Editors’ note: This essay is part of the series Socio-Cultural Anthropology under Hitler: Four Case Studies from Vienna

“We do not know what measures are planned for the resettlement of the Jewish population in the next few months; under certain circumstances we could miss valuable material by waiting too long […].”[1]

In October 1941 Anton Adolf Plügel (1910–1945), an enthusiastic National Socialist and head of the Ethnology department of the section for “Racial and Folklore Research” at the Institute for German Studies in the East (IDO),[2] wrote those meaningful lines from Kraków to his Vienna-based colleague Dora Maria Kahlich (born Könner, 1905–1970). This letter, which I copied in the Kraków University archive a few years ago, testifies to how deeply involved some junior anthropologists from Vienna were in preparations for the Holocaust. At the time, Plügel, a graduate of Vienna University’s Institut für Völkerkunde (Institute of Ethnology), was preparing a collaborative study of anthropometric measurements among the Jewish residents of the southern Polish town of Tarnów (see Fig. 1)—and, apparently, he was aware of the regime’s “final solution” plans.

Figure 1. Jews in the Tarnów Ghetto, photo from Anton Adolf Plügel’s photo collection (presumably 1942), AUJ, IDO SRV, Box 64/062/030

After the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the German occupying power was faced with the question of how to effectively administer the large territory. People living in the Generalgouvernement were regarded as cheap labor. Based on the criteria of the Deutsche Volksliste (German Peoples’ List) they were classified as either being “ethnic Germans” or “inferior.” The regime’s racial policy aimed at fragmenting Polish society so as to destroy its national unity.[3] The “scientific” foundations for the operation were provided by pro-Nazi ethnologists and anthropologists of the Reich involved in implementing these plans. Anton Adolf Plügel and his team of colleagues at the IDO in Kraków are one significant example of this complicity.

Plügel relocated to Kraków in early 1940, only a short time after his graduation from the University of Vienna. As a student he had predominantly been interested in Ancient Mexican studies, while engaging heavily in political agitation. He became an early member of the National Socialist Party (NSDAP), joined the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the Hitler Youth (HJ), and continued to be involved in Nazi activities even after the Austrian prohibition of the NSDAP in 1933. When he joined the newly established IDO in Kraków in 1941 he was merely at the starting point of his academic career. He had little scientific working experience and he certainly had no regional expertise on southern Poland. Despite that, he obtained a leading position at the Institute’s Racial and Folklore Research section and was therefore responsible not only for planning studies and examinations, but also for hiring personnel. He recruited the native Austrian anthropologist Elfriede Fliethmann (later Henseling, 1915–1987), who was also an alumna of the University of Vienna and engaged in similar political activities. Not only was she a member of the NSDAP, but during her student years she had been involved in the National Socialist female students associations. Silesia-born ethnologist Ingeborg Sydow (later married Lott, 1915–2009) was the second to join the team. She had studied in Frankfurt, Vienna, and Berlin and was especially interested in colonial ethnology. She was a member of the NSDAP and the Reichskolonialbund (Reich Colonial League) and was involved in the activities of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls) as well as National Socialist Students Associations.[4]

Plügel and his team collected biometric data among the population in southern Poland in preparation for selection and extermination. These researchers in Kraków maintained close contact with their colleagues in Vienna and used methods invented or elaborated by Josef Weninger (1886–1959) and his “Viennese Anthropological School.” The data files and questionnaires employed during some of these activities were copies of those already used during POW documentation in World War I.[5] The examinations focused on several major groups. Poles and Ukrainians, who were scheduled for forced labor in the Reich, were examined to some extent, as well as village residents in southern Poland, if they were perceived as being of possible German genetic or linguistic background. Jews living in the Tarnów Ghetto were documented as preparations for the Holocaust were carried out.[6]

Tarnów, once part of the former Austrian crown land of Galicia, was considered the main region of origin of those Jews who had emigrated to the west (including Vienna) at the turn of the century as a result of pogroms and economic hardship. Subsumed under and stigmatized by the prejudicial collective term Ostjuden (Eastern Jews),[7] many of these people were subjected to “racial research” in Vienna in the late 1930s. In Tarnów, Elfriede Fliethmann and Dora Kahlich were tasked with collecting comparative data. Kahlich, an assistant at the Viennese Anthropological Institute and member of Weninger’s “Viennese Anthropological School,” announced her arrival in Kraków in March 1942.[8] Only one month earlier, the residential area for the Jewish population had been restricted to barely a dozen streets, although the 25,000 local Jewish residents (in 1939) had been joined by thousands more who had been deported to the town. Hunger, cold, and serious infectious diseases dominated people’s everyday lives. When the Tarnów Ghetto was raided and thousands of Jews killed a few weeks after the anthropologists had left, Fliethmann wrote succinctly to her colleague in Vienna that their collected “materials” had already become a “rarity,” since there were “almost none of ours [Tarnów Jews]” left.[9]

Besides the “racial” examination in the Tarnów Ghetto, the section’s team also collected biometric data on residents who were perceived to be of Germanic origin or to have been influenced by German settlements in former times, for example the Górale, sometimes also referred to as “Polish Highlanders.” Research among this small population group residing in the foothills of the Tatra mountains was a crucial determinant of their future treatment. Although they faced a far less life-threatening fate than the Jewish residents of Tarnów, any privileged status that might have been ascribed to them depended on so-called “Aryan evidence.” After finishing fieldwork in the area (see Figs. 2, 3, and 4), Plügel, Fliethmann, and Sydow issued a series on the Górale in the IDO’s quarterly publications. They described settlements and buildings, handicrafts and wood carvings, traditional medicine and superstition, music and arts. Plügel was especially interested in traditional costumes, which he considered to be the “essence of folklore.” He concluded, purely on the basis of assumptions, that the amount of “Nordic blood” and “Nordic racial elements” among the Highlanders was a result of German immigration in the Middle Ages. The “influence of German culture” seemed evident to him, and the Górale should therefore be classified as “special” among the population groups of the past Polish state.[10] Overall, this was a relatively positive assessment if contrasted with his devastating judgments about Poles, and even more so the Jewish population.[11] In 1942 he wrote about the latter: “The deportations of Jews into ghettos provided the basis for the final solution to the Jewish question.”[12]

In 1943, when the German occupation administration dealt with the question of how to classify the Górale, Plügel’s publication was used for the legal assessment of the community. The authority responsible recommended promoting “the separation of the Górale from Polish society by increasing their awareness of the unique characteristics that make them a special tribe.”[13] Whereas the Viennese researchers’ examinations in the Tatra mountains region did not lead to repressive action against the local inhabitants, the fate of Tarnów’s Jewish community was markedly different. In September 1943 the Ghetto was “liquidated” under the supervision of the notorious commander of the Krakau-Plaszow labor camp, Vienna-born Amon Göth (1908–1946). Almost none of them survived the Holocaust.[14]

The section for “Racial and Folklore Research” of the IDO continued its research activities until the summer of 1944. When the Red Army approached Kraków, the department was evacuated to Bavaria. In July 1945 the Allied troops confiscated their materials and transferred them to the USA.[15]

Anton Adolf Plügel died in combat in March 1945. Elfriede Fliethmann moved to West Berlin after the war. She worked as a teacher and died in 1987. Ingeborg Sydow relocated to the USA in the 1960s, where she became a professor of German Studies at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. Except for a death notice from Olympia, Washington in 2009, there was no further trace of her in the archives to which I had access.[16]

The majority of those examined by the Viennese anthropologists in occupied Poland were not faced with threats to their very existence as a result of these studies. However, even for them the research was not without negative consequences. For example, the Górale’s special treatment by the German occupation authorities led to conflicts between them and other residents in the region that continued well into the post-war period.[17] The examination of the Jewish residents of Tarnów has to be assessed differently: as relevant to the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity after 1945.

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Sources and works cited:

[1] AUJ (Archiwum Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego), IDO 70, Plügel to Kahlich, Kraków, October 22, 1941, file 54.

[2] See for instance Ute Michel, “Ethnopolitische Reorganisationsforschung am Institut für Deutsche Ostarbeit in Krakau 1941–1945,” in Ethnologie und Nationalsozialismus, ed. Bernhard Streck (Gehren: Escher, 2000): 149–168; Małgorzata Maj, Marcin Brocki, and Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel, eds., Anthropology and Ethnology during World War II: The Activity of Sektion Rassen- und Volkstumsforschung Institut für Deutsche Ostarbeit in the Light of New Source Materials (Kraków: Jagellonian University Press, 2019); Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel, “Ethnological Studies at the Institut für Deutsche Ostarbeit in the Light of New Sources,” Anthropos 111, no. 1 (2016): 9–20; Małgorzata Maj and Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel: “Rasse und Kultur. Anthropologische Untersuchungen der Nazis im besetzten Polen während des Zweiten Weltkrieges,” Anthropos 106, no. 2 (2011): 547–562; Lisa Gottschall, Ethnic Fragmentation. Viennese “Racial and Folklore Research” in occupied Poland (1940–1944) (University of Vienna, 2021); Gottschall, “Anton Adolf Plügel: NS-Schulungsleiter und Altmexikanist” and “Die ‘Sektion Rassen- und Volkstumsforschung’ am Krakauer ‘Institut für Deutsche Ostarbeit’: Mitwirkende aus Wiener Völkerkunde und Anthropologie,” in Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien (1938–1945), eds. Andre Gingrich and Peter Rohrbacher (Vienna: VÖAW, 2021): 295–310; 1181–1214.

[3] In a secret memorandum, dated May 1940, Heinrich Himmler outlined his “thoughts on the treatment of the foreign races in the East.” His goal was to split “the society into as many parts and splinters as possible” (see Heinrich Himmler, “Einige Gedanken ueber die Behandlung der Fremdvölkischen im Osten,” May 15, 1940, https://www.ifz-muenchen.de/heftarchiv/1957_2_5_krausnick.pdf); see also Katarzyna Szurmiak, “Goralenvolk: An ‘Aryan’ Minority in Southern Poland and Its Treatment by the Nazis,” in Eradicating Differences: The Treatment of Minorities in Nazi-Dominated Europe, ed. Anton Wendt-Weiss (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010): 85.

[4] For biographical details on Plügel, Fliethmann, and Sydow see Lisa Gottschall, Ethnic Fragmentation.

[5] See for instance Andre Gingrich, “Ethnography from Vienna in World War I Prisoner-of-War Camps: Premises, Implications, and Consequences for Socio-Cultural Anthropology in German,” in International Forum on Audio-Visual Research, Jahrbuch des Phonogrammarchivs 9 (Vienna: VÖAW, 2019): 23–40; figures of data files in Britta Lange, Die Wiener Forschungen an Kriegsgefangenen 1915–1918 (Vienna: VÖAW, 2013): 184 and Maj / Trebunia-Staszel (2011): 550.

[6] See footnote 2.

[7] See for instance Dan Mikhman, The Emergence of Jewish Ghettos during the Holocaust (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[8] AUJ, IDO 70, Kahlich to Plügel, Vienna, March 16, 1942, file 128.

[9] AUJ, IDO 70, Fliethmann to Kahlich, Kraków, October 1942, file 42. See also Gretchen E. Schafft, From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich (Urbana: University of Illinois Press 2007); Goetz Aly / Susanne Heim, Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction (Princeton University Press 2002); Margit Berner, Final Pictures: The 1942 Race Study of Jewish Families in the Tarnów Ghetto (Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich, 2020).

[10] Anton Adolf Plügel, “Die podhalanischen Góralen im südlichsten Teil des Kreises Neumarkt I–III,” Die Burg 2/3 (1941): 54–66, 3/1 (1942): 94–159, 3/2 (1942): 236–257; Elfriede Fliethmann, “Bericht über anthropologisch-ethnologische Untersuchungen in Szaflary und Witów, zwei Góralenorten im Kreise Neumarkt,” DFiO 2/4 (1942): 272–274; Ingeborg Sydow, “Volkskundliche Untersuchungen in dem góralischen Dorf Szaflary I–III,” DFiO 2/7 (1942): 266–271, 2/8 (1942): 305–316, 3/3 (1943): 90–99; see also Stanisława Trebunia-Staszel, “Evoked from Memory: The War and the German Racial Research,” in Anthropology and Ethnology during World War II, eds. Małgorzata Maj et al. (2019): 226–233; see also works of Lisa Gottschall mentioned in footnote 2.

[11] Anton Adolf Plügel, “Das Rassenbild des Vorfeldes im deutschen Osten,” Das Vorfeld 2/6 (1941): 6–15.

[12] Anton Adolf Plügel, “Rassen und Volkstuemer des Generalgouvernements,” Zeitschrift für Erdkunde 10 (1942): 351–361, here 357.

[13] BArch (Federal Archives) Berlin, R3001/20851, Reichsministerium der Justiz an Reichsminister des Innern, Berlin, May 15, 1943.

[14] See for instance Margit Berner, Final Pictures, 19–28, 111.

[15] The rediscovery of the archive collection in the Smithsonian is outlined in Schafft, From Racism to Genocide, 84–88.

[16] See footnote 4.

[17] See Szurmiak, “Goralenvolk,” 98.