The Master Plan

Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust


By Heather Pringle

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A groundbreaking history of the Nazi research institute whose work helped lead to the extermination of millions

In 1935, Heinrich Himmler established a Nazi research institute called The Ahnenerbe, whose mission was to send teams of scholars around the world to search for proof of Ancient Aryan conquests. But history was not their most important focus. Rather, the Ahnenerbe was an essential part of Himmler’s master plan for the Final Solution. The findings of the institute were used to convince armies of SS men that they were entitled to slaughter Jews and other groups. And Himmler also hoped to use the research as a blueprint for the breeding of a new Europe in a racially purer mold.

The Master Plan is a groundbreaking expose of the work of German scientists and scholars who allowed their research to be warped to justify extermination, and who directly participated in the slaughter — many of whom resumed their academic positions at war’s end. It is based on Heather Pringle’s extensive original research, including previously ignored archival material and unpublished photographs, and interviews with living members of the institute and their survivors.

A sweeping history told with the drama of fiction, The Master Plan is at once horrifying, transfixing, and monumentally important to our comprehension of how something as unimaginable as the Holocaust could have progressed from fantasy to reality.




In the fall of 1938, in the small industrial town of Offenbach am Main just outside Frankfurt, the renowned firm of Gebrüder Klingspor received an important commission from one of the most prominent men of the Third Reich. The owner of the business, Karl Klingspor, was an influential typographer and aesthete, a master of ink and paper who transformed the creative fantasies of others into some of the most beautiful books of his age.1 To seduce the eye, Klingspor retained artists and painters to design sleek new typefaces so words would scroll stylishly across the page. To woo the sense of touch, he selected handmade papers of unusual size and heft—rich and thick and textured. For Klingspor and his colleagues, making a book was rather like making love, and bibliophiles from Berlin to Boston sighed with pleasure as they thumbed through his exquisite productions.

The commission in question had arrived from Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo, the Security Service, and the Security Squad or SS, a paramilitary organization that ran Germany’s concentration camps, controlled a profitable network of business enterprises, and provided Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard. The Reichsführer-SS was a busy man, but he remained, in his personal life, something of a bookworm. He read avidly, owned a substantial private library, and carried his favorite volumes with him wherever he traveled. He often recommended books to his subordinates and presented copies as gifts to family members and close associates.2 It was in this frame of mind that he resolved to produce a special gift for Hitler on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday.

For months, prominent Nazis had been drawing up plans for a gala celebration for Hitler, searching feverishly for presents. The leaders of the Confederation of German Industry had quietly purchased the complete manuscript scores of Richard Wagner’s early operas, as well as fair copies of parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen, the composer’s masterpiece.3 Rudolf Hess had acquired a rare collection of letters written by one of Hitler’s heroes, Frederick the Great, the eighteenth-century monarch who transformed Prussia into a major European power.4 And the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi party, had thrown caution completely to the wind, building the Eagle’s Nest, a teahouse and conference center situated atop a mountain near the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden.5

Himmler had no intention of being left out of this slavish display. He planned to present a fine equestrian portrait of Frederick the Great by the German artist Adolf von Menzel, a painting that would fit nicely into Hitler’s private study.6But he also wanted to give Hitler something more personal, a set of leather-bound books that would artfully present the SS chief’s lesser-known contributions to Hitler’s Nazi state.7The most important of these books, he decided, would be a large portfolio produced by the creative staff of Gebrüder Klingspor. It would be entitled:

The Research and Educational Society,

The Ahnenerbe:




The Ahnenerbe was an elite Nazi research institute that Himmler had founded in 1935 with a small group of associates. Its name derived from a rather obscure German word, Ahnenerbe (pronounced AH-nen-AIR-buh), meaning “something inherited from the forefathers.”9The official mission of the Ahnenerbe was twofold. First, the institute was to unearth new evidence of the accomplishments and deeds of Germany’s ancestors, as far back as the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age if possible, “using exact scientific methods.”10Second, it was to convey these findings to the German public by means of magazine articles, books, museum shows, and scientific conferences.

In reality, however, the elite organization was in the business of mythmaking. Its prominent researchers devoted themselves to distorting the truth and churning out carefully tailored evidence to support the racial ideas of Adolf Hitler. Some scholars twisted their findings consciously; others warped them without thought, unaware that their political views drastically shaped their research. But all proved adept at this manipulation, and for this reason, Himmler prized the institute. He made it an integral part of the SS and housed it in a grand villa in one of Berlin’s wealthiest neighborhoods. He equipped it with laboratories, libraries, museum workshops, and ample funds for foreign research, and personally befriended several of its senior scientists. By 1939, the Ahnenerbe would count 137 German scholars and scientists on its payroll and employ another 82 support workers—filmmakers, photographers, artists, sculptors, librarians, laboratory technicians, accountants, and secretaries.11

The nazi leadership went to enormous lengths to maintain a public facade of rationality, fairness, and middle-class decency. Hitler and the senior members of his government craved admiration and respect from the world, and to obtain it they continually attempted to display their political ideas—particularly on the subject of race—in the best possible light. To assist in this difficult work, they actively recruited German scholars and scientists who could command respect both at home and abroad and make Nazi ideas sound plausible and reasonable to others.

Those who studied the ancient past figured prominently in these recruitment efforts, for Adolf Hitler held strong views on prehistory and history. He believed that all humankind in its astonishing richness and complexity, all human societies in the past, from the Sumerians on their ziggurats to the Incas in their mountain citadels, could be parsed into just three groups. These he described as “the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture.”12Hitler was convinced, based on his own highly selective reading of history, that only one racial group fell into the first category. These were the Aryans, a fictional race of tall, willowy, flaxen-haired men and women from northern Europe. According to Hitler, only the Aryans had possessed the spark of genius needed to create civilization; invent music, literature, the visual arts, agriculture, and architecture; and advance humanity by putting their shoulders to the heavy wheel of progress. Most modern Germans, Hitler claimed, descended from the ancient Aryans, and as such they had inherited their forefathers’ brilliance.

This was the most positive side of the human ledger. On the negative side, Hitler placed the Jews. These, he claimed, were the destroyers of culture. He insisted upon categorizing all the world’s Jews together as a single race, although scholars of the day agreed they were a diverse collection of peoples united by their religious faith.13Hitler declared that the Jews posed a serious threat to humankind, insisting that they possessed a singular talent for undermining and corrupting the cultures of other races. He was especially fond of likening “the Jew” to a type of germ—“a noxious bacillus [that] keeps spreading as soon as a favorable medium invites him. And the effect of his existence is also like that of spongers; wherever he appears, the host people dies out after a shorter or longer period.”14

Serious scientists and scholars outside Germany in the 1930s dismissed these ideas as nonsense.15There was simply no disputing, for example, that Jews had contributed brilliantly to human civilization. Between 1901 and 1939 alone, twenty-one Jewish scientists and scholars won Nobel Prizes, from Albert Einstein for his contributions to theoretical physics to Otto Loewi for his pioneering work on the chemical transmission of nerve impulses.16Indeed, nearly 30 percent of all Nobel laureates from Germany during this period were Jewish, although Jews accounted for just 1 percent of the German population.

Hitler’s notions about the Aryans were equally far-fetched. Scholars had failed to uncover any proof of a tall, blond-haired race of ur-Germans who first lit the torch of civilization and gave birth to all the refinements of human culture. The first cities, the first system of writing, the first successes in agriculture had all arisen along the green river valleys and hills of the Near East and Asia, many thousands of miles away from the dark, cold forests of northern Europe. And this knowledge posed a problem for ardent Nazis, such as Himmler, who took an interest in scholarship and intellectual discourse. How could they persuasively portray ancient Germans and their modern descendants as a master race if indeed they had played little, if any, part in the great early advances of human civilization?

The answer to this problem, in Himmler’s mind, lay in more German scholarship—scholarship of the right political stripe. So he created the Ahnenerbe. He conceived of this research organization as an elite think tank, a place brimming with brilliant mavericks and brainy young upstarts—up-and-comers who would give traditional science a thorough cleansing. Men of this ilk would not balk at sweeping away centuries of careful scholarship like so much dust and useless debris. With much fanfare, they would publicly unveil a new portrait of the ancient world, one in which a tall, blond race of ur-Germans would be seen coining civilization and bringing light to inferior races, just as Hitler claimed.

This was the primary work of the Ahnenerbe. Privately, however, Himmler nurtured another hope for his creation. He believed, like many other prominent Nazis, that an almost magical elixir—pure Aryan blood—once flowed through the veins of the ancient Germanic tribes. Undiluted and undefiled by later racial mixing, this superior hemoglobin supplied Germany’s ancestors with heightened powers of creativity and intelligence, or so Himmler supposed.17If Ahnenerbe researchers could recover this primeval Germanic knowledge through archaeology and other sciences, then they might find superior ways of growing grain, breeding livestock, healing the ill, designing weapons, or regulating society.18All this would greatly benefit the Reich.

For this important work, Ahnenerbe officials recruited a diverse assortment of scholars and scientists—archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, classicists, Orientalists, runologists, biologists, musicologists, philologists, geologists, zoologists, botanists, linguists, folklorists, geneticists, astronomers, doctors, and historians. Himmler intended them to work together, sharing their findings. Each researcher, he suggested, would contribute a part of what he sometimes liked to call the “hundreds of thousands of little mosaic stones, which portray the true picture of the origins of the world.”19

Despite his many pressing responsibilities, Himmler clucked contentedly over the scholars’ reports and papers. He pondered their many theories, paid careful heed to their conclusions, and often discussed their ideas with his SS subordinates over dinner. And when the opportunity presented itself, he employed their research to fuel and justify the Holocaust.

I f irst learned of Himmler’s calculating use of the past while researching a book on mummies and mummy scientists. I was holed up at the time in a tourist hotel in the small city of Assen in the eastern Netherlands. I had journeyed there to see some of the world’s most famous mummies, the ancient dead of Europe’s northern peat bogs. Preserved naturally by the bogs’ dark, clear broth, dozens of Roman-era men and women had resisted oblivion for nearly two thousand years. But what struck me most about these resilient survivors was not so much their immortality, impressive as it was, but the violent way in which many had met their end—garroted, stabbed, slashed, decapitated, and hung.

At the museum in Assen, I bought a book by a Dutch archaeologist, Wijnand van der Sanden, describing the history and science of these strange cadavers. That evening in my hotel, I pulled the book from my bag, curious to see how van der Sanden interpreted the gruesome deaths.20I put my feet up on the bed and began casually thumbing through the pages. One section of the book in particular caught my attention. It concerned a speech that Himmler had given behind closed doors in February 1937 to a group of senior officers at the SS officer-training school at Bad Tölz.21In this address, Himmler aired his personal views on homosexuality.

The Reichsführer-SS regarded gay men as a great blight upon society. They contributed little more than red ink, in his opinion, to “the sexual balance sheet,” rarely fathering children.22This was a serious failing in the Third Reich, where fatherhood was deemed one of the prime patriotic duties of all German men. Worse still, Himmler was convinced that homosexuality was a communicable disease. He believed it could infect straight men and he worried that it might reach epidemic proportions in Germany, particularly in such hotbeds of male bonding as the SS. If this happened, he warned, homosexuality could weaken the essential fiber of the SS, destroying one of the most powerful arms of the Nazi state.23

During his speech at Bad Tölz, Himmler mulled over methods of eradicating this imaginary peril from the Reich. And this was where the bog bodies came in. Researchers had long pondered the violent deaths of these ancient Europeans, developing competing hypotheses to explain them. Some archaeologists thought these people were murdered prisoners of war. Others argued that they were honored members of society selected as precious sacrifices to the gods. But a few German researchers, including one of Himmler’s favorite young archaeologists, Herbert Jankuhn, advocated a much harsher hypothesis. Jankuhn believed these individuals were social pariahs, specifically deserters and homosexuals put to death for their transgressions against ancient Germanic laws.24

All the various hypotheses, however, were interpretations of scarce data. None could be proven. But the mere speculation that Iron Age Germans had once executed tribesmen accused of homosexuality pleased Himmler, providing exactly the kind of justification he was looking for. “Homosexuals were drowned in swamps,” he stated categorically to the SS audience at Bad Tölz in 1937. “The worthy professors who find these bodies in peat, do not realize that in ninety out of a hundred cases they are looking at the remains of a homosexual who was drowned in a swamp along with his clothes and everything else.” Then he drew his own conclusion. “That was not a punishment, but simply the termination of an abnormal life.”25

With other leading Nazis firmly behind him, Himmler acted on these ideas. His police officers rousted suspected homosexuals from their beds and bars and bathhouses, beating them and seizing their address books to make further arrests. They sent some to regular prisons and dispatched as many as fifteen thousand to concentration camps.26There they issued them uniforms with distinctive pink triangle badges, setting them apart from other prisoners. Tragedy awaited them. Medical experimenters castrated some and subjected others to procedures designed to transform them into heterosexuals. SS guards added to the misery, starving and working many to death. Today no one knows how many perished, but one leading historian, Rüdiger Lautmann, estimates that as many as 60 percent of the pink-triangle prisoners perished in Third Reich camps.27

Sitting in my chair in the hotel room in Assen, I felt a deep chill, and when I later pieced together the story more fully, I understood its terrible significance. At Bad Tölz, Himmler had transformed a simple piece of archaeological speculation into a hard, murderous fact. He had cloaked his own hatred of others under the respectable mantle of science. He had disguised the Nazis’ brutal agenda of mass murder as a venerable tradition of the German people, worthy of modern emulation. In Himmler’s hands, the distant past had become a lethal weapon against the living.

In the summer of 2001, I began delving into the history of the Ahnenerbe. I expected to find a rich body of literature on the subject, but this did not prove to be the case. Only a handful of articles on the organization had been written in English, most in scholarly journals, and surprisingly little had appeared in German. Indeed, just one major study of the brain trust had made its way into print at the time. Entitled Das “Ahnenerbe” der SS 1935-1945, the book was published in 1974 by a Canadian historian, Michael Kater, who had studied in Germany. By all rights, Kater’s superb scholarly study should have sparked a major investigation. But few researchers chose to look into the matter further. Many German scholars tended to dismiss Nazi-era prehistorians as a group of “harmless fellow travelers.”28Others feared digging into the Ahnenerbe. Several of the organization’s former members held prominent academic positions in West Germany after the war, and they deeply resented young historians and archaeologists probing into their pasts.29So during the 1980s most German scholars let sleeping dogs lie.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought this era of complacency to an abrupt end. Achim Leube, a prominent East German archaeology professor, had long harbored an interest in archaeology during the Third Reich. Living in East Berlin, however, he could not easily examine the Ahnenerbe’s records, most of which lay in West German archives. When the two Germanys finally reunited, Leube, a generous man with a wry sense of humor, embarked on a study of Ahnenerbe archaeologists. He urged others to do the same. In November 1998, he organized an international conference in Berlin on National Socialism and prehistory.30Nearly 150 scholars from twelve countries attended. The conference sparked a major scholarly reevaluation of the Ahnenerbe.

Few European historians, however, focused on what I strongly suspected would be the most fascinating part of the Ahnenerbe story. This was the foreign research—specifically the peacetime expeditions and the wartime missions of the Ahnenerbe and the ways in which Himmler put them to use. During the early 1970s, Kater had uncovered a wealth of letters and reports describing in detail one such journey—a large expedition to Tibet in 1938 and 1939 led by zoologist Ernst SchÄfer. In addition, Kater had also chanced upon numerous hints and suggestions concerning several other research trips and expeditions—to northern Africa and South America, the Middle East and Scandinavia.31

Based on the fragmentary evidence at hand, however, the Canadian historian concluded that few of these foreign ventures had ever taken place. Indeed, he inferred from the available sources that most references to these trips were simply wishful thinking, mere projections of the overweening ambitions of the Ahnenerbe’s leaders.32For nearly thirty years, historians had accepted this view. But Kater’s passing mention of these foreign trips fascinated me. What possible interest, I wondered, could the Ahnenerbe have had in such exotic locations—the Canary Islands, Iraq, Finland, or Bolivia? What conceivable political use could Himmler have made of prehistoric research in these countries?

I set out to find the answers, assisted by a small team of translators and researchers. Working together, we began combing the vast microfilm collection of captured German documents at the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland, and poring over the original Ahnenerbe files at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin. As we slowly exhausted our leads in these places, we expanded the search to other German archives, twenty-three in all, from the offices of the German Archaeological Institute to the collections of the former East German intelligence agency, the Stasi. From there, we stretched farther afield, to archives in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Poland, and Britain and library collections in Iceland and Russia.

For nearly two years, we waded through a vast, seemingly bottomless sea of letters, memoranda, minutes, reports, evaluations, accounting records, personnel files, equipment lists, expense accounts, unpublished articles, and published books. In all, nearly 961 voluminous Ahnenerbe files—occupying 180 linear feet of shelf space at the Bundesarchiv—survived the war. This, however, represented only a fraction of the original total. Much had been lost. At the end of the war, Ahnenerbe scientists incinerated stacks of incriminating documents, fearing that their letters and reports would be used against them in war-crime trials.

As the archival research proceeded, I began tracking down surviving members of the Ahnenerbe, as well as friends, relatives, and close colleagues of those who are now dead. I was constantly aware of the ticking clock. Some sources were far too frail or advanced in years to grant interviews; others, small in number, fell seriously ill or died between the first contact call and a second to set an appointment. In the end, I had the feeling that if I had waited even another few months to begin work on the project, I would have found scarcely a soul who had any firsthand knowledge of the Ahnenerbe’s foreign research.

Adding to these difficulties was the inevitable reluctance of many sources to talk. Some former employees of the Ahnenerbe refused to relive the past, while children and spouses of those who had died often feared blackening the memories of fathers or husbands. In the end, however, a surprising number of people agreed to talk, perhaps because I was so obviously an outsider from Canada—and therefore burdened with less emotional baggage than most German authors—and because I was known as a science writer, rather than as a historian of the Nazi era. So as the research proceeded, I talked to dozens of sources, crisscrossing Germany from Sylt in the north to Lake Constance in the south, and then further expanding this research, from Austria, France, Norway, and Sweden to Italy, Finland, and the Netherlands.

What emerged from all this research shed a disturbing new light on the Holocaust. For years, most historians dismissed Himmler’s intense interest in the ancient past as pure quackery and half-baked mysticism, foolishness that had no serious part in Himmler’s plans for the Nazi state. But our new information on the Ahnenerbe’s foreign travels painted a very different picture. Soon after the founding of the institute, Himmler began to sponsor expeditions and research trips across Europe and Asia. Through this foreign research, the Reichsführer-SS intended not only to control Germany’s ancient past, but to master its future. Baldly stated, Himmler, the architect of the Final Solution, planned to use tall, blond-haired SS men and selected women to scientifically rebreed a pure Aryan stock. With knowledge gleaned by Ahnenerbe scientists, he intended to tutor SS men in ancient Germanic lore, religion, and farming practices, teaching them to think as their ancestors had. When the time was ripe, he proposed to plant SS agricultural colonies in Germany, as well as in specific parts of the East—places where he believed Germany’s ancient ancestors had particularly flourished. There he hoped they would reverse the decline of Western civilization and rescue humanity from its mire.

To bring this about, Himmler was prepared to sacrifice and destroy the lives of millions of people. Most of the modern inhabitants of the supposed Aryan territories, he believed, would have to be dispossessed of their homes, forcibly deported, and either slaughtered or enslaved. All of the world’s Jews would have to be exterminated, down to the very last man, woman, and child. In this way, no Jewish “germs” would survive to infect and destroy the fledgling Aryan colonies. The pandemic of “Jewishness” would at last be eradicated.

To lay part of the groundwork for this monstrous scheme, Himmler dispatched Ahnenerbe scholars on eight foreign expeditions or research trips before the war. With the assistance of Wolfram Sievers, the Ahnenerbe’s managing director, and Walther Wüst, its soft-spoken superintendent, researchers journeyed across Europe and Asia—to remote Bronze Age rock carvings in Sweden and the rural homes of shamans in Finland, to inscription-covered palace walls in Croatia and the toppled temples of Parthian kings in Iraq, to mysterious Paleolithic caves in France and the enigmatic ruins of ancient settlements in Greece, to sprawling monasteries in Tibet and the sweeping coastal dunes of Libya.33In addition, Ahnenerbe officials drew up plans for at least four other expeditions—to Iran, the Canary Islands, the South American Andes, and Iceland—during the initial phase of the Nazi regime. Only the outbreak of the Second World War forced Himmler to postpone them indefinitely.

The research journeys, both planned and executed, were remarkably varied affairs. But most, if not all, were intended to prove Aryan supremacy or retrieve some form of ancient Aryan knowledge. Herman Wirth, an eccentric Dutch spendthrift with immense reserves of personal charm, set out to Sweden to decipher what he believed to be the world’s oldest writing system: a lost Aryan script. Yrjö von Grönhagen, a handsome young Finnish nobleman who once auditioned for the cinema, roamed remote eastern Finland to record and film ancient magical rites; Grönhagen believed they were religious rituals handed down through the centuries from the Aryans. The urbane classical historian Franz Altheim and his photographer-mistress Erika Trautmann journeyed first to Croatia and Serbia, then later to Iraq, to study the role of blond-haired Aryans in the Roman Empire. (En route, they gathered intelligence on Iraqi pipelines and tribal leaders for the SS Security Service.) The renegade Dutch prehistorian Assien Bohmers scoured for clues to the origins of Aryan ritual and art in the painted caves of southern France. Ernst SchÄfer, a mercurial man with a hair-trigger temper, and Bruno Beger, an SS expert in racial studies, trekked to Tibet to uncover proof of the ancient Aryan conquest of the Himalayas. While he was at it, SchÄfer drew important maps of Himalayan passes and gathered valuable military information on local leaders and their loyalty to Britain.

Himmler received detailed reports and personal briefings on these trips. He was fascinated by the way in which Ahnenerbe scholars were piecing together the “hundreds of thousands of mosaic stones.” But the Allies’ declaration of war in 1939 convinced him that something more was required. He harnessed the Ahnenerbe’s work directly to the war effort. After the German blitzkrieg through Poland, he sent archaeologist Peter Paulsen and a detachment of scholars to Warsaw to loot the city’s most important prehistory museums, stealing all valuables deemed to be of German origin. After Operation Barbarossa in 1941, he dispatched Herbert Jankuhn, the researcher who had championed the homosexual bog-body theory, and a small team to hunt for proof of an ancient Germanic empire in the Crimea. The findings, Himmler hoped, would bolster Germany’s claim to the region and justify his plans—approved in principle by Hitler—to execute or deport most of its inhabitants and plant colonies of SS men and their wives.

Himmler also enlisted the help of Ahnenerbe scholars in solving “the Jewish problem.” In 1942, mobile SS killing squads at work in the Crimea and the Caucasus had encountered an unexpected difficulty. Jews and Muslims had lived side by side in these regions for millennia, intermarrying and trading age-old customs, religious traditions, and languages. The result was an ethnic pastiche that dumbfounded SS killing squads. Who was Jewish? Who wasn’t? And what physical traits set the Jewish “race” clearly apart from all others? In search of answers, Himmler ordered two of his most trusted Ahnenerbe scientists, Ernst SchÄfer and Bruno Beger, to mount a scientific expedition to the Caucasus. A year later, Beger’s secret quest for data on the Jews culminated in one of the more notorious war crimes of the Second World War: the Jewish Skeleton Collection.


On Sale
Feb 15, 2006
Page Count
384 pages
Hachette Books

Heather Pringle

About the Author

Heather Pringle is the author of The Mummy Congress. Her work as a journalist has appeared in Science, Geo, New Scientist, and Discover, where she is currently a contributing editor. She has lectured across the United States and Canada–from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. She lives in British Columbia.

Learn more about this author