Notes From the Margins…

Himmler, Breivik and the ‘invention of tradition’

  • February 22, 2012
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I’ve just read Heather Pringle’s magisterial The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust.  It’s an astonishing and ground-breaking feat of scholarship which traces the obscure history of the Ahnenerbe, the elite ‘study society for Intellectual Ancient History’ created by Himmler to investigate the SS chief’s historical fantasies and quack theories about Aryan racial origins.

Himmler was something of a romantic and a quasi-mystic, whose profound antipathy to the modern world was reflected in his fascination with the medieval Teutonic Knights and ideas about racial prehistory that had no basis in historical fact or rational analysis.  As Pringle puts it

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 hemogloblin supplied Germany’s ancestors with heightened powers of creativity and intelligence.

The Ahnenerbe was founded in 1935 in order to prove these theories.   Lavishly funded under the direct tutelage of Himmler and the SS, it  recruited archaeologists, anthropologists, zoologists, musicologists and academics from many different disciplines who were sent back and forth across the world on research expeditions in order to trace the history of the Aryan/Nordic peoples.

Some went to Sweden to take plaster casts of runic symbols and cave drawings.   Others went on expeditions to Finland, the Himalayas, Tibet and Bolivia to measure skulls or categorize racial features in an attempt to find ‘Aryan’ traces.  These scholars included reputable scholars who were committed racists, as well as quacks and frauds.  They also included careerists and opportunists of the kind that appear in every society, who were prepared to research theories that they themselves believed to be futile and even ridiculous in order to boost their reputations or get funding.

They included men like Ernst Schafer, the intrepid young zoologist who carried out expeditions to Tibet for the Ahnenerbe in search of an ancient Aryan presence in inner Asia – a presence that Himmler attributed to the divine origins of the Aryans who  ‘came down from heaven to settle on the Atlantic continent.’  Schafer himself believed that these ideas were nonsensical and unscientific, but continued to pay lip service to them in order to make use of Himmler’s patronage.

Other academics followed the same trajectory.  And there were also men such as the utterly sinister anatomist August Hirt, who led a 1943 Ahnenerbe project to kill 86 Jewish prisoners in order to obtain their skeletons.    And the archaeologist Herbert Jankuhn, who accompanied the invading Nazi armies into the Crimea in 1942 collecting pottery and other artefacts that he believed would prove the existence of a great Gothic empire.

Throughout these investigations, Jankuhn was serenely indifferent to the  massacres that were being perpetrated by the Einzatzgruppen murder squads all around him, yet he later went on to enjoy a distinguished post-war academic career in West Germany.

Pringle tells this bleak tale of pseudo-scholarship, fantasy and mass murder with flair and brilliance, and her book deserves to be placed alongside Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors,  in its remorseless  examination of the perversion of scientific ideals and methodology in the service of Nazi genocide.

Himmler’s Scholars also makes salutary reading at a time when  the European far-right is stronger than it has been at any time since the end of the war.     There used to be a ‘happy ending’ interpretation of World War II, which argued that the crimes and horrors of Nazism had purged Europe of the racist ideas that had once enjoyed considerable intellectual respectability in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nazism may have been unique in many respects, but it was not some freakish historical aberration.  It was an extreme expression of German nationalism and European anti-Semitism, whose genocidal projects drew on precedents that were already well-established in the course of European colonialism and imperial conquest, and which allied itself to  a wider ideological constellation of political forces with very similar views that extended across the continent.

Today the descendants of these forces are stronger politically than at any time since World War II.   The ‘respectable’ far-right tends to talk about culture or ‘immigration’ – specifically Muslim immigration – rather than race, biology or pseudo-mystical references to ‘pure’ or ‘defiled’ blood as the basis of national identity or superiority.

Some present themselves as defenders of liberal tolerance or culture against the Muslim Other or the corrosive impact of ‘multiculturalism’.   Others depict specific ethnic groups such as the Roma as a cause of crime and insecurity.    Even in Poland, a country that was once decimated by genocide and Nazi violence,  neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists now talk of ‘Poland for the Poles’ and scrawl anti-Semitic slogans in Jewish graveyards, despite the fact that Poles make up more than 90 percent of the population and there are few Jews left.

In Hungary the ultra-nationalist  Fidesz party dreams of a ‘greater Hungary’ which unites all the ethnic Hungarian communities left in neighbouring countries after the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon.  In Greece the Golden Dawn party – a party who membership is limited to ‘  only Aryans in blood and Greeks in descent’ –  has carried out a number of pogroms in downtown Athens in an attempt to drive out Third World immigrants depicted as threat to Greek national identity and ‘civilisation.’

Many of these groups also look to the past for inspiration in ways that are no less fantastic or delusional than the ideas of the Ahnenerbe.  In Malta last year, I listened to Norman Lowell, the founder of the racist Imperium Europa party, describe his aspiration to build an ‘organic’ racial empire of ‘Europids’ who would be restored to their purified natural state through the starvation or expulsion of racially inferior or incompatible peoples.

In two months time Anders Breivik will be tried for last year’s murder spree – a spree that was partly inspired by the same anti-modern romanticism of Himmler, with its idealised evocation of the Knights Templar as the defenders of Europe’s cultural ‘purity’.  Long before his homicidal onslaught on ‘cultural Marxism’,  Breivik attempted to provide intellectual justification for it, in his Internet manifesto and accompanying video.

The Internet overflows with videos of the type that Breivik produced to justify his actions, in which images of Charlemagne, the Knights Templar, cathedrals, churches are accompanied by classical music as a romantic counterpoint to the Muslim barbarians who threaten them.

Today the ‘invention of ‘tradition’ which Breivik and his fellow-travellers are engaged in no longer speaks of national communities linked by ‘blood’, as the Nazis did, and many of them insist that they are ‘not racist’.    But their ultimate objectives are always the same: to fuel the hatred and exclusion of a particular ‘out-group’ in order to unite an imagined ‘in group’ whose purity and integrity is supposedly under threat.

In order to do this, such groups will make use of whatever ideas and theories are available, and in periods of social crisis their spores can germinate and gain ground, so that even the most horrific acts can seem justified and legitimate.

Pringle’s brilliant book is a terrifying reminder of how the Nazis attempted to rationalise and justify forms of exclusion and domination that culminated in war and genocide, and the motley collection of intellectuals who lent their expertise to this dark agenda.

And the blue-eyed, baby-faced killer Anders Breivik is a reminder that these forces are still with us today, even if they come in a different guise



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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