Review of The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust

by Heather Pringle

(Hyperion, 480 pp., $24.95, February, 2006)

A Science Shelf Guest Review by Adam Woog, originally published in the Seattle Times and republished with permission of the author

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The Master Plan: Scientists search for proof of a monstrous lie

By Adam Woog
Special to The Seattle Times

The Master Plan begins with an epigraph from novelist (and former Seattleite) Alan Furst: "He marveled at how the past could be refigured to suit the present, at how fragile reality truly was when you started to twist it."

The quote is apt; the book describes a massive effort to retool history to fit pet theories - and it shows just how easily that retooling can happen.

Author Heather Pringle is a science writer in Vancouver, B.C. Her first book, The Mummy Congress, was a fascinating look at past and present research into mummies. That book led to her present topic: an aspect of pseudo-science that served up some big, big lies.

The Ahnenerbe was created in 1935 under the auspices of Heinrich Himmler - probably the most powerful Nazi after Hitler himself. This elite think tank and research organization had a mandate to find evidence of ancient Aryan civilizations. This evidence was intended to prove innate racial superiority and justify the Nazi plan to rid the world of everything not Aryan.

Never mind that the Ahnenerbe (the name translates roughly as "ancestral heritage") simply made up its theories. Using the flimsiest scraps of evidence, the Ahnenerbe's members - some of them, admittedly, genuine scholars in their previous occupations - spun elaborate stories about an ancient race of Nordic people that spread worldwide and reached incredibly high levels of sophistication. Himmler's fond hope was that a belief system based on this fabrication would replace Christianity, with a return to prehistoric ways that tied into his ideal of the rural Aryan life.

To underwrite its work, the Ahnenerbe found funding from various sources, including, of all things, a royalty paid on each use of a clever invention, the bicycle-pedal reflector. The organization was thus able to finance its increasingly bizarre expeditions: across Europe as well as to remote regions like Tibet, Iran and the Bolivian Andes.

In other circumstances, it would be easy to dismiss the Ahnenerbe's work as nothing more than crackpot ideas. After all, the Nazis never had any monopoly on nut-case speculation. It's just that theirs turned into something genuinely grotesque.

This happened as the war progressed and the Ahnenerbe's work shifted from loony conjecture to gruesome reality. For example, in the name of "research," the Ahnenerbe began plundering museums and cathedrals across Europe. It also began a collection of Jewish skulls, gathered in the most hideous manner imaginable, as part of an ongoing study to precisely determine what physical characteristics a Jew possessed.

Pringle - excellent science writer that she is - has researched her subject exhaustively; the endnotes and bibliography alone run to nearly 100 pages. Her prose is clear and, given the subject matter, relatively dispassionate - at least until near the book's end, when she relates a 2002 interview with a surviving member of the Ahnenerbe, still unrepentant and proud of his work. As a result of such scrupulous work, "The Master Plan" is a compelling and highly readable account of an almost unimaginably horrible topic.

Adam Woog writes a monthly crime-fiction column for The Seattle Times.