The Ahnenerbe: How the Nazis Constructed Racial Mythologies

In National Socialist Germany, the Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) was a society dedicated to providing “scientific” proof of the Aryans’ racial superiority.

May 26, 2024By Maria-Anita Ronchini, MA History & Jewish Studies, BA History

ahnenerbe racial mythologies nazis


On July 1, 1935, in Berlin, Heinrich Himmler and Dutch-German scholar Herman Wirth, among others, founded the Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte ‘Deutsches Ahnenerbe’ (Society for the Study of the History of Primeval Ideas). According to its founders, the society was meant to be devoted to the launch of research projects aiming to find scientific evidence of the Aryan race’s superiority. From 1935 to 1945, the Ahnenerbe financed worldwide archeological excavations, expeditions, and medical experiments with the double goal of legitimizing the Third Reich’s occupation of Europe and promoting its racial ideology.


The Society for the Study of the History of Primeval Ideas

Photo of Herman Wirth, co-founder of the Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte “Deutsches Ahnenerbe.” Source: Bundesarchiv


Initially, the Ahnenerbe’s activities and ideological background were heavily influenced by Herman Wirth’s völkish theories. The concept of Geistesurgeschichte (history of primeval ideas) had been the leitmotif of Wirth’s previous research projects. The Dutch-German scholar was convinced that the roots of the Aryan race dated back to prehistoric times. Only by reclaiming this ancestral heritage would the modern-day Germans be able to return to their original glory.


While Wirth had struggled to be accepted into Germany’s academic circles, as co-founder of the Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte ‘Deutsches Ahnenerbe,’ he temporarily became a prominent Nazi scholar. He soon started combing through texts about Germanic prehistory, mythology, and folklore, hoping to gather unmistakable proof of his outlandish theories on the Aryan race, its ancient history, and religion.


From the beginning, his research projects (and those of other Ahnenerbe scholars) had a clear propagandistic intent: providing a scientific basis for the Third Reich’s claims on the spiritual and racial superiority of the Aryans. Indeed, Heinrich Himmler planned to transform the Ahnenerbe into the most prominent ideological think tank of the Nazi regime and the organizational center of the education of all future SS members.

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herman wirth was heisst deutsch
One of Herman Wirth’s books on Nordic prehistory: Was heißt Deutsch? (What Does Being German Mean?). Source: Lebendiges Museum Online, Deutsches Historisches Museum


While Himmler shared Wirth’s fascination with religious prehistory, mysticism, and the ancient Nordic tribes, the Dutch-German lecturer’s dubious academic reputation became a cause for concern for the Ahnenerbe standing within the ideological machine of the regime. Numerous German academics dismissed Wirth’s völkish theories as unfounded myths. In particular, his book on the Ura-Linda Chronicle, an alleged 13th-century Old Frisian manuscript telling the story of the destruction of a land in the North Sea called Atland, was rejected as ridiculous. Even Alfred Rosenberg criticized Wirth’s research in his The Myth of the Twentieth Century.


The “Cathedral of Light” during a Nazi Nuremberg rally. Source: Arquitectura Viva


In 1937, to salvage the reputation of the Ahnenerbe, Himmler decided to remove Herman Wirth from his post as the society’s president and replaced him with a scholar with a more respectable academic standing: Walther Wüst, a young professor of Indian Studies and future rector of the University of Munich. After the change of leadership, the society was also officially renamed Das Ahnenerbe. While Wirth’s influence on the Ahnenerbe considerably decreased, his passion for ancient Nordic religious rites and mysticism contributed to the creation of the image of the Ahnenerbe as an occultist society devoted to mysterious esoteric endeavors.


Searching for the “Ancestral Heritage”: Expeditions & Research Projects

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A copy of the September 1937 issue of the Ahnenerbe’s magazine Germanien. Source: Lebendiges Museum Online, Deutsches Historisches Museum


Under Wüst’s aegis, the Ahnenerbe underwent a series of organizational changes that led to a considerable expansion. By the end of the war, the society consisted of 45 departments devoted to a wide range of research topics, including Germanic art history, archeology, biology, and Inner Asian studies. From 1937 to 1945, the Ahnenerbe sent anthropologists, zoologists, archeologists, linguists, and musicologists from solid academic backgrounds to worldwide expeditions that shared the same ideological objective: finding artifacts and other material evidence to prove the ancestral supremacy of the Aryan race.


According to the 1937 statute, the study of the space, spirit, and actions of the Indo-Germanic race was the first of the three main objectives of the Nazi society. Besides funding research projects and expeditions, the Ahnenerbe also planned to spread its scholars’ findings among the German population, thus establishing the regime’s interpretation of the past as the official version of events.


In particular, the Ahnenerbe started publishing a monthly magazine titled Germanien. Monatshefte für Germanenkunde zur Erkenntnis deutschen Wesens (Monthly Issue of Germanic Studies for the Discovery of the German Spirit) to promote its research. At the same time, Himmler and Wüst intended to extend their society’s reach and influence to the academic world. By the end of the 1930s, monographs and articles of scholars affiliated with the Ahnenerbe were regularly included in prestigious issues. On the other hand, the works of academics who did not share the Nazis’ worldview were censored.


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Looking for the Ur-Aryans? Ernst Schäfer in Tibet. Source: Der Spiegel


Initially, Ahnenerbe scholars searched for traces of the Aryans’ glorious primeval past in the European continent, especially the northern areas. They studied petroglyphs found in the Swedish town of Bohuslän and inscriptions carved into rocks in Val Camonica, Italy. Then, between 1938 and 1939, the Ahnenerbe organized one of its most famous endeavors.


In 1938, German zoologist and SS member Ernst Schäfer, accompanied by anthropologist Bruno Beger, led an expedition to Tibet, where he hoped to find evidence enforcing the Third Reich’s Indo-Germanic theories. By the time World War II broke out, the two scholars had collected numerous artifacts and measured the features of hundreds of Tibetans.


The Ahnenerbe & WWII Art Looting

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Looking for “Germanic” artifacts. Men of the Ahnenerbe’s Kulturkommission in Tirol. Source: Südtiroler Landesverwaltung


With the beginning of World War II, the Ahnenerbe leadership directed its “research” activities to the occupied lands. In particular, Himmler was determined to legitimize the Nazi’s regime claim on these areas by proving their inherent “Germanism.” Thus, SS and Ahnenerbe members meticulously scoured eastern and western European territories, searching for every artifact that might enforce the society’s racial theories and propaganda aims. For example, in the Northern Italian region of South Tirol, where numerous ethnic German communities lived, a special Ahnenerbe division named Kulturkommission (Culture Commission) collected, classified, and shipped to Germany every “Aryan” artifact they found. The plundering operation was supposed to have been followed by the relocation of all ethnic Germans into the territories of the Reich.


photo of heinrich himmler
Photo of Heinrich Himmler. Source: Lebendiges Museum Online, Deutsches Historisches Museum


Adolf Hitler did not always appreciate the society’s endeavors. “Why do we call the whole world’s attention to the fact that we have no past?” complained the Führer, “it isn’t enough that the Romans were erecting great buildings when our forefathers were still living in mud huts; now Himmler is starting to dig up these villages of mud huts and enthusing over every potshard and stone axe he finds.”


Himmler, however, was convinced that the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations were products of the Aryan race. In their looting operations, the Ahnenerbe officials often came head to head with the operatives of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg’s task force. With their respective agencies, both Himmler and Rosenberg aspired to become the most influential figures of the Third Reich’s cultural policy.


In 1941, after the launching of Operation Barbarossa, the competition between Himmler and Rosenberg continued in the occupied territories of the USSR. Field agents of the two rival agencies regularly wrote to their superiors to boast about their successes or complain when their rivals hindered their plundering expeditions. “A Dr. Brennecke of the ERR,” reported an SS member, “showed up at Armavir. As the museums had already been confiscated by the SS, his excursion had no results.”


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Heinrich Himmler visits a Soviet POW camp in Minsk, August 1941. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


In Russia, the Ahnenerbe officials were especially interested in archeological findings that might prove the inferiority of the Slavs and legitimize Hitler’s plan to transform the territory into a Lebensraum (living space) for ethnic Germans. While the Nazi leaders admired the cultural treasures of Western Europe, their attitude toward the Eastern areas of the continent was disdainful. In a 1941 speech, Himmler contemptuously referred to the USSR as “a population of 180 million, a mixture of races, whose very names are unpronounceable, and whose physique is such that one can shoot them down without pity and compassion…welded by the Jews into one religion, one ideology…”


The disdain toward the newly invaded land led the Nazi agency to carry out a different kind of art looting. Rosenberg and Himmler were not concerned with the “safeguarding” of the Slavs’ cultural treasures. On the contrary, they ordered their operatives to collect only those materials that supported the regime’s postwar plans in the region.


In Southern Russia, for example, Professor Herbert Jankuhn, an SS Sturmbannführer, headed an Ahnenerbe research project on the “finds and monuments of the Gothic Empire of Southern Russia.” Professor Jankhun’s group was also interested in the collections of the Museum of Prehistoric Art in the Lavra Monastery. After the war, the SS officer claimed that the real intent behind his looting had always been the “safeguarding” of the seized items.


The Institute for Military Research: Human Experimentation

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Doctor August Hirt with some of his assistants at the University of Strasbourg. Source: CNRS Sciences Humaines & Sociales


After the beginning of the war, the Ahnenerbe widened its fields of research to include natural sciences. These wartime projects aimed to sustain the country’s economy and strengthen its military forces. A group of Ahnenerbe experts, for example, searched for alternative sources for oil production, such as oil shale extraction. The new enterprises were coordinated by the Institut für wehrwissenschaftliche Zweckforschung (Institute for Military Scientific Research).


Alongside helping the regime achieve economic autarky, the Ahnenerbe’s new institute also launched a series of medical experiments to be conducted on human subjects. In 1942, Doctor Sigmund Rascher, on behalf of the Luftwaffe, started experimenting on inmates of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich to calculate the maximum height that the human body can survive. Besides altitude and pressurization testing, Doctor Rascher exposed some prisoners to freezing temperatures to determine how long Luftwaffe pilots could remain alive in cold water.


In 1942, another doctor working with the Ahnenerbe, the head of the department of anatomy at the Reich University in Strasbourg, August Hirt, on Bruno Berger’s suggestion, began to study Jewish skeletons and skulls collected from the bodies of prisoners held at Auschwitz death camp. In total, 115 Jews died during Hirsch’s anatomical experiments.


The End of the Ahnenerbe

A moment during the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial. Source: Medical University of Vienna


The Ahnenerbe remained active until the end of the war. In Russia, for example, as the Red Army began its counter-offensive, its operatives began to ship the confiscated artifacts toward Germany. Nothing of value to the Nazi regime could be left behind for the “enemies” of the Reich to find. As the Allied forces advanced toward Berlin, the Ahnenerbe relocated its headquarters to the town of Waischenfeld, where the agency’s members destroyed many of the most sensitive documents. The US Army, however, managed to retrieve most of the Ahnenerbe’s internal correspondence.


While numerous scholars affiliated with the Nazi agency successfully continued their academic careers in postwar Germany, Wolfram Sievers, the Ahnenerbe managing director, was condemned to death during the Nuremberg doctors’ trial for his role in the human experiments conducted on concentration camps’ inmates. He was hanged in 1948. Heinrich Himmler, the mastermind behind the Ahnenerbe, had committed suicide shortly after his arrest in 1945.

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By Maria-Anita RonchiniMA History & Jewish Studies, BA HistoryMaria Anita currently works as a writer in Italy. She holds a BA in History from the University of Bologna and a MA in History & Jewish studies from LMU-Munich. Her primary interest is the relationship between memory and history. Maria Anita is passionate about analyzing the construction of historical narratives and collective memories. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching tv, and writing fiction.