One of the reasons students of conspiracy culture and fringe history study the most extreme cases is because they demonstrate the ease with which bad ideas can drive out good ideas, and how political and social concerns can lead to the willful suppression of truth in favor of lies. The white minority government of Rhodesia put enormous political pressure on archaeologists to conclude that Great Zimbabwe had been built by anyone other than black Africans for obvious political and racial reasons. In fact, from roughly 1960 down to the end of white minority rule, the Rhodesian government engaged in official censorship.
Here is how Paul Sinclair, the curator of archaeology at Great Zimbabwe, described the situation when he was interviewed in 1990:
Censorship of guidebooks, museum displays, school textbooks, radio programmes, newspapers and films was a daily occurrence. Once a member of the Museum Board of Trustees threatened me with losing my job if I said publicly that blacks had built Zimbabwe. He said it was okay to say the yellow people had built it, but I wasn't allowed to mention radio carbon dates... It was the first time since Germany in the thirties that archaeology has been so directly censored.
Sinclair brings up the specter of Nazi archaeology, and the outlines of that disaster are well-known. As in Rhodesia, the Nazis suppressed archaeological sites that did not clearly demonstrate Aryan supremacy and appropriated for themselves the achievements of other cultures, for example annexing ancient Greece as a Germanic culture.
The Nazis, like the Rhodesians, developed an ahistorical—or rather, ant-historical—view of the past and ordered their scholars to support it. They sent archaeologists around the world to search for lost white races and the Aryan homeland, and these archaeologists knew that they had no choice but to return the results that their bosses back in Berlin wanted to hear. Professional archaeologists were of course outraged by the perversion of science and at first very few were willing to participate, but the leading Nazi archaeological group, the Ahnenerbe, simply replaced them with amateurs, cranks, and fringe thinkers who would be more amenable to producing the correct results.
A good chunk of this is covered in Christopher Hale’s excellent book Himmler’s Crusade (2002), particularly in terms of efforts to find in Tibet the original Aryan homeland, where the purest members of the white race escaped from the Great Flood.
One of the tenets of Nazi archaeology was the concept of Deutsche Reinheit, or in English, “Pure German Man.” Under this concept, the official line was that Germans originated among the survivors of a great natural disaster, be it the Flood, the fall of Atlantis, the Ice Age—the details were still open to debate—and that the migrated from this lost Aryan homeland to Germany, in so doing developing a high culture that could be discovered through archaeological remains of “Germanic” artifacts across Europe and beyond.
Such beliefs, of course, didn’t emerge out of nothing. They had spent decades festering in the fringe, crank, and speculative literature of Germany, and the Nazis simply appropriated them when they were most useful for their propaganda and political purposes. In this, their effort was little different from the way the Rhodesians adopted crank ideas about Zimbabwe, or, for that matter, the United States’ government’s use of the myth of the Mound Builders to support Indian removal in the 1830s. The Nazis appropriated the work of Edmund Kiss, an architect who claimed to have studied archaeology at university, despite having produced no evidence of this. In 1928 Kiss traveled to Tiahuanaco in Bolivia, and under the Nazi regime he published a massive tome of pseudo-archaeology in which he argued that the cyclopean architecture of the site was too similar to that of Europe to be anything but an ancient Nordic habitation, and he argued that the site was far older than anyone had thought—perhaps millions of years older. Himmler asked him to do more work on his Atlantis, Thule, and Tiahuanaco theories, and although this never came to pass, the inclusion of Kiss’s work in Morning of the Magicians (1960) guaranteed that each new generation of fringe thinkers would take over these claims for Tiahuanaco, which even today fringe thinkers want to attribute to a lost white race or space aliens (the Nordic, humanoid ones of course, not the evil Greys) and place at least as far back as the Ice Age. Although Kiss is often credited with originating these ideas, in fact Ignatius Donnelly had already done the same in 1882, when he declared that Tiahuanaco was evidence that South America was settled by white men from Atlantis.
Kiss’s work wasn’t all that the Nazis borrowed from the crank fringe of archaeology. Himmler was particularly interested in a Victorian-era hoax known as the Oera Linda Book, which had been written in Old Frisian and claimed to tell the dramatic story of how the Frisians migrated from Atlantis to Germany in the most ancient of days. Here is the passage that so excited Himmler:
During the whole summer the sun had been hid behind the clouds, as if unwilling to look upon the earth. There was perpetual calm, and the damp mist hung like a wet sail over the houses and the marshes. The air was heavy and oppressive, and in men’s hearts was neither joy nor cheerfulness. In the midst of this stillness the earth began to tremble as if she was dying. The mountains opened to vomit forth fire and flames. Some sank into the bosom of the earth, and in other places mountains rose out of the plain. Aldland, called by the seafaring people, Atland, disappeared, and the wild waves rose so high over hill and dale that everything was buried in the sea. Many people were swallowed up by the earth, and others who had escaped the fire perished in the water.
The brief reference to Atland is quite obviously intended as a reference to Plato’s Atlantis, and Himmler saw in it confirmation that the Aryans were the people of Atlantis.
The supposedly ancient manuscript for the Oera Linda Book came to light in 1867, with a Dutch translation in 1872 and an English translation in 1876, and heated debate arose over its authenticity. By 1879, nearly all scholars recognized the book as a fake, with the very paper on which it was written sourced to a German supplier from 1850. Nevertheless, the German nationalist Herman Wirth christened the book the “Nordic Bible” and argued for its authenticity in a book published in 1933, the first year of the Hitler regime. Heinrich Himmler became convinced that the Oera Linda Book was legitimate, and soon enough the text became known as “Himmler’s Bible.”
Now here’s the scary part: Himmler’s archaeological organization, the Ahnenerbe, emerged directly from this hoax because Wirth’s efforts in 1934 to defend the text drew him into Himmler’s orbit. The two men worked together to found the Ahnenerbe because Himmler was outraged that a public debate at the University of Berlin over the book’s authenticity on May 4 led to a humiliating defeat for crank history when Arthur Hübner argued against the book and made public the evidence for the hoax. Himmler decided then and there that esoteric Nazism and cult archaeology needed the force of government to impose the “truth” on dogmatic academics.
Thanks to Himmler’s efforts, the Oera Linda Book retained a patina of “forbidden knowledge.” Beginning in the 1970s, Robert Scrutton used it as evidence for Atlantis, Tony Steele used it to support neo-paganism, and some Neo-Nazi groups continue to accept it, largely because Himmler loved it.
But the use of pseudo-archaeology and pseudo-history was by no means confined only to Germany. In France, a parallel movement called “Celticism” held sway, positing pretty much everything the Germans did about the superiority of white people but swapping Celts for Nordics. Robert Charroux adopted Celticism’s racial theories, and in the 1960s he imported into his ancient astronaut books elaborate discussions of lost white races and prehistoric white hegemony.
The Soviets, as I have noted before, were happy to twist science to meet their ideological ends. A 1950s-era experiment in appropriating ufology as a “materialist” explanation for religion led directly to the florescence of the ancient astronaut theory in Western Europe in the 1960s. Under Peter Kolosimo (a communist) and the writing team of Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels (then a “pagan” socialist, later a Catholic conservative), the first generation of ancient astronaut theorists had a distinctly socialist cast—so much so that Erich von Däniken became disgusted with the socialist implications and injected into his rewrite of their ideas his own brand of anticommunist, conservative politics: “I have asked myself again and again: what is there that we can set over against the cummunist/socialist (sic) ideology?” he wrote to U.S. president Gerald Ford in 1976.
In America, U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace lost his chance at the presidency because of his connections with another fringe thinker, Russian émigré artist Nicholas Roerich. Wallace spent years in thrall to Roerich, who preached an offshoot of Theosophy predicated on a belief in the imminent end of the world. Wallace wrote letters to Roerich reveling in his excitement that the Theosophical space aliens from the planes of the Moon and Venus would soon come to take over the world. In 1944, party leaders dumped Wallace as vice president in favor of Harry S Truman, who duly succeeded FDR upon the latter’s death the following April. But during his time in high office, Wallace—while serving as Secretary of Agriculture—used his government connections to send Roerich to the USSR to go in search of the relics of ancient astronauts (“Ascended Masters”) in central Asia under the cover of collecting rare plants.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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