Sunday, January 01, 2006

Nazi Archaeology--Verboten for Modern Scholars?

Apropos of nothing, here's an ethics puzzle for you. I have seen people asking whether we should examine and possibly profit the research from the human experiments performed by the Nazis in concentration camps. It doesn't take much mulling to answer in the negative, in my opinion. That body of research is too stained for anyone of any moral sensibility to touch. Burn it all, unread.

But there is a similar scenario we can pose that is not quite so stark, or not obviously so. It concerns the archaeological investigations by Heinrich Himmler's Ahnenerbe, or Ancestors' Heritage, which was part of the SS. This division was tasked with building up the mythic status of the German Volk by digging up the glories of the ancient German past. It employed real archaeologists, unlike the cranks and pseudoscientists in the Nazis' racialist theorizing about anthropology. They did excavate and restore a number of ancient Germanic settlements. In fact, Hitler felt they were doing too good of a job:
"Why are we trying to bring to the attention of the world the fact that we have no past? Isn't it enough that the Romans built massive buildings, while our forefathers still had to live in miserable huts? Himmler has now started digging up the remains of these miserable dwellings, and is enthralled by every pottery shard or any stone axe he finds. The only thing that comes out of that is, that it is now clear to everyone that we were still throwing stone axes and huddling around the fire at a time when the Greeks and the Romans had for a long time reached the highest cultural level. In reality, we should keep quiet about our past, but instead Himmler is creating a quite unneccesary fuss with his activities. The Romans of our days must be highly amused over Himmler's discoveries!"

That from Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich, 1970.

So, your question. Would it be right or wrong for modern scholars to avail themselves of this body of scholarship? (In actual fact, I do not know whether Nazi archaeology is cited today or not.) We would of course reject the racial purity and superiority claptrap that the Nazis loaded onto their finds. The ancient Germanic tribes were and remain a legitimate area of archaeological inquiry despite the Nazis' projection of their racialist dreams into them. Just like genetics remains a legitimate field despite the Stalin-approved quackery of Lysenko. So, would the raw data from the finds be morally acceptable for modern scholars to work with? Why or why not? Just asking...


  1. You raise an interesting question, but one that will possibly be answered in time once a few souls can be wrangled away from the ever popular classical and medieval archaeology. As you say, racial purity and the concept of race has dogged archaeology and anthropology since the day of inception back in the early 1800's. If anything has been written on Germanic tribes, which I think there have been, though I haven't poked my nose about, it would be written under the auspices of "early medieval" Germany or "ancient Germany." Sadly, at the heart of it all, besides scientific and cultural interest, is also money and finding those willing to fund excavations and time to analize the artifacts found.

  2. A lot of the things we now know were learned through research we would today consider unethical. The reason we accept that is because most of us don't know it and don't have to think about it. I would think that more time would be necessary before the general public or even researchers would be comfortable with learning from Nazi experiments that we cannot approve of. But how much time? Surely there are some who feel enough time has passed already. I would think it will have an opportunity to leak into our general knowledge over the coming years and decades.

    But I think most people won't want to know the origin, still.


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