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Gods, tombs and Nazis: the bad relationship of the Third Reich with Egyptology


Anti-Semitism and the Hitlerian regime's obsession with the past of the Aryan peoples brought a halt in Germany to the study of the ancient pharaonic civilization, despite what 'In Search of the Lost Ark' shows

When you think of the Nazis and Egyptology, a very bad relationship, the first thing that comes to mind for many of us is the charred palm of the hand of the fictitious Gestapo agent Toht in which the medallion of Ra, key to the location of the Ark of the Covenant in

Raiders of the Lost Ark,

the initial installment of the adventures of Indiana Jones.

The sadistic Sturmbannführer Arnold Toht (the surname has an Egyptian nod to the name of the scribe god Thoth, although he, devoted to wisdom and justice, would never align himself with the swastika), is, with his leather clothing even in the desert and his Himmler air passed by Monty Python, one of the most successful villains of the Indy series.

He is part of the team of Nazis embarked on the search in Egypt for the precious (and lethal) relic, a group that also includes two other officers, Oberst (Colonel) Herman Dietrich and his right-hand man Major (Commander) Gobler .

In the film, Dietrich and Gobler are in 1936 at the forefront of excavations in the "lost" ancient pharaonic city of Tanis, east of the Nile Delta,

More information

A pharaoh at the wrong time

The image shown in Spielberg's film of German troops dressed as the Afrika Korps, Schmeisser submachine guns and rifles in hand, watching over the work of hundreds of Egyptian workers is stupendous Egyptological nonsense.

The archaeologist who (civilly) co-directs the excavation for the Nazis is a Frenchman, Indy's archenemy René Emile Belloq, placed at the service of Hitler.

It is true that at that time excavations were being made in Tanis by a Frenchman, but not by an unscrupulous mercenary like Belloq, but by a brave and self-sacrificing scholar, Pierre Montet (1885-1966), who had won the Croix de Guerre at the First World War.

In 1939 Montet discovered not the lost Ark but the tombs of the kings of the XXI and XXII dynasties, one of the great milestones of Egyptology, comparable to the discovery in 1922 of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Despite what the Indiana Jones movie says, and that Hitler's idea of ​​a dig was undoubtedly in uniform and trying to take something over (not unlike invading Poland), the Nazis had very little interest in Ancient Egypt. and Egyptology.

In fact, their main interest in Egypt in general was to try to get Rommel's Panzers up the Nile and take over the Suez Canal.

And that only because they saw the opportunity to destabilize the British empire in an area that Hitler actually considered the space of the Italians, with a "weakening" climate for the superior race.

He summed it up by saying: "For us the Egyptian sphinx is of no particular interest" (

Hitler's Private Conversations

, Criticism, 2004).

The history of German Egyptology in the Nazi era was marked by the regime's contempt for things southern and African and by anti-Semitism that led to the marginalization and expulsion of Jewish Egyptologists from universities.

Before Hitler came to power, Germany was considered a hotspot for Egyptological studies, and indeed celebrities such as James Henry Breasted, who got his degree from the University of Berlin (and was one of the inspirations, by the way) for the character of Indiana Jones), studied in the country.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs financed the German Archaeological Institute (with a headquarters in Cairo), from which important research was carried out.

In the field of Egyptology, recalls Jason Thompson in

Wonderful things, a history of Egyptology

(AUC Press, 2018), highlighted personalities such as the linguist and epigrapher Kurt Sethe, Adolf Erman, who collaborated in revealing the grammar of Egyptian writing;

Ludwig Borchardt, who had discovered and brought to Germany the famous bust of Nefertiti, or Heinrich Schäfer, with his work that opened new perspectives to understand Egyptian art.

The arrival of the Nazis, which poisoned the discipline as it did all areas of life in Germany, meant that historians fond of their ideas such as Helmunt Berve, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Leipzig, came to question the very existence of Egyptology as an area of ​​study and encourage a focus on "peoples similar to us in terms of race and mentality."

Other scholars proposed to align Egyptology with the new requirements of Nazi science.

Walther Wolf was one of those who took advantage of the new winds to thrive and gave classes in the SA uniform, so you didn't know if he was going to talk to you about the Third Intermediate Period or sing you the

Tomorrow belongs to me


The Nazi Arnold Toth from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'.

Egyptologists who lost their jobs (to which must be added those who fell during the war) include Herman Ranke, who had excavated with Borchardt and Herman Junker and taught in Heidelberg, and Hans Wolfgang Müller, both because of unlawful wives. arias.

Paul Ernst Kahle was expelled in Bonn for hiring a Polish Jew as an assistant.



Fechheimer-Simon, a pioneer in the study of Egyptian art and its influence on modern sculpture and a member of the acquisitions committee of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, was banned from the center for being a Jew and, after trying to escape Germany, committed suicide together with his sister in 1942. The aforementioned Erman, the great star of German Egyptology of the time, was deprived of his academic charges and honors for having a Jewish grandfather.

Another great scholar, Georg Steindorff, founder and director of the Leipzig Egyptological Institute, escaped to the US in 1939 with what he was wearing (which fortunately included his specialized library).

Borchardt, as a Jew, watched the rise of the Nazis in horror, but in those years he lived outside of Germany (he died in 1938 in Paris);

His brother Georg Hermann, a writer, was assassinated in Auschwitz in 1943.

I can't resist pointing out the relationship of the Nazis with

The Mummy

, the marvelous original film from 1932. Its director Karl Freund, a German from Bohemia who has lived in Berlin since he was 11 years old, developed the first part of his career in Germany (he was a cameraman with Murnau, Lang, and Lubitsch).

As a Jew, he was lucky enough to go to work in the US in 1929, but his ex-wife, Susette Liepmannssohn, and his daughter, Gerda, stayed.

The young woman (see the wonderful 90th anniversary book of

The Mummy

, Notorious, 2023) became involved in anti-Nazi activities and her father came to rescue her from her in 1937 and managed to take her with him.

Instead, she Susettte stayed and she was deported to Ravensbrück, where she died in 1942. She also the protagonist of

The Mummy

, the unforgettable Zita Johan, was, although Romanian, of German roots (from the Banat Swabians) and from a young age she was obsessed with the books of the American medium, occultist and seer Edgar Cayce —who maintained that under the claws of the Sphinx of Gizah there is a "file of secrets" that keeps esoteric knowledge -, which undoubtedly helped the actress to create her role as the reincarnated Anck-es-en-Amon, the object of love for Im-Ho-Tep ( Boris Karloff).

Zita Johan in 'The Mummy'.

Hitler, as has been said, was little interested in the history of Ancient Egypt and was not very given to the supernatural stories, mysteries and mummies that are popularly associated with the pharaonic civilization.

The Nazis most prone to that were by nature Himmler and Rudolph Hess (who was also born in Alexandria and who was called in the party "the yogi of Egypt", because of yoga, not because of the bear).

Both Himmler and Hess are interested in esotericism, occultism and parapsychology, it is easy to imagine the latter dressed as a fake Jewish priest like Belloq but with his eyebrows protruding from the Mitznéfet, the miter, in the final opening scene of the Ark, and the first melting like Gestapo Toht for looking for what he shouldn't.

In any case, Himmler was interested in other no less crazy things like the Grail,

Archaeologically, the Nazis preferred to look north (Karelia, Swedish Bohuslan, Hedeby) and towards the supposed ancient Aryan homelands that haunted them, such as Tibet, where Himmler sent the famous expedition led by Ernst Schäfer.

The Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) of the SS and the Amt Rosenberg practiced archeology

à la Nazi

, that is to say with ideological and propaganda purposes and that in general were pure nonsense.

Ancient Egypt was a field that did not appeal to the Nazis.

Some ideas of that civilization, such as the power of the pharaoh, the military pre-eminence or the centrality of the State, could interest them, but in general the ancient Egyptians were definitely a non-Aryan people and their beliefs, although they existed before the detested Judeo-Christianity, were too variegated for belief. National Socialist mentality.

Akhenaten, for example, was reviled by pro-Nazi Egyptologists such as Wolf and Herman Kees for possessing traits contrary to the idea of ​​a superior race.

Akhenaten, however, as Dominic Montserrat explains in the exciting

Akhenaten, history, fantasy and Ancient Egypt

(Dilemma 2022), also suffered an attempt to appropriate it by some anti-Semitic and neopagan sectors that even tried to see an Aryan component in it, stimulated by because of the westernized image of the pharaoh built by Egyptologists fascinated with the character such as James Henry Breasted and Arthur Weigall.

He liked the purity ingredient of his sun worship and the relationship he established as spiritual leader of his people.

The bust of Nefertiti found by the Germans in Amarna, in a colorized photo from the time of discovery.

In fact, the devotee of Hitler, Nazi sympathizer, theosophist and spy Savitri Devi (1905-1982, actually French of Greek origins) saw him as a foreshadowing of the Führer.

But Hitler himself would hardly identify himself with a character like the pharaoh of Amarna, who interested Freud so much and whose interpretation was so significant for the history of psychoanalysis.

Not to mention the grotesque aspect of the representations of him.

Adolf Hitler was more of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Barbarossa and Frederick the Great.

However, the Nazi leader was an unexpected defender of the Nefertiti bust.

When Goering and other Reich leaders were in favor of returning the sculpture to Egypt to promote relations,

Hitler came out of the way declaring emphatically that "what the German people have they keep" (luckily Indy stole the Ark).

He said he had looked at the bust many times and always marveled at it, and that one of her dreams was to have Nefertiti installed in a new Egyptian museum in Berlin with a room under a great vault just for her.

It's funny to think that she would like how she is now.

Hitler was never in Egypt, but Joseph Goebbels was, who made a resounding lightning trip to the Nile country in 1939, five months before the Second World War was declared.

The propaganda minister arrived at Cairo airport on April 6 aboard a Focke-Wulf Condor from Rhodes where he was on vacation.

The visit, labeled as private, aroused the enthusiasm of the German colony and made the British, let alone the Jews living in Egypt, quite nervous.

Goebbels stayed at the Mena House, gave a reception at the German House in Boulak and a meal at his country's delegation and, for all we care, visited the pyramids of Giza, the Saqqara necropolis and the Egyptian Museum - apart from to visit, like all tourists, the markets of Khan al-Khalili,

Drawing from the period alluding to Goebbels' visit to Egypt.

During the visit to the Great Pyramid, the aforementioned and famous professor Herman Junker, director of the Deutsches Institut, expressed to his guide (according to the press reports of the time) his deep admiration for the civilization of Ancient Egypt, and he He did it again before the gold objects from the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Cairo museum.

He even starred in an ecstatic moonlight camel ride past the pyramids (something Hitler would have disapproved of, who praised Rommel for not succumbing to the temptation of riding a dromedary and thus avoiding the unseemly picturesque photo: the marshal was to go always in an armored).

However, Goebbels did not show the same enthusiasm for Ancient Egypt that he did when he visited Greece in 1936 (Athens, Delphi,

and various excavations) and admire the great achievements of the Greeks (in the Acropolis he felt he was in one of "the noblest sites of Nordic art").

In Egypt he even negatively compared the "useless" effort of building the pyramids or the Sphinx with the "socially beneficial" highways of Hitler's Third Reich or the functionality of the New Chancellery designed by Speer.

One last curious detail: one of the characters who confronted Hitler and who is said to have been a true bête noire for the Nazi leader was an Egyptologist, the British John Pendlebury, who had been director of the excavations at Amarna and was later appointed vice-consul in Crete as a cover for his work in military intelligence to confront the Nazi invasion of the island, during which he was shot by German paratroopers.

Oh, and it wouldn't be fair, even if he wasn't an Egyptologist or strictly a Nazi, to forget about Count Almásy.

The royal character who inspired

The English Patient

, Hungarian explorer Lászlo Almásy, conducted special operations for the German army in the desert during World War II, led two spies behind enemy lines and never stopped searching under the Egyptian sands, partly with gasoline from Rommel, the lost army of the Persian king Cambyses.

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Source: elparis

All life articles on 2023-03-18

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