Germany, as early as the 19th century, believed in the existence of a great civilization of the “Master Race” from ages past.

Nazi archaeology searched for traces of the Atlanteans, as representatives of the “Master Race,” in mountains where the “flood” caused by the gravity of the fourth moon did not reach: sometimes in the Himalayas, sometimes in the Andes, sometimes in the Caucasus, and sometimes inexplicably in Scandinavia, because there are no high mountains there, but there are runes, so it fit – says Professor Mariusz Ziółkowski, an archaeologist from the University of Warsaw, Director of the Andean Research Center and an extraordinary professor at the Catholic University of Santa María in Arequipa, Peru.

TVP WEEKLY: Where does your interest in topics not particularly related to South American archaeology, which you have dedicated yourself to, come from? Where do Nazi Germany and their criminal, pseudoscientific organization Ahnenerbe fit in, and where does archeoastronomy, which we once talked about?

MARIUSZ ZIÓŁKOWSKI: Let’s unravel this mysterious term right away: it refers to the Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte Deutsches Ahnenerbe e.V., which roughly translates to the Society for Research and Teaching on German Ancestral Heritage. It was established on 1 July 1935, at the initiative of Heinrich Himmler and later integrated into the SS as a research and propaganda institution. As for my interests, I certainly don’t want to step on the toes of colleagues who are well-versed in the history of German archaeology, including this shameful chapter of it. However, during my research in South America, I encountered the specific activities of German archaeologists in two instances, conducted from the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, under the auspices of, among others, Ahnenerbe. This is primarily about the site of Tiahuanaco in Bolivia, where I carried out excavations for several seasons with my Italian colleagues.

Tiahuanaco is where the Gate of the Sun is located in the famous monumental megalithic complex of Pumapunku? I think even a Pole discovered it.

Not a Pole, but there is a certain connection with a man whom Bolivians consider to be Polish – Arthur Posnansky. He was an imperial-naval engineer and officer (allegedly), born in Vienna in a family of Polish-Jewish roots. Both his parents were Jews, and his father Isaac Posnansky came from Witkowo near Poznań. Formally, Arthur Posnansky had nothing to do with Poland, although there is information that he spoke Polish. An absolutely fascinating character; I call him the Baron Münchhausen of American archaeology.

But one step at a time: Tiahuanaco is located near Lake Titicaca, over 3800 metres above sea level, on the high-altitude steppe. These are huge stone constructions with the famous Gate of the Sun, stones that are perfectly crafted but show signs of destruction. The indigenous people located the beginning of our era there, because it was there that the god Viracocha was said to have created today’s humanity. From oral tradition recorded by the Spanish, it was known that this was a pre-Incan site. But how old? Speculation on this topic began as early as the 19th century, and Bolivians themselves were assigning it such an old lineage in the early 20th century that it was purported to be the beginning of all cultures of the New World.
Archaeologist Bennett and Arthur Posnansky in the ruins of Tiwanaku in 1933. Photo: Mhuyustus – Own work, Public domain, Wikimedia
In the mood for exploring the extremely distant roots of Tiahuanaco, Arthur Posnansky comes into the picture. An energetic man with an extraordinary knack for amassing significant wealth, a portion of which he dedicated to the study of Tiahuanaco. He fell in love with the site in 1903 when he saw a French team conducting excavations there. He believed that Tiahuanaco was destroyed due to a geological catastrophe (an earthquake combined with something else), as this was his interpretation of the scattered stones. Today we know that this “catastrophe” was the centuries-long, plunderous quarrying for building materials. Half of old La Paz is built from these stones; millstones were carved from them, etc.

How did he date Tiahuanaco?

Following the aforementioned Bolivian theories, he believed that it was the end of the Upper Paleolithic, i.e., between 17 and 10 thousand years before our era. This is supposedly proved by his seminal work Tiahuanacu, la cuna del hombre americano (Tiahuanaco, the Cradle of the American Man). Posnansky began promoting these ideas, among other places, in Germany before 1914. Interestingly, he had excellent contacts with the Germans even during the Hitler era. Why was he so valued? This, despite fighting with the prominent German archaeologist Max Uhle, who rightly claimed that Tiahuanaco emerged a few centuries before the Incas and probably was baffled by Posnansky’s theories.

And here comes the third character, Edmund Kiss, a German architect, self-taught archaeologist, who supplemented his income between the wars by writing novels, which today we would describe as fantasy. Thanks to a high literary award he received in 1928, he went to Bolivia, at the suggestion of Posnansky, with whom he had made contact a year earlier. He became good friends with him and adopted his theory, but went further. From 17,000 years, it became a million years – because this aligned with Hanns Hörbiger’s theory. Upon his return to Germany, he used information about Tiahuanaco to write numerous articles, arguing for the presence of Pragermans in the Andes. Meanwhile, he also wrote a fantasy trilogy about Atlantis, whose inhabitants had also supposedly reached the Andes. The culmination of his pseudoscientific theories was a book published in 1937 titled Das Sonnentor von Tihuanaku und Hörbiger Welteislehre (The Gate of the Sun of Tiahuanaco and Hörbiger’s World Ice Theory). This book is still being published in many languages to this day. It features, for instance, an “interpreted” calendar from the Gate of the Sun dating back a million years, and other such sensational claims.

Reading something like that, colloquially speaking, makes “your brain stand on end.”

But he found supporters, including Heinrich Himmler, who was fascinated by this book and gifted a specially bound copy to Adolf Hitler for Christmas. Himmler then employed Kiss in Ahnenerbe and commissioned him to organise a large expedition to Tiahuanaco in 1939. It was supposed to be Ahnenerbe’s largest-ever expedition: 21 scientists, an aeroplane for aerial photographs (sic!), and a budget exceeding four times what Germany spent on the famous expedition to Tibet in 1938-39. However, World War II broke out, and the project did not materialise. Nevertheless, Kiss’s “legacy” remains alive to this day, and I strongly suspect that his illustrative reconstructions (he was an architect, after all) influenced some of the reconstructions of local temples carried out by Bolivian archaeologists from the early 1960s onwards.

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My next encounter with the activities of Ahnenerbe took place on the other side of the world – in Polish Pomerania. I work there in a position that became the subject of a high-profile controversy between Polish and German archaeologists in the 1920s and 1930s. On the German side, mainly with Gustav Kossinna and Wolfgang La Baume, and on the Polish side with Józef Kostrzewski and Jacek Delekta. The debate was about the cultural affiliation of the early mediaeval cemetery of Uniradze in the Stężyca municipality: Germanic or Slavic? After the German invasion in 1939, Ahnenerbe also entered this dispute. It is highly likely that their operatives confiscated and transported all the documentation of the Polish excavations – and the trace of it disappeared.

This dispute between Kostrzewski and Kossinna shows that in our part of the world, archaeology does not belong to social sciences, but to historical sciences. And Clio, the muse of history, loves to sew her garments from national flags. So, is “Nazi archaeology” a purely German pseudoscientific aberration (and crime), or is it an example of a fairly widespread phenomenon of nationalist archaeology? Maybe not taken to such an extreme as to be tried for it in Nuremberg and hanged, but still nationalist.

This is absolutely not an exceptional thing. Except that Ahnenerbe by Heinrich Himmler and another competing German organisation of the Third Reich era, the KfDK (Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur, or the Fighting League for German Culture) by Alfred Rosenberg, did commit real crimes. And despite numerous professorial and doctoral titles, they were not clubs of “nice boys in glasses.” Especially the so-called “anthropological division” of Ahnenerbe, involved in criminal experiments on concentration camp prisoners. As an aside: Ahnenerbe and KfDK did not ideologically compete with each other, but rather over spheres of influence in Nazi Germany. Members of Ahnenerbe were tried before the Nuremberg Tribunal for participating in the war crimes of the Third Reich, and several of them were convicted, and one, General Secretary Wolfram Sievers, was sentenced to death. Alfred Rosenberg, the creator of KfDK, met a similar fate. Ahnenerbe included well-known archaeologists, linguists, religious scholars, anthropologists, and other specialists, and its administrative head, reporting only to Himmler, was the famous Indologist and Vedic scholar, Prof. Walther Wüst. Rector of the University of Munich, and also an SS officer.

Yes, it was like an “SS Academy of Sciences.”

It was a bit more complicated than that. However, these were not and are not unique situations in their premises worldwide. When it comes to historical examples where it started and developed in Europe, one has to reach back to the dispute over Gothic origins between Swedes and Danes. In their rivalry in the 16th and 17th centuries, both nations began to exploit the “power of antiquity,” meaning they used the then-existing knowledge of the past for short-term ideological and political goals. It was about who could claim the great megalithic structures and rune-inscribed steles. At that time, they were thrown into the same basket, meaning they were treated collectively: Neolithic constructions like Stonehenge, stone circles from the Roman period, and steles with inscriptions, including Viking ones, from the mediaeval period.
The duel began with the Swede Olaus Magnus – who incidentally worked for some time in Gdańsk – who in 1555 published in Rome, in Latin, a work entitled Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, which covered, among other things, gigantic and awe-inspiring stone constructions. According to him, these were the works of the Goths. This immediately raised the question: who were the ancestors of the Goths? During the wars between the Danes and Swedes in the first half of the 17th century, King Christian IV of Denmark commissioned Ole Worm, his personal physician and also an eminent antiquarian, to write a still incredibly important work: Danicorum Monumentari Libri Sex, published in Copenhagen in 1643. In six beautifully illustrated volumes, he argued that the Danes were descendants of the Goths. Therefore – and here we come to an issue that the 20th century will later raise – if megalithic objects are present somewhere, it proves that the land belonged to the Goths. Today, therefore, it belongs to Denmark and Denmark has a sacred right to these lands. This is exactly the type of dangerous, and not just false, argumentation that was used 300 years later by the Nazis.

The Swedish side did not take long to respond. After 30 years, Olaus Rudbeck from the University of Uppsala, also a doctor specialising in the lymphatic system, began the edition of the work titled Atlantica. In four volumes, he in turn argued that the source of all European civilization is Sweden, specifically the area around Uppsala, where he believed the remains of Atlantis, described by Plato, are located. Therefore, since all European cultures, including Greek and Roman, originate from Atlantis, that means they come from Sweden. A wonder.

There are also other examples of such actions, not as publicised and not as momentous. For instance, during the Napoleonic Wars, there was another debate about megaliths – this time between France and Great Britain. French antiquarians of the time claimed that French megaliths were older, and therefore the invasion of the ancestors of the French brought civilization to the Isles. While experts from Albion expressed the exact opposite opinion on the matter. We can treat this with a smile today, but then the issue was serious and was happening during a bloody war.

This time it was the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson who resolved this dispute in favour of Great Britain, defeating France in the war and making Britain even greater...

The most important aspect of all this is the thread that leads us back to Ahnenerbe – it is the linguistic theory, later also connected with archaeology. It concerns the origin of the Indo-European language family, also referred to in German-language literature – perhaps not coincidentally – as Indo-Germanic languages.

The thesis about the relationship of ancient European languages, Greek and Latin, with Sanskrit, appeared several times earlier in the considerations of European scholars, but was formulated somewhat accidentally in the second half of the 18th century by William Jones, a British judge in India. Classically educated and perhaps a bit bored with his administrative function, he took up linguistics. He stated that if languages as geographically distant as Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin are linked by a vast similarity in their grammar, they must come from a common trunk. So where could the cradle of this original language, later called “Proto-Indo-European,” be from which all currently existing ones have originated? And consequently, what culture or cultures used it and spread it over such a gigantic area of the globe?
Hanns Hörbiger (on the left, next to Johann Robert Hörbiger and Engelbert Pigal) with Edgar von Wahlem (on the right), creator of the international language called Western or Interlingua. Vienna, 1927. In the collections of the Austrian National Library. Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia
Debates on this subject have been ongoing from the 19th century to the present day. However, at one point in this scholarly discussion, the Germans appeared. Of course, Germanic languages belong to the Indo-European family, but in the 19th century, Germans – who were supporters of the theory of the indigenous origin of Germanic culture – decided to appropriate the roots of the entire family. Against the backdrop of Tacitus’s Germania, a then-common school reading almost considered a Bible by the German intellectual circles of those times, they began to propose the idea that the original Indo-Europeans were the ancestors of the Germans. And that was the turning point – after that, it escalated.

I must therefore ask about German archaeology before Hitler came to power, as I understand that it is the source of later chauvinistic pseudoscience.

That’s correct. Blaming everything on “following orders” during the years 1933-1945 is probably convenient but untrue. Intensely ethnic, nationalist, and also tinged with racism, German archaeology began already in the late 19th century. Besides linguistic studies, including studies on the Vedas, there was a belief in the uniqueness of the “great achievements of the Germanic race.” They thus sought in Germanic mythology, compared with the Vedas, evidence of the existence of a great “Master Race” civilization that existed “ages ago” but was destroyed – though its material remnants could still be found, requiring archaeological study. All of this was connected with various esoteric concepts, the reconstruction of a “pre-Germanic religion,” etc. I won’t go into the details now, but I can recommend two excellent studies on the subject, published in Polish: Erik Kurlander, a professor at Yale University – Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich , published by PIW in 2019, and American archaeologist Heather Letchman’s Master Race Plan, especially dedicated to Ahnenerbe.

It is thus evident that our neighbours, apart from being pragmatic, organised, rational, also have within them another thread defining their cultural identity – namely, esoteric visions of their own past and their great significance.

”Turbo-Germanism” has thus always been doing well.

Perhaps I’m overinterpreting, but in my opinion, in what happened later in archaeology, one must notice and highlight the key contributions of two entirely different figures.

The first one was the serious German archaeologist, already mentioned, Gustaf Kossina. Of Mazurian descent, therefore only minimally ethnically German, but completely Germanized. While studying the roots of Germanic culture, he developed the thesis that where there is a set of goods or cultural objects from times before written records, it should be attributed to a specific ethnic group. This was called “Kulturkreise,” or cultural circle. This is not an unsubstantiated view, as long as we say that certain objects indicate the presence of some human group in specific areas at a specific time. The problem arises when we turn this into an ideological dogma. Kossina did not live to see the founding of Ahnenerbe; he died in 1931. However, he left a successor, his student Hans Reinhart.

The second, after Kossina, intellectual spiritus movens of Ahnenerbe – and personally of Heinrich Himmler and even Adolf Hitler – was not a scholar but an aforementioned Austrian engineer, Hanns Hörbiger. He can even be considered a reliable professional: participated in the construction of the Budapest metro, invented a valve that still bears his name, etc. However, at some point in his life, he had a vision-dream, in which it “was revealed to him how the world was created.” He laid out his theory in a work called Hörbigers Glacial-Kosmogonie, published in 1913, co-authored with an amateur astronomer named Phillip Fauch – later a collaborator of Ahnenerbe.
According to this theory, the entire universe and its development is the result of a struggle between two elements: fire and ice. Moreover, Earth in its history had four moons, as it gravitationally attracted various planetoids, which became moons. Each of them, in due time, fell to Earth due to gravity, causing a gigantic catastrophe in which successive human civilizations perished (sic!). The third cataclysm took place about a million years ago and destroyed the then highly advanced civilizations. The last catastrophe occurred some 12,000 years ago, when the fourth, the moon we know today, was attracted and will also eventually fall. Meanwhile, the gravity of this Moon caused a sudden rise in sea levels, which led to the fall of the civilization of Atlantis. However, not all Atlanteans perished; some took refuge in various places on Earth, primarily in high mountains. The direct descendants of the Atlanteans were said to be the Pragermanen. Ahnenerbe adopted this concept as the central part of their, as we would say today, “vision and mission.”

Traces of these Atlanteans – representatives of the “Master Race,” who were said to have influenced the creation and development of great ancient civilizations known to us from history – were sought in mountains where the “flood” caused by the gravity of the fourth moon did not reach. They searched in the Himalayas, in the Andes, in the Caucasus, and for some unknown reason in Scandinavia, where there are no high mountains, but there are runes, so it fit.

Erich von Däniken and Graham Hancock thus have a wonderful ancestor! It seems that every modern folly has already been told in detail before.

Oh, more than that. “Glacial Cosmogony” even before World War I became the ideology of a very dynamic social movement, trivial compared to the fame and involvement of today’s proponents, to put it cautiously, of alternative “theories” of human civilization development. Large rallies were organised at universities, demanding that specific scholars immediately meet and debate with Hörbiger, calling on universities to open up to teaching this pseudoscientific nonsense... Where have we heard this before!?

Hörbiger’s supporters couldn’t convince the academic community, so if it couldn’t be done from the bottom up, then after World War I they tried to attack from a different angle. They sought a political party that would adopt their beliefs as its own ideology and found the NSDAP, or the National Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany – currently referred to by the acronym Nazi, a misleading term because it is detached from its German, cultural-social background. Ahnenerbe was essentially the “child” of the NSDAP.

So if, as claimed, the Pragermanen are descendants of the original “Master Race” – the Atlanteans – then some specific cultural identifiers must be attributed to them. Megalithic structures were naturally considered as such. So wherever such objects appear, there were Atlanteans in ancient times and, according to the concept of Gustaf Kossinna about “cultural circles,” the Pragermanen. Quite a sensible theory by Kossinna, though ideologically distorted, was applied to “studies” intended to support Hörbiger’s pseudoscientific theory. This explosive mixture worked in Ahnenerbe.

And talented people followed this, with shovels, spatulas, and brushes?

Not just talented, but primarily opportunists, who knew “which way the wind was blowing” and where one could make a career. However, Himmler was not alone in this field; he had a competitor – the aforementioned NSDAP ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, founder in 1934 of the KfDK. Each organisation had its “own” archaeologists. If assessed professionally, KfDK was a bit more serious scientifically, as a larger number of academic archaeologists were associated with it. Himmler mainly looked among linguists, although he also attracted a few archaeologists. These two war criminals competed very intensely with each other from the early days of the NSDAP and did not get along at all.
Did they actually make any discoveries and write publications that science still uses today? Or did they just go there with the Abwehr and SS and rob museums in other countries of what “undoubtedly had Aryan identity,” destroying other monuments?

Before this question, every archaeologist runs like the devil from holy water. The situation is quite complicated. Ahnenerbe itself conducted excavations at 18 sites in various places around the world. It was a large research program.

Specific examples of these actions and people? The first should be the already mentioned Hans Reinhert. He was a student of Kossinna and succeeded him in a very prominent chair of archaeology at the University of Berlin. He was a member of the NSDAP, a supporter of Rosenberg not Himmler, so he worked within the framework of KfDK. He dealt with – properly – mediaeval Germanic culture. After the war, he was expelled from academia, not allowed to lecture. But strangely, he survived as the director of Germany’s oldest and very prestigious, albeit small archaeological open-air museum: Pfahlbauten Museum on Lake Constance, at the border of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, with its famous stilt houses, excavations from 4-3 thousand years BCE. Moreover, in the 1950s, he founded the German Society for Underwater Archaeology and was known as a palynologist, a specialist in plant pollen. He lived until 1990.

Surely not just him...

The second example is Herbert Jankuch, wholeheartedly dedicated to Ahnenerbe. He also lived until 1990 and was of Lithuanian-Masurian descent. He is mainly known as the director of archaeological research at Hedeby, then called Haithabu, in Schleswig-Holstein, organised by Ahnenerbe since 1938. It was then one of the world’s largest archaeological projects. Hedeby is a large Viking settlement, Denmark’s oldest recorded city, now listed as UNESCO World Heritage. In recognition of his research, Jankuch became the head of the Ahnenerbe archaeology department in 1940. He also conducted archaeological work in Crimea, in Mangup, considered the capital of so-called Black Sea Goths. He was there, following the 5th SS Panzer Division “Wiking” (it’s worth noting it was composed of Danish, Dutch, Norwegian volunteers, etc.), he was later an intelligence officer of that division. After the war, he was arrested by the Allies, from 1945 to 1948 imprisoned specifically for these “merits” for the SS, then released but barred from lecturing at universities. However, in 1956, this right was restored, and he ended his academic career as a professor of pre- and proto-history at the University of Göttingen.

You can also mention Alexander Langsdorff, curator of Berlin’s Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, as well as a Standartenführer (colonel) in the SS, responsible for the export of artefacts from Florence to Germany, etc.

So how should we, archaeologists, approach the research and discoveries, often objectively very valuable, made by these people? Not to mention that KfDK had the magazine Deutsche Erbe, and Himmler published Germanien, much better known. They featured publications from this research, scientific, although mixed with much more popular pseudoscientific ones. What to do now? Cite them today or not?

The ideology of Pan-Germanism was widely accepted not only by the “ethnic Germans” themselves (whatever that may mean), but also in Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. Especially in the Netherlands, there were many, and quite good, scientists, supporters of the concept of a great influence of Proto- or Pre-Germans on all world civilizations. Such an archaeologist was Johan Christiaan Böhmers, nicknamed Assien (1912-1988), who studied in Amsterdam and earned his Ph.D. in Groningen. He conducted research on behalf of Ahnenerbe promoting him in Dolni Věstonice, a famous Paleolithic site in Czech territory after its annexation by Germany. And there he argued for traces of Germanic culture already in the Upper Paleolithic!

So these people were still using stone tools, but they already spoke German. And they rode on dinosaurs, like our ancestors according to turbo-Slavs.

We’re joking, but nothing particularly bad happened to him after the war either – he remained an academic scholar. Moreover, he also conducted research on behalf of Ahnenerbe at the Solone site in Ukraine, along with another Dutch archaeologist Frans Bursch. However, in Bursch’s biography, there is not a word about his association with Ahnenerbe. Erased. He ended up as a recognized scholar, and no one said a bad word about him. Likewise, nothing happened to Edmund Kiss, the protagonist of the beginning of this story, after the war. He lived until 1960, enjoying quite generous royalties for his books. In which he amply thanked Arthur Posnansky for his comprehensive help in their creation.

– Interview by Magdalena Kawalec-Segond

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz

Main photo: Berlin, Reichstag session, Adolf Hitler’s speech on declaring war on the United States. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0703-507, CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Wikimedia
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