Eastern Europe as a "Sub-Germanic Space": Scholarship on Eastern Europe under National Socialism

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Institutions and Networks of Volkisch Scholarship

The Volkisch People and German Soil. In 2008, Ingo Haar, Michael Fahlbusch, and Nicolas Berg published their Handbuch der volkischen Wissenschaften: Personen--Institutionen--Forschungsprogramme--Stiftungen. (1) Its appearance represents an important milestone in the study of history and the social sciences as practiced in Germany and Austria from the 1920s to the 1940s. Volkisch does not easily lend itself to definition, since it always held multivalent connotations, including the "experience" of the "people" (Volk) and of the "ethnic community" (Volksgemeinschaft). (2) Nonetheless, scholars in many fields proved receptive to the influence of the volkisch movement. Its roots can be traced both to the Wilhelminian and the Weimar eras, to academic and middle-class members of the right-wing milieu; and it encompassed a variety of ideologies, myths, and lifestyles. The movement's impact on scientific disciplines after 1918 centered on a redefinition of Germandom--as a people and as an ethnic community or ethnic body (Volkskorper). Participants invoked German culture-bearing and a territory of German soil and culture that stretched far beyond the borders of the German Empire or Weimar Republic (not to mention Austria). In the volkisch movements, transitions between ethno-nationalism and racism were fluid and usually associated with anti-Judaism (expressed, for example, in the desire to "de-Judaize" Christianity) and antisemitism in all its different manifestations. The preoccupation with Germandom led to demands that went beyond claims to cultural hegemony in Central Europe. (3) To various degrees, history, sociology, ethnology, theology, and geography opened themselves up to volkisch thinking; occasionally experimenting with new methods, scholars in these fields wished to make themselves useful to the administration.

Those academic disciplines labeled "volkisch" in Handbuch der volkischen Wissenschaften both systemized social and political perceptions of reality and created new scientific categories. The outbreak of war in 1939 offered some disciplines and scholars the chance to go beyond interpreting reality to influencing and shaping it. In the worst cases, they did so weapon in hand. Volkisch scholarship, once antiquarian and conservative, became activist. When volkisch attitudes combined with brutal activism, which aimed to create a Teutonic-Germanic master race in Europe, they formed the basis of National Socialist war policy. That war policy absorbed many elements of the volkisch movement, even as it abandoned several of the movement's key principles.

The Handbuch documents these processes admirably. Contributions by 85 authors offer easy access to important components of the so-called volkisch sciences. As the subtitle suggests, it covers people, research institutes, foundations, and publications, concentrating on those aspects of history, ethnography, and sociology with greatest practical application to "ethnic scholarship" (Volkswissenschaften). The publishers express regret that race hygiene, the study of German literature, and art history could not be studied in greater depth. Readers may also regret that demography, racial anthropology, and spatial planning--all of which were crucially important to the National Socialists--are discussed only in passing.

Handbuch der volkischen Wissenschaften is only one of several important publications of the past decade that concentrate on so-called Ostforschung* and Ostexperten. (4) This review article explores the new perspectives and insights they provide into the significance of volkisch scholarship under National Socialism and that scholarship's contribution to demographic policies--including policies of extermination--in occupied Eastern Europe during World War II.

Already in 1946, Max Weinreich of the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) in New York published a study of National Socialist Judenforschung. …