Legacy Under Fire: The Work of Reichel-Dolmatoff and His Nazi Past

Do the Reichel-Dolmatoff revelations mean more
troubled waters for anthropology?
Photo by douglas reeser.
"Views from the ANThill" 
by Federico Cintrón Moscoso on October 10, 2012*
At the beginning of August, a video was uploaded onto YouTube in which Colombian archaeologist Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo (University of Florida) presented conclusive evidence of the relationship between Gerardo (“Erasmus”) Reichel-Dolmatoff, the founder of Colombian archaeology and anthropology, and the Nazi regime (read the transcript of the video). The video was recorded in Vienna (July 17, 2012) at the 54th International Congress of Americanists. Oyuela-Caycedo, student and follower of the work of Reichel-Dolmatoff could not contain his tears as he revealed one of the confessions made by the latter in a 1937 document entitled Confessions of a Gestapo Assassin, which described a series of murders that he perpetrated while a member of Hitler’s elite force—the Schutzstaffel or SS as it is commonly known. As it was pointed out in the video, this document appeared to have been written after Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff was expelled from the Gestapo due to “mental incapacity.” After being dismissed, the Austrian ex-officer spent a season studying in Paris before migrating to Colombia in 1939. The investigation that Oyuela-Caycedo presented at the Congress concluded that Reichel-Dolmatoff had been involved with the Hitler Youth since the age of fourteen, and his active participation continued within the SS until he was approximately twenty-five years-old. Other close paternal relatives were also Nazi officials, including his uncle, a professor of medicine and eugenics practitioner, and his cousin, who continued a prosperous career inside the SS, ultimately achieving the rank of Major.

The posthumous discovery of this sinister past contrasts dramatically with the extensive anthropological production of Reichel-Dolmatoff and his wife, Alicia Dunssan, in Colombia, as well as with the perception that he was one of the strongest advocates of indigenous communities and rights. Indeed, in an obituary written in American Antiquity two years after Reichel-Dolmatoff’s death (1912-1994), Oyuela-Caycedo (1996:52) himself praised the former’s work, saying: “More than once he [Reichel-Dolmatoff] expressed the view that if humanity wanted to survive and stop its destruction of nature, we had to start learning the lessons of the past and incorporating them into our understanding, and that some of the models developed by indigenous societies may be worth emulating”. In addition to the many honors he received over the course of his life, the Austrian archaeologist was awarded membership in the National Academy of Sciences (USA, 1976), the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences (Spain, 1983), and the Linnean Society (England, 1989). He also received the Thomas H. Huxley medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1975), and was a founding member of the Third World Academy of Sciences (Italy, 1983). Moreover, the ex-SS soldier became an active member of the anti-Hitler organization Francia Libre in Colombia, participation that was later awarded with the Ordre national du Mérite by the French government.

Although still early, Oyuela-Caycedo’s investigation is significant for various reasons beyond the disappointment and rage that many must feel upon the unearthing of the skeletons in the biographical closet of Colombian anthropology’s founding father. Sidestepping judgments about the criminal actions and hate ideologies promoted by Reichel-Dolmatoff in 1930’s fascist Germany, important questions still remain that necessitate a more profound examination and reflection. For example, how is it that a member of the Gestapo, indoctrinated from a very young age into racist, eugenicist, and imperialist views, and a confessed perpetrator of crimes against humanity, ‘transformed’ himself into a well-respected and influential humanist, defending cultural diversity and the rights of marginalized indigenous populations and their ways of life? This question is relevant because it reflects dramatic changes in positionality regarding racial, political-economic, cultural, and socio-historical paradigms, all of which occurred in a maximum time-frame of three to five years, according to what is known so far. If we follow the theory of a “redemption” or “epiphany” on his part, we must also ask: what could have prompted such a change, and who or what around him contributed to such a dramatic transformation? Was it the intellectual environment that greeted him in Paris and later in Colombia? And, how can this experience be explained given the social, political, and cultural context of that moment in history, both in Europe and in the Americas? Let us not forget that the Rockefeller Foundation also contributed significant funds to research on race carried out in Germany at the beginning of the 1930s.

On the other hand, if we apply caution and skepticism to the epiphany theory, then it becomes important to ask the following: what elements of the fascist ideology, especially those related to racist perspectives, persisted throughout his anthropological work—such as the development and perpetuation of a Primitivist view of indigenous populations? Or, was Reichel-Dolmatoff’s academic life an act of smoke and mirrors?

For the social sciences, and anthropology in particular, it is important to understand the implications that this story holds for the production of knowledge, ethnographic work, and archaeological representations of the human past—both in general and in Colombia in particular. How does this story reflect similarities or differences with those of other European and North American intellectuals and scientists—Nazi or not—who, given the political and social circumstances of their host countries in Latin America, had found spaces from which to advance studies and theories that we recognize today as fundamental for the development of American sciences? Only time, and the many analyses that will follow this discovery, will shed light on these queries, which at minimum present us with another very complex case concerning the relationship between the history of Western science and ethics, the development of reason and morality, and the geo-politics of knowledge.

For many students and practitioners of anthropology, this discovery, although undoubtedly surprising and unexpected, is hardly unusual or isolated. In anthropology, the study of the past and kinship has not been limited to reconstructing the history and forms of organization of “outside” groups, but also its closer relatives—its producers. For decades now, anthropology, with the contributions of related disciplines, has taken upon itself the task of examining the history of its ancestors from a critical perspective. This examination has questioned, among other things, the discipline’s origins (Adams 2001, The Philosophical Roots of Anthropology ; Haylland and Sivert 2001, A History of Anthropology), its colonial past(s) (Gordon and Tilley 2011, Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism and the Politics of Knowledge; Langbehn and Salama 2011, German Colonialism: Race, the Holocaust, and Postwar Germany; Stocking 1993, Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge), claims of scientific authority (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fisher 1999), controversial research practices (Borofsky 2005, Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It; Malinowski 1967, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term; Shankman 2009, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy), utilization of methodological and analytical skills for highly questionable, if not criminal, ends (Lucas 2009,Anthropologists in Arms: The Ethics of Military Anthropology; Price 2011, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Sciences in the Service of the Militarized State), and its active participation in the development of racist and discriminatory ideologies and policies (Schafft 2007, From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich).

Through this self-reflexive walk, still rocky and quite incomplete, we have learned extremely valuable lessons that should not be forgotten:
(1) every scientific production is a cultural production, and as such it ought to be understood within broad social, political and intellectual contexts; 
(2) the researcher’s positionality is central to determining the analytical, methodological and ethical view through which he or she would approach his or her subject of study; 
(3) the interpersonal relationships developed through anthropological research have the capacity to transform the preconceptions of the research; and 
(4) as Carlos Uribe, director of the Anthropology Department at the University of the Andes, commented upon hearing this news: “At the end everything is known. A fundamental principle of anthropology is that every human activity leaves traces”.

For me, this disciplinary insistence on looking at the past, if at times somewhat arbitrary, represents an advantage and not a hindrance or an academic self-absorption. I believe that Oyuela-Caycedo’s determination to scrutinize Reichel-Dolmatoff’s past no matter the consequences, and to disseminate his findings, represents an inescapable commitment toward an intellectual culture of critical reflection that should urge us not to take our predecessors and their work for granted. Indeed, after studying anthropologists’ participation in Nazi Germany, anthropologist Gretchen Shafft (2007,From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich) concludes, “It is time for anthropologists to discover and acknowledge our field’s involvement in creating the nightmare of racism, as well as take pride in our part in the fight to eliminate racism from the world” (2007:56).

Below I am including the links to the original video of Oyuela-Caycedo’s presentation (in Spanish) and the transcript of the video in Spanish and German.

Federico Cintrón Moscoso is an applied anthropologist and currently lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He teaches history of anthropology and research methodology, and is currently involved in several projects regarding environmental education and youth socio-political development. He also manifests the creative anthropology blog Cultura de Papel.

*This article was also featured in the American Anthropology Association's October 2012 online issue of Anthropology News in the column "Notes from the Field" edited by douglas reeser.

Links to coverage in Spanish:

Revista Arcadia: http://www.revistaarcadia.com/impresa/polemica/articulo/el-pasado-nazi-reichel-dolmatoff/29258

La Jornada: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/08/22/opinion/017a2pol


El Espectador: http://www.elespectador.com/impreso/vivir/articulo-371453-gerardo-reichel-dolmatoff-un-nazi
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  1. Anonymous3:33 PM

    This is a crazy story! It makes me wonder if all anthropologists are crazy, although it's good to see there's at least some self-reflection going on.

  2. James B5:18 PM

    It sounds like his transformation began before he left Europe, and possibly at a young age. If he was expelled from the Gestapo for mental incompacity, we can be sure that he wasn't following orders or was causing too many problems. He wasn't buying their lines. You can't control what you grow up in, but you can change and evolve over time. It would be interesting to know some of his other influences as a child, youth, and young adult. Who or what made this man question the environment that he was raised in?

  3. Anonymous9:32 AM

    Equally surprising to this revelation is this statement: "...this discovery, although undoubtedly surprising and unexpected, is hardly unusual or isolated." !!!

    I guess it makes for a fuller, more complicated, and more thought-provoking narrative of the history of anthropology.


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