Scientific "objectivity" is moulded by contemporaneous general conditions. That is the central finding of a research project conducted by the Department of Anthropology of the Museum of Natural History in Vienna. In the scope of this work, the fate of 440 Jews abused as research objects in September 1939 was documented and analysed. As the project shows, the anthropological study conducted at the time was meant as the proof for the "racial" differentness of Jews. With this finding, the project aided by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) contributes a critical angle to look at the history of science.
The idea of "racial" differentness of the Jews was already wide-spread in anthropology before the National Socialists (Nazi) came to power. However, it is only after the emergence of the totalitarian Nazi regime that this idea came to be supported by the ideology of the rulers. In a recently concluded study led by Professors Maria Teschler-Nicola and Karl Stuhlpfarrer, the interdependency of science and Nazi ideology in Austria was analysed by examining the research activities of that time conducted by the anthropological department of the Museum of Natural History in Vienna. For the purpose of the study, unpublished archival records of research conducted on imprisoned Jews were schematized and analysed.
"Science" on Humans
With the cooperation of Dr. Margit Berner, Dr. Verena Pawlowsky and Claudia Spring MA, the project mainly recorded the fate of 440 male Jews who were declared stateless and arrested in the Vienna stadium in September 1939. They were known to have been deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp and to figure among the first victims of the Nazi regime's systematic mass murder, but they were not known to have been degraded to anthropological research objects. Now, the research team has substantiated that the Jews were examined in detail. Dr. Josef Wastl, the head of the anthropological department at that time, along with an eight-member commission, surveyed many of the detainees and collected biographical data, measurements of growth and build, hair samples, plaster cast masks and photographs.
Though Dr. Wastl and his colleagues immediately began the statistical evaluation of the extensive material, the work was never concluded and published.
Collection of Scientific Material
The survey materials remain in the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, and therewith remains the responsibility to deal with this past. A responsibility the present project team now took on for a completely different reason than for critical-scientific interest. "These people were debased to research objects. With this work we have endeavoured, as much as possible, to restore a part of their individuality and thus their dignity," explains Dr. Berner who together with Mrs. Spring traced the detainees' fate. For this purpose, contacts were established with survivors and surviving family members and actually the team was able to locate two men, who as 16 year-olds were analysed by Dr. Wastl. One of them lives in Vienna again and the other came for a visit in May 2003 at the invitation of the Museum of Natural History, the City of Vienna and the Jewish Welcome Service. Moreover, 20 surviving family members were contacted and were informed, on request, of the results of the research project concerning their relatives. Also handed over were copies of the remaining documents and, probably their last, photos.
"It is important not only for the current times that we know and understand what has happened to these people then," says Dr. Berner, "but also it is significant for the history and the self-perception of anthropology to recognise how political currents mould the essential orientation of a science." Lastly, the findings of this FWF-aided project appear to have significance not only for anthropology, but for the self-perception of all sciences in modern society.
Prof. Maria Teschler-Nicola
Anthropological Department, Museum of Natural History Vienna
A-1040 Vienna, Austria
T +43 1 521 77239
Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt
PR&D - Public Relations for Research & Development
Campus Vienna Biocenter 2
A-1030 Vienna, Austria
T +43 1 505 70 44
Vienna, December 13, 2004