Written for work – and please remember that i work for a pro-Israel Research Institute. It is my job to be right-wing.
The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust, Heather Pringle.
New York: Hyperion Books (2006); 463 pgs; $33.99
The recent exposure of left-wing academics as anti-American, antisemitic radicals, perhaps best epitomized by David Horowitz’s The Professors, might lead a reader to conclude that “dangerous” intellectuals are a relatively new phenomenon… not so. Heather Pringle’s The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust recounts the chilling tale of the Ahenerbe, a research institute born of Heinrich Himmler’s fascination with the prehistory of Nordic peoples and his desire to educate and indoctrinate the SS in a racialism that could compete with the predominant Christian ideology.
Divided into short, vignette-like chunks, each chapter of Pringle’s latest work provides a snapshot into the work of one academic under the auspices of the Ahenerbe. Prominent archaeologists, linguists and classicists set out across the globe, to Finland, Sweden, Tibet and the Caucasus in the hopes of classifying humanity into races based on readily quantifiable physical characteristics and proving the superiority of the Aryan race. Readers follow as what was once a propaganda-producing research centre delves into the atrocities so nauseatingly characteristic of the Nazi-regime. The researchers of the Ahenerbe pillage Europe’s art collections, aid mobile killing units ravaging the Mountain Jews of the Caucasus, murder concentration camp prisoners to collect their skeletons, and participate in horrifying medical experiments on sterilization and mustard gas.
The Master Plan is written in a dispassionate and relatively uncritical tone considering the subject matter. This approach permits the humour of the far-fetched schemes and theories of the Ahenerbe to shine through. A little humour goes a long way in a book written about the wholesale massacre of peoples in the name of a greater scientific good. It is difficult to stifle a laugh when reading how Hitler and other Nazi leaders turned down plans to develop an atomic weapon because “the idea, noted Speer [the scientist proposing the project], ‘quite obviously strained [their] intellectual capacity’” (283). Himmler hoped to recover Thor’s Hammer instead, which he believed to be an ancient Nordic electrical weapon of incredible power that would win the war for Germany even as the Allies crossed the Rhine. Pringle need not moralize in order to condemn, for the thoughts and actions of the Ahenerbe staff do an excellent job on their own.
In order to adopt this ‘clinical’ tone, Pringle writes a work that some might criticize for sidelining victims, however, as the reader become enraptured in the tale of ridiculous scientific theories and exotic expeditions, he too inevitably suspends the awareness that the victims of these crimes have names, families and dreams. What technique could possibly have more impact than making the reader complicit in the crimes of the Ahenerbe by temporarily forgetting the humanity of the victims? Pringle provides the reader with a stark, painful reminder of this at the opening of chapter nineteen, “The Skeleton Collection”, when she provides a brief biography of Sophie Boroschek. A one-time nurse at the Hospital of the Jewish Community in Berlin, Sophie was thirty-three when she was hand-picked by Bruno Berger to be transported from Auschwitz to the Natzweiler concentration camp where, after her murder, her skeleton was integrated into a museum exhibition on Rassenkunde (racial theory). Her characteristic “Jewishness” and healthy-state sealed her fate. This one and only foray into victim portrayal demonstrates that Pringle could have depicted the victims poignantly, but chooses not to in order to emphasize the perpetrators.
Pringle ends The Master Plan by including a February 2002 interview with the ninety-year-old Berger. The passage of sixty years had not brought about either a renouncement of racial theory nor an apology for his crimes against humanity. She describes how “he was still baffled by his conviction [at the Nuremburg Trials], unable to fathom how anyone could think him a criminal. Indeed he seemed to see himself as the real victim of the tragedy, much wronged by the judicial system and the politics of the day” (323). Pringle leaves no doubts to her reaction: “This hideous self-pity was terrible to witness” (323). She depicts this work as proof that no matter the research and inquiry we devote to the task, it will never be possible to fully comprehend how intelligent, informed men and women, educated before the rise of national socialism, were willing to relinquish their own humanity in the name of racial hatred and pseudo-science. This story, of doctors and academics in whom we place our trust betraying their heritage of tolerance and progress in the name of a ‘greater good,’ rings true after the events in London on July 21, 2007.
The Master Plan is a riveting, well-written, well-researched, well-documented read about a subject near and dear to us—just not before bed.