What did the Nazis have to do with archaeology?

Hitler and Himmler led the charge with the Nazi archaeology program.
Hitler and Himmler led the charge with the Nazi archaeology program.
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Archaeology may seem like an unlikely special interest for the leader of the Nazi party, but, as usual, Adolf Hitler had his reasons. 

In 1933, when Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany and leader of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party), he gained control of all of the state's institutions, including its universities. Part of Hitler's plan included changing aspects of the curriculum at these universities to align with the doctrines of the Nazi Party, one of which incorporated proving that the Germanic people were descendants of the original Aryan "master race." Hitler went about proving this by sending teams of archaeologists to excavate sites around the world that he believed would back up his theory.

Aside from helping to fuel his massive propaganda machine, Hitler also used archaeology to make his case that Germany had every right to invade surrounding countries. After the invasion of Poland in 1940, Hitler sent a group of archaeologists to try to prove that the Germans had lived there first and had legitimate claim to the land. But the quest to prove Germany's superiority didn't start with World War II; it started quite a few years earlier.

In 1935, top members of the SS, led by Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, founded the Ahnenerbe, also known as The Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Society. Although it was founded by the military, it was classified as a private, nonprofit institution and was not formally included as part of the SS until 1940. The goal of the Ahnenerbe was to delve further into research of the history of the Aryan race, with the eventual aim to prove that the mythical prehistoric Nordic population ruled the planet. The Nazis believed that Germans were the descendants of this race. Technically, the Ahnenerbe was a think tank of sorts, albeit a well-funded one. It's believed that the annual budget exceeded 1 million Deutsch marks per year. This kind of money allowed for archaeological excavations all over the world.

The Ahnenerbe sent teams of archaeologists to places like Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, the Far East, Russia, Iceland and North Africa. Excavating areas of Iceland was of particular interest to the Nazis because they believed it was the site of Thule, the area where the ancient Aryan race was thought to have been born. Himmler sent a team to Iceland in 1938 to search for a mystical place of worship, where ancient Aryans paid homage to Nordic gods like Thor and Odin. The team was hampered by restrictions from the Iceland government, and the expedition was a failure. Although they claimed to find a cave that was the location of the mystic place of worship, known as the hof, the site was proven to be uninhabited before the 18th century. In 1941, the United States and England set up camp in Iceland and thwarted further expeditions there.

In the end, the Ahnenerbe's and the Nazis' attempts to prove their ethnic superiority via archaeological digs proved fruitless and amounted to nothing more than propaganda. Myths and half truths were churned out in Ahnenerbe publications with little to no evidence to support claims that Germanic people ruled the world in prehistoric times. In total, the Nazi party and Ahnenerbe funded 18 archaeological expeditions, none of which produced the proof Germanic superiority that Himmler and Hitler desired.

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