The Master Plan
Heather Pringle’s The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust began almost incidentally as a result of research she was conducting for her highly successful book The Mummy Congress (2001). While in the Netherlands studying a group of human bodies that had been naturally preserved for nearly two thousand years by the region’s peat bogs, Pringle discovered a book by the Dutch archaeologist Wijnand van der Standen that referred to how scholars in Nazi Germany had interpreted these strange artifacts in a highly politicized manner. Heinrich Himmler, Pringle learned, had regarded the Dutch bog mummies as executed criminals who had lived in an early Nordic society and had been condemned to death because they were homosexuals. Himmler based these beliefs on the theories of the archaeologist Herbert Jankuhn and the research of a little-known scientific institute that had been created during the Third Reich, the Ahnenerbe, or “inheritance from our forefathers.” Curious about this unusual group of scientists, pseudointellectuals, and opportunists, Pringle set out to produce the first comprehensive study of the Ahnenerbe’s origins and history.
At least part of Pringle’s story had been told before, most notably by Christopher Hale in Himmler’s Crusade: The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race (2003). Nevertheless, Pringle’s primary contribution has been to present the Ahnenerbe in its entirety, painting a highly readable and carefully nuanced portrait of the many personalities who laid the “philosophical” basis for the atrocities of Hitler’s Germany. In the story that Pringle tells, the influence of a single idea on successive generations of intellectuals and con men who corrupted the original concept out of their own self-interest, The Master Plan is somewhat reminiscent of Peter Washington’s Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America (1996). Where Washington traces a single idea from the nineteenth century’s romantic backlash against scientific secularism to a bizarre array of related, but ultimately harmless, spiritualist and New Age philosophies, however, Pringle has a much more frightening message to convey. Beginning with a compelling academic theory developed during the nineteenth centurythat nearly all of Europe’s languages were derived from a single linguistic parent known as Proto-Indo-European or “Aryan”Pringle carefully traces the misuses to which this seemingly innocuous observation was put by later generations of German scholars.
The Ahnenerbe was created in 1935 as an intellectual and cultural institute devoted to studying the distant origins of the Germanic peoples. By the time of the Ahnenerbe’s founding, the belief that most modern European languages had been derived from a parent language had been corrupted into a conviction among the Nazis that the people who spoke this hypothetical “ur-language” constituted a separate race, a superior tribe of warrior-philosophers to whom they attributed every noble quality and major cultural development. Proponents of this theory dubbed this mythical race of supermen the “Aryans,” adopting a term first coined in 1786 by the British Orientalist Sir William Jones from the ancient Sanskrit word arya, meaning “noble.” While later scholars continued to accept the existence of Proto-Indo-European as a linguistic parent of many modern languages, the notion that its speakers constituted a distinct and superior racial grouping was widely disparaged, except among those in Germany for whom the concept of a race of pure ancestors provided an attractive myth. In the minds of Nazi scholars, the “Aryans” must have been identical to the progenitors of all Nordic peoples. They envisioned these early forebears as tall, blond, blue-eyed, and militarily...
(The entire section is 1594 words.)