Nazi archaeology refers to the movement led by various Nazi leaders, archaeologists, and other scholars, such as Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, to research the German past in order to strengthen nationalism. This movement, which set out to bring the glory of the Roman Empire back to Germany, was based on ideas of Tacitus' Germania.


The start of the search for a strongly nationalistic, Aryan-centric national prehistory began after the loss of World War I in 1918 and was worsened by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. During this time period the country was in a financial and economical crisis and it was also the same time when Adolf Hitler began to rise to power. Although Hitler was behind the party's funding for German prehistorical research, the first inflectional prehistorian is said to be Gustaf Kossinna. The theories and ideas of Gustaf Kossinna were also picked by the Nazi organizations Amt Rosenberg and Germanen-Erbe. Using proof of Germany as the origin place of civilization the Nazi Party were able to use pseudoarchaeology to persuade the German people.[1]

Tacitus' GermaniaEdit

The original ideas of using archaeology as nationalistic propaganda was fed by the Roman historian Tacitus' description of the Teutons in his AD 98 work Germania. In it, Tacitus praised the Teutonic barbarians for their undaunted struggle against the Roman occupation force. He described them as "noble savages" as a counter-image to the "moral corruption" that was predominant in his own contemporary decadent Rome. The Nazi Party had exactly the same idealized view of their own time. They rejected the more and more consuming decadent city life, which they blamed on Jews, "lesser blood races",[citation needed] and Communist infiltrators, and sought to return to a more original way of life, where "old virtues were honored again, and life could be lived in concordance with Nature and the earth which provided the daily bread".[citation needed] A world inhabited by "decisive, strong men and honorable, fertile women".[citation needed][2]

The Ahnenerbe undertook a search for more copies of Germania, but even as they did so, they began constructing a series of "super-myths" regarding the glory of the old Germania, which eventually led to a well-developed theory of Nazi archeology, complete with five core tenets.


  1. Kulturkreise theory, which stated that recognition of an ethnic region is based on the material culture excavated from an archeological site. This theory was used by the Nazis to justify takeover of foreign lands such as Poland and the Czech Republic. For example, in his article The German Ostmark, Gustav Kossinna argued that Poland should be a part of the German empire, since any lands where an artifact was titled “Germanic” was declared to be ancient Germanic territory, "wrongfully stolen" by "barbarians".[1]
  2. Social Diffusion theory, which stated that cultural diffusion occurred from a process whereby influences, ideas and models were passed on by more advanced peoples to the less advanced which they came into contact with. Examples offered by Kossinna and Alfred Rosenberg presented a history of Germany equivalent to that of the Roman Empire, suggesting that “Germanic people were never destroyers of culture- not like the Romans- and the French in recent times.” Combined with Nazi ideology, this theory gave the perfect foundation for the view of Germany as the locomotive of world civilization.[3]
  3. Weltanschauungswissenschaften or World View Sciences, which stated that culture and science were as one, and carried certain "race-inherent values". The theory suggested that older cultural models, such as sagas, stories and legends, should be not only reincorporated into mainstream culture, but that "the guiding principle in Germany must be to emphasize the high cultural level and the cultural self-sufficiency of the Germanic people.” Examples were the use of Aryan-styled regalia such as the swastika, the use of German legends and runic symbols in the SS, and the idea that German scientists and their conclusions were more correct than the views of "lesser-race" scientists.
  4. Deutsche Reinheit, or Pure German Man, suggesting that Germans were "pure Aryans" who had survived a natural catastrophe and evolved a highly developed culture during their long migration to Germany. It also suggested that Greeks were 'Germanic', claiming evidence that certain "Indogermanic" artifacts could be found in Greece. This theory supported the Kulturkreise theory tangentally, in that archeologists who did not approve of the uses of Kulturkreise theory (moderates) could support this theory.
  5. The unspoken, unpublished point of Nazi archaeology was summed up in the actions and purpose of the Ahnenerbe, which was the wholesale creation of "archaeology" that would support the propaganda machine of the Nazi regime.

Organizations and OperationsEdit



The Ahnenerbe Organization, commonly known as Deutsches Ahnenerbe – Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte (German Ancestry - Research Society for Ancient Intellectual History ) was an organization started as the Research Institute for the Prehistory of Mind and was connected to the SS in 1935 by Walther Darre. In 1936 it was attached to Hitler’s Reichsfuehrer-SS and led by chief of police Heinrich Himmler. By 1937, it was the primary instrument of Nazi archaeology and archaeological propaganda, subsuming smaller organizations like Reinerth's Archaeology Group, and filling its ranks with "investigators". These included people like Herman Weirt, co-founder of the Ahnernerbe Organization, who attempted to prove that Northern Europe was the cradle of Western Civilization. Although it included some real archaeologists with extreme views, such as Hans Reinerth and Oswald Meghin (who became high-ranking party officials due to their cooperation), much of the membership of Ahnenrbe were second-hand archaeologists or untrained scientists, backed up by amateur enthusiasts.[4]

The main goals of the organization were:

  1. To study the space, ideas and achievements of the Indo-Germanic people
  2. To bring the research findings to life and present them to the German people
  3. To encourage every German to get involved in the organization.

Although the organization claimed to have a goal in research, Himmler had no official training in archaeology and was known for having interest in mysticism and the occult. Himmler defined the organization as working toward a prehistory that demonstrates the pre-eminent position occupied by the Germans and their Germanic predecessors since the beginning of civilization. He is quoted as saying, “A nation lives happily in the present and the future so long as it is aware of its past and the greatness of its ancestors.”[5]

The Ahnenerbe had a large problem in finding scientists to work on the projects and was run by mainly scholars from branches of humanities, which made their research more amateurish. The group went on to be responsible for pseudoarchaeology, illustrated by open-air displays of Germanic idolatry such as the Externsteine, a sandstone formation that was thought to have been a key Germanic cult site. Another example is the Sachsenhain, where allegedly 4500 Saxons were executed as a punishment for Widukind’s uprising. This site was used as an idealized shrine, considered sacred to the Germanic people and highlighting their readiness for self-sacrifice.

Many other cases were censored from the public since they did not have the correct Germanic interpretations. The sites chosen to excavate were limited to those of Germanic superiority such as Erdenburg were the Ahnenerbe claimed to have clear evidence of the victorious campaign of the Germani against the Romans.

Some of the Ahnenerbe's most extravagant activities include:

  • Edmund Kiss tried to travel to Bolivia in 1928 to study the ruins of temples in the Andes mountains. He claimed their similarity to ancient European construction indicated they were designed by Nordic migrants, millions of years earlier.
  • In 1938, Dr. Franz Altheim and his research partner Erika Trautmann requested the Ahnenerbe sponsor their Middle East trek to study an internal power struggle of the Roman Empire, which they believed was fought between the Nordic and Semitic peoples.
  • In 1936 they had an expedition to the German island of Rügen, and then to Sweden, with the object of examining rock-art which they concluded was 'proto-Germanic'.
  • They took a huge interest in the Bayeux Tapestry, going so far as to attempt archaeological digs to find other contemporary artwork that would support their assertion of Germanic might.[4]
  • The Ahnenerbe sent an expedition to Tibet in 1938, that was meant to prove Aryan Superiority by confirming the Vriltheory, a theory using Edward Bulwer-Lytton's book Vril, the Power of the Coming Race as a foundation. Their study included measuring the skulls of 376 people and comparing native feature to those associated with Aryans. The expedition's most scientific findings are associated with biological finds.

Amt RosenbergEdit

A smaller, more professional group of archeologists, at least in their background training, was led by Rosenberg and part of his Amt Rosenberg organization. It was staffed with archeologists who signed on to some of Rosenberg's later thinking and theory. Rosenberg saw world history as shaped by the eternal fight between the nordisch atlantic, or the pure blooded men of Atlantis, and the semitischen, or Jewish peoples. To him, only the Germanic people brought culture to the world, while Jews brought evil. He speculated that the people of Germany were survivors from Atlantis, and migrated to Germany. He saw Germans as a distinct race, not only in biological terms but in mental phenomena and in their 'will to live'. In this, he advocated race materialism, stating that only the fittest race (Aryans) should survive, a tenet that would later shape the Nazi policy on the Final Solution. Amt Rosenberg was dedicated to finding archeological evidence of the superiority of Germanic culture and of Atlantis, and in this it was much aided (and in turned, gave aid to) the Thule Society.

Goals of Nazi archaeologyEdit

To the publicEdit

Nazi Archaeology was rarely conducted with an eye to real, pure research, but was a propaganda tool designed to both generate nationalistic pride in Germans and provide scientific excuses for conquest. The German people were drawn into the idea of Germany as the site of the origins of civilization through several things. For one there were a series of movies put out by Lothar Zotz with titles like Threatened by the Steam Plow, Germany’s Bronze Age, The Flames of Prehistory, and On the Trail of the Eastern Germans. These motives used the appeal of myths, older times, and German triumph over change to reinforce the idea that German history was something to be proud of, while at the same time taking advantage of the fact that since these periods of history were little known to the general public, they could include heavy doses of propaganda.

Additionally, public journals gained popularity such as Die Kunde (The Message) and Germanen-Erbe (Germanic Heritage). With the journals and movies the citizens thought they were being given good visuals and interpretations of different archaeological sites and learning more about the 'true' German prehistory.

The Nazis also pushed the public to get involved in the search for the past, using the appeal of patriotism as a tool. For example, one amateur organizations membership flyer of the Amt Rosenberg stated, “Responsibility with respect to our indigenous prehistory must again fill every German with pride!” The goal of the organization was also stated as, “the interpretation and dissemination of unclassified knowledge regarding the history and cultural achievements of our northern Germanic ancestors on German and foreign soil.”

Along with appealing to public patriotism there were open-air museums that reconstructed Neolithic and Bronze Age lake settlements at Unteruhldigen. These public museums also gained immense popularity and pushed the people to believe and search for their Germanic past.

All of this, gathered together, created a skein of Germanic pride that was used to reinforce the nationalistic, fascist message Adolf Hitler was crafting with his speeches, open-air meetings, and public image.[6]

To archaeologistsEdit

Prior to the formation of the Ahnenrbe, there was little funding for or interest in Germanic archaeology. This reality made it even easier for the Nazis to push their ethnocentric views onto the uninformed public, but the true effect was felt in some scholarly circles. German scholars that specialized in archaeology had long been envious of the advancements in archaeology their neighbors had made during their excavations in the Middle East; however, such archaeologists could do little.

With Hitler that changed: funds were made available for scholars to make great advancements beyond their neighboring countries. Under the Nazi rule, archaeology went from having one chair in prehistory in Marburg in 1933 to having nine chairs in 1935. Once archaeology started gaining popularity scholars were also able to excavate castles, old ruins and the like, and bring back pieces for display in museums.

One example for those changes: The Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (Roman-Germanic central museum) in Mainz became for a time the Zentralmuseum fur deutsche Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Central museum for pre- and early German history) in 1939.[5] (Note the difference between the original "Römisch-Germanisch" which denotes a historical period, and "deutsche", implicating continued history and one people. Approximately "Anglo-Saxon" and "English" would be a similar difference.)

In their enthusiasm for the Nazi regime's support of archaeology, many German archaeologists became pawns and puppets of the real goals behind the movement. They answered to the requests of the Ahnenrbe, and not always in the interests of pure archaeology.

Notable FiguresEdit

Gustaf KossinnaEdit

Nationalistic theories of Gustaf Kossinna about origins and racial superiority of Germanic peoples influenced many aspects of Nazi ideology and politics. He is also considered to be a precursor of Nazi archaeology. Kossinna was trained as a linguist at university in Göttingen, Leipzig, Berlin, and Strasbourg but eventually earned the chair for Germanic Archeology at the University of Berlin. He laid the ground theories for an ethnocentric German prehistory. One of his theories, Kulturkreis theory, was a basis on which Nazi archeology was founded. Kossinna also published for mass distribution books that were useful tools for German propaganda and created archaeological "expeditions" that allowed for the Nazis to use Kulturkreis theory as an excuse for territory expansion. In one of his most popular books, Die deutsche Vorgeschichte-eine hervorragend nationale Wissenschaft (German Prehistory: a Pre-eminently National Discipline), Kossinna brings forward the idea of an Aryan race superior to all peoples, the Germani, and shows Germany as the key to an unwritten history. The point of the book is clear from the beginning as the dedication reads, “To the German people, as a building block in the reconstruction of the externally as well as internally disintegrated fatherland.” Kossinna died in 1931, 13 months before Hitler seized power.[1]

Alfred RosenbergEdit

Alfred Rosenberg was a Nazi Party ideologist who supported excavation and the study of provincial Roman Germany. He stated, as a summary of his research and thoughts, that “An individual to whom the tradition of his people and the honor of his people is not a supreme value, has forfeited the right to be protected by that people.” Rosenberg’s prospective on German prehistory led mainly to racist distortion of data, which did not directly apply to the Germanic people. Rosenberg’s book Der Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts (The Myth of the Twentieth Century) gave support to the concept of a new Germanic religion. Rosenberg’s theory, Weltanschauungswissenschaften, was implicit in the idea that Germany had the right to crush other nations - or even exterminate them - since German culture was "superior". He also tried to prove that the Nordic-Aryans originated in a lost landmass identified with Atlantis, and that Jesus was not a Jew but an Aryan Amorite.[5]

Hans ReinerthEdit

Hans Reinerth was the main archaeologist Rosenberg used. Reinerth is famous for his excavations at the Federsee and he saw the Nazi Party as a tool he could use to work his way up in society. This is just what occurred, and in 1934 Rosenberg appointed him to the position of “Reich Deputy of German Prehistory.” This made him the spokesman for the “purification and Germanisations of the German prehistory". Reinerth followed Hitler’s theory, Zutreffenden Männer deutsche reinheit. Though this theory never really came into full effect, Reinerth pushed it heavily as Reich Deputy, and encouraged archaeological exploration. His archaeological group, along with the Ahnenerbe organization, was used to the Nazi’s full advantage since it was "professional".[7]

Other Nazi ArchaeologistsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Arnold, Bettina "The past as propaganda: How Hitler's archaeologists distorted European prehistory to justify racist and territorial goals." Archaeology July/Aug 1992: 30-37
  2. Lund, Allan A.: De etnografiske kilder til Nordens tidlige historie (1993), s. 240
  3. Christopher Hale. Himmler's Crusade: The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race,p200. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. ISBN 0-471-26292-7
  4. 4.0 4.1 Kater,Michael; Das “Ahnenerbe” der SS 1935–1945. Ein Beitrag zur Kultur-politik des Dritten Reiches, Munich 1997
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Arnold, Bettina "The past as propaganda: totalitarian archaeology in Nazi Germany." Antiquity Sept/Dec 1990: 464-478
  6. Heim, Susanne. Autarkie und Ostexpansion. Pflanzenzucht und Agrarforschung im Nationalsozialismus. 2002
  7. Harke, Heinrich. Archaeology, Ideaology, and Society: The German Experience. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2002

External linksEdit