German Archaeology during the Third Reich, 1933-45: A Case Study Based on Archival Evidence

By Maischberger, Martin | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview
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German Archaeology during the Third Reich, 1933-45: A Case Study Based on Archival Evidence


Maischberger, Martin, Antiquity


Introduction

The history of the archaeological disciplines in Germany during the Nazi era can be considered as a locus classicus of nationalist interpretation and misuse of the past. For some time now, various efforts have been made to enhance our understanding of this period, including several aspects related to archaeology and cultural politics. Most studies have been carried on by modern historians, but also archaeologists have engaged in historiographical research on their own discipline. Some frequently cited works like Bollmus (1970) Kater (1974) and Losemann (1977) are still fundamental for our understanding of important aspects of Nazi cultural politics as well as the involvement of traditional institutions into the dictatorial system. Recent research has continued this tradition (e.g. Junker 1997; 1998; Hammerstein 1999 and Harke 2000). All of these have made extensive use of archival sources, which have themselves become remarkably enlarged and more accessible through the reorganization of old and the opening of new archives following German reunification in 1990.

These works differ and complement each other in various ways, but they also share, to various degrees, some general assumptions and interpretations. Overall, it is considered that German scholars and scientific institutions resisted attempts at indoctrination and Gleichschaltung (bringing into line), and successfully fought against competing new Nazi organizations like the Amt Rosenberg. Instead, they continued their traditional, objective research projects and upheld a difficult balance between external, purely rhetorical consent and practical internal independence. Only few scholars are considered to have been infected with the virus of Nazi ideology, while many supposedly went into an `inner emigration' in order to avoid the choice between consent and opposition. As far as the different archaeological disciplines are concerned, there is a consensus of opinion that prehistoric archaeology was much more involved than the classical one, given the higher degree of interest by Nazi politicians in prehistory, deemed more suitable for confirming the supremacist ideology of the `Nordic race'. Classical archaeology, on the other hand, is said to have been far too elitist for giving way to the temptation of Nazi ideology with its socialist elements (Marchand 1996). Superficially, this view is certainly tenable, but it is also obvious that a more detailed investigation, including individual cases and personal documents, will enable a better appraisal of the respective involvement of these archaeological disciplines.

The study of the history of institutions alone seems therefore to be insufficient for an understanding the phenomenon of Nazi dictatorship and the consent it met with. The latter nobody can seriously deny. Loyalty towards institutions is sometimes an obstacle to a more critical investigation of their activities, thus leading to rather optimistic interpretations with the predominant concepts of `balance' and `normality'. It is our conviction that only a detailed analysis of concrete lives, careers and thoughts of persons involved can give a deeper insight into the struggles and balance of power between several competing individuals, institutions and ideologies: personal documents inform us about motivation, personal conflicts, ways of acting and their structural and psychological backgrounds. Together with that, this approach can also shed a unique light on the everyday running of an academic system in a dictatorial context, and help to further grasp the contribution of archaeological research within the frame of Nazi cultural politics.

Given the vast amount of potentially relevant archival material, and taking into account the limited size of the present study, it is proposed to construct a representative case study on the basis of three distinct individuals, each representing different forms and degrees of reactions to and involvement with the Nazi system.

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