According to the show, Himmler charges explorer Ernst Schäfer with finding evidence of the Aryan master race from Atlantis, which Himmler believed lived on in isolation somewhere in the most remote regions of Tibet. Himmler and his research organization, the Ahnenerbe, believed that the discovery of “Aryan supermen” in Tibet would validate Nazi race theories, which are not discussed in any depth. Schäfer disagrees with Himmler’s Atlantis theories, but goes along with the offer to secure funding for an expedition to Tibet.
Like all episodes of Myth Hunters, the show has very little by way of analysis and instead take a straightforward approach to retelling the story of Schäfer’s efforts to conduct science during his 1938-1939 Tibet mission amidst a government and a culture that has rejected science in favor of myth. All of this is more or less a distillation of Hale’s Himmler’s Crusade, and if you’ve read the book, there is nothing new here. The show, however, does a good job highlighting the political aspects of the Tibet expedition, particularly the way the Nazi propaganda efforts caused tension with Great Britain, which controlled access to Tibet via India, and how the expedition went forward because of British efforts to get on Hitler’s good side, but not without a wary eye watching their progress from the Raj.
But at this point, Atlantis is a bit of an afterthought, and the show instead focuses on the expedition’s efforts to grade northern Indians and Tibetans on a racial scale to rate their level of Northern European traits, but the expedition members found Himmler’s Atlantis ideas laughable. The Tibetans were particularly pleased that the Nazis shared the swastika with them (it was an ancient symbol in Tibet), and they welcomed the Nazi with unprecedented access to the country and its capital.
At the end of the expedition, the team returns to Germany and the warm embrace of Himmler, despite the lack of evidence for Atlanteans in Tibet. The program dutifully follows through with an epilogue about the downfall of the Nazis (Schäfer ended up managing a wildlife preserve with ex-Nazis in South America), but the facts-only approach to the show was a bit of a missed opportunity to have a more serious discussion of the consequences of pseudoscience.
All throughout the show, AHC ran promos for their “special” presentation for the week, last night’s Hitler’s Jurassic Zoo. How could I resist a show about Nazis and DINOSAURS? We’ve had Nazis and Atlantis, Nazis and the Holy Grail, Nazis and UFOs, and Nazis and time travel; but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one about Nazis and dinosaurs. Now if you asked me before I watched the show whether one on Atlantis or one on prehistoric animals would be a deeper and more sensitive exploration of Nazi racial madness, I would have guessed wrong.
“Only now can the full story be told…” says the narrator to open the story of, well, not dinosaurs after all. Sadly, the “Jurassic” title was a bait-and-switch, including the clever but disturbing main title sequence, which riffs on the classic typeface of Jurassic Park and the massive gate that serves as the movie park’s entrance. Instead, the Nazis wanted to recreate extinct mammals that the original Aryans would have hunted in the mythic past. It’s not quite as interesting as dinosaurs, but you take what you can get. Also: There isn’t very much Hitler in the show, and the concept of “zoo” is rather loosely defined as well.
Immediately, though, this documentary differentiates itself from Myth Hunters. It starts with an account of Nazi atrocities in 1941in the Białowieża Forest area of what had once been eastern Poland (then Nazi-occupied Greater Germany), along with the documents that show the premeditated nature of the actions, including the orders for the atrocities and photographs of pre-war models for what the Nazis pre-planned for the site. These atrocities—deportations and exterminations—were designed and imposed by Hermann Göring in order to take over the forest as a nature preserve for the Nazi elite, for it was home to some of the last large populations of the wild animals of eastern Europe. Before the war, Göring already had a model of the preserve built.
Steve Jones of the University College London discusses the importance of Tacitus’s account of pure Germans, and we hear of the Teutonic myths that shaped the Germanic vision of the forest primeval and its role in German culture. I was quite impressed by the seriousness of purpose in what the title implied would be a flippant documentary, and the way the show connected Nazi actions both to the mythic conception of the Volk and to the pseudoscience of its time.
A zoologist named Herr Prof. Dr. Lutz Heck was “entranced” with “romantic myths” of the great beasts fought by the mythic Germanic heroes, particularly the auroch—an ancient and gigantic bovine that went extinct in 1627, and wanted develop a program to breed new aurochs. Heck and his brother had been trying to breed lookalike aurochs from modern cattle since the 1920s (before the Nazi era) by selecting from modern cattle the traits that best resemble the auroch. The auroch was the ancestor of modern cattle, and the Hecks believed that they could reassemble the auroch from the traits they bequeathed to their descendants.
Here there is a connection to Nazi race theory, for the Hecks’ efforts to purify cattle blood reflects the emphasis on racial purity in Nazi race laws, and the show does not shy away from highlighting the clear connection between efforts to recreate prehistoric (and mythic) purity at the animal and human levels. Lutz Heck threw his lot in with the Nazis, and he courted Göring’s favor by supplying him with lion cubs for pets and going out on spear-hunting expeditions with him. Both the Hecks and Göring share a cult of masculinity that demands the strongest and wildest creatures as the only worthy subjects of Nazi master-hunters.
To that end, the Hecks want to recreate “German beasts,” and to that end they star back-breeding (supposed) wild horses from tame modern horses, and they import vigorous animals from the Americas to revitalize the breeding stock. Their efforts at animal eugenics parallel Hitler’s eugenics program and its effort to perfect the Aryan race. Excerpts from Mein Kampf are used to make this connection, and the corruption of science in the name of mythology and ideology is emphasized with chilling efficiency. The show carefully parallels the Nazis’ treatment of Jews with that of animals, and how the mythology and ideology of hunting and husbandry governed both. The Jews, though, ranked below muscular “Germanic beasts,” for they were unworthy even to hunt; in a carefully chosen detail, the show notes that in the same forest where the aurochs were being recreated as worthy adversaries, Jews were fed to German Shepherds, a “Germanic” dog.
As World War II began, Heck used his connection with Göring to obtain zoo animals from occupied countries to breed and then hunt and kill. The director of a zoo in Poland hid Jews in the basement while Heck visited the house above and seized the zoo’s best animals.
In order to make Białowieża into a prehistoric animal sanctuary, Göring asks Himmler to ethnically cleanse the forest. More than 20,000 locals were expelled, and this effort marks one of the first episodes in the Final Solution. All of the forest’s Jews were removed, and some killed. Dr. Philip Blood tells us that Białowieża was the first area the SS declared “Jew-free,” and this occurred in the name of a myth, taken from Caesar and Tacitus, of manly “bare-chested Germans” hunting aurochs with spears. I was impressed by the repeated connection the show’s experts draw between fringe history—an obsession with myth as reality—and the consequences of these myths. The neo-aurochs were released along with bears and bison to make Białowieża into a Germanic forest, even as SS officers hunted down and killed any Jews and opponents of the Nazis who infiltrated the forest. The troops celebrated their kills with beer and “cozy get-togethers.”
Blood says that the Soviets killed the Germanic cattle in the Białowieża forest after the War, ending the Nazi effort to resurrect the primeval world of myth. Some of their cows live on as today’s Heck Cattle, though they are not, obviously, true aurochs, but rather a large breed of modern cows. The Hecks lived happily ever after as zoologists, exonerated after the War.
Jones tells us that it’s easy to fool yourself into believing a myth, or that you have the key to unlocking the past. But just as Heck Cattle are not aurochs, and the mythic past can’t be reopened. He also notes that the Nazi breeding programs and eugenics efforts tainted genetic research for decades. The Heck Cattle, like the Volkswagen Beetle, stand as modern reminders of the Nazi regime hidden in plain sight.