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

In January 1940, the young Dutch archaeologist F. M. Schnitger found employment at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, today’s Weltmuseum Wien. The position was a substantial advancement toward his goal of becoming a famous researcher. Yet his career ended abruptly only a few years later, through a chain reaction triggered partly by himself and by one of his local rival colleagues. The name of Frederic Martin Schnitger is still familiar to scholars and to a broader audience interested in Indonesian cultural histories.[1] His best-known publication, Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra (1939), is still regarded as an important account of the archaeology and traditions of this part of Indonesia.

Schnitger was born on April 22, 1912 in Malang on East Java, where his father owned a sugar cane plantation and his mother worked as a teacher. His origin would later become a concern for several authorities of the Nazi state, since Schnitger’s maternal great-grandmother was Chinese. At the age of nine, Schnitger was sent to Holland where he attended primary and grammar schools. The young Schnitger developed a keen interest in Asia’s history, religion, and archaeology. He published his first article in 1929-1930, when he was still a teenager. After studies at Leiden University, he traveled to Sumatra in 1935 to conduct archaeological research across the whole island. One of Schnitger’s goals was to find evidence that Palembang in the South was the historical capital of the Srivijaya empire. In Palembang he contributed enormously to the development of the municipal museum, where he received the professional title of “Conservator.” From 1935 to 1938, Schnitger commuted frequently between Sumatra and Europe to maintain his contacts there.[2] Disagreements with his teachers at the university in Leiden prompted Schnitger to leave the Netherlands and move to Vienna in 1935—a fateful decision, as it would later turn out.[3]

Frederic Martin Schnitger at the megaliths of Bitaha / Olayama, Nias, 1938 (unidentified photographer), Weltmuseum Vienna photo collection, inv. no. VF 40306
Courtesy of KHM-Museumsverband, Weltmuseum Vienna and VÖAW

He continued his academic studies at the University of Vienna, where he was awarded a PhD in ethnology in February 1938. The English version of his dissertation (The Archaeology of Hindoo Sumatra, Leiden 1937) received great attention in academic circles, as little had been published on the subject up to that time. Schnitger seemed to be on the verge of a promising career. The number of his academic and popular publications up to 1939 alone was impressive: at the age of 27, Schnitger could refer to “about 150” articles. But at the same time, he often had financial difficulties and constantly required new projects to survive in Vienna. 

In 1940, Schnitger began his service at the Vienna Museum of Ethnology, initially as an unpaid employee in the library, despite his high qualifications. His colleague and future opponent Maria Horsky (1905–1949) met the career-minded Schnitger with deep mistrust because she was worried about her own position.[4] Horsky—who had been a member of the then illegal Nazi organization, the NSDAP, in Austria since 1934—was at that time still a student. However, in the course of the staff changes at the Museum of Ethnology that followed the “Anschluss” of Austria in March 1938, she was assigned to the museum by decree of the Ministry of the Interior and Cultural Affairs. A letter from her colleague Etta (Becker-) Donner (1911–1975) suggests that the ministry sent Horsky to the museum as a political confidante and informant.[5] Donner, an expert on Africa, was Horsky’s staunchest opponent in the museum.[6] While working there, Horsky resumed her unfinished studies at the University of Vienna in early 1940, but changed her major from German and Romance studies to ethnology. At the museum, Horsky was allowed to work on the Nias collection, which also held Schnitger’s interest, since he had traveled and researched in the region. Horsky obtained her doctorate on July 14, 1941, after barely a year and a half of study. 

Numerous documents testify to increasing tensions at the museum, particularly between Horsky and Donner, focusing on questions of rank and salary. To an extent these tensions were also informed by Donner’s growing affinity for the Austrian anti-Nazi resistance, and the increasing reluctance of staff members to side with an explicitly pro-Nazi activist such as Horsky. Yet Horsky often had her way and eventually was put in charge of the museum’s South Seas and Indonesia collections. As tensions between resistance members, bystanders, and Nazis within the museum were still growing, the director Fritz Röck and six colleagues submitted reports to the Ministry in November 1942 with serious accusations against Maria Horsky.[7] Apparently, Horsky exerted inappropriate pressure on other museum employees by referring to her good connections to influential individuals and organizations within the Nazi system.

Schnitger added in this report that Horsky “constantly observes the private lives of the museum staff and spreads rumors about them that damage their good reputation… She claims that my colleague Dr. Han is a communist. For years she has been spewing venom and bile about her colleague Dr. Becker [-Donner] out of jealousy.”[8] However, none of these accusations ultimately had any serious consequences for Horsky.

Apart from her rivalry with Becker, Horsky seems to have seen Frederic Martin Schnitger as the main threat to her own career plans—probably because of the overlaps in their fields of work. Already when writing her dissertation on the museum’s Este collection with an emphasis on objects from Nias Island, Horsky had placed herself in direct competition with Schnitger. Although not yet formally employed at the museum, Schnitger had the status of a “scientific official specializing in Indonesia and the South Seas.” However, since the director Röck was now considering employing Schnitger on a permanent basis, Horsky must have seen a need to react.

In the course of an enquiry with the Colonial Institute in Amsterdam, Horsky came across an article from 1939 in the Dutch newspaper Der Telegraaf reporting that Schnitger had been killed in an air battle over Warsaw. Schnitger was accused of having written this report himself, which he denied.[9] Horsky forwarded the incriminating material to Hans Kummerlöwe, the Director General of all scientific museums in Vienna. Whatever she may have wanted to achieve with this step, it was not successful. Schnitger remained at the museum, and Röck granted Schnitger a wartime appointment in 1942. 

Inexplicably, Schnitger added fuel to the fire by submitting a report to the Gestapo accusing Horsky, Kummerlöwe’s secretary Adele Neffe, and several other people of espionage activities against Germany. Furthermore, he revealed his alleged knowledge of “resistance in Holland in the Amsterdam Colonial Institute.” With this report, Schnitger incriminated several important Dutch scholars. He also set in motion developments that he could soon no longer control and that would eventually cost him his life. 

Horsky in turn reacted with a criminal complaint against Schnitger: she accused him of having broken open her locker in order to destroy her raincoat and to read her personal mail. On March 1, 1943, Schnitger was arrested by the Gestapo at the museum. It remains unclear whether Horsky was responsible for this dramatic turn, but in any case along with the museum’s director Fritz Röck she was summoned as a witness in the trial against Schnitger before the Vienna Criminal Court in the following year.[10]

On May 18, 1943, Röck filed a criminal complaint against Schnitger for “embezzlement and malicious damage to property, up to theft of state and private property.” The enclosed protocol was signed by several other museum employees, including Maria Horsky. They accused Schnitger of stealing books, photographs, and maps from the museum’s holdings and of having damaged some of them on purpose. In his interrogation by the criminal police, Schnitger denied these allegations. 

On January 27, 1944, the Gestapo forwarded the complaints to the Vienna public prosecutor’s office. According to the Gestapo, investigation revealed that Schnitger “deliberately falsely accused several persons of a crime, including espionage harmful to the German Reich,” and that he had stolen and arbitrarily damaged other people’s property. During his interrogation by the Gestapo, Schnitger firmly denied the theft of books and other materials and having damaged Horsky’s coat. However, he admitted to having made false accusations of espionage against several people out of spite and with the aim of gaining advantages for himself.[11] Schnitger also confessed that he had at an earlier time sent a letter to the Gestapo in Berlin with equally untrue information about intelligence activities in Germany. 

In February 1944, Horsky had finally achieved her goal: she was given a higher ranking by decree of the Reich Minister for Science, Education and National Culture, in which the integrity of her character, her party membership since 1934, and her unconditional dedication to the National Socialist state were emphasized.[12]

On September 14, 1944, Schnitger was found guilty of the crime of defamation by slandering a number of people, including Horsky, but—for lack of clear evidence—was acquitted of the accusation of stealing or damaging books and other materials from the museum. He was sentenced to one year in prison and, on November 22, 1944, he was “handed over to the Vienna police prison at the disposal of the Gestapo.”[13]

Around three and a half months later, on March 12, 1945, the Gestapo transferred Schnitger to the concentration camp of Mauthausen—less than two months before the liberation of the camp and the end of the Second World War. The death book of the Mauthausen concentration camp states that (Frederic) Martin Schnitger died on April 23, 1945 in the “medical camp,”[14] a section where sick prisoners were housed, and from which it can be assumed that hardly any prisoners returned alive. 

On July 30, 1945, when the war in Europe was already over, Maria Horsky was officially dismissed from the museum and left Vienna. After that, traces of her grow scant. On February 24, 1949 she was found frozen to death in a mountain log cabin in Styria—26 days after her disappearance had been reported. According to the police report, “no traces of violence suggesting foul play were found on the body, in the hut or in the immediate surroundings.” It appeared that she had committed suicide.[15] The available sources leave many questions concerning Frederic Martin Schnitger: what motives actually prompted him to his fateful actions? What was his actual attitude towards the Nazi regime? At the same time, it remains unclear why he had to die in a concentration camp, and what role his Asian background played in this. During his court hearings, he repeatedly emphasized that his statements to the Gestapo had been made under extreme pressure.

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[1] See Gabriele Anderl and Reinhold Mittersakschmöller, “Gefährliches Spiel mit dem Feuer: Frederic Martin Schnitger, Archäologe und Indonesienforscher,” in Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien (1938–1945), eds. Andre Gingrich and Peter Rohrbacher, vol. 2, 687–720 (Vienna: VÖAW, 2021).

[2] Marieke Bloembergen and Martijn Eickhoff, The Politics of Heritage in Indonesia: A Cultural History (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 189 (see section on Schnitger, 186–190); John N. Miksic, “Introduction” to F. M. Schnitger, Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), ix. 

[3] According to an article publ. in Zaans volksblad, Zaandam, 5 October 1939, “Een vreemde geschiedenis. Is dr. F. M. Schnitger werkelijk gesneuveld bij Warschau?”. We are indebted to Dr. Werner Kraus from the Center for Southeast Asian Art, Passau, Germany who drew our attention to some important articles of the Dutch colonial press.

[4] See Ildikó Cazan-Simány, “Zum Fall Dr. Horsky: Konflikte, Rivalität und Denunziation,” in Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien (1938–1945), eds. Andre Gingrich and Peter Rohrbacher, vol. 2, 723–740 (Vienna: VÖAW, 2021).

[5] For Etta Becker-Donner see Barbara Plankensteiner, “Vom Rampenlicht in die Unauffälligkeit: Etta Becker-Donner und der Widerstand am Wiener Museum für Völkerkunde,” in Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien (1938–1945), eds. Andre Gingrich and Peter Rohrbacher, vol. 3, 1393–1430 (Vienna: VÖAW, 2021).

[6] Weltmuseum Vienna Archives, P/M1/9; Austrian State Archives, AdR, BMfU, PA R8/86 Horsky; Röck in his complaint of November 13, 1942.

[7] Austrian State Archives, AdR, BMfU, PA R8/86 Horsky; Becker-Donner, Bleichsteiner, Krögler, Lieb, Schnitger, Seiler, Röck, November 13, 1942, to the General Department for Art Promotion.

[8] Austrian State Archives, AdR, BMfU, PA R8/86 Horsky; Schnitger in his complaint of November 13, 1942.

[9] Weltmuseum Vienna Archives, D39/N2.

[10] Weltmuseum Vienna Archives, D44/21; Horsky, report on the work carried out in 1943 at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, undated); Vienna City and State Archives, Regional Court for Criminal Matters Vienna II, Vr 361/44; Proceedings against Martin Schnitger. 

[11] Vienna City and State Archives, Vienna Regional Court, LG I, Vr 361/44, criminal proceedings against Martin Schnitger, Vienna State Police Headquarters, Secret State Police, transcript with Dr. Martin Schnitger, January 28, 1944.

[12] Austrian State Archives, AdR, BMfI, GA 56.952 Horsky; Political Evaluation Questionnaire on Maria Horsky, filled out on February 18, 1939; Political Evaluation Questionnaire, filled out on June 25, 1943; Weltmuseum Vienna Archives, D45/206b; Ethnological Museum employees, n.d. [1945].

[13] Vienna City and State Archives, District Court of Vienna, LG I, Vr 361/44, criminal proceedings against Martin Schnitger.

[14] Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial, Archive, Book of the Dead, sign. AMM/Y 46 b.

[15] Styrian Provincial Archive, BH Bruck an der Mur, 14 V 1/1949.

Gabriele Anderl: contributions / anderl.gabriele@aon.at
Ildikó Cazan-Simányi: contributions / Ildiko.Cazan-Simanyi@weltmuseumwien.at / Alternative email: cazan-i@gmx.at
Reinhold Mittersakschmöller: contributions / rainworld@aon.at