Tag Archives: European History

How Nazis co-opted German folklore studies

Our guest blogger is James R. Dow, whose new UWP book is published today: Heinrich Himmler’s Cultural Commissions: Programmed Plunder in Italy and Yugoslavia.

Traditional costumes, Folk Art Museum, Innsbruck. Photo by Reinhard Bodner.

“Oh, what a wonderful career you must have had, a specialist in German folklore! All those fairy tales and legends, beautiful folk songs, charming costumes , and those delightful buildings we’ve seen in open-air museums.”

Well, it’s more complicated than that. German folklorists and linguists included world-famous scholars, beginning with the Brothers Grimm and continuing well into the twentieth century. As the Nazis rose to power, however, these disciplines were distorted into racist pseudoscience. Under the direction of Heinrich Himmler’s SS-Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Inheritance), folklore became a tool for constructing a unified German realm and a manufactured lineage from ancient and “pure” Germanic and Nordic blood.

German folklorists and linguists were certainly not alone in selling out to the National Socialist regime, but they were called on to provide the ideological base for Heinrich Himmler’s SS-Ahnenerbe (SS-Ancestral Inheritance). A total of fourteen men and two women, mostly highly educated, became part of cultural commissions sent on a mission to two German-speaking areas: the province of South Tyrol in Italy and Gottschee in Slovenia.

Himmler assigned them to research “the space, spirit, deed, and inheritance of the Nordic races of the Indo-Germanic realm.” The commissions adhered to a belief in a stream of blood, but it proved to be nothing more than a popularized concept of “race,” with everything based on the self-deluding construction of a unified Germanic realm. This was pseudoscience masquerading as hereditary science.

The commissions found pre-Christian tales, ancient Germanic customs, worship sites, architecture, songs sung in parallel fifths, and the last remnants of a Gothic language still very much alive in the mountains, valleys, and villages of the Southern Alps.

Cow decorated with a floral swastika. Photo courtesy of Josef Rainer.

Why is this important? Himmler’s project was arguably the largest field investigation of traditional folklore in history, and the depth of the research carried out on that “Gothic” language, Cymbrian, is unparalleled. But the research was done as part of multiple projects of the SS-Ahnenerbe, which also included conducting medical “research” on prisoners in the concentration camps at Dachau and Natzweiler. When Wolfram Sievers, the business director of the Ahnenerbe, stood trial in Nürnberg in 1946, one piece of evidence brought against him was his collection of Jewish skulls, most likely from Natzweiler. You can view part of his trial on YouTube.

This was state-sponsored research, and some of the researchers were from the same universities where German excellence in scholarship had been unquestioned. The entire undertaking in Italy and Slovenia became nothing less than an affront to honest and responsible scholarship, state-mandated or otherwise. Public sector folklore studies and linguistic documentation today can learn much from this unprecedented and unparalleled occurrence in the annals of the humanities and social science scholarship.

James R. Dow is a professor emeritus of German at Iowa State University. He is the author of German Folklore: A Handbook and The Study of European Ethnology in Austria. He is the editor of numerous books, including The Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythologyand Legend and The Nazification of an Academic Discipline.

 

New Books & New Paperbacks, May 2018

We’re pleased to announce the following books to be published this month.

May 8, 2018
Death Rides the Ferry
Patricia Skalka

“An intricate, intriguing plot in which Door County Sheriff Dave Cubiak can stop a ruthless killer only by finding the link between a spate of murders and a forty-year-old mystery.”—Michael Stanley, author of the Detective Kubu series

“Skalka is equally skilled at evoking the beloved Door County landscape and revealing the complexities of the human heart, as Sheriff Cubiak’s latest case evokes personal demons. This thought-provoking mystery, set in a beautiful but treacherous environment, is sure to please.”—Kathleen Ernst, author of The Light Keeper’s Legacy

 

May 15, 2018
Civil Obedience: Complicity and Complacency in Chile since Pinochet
Michael J. Lazzara

Critical Human Rights

“Original, engaging, and direly needed. Lazzara, one of the leading scholars writing on human rights, memory, and trauma in Chile and Argentina, looks at the many ethical positions civilians have latched onto to save face in the decades since the Pinochet dictatorship.”—Greg Dawes, author of Verses Against the Darkness

“Provocative, conceptually powerful, and fluidly expressed, Lazzara’s book forces a reckoning with the active, ample ways Chileans violently transformed politics, the economy, and the social fabric to lasting effect and amid ongoing denial. The arguments and implications extend well beyond Chile to our own politics and societies.”—Katherine Hite, author of Politics and the Art of Commemoration

 

May 29, 2018
Heinrich Himmler’s Cultural Commissions: Programmed Plunder in Italy and Yugoslavia
James R. Dow

“Unshrouds folklore’s manipulation by Nazi leaders, and thank goodness for that, even if it is uncomfortable to confront. Dow has unearthed, and deftly explained, an incredible storehouse of material from Himmler’s cultural commissions, probably the largest organized field collecting project in history. The lessons he astutely draws are critical for understanding the Nazi era and are relevant to today’s cultural politics. A great achievement.”—Simon J. Bronner, author of Explaining Traditions

“Dow analyzes the motives of the protagonists of Himmler’s Cultural Commissions, and his treatment of the ideological preconditions for the field investigations is compelling. A major contribution to our understanding of Nazism.”—Konrad Köstlin, University of Vienna

 

May 31, 2018
Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946

Now in Paperback
James P. Leary

Languages and Folklore of the Upper Midwest

• Grammy Nominee
• Winner, Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Best Historical Research in Folk or World Music

“A stunning work of curation and scholarship. . . . Whether you’re a music-maker or just a listener, reader, and thinker, there’s a surprise on every track and every page.”Huffington Post

“A treasure. . . . Leary’s deep knowledge of the subject matter is demonstrated by thought-provoking facts placing the dance tunes, ballads, lyrics songs, hymns, political anthems, and more in historical context.”Library Journal

“A landmark. . . . Attains the highest standards of folklore studies.”Journal of Folklore Research

New books and new paperbacks, July 2017

We’re pleased to announce these new books, and titles new in paperback, debuting this month.

July 18, 2017
WISCONSIN AND THE SHAPING OF AMERICAN LAW
Joseph A. Ranney

“Not simply about Wisconsin’s legal history, for Ranney covers the sweep of state laws in American history from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to recent legal questions of the twenty-first century. Impressively researched and invitingly written, this is a unique introduction to our states as laboratories of democracy.”—Lloyd C. Gardner,Rutgers University

State laws affect nearly every aspect of our daily lives—our safety, personal relationships, and business dealings—but receive less scholarly attention than federal laws and courts. Joseph A. Ranney looks at how state laws have evolved and shaped American history, through the lens of the historically influential state of Wisconsin.

 

July 18, 2017  NEW IN PAPERBACK
AMENDING THE PAST
Europe’s Holocaust Commissions and the Right to History
Alexander Karn

“Historical commissions, Karn argues, have brought expert historical practice to bear on complex questions, adding new meaning to facts that have either been debated or glossed over. These commissions matter because they serve to amend history in cases in which social memory has impeded understanding of historical injustices and begin the amelioration of past human rights violations.”Choice

“A very important contribution to the interdisciplinary scholarship on the broad theme of reckoning with histories of atrocity.”—Bronwyn Leebaw, University of California, Riverside

Critical Human Rights
Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors

 

July 18, 2017 NEW IN PAPERBACK
SHAPING THE NEW MAN

Youth Training Regimes in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany
Alessio Ponzio

“Ponzio tells a nuanced story of the delicate and volatile relationship between interwar Europe’s two fascist regimes. . . . He highlights power struggles between leaders, curricula designed not to educate youth but to transform them into ideal representatives of their regimes, and strict gender policing within each of the organizations. Recommended.”Choice

“Ponzio provides, above all, valuable new perspectives on the tremendous influence of Italian Fascism on fledgling Nazi youth organizations, and the cooperative and reciprocal relationships that flourished between the two regimes.”—Michael Ebner, author of Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy

George L. Mosse Series in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History
Steven E. Aschheim, Stanley G. Payne, Mary Louise Roberts, and David J. Sorkin, Series Editors

 

July 27, 2017
BEYOND THE MONASTERY WALLS

The Ascetic Revolution in Russian Orthodox Thought, 1814–1914
Patrick Lally Michelson

“Impressive in its analytical breadth and astute in its interpretive depth, this is an engaging, lucid, and original contribution to the history of modern Russian thought and modern Orthodoxy.”—Vera Shevzov, Smith College

“Reading this extraordinary book is like having missing pieces of a puzzle click together at last. Actors normally examined separately—radical socialists, theological academies, hermits, great writers, bureaucrats, lay intellectuals—emerge as part of the same religious culture that placed asceticism at the center of discourse and practice in imperial Russia’s defining century.” —Nadieszda Kizenko, University at Albany, SUNY

 

July 27, 2017
IF YOU DON’T LAUGH YOU’LL CRY 
The Occupational Humor of White Wisconsin Prison Workers
Claire Schmidt

“A lucid, compelling study of some very funny, compassionate corrections officers. Their intelligence and comic delight shine through on every page.”—Jackie McGrath, College of DuPage

America is fascinated by prisons and prison culture, but few Americans understand what it is like to work in corrections. Claire Schmidt, whose extended family includes three generations of Wisconsin prison workers, introduces readers to penitentiary officers and staff as they share stories, debate the role of corrections in American racial politics and social justice, and talk about the important function of humor in their jobs.

Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World