• Louise

Real-life Indiana Jones? Nazis and Archaeology

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

After re-watching the first Indiana Jones, it got me wondering: Did this actually happen in real life? Could the Nazis have actually done archaeology?

I am of course not thinking quite the Ark of the Covenant but the Nazis did actually do some archaeological 'research.'

I say research in the loosest of terms as it's not what you and I would consider archaeology but that is what they called it.

Nazi Archaeology

Nazi archaeology was the movement led by various Nazi leaders, archaeologists and other scholars to strengthen nationalism by researching the German past.

The main aim was to further research into the history of the 'Aryan race,' hoping to eventually prove that a mythical, prehistoric Nordic population ruled the planet. The Nazis believed they were descendants from this population which would justify their actions.

Archaeology was also carried out in World War Two in Nazi invaded territory, such as Poland, as an attempt to find material evidence that is was once ruled by Germans as justification for the invasion.

'Scientific' Principles of Nazi Archaeology

The Culture Circles (Kulturekreise) - a theory by Gustav Kossinna, which stated that recognition of an ethnic region is based on the material culture excavated from an archaeological site.

This theory was used by the Nazis to justify the invasion of foreign lands. For example, Kossinna argued that Poland should be part of the German Reich since any artefacts found in foreign lands that were classified as Germanic were, therefore, ancient German territory, which had "been wrongly stolen by barbarians."

The Social Diffusion Theory - this theory states that the spread of cultural ideas passes from more advanced people to the less advanced that they come into contact with. Gustaf Kossinna and Alfred Rosenberg used this theory to present a history of Germany that was equivalent to that of the Roman Empire. Pared with Nazi ideology, this created an image of Germany as the progressive country of the World's civilizations.

World View Sciences (Weltanschauungswissenschaften) - a belief that Culture and Science are one and carry certain 'race-inherent values'. To the Nazis not only did this suggested that sagas, stories and legend should be incorporated into mainstream culture, but it also suggested that 'the guiding principle in Germany must be to emphasise the high cultural level and the cultural self-sufficiency of the Germanic people.' This belief can be seen in the Nazis' use of Aryan-styled symbols such as the swastika, the use of German legends and runic symbols in the SS. There was also the idea that German scientists and their conclusions were more correct than those from 'lesser-races.'


Ahnenerbe Emblem

The Ahnenerbe Organisation, formally the Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Society (you don't want the German translation for that), was founded on the 1st July 1935 and was led by Heinrich Himmler.

Despite being founded by the military, it was classified as a private, non-profit organisation. Its' aim was to further research into the history of the 'Aryan race,' hoping to eventually prove that a mythical, prehistoric Nordic population ruled the planet. The Nazis believed they were descendants from this population which would justify their actions.

The annual budget of Ahnenerbe exceeded one million marks. This was enough to fund excavations all around the world. Teams were sent far and wide to places like Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, the Far East, Russia and even Iceland, excavating ancient hill fortress at Alltechritsburg in Prussia to a major Viking trading post at Haithabu in Northern Germany.

The first official expedition was to the Island Rugen then to Backa (the first recorded rock art site in Sweden). It lasted three months starting on the 4th August 1936. Overall, there were 18 Ahnenerbe excavations.

After the invasion of Poland, a team of archaeologists were sent there to prove that Germans had lived there first and therefore had a 'legitimate' claim to the land.

As a gift for Hitler's 50th Birthday, Himmler even gave him a set of leather-bound books, one of which contained Ahnenerbe's research.

Ahnenerbe was disbanded in 1945. Towards the end of the war, Ahnenerbe members had destroyed much of the organisation's paperwork to avoid it incriminating them in Nuremberg trials. Many of the members also escaped de-Nazification policies in West Germany and remained active in the country's archaeological organisations. The Ahnenerbe's ideas have remained popular in some Neo-Nazi and far-right circles and have also influenced later pseudo-archaeologists.

Goals of Nazi Archaeology

To the public

It was a propaganda tool to create a nationalist pride in Germans and to provide scientific reasoning for invasions. For example, there were many films put out that used the appeal of myths, olden times and German triumph to make people believe German history was something to be proud of. There were open-air museums that reconstructed Neolithic and Bronze Agelake settlements at Unteruhldingen. These public museums also gained immense popularity and pushed the people to believe in and search for their Germanic past. All this together, it was used to reinforce the nationalist and fascist messages of Adolf Hitler.

To archaeologists

There had previously been little funding and interest in German archaeology. This benefitted the Nazis in two ways: firstly, it was easier to push their views as there were little other sources available and secondly, professional German archaeologists who had been envious of other countries archaeology were now been giving the funds. This made many archaeologists a pawn of the Nazis as they answered to what Ahnenerbe wanted to hear, not in the interests of actual archaeology.

Main Takeaways

  1. The Nazis did do actually do archaeology.

  2. They had their own archaeological organisation, Ahnenerbe.

  3. It wasn't proper archaeology and was mainly used for propaganda.

I hope you enjoyed this blog post on something you (probably) didn't know something about. Please remember to subscribe to my newsletter (you can find it below) and follow me on social media (Instagram @ahellaloadofhistory and twitter @hellahistory). Also, share this with friends to surprise them with the real Indiana Jones story.

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