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The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust

by Heather Pringle

The Nazi Holocaust remains the nadir of human activity on this planet, a Dead Sea of unthinking bestiality and unmitigated evil. Why is it unlike all the other monstrous flowerings of evil that ought to wipe the smugness from the face of our species? The Master Plan brilliantly answers this question, and in so doing positions itself as the most important text on this subject since Robert Jay Lifton’s truly terrifying study, The Nazi Doctors, and Ron Rosenbaum’s indispensable Explaining Hitler.

As Rosenbaum demonstrated in the latter book, the many theories of Hitler’s rise to power reveal as much about the theorists as they do about Hitler. The question of Hitler’s sanity alone shows what a Babel Nazi scholarship has become over the past 60 years. Heather Pringle takes the more prudent course of avoiding Hitler for the most part and concentrating on Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler, who shares equally in the blame for murdering over 6-million innocent civilians. Using recently unearthed East German archives, Pringle narrows her focus to a single aspect of Himmler’s work, and in it she finds the quintessential source of Nazi evil.

Himmler and Hitler had a lot in common, including an obsession with the past. But where Hitler adored the Greeks and Romans, Himmler’s infantile enthusiasm is all for the ancient Nordic race, his noble ancestors. The rich Nordic blood was what, in Himmler’s mind, made Germany so great. It was precious, this blood, coming from a racially pure heritage, about which there was also an egregious lack of scholarly information – something Himmler would put right.

Himmler began funding the Ahnenerbe, a musty old academic institute concerned with the minutiae of German antiquity. The institution lacked a true Nordic focus, but Himmler changed all that, attracting some of the nation’s top scholars in fields like paleontology, ethnology, philology, anthropology, and archaeology. Pringle introduces us to a bestiary of ambitious scientists eager to further their careers by producing research papers confirming Himmler’s deep-seated convictions about the glory of his ancestors. The perks of working in academia SS-style were numerous. Funding was seemingly unlimited and you got the finest in facilities and accommodation (although you sometimes had to wait until the owners were kicked out).

At the centre of the Ahnenerbe’s copious research into all things Nordic, there is a nagging little problem: the Nordic race is a fictional idea. There never was such a people. Every scientist hired by Himmler knew this, but they went along with it, generating projects that were specious by their very nature, since you can’t research something that doesn’t exist.

Initially, it may not be obvious that research into such topics as Finnish wizardry or the connection between Aryan and Buddhist beliefs would lead to genocide, but just as the death camps were operated by doctors to keep the business on a scientific basis – they were exterminating the inferior racial microbes, not murdering anyone – so the route to them was paved by the Ahnenerbe’s academics. Himmler’s SS were the perpetrators of mass murder, but the SS-funded Ahnenerbe created spurious ideas designed to curtail criticism of the genocide. One thing is worse than murdering people, and that is creating ideas that will allow people to be murdered in the future.

I don’t know why the idea of highly educated people engaged in research they know to be nonsense is more troubling than illiterate brutes kicking an old rabbi down the street, but it is. We have an inherent respect for our great institutions of learning, perhaps, and cannot persuade ourselves to realize they are capable of lying to us as persistently as those we expect to lie to us. Yet it is the very core of Nazi ideology that Pringle’s book examines, and at it we find the most loathsome: the ones who rationalized evil, who sugared the poison. Much as it needs to, it has not yet penetrated general consciousness that the Nazi Holocaust was orchestrated by politicians but conducted by doctors and scientists and academics. Instead, we still hold science in high esteem, rarely questioning its quests or products. What trust should science merit from us when alongside polio vaccine it also gives the hydrogen bomb?

In this book, which ought to be on every syllabus, if not in every home, Pringle wrestles with the issue of what it is in us that enables us to relinquish humanity and cross over the divide to utter barbarism, concluding that “some combination of fatal ambition, moral weakness, and unthinking prejudice seems the most likely explanation.” But she is in no doubt that “the terrible power of science, and the manner in which science was manipulated to justify some of the worst atrocities of the Holocaust” are the real lessons to be drawn from her work, and that they are lessons we cannot afford to forget. The consequences of forgetting are everywhere apparent.