In a story that could be the plot for a film, one of the world’s pioneering anthropologists has been found to have been a member of both the Nazi SS and the French resistance during the Second World War.
Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff retains legendary status in anthropology and particularly in Colombia, where he first lived with many of the country’s remote indigenous people during the 1950s and 60s and founded the first department of anthropology. He died in 1994 but his legend has only grown since his passing.
In many ways, the classic image of the anthropologist was shaped by Reichel-Dolmatoff. He lived with remote communities to learn the language and worldviews of previously unknown societies. He trekked through jungles and participated in the hallucinatory ceremonies of local religions. He pioneered the archaeology not of the giant civilization, but of the lost peoples of specific valleys and mountain ridges.
He was actually born in Austria but talked little about his past. This is not surprising in the light of new revelations.
Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, has been researching the background of this legendary figure but found far more than the echo of myth.
If you speak Spanish you can watch his recent conference presentation. But even if you don’t, you can see it has a power absent from most academic talks.
Oyuela-Caycedo began his investigation as a tribute to his friend and mentor only to discover a grim past well documented in the Nazi archives. At one point in the presentation, he is brought to tears as he reads a description of how the yet-to-be Austrian anthropologist murders an old man with a pistol.
It turns out that Reichel-Dolmatoff was a member of both the Nazi Party and the SS, in the personal guard of Hitler himself and a participant in Gestapo death squads. He later trained guards in the Dachau Concentration Camp.
In light of his subsequent life in Colombia, it would be easy to chalk this up as another bitter tale of a Nazi who escaped justice to the anonymity of Latin America, but Reichel-Dolmatoff did not seem to make the typical Nazi exit from Europe. He had what is vaguely described as a ‘mental crisis’ in 1936 and was declared unfit for the SS and publicly expelled from the Nazi party.
Curiously, he turned up immediately afterwards working for the anti-Hitler resistance in France and continued to support the French resistance after he arrived in Colombia in 1939, to the point where he was eventually awarded the National Order of Merit by the French president.
Reichel-Dolmatof’s subsequent anthropological work is completely devoid of Nazi overtones – no hints of eugenics or ‘racial hygiene’ – and throughout his life he attempted to demonstrate the amazing diversity of the native peoples of Colombia, the Amazon and the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The case raises a number of difficult questions. The nature of Reichel-Dolmatof’s ‘mental crisis’ remains completely obscure. As the Spanish-language magazine Arcadia asks – how did a young Nazi end up working in Colombia for a Hitler resistance movement? Was it a crisis of conscious or something more opportunistic?
But perhaps more important is the question of whether Reichel-Dolmatof can ever redeem himself. Is his life and his work now forever tainted? Does his good work drown under the tide of his dark and vicious past?
It may have been a question he asked himself many times.