Anthropology, the Second World War, and the “Strategies of Professional Denial” 

                                                                                                            David H. Price

                                                                                                            St. Martin’s University



Gretchen Schafft’s painstaking research into the uses of Nazi anthropology is vital, daring and timely.  Vital, in that she carefully unearths a hidden history of science being mutilated to fit the needs of a warfare state; Daring because her efforts quite predictably have generated resentment from those wishing to maintain an historical silence surrounding anthropology’s complicity in crimes against humanity; and Timely, because we live in an era where our own scientists are increasingly pressured to comply with anti-scientific political doctrines pressuring us to engage in rites of self-censorship by not mentioning polar bears, evolution, and the known folly of foreign policy directives based not on facts or truths, but on neo-con principles of faith. 

            The strength of Professor Schafft’s scholarship is found in her reliance on detailed documentation, substantiation and analysis.  While other scholars have long wondered about the roles played by various German anthropologists during the war, Gretchen Schafft has broken the silence surrounding these complicit acts of support for the Nazis, not by speculation and innuendo, but by the use of meticulous readings of primary source materials that can be verified and challenged by critics discomforted by her revelations.  Given the profound implications of her work, it is natural that some would wish to challenge her work and findings as she undermines powerful “strategies of professional denial” (Schafft 2007:mss4), but this discomfort is in large part a measure of the successful efforts of anthropologists to bury our disciplinary complicity in horrific acts.  There are clear parallels between the criticisms that Professor Schafft is fielding and the criticisms anthropologists Peter T. Suzuki or Orin Starn received two decades ago when they first published critical historical examinations of the roles played by American anthropologists in interning Japanese Americans in the War Relocation Authority’s detention camps (see Opler 1987; Sady 1988; Starn 1986 ;Suzuki 1980 & 1981).  New light on the dark events of the past raises uncomfortable questions about the ways that our present work, affiliations and knowledge are rooted in such troubling events.  If we can connect elements of our own work to such events, does this imply some sort of post-hoc complicity?   

Gretchen Schafft carefully documents how anthropometric research was adapted and used to justify Nazi policies, and she establishes that many German anthropologists preformed their scientific tasks without meaningfully questioning the uses of this work.  Some of these anthropologists initially rejected the demands of the Nazi state but later learned how to stifle their objections, while reaping the rewards of compliance, and the harmony of silence.

Schafft shows that while German scientists from many disciplines worked for the Nazis before and during the war, there was something fundamentally different about many of the Nazi anthropologists that distinguished them from the thousands of chemists, engineers, physicists, biologists and other scientists working for the Nazis.  While these other scientists contributed their science to the Nazi cause in very direct ways, they did not falsify research, concoct subjective measurements or propagate false science for these goals.  The research measurements of Nazi medical doctors and chemists were at times unethical, but they were reliable—that is to say, these measures could withstand the scrutiny of repeated independent measures finding similar results; but most of the racial measures and resulting analysis undertaken by Nazi anthropologists were not scientific in the sense that their subjectivity and at times outright falsification could not withstand the scrutiny of independent repeated measures.  This was a cooked-up form of pseudo-science in which desired outcomes predicated results in ways that we are becoming increasingly familiar in our world where scientific findings on subjects like global warming, condoms effectiveness in reducing exposure to HIV, the health dangers of smoking tobacco, the measurement of toxic air-born pollutants released upon the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the operationalization of “clean water” are filtered by political pressures that warp scientific interpretations.  

There is no such thing as politically neutral science, and pretending otherwise will get us nowhere. The operations of science are not judged by imagined standards of apolitical neutrality, they are judged by theory testing operations of reliability, validity, and falsifiability. What I learn from Gretchen Schafft’s work is that what is needed is not depoliticized science, but science that is ethically aware of and engaged in the political context in which it functions and is used.  We need science that resists political gerrymandering.

            But the problem with Nazi anthropology was not just that Nazi anthropologists necessarily employed bad methods; some of their field methods for recording elements of Roma and other minority cultures may indeed have been “methodologically sounds” (as judged by criteria of validity, reliability etc.).  But because both means and ends matter, Nazi anthropology was tainted with the end goals of the Nazi program--goals that included genocide, implementing a political economy based on racial hierarchies, and eradicating non-Germanic cultural systems.  Nazi anthropology listed towards twisted ends as anthropologists compartmentally divorced themselves from ethical concerns about the uses of their contributions.  Schafft’s research details how this was accomplished as “both a carrot and a stick were held out to anthropologists in the Third Reich,” to produce specific anthropological forms of use in wartime (Schafft 2004:71).

Gretchen Schafft’s work raises serious questions not only about the political contexts determining the uses and abuses of anthropology, but she raises important questions about anthropology’s self-imposed historical blind-spots, and deficiencies in anthropologists’ self-conception as a discipline. 

What does it mean that Josef Mengele may well be the anthropologist with the highest name recognition in all of history?  What does it mean that most anthropologists have no idea that Mengele was formally trained in anthropology?  But there are other questions that strike much closer to home, such as: What does it mean that American anthropologists have avoided examining what our disciplinary forbearers did during the war while secretly working at the Office of War Information, the Office of Strategic Services, the Office of Naval Intelligence, as Whitehouse advisors, language specialists and assisting in the internment of Japanese-Americans at the War Relocation Authority?  Why is our disciplinary history so lacking in any deep consideration of this vital past?

In my own work, I try and walk through minefields of questions related to Professor Schafft’s work by examining the full range of activities undertaken by American anthropologists during the Second World War; and while the Nazi’s atrocities justified many of the actions of American anthropologists during the war, I remain troubled by some American anthropologists’ willingness to do things like assist the OSS’s efforts to develop imagined Japanese-specific biological weapons that could be used on civilians and soldiers on the Pacific front (Price 2005), the use of anthropological knowledge to train terrorists field operatives, conduct kidnappings, imprison Japanese-American citizens, and manipulate various native populations for military ends (Price 2002; nd). 

Broad silences also envelope considerations of World War Two anthropologists’ activities in other nations.  Akito-ski Shimizu is chronicling how wartime Japanese ethnographers were used to co-opt and subdue occupied native populations throughout the Pacific (Shimizu 2003).  Katsumi Nakao has critically compared the uses of Japanese wartime anthropology with the uses of British colonialism’s functionalist anthropology (Nakao 2004).  Kyung-soo Chun is studying how Japanese ethnographers quelling rebellions in war occupied Manchuria used Opium to curry favor and cooperation from native informants (Chun 2004).  But such critical considerations of Japanese wartime anthropology are met with resistance and hostility in Japan for the same reasons that Gretchen Schafft’s work is resisted by some scholars: the anthropologists who served their nation during the war often buried traces of their war work and went on to establish prominent mainstream academic careers at the war’s end.  Such research troubles legacies and institutional histories.

What does it mean that so many anthropologists from Allied and Axis nations used their professional backgrounds for warfare?  Perhaps it only means that this is what all people find themselves doing in times of war.  Perhaps these acts revealed the lurking potential uses of an ethnographic knowledge that passively justified the funding of such a seemingly impractical discipline.  That such acts were undertaken by American anthropologists during times of total war, or during what has become for so many, the last “Good War,” comforts some, but those who find comfort have little hope of identifying consistent means of determining when such acts are acceptable.  Perhaps the Nazis provided all the justification that was needed for American anthropologists, but the acceptance of such practices in one circumstance opens the possibility that such practices can occur in any circumstance.  The meanings of anthropological contributions to modern warfare varies with individual wars, causes, and actions; but the applications of Nazi anthropology represent an important warning of where militarized anthropology unhinged from ethical standards has led in the past and can lead in the future.    


The curious thing about reactions in opposition to Professor Schafft’s work is that German society has clearly acknowledged its past collective guilt for the crimes of the Second World War with monuments, reparations and public proclamations, yet there are clear misgivings about Schafft’s later day individual assignments of guilt. 

We live in an age where the past crimes of the Nazis are acknowledged by statements of public contrition, impressive, and moving, physical monuments.  Whether in Berlin, Jerusalem or Auschwitz the totalizing evil of the Nazi regime is clearly acknowledged by imposing physical structures that leave no doubt as to the wrongs inflicted by the Nazis.  But I wonder if the ubiquitousness of such monuments sometimes serves to cement cognitive boarders of historical memory—as if such physical acknowledgements come to hold us back from seeing the spread of Nazi evil on a wider horizon than any monument can contain.  As James E. Young observes in his work on After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art, monuments can unintentionally take away the burden and work of memories (see Young 2000:94).  Schafft’s analysis moves far past the now-comfortably accepted truths of the well known monuments acknowledging the past crimes of Nazis, and as her work touches so closely to people, institutions and powers whose academic legacies remain, that discomforts are raised.

But raising such discomforts is exactly what it means to not forget.  If we remember such horrible events without creating discord we must not be remembering right.

Gretchen Schafft’s work goes a long ways towards helping anthropologists to remember what most of us never knew: Just how easily competent anthropologists were cajoled with threats and rewards to become complicit tools for the justification of and implementation of genocidal campaigns.



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