Fieldnotes Report: What happens to the culture of archaeology in National Socialist Germany?

The organisers of the Fieldnotes Seminar on Histories of Archaeology and Anthropology, hosted by CRASSH, have written up an account of Martijn Eickhoff's seminar paper, 'Witness to a Greater Germanic Past? The SS-Ahnenerbe and the Archaeological Research Sites of Dolni Věstonice and Solone', to which Helen acted as a respondent. More information on the seminar series can be found here.

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Earlier today we were lucky to hear a fascinating lecture by Dr. Martijn Eickhoff (University of Nijmegen), who led us on a micro-study of two excavation sites carried out by Dutch pre-historians Assien Bohmers and Frans C. Bursch during WWII in the villages of Dolni Věstonice (Unterwisternitz) and Solone (Soljonoje). Using these localised case studies, Eickhoff showed photographs of the Dutch archaeologists in tropical colonial garb, arguing that their ‘colonial’ Dutch mindset represented one form of ‘colonising‘ eastern Europe under the Nazi regime. He wanted to know why archaeologists wore SS uniforms, and how colonial structures such as archaeology were projected into National Socialist Lebensraum. This work, commissioned by the SS research unit and carried out by Dutch archaeologists, sought to legitimise German expansion and took place within the extreme racial intervention of the SS (e.g., the sites were also witness to discrimination and, in one case, the quotidian execution of Jews).

How, Dr Eickhoff asked, were local research traditions co-opted to carry out these projects? Who was allowed to identify with these sites? How were Neolithic/Bronze Age sites integrated into an idea of a greater Germanic past, yet carried out transnationally – in non-German lands, by non-German archaeologists?

On the one hand, the narrative Dr Eickhoff presented was thoroughly Germanic: the SS-Ahnenerbe was one arm of the Nazi bureaucracy, an extra-academic space seeking academic status that was occasionally avant-garde and often militant; both Bursch and Bohmers were committed national socialists who experienced archaeology as ‘adventure’; and the sites were linked to the rise of Homo Sapiens, and later of the Aryan/Nordic peoples.

On the other hand, seeking ‘German’ traces often involved exploring the possible presence of Frisian or Viking peoples whose communities transcended national boundaries. Although archaeologists were ‘free’ to do what they wanted, many, like Bursch, continued to find traces of ‘Nordic migrants’ that fit the National Socialist worldview. Whilst artefacts confiscated from these and similar sites acquired a symbolism of national importance in Germany, they also confiscated another national heritage. Folkloric perspectives on local villages obscured the brutality of partisan executions, and a sense of cultural superiority downplayed the uneven relationship between archaeologists and (often barefoot) forced labourers, cast as “happy children” singing all day.

In the postwar era, many sites were referred to as “stolen sites” or considered “taboo” within archaeology itself as the discipline entered a new period under Communist control. During the National Socialist period these sites, Dolni Věstonice (Unterwisternitz) and Solone (Soljonoje), were both produced exclusively for German eyes, particularly SS-eyes; their history was safeguarded only as an Aryan heritage to be preserved for the future. Local people were totally subordinate to these research agendas; even more so, Dr Eickhoff, suggested, than in a colonial context.

Dr Helen Roche (Cambridge) expanded Dr Eickhoff’s discussion with typically probing insights. First, she noted that these and other narratives of cultural research were critical to the formulation of German identity, and that prehistoric archaeological agendas mirrored those of their classical counterparts, noting the constant anxiety amongst classicists that Germanic historians would take all the money and acclaim because their research so neatly dovetailed with interests in national (ethnic) heritage. Dr Roche questioned the differences between the DAI (German Archaeological Institute) and the SS-Ahnenerbe, asking how these two case studies were representative of wider trends within the latter’s research interests. Finally, agreeing with Dr Eickhoff’s use of a colonial framework to explore the interactions and cultural hybridity or productivity of both of these Dutch archaeologists working in Eastern Europe, she suggested that we might reach a deeper understanding of National Socialist archaeological work during this period if historians considered similar individuals to be participating in a sort of “colonial imaginary”. Were scholars ‘seduced’ by Nazi ideology? And how did this permeate or influence their interest in archaeology as adventure?

Overall, Dr Eickhoff’s paper reminded us of the advantages of reading archaeology as a transnational European phenomenon rather than a specific nation-state project. Frisian, Saxon, and Viking cultures were all produced by a "joint" effort of European archaeologists — and it is clear from this paper, at least, that histories of archaeology have much more to say if, as scholars, we can transcend institutional narratives and explore the interactions taking place within bureaucracies, between scholars, and across political borders — and, moreover, that such an approach may be beneficial not only in colonial or post-colonial contexts, but even within 20th-century Europe itself.

The original report can be found here.