Nazi Pseudoscience

August 16, 2011 0 Comments

Ernst Schäfer (1910, Cologne – 1992) was a famous German hunter and zoologist in the 1930s, specializing in ornithology. Schäfer is most famous for his three expeditions to Tibet in 1931, in 1934–1935, and in 1938–1939. The first two expeditions were led by the American Brooke Dolan II. The third expedition was led by himself under the patronage of Heinrich Himmler, the SS and various sponsors.

In July 1934, during his second expedition in Asia, he met the then exiled Panchen Lama, Thubten Chökyi Nyima, in Hangzhou, China.

Schäfer joined the Schutzstaffel in 1933, but, after World War II, he claimed to have been an unwilling recruit into the organization and that joining the SS was a step necessary to advance his career.

Schäfer wrote several books, including Berge, Buddhas und Bären (Mountains, Buddhas and Bears), and helped produce the film Geheimnis Tibet (Secret Tibet).


Scientific research during the war ranged across the whole spectrum of Nazi plans and ambitions. Scientists at a specially created institute in Athens carried out research into improving crop yields and food supplies for future use by German settlers in the east, while an SS botanical unit collected plant specimens behind the Eastern Front to see if any of them were of nutritional value.201 Such work involved a two-way bargain: scientists were not just being co-opted by the regime, but also willingly used the research opportunities it provided to build their own research careers and further their own scientific work. So intensive was the collaboration indeed that some even spoke ironically of ‘war in the service of science’. In 1942, the creation of a Reich Institute for Psychological Research and Psychotherapy set the seal on the efforts of Matthias Göring (a cousin of the Reich Marshal, whose name was of considerable help to him in his campaign) to gain recognition for a profession long associated by the Nazis with Jewish doctors such as Sigmund Freud. The Institute investigated war-relevant matters such as the reasons for neuroses and breakdowns among the troops; but it is also, as we have seen, researched homosexuality, which the army and the SS regarded as a genuine threat to the German soldier’s fighting prowess.


Racial-biological research was carried out not only by Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institutes but also by Himmler’s Ancestral Heritage organization, the research arm of the SS. Himmler’s men ranged far and wide both before and during the war in search of proof for his often wild racial and anthropological theories. The organization mounted expeditions to Scandinavia, Greece, Libya and Iraq looking for prehistoric remains, and two scholars worked their way through a variety of sites in the Middle East, sending back reports to German intelligence as they went. Most remarkably of all, Ancestral Heritage staffers Ernst Schäfer and Bruno Beger led an SS expedition to remote Tibet, where they photographed some 2,000 of the inhabitants, measured 376 individuals and took plastic casts of seventeen Tibetan faces. Heinrich Harrer, already well known for his conquest of the Eiger Mountain, achieved greater fame on another expedition sent by Himmler to the Himalayas. Arrested by the British on the outbreak of war, he escaped and spent seven years in Tibet, later writing a best-selling account of his experiences.


Encountering problems in identifying who was Jewish and who was not in the ethnically and culturally mixed regions of the Crimea and the Caucasus when they were overrun by German forces, Himmler dispatched Schäfer and Beger to the area to try to sort things out so that the Jews could be separated out and killed. Before long, Beger was engrossed in a large-scale study of supposedly Jewish racial characteristics. Unable to continue his work because of the advance of the Red Army in 1943, he relocated to Auschwitz, where he selected and measured Jewish prisoners and took casts of their faces, in full knowledge of their impending fate. Then he moved on to the concentration camp at Natzweiler. Here he was assisted by the ghoulish anatomist August Hirt, whose features had been severely disfigured by a wound to his upper and lower jaw during the First World War. At Natzweiler the two men started a collection of Jewish skulls, first taking x-rays of selected inmates, then, after having them gassed, macerating their flesh in a chemical solution before adding the skeletal remains to the Ancestral Heritage archive at Mittersill castle. These macabre activities were only brought to an end by the arrival of the advancing Allied armies.

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