Note to readers: This introduction seeks to draw attention to the three-volume collection examining Socio-Cultural Anthropology in Vienna during the Nazi period (1938-1945), recently published in German and edited by Andre Gingrich and Peter Rohrbacher. The editors’ essay below is followed by brief essays in English based on a selection of chapters by Katja Geisenhainer, Lisa Gottschall, Gabriele Anderl, Ildikó Cazan-Simányi, Reinhold Mittersakschmöller, and Peter Rohrbacher. We thank the editors and authors for making their work available in this way, as a joint effort by our “Clio’s Fancy” and “Field Notes” sections, and invite readers to follow up with the complete work.– HAR editors.

Elaborating and interpreting anthropology’s history under Nazism is not only a continuing ethical, moral, and political obligation for the field today. It also represents a set of complex challenges in many of its empirical, methodological, and conceptual dimensions, open to debate and reflection by interested laypersons and experts in the relevant languages, regions, and periods but also from all other fields of anthropology and history as well. Through the present introduction to four case examples from Vienna, the authors seek to contribute to these debates by pointing out the relevance of well-researched archival evidence within sound methodological contexts. This is the indispensable prerequisite for advancing further debates and related research.

To a considerable extent, when Hitler’s party came to power in early 1933, socio-cultural anthropology (Völkerkunde) was institutionally separate from biological anthropology (Humanbiologie or Physische Anthropologie) at most museums and university institutes in Germany. This was also true for Austria after the “Anschluss” (“union,” or annexation) of March 1938. As a consequence of the Anschluss, Vienna became the second largest academic site in the “Third Reich.” Its institutional landscape for Völkerkunde included (as of the late 1920s) a university institute, a museum, a missionary educational center (since 1906), subdivisions in Vienna’s Academy of Sciences (after 1914), and the Anthropological Society of Vienna (as of 1870). In terms of size and institutional diversity, case studies from Vienna can therefore be taken as good indicators for how socio-cultural anthropology was carried out under Hitler and in exile: who profited from its practices, who stood by, and who suffered and resisted. All of these questions need to be raised and explored, but many of them cannot yet be fully answered.

Like elsewhere in the “Third Reich,” individual researchers and students were persecuted for “racial” and/or political reasons within Vienna’s institutions of socio-cultural anthropology. Entire institutions and research directions were dissolved or marginalized if they followed research orientations in conflict with Nazi priorities. What remained as quasi-legitimate socio-cultural anthropology under the Nazis was pushed, with considerable support by those involved, into research programs conspicuously connected to Nazi ideological priorities for German supremacist racism, for winning the war when it broke out, and for collaborating in practical activities serving the regime’s political agenda. What remained of socio-cultural anthropology under Nazi dictatorship contained as its core elements some prominent trends in (German) historical diffusionism in Vienna as elsewhere, the emerging networks of (German) functionalism (in Vienna until mid-1939), and local variants of a proto-structuralism outside Vienna. All of these directions were informed by varying versions of biological racism. Obvious intersections and parallels between the directions promoted as quasi-legitimate under the Nazis, and dominant paradigms in western socio-cultural anthropology after 1945 require further analysis and reflection, as one of us has pointed out (Gingrich 2010).

Socio-cultural anthropology under Hitler took on a radical agenda in its practical and empirical dimensions: addressing the (print and radio) media was one important element, while reaching out to the public through spectacular colonial and imperial museum exhibits and lectures was another. Pursuing “embedded” research in combat zones for army or espionage units was actively promoted, for example during Rommel’s North Africa campaign. Providing professional reviews to Himmler on how to promote SS justifications of annihilation and murder in East Europe was part of socio-cultural anthropologists’ “applied” routine. Last but not least, the publication of entertaining and bestselling books on exotic societies and their bizarre habits contributed—after passing censorship—to a prevailing sense of a smiling public normality so important to the regime under Joseph Goebbels. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the SS engaged PhD candidates and young post-docs from socio-cultural anthropology and neighboring fields in the humanities to carry out enquiries among Jewish families who were about to be murdered and to do secret fieldwork in prison camps, both among gypsy families before they were deported to death camps and among POWs from Africa or Asia before they perished in forced labor or were recruited as “volunteers” to the SS or the Wehrmacht.

In Vienna, the new Nazi regime after 1938 quickly disbanded the Catholic missionary unit of St. Gabriel, and dismissed all senior representatives with explicit sympathies for an independent Austrian state. At the Museum of Ethnology, the old director with pro-German sympathies was able to hold on to his position because members of a previously clandestine Nazi cell now gained an official voice. At the University-based anthropology institute, the Nazi party member Hermann Baumann became the new director until 1945, with an aim to re-orientate the institute according to the Reich’s colonial interests in Africa. While the regime prepared for war and mass persecutions, Himmler installed and promoted a new research unit with socio-cultural anthropology on its central agenda in his notorious, elite research organization, the SS-Ahnenerbe (“ancestral heritage”). By contrast, the record of resistance among socio-cultural anthropologists is less disappointing than often assumed. In Vienna, this ranged from conservative anti-Nazi patriots to clandestine communists, many of them supporting the formation of the underground organization, O5 (where “5” stands for “e,” and “Oe” represents “Ö,” the first letter of the German word for Austria). In exile, several socio-cultural anthropologists supported local resistance groups in occupied Austria or they supported their British and US hosts’ war efforts.

These and many other details are presented and discussed by twenty-eight authors in our three recently published co-edited volumes: Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien (1938-1945): Institutionen, Biographien und Praktiken in Netzwerken (Gingrich and Rohrbacher 2021). Though this work is appearing in German, its topics will be of considerable interest to many readers internationally. We are therefore publishing four brief vignettes here, adapted from chapters in the three volumes, to introduce English readers to some of the work’s major themes and the wide variety of its examples. In keeping with the focus of “Clio’s Fancy” and the importance of neglected archives for this research, each piece also highlights the dispersed documents and collections which have allowed these stories to be told.

In her text, “Marginalized in Central European Anthropology and Persecuted as a Jew: The Case of Marianne Schmidl,” author Katja Geisenhainer (U Frankfurt/U Vienna) presents the example of a pioneer of mathematical anthropology and a cultural-historical expert in studying sub-Saharan basket weaving. She shows how this almost forgotten but brilliant scholar was persecuted and murdered by the Nazis. Schmidl was never able to complete her main research project on African basket weaving. Surviving family members’ memories and correspondence are the primary sources in this study.

Assisting in the Holocaust: Pro-Nazi Anthropologists from Vienna in Occupied Poland (1940–1944)” by Lisa Gottschall (U Vienna) scrutinizes the activities of a largely unknown and forgotten doctoral graduate from Vienna’s Völkerkunde institute who prepared early measurements among the Jewish resident population around Kraków, before they were sent into that city’s ghetto. Parallel to that, he and two female colleagues were crucial to the Nazi “documentation” of Jewish residents on Tarnów’s main square, right before several hundred of them were deported into the death camps. The text presents a vivid example of the Nazis’ recruitment of ambitious junior anthropologists into their deadly schemes, and how some of their plans relied to an extent on new institutions, such as the IDO (Institute for German Studies in the East) in this case, which was set up after the dissolution of the Jagiellonian University.

Gabriele Anderl, Ildikó Cazan-Simányi, and Reinhold Mittersakschmöller are a team of freelance and museum staff authors in Vienna; their essay, “Rivalries with Fatal Consequences,” addresses an enduring competition during the Nazi period between two Indonesia specialists at Vienna’s Ethnology Museum. Indonesia had strategic importance for the Nazis, both as a recent colony of their Japanese allies and in view of Dutch source materials for research. One of the two contenders was Frederic M. Schnitger, an internationally widely read Dutch author with a partially Chinese Java background; his rival, a less qualified, local female party mentee, made accusations which led to Schnitger being sent to die in a concentration camp. The key sources here are museum archives and Gestapo files.

The contribution by Peter Rohrbacher (Austrian Academy of Sciences), “A Priest in the Resistance: Father Wilhelm Schmidt and His Alliances in World War II,” shows how Wilhelm Schmidt—a Catholic priest and missionary who founded the Vienna School of Ethnology—worked from exile in Switzerland, with covert support by the Vatican and British SOE, to sponsor Austrian defectors from the Wehrmacht who re-organized as anti-Nazi guerilla groups. This study draws upon the discovery of Schmidt’s day-to-day notebook from 1943-45.

These four diverse vignettes seek to attract readers’ interest to the relevant chapters in the three volumes, and to encourage further relevant research on the theme at large. The authors are grateful to the editors at HAR for their support and assistance in making this set of contributions possible.

Other essays from this collection:

Katja Geisenhainer, “Marginalized in Central European Anthropology and Persecuted as a Jew: The Case of Marianne Schmidl.”

Lisa Gottschall, “Assisting in the Holocaust: Pro-Nazi Anthropologists from Vienna in Occupied Poland (1940–1944).”

Gabriele Anderl, Ildikó Cazan-Simányi and Reinhold Mittersakschmöller, “Rivalries with Fatal Consequences.”

Peter Rohrbacher, “A Priest in the Resistance: Father Wilhelm Schmidt and His Alliances in World War II.”


Gingrich, Andre. 2010. “Alliances and Avoidance: British Interactions with German-speaking Anthropologists, 1933–1953.” In Culture Wars: Context, Models, and Anthropologists’ Accounts, edited by Deborah James, Evelyn Plaice, and Christina Toren, 19-31. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Gingrich, Andre, and Peter Rohrbacher, eds. 2021. Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien (1938-1945): Institutionen, Biographien und Praktiken in Netzwerken. Veröffentlichungen zur Sozialanthropologie 27, 3 volumes. Vienna: Verlag der ÖAW.