How Gustaf Kossinna Mapped the Nazis' European Empire

How an Archaeologist Fed the Nazi Greed for World Domination

Monastery Building on the Vistula River in Poland
Monastery Building on the Vistula River in Poland. Manfred Mehlig / Getty Images

Gustaf Kossinna [1858-1931] (sometimes spelled Gustav) was a German archaeologist and ethnohistorian who is widely perceived as having been a tool of the archaeology groupie and Nazi Heinrich Himmler, although Kossinna died during Hitler's rise to power. But that's not the whole story.

Educated as a philologist and linguist at the University of Berlin, Kossinna was a late convert to prehistory and an ardent supporter and promoter of the Kulturkreise movement—the explicit definition of cultural history for a given area.

He was also a proponent for Nordische Gedanke (Nordic Thought), which could be crudely summarized as "real Germans are descended from the pure, original Nordic race and culture, a chosen race who must fulfill their historical destiny; no one else should be allowed in".

Becoming an Archaeologist

According to a recent (2002) biography by Heinz Grünert, Kossinna was interested in ancient Germans throughout his career, although he started out as a philologist and historian. His principal teacher was Karl Mullenhoff, a professor of German philology specializing in Germanic Prehistory at the University of Berlin. In 1894 at the age of 36, Kossinna made the decision to switch to prehistoric archaeology, introducing himself to the field by giving a lecture on the history of archaeology at a conference in Kassel in 1895, which actually didn't go very well.

Kossinna believed that there were only four legitimate fields of study in archaeology: the history of the Germanic tribes, the origin of the Germanic peoples and the mythical Indo-Germanic homeland, archaeological verification of the philological division into east and west Germanic groups, and distinguishing between ​Germanic and Celtic tribes.

By the start of the Nazi regime, that narrowing of the field had become a reality.

Ethnicity and Archaeology

Wedded to the Kulturkreis theory, which identified geographical regions with specific ethnic groups on the basis of material culture, Kossinna's philosophical bent lent theoretical support to the expansionist policies of Nazi Germany.

Kossinna built an unarguably immense knowledge of archaeological material, in part by painstakingly documenting prehistoric artifacts in museums in several European countries. His most famous work was 1921's German Prehistory: A Pre-Eminently National Discipline. His most infamous work was a pamphlet published at the end of World War I, right after the new state of Poland was carved out of the German Ostmark. In it, Kossinna argued that Pomeranian face-urns found in Polish sites around the Vistula river were a Germanic ethnic tradition, and so Poland rightfully belonged to Germany.

The Cinderella Effect

Some scholars attribute the willingness of scholars like Kossinna to abandon all other archaeologies under the Nazi regime except for German prehistory to the "Cinderella effect". Before the war, prehistoric archaeology suffered in comparison to classical studies: there was a general lack of funds, inadequate museum space, and an absence of academic chairs dedicated to German prehistory. During the Third Reich, high governmental officials in the Nazi party offered their gratifying attention, but also eight new chairs in German prehistory, unprecedented funding opportunities, and new institutes and museums.

In addition, the Nazis funded open air museums dedicated to German studies, produced archaeological film series, and actively recruited amateur organizations using a call to patriotism. But that's not what drove Kossinna: he died before all of that came true.

Kossinna began reading, writing, and speaking about Germanic racist nationalist theories in the 1890s, and he became an avid supporter of racist nationalism at the end of World War I. By the late 1920s, Kossinna made a connection with Alfred Rosenberg, who would become minister of culture in the Nazi Government. The upshot of Kossinna's work was a blossoming of emphasis on the prehistory of the Germanic peoples. Any archaeologist who did not study the prehistory of the Germanic people was derided; by the 1930s, the main society devoted to Roman provincial archaeology in Germany was considered anti-German, and its members came under attack.

Archaeologists who did not conform to the Nazi idea of proper archaeology saw their careers ruined, and many were ejected from the country. It could have been worse: Mussolini killed hundreds of archaeologists who didn't obey his dictates about what to study.

The Nazi ideology

Kossinna equated ceramic traditions and ethnicity since he believed that pottery was most often the result of indigenous cultural developments rather than trade. Using the tenets of settlement archaeology—Kossinna was a pioneer in such studies—he drew maps showing the supposed "cultural boundaries" of the Nordic/Germanic culture, which extended over nearly all Europe, based on textual and toponymic evidence. In this manner, Kossinna was instrumental in creating the ethno-topography which became the Nazi map of Europe.

There was not uniformity among the high priests of Nazism, however: Hitler mocked Himmler for focusing on the mud huts of the Germanic people; and while party prehistorians like Reinerth distorted the facts, the SS destroyed sites like Biskupin in Poland. As Hitler put it, "all we prove by that is that we were still throwing stone hatchets and crouching around open fires when Greece and Rome had already reached the highest stage of culture".

Political Systems and Archaeology

As archaeologist Bettina Arnold has pointed out, political systems are expedient when it comes to their support of research that presents the past to the public: their interest is usually in a "usable" past. She adds that abuse of the past for political purposes in the present is not restricted to obviously totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany.

To that I would add: political systems are expedient when it comes to their support of any science: their interest is usually in a science that says what the politicians want to hear and not when it doesn't do that.