Nazi Archaeology and Hitler's Empire
By Sasha Coles
I want you to meet German archaeologist and treasure-seeker Otto Wilhelm Rahn. Rahn clearly wasn’t as handsome as our favorite fascist-fighting academic, Indiana Jones, but some scholars figure that Rahn and his activities served as the inspiration behind Indiana and the Nazi bounty-hunters who appear in Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
Rahn spent his career in pursuit of the Holy Grail. Yes, that Holy Grail. In 1931, Rahn set out to search for it in southern France, using a text from the thirteenth century as a guide. Unfortunately, he failed, but he did discover a network of underground caves used by medieval Christian knights. The book that Rahn published about his findings eventually found its way into the hands of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS (the Nazi Party’s paramilitary force). Impressed with Rahn’s work and knowledge about the subject, Himmler offered Rahn the job of a lifetime: find the Grail on the Nazi Party’s dime. It turns out that in the 1930s and 40s, the Nazis mounted several archaeological expeditions as part of their plan for world domination. And some people tried to stop them.
What we might call “Nazi archaeology” had its roots in ideas present long before Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazis) came to power in 1933. For example, in the 1880s and 90s, archaeologist Gustaf Kossinna used artifacts to “prove” that Germanic people once occupied a much wider territory beyond Germany’s borders. Kossinna also argued that German ancestors spread civilization to less advanced cultures in the prehistoric age. In a similar vein, theorist Alfred Rosenberg posited that Germans were the most racially fit members of the “Aryan race,” a term used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to describe people of European or Western Asian descent. Rosenberg believed that human races could be placed onto a hierarchical ladder, with Aryans—labeled the “master race” by the Nazis—at the top and Jewish and black people at the bottom. Rosenberg suggested that throughout history, German people brought peace and prosperity while “Semites,” or Jewish people, introduced evil and chaos.
Archaeological projects supported by the Nazis embraced and promoted these racist ideas in the years leading up to and during World War II. Once Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany, all of the universities in the country came under his purview. Proving that German ancestors once ruled the world and that Germans were the master race became key aspects of the curriculum. Hitler dedicated quite a bit of funding to archaeological excavations intent on finding material evidence for these conclusions.
In 1935, Heinrich Himmler and other members of the SS founded the Ahnenerbe, or the Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Society. This institution hired scholars from many disciplines to justify the anti-Semitism and white supremacy of the Nazi Party. From 1935 to 1945, the Ahnenerbe mounted eighteen archaeological investigations around the world to investigate the prehistory of the supposed master race and its contributions to art, technology, agriculture, and politics. Teams traveled to Croatia, North Africa, Russia, and Iceland, for example, to excavate sites. As German forces pushed into other countries in the 1930s and 40s, archaeologists followed the military and acquired artifacts.
Nazi archaeology used many different tools to spread its propaganda. They disseminated their findings at conferences, on the radio, and in articles, books, and films. Museums brought older collections out of storage and put new artifacts on display to support these theories. Ordinary Germans became members of informal archaeological organizations at an impressive rate. The Nazis ignored, suppressed, altered, or destroyed any evidence that did not fit their arguments.
These archaeology projects helped justify the racist, nationalistic, militaristic, imperialistic, murderous agenda of the Nazis. A key ideological principle of the Nazi Party was Lebensraum (translated as “living space”). The Nazis believed that as the most advanced stock of the Aryan race, Germans needed to expand onto new land and use these territorial acquisitions to produce food and raise the next generation. Nazi archaeology projects “proved” that ancestors of the Germans once lived on land that belonged to other countries, including Czechoslovakia and Poland. Hitler used this evidence to argue that these territories constituted part of the German homeland and should be incorporated into Germany. The Nazis further justified these invasions by arguing that the people who lived in these countries were racially inferior “squatters” who needed to be removed via expulsion, enslavement, or extermination. Only the most fit people, according to the Nazis, could or should survive.
Nazi archaeology also had the effect of boosting German nationalism, Nazi patriotism, and commitment to Hitler’s political and wartime agenda. Archaeologists claimed that the German race was highly developed, that German ancestors spread enlightenment and progress, and that modern civilization began in Germany. These ideas made ordinary Germans feel proud of their past achievements and supportive of endeavors to conquer "inferior" people.
Many archaeologists actively participated or passively accepted these findings without criticism, because for the first time, these scholars were able to get funding for their research. Others openly opposed the Nazi archaeology agenda. They didn’t necessarily punch them or shoot at them, like Indiana Jones does, but they rejected the conclusions of the field and attempted to thwart these investigations.
You learn a couple of things about Nazis from the Indiana Jones movies. The Nazis pursued ancient artifacts for their presumed supernatural powers, like everlasting life. It might surprise you to hear that Heinrich Himmler actually believed that the Holy Grail would give him special abilities. Other Nazi leaders believed in werewolves, witches, vampires, aliens, clairvoyance, and other supernatural beings and forces. The second lesson you learn is also important. Indiana Jones hates Nazis. Be like Indiana Jones.
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“The Archaeology of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Indy in the Classroom
Bettina Arnold, “The Past as Propaganda: How Hitler’s Archaeologists Distorted European Prehistory to Justify Racist and Territorial Goals,” Antiquity 64 (244): 464-478
Bettina Arnold, “‘Arierdämmerung’: Race and Archaeology in Nazi Germany,” World Archaeology 38, no. 1 (March 2006): 8-31
Charles W. Bryant, “What did the Nazis have to do with archaeology?” HowStuffWorks
Michael Dirda, “It Turns Out ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ Wasn’t So Far Off About the Nazis,” Washington Post, August 2, 2017
Eric Kurlander, Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich (2017)
Oliver Miller, “50 Quotes From The Indiana Jones Movies, In Order of Awesomeness,” Thought Catalog, March 16, 2013
John Preston, “The Original Indiana Jones: Otto Rahn and the Temple of Doom,” The Telegraph, May 22, 2008