The Nazi Period Collections of Physical Anthropology
in the Museum of Natural History, Vienna
Margit Berner
In 1998 extensive collections from the Nazi period were discovered during a systematic inspection of the Anthropology Department of the Natural History Museum in Vienna. The collections contain not only written sources but also measurement forms, photographs, plaster masks and hair samples, as well as hand- and footprints taken as anthropological measurements.1

Reels of 16mm color film were also discovered amongst the collections and transferred to the Film Archive Austria. The “Natural color” footage had been produced by the anthropologist Josef Wastl during racial surveys in villages and prisoner of war camps.2 It is these film documents that will provide the basis of the Col tempo installation by Péter Forgács and András Rényi.

The anthropological projects of this period are closely linked with the name of Josef Wastl (1892–1968), who became a scientific associate in 1935, head in 1938 and director from 1941 onwards of the Department of Anthropology of the Museum of Natural History.3 Wastl joined the NSDAP as early as 1932. In 1932 he was co-founder of an illegal cell or “Betriebszelle” of the Nazi Party in the Museum of Natural History. At the beginning of 1939, Wastl initiated an exhibition on “The Physical and Spiritual Appearance of the Jews” (Das körperliche und seelische Erscheinungsbild der Juden). It conveyed the current state of Nazi racial teachings, and Wastl placed special value on the scientific methods employed in the research that had been carried out. The confiscated collection of the Jewish Museum in Vienna4 was used for this exhibition, together with identification photographs of Jews provided by the police records department. Unlike the travelling exhibition called “The Eternal Jew” (“Der Ewige Jude”), which was organised by the Nazis in 1937 and featured virulently anti-Semitic materials, the exhibition in the Natural History Museum focused on scientific results and knowledge. In September 1939 a racial survey was carried out on 440 male Jews of Polish origin imprisoned in the Viennese soccer stadium. From 1940 to 1943 racial surveys of prisoners of war in the Kaisersteinbruch and Wolfsberg prisoner of war camps followed.

Further racial surveys were carried out on inhabitants of the Austrian village of Hinterstoder in Upper Austria and in the Bohemian Forest. Additionally, in 1942 the department acquired skulls and death masks of concentration camp victims, Jews and Polish resistance fighters, from the Anatomical Institute of the University of Posen (Chair Hermann Voss5). Skeletons of members of the Jewish religious community were unearthed during excavations at the Währing Jewish Cemetery in 1942-1943. From 1939 onwards research and collection interests focused especially on Jews and prisoners of war; in other words on expanding the museum’s collections with “material” such as had never before been available. In addition, between 1941 and 1945 several hundred records of racial and paternity assessment were composed by Wastl for courts or for the Reich Office of Genealogy (Reichssippenamt). The assessments for the Reich Office of Genealogy were carried out on Germans of uncertain descent who were suspected of being "Jews" or “half-Jews” under the terms of the Nuremberg Laws on Citizenship and Race.6 With these studies the anthropologists contributed directly to the mass murder of Jews: their assessments determined the fate of the racially investigated individuals.

Biographical information about each person was recorded. For the investigation of physical and racial characteristics measurements of heads and bodies were taken and observations of bodily features such as hair, skin and eye colour were also recorded. In a large number of cases the individual’s finger-, hand- and footprints were taken for further analysis of the dermal ridges. Photographic documentation constituted an important part of Josef Wastl's projects. Beside three-part black and white half-length portraits, he took body images, details of faces and stereo photographs. Thousands of photographs, data sheets, handprints, footprints and hair samples and hundreds of plaster cast masks were created, of people who had not freely volunteered to satisfy the anthropologists’ need to examine, measure and depict. Wastl, who had developed a marked preference for scientific photography, became interested in moving pictures. The reels of film that have been discovered testify to Wastl’s preference for using photographic materials to expand the collections. His intention was to depict “racial types” and thus to portray a stereotype and not the individuals themselves. However, from today’s point of view these documents, which were produced in order to portray the diversity of the “others”, provide us rather with an insight into the scientific concepts of the person standing behind the camera. Of all these materials, those which were accumulated for research purposes confront the Department with the most difficult ethical questions today. As in the case of the investigated Jews, the materials and data that were collected and preserved, but hardly ever evaluated, are often the last traces and depictions of people who were later murdered.

In 1945 Wastl was suspended from museum service as a “minor National Socialist” and in 1948 sent into retirement. Like many in his field, however, he continued to work on a freelance basis until his death in 1968, providing well-remunerated expert forensic and genetic opinions on lineage. After the burial of the skeletons from the Jewish cemetery in 1947, the provenance of the other collections from the Nazi period was no longer debated, and the collection was even expanded, inventorying for example photographs and fingerprints from a survey of 105 Jewish families in the Tarnow ghetto conducted in 1942.

Not until 1991 were the death masks and skulls from Posen turned over to the Vienna Jewish Community, which buried the skulls and handed over the death masks to the Jewish Museum of Vienna.7 The 17 skulls of Polish resistance fighters, which had been acquired by purchase, were handed over to the Polish embassy in Vienna in 2000. From 2001 to 2004 a project was carried out which studied the projects and collection activities conducted by the Department of Anthropology between 1938 and 1945.8 Part of this project focused on tracing the personal life histories of the imprisoned Jews in the Viennese soccer stadium who were measured, and thus commemorating them and their stories.9

The Scientific Background – The Science of Race

Historical studies have demonstrated that Anthropology in Nazi Germany cannot be seen as a radical departure from earlier Anthropology in Germany.10 In the spirit of general biological classification attempts have been made ever since the beginnings of Anthropology to classify humans into units of seeming biological value, namely races. In the 19th century, the concepts underlying the identification and classification of races underwent certain changes. Earlier concepts rely on descriptions of “typical” individuals to characterize the entire race but in the late 19th century anthropologists started to employ anthropometry and the comparison of data sets in large population surveys. Race became a more abstract category, based on arithmetical means and highest frequencies. As no generally accepted concept of race existed, many anthropologists employed the term “type” to describe different morphological forms or patterns.

German anthropologists had maintained an increasing interest in studying European “races” in the late nineteenth century. Although biological definitions of races were based on a set of physical features, they were linked to descriptions of ethnic tribes stemming from ancient texts and national associations of ancient tribes. At the beginning of the 20th century questions of racial mixture and heredity came to the fore, in the context of hierarchical concepts of race and under the influence of the principles of Mendelian genetics. Anthropologists regarded race as hereditary and inherent in any given population. Races and sub-races were inherent parts of anthropological taxonomy, with origin and demarcation as subjects for discussion. This means that race was both the basic assumption and the aim of the research.11

The First World War played an important role in the development of the discipline of Anthropology in Vienna. From 1915 to 1918 the Austrian anthropologist Rudolf Pöch (1870-1921) and his assistant Josef Weninger (1886-1959) conducted racial studies on several thousand captured soldiers in prisoner of war camps in Austria-Hungary and Germany. Stressing the uniqueness of the opportunity, the focus of this project was placed on investigating “anthropologically less well-known peoples of the Russian Empire” and turned to other peoples from the Russian Empire as well as to peoples from Africa. To Pöch the POW camps provided ideal conditions for scientific research and comparative racial studies.12

Growing nationalism and the emergence of the new scientific discipline of Eugenics set the stage for the increasingly political connotation of notions of race and hybridization that went beyond the solely evolutionary hierarchy.13 Scientific views on degeneration in connection with civilization led to political questions about the constitution and military fitness of the population. This development should not, however, be viewed as linear. It is also the product of an interchange between applications and questions regarding non-European and European peoples and races, for example, the interest in “isolated” communities and peoples nearing extinction in the non-European world as well as in Europe and even the scientists’ own countries. Questions regarding interbreeding between the “major races” in the colonies were transferred to the mixing of peoples and “tribes” within Europe.

The scientific endeavours of the interwar period followed international trends such as genetic studies. Family and twin studies were evaluated from an anthropological as well as a medical point of view. However large scale surveys and the geographical mapping of types continued to play an important part in racial studies. Serial observations still provided vital data about racial groupings and racial typology.14 Racial anthropology became a legitimate branch of physical anthropology and was considered by the international community as “normal science”.

The “science of race” (Rassenkunde) and racial hygiene began to be taught at the universities towards the end of the 19th century and in the first decades of the 20th century respectively. Anthropology and Rassenkunde were not forced upon Universities and Institutions like the Museum of Natural History by the Nazi regime. However Anthropology was one of the disciplines that flourished and was “politicised” under the Nazis. New institutions were founded, scientific projects increased and Anthropology as an applied science was promoted. This development was initiated predominantly by the anthropologists themselves out of professional concerns and scientific persuasion.15 Thus, it was precisely Anthropology that played an affirmative role, which should not be underestimated, in connection with the promotion of racial ideology during the Nazi period.

Chronology of the racial surveys and film documentation

The preserved documents of the research and data-collection activities conducted by the Natural History Museum in the Nazi period will be the primary source for Forgács’s installation at the Venice Biennale exhibition. The unedited footage, about 3 hours and 20 minutes long, came mainly from the Wolfsberg POW camp in Carinthia and the Kaisersteinbruch POW camp in Lower Austria. It also contains sequences from the racial surveys conducted in the Bohemian Forest in 1941 and in Hinterstoder in Upper Austria. Short sequences that Wastl had filmed of his own family were also found in the footage.16

The archival correspondence of the department reveals the first evidence of racial surveys of prisoners of war in November 1939.17 The beginning of the project was then being postponed, and was to start in January 1940. Already by the end of 1939 Josef Wastl had contacted his friend Albert Messany, an enthusiastic huntsman and travel writer. Wastl asked him to join the racial studies in order to make color footage of “the motion, iris, skin and hair color” (“Bewegungsphasen, Iris, Haut und Haarfarbe”) of Polish prisoners of war. Wastl emphasised the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to collect “material”, for him these documents would be of considerable value and would greatly enrich the holdings of the Museum.18 However, the collection of the accompanying film documentation started only in the summer of 1940.

For the racial surveys an anthropological commission of up to ten members drawn from the Natural History Museum was formed under the leadership of Josef Wastl. Detailed instructions were drawn up with Military District Command (Wehrkreiskommando) XVII, the responsible military doctor of which was involved. The studies received financial support from the Reichsstatthalter, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Reichsforschungsrat in Berlin.19

In January, August and from September till November 1940 the commission collected anthropometric data from over a thousand captured soldiers in the Kaisersteinbruch camp (Stalag XVII A). A POW camp had already been established there during the First World War, and its stone barracks were still standing. Until 1941 Kaisersteinbruch was one of the largest POW camps of World War II. In September 1940 over 40,000 prisoners were held there, the majority of them French.20 In January 1940 Josef Wastl and his team conducted measurements of Polish soldiers, later in the year they started on the French, amongst them soldiers from the French colonies. Jews were recorded as a separate group.

During the project the research design was improved continually. For instance, before data-collection actually started a three-member group visited the camp to inspect it. In 1941 Dr. Hans Kummerlöwe, director of State Museums, inspired the High Command of the German Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) in Berlin to give the museum group official status as a Wehrmacht commission for racial-anthropological studies in prisoner of war camps.21 But despite this attempt and preparations in 1941 the anthropological commission was unable to proceed with a further survey in a POW camp. During this year studies of the population in the Bohemian Forest and in Upper and Lower Austria were carried out. It was argued that these racial surveys were needed for comparison with earlier investigations in these areas as well as with the prisoner of war studies.22

In March 1941 Wastl travelled with his preparatory team to the Bohemian Forest Region, a part of the annexed territories of Sudetenland which had been incorporated in the Reichsgau Oberdonau. With the support of the Ortsgruppenleiter of the Nazi party racial surveys of families of entailed estates were carried out. Wastl filmed peasant life and locations and, as he put it, “selected types for cine film”.23

In the summer of the same year the anthropological commission convened for further investigations of residents in the village of Hinterstoder. Due to its geographical position Wastl considered the inhabitants of the valley as an endogamous population with minor migration. In Hinterstoder Wastl filmed families on farms and mothers in homes (Mütterheimen) run by the NS social health organisation (Nationalsozialistischen Volksfürsorge NSV). This campaign was promoted by the Nazi Party and the Office of Racial Policy (Rassenpolitischen Amt) of the Gau Oberdonau.24

In autumn 1941 the footage that had been shot so far was screened for the first time under the title “Racial Surveys of Prisoners of War: a Colour Film” (Rassenkundliche Untersuchungen an Kriegsgefangenen. Ein Farbfilm). Wastl and Messany presented it at a joint meeting of the Viennese Anthropological Society and the Viennese Racial Hygiene Society.25 (Anthropologischen Gesellschaft mit der Wiener Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene); at a meeting of members of the Reich Federation of German Civil Servants (Reichsbund deutscher Beamte, R.D.B) and at other events.26 At the same time, in November 1941, Wastl wrote a letter to Leo Schödl, editor of the Völkischen Beobachter, requesting him to publish a note on the recently shown ”racial film“. The request was rejected because of an earlier prohibition issued by the German Armed Forces which forbade publication of the report.27

In the following year, 1942, the racial surveys continued in the Wolfsberg POW Camp (Stalag XVIII A) in July and autumn. In 1941 the Oflag (Offizierslager) at Wolfsberg was reorganized as a Stalag (Stammlager), and many POWs from Kaisersteinbruch were transferred there. As in the other POW camps on Austrian territory, the French constituted the majority of the prisoners. Besides the French, a considerable number of British POWS were registered at Wolfsberg, representing the second largest group in the Stalag.28 This camp was chosen because the commission wanted to extend their research to include British prisoners of war. However, at Wolfsberg the commission was confronted with a number of difficulties. The beginning of the survey was delayed and it was no longer possible to have all the investigators temporarily exempted from military service. The British, and with them the Maori, New Zealand and Australian prisoners, refused to participate in the investigation on the grounds that it contravened the Hague Convention.29 Due to their employment for labour purposes fewer POWs were present in the camp and available for the racial studies.30

By the end of 1942 the heyday of the racial surveys was over. Nevertheless, Josef Wastl continued with his racial research and film project in Wolfsberg and in Hinterstoder. Once more, anthropometric studies were carried out on captured soldiers in the Kaisersteinbruch camp in June 1943.31 At this time, besides the French, prisoners from the Soviet Union and Serbia constituted the main national groups present in the camp.32

Measurements and Instruments: The Equipment

More than two hours of the footage consists of film-portraits of POWs and civilians, all of which follow the same pattern. For each sequence the subject had to follow a predefined procedure. At the beginning the subject is shown with his head turned to the right, then he slowly starts turning his head. As soon as the subject is looking directly into the camera he starts to speak. Since the films were made without audio recordings, one can only speculate about what the subject is saying; possibly his name and origin. Then he slowly continues to turn his head towards the left. At the beginning of each sequence a number is inserted, which refers to the records in the inventories. Wastl experimented with different conditions, for example daylight and artificial light. The standardized film sequences can be regarded as further evidence of Wastl’s deliberately scientific approach and are based on established anthropometric poses.

Standardized anthropometric portraits had been introduced in Anthropology in the 19th century with the aim of finding a method that would minimize errors of measurement and observation. Alphonse Bertillon had developed a system for standardized scaled photographs with a static camera and a chair in a fixed position. With certain modifications, the anthropometric system developed by Bertillion is still used by police departments for recording data about incriminated persons.33 During the POW studies in the First World War this two-part photographic system, consisting of a full front and full profile, had been extended by the addition of a three-quarter view of the subject by the Viennese anthropologist Rudolf Pöch.34 So-called “type photographs” were used to check up on the observations; they were considered of essential value in the process of classification and were used to identify and record the racial components thought to be present in a certain population.35

Wastl followed the strict instructions of his teacher Pöch and was eager to improve the techniques and methods by using new cameras and photographic materials. Orders and letters about the planned and realised acquisition of photographic and cinematic materials have been preserved. They document the difficulties that beset the purchase of photographic and cinematographic equipment; difficulties that were due not to lack of financial resources but to the strict regulations of the war economy. Nevertheless an assortment of cameras, lighting equipment and other photographic materials was purchased, as well as a measurement chair. Besides the three-part photographic records, photos of the naked body, details of the face and stereoscopic photographs in colour and black and white were made. Further special anthropometric instruments like spreading and sliding calipers, anthropometers, colour standards for skin, eyes and hair, fingerprint kits and equipment for making plaster casts were also acquired for the studies.36

The research design for the measurements involved the setting up of various stations. Each member of the anthropological commission was in charge of one station;37 soldiers and prisoners of war provided assistance. In addition to the ongoing surveys, indices and frequencies of the measurements were calculated and charts of distribution were worked out. The measurements and observations followed the instructions given in the textbook by Rudolf Martin as well as the standards developed by the anthropologists in Vienna.38

Although there may have been no significant difference in the methodology in other countries, in Nazi Germany and Austria racial ideology and anthropology became an important political instrument with regard to the treatment of minorities.

September 1939 a racial survey in the Vienna Stadium

The preserved documents of the Museum are of importance not only in relation to the historiography of anthropology, but also for the history of national socialist deportations and the systematic mass murder of the Jews. This can be exemplified by the fate of the Jews detained in the Vienna Stadium.

On 10th and 11th September 1939, directly after the start of the war, stateless and Polish Jews were arrested in Vienna following an order by the Chief of the Security Police, Reinhard Heydrich, within the framework of a Reich-wide action. At the same time a register of names was created for their wives and for children up to 16 years of age. Because the prisons were overcrowded, more than 1,000 men were interned in the Vienna Stadium, among them 125 residents of the rest home of the Vienna Jewish Community.39

In the week from September 24th to 30th, during the days of the Sukkot festival, an eight-member anthropological commission led by Josef Wastl came from the Natural History Museum to the stadium and took the measurements of 440 men. Almost all of the men were photographed; the anthropologists took hair samples from 105, and made face masks of 19.

On the same day as the measuring ended, the prisoners who hade been measured and the others were taken from the stadium to the Vienna Western train station. With the exception of a few men, who were released after a medical examination, they were deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp. One day after the deportation a friendly soccer match between a Viennese and a Budapest club took place at the stadium.

The prisoners arrived in Weimar on October 2. After traveling on foot from the train station, a march marked by severe abuse by the guard personnel, to the already overcrowded Buchenwald concentration camp, they were crammed together in a purpose-built special camp consisting of one prison hut and a few tents.40

Owing partly to an epidemic of dysentery, partly to hunger, extreme physical exhaustion, the catastrophic hygienic conditions and inadequate medical care, and partly to the advanced age of the prisoners, 318 of the 440 men who had been measured died in the first weeks and months of their imprisonment. This must be seen as one of the first mass murders committed by the Nazi regime on German Reich territory. After the breakup of the special camp in January and February 1940 due to the danger of further epidemics, the few survivors from Vienna were put into various blocks of the main camp. The subsequent fate of the 440 men measured in the stadium has been partially reconstructed: 16 were released in February 1940, among them Gershon Evan. 30 were murdered in early 1942 in the course of the so-called “Aktion 14f13” in the euthanasia-murder facilities at Bernburg/Saale, Sonnenstein/Pirna, and Schloss Hartheim. 26 were deported to Auschwitz in October 1942, in accordance with an order by Himmler that all the concentration camps on German soil should be made “free of Jews.” Eleven were liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp, 15 in one of the other concentration camps. The wives and children of many of the men who had been measured were deported from Vienna into ghettos and concentration camps and murdered there; some children survived with the help of the Refugee Children Movement (Kindertransport).41

Personal contact with survivors and relatives

In the course of the project Claudia Spring and I tried to portray the personal life histories of the men who were measured and their families, and by doing so to commemorate them and their stories. With the help of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) the Buchenwald Memorial, the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, and the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW), two men have been found who were measured as sixteen-year-olds, as well as a few surviving dependents of those men, who today live in Austria, the USA, and Israel.42

The numerous personal conversations, letters and telephone calls, but also documents such as postcards from the stadium, as well as personal chronicles, offer a glimpse into the stories of persecution, imprisonment, and the measuring that took place in the Vienna Stadium. This important information about the survivors and their relatives enabled us to make a partial reconstruction of the events, and at the same time it informed discussions about how the museum collections could be dealt with in future. For survivors and their relatives, the documents and artifacts found in the Natural History Museum are personal memories. For the Natural History Museum, however, they are a part of the institution’s own history and a carry an obligation to disseminate history: as the last evidence of Nazi crimes they should make a contribution to education and to the preservation of collective memory.43

One of the survivors we met was Gershon Evan, formally Gustav Pimselstein. He was 16 years old when he was picked as a research subject in the stadium by the anthropological commission. He still remembers being measured and having his face mask made. In his autobiography, which was published in 2000, he describes his feelings as an involuntary “scientific research object:”

“For a few days, our daily routine was interrupted. High-ranking SS officers in the company of "scientists," as the rumor had it, appeared. They walked through our quarters, looked us over as if we were some extraordinary specimens, and then names of individuals were registered, mine included. The purpose of the registration became known a little while later. The first few men on the list were called and then taken away. When they returned, we found the answer; "racial research." The Nazis were obsessed with studies of race and breeding. In our case, presumably, they wanted to find out how close we came, or how remote we were, from what they believed a Jew should look like. It was an insane project they relentlessly pursued. For "scientific" studies of this kind, a great variety of subjects were essential, and Jews offered the best assortment. Although the more than 1,000 prisoners concentrated in one place provided a splendid supply of different types, I doubt the researchers found the stereotypical Jew the Nazi press displayed in their perverse cartoons. Many faces with "characteristic" features certainly were among us. Countenances varied from "Nordic" to "Semitic", from straight, blonde hair to curly black hair. Out of this mixture of men individuals were selected and I was among them. Then came my turn. I was taken to a room whose furniture consisted of a chair and two tables. Tools covered one tabletop; the other one had just one small pillow. A camera mounted on a tripod stood in front of a wall that was partly covered by a large, white sheet. Had I not known what to expect, the instruments would have given me the creeps. A man in a white coat, the only person in the room, received me in a friendly manner, and throughout the performing of his work tried to set my mind at ease. Against the white sheet as a background, my face was photographed from the front and side; then my name, age, and additional background information was recorded. Subsequently the man entered the color of my hair, eyebrows, and eyes as well as the complexion of my skin. While he picked the tools to measure the length and width of my nose, ears, lips and eyebrows, I glanced at the cluttered table. Among the calipers, rulers, and unfamiliar things were a metal bowl, spatulas of different sizes, narrow flat sticks, a jar of water, and towels. A bag of plaster of Paris, its top torn open, leaned against the leg of the table. Then, as far as I was concerned, came the main feature, the highlight of my contribution to the research. It seemed only fitting to me that I was able to contradict the stereotypes the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer tried to convey to the Germans: the Jew with the big, fleshy hooked nose and the thick, protruding lips. My head on the pillow, I stretched out on the table and closed my eyes. The man advised me to relax, while he coated my face with a greasy substance. He applied it from the top of my forehead down to the throat and from ear to ear. The lubricant, he explained, was to prevent the hardened plaster of Paris from sticking to my skin. He instructed me to breathe naturally through my nose and not move once he started to apply the mixture. I heard scraping sounds as he stirred powder and water to the right consistency in the bowl, and then felt the creamy paste being spread over my face. From time to time he used the narrow, flat stick to keep the passage to my nostrils open. Eerie emotions and thoughts passed through my head as I waited for the plaster to harden. Perhaps I imagined it, but the soft mixture seemed to get heavier as it turned into a mask. After quite a while the man loosened the hardened cast by wiggling it from side to side. When he lifted it carefully off my face it did not hurt. The only sensation was a suction-cup effect. I would have loved to find out how I fit into their statistics. For all I know, my mask and personal details may still exist in some crates in a storage room somewhere in Germany. Before I left, he smilingly handed me a cigarette. A precious gift for a smoker, but hardly one for me. At least I made one fellow prisoner happy.”44

In May 2003, 64 years after the “racial science” measurements had been collected, Gershon Evan, formally Gustav Pimselstein, came with his daughter and son from the USA to Vienna. Claudia Spring, a historian, and I guided them through the Department. I felt anxious and nervous about what would happen when I confronted somebody with his face modeled in plaster after more than 60 years. In the Natural History Museum Gershon Evan took his face mask for the first time in his hands with the following words: “I never believed that my mask was in Vienna. I always thought it was Germans who did that.” He continued: “I called it a death mask because a plaster mask of a face was made only of famous people like Beethoven. Later someone told me, it’s a face mask, as if that were different. For me it is a death mask!” For Gershon Evan there was no question about where his mask should be: “I want my mask to stay in the Natural History Museum.”