It was 1944. In Denmark, the Nazis were constructing a military installation near Værløse. Construction hit an ancient burial ground and digging through the past, one man encountered the grave of a woman buried with a gold brooch. The brooch was inscribed in runes that read “Alugod!” Studying it, the man grew wary of turning it over to the Nazis.
He did, however, report the brooch to a local museum. There archaeologists shared his interest and concern. “Alugod!” was not the only thing inscribed on the brooch. There was also a swastika carved into the metal. The museum kept the brooch a closely guarded secret and concealed the swastika from the public. The Third Reich had already successfully manipulated the past for their Nazi propaganda to justify genocide and illegal invasions around the globe.
Nazi Propaganda, the Ancient Norse, and Racial Superiority
Archaeologists sift through the jumbled, partial remnants of trash deposited by people long gone. It seems somewhat natural that they seek order from the mess. In the nineteenth century CE, Danish archaeologist, Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, proposed a three-age classification system to make sense of the ancient world. The Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age were born around the same time as similar classification schemes in adjacent disciplines. Nineteenth century scholars used the word Aryan to classify similarities in European, Sanskrit, and Farsi languages.
Anthropologists also worked on classification schemes for humans. They came to believe that intelligence could be measured by the width-length ratio of the skull. They argued that people of different nations had skulls of different shapes; thus, through simple measurements scientists claimed to be able to sort the peoples of the world from most to least intelligent — and they did. As scholars dove deeper into these subjects, Aryan shifted from a linguistic category to a racial category without factual support. In the classification schemes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Aryan race emerged as the superior race — tall, blond, blue-eyed giants from Scandinavia. It would take decades for scientists to realize that many mistakes had been made and that the Aryan race did not exist.
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Bringing order to the world is science’s job. The problem with craniometric studies was that they were flawed. The nineteenth century also saw the emergence of the eugenics movement. Both craniometric studies and eugenics were used to argue for the racial purity and superiority of the Nordic race.
Proponents seized on the medieval Norse as the ancestral line of the Nordic and/or Aryan race. Although the Vikings represented a diverse group of medieval Scandinavians, who had variable physical appearances, religions, and genetic constitutions, scholars promoted the Vikings as a homogenous group of “pure-blooded” people. With no ill intent, archaeologists and anthropologists had sown the seeds of race-based intelligence and racial superiority.
Desperate to unite Germans behind a cause, the Nazis were all too willing to seize on pseudoscience. The Nazis transposed their ideal race of fair-haired, blue-eyed rural giants onto the Vikings, a people they had never laid eyes on. They adopted Scandinavia as the Third Reich’s ancestral homeland and set their sights on conquering the world in honor of the imagined superior race.
The Art of Propaganda
Josef Goebbels became Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda two months into Adolf Hitler’s reign as Chancellor of the Third Reich. Goebbels worked to unite Germans in a racial struggle for world domination. Nazi propaganda took many forms including symbols, newspaper and radio addresses, movies, public ceremonies, and military pageants.
Posters by artists loyal to the Nazi party also decorated the German empire. Hans Schweitzer served the Nazi party as a propaganda artist. Goebbels nicknamed Schweitzer — Mjolnir — the name of the mythical hammer of Thor. His posters amplified violence, antisemitism, and conspiracy theories and he became one of Hitler’s favorite artists. He was promoted to Reich commissioner for artistic design and made chairman of the Reich Committee of Press Illustrators in 1937 CE.
Many Nazi propaganda posters portrayed Vikings beside twentieth century soldiers. Some posters show Vikings in the mythical horned helmets that were not actually worn by medieval Scandinavians. Viking style ships are also common to Nazi propaganda posters, suggesting some kind of historical link between the Viking conquests of the medieval period and the Third Reich’s illegal invasions in the twentieth century. As the Third Reich conquered Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, Viking inspired propaganda became a useful connection between the invaders and the inhabitants of the ancestral lands of the Vikings.
The military branch of the Schutzstaffel (SS) was named the Waffen-SS. Thousands of men from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland joined the Waffen-SS’s Wiking Panzer Division and the Nordland Panzer-grenadier Division. In their name and composition, the Nazis embodied their obsession with the mythological Aryan race, pure blood, and a medieval martial tradition in these divisions. Along with the rest of the Waffen-SS, these soldiers committed war crimes that included mass executions and guarding concentration camps.
The Symbolism of Nazi Propaganda
The Nazis also focused on imagery and the repetition of state-sanction symbols. The SS symbol emblazoned on the uniforms of the Schutzstaffel (SS) resembled the Viking Age “s” rune. In the Norse world, the “s” rune was a symbol for the sun. The Nazis re-imagined the “s” rune as the siegrune and declared it a symbol of victory. Nazi-sponsored archaeologists found themselves desperately searching for runes that also resembled the runic inscription throughout the war in an effort to verify the Germanic origins of the symbol.
The Nazis also appropriated other Norse runes to symbolize blood, war, life, and death. These meanings were all figments of the Third Reich’s imagination, but with repetition and depraved acts of violence, they became powerful symbols despite their fictional origins.
The swastika also became a key symbol of the Third Reich, appearing on flags, banners, and uniforms. The swastika was not designed by the Nazis. It appeared in many cultures across the ancient world, including on artifacts from the Viking world. In Norse art, the swastika often accompanies depictions of the Norse god of thunder, Thor. It is not clear from which culture the Nazis decided to steal the swastika. Neo-Nazi organizations continue to conflate the swastika used by the Third Reich as a symbol of hate and violence with the symbol used by the Norse to represent Thor’s hammer. There is no factual connection between the swastikas of the ancient world and those replicated by the Third Reich.
As with almost everything else, Germany had a chip on its shoulder when it came to archaeology and the Nazi party tapped into that resentment. Scholars and government officials alike felt that archaeology had been too focused on ancient Greece and Rome, while ignoring the antiquity of northern Europe. Twentieth-century Germans also resented classification schemes which labeled ancient Germans barbarians and ancient Greeks civilized peoples.
In time, the Nazi party looked to archaeologists to provide tangible evidence of the German peoples’ racial superiority and unity across time. Heinrich Himmler established a research institute called Ahnenerbe, where archaeologists could manipulate the past to the Third Reich’s political purposes.
The SS conducted archaeological excavations in Germany, Prussia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Near Germany’s border with Denmark, the Ahnenerbe excavated the Viking trading post Haithabu or Hedeby. Hedeby had been mentioned in nearby runic inscriptions and was explored by the National Museum in Copenhagen beginning in 1897 CE. Located near the Dannevirke, Hedeby was an important Viking Age emporium with connections to the North Sea and Baltic trading routes. Excavated burials in Hedeby attested to an urban population with Scandinavian, Frisian, Saxon, Frankish, and Slavonic origins. The archaeology of Hedeby could not support the fantasy of the rural, pure-blooded Aryan fetishized by the Nazis.
Nazi Propaganda: The Deception Continues
Based on pseudo-science and self-serving myths, Nazi propaganda contributed to the genocide of six million Jewish men, women, and children and a war that killed 55 million people. The Third Reich desired power and control. With no convincing facts or means of making the world better, the Germans manipulated historical facts and fabricated science to prop up their beliefs in racial purity and superiority. Their lies and appropriation of others’ heritage exposed their own lack of creativity, desperation for control, and weakness.
Neo-Nazi groups continue to misappropriate the Viking past to justify their movements, adopting symbols such as Odin’s raven, Thor’s hammer, and runes. The use of Viking Age history and symbolism for criminal purposes remains rooted in pseudoscience and myth. Archaeologists and historians continue to shed light on the genocide and persecution prosecuted by the Nazi Regime, revealing the tragic costs of disinformation campaigns that prey on ignorance and identity.