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SASA Research Series: The Nazi's Ancient Near East: the Misappropriation of Ancient Studies (Part I)

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

By Roxana Wang

A part of the Ishtar Gate still above the ground when German excavation began in 1920 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft/photographer unknown

Nazi Germany is remembered for its eugenic ideologies and persecution of its victims, and some know how the Nazi fervor fit the academia: Albert Einstein, an anti-Nazi Jew, renounced his citizenship and fled to the US, but others like Martin Heidegger complied with the Nazis and jotted down anti-semitic thoughts in his black notebook. As apolitical as Ancient Near Eastern Studies might sound, this discipline was appropriated to serve the narrative of the Third Reich. Some Assyriologists and Egyptologists who betrayed their academic integrity are still revered in the Ancient Studies curriculum today. This two-part study maps out how politics was implicated in German studies of the ancient Near East (a discipline known in German as Altorientalistik) from its foundation in the 19th century up to the 1940s and examines the scholarship of individual scholars who supported the Nazi worldview. While Nazi Germany was an extreme case, the appropriation of ancient civilizations has been a common strategy for regimes around the world to justify their ideological agenda. The ultimate moral of the story is that we should always be alert to the racial and political presumptions that shaped and still shape studies of the ancient world.

1. Imagining “Us” and “Them”: German Oriental Studies 18th-19th century

Altorientalistik flourished in the 19th century thanks to developments in philology and archaeology. During this period, German philologists contributed to the deciphering of ancient Near Eastern languages, and German archaeologists excavated important Egyptian and Mesopotamian sites. However, the studies of ancient languages and material culture, however, were not safely aloof from politics. This chapter will show how these areas of study were instrumentalized to fuel nationalism and serve political ends. Since its very beginning, Altorientalistik went hand in hand with politics.

Languages can be an important part of national identities. Contemporary scholars have differed on the exact definition of nationalism, but most would agree with Anthony Smith’s description of a “nation” as a “named community possessing an historic territory, shared myths and memories, a common public culture, and common laws and customs.” [1]

Nationalism, the ideology justifying the existence of the nation, reinforces the sentiment of a “community” sharing something in common. According to Benedict Anderson, a prominent scholar of nationalism, the cohesive community is realized through language. He writes in his groundbreaking Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983) that:

What the eye is to the lover – that particular, ordinary eye he or she is born with – language – whatever language history has made his or her mother-tongue – is to the patriot. Through that language, encountered at mother’s knee and parted with only at the grave, pasts are restored, fellowships are imagined, and futures dreamed. [2]

In other words, people know their “root” through their mother-tongue: from hearing lullabies in cradles to conversing with their compatriots, people know their origin and form bonds when this familiar language resounds. The language accompanies the inhabitants of a nation from birth to death, forming the medium through which they retell their history and imagine their shared future. It is thus no coincidence that in the 18th to 19th centuries, when European states were unifying, breaking away from old empires, and transforming into the modern nations as we see on the map today, that European scholars avidly advanced the study of languages, ancient and modern—they were as interested in linguistics as in national identities.

With the heightened importance of languages in mind, we now focus on the case of Germany. In the 18th century, a unified Germany did not exist. Instead, there existed more than three hundred German states. The fragmentation of the states posed an obstacle to Germany’s nation-building: the Germans could not find a sense of unity in a shared social structure, nor did they all share the same religion. Language and literary culture thus became the only commonality among the German people. [3]

Out of the myriad of linguistic theories circulating in German-speaking academia since the late 18th century, a connection between language and nationalism was gradually conceived. In his work Letters for the Advancement of Humanity (Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) proposed that “a nation is built and reared by means of language”, centering the role language plays in fostering the cohesion of a community (4). Later, Wilhelm von Humboldt, the forefather of German liberal education, argued that language creates the unique worldview (Weltansichten) of a people and is an embodiment of their “national character”. [5]

Such theories did not merely allow the Germans to consider themselves as a unified entity sharing one language and one cultural identity, but it also prompted them to uncover the shared myths and memories of their civilization by researching their connections with ancient cultures.

German linguists looked eastward in their search for a shared past. The first ancient Eastern language to attract attention was Sanskrit. In 1808, Friedrich Von Schlegel (1772-1829) published his ground-breaking book, On the Languages and Wisdom of India (Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier). In this book, Schlegel compared Sanskrit with Greek, Latin, and German. Noticing many similarities, he proposed that Sanskrit is the oldest descendent of the origin of all languages. [6]

Drawing on ancient history and mythology, Schlegel went further to propose that the greatest civilizations in history, like Ancient Egypt, were founded by Indians. Germans, according to him, were offspring of the first people to emigrate out of Asia. In this way, Schlegel contributed to the “Ayran myth” that centered the so-called Aryan people who settled in the Indus Valley and spread their language and civilization through their migration. Schlegel’s conclusions are problematic from today’s perspective: firstly, his idea that Sanskrit was the oldest language was disproven even in his time; secondly, the assumption that language indicates racial relationship is delusive; thirdly, despite all the theories proposed by European scholars, ancient Persian and Indian texts never recorded the existence of an “Aryan” ethnic group. [7] Nevertheless, Schlegel was a pioneer of comparative linguistics, introducing the framework to juxtapose eastern and western languages and cultures.

The examination of Near Eastern civilizations began a little later. While copies of cuneiform inscriptions from Persepolis were made available in Europe by the German traveler Carsten Niebuhr in as early as 1765, serious attempts to decode cuneiform only started in the early 19th century. German scholar Georg Friedrich Grotefend (1775-1853) and German-French scholar Julius Oppert (1825–1905) were two of the most prominent European philologists contributing to this effort. [8] Grotefend made out the names of Persian kings in the inscriptions copied by Niebuhr, while Oppert deciphered a variety of historical, religious, and astrological inscriptions.

Archaeological discoveries complemented the development in philology and further enriched 19th-century German knowledge of the ancient Near East. Unlike France, which already possessed a great hoard of Egyptian treasure due to Napoleon's campaign in Egypt (1798-1801), and Britain, whose colonial interest in the Middle East also facilitated archaeological expeditions, Germany was a late-comer to the scramble for antiquities. Britain and France began to systematically excavate ancient Near Eastern sites in the 1840s, and the artifacts hauled away, often without the consent of the locals, filled the Louvre and the British Museum. Compared with these two superpowers, Germany had not expressed much ambition for excavations abroad. In 1845, the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft was formed with the aim of promoting the study of oriental languages and culture in Germany but did not actively pursue excavations. [9]

The status quo of European archaeology, however, was challenged when the German Empire was founded in 1871. Under the ambitious emperor Wilhelm I and chancellor Bismarck, the unified nation acquired colonies and protectorates in East Africa and Asia and began to strengthen its economic and military ties with the Ottoman Empire. [10] An announcement in National Newspaper (National-Zeitung) articulates the changed attitude toward archaeology at this time:

Germany’s inferior position with respect to excavations in Asia Minor, especially in Babylon and Assyria, in no way equivalent [to that of other European nations], stands in the sharpest contrast to the intensive and successful research in philology, general history, and cultural history that we have conducted precisely in this area. This inferior position affects not only our museum collections, but also is reflected in the public’s prevailing view of oriental history and artifacts. [11]

An ambitious vision is evident here: Near Eastern archaeology was a matter tied with the empire’s self-esteem. Germany felt competitive pressure to conduct more excavations in the Near East, both to catch up with other European nations and to educate its domestic population. In 1898, the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (DOG) was established in Berlin with ample funding from James Simon, an influential industrialist and enthusiast of antiquities. [12]

The DOG’s chief goals were the acquisition of Near Eastern antiquities and the promotion of scholarship. By the early 20th century, the DOG, along with previously established institutions like the German Archaeological Institute, had excavated a range of highly important sites including Tell El-Amarna (1911-14) , the capital of the reformist pharaoh Akhenaten; Babylon (1898-1917), one of the most glorious cities of the ancient world; and Uruk (1912-13), the ancient megacity where cuneiform was invented. [13] A new era of active German archaeological research on Near Eastern civilizations was dawning.

2. The Boom and the Blast

In the early 20th century, ancient Near Eastern artifacts were no longer confined to the scholars’ libraries but were increasingly accessible for the public in museums. In 1898, the Vordasiatisches Museum (Near Eastern Museum, today a part of the Pergamon Museum) was being built to house the DOG’s findings in Babylon, Assur, and Uruk. When the museum opened in 1930, the Ishtar gate of Babylon was an absolute star of the exhibition. Built in the late 6th century BCE, the gate started its afterlife when it was rediscovered in fragments by the German archaeologist Robert Johann Koldewey (1855 –1925) in 1902, brought to Berlin in two batches in 1903 and 1926, and restored in just 2 years. [14]

While stunning exhibits like the Ishtar Gate attracted 600,000 visitors to the Vordasiatisches Museum in the first 4 months of the museum’s opening, other smaller-scale exhibitions on the Ancient Near East also opened in Berlin. [15] Max von Oppenheim (1860–1946), who led the excavation of the ancient Hittite site Tell-Halaf, opened his private Tell Halaf Museum in Berlin-Charlottenburg in 1930 to showcase his important finds. [16]

The Ishtar Gate of Babylon, a gem of the Pergamon Museum © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum / Olaf M. Teßmer

In 1908, Sardanapal: Historical Pantomime (Sardanapalus: historische Pantomime) made its debut at the Royal Opera in Berlin. The pantomime is about Sardanapalus, an Assyrian king who indulged in pleasure and let his empire fall into chaos. It was adapted from Paulo Tanglioni’s ballet Sardanapal, which was based on Lord Byron’s 1821 tragedy of the same name. It was produced with the avid support of the emperor Wilhelm II, an enthusiast of Assyriology who self-reportedly “busied [himself] with archæology and was active in excavation work” during vacations. [17]

What is striking about this production was its historical accuracy: despite the ahistoric and fantastical nature of Byron’s original play, the production of the pantomime was managed by the leading Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch (1850–1922), who choreographed the movement of the dancers based on Assyrian reliefs. The stage, meanwhile, was designed by Walter Andrae (1875-1958), the supervisor of the excavation at Assur. The meticulous attention to archaeological facts, however, appeared dry and didactic to the audience, causing the production to flop. [18] The popular newspaper Berliner Volkszeitung criticized this production, asking: “Why should such strenuous work, why should such horrendous cost, research, and skillfulness be devoted to this work?” [19] The unpopular historical accuracy of Sardanapal: Historical Pantomime did not represent the overall reception of ancient Near Eastern art in early 20th-century Germany.

The cultural atmosphere of Weimar Germany (1918-1933) was characterized by innovations in art, theater, and photography. Expressionism, an artistic style that emphasizes individuals' emotions through dramatic forms and colors, enabled artists to visualize the chaos of modernity and World War I in the 1910s, though it continued to flourish into the 1930s. The expressionists often turned to ancient, non-European art for inspiration, believing that the “primitivism” of these artworks enabled them to criticize the vice of modernity. The expressionist science-fiction film Metropolis (1927), directed by Fritz Lang, utilized the allegories of the Tower of Babel and the decadent Babylon to tell a story of the “alienating and depersonalizing aspects of progress”. [20] Despite this intended critique of modernity, the archaeological discoveries of ancient Near Eastern art inspired modern German art and architecture. For example, the ziggurat, a kind of stepped temple tower seen in many ancient Mesopotamian cities, became a source of inspiration for the expressionist architect Erich Mendelsohn (1887 –1953) as he designed the Einstein Tower, a landmark astrophysical observatory in Potsdam. [21]

A poster of Metropolis, featuring a building meant to resemble the Tower of Babel (1927)

A model of a ziggurat

The Einstein tower ©Astrophysikalisches Institute Potsdam

The prosperity of Weimar Germany, however, was essentially a dance on the edge of a volcano. [22] After all, the dazzling cultural scene could not gloss over the conflicts and imbalances in the post-war German society. Democracy was constantly threatened by the leftist uprisings and rightist putsches and the major political parties’ inability to cooperate since the Weimar Republic’s foundation in 1919. Meanwhile, the myth that Germany lost in World War I only due to the “stab in the back” by the Jews and other marginalized groups flamed mistrust among communities. Against the backdrop of political chaos and public anxiety, National Socialism (German Nationalsozialismus, more well-known as Nazi) and its notorious standard-bearer, Adolf Hitler, gradually rose to power.

The Nazi party was founded in 1920 in Munich. In its early years, it was a rather minor one among the many far-right groups in Germany. The party attempted to organize several putsches against the Weimar democracy, but all ended in failure. Under Hitler’s leadership, the party opted for a different strategy—run in elections and unravel the democracy from within. The Nazis’ chance came with the economic recession in 1930. The Nazis maneuvered and manipulated all sides, promising an end to economic woes and eradication of fabricated enemies to the struggling populace, and enticing rich investors with an anti-communist agenda. [23] By 1932, the Nazi party had become the largest political party in Germany. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor.

Hitler spent the first few months of his chancellorship consolidating his power by pursuing the policy referred to as Gleichschaltung (literally, “coordination”). His ultimate goal was to subject all aspects of the German society—politics, civil service, economy, and even culture—to the Nazi ideology. On March 23rd, 1933, the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act under Nazi coercion, an act that allowed Hitler to pass laws without parliamentary approval. From that point on, any atrocity committed by the Nazi regime could be justified by law.

Just two weeks later, on April 7th, 1933, the Nazis passed the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service (also known as the Civil Service Law), which established that, for the purpose of establishing a “national” civil service, civil servants who were non-Aryan or did not adhere to the regime’s political agenda should be fired. [24] Following the law’s passage, many non-Aryans and opponents to the regime lost their positions, including most Jewish professors in the country. [25]

Among the victims of Nazi persecution of academics are some notable scholars of the ancient Near East. In 1933, the Assyriologist Albrecht Goetze (1897 – 1971) lost his position in Marburg, not for being Jewish but for being “politically unreliable” by befriending the pacifist Jewish mathematician, Emil Gumbel. [26] Being barred from employment, the Jewish Hittologist Hans Gustav Güterbock (1908 – 2000) had to leave Germany in 1935. [27] In the same year, Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948), a highly influential scholar of ancient Near Eastern and Islamic art and archaeology, was forced into early retirement due to his Jewish descent. [28]

Georg Steindorff (1861-1951), a Jewish Egyptologist, had to emigrate to the US in 1939. [29] The exodus of such prominent scholars from Germany impoverished the German academia but greatly strengthened ancient Near Eastern studies in the US: Goetze taught at Yale University and made Yale a leading institution of Hittitology, Güterbock joined University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, and Herzeld sold his invaluable archive of notes and sketches to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

This was, unfortunately, just the beginning of the doomed fate of ancient Near Eastern Studies under Nazism. As we have seen so far, Altorientalistik was, even in its founding stage, associated with national ideologies. When the regime exerted more control over academia, the scholars who chose to stay felt increasing pressure to align their research with the Nazi political agenda. Thus, we shall soon see how a humanities discipline was appropriated and distorted to court a most inhumane regime.

Part II coming soon…

[1] Anthony Smith, National Identity, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991). Quoted in Blagoj Conev, “Theories of Nations and Nationalism: A Comparative Outline”, in European & Balkan Perspectives (2019), 7.

[2] Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (London, New York: Verson, 2006), 154).

[3] Christian Jansen, “The Formation of German Nationalism, 1740–1850,” in The Oxford Handbook of Modern German History, ed. Helmut Walser Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 241,

[4] Johann Gottfried Herder. Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität (1795), quoted in Tuska Benes. In Babel’s Shadow: Language Philology, and the Nation in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008), 45.

[5] Nationalcharakter; “So lässt sich, ohne Verwechslung der wirkenden Ursachen, eine Eigenthümlichkeit in den Sprachen erkennen, die wirklich die ihrige ist, oder doch zu der ihrigen wird, und man würde das innerste Wesen und die bedeutungsvolle Mannigfaltigkeit der Sprachen verkennen, wenn man das Gepräge des Nationalcharakters in ihnen unbeachtet ließe”, Wilhelm von Humboldt, “Über den Nationalcharakter der Sprachen,” in Wilhelm von Humboldt: Gesammelte Werke, ed. Albert Leitzmann (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 1905), 425).

[6] “Das alte indische Sonskrito d. h. die gebildete oder vollkommne auch Gronthon d. H. die Schrift- oder Büchersprache hat die größte Verwandtschaft mit der römiſchen und griechischen so wie mit der germanischen und persischen Sprache. Die Ähnlichkeit liegt nicht bloß in einer großen Anzahl von Wurzeln, die sie mit ihnen gemein hat, sondern sie erstreckt sich bis auf die innerste Structur und Grammatik. Die Uebereinstimmung ist alſo keine zufällige, die sich aus Einmiſchung erklären liesse; sondern eine wesentliche, die auf gemeinschaftliche Abstammung deutet. Bei der Vergleichung ergiebt sich ferner,daß die indische Sprache die ältere sei, die andern aber jünger und aus jener abgeleitet.”

[7] Knight Dunlap, “The Great Aryan Myth,” The Scientific Monthly 59, No. 4 (1944): 296-7,

[8] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Georg Friedrich Grotefend." Encyclopedia Britannica, December 11, 2022.;“Professor Julius Oppert.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1906, 272–77.

[9] “Aims,” Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft,

[10] Matthew David Penix, “German Imperialism and Applied Orientalism: German Encounters with the Ottoman Empire, 1850-1918,” (Phd diss., Western Michigan University, 2022),92-131, Germany’s interest in archaeological colonialism followed swiftly.

[11] “Eine Deutsche-Orient Gesellschaft.” National-Zeitung, January 19, 1898, quoted in Frederick N. Bohrer, Orientalism and visual culture: imagining Mesopotamia in nineteenth-century Europe (Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2003), 279-80,

[12] James Simon: Der große Mäzen der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin,” Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,

[13] Kristen E. Twardowski, “Excavating Imperial Fantasies: The German Oriental Society, 1898–1914”, (master’s thesis, University of Northern Carolina, 2015), 54,

[14] Vom Fragment zum Monument: Das Ischtar-Tor in Berlin,” Pergamonmuseum,

[15)] Michaela Gericke, “Masterplan für die Museumsinsel,” February 10, 2005, Deutschlandfunk,

[16] Lutz Martin, “Max von Oppenheim and His Tell Halaf,” September 2020, ASOR,

[17] Wilhelm II, The Kaiser’s Memoirs, trans. Thomas R. Ybarra (New York, London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1922), 203,

[18] Valeska Hartmann, “When Imitation Became Reality: The Historical Pantomime Sardanapal (1908) at the Royal Opera of Berlin”, in Receptions of the Ancient Near East in Popular Culture and Beyond, ed. Lorenzo Verderame and Agnès Garcia-Ventura (Columbus: Lockwood Press, 2020), 83-104,

[19] Sardanapal,” Berliner Volkszeitung, September 2, 1908.

[20] Rannfrid I. Thelle, Discovering Babylon (London, New York: Routledge, 2019,159).

[21] Brigitte Pedde, “Reception of Mesopotamian Architecture in Germany and Austria in the 20th Century,” in Proceedings of the 6th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, ed. Matthiae et al. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010), 122).

[22] Andrew Dickson, “Culture in Weimar Germany: on the edge of the volcano,” British Library, May 25, 2016,

[23] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Nazi Rise to Power,” Holocaust Encyclopedia,

Article III: “Beamte, die nicht arischer Abstammung sind, sind in den Ruhestand (§§ 8 ff.) zu versetzen; soweit es sich um Ehrenbeamte handelt, sind sie aus dem Amtsverhältnis zu entlassen.”/ Article IV: “Beamte, die nach ihrer bisherigen politischen Betätigung nicht die Gewähr dafür bieten, daß sie jederzeit rückhaltlos für den nationalen Staat eintreten, können aus dem Dienst entlassen werden.”).

[25] Higher Education in Nazi Germany”. Holocaust Sources in Context.

[26] See Martina Pesditschek, review of Entlassungsgrund: Pazifismus : Albrecht Götze, der Fall Gumbel und die Marburger Universität 1930 - 1946, by Harald Maier-Metz. Informationsmittel (IFB) : digitales Rezensionsorgan für Bibliothek und Wissenschaft,

[27] Silvia Alaura, “Hittite Studies at the Crossroads: Albrecht Goetze’s and Hans Gustav Güterbock’s Flight from Nazi Germany,” in Perspectives on the History of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, ed. Agnes Garcia-Ventura and Lorenzo Verderame (University Park: Eisenbrauns, Penn State University Press, 2020),

[28 Matt Saba, “The Ernst Herzfeld Papers at the Met: A Digital Resource Documenting the Study of Near Eastern Civilization,” the MET,

[29] Georg Steindorff Collection,” Center for Jewish History,


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