as well as medical doctors, geologists, and botanists; and 82 support workers, including librarians, filmmakers, photographers, artists, lab technicians and secretaries. Their goal was to find evidence of the glorious deeds of Germany’s ancestors—the fictional Aryan—using scientific methods, and to communicate that information to the public, by means of magazine articles, books, museum shows and scientific conferences.

Ahnenerbe: Destroyers of Culture

Himmler believed, as did Hitler, that there were only three kinds of people in the world and ever had been. There were the founders of culture, the bearers of culture and the destroyers of culture. The founders of every civilization, according to this insidious cockamamie notion, were the Aryans, some blonde blue-eyed beautiful god-like people who lived in an icy climate. Himmler obtained scholars and others to work at the well-financed Ahnenerbe research institute through a terrifying blend of ambition and fear. Simply put, if you were a German archaeologist who wanted to advance at all during the 1930s, you had to be at the Ahnenerbe, conducting research into Aryan history and prehistory. Many scholars could not resist. Many went, happy and excited to be part of such a cutting-edge research institute.

The Jewish Skeleton Collection

Of course, I was aware that archaeologists had been involved in building the mythology of the Third Reich, from a 1990 article in Archaeology magazine by Bettina Arnold (not to mention the Indiana Jones movies). But this is a horrifying book. These scholars did not spend the war simply conducting idle research. At first the mission was to find evidence that the Aryans built such civilizations as far flung as Sumer and Tiwanaku, conducting archaeological excavations and looting the museums of central Europe; but as that didn’t pan out, they began a hysterical search for physical tests of Aryan-ness in people. What characteristics were Aryan? How could you (scientifically of course) sort out who was Aryan and who was not? And most importantly, what were the defining characteristics of the anti-Aryan, the Jewish race? When science failed them again and again—a large percentage of Jewish people in Germany were blonde, after all—in desperation the scholars of the Ahnenerbe attempted to create a Jewish Skeleton Collection by hand-selecting 86 of the healthier men and women interned in Auschwitz, killing them and macerating their bodies.

Slouching Back into Science

At the end of the war, most of the Ahnenerbe scholars disappeared into the scientific community, after brief periods of internment or as a result of lies, bribery or blackmail. Several archaeologists, like Herbert Jankuhn, Peter Paulsen, and Edward Tratz began well-regarded scholarly careers after the war, living well into their 80s and 90s and being eulogized as important German scholars.

Pringle spent four years on this project, even interviewing one of the last surviving scholars from Ahnenerbe, Bruno Beger, who assisted in the selection of the specimens for the Jewish Skeleton Collection. Personally, I don’t know how she did it. I found it almost unbearable to read the book and write this review and I feel horrifically changed by it. The book is extremely well-researched, with over 130 pages of notes, bibliographic references and index.

Ultimately, the Master Plan highlights one truly unspeakable evil of the Third Reich—not the lunatics running the asylum, but the scholars and artists who supported and worked for its success.

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