Racial experiments give lie to ‘moral equivalency’ of suffering
The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust by Heather Pringle, Hyperion, 2006, 463 pages, $24.95
Among the many Nazi bureaucracies that were responsible for the Holocaust, none was more culpable than the SS, headed by Heinrich Himmler. Himmler presided over a vast network of perpetrators who were involved in the implementation of the Final Solution. This included the notorious killing-squads known as the Einsatzgruppen, as well as those who commanded the vast network of concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Less familiar, however, was the SS organization known as the Ahnenerbe, literally translated as “something inherited from the earth.” The staff of the Ahnenerbe was responsible for the deadly medical experiments in the concentration and death camps and engaged in the most gruesome acts of sadism on their helpless Jewish victims.
The Ahnenerbe was founded in 1935 by Himmler, who shared Hitler’s belief that the history of humanity could be reduced to three primary groups: the founders of culture, the Aryan race; the bearers of culture, such as the Japanese; and the destroyers of culture, the Jews. On more than one occasion, Hitler declared that Jews were a serious threat to mankind in that they were characterized by a singular talent for undermining and corrupting the culture of other races.
The Ahnenerbe’s mission was to uncover evidence that proved the racial and cultural superiority of the Nordic or Aryan race and, conversely, offered proof of the subversive nature of the Jewish race. By 1939, the Ahnenerbe included 137 scholars and scientists, plus 82 support staff, including filmmakers, photographers, artists, sculptors, and laboratory assistants. Ahnenerbe research projects led its staff to Finland, the Himalayas, Iraq, Tibet, and, following the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Crimea. Himmler anticipated that these expeditions would uncover evidence of the lost glories of the Aryan race and would justify the war’s aim to recover territories that were originally inhabited by the pre-Christian Germanic tribes.
With knowledge gleaned by Ahnenerbe research, Himmler intended to indoctrinate the SS in Germanic lore, religion, and farming practices and to teach them to think like their warrior ancestors. The ultimate master plan for all of this research anticipated Hitler’s policy of aggressive warfare, known as lebensraum or living space, whose objective was to populate agricultural colonies in the East, where, Hitler believed, Germany’s ancestors had once flourished. The settlement of these lands, however, would require the uprooting of its inhabitants, thus necessitating the death of millions.
Pringle, a science journalist, in her compelling book introduces us to the leading Ahnenerbe “experts” and describes how their research led them to confront the problem of rassenkunde, or defining the physical traits of the Jews. Although the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 deprived Germany’s Jews of their citizenship, Nazi racial experts had failed to arrive at a quick and easy way to identify men and women of “the Jewish race.”
Most of the Ahnenerbe researchers ultimately concluded that Jews were a mixture of many purported races, including Asiatic, Oriental, Hamitic, and Negro, a blend that changed from group to group. Pringle informs us that “they found it nearly impossible to put their finger squarely on the essential physical trait the biological bar code that set Jewish men, women, and children infallibly apart from their neighbors.” As the author notes, there seemed to be no defining measurement to neatly separate Jews from others. Matters became even more complicated when they discovered the Mountain Jews of the Crimea and Jews in other parts of the conquered East whose physical characteristics were so unlike their European brethren that it forced Ahnenerbe’s racial scientists to seek other techniques to measure the unique physiology of the Jews.
Ahnenerbe’s researchers subsequently concluded that a “scientific” study of the Jews necessitated the collection of Jewish skulls and skeletons, which would provide evidence of the common traits of “Jewishness.” This would include the measurement of the shape of ears, the cheekbone, and other parts of the anatomy. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, a decision was made to collect skulls from Jewish communities across Russia from the remote mountain villages of the Caucasus to the streets of Murmansk. Eventually the search for disparate Jewish types led the Ahnenerbe researchers to such camps as Auschwitz, where medical research was being practiced on the Jews.
Pringle describes in detail the Ahnenerbe medical experiments in the German concentration camps at Natzweiler and Dachau, which included the de-skinning of Jewish victims and the separation of their skulls from their bodies, which provided both skeletons and skulls for German medical schools and museums. Ahnenerbe researchers also used Jews in sadistic medical experiments to test physical endurance in high altitudes and, by placing them in tanks filled with ice and water, their ability to withstand freezing temperatures.
This horrific reading comes at a time when The Fire: The Allied Air-War Against Germany by Jorge Friedrich, is a best-seller in Germany. Friedrich argues that ordinary Germans were as much victims of the Allied raids over Germany as were the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Pringle reminds us that there can be no issue of moral equivalency when we understand just how monstrous were the genocidal crimes of Hitler’s war against the Jews.
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