Our guest blogger is James R. Dow, whose new UWP book is published today: Heinrich Himmler’s Cultural Commissions: Programmed Plunder in Italy and Yugoslavia.
Traditional costumes, Folk Art Museum, Innsbruck. Photo by Reinhard Bodner.
“Oh, what a wonderful career you must have had, a specialist in German folklore! All those fairy tales and legends, beautiful folk songs, charming costumes , and those delightful buildings we’ve seen in open-air museums.”
Well, it’s more complicated than that. German folklorists and linguists included world-famous scholars, beginning with the Brothers Grimm and continuing well into the twentieth century. As the Nazis rose to power, however, these disciplines were distorted into racist pseudoscience. Under the direction of Heinrich Himmler’s SS-Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Inheritance), folklore became a tool for constructing a unified German realm and a manufactured lineage from ancient and “pure” Germanic and Nordic blood.
German folklorists and linguists were certainly not alone in selling out to the National Socialist regime, but they were called on to provide the ideological base for Heinrich Himmler’s SS-Ahnenerbe (SS-Ancestral Inheritance). A total of fourteen men and two women, mostly highly educated, became part of cultural commissions sent on a mission to two German-speaking areas: the province of South Tyrol in Italy and Gottschee in Slovenia.
Himmler assigned them to research “the space, spirit, deed, and inheritance of the Nordic races of the Indo-Germanic realm.” The commissions adhered to a belief in a stream of blood, but it proved to be nothing more than a popularized concept of “race,” with everything based on the self-deluding construction of a unified Germanic realm. This was pseudoscience masquerading as hereditary science.
The commissions found pre-Christian tales, ancient Germanic customs, worship sites, architecture, songs sung in parallel fifths, and the last remnants of a Gothic language still very much alive in the mountains, valleys, and villages of the Southern Alps.
Cow decorated with a floral swastika. Photo courtesy of Josef Rainer.
Why is this important? Himmler’s project was arguably the largest field investigation of traditional folklore in history, and the depth of the research carried out on that “Gothic” language, Cymbrian, is unparalleled. But the research was done as part of multiple projects of the SS-Ahnenerbe, which also included conducting medical “research” on prisoners in the concentration camps at Dachau and Natzweiler. When Wolfram Sievers, the business director of the Ahnenerbe, stood trial in Nürnberg in 1946, one piece of evidence brought against him was his collection of Jewish skulls, most likely from Natzweiler. You can view part of his trial on YouTube.
This was state-sponsored research, and some of the researchers were from the same universities where German excellence in scholarship had been unquestioned. The entire undertaking in Italy and Slovenia became nothing less than an affront to honest and responsible scholarship, state-mandated or otherwise. Public sector folklore studies and linguistic documentation today can learn much from this unprecedented and unparalleled occurrence in the annals of the humanities and social science scholarship.
is a professor emeritus of German at Iowa State University. He is the author of German Folklore: A Handbook and The Study of European Ethnology in Austria. He is the editor of numerous books, including The Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythologyand Legend and The Nazification of an Academic Discipline.