Fieldnotes Report: Narrating the Fall of Empires

The organisers of the Fieldnotes Seminar on Histories of Archaeology and Anthropology, hosted by CRASSH, have written up an account of the paper on 'Narrating the Fall of Empires' which Helen gave in November. More information on the seminar series can be found here.


On November 11th, we had the pleasure of hearing Dr Helen Roche (Cambridge) speak about “Narrating the fall of empires” in völkisch and National Socialist racial ideology. In the space of an hour, Helen led us through “schematic narrative templates” of racial discourse in 19th century, Weimar, and National Socialist German writings. Using a methodological approach drawing upon the notion of such ‘templates’ articulated by James V. Wertsch (in Voices of Collective Remembering, CUP 2002 and “Collective Memory” in Wertsch & Boyer, eds., Memory in Mind & Culture, CUP 2009, pp.117-37), Helen explored the “metaphysics” of National Socialist history by linking cultural decline theories with a Geschichtsdogmatik in popular, political, and educational texts.

Helen argued that we can read textbooks published under the Third Reich as analogous to a state-sponsored attempt to craft a specific “schematic narrative template” from scratch. She suggested that a civilisational narrative about the decline and fall of states played a particularly important role in the racial ideology espoused by Nazism and accordingly taught to German children, via textbooks like Volk und Führer: Deutsche Geschichte für Schulen from the late 1930s to 1945.  In this narrative, the “purity” of the German essence (or blood) and the ancient heritage of this essence was granted primacy in educational processes. Tracing a narrative of imperial decline and fall explained in racial terms (e.g., miscegenation with ‘lesser’ races produces a ‘weaker’ state/empire, thus leading to its eventual demise) from Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau’s An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1855), to Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s disquisition on the end of the Roman Empire (his Die Grundlagen des Neunzehnten Jahrhunderts sold over 60,000 copies in its first year of publication alone!), through voices of ideologues close to Hitler including Hans F.K. Günther (1891-1968) and Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946), Helen showed how the Nazi belief that all great cultures of the past died out due to “blood poisoning” permeated a state policy that children should be endowed with a “racial sense” or “racial feeling” via education – specifically, school history textbooks.

Her research carried important questions for future research, highlighting connections to a variety of other disciplinary fields. Jo Whaley (of the Department of Modern & Medieval Languages, Cambridge) drew on his extensive knowledge of German history from the early modern period to the present to highlight particular spaces of engagement that underscore the broad import of Helen’s micro-study. Jo asked:

  1. What happened to competing voices of the biological/racial turn (e.g. biological thinking such as eugenics in Britain and France followed very different trajectories) – what made Germany so exceptional? Should we read Nazi racial history as the next step in a national discourse that, from 1919, focused on a German deficit or failing to achieve?
  2. What is the relationship between the pre-1914 tradition (Gobineau, Chamberlain) and its development under the Nazis from the 1920s-30s, especially since the Nazi regime was utterly disenchanted with academia and the history produced by university academics?
  3. What kinds of 18th century trends play into Gobineau & Chamberlain’s racial theories (natural society, organic elements, climatology)?
  4. Did racial thinking make any contribution to “modernity”? (We might think of eugenics, prisoner rehabilitation programs, the hygiene movement, and even education: while some research areas under the Nazis were ‘dead ends’, others flourished in the postwar period – on this note, we might think to explore the postwar careers of figures such as Günther…)

As always, the discussion period was thought-provoking and provided many opportunities for a complicated reading of the original paper – many thanks to both Helen and Jo for their insights.

The original report can be found here.