Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Real Story of Nazi Eqyptology

I found the link to the article “The Real Story of Nazi Egyptology” on one of the Jack Sasson mailings. It interested me for many reasons but mainly that I had never thought of the Nazi’s interest in Egypt. Other than the Indiana Jones movies, mentioned in fact in this article, and my limited knowledge of the Nazi obsession with the Aryan race and looking for its origins, I had no idea that a great deal was done in the field of archaeology by the Nazis during the thirties and up until the end of the Second World War. The article is about Thomas Schneider, a professor at the University of British Columbia, who is in the process of examining this time in history and writing a manuscript.

Prior to the rise of Hitler, Germany had been known as a respected figure in Egyptology and even had an archaeological institute based in Cairo. Some famous figures in this field were Adolf Erman who helped to “unravel the grammar of Egyptian writing”, Ludwig Brochart who discovered the famous bust of Nefertiti, and Heinrich Schafer who made huge steps forward in understanding Egyptian art. Many American Egyptologists also trained in Germany, including the inspiration for Indiana Jones himself, James Henry Breasted.
One of Professor Schneider’s main points in this study is to show that the Nazis that were involved in archaeology during this time were in no way uniform in their studies or activities. One example is Helmut Berve, a professor or ancient history at University of Leipzig, who questioned the right of Egyptology to exist at all, saying that “Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Germany will automatically focus on the peoples akin to us in terms of race and mind; Egyptology and Assyriology will recede into the background,” transposing the ideals of Aryan thought into the study of the ancient world. Walther Wolf, another pro-Nazi Egyptologist who defended the study by saying that the ruling of Pharaoh can be likened to the way Hitler ruled over Germany and it’s conquests.

On the other side was anti-Nazi Alexander Scharff, who was one of the chairs of Egyptology at the University of Munich. He openly criticized Wolf’s work and contested that you could not use the “lens of Nazism” to critique or defend Egyptology because the two are completely unrelated. Despite his criticisms, he was actually able to keep his job throughout the war. George Steindorff was another prominent Egyptology professor, who also happened to be Jewish. He was forced to quit his positions and flee to America to escape from being placed in a concentration camp.

The Nazis also controlled the former German Archaeological Institute base, which operated until the beginning of the war in 1939. Professor Schneider believes that during that time, the Nazis used the base to advance themselves in the Middle East. The head of the institute, Hermann Junker, continued to excavate during the war and was a Nazi supporter. He focused most of his time excavating the Great Pyramids at Giza and worked primarily without direction from Hitler or any other Nazi officials. There is a lot of speculation, however that the base’s use was not confined to solely archaeological purposes, and that Junker often received Nazi guests and spread Nazi propaganda.

As far as the leader of the Nazis, Hitler, it is hard to say what is primary interest in Egyptology was. Professor Schneider did find a photo however of an Ancient Egyptian Art expedition in Berlin, 1938, with Hitler sitting in the front row. Hitler was also particularly interested in the bust of Nefertiti and refused to have it be returned to Cairo. In his great scheme for a transformed Berlin, Germania, Hitler planned to place the bust in a museum along side one of himself.

As Professor Schneider states, “This was, what I think, a decisive turning point in the international history of Egyptology,” and I after reading this piece I don’t think anyone could argue. Germany lost much of its academic credibility after this era, and lost some of its greatest contributors, such as Steindorff. This continues to affect Germany today and who knows what German academics could have accomplished had they not been disrupted by Nazism. It always surprises me how academic pursuits can be twisted and morphed into something entirely different by government or social influence. Especially after choosing to study Nefertiti for my excavation project, I am amazed at the history of her famous bust and Hitler’s fascination of it. I will most definitely have to look further into German Archaeology for that project, something I really hadn’t considered previously.

1 comment:

  1. when reading the 'classics' of egyptogoy you can become a little more aware of it. Most of those names I recognized, because I read books and publications. I became a little more familiar with the concept after reading some fiction books written by one of my favorite modern egyptologysts who writes under the name Elizabeth Peters. She doesn't go into it overly much, but does ascknowledge it in one of her Amilia Peabody mysteries. If you read a lot of books published by Egyptologists you become awair of a certain 'flavor' of each author - and when you realize the time period and politics/ philosophies of that era you realize that more often than not, many of them write their beliefs and theories as if they are fact. Sometimes their own particular prejudices will oooz out of the pages.