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The Ahnenerbe ("Inheritance of the Forefathers") was a National Socialist scientific institute that was to research the archaeological and cultural history of the hypothesized Aryan race. Founded on July 1, 1935, by Heinrich Himmler, Herman Wirth, and Richard Walther Darré, the Ahnenerbe later conducted experiments and launched voyages in an attempt to prove that prehistoric and mythological Nordic populations had once ruled the world. Its name came from an obscure German word, Ahnenerbe, meaning "something inherited from the forefathers." The official mission of the Ahnenerbe was to unearth "new evidence of the accomplishments and deeds of Germanic ancestors using exact scientific methods."
Formally, the group was called Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte‚ Deutsches Ahnenerbe e.V. ("Study society for primordial intellectual history, German Ancestral Heritage, registered society"), and was renamed in 1937, as Forschungs- und Lehrgemeinschaft das Ahnenerbe e.V. ("Research and Teaching Community of the Ancestral Heritage, registered society").
In January 1929, Heinrich Himmler was appointed the leader of the fledgling Schutzstaffel (SS). He launched a massive recruitment campaign that expanded the SS from fewer than three hundred members in 1929 to ten thousand in 1931.[page needed] Once the SS had grown, Himmler began its transformation into a "racial elite" of young Nordic males. This was to be accomplished by a new bureaucracy: The Race and Settlement Office of the SS (Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt-SS) known as RuSHA. Himmler named SS-Obergruppenführer Richard Walther Darré to lead the organisation, which determined if applicants were racially fit to be in the SS. This brought about a campaign meant to educate the new applicants about their Nordic past through weekly classes taught by senior RuSHA graduates using the periodical SS-Leitheft.
On July 1, 1935 at Berlin’s SS headquarters, Himmler met with five racial experts representing Darré and with Dr. Herman Wirth, one of Germany’s most famous pre-historians. Together they came up with an organization called “Deutsches Ahnenerbe—Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte” ("German Ancestral Heritage—Society for the Study of the History of Primeval Ideas")—later shortened to its better-known form in 1937. At the meeting they designated the official goal “to promote the science of ancient intellectual history” and appointed Himmler as the superintendent with Wirth serving as the president. Himmler appointed Wolfram Sievers Reichsgeschäftsführer (General Secretary) of the Ahnenerbe.
Wirth left the project at the beginning of 1937. On February 1, Dr. Walther Wüst was appointed the new president of the Ahnenerbe. Wüst was an expert on India and a dean at Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, working on the side as a Vertrauensmann for the Sicherheitsdienst (SS Security Service). Referred to as The Orientalist by Wolfram Sievers, Wüst had been recruited by him in May 1936 because of his ability to simplify science for the common man.[page needed] After being appointed president, Wüst began improving the Ahnenerbe: moving the office to a new headquarters that cost 300,000 Reichsmark, in the Dahlem neighborhood of Berlin. He also worked to limit the influence of “those he deemed scholarly upstarts,” which included cutting communication with the RuSHA office of Karl Maria Wiligut.[page needed] The organization was incorporated into the Allgemeine SS (General SS) in January 1939.
The Ahnenerbe had several different institutions or sections for its departments of research. Most of these were archeological but others included the Pflegestätte für Wetterkunde (Meteorology Section) headed by Obersturmführer Dr Hans Robert Scultetus, founded on the basis that Hans Hörbiger's Welteislehre could be used to provide accurate long-range weather forecasts, and a section devoted to musicology, whose aim was to determine "the essence" of German music. It recorded folk music in expeditions to Finland and the Faroe Islands, from ethnic Germans of the occupied territories, and in South Tyrol. The section made sound recordings, transcribed manuscripts and songbooks, and photographed and filmed instrument use and folk dances. The lur, a Bronze Age musical instrument, became central to this research, which concluded that Germanic consonance was in direct conflict to Jewish atonalism.
In 1935, Himmler contacted author Yrjö von Grönhagen, after seeing one of his articles about the Kalevala folklore, published in a Frankfurt newspaper. Grönhagen agreed to lead a voyage through the Karelia region of Finland, to record pagan sorcerers and witches. Because there was uncertainty about whether the Karelians would allow photography, Finnish illustrator Ola Forsell also accompanied the team. Musicologist Fritz von Bose (de) brought along a magnetophon hoping to record the pagan chants.
The team departed for their expedition in June 1936. The team’s first success was with a traditional singer, Timo Lipitsä (fi), who knew a song closely resembling one in the Kalevala although he was unaware of the book. Later, in Tolvajärvi, the team photographed and recorded Hannes Vornanen playing a traditional Finnish kantele.
One of the trip’s final successes was in finding Miron-Aku, a soothsayer believed to be a witch by locals. Upon meeting the group, she claimed to have foreseen their arrival. The team persuaded her to perform a ritual for the camera and tape recorder in which she could summon the spirits of ancestors and "divine future events."
The team also recorded information on Finnish saunas.
After a slide show on February 19, 1936 of his trip to Bohuslän, a region in southwestern Sweden, Wirth convinced Himmler to launch an expedition to the region, the first official expedition financed by the Ahnenerbe. Bohuslän was known for its massive quantity of petroglyph rock carvings, which Wirth believed were part of an ancient writing system, predating all other known systems. Himmler appointed Wolfram Sievers to be the managing director of the expedition, likely because of Wirth’s earlier troubles balancing finances.[page needed]
On August 4, 1936 the expedition set off on a three month trip starting with the German island of Rügen then continuing to Backa, Sweden, the first recorded rock-art site in Sweden. Despite scenes showing warriors, animals and ships, Wirth focused on the lines and circles he thought made up a prehistoric alphabet.
While his studies were largely based on personal belief, rather than objective scientific research, Wirth made interpretations about the meaning of ideograms carved in the rock, such as a circle bisected by a vertical line representing a year and a man standing with raised arms representing what Wirth called “the Son of God.”[page needed] His team proceeded to make casts of what Wirth deemed the most important carvings and then carried the casts to camp where they were crated and sent back to Germany. Once satisfied with their work in Sweden, the team set out on a trek through Sweden, eventually reaching the Norwegian island of Lauvøylandet.
In 1937, the Ahnenerbe sent to Val Camonica the archaeologist Franz Altheim and his wife photographer Erika Trautmann to study prehistoric rock inscriptions. The two returned to Germany claiming they found traces of Nordic runes on the rocks supposedly confirming that ancient Rome was originally of Nordic descent. Also an expedition of SS-Ahnenerbe was planned in Sardinia, in the 30s, and in the arbëreshë village of Santa Sofia d'Epiro, interested in the family vaults of the Baffa Trasci, Miracco and Masci families, but the reasons of it are still unknown.
In 1938, Dr. Franz Altheim and his research partner Erika Trautmann requested the Ahnenerbe sponsor their expedition from Central Europe through Western Asia to study an internal power struggle of the Roman Empire, which they believed was fought between the Nordic and Semitic peoples. Eager to credit the vast success of the Roman Empire to a Nordic background, the Ahnenerbe agreed to match the 4,000 RM put forward by Hermann Göring, an old friend of Trautmann who led the Reich’s Four-Year-Plan.[page needed]
In August 1938, after spending a few days traveling through remote hills searching for ruins of Dacian kingdoms, the two researchers arrived at their first major stop in Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Here Grigore Florescu, the director of the Municipal Museum, met with them and discussed both history and the politics of the day, including the activity of the Iron Guard, a fascist and anti-Semitic group.
After traveling through Istanbul, Athens and Lebanon, the researchers went to Damascus. Here they were not welcomed by the French (who ruled over Syria as a colony at the time). The newly-sovereign Kingdom of Iraq was being courted for an alliance with Germany,[page needed] and Dr. Fritz Grobba, the German envoy to Baghdad, arranged for Altheim and Trautmann to meet with local researchers and be driven to Parthian and Persian ruins in southern Iraq, as well as Babylon.
Through Baghdad the team went north to Assur where they met Sheikh Adjil el Yawar, a leader of the Shammar Bedouin tribe, and commander of the northern Camel Corps. He discussed German politics and his desire to duplicate the success of Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud who had recently ascended to power in Saudi Arabia.[page needed] With his support, the team traveled to their final major stop—the ruins of Hatra on the border of the Roman and Persian empires.
The third German Antarctic Expedition took place between 1938 and 1939. It was led by Capt. Alfred Ritscher (1879–63).
In 1937 and 1938, Gustav Riek led an excavation of the Grosse Heuneberg, where an ancient fortress had been discovered much earlier. They also studied the nearby Tumulus burial mounds, which continue to be excavated today. A private expedition of Richard Anders and Wiligut into the Murg Valley had nothing to do with the Ahnenerbe.
Quite likely the Ahnenerbe’s greatest discovery in Germany was in the southern Jura mountains of Bavaria. During an excavation of the Mauern caves, R. R. Schmidt discovered red ochre, a common pigment for cave paintings made by the Cro-Magnon.
In Fall 1937, Dr. Assien Bohmer, a Frisian nationalist who applied to the SS Excavations Department earlier that year, took over the excavation. His team proceeded to find artifacts such as burins, ivory pendants, and a woolly mammoth skeleton. They also discovered Neanderthal remains buried with what appeared to be throwing spears and javelins, a technology thought to have been developed by the Cro-Magnons.
Bohmers interpreted this to mean Cro-Magnons had left these stones in the caves over seventy thousand years before and this was therefore the oldest Cro-Magnon site in the world. To validate his claims, Bohmers travelled Europe speaking with colleagues and visiting exhibitions through the Netherlands, Belgium and France.[page needed]
At the Parisian Institute for Human Paleontology, Bohmers met with Abbé Henri Breuil, an expert on cave art. Breuil arranged for Bohmers to visit Trois Frères, a site whose owners only allowed a small number of people to visit.[page needed] First, however, Bohmers took a quick trip to London, followed by a tour of several other French points of interest: La Fond de Gaume (a site featuring Cro-Magnon cave paintings), Teyat, La Mouthe and the caves of Dordogne. Then Bohmers moved on to Les Trois-Frères.[page needed]
The Ahnenerbe took great interest in the 900-year-old Bayeux Tapestry. In June 1941, they oversaw the transport of the tapestry from its home in the Bayeux Cathedral, to an abbey at Juaye-Mondaye, and finally to the Chateau de Sourches. In August 1944, after Paris was liberated by the Allies, two members of the SS were dispatched to Paris to retrieve the tapestry which had been moved into the basement of the Louvre. Contrary to Himmler’s orders, however, they chose not to attempt to enter the Louvre, most likely because of the strong presence of the French Resistance in the historic area.
In 1937, Himmler decided he could increase the Ahnenerbe’s visibility by investigating Hans F. K. Günther’s claims that early Aryans had conquered much of Asia, including attacks against China and Japan in approximately 2000 BC, and that Gautama Buddha was himself an Aryan offspring of the Nordic race. Walther Wüst would later expand upon this, stating in a public speech that Adolf Hitler’s ideologies corresponded with those of the Buddha, since the two shared a common heritage. However, according to contemporary research Hitler himself was neither interested in the occult nor in Buddhism, and not even much in Tibet.
After the invasion of Poland, Wolfram Sievers wrote to Himmler about the need to appropriate exhibits from numerous museums. The Reich Main Security Administration’s Standartenführer Franz Six oversaw SS-Untersturmführer Peter Paulsen (de), who was commanding a small team’s foray into Kraków, with the intent of obtaining the 15th century Veit Stoss altar.
Because the Poles had foreseen the German interest in the altar, they had disassembled it into 32 pieces which were shipped to different locations—however Paulsen was able to locate each piece, and on October 14, 1939, he returned to Berlin with the altar in three small trucks, and had it stored in the locked treasury of the Reichsbank.[page needed] After conferring with Hitler, who had not initially been told of the operation to capture it, it was decided to send the altar to an underground vault in Nuremberg, for safety.
Reinhard Heydrich, then head of RSHA, sent Paulsen back to Kraków in order to seize additional museum collections.[page needed] But Göring had already sent a team of his own men, commanded by SS-Sturmbannführer Kajetan Mühlmann under the supervision of Dagobert Frey, to loot the museums. Mühlmann agreed to let Paulsen take the scientific items back to the Ahnenerbe, while keeping the artwork for Göring.
During the looting however, Hans Frank—leader of the German General Government in Occupied Poland— issued a November 22, 1939 order prohibiting the “unapproved export” of Polish items. Paulsen obeyed the order, but his colleague Hans Schleif arranged for five freightcars of loot from the Warsaw Archaeological Museum to be shipped to Poznań, which was outside Frank’s control. In return, Schleif was appointed as a trustee for Wartheland. Paulsen later tried to take credit for the freightcars' contents in his report to RSHA, but was reassigned.[page needed]
After the German army conquered the Crimea in early July 1942, Himmler sent Dr. Herbert Jankuhn, as well as Karl Kersten (de) and Baron Wolf von Seefeld, to the region in search of artifacts to follow up the recent displaying of the Kerch “Gothic crown of the Crimea” in Berlin.
Jankuhn met with senior officers of Einsatzkommando 11, part of Einsatzgruppe D, while waiting at the field headquarters of the 5th SS Panzer Division. Commander Otto Ohlendorf gave Jankuhn information about the Crimean museums.
Traveling with the 5th SS Panzer, Jankuhn’s team eventually reached Maikop, where they received a message from Sievers that Himmler wanted an investigation of Mangup Kale, an ancient mountain fortress. Jankuhn sent Kersten to follow up on Mangup Kale, while the rest of the team continued trying to secure artifacts that had not already been taken by the Red Army. Einsatzkommando 11b’s commander Werner Braune aided the team.
Jankuhn was ultimately unable to find Gothic artifacts denoting a German ancestry, even after intelligence about a shipment of seventy-two crates of artifacts shipped to a medical warehouse. The area had been ravaged by the time the team arrived, and only twenty crates remained—but they contained Greek and stone-age artifacts, rather than Gothic.[page needed]
In June 1943, 27-year-old Untersturmführer Heinz Brücher, who held a PhD from Tübingen in botany, was tasked with an expedition to Ukraine and Crimea. Hauptsturmführer Konrad von Rauch and an interpreter identified as “Steinbrecher” were also involved in the expedition.
In February 1945, Brücher was ordered to destroy the 18 active research facilities, to avoid their capture by advancing Soviet forces. He refused, and after the war continued his work as a botanist in Argentina and Trinidad.
After winning 20,000 Reichsmark in a writing contest, Edmund Kiss traveled to Bolivia in 1928 to study the ruins of temples in the Andes mountain range. He claimed their similarity to ancient European construction indicated they were designed by Nordic migrants, millions of years earlier.
He also claimed that his findings supported the World Ice Theory, which claimed the universe originated from a cataclysmic clash between gigantic balls of ice and glowing mass. Arthur Posnansky had been studying a local site called Tiwanaku, which he also believed supported the theory.
After contacting Posnansky, Kiss approached Wüst for help planning an expedition to excavate Tiwanaku and a nearby site, Siminake. The team would consist of twenty scientists and would excavate for a year as well as explore Lake Titicaca, take aerial photographs of ancient Incan roads they believed had Nordic roots. By late August 1939, the expedition was nearly set to embark, however the September first invasion of Poland saw the trip postponed indefinitely.
In 1938, Ahnenerbe president Walther Wüst proposed a trip to Iran to study the Behistun Inscription, which had been created by order of the Achaemenid Shah Darius I—who had declared himself to have been of Aryan origin in his inscriptions. The inscriptions were recorded atop steep cliffs using scaffolding that was removed after the inscriptions were made. Unable to afford the cost of erecting new scaffolds, Wüst proposed that he, his wife, an amanuensis, an Iranian student, a photographer, and an experienced mountaineer be sent with a balloon-mounted camera. The onset of the war however, saw the trip postponed indefinitely.
Early travelers to the Canary Islands had described the Guanche natives as having golden-blond hair and white skin, and mummies had been found with blond tresses—facts which Wirth believed indicated that the islands had once been inhabited by Nordics. His colleague Dr. Otto Huth proposed a Fall 1939 expedition to study the ancient islanders’ racial origins, artifacts and religious rites. At the time, the Canary Islands were part of Francisco Franco’s Spanish State (Estado Español). Because Franco refused to side with the Axis when the war started however, the trip was cancelled.
Dr. Bruno Schweizer had already traveled to Iceland three times in 1938 when he proposed an Ahnenerbe expedition with seven others to the country in order to learn about their ancient farming practices and architecture, record folksongs and dances, and also collect soil samples for pollen analysis.
The first setback for the expedition was the ridicule of the Scandinavian press, publishing stories in February 1939 claiming the expedition was based on false ideas about Icelandic heritage and sought old church records which did not even exist. An enraged Himmler publicly shut down the trip completely, but after calming down he allowed the planning of the trip to be secretly continued. The final setback occurred when Himmler’s personal staff was unable to get enough Icelandic crowns—Iceland’s currency. Not being able to quickly solve this problem, the trip was rescheduled for the summer of 1940. In May 1940, the British invaded neutral Iceland, but when the war had started the expedition had already been shelved.
In 1940, following the British occupation of Iceland, the Ahnenerbe-funded Dr. Bruno Kress, a German researcher who was in the country at the time, was rounded up along with other German nationals present on the island. Kress was interned in Ramsey on the Isle of Man, but was allowed to correspond with Sievers through letters. Kress’s Grammar of Icelandic was eventually published in East Germany in 1955. Kress also later worked for the East German Staatssicherheit (Stasi).
After being appointed Commissioner for the Strengthening of the German Race, Himmler set to work with Konrad Meyer on developing a plan for three large German colonies in the eastern occupied territories. Leningrad, northern Poland and the Crimea would be the focal points of these colonies intended to spread the Aryan race. The Crimean colony was called Gotengau, or “Goth district” in honor of the Crimean Goths who had settled there and were believed to be Aryan ancestors of the Germans.
Himmler estimated Aryanization of the region would take twenty years, first expelling all the undesirable populations, then re-distributing the territory to appropriate Aryan populations. In addition to changing the demographics of the region, Himmler also intended to plant oak and beech trees to replicate traditional German forests, as well as plant new crops brought back from Tibet. To achieve the latter end, Himmler ordered a new institution set up by the Ahnenerbe and headed by Schäfer. A station was then set up near the Austrian town of Graz where Schäfer set to work with seven other scientists to develop new crops for the Reich.
The final piece of the puzzle fell in place after Hitler read a work by Alfred Frauenfeld which suggested resettling inhabitants of South Tyrol, believed by some to be descendants of the Goths, to the Crimea. In 1939 the South Tyrolean were ordered by Hitler and Benito Mussolini to vote on whether they wanted to remain in Italy and accept assimilation or alternatively emigrate to Germany. Over 80% chose the latter (for details see: South Tyrol Option Agreement). Himmler presented Master Plan East to Hitler and received approval in July, 1942.
Full implementation of the plan was not feasible because of the ongoing war, but a small colony was in fact founded around Himmler’s field headquarters at Hegewald, near Kiev. Starting on October 10, 1942, Himmler’s troops deported 10,623 Ukrainians from the area in cattle cars before bringing in trains of ethnic Germans (volksdeutsche) from northern Ukraine. The SS authorities gave families needed supplies as well as land of their own, but also informed them of quotas of food they needed to produce for the SS.
The Ahnenerbe had tried to gain possession of the Codex Aesinas, a famous mediaeval copy of Tacitus' Germania. Although Mussolini had originally promised it as a gift in 1936, it remained in the possession of the Count Aurelio Baldeschi Guglielmi Balleani outside Ancona, from where the Ahnenerbe tried to obtain it after Mussolini was deposed.
On July 29, 1943, the Royal Air Force's firebombing of Hamburg led Himmler to order the immediate evacuation of the main Ahnenerbe headquarters in Berlin. The extensive library was moved to a castle in Ulm while the staff was moved to the tiny village of Waischenfeld near Bayreuth, Bavaria. The building selected was the 17th century Steinhaus. While much of the staff was not ecstatic about the primitive conditions, Sievers seems to have embraced the isolation.
Originally funded with modest grants from the German Research Foundation and the Reich Agricultural Organization, the Ahnenerbe began needing more resources. To meet this end, they created the Ahnenerbe Foundation, which sought out private donations to help fund the research. One of the largest donations, approximately 50,000 Reichsmark, came from Deutsche Bank boardmember Emil Georg von Stauß' (de) associates, including BMW and Daimler-Benz.
In 1936, the SS formed a joint company with Anton Loibl, a machinist and driving instructor. The SS had heard about reflector pedals for bicycles, that Loibl and others had been developing. Assuring that Loibl got the patent himself, Himmler then used his political weight to ensure the passing of a 1939 law requiring the use of the new reflective pedals—of which the Ahnenerbe received a share of the profits, 77,740 Reichsmark in 1938.
The Institut für Wehrwissenschaftliche Zweckforschung ("Institute for Military Scientific Research"), which conducted extensive medical experiments using human subjects, became attached to the Ahnenerbe during World War II. It was managed by Wolfram Sievers. Sievers had founded the organization on the orders of Himmler, who appointed him director with two divisions headed by Sigmund Rascher and August Hirt, and funded by the Waffen-SS.
Dr. Sigmund Rascher was tasked with helping the Luftwaffe determine what was safe for their pilots—because aircraft were being built to fly higher than ever before. He applied for and received permission from Himmler to requisition camp prisoners to place in vacuum chambers to simulate the high altitude conditions that pilots might face.
Rascher was also tasked with discovering how long German airmen would be able to survive if shot down above freezing water. His victims were forced to remain out of doors naked in freezing weather for up to 14 hours, or kept in a tank of icewater for 3 hours, their pulse and internal temperature measured through a series of electrodes. Warming of the victims was then attempted by different methods, most usually and successfully by immersion in very hot water, and also less conventional methods such as placing the subject in bed with women who would try to sexually stimulate him, a method suggested by Himmler.
Rascher also experimented with the effects of Polygal, a substance made from beets and apple pectin, on coagulating blood flow to help with gunshot wounds. Subjects were given a Polygal tablet, and shot through the neck or chest, or their limbs amputated without anaesthesia. Rascher published an article on his experience of using Polygal, without detailing the nature of the human trials and also set up a company to manufacture the substance, staffed by prisoners.
Similar experiments were conducted from July to September 1944, as the Ahnenerbe provided space and materials to doctors at Dachau to undertake “seawater experiments”, chiefly through Sievers. Sievers is known to have visited Dachau on July 20, to speak with Ploetner and the non-Ahnenerbe Wilhelm Beiglboeck, who ultimately carried out the experiments.
Walter Greite rose to leadership of the Ahnenerbe’s Applied Nature Studies division in January 1939, and began taking detailed measurements of 2,000 Jews at the Vienna emigration office—but scientists were unable to use the data. On December 10, 1941, Beger met with Sievers and convinced him of the need for 120 Jewish skulls. During the later Nuremberg Trials, Dr. Friedrich Hielscher testified that Sievers had initially been repulsed at the idea of expanding the Ahnenerbe to human experimentation, and that he had “no desire whatsoever to participate in these.”
Much misinformation about the Ahnenerbe has circulated, due in part to adaptations of the group in fiction, and historically dubious conspiracy theories which sometimes confuse the Ahnenerbe with the roughly contemporaneous Thule Society, or the historically unverified Vril society.
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One of the most in-depth analyses of Ahnenerbe was historian Michael Wood's Channel 4 (UK) documentary Hitler's Search for the Holy Grail, part of its Secret History series, broadcast in August 1999.