A dark and complex past

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.

Link to English-language coverage of discovery.
Link to Oyuela-Caycedo’s Spanish-language presentation.
Link to Spanish-language coverage from Arcadia magazine.

18 thoughts on “A dark and complex past”

  1. Great story. Is this a new type of mystery, digging into someone’s past to find out if they were good or evil? I think people assume that others have a consistent rather than disparate value system.

  2. This type of flip-flop is not unknown. St. Paul is the obvious example. Since I try to avoid moralizing, I’d say that a person’s contribution should be judged on the basis of the contribution itself.

  3. I don’t find that all too surprising. Like many others, it was precisely my time in the military that shaped my anti-war and anti-imperialism views I have today.

  4. First I want to thank you Vaughan for your extraordinary and prolific sharing of knowledge and culture. I am a psychologist whom works and teaches in Hawaii. Your blogs have helped fuel many interesting debates in my classes…

    Reading this blog several thoughts were quickly summoned:

    1.) The lucifer effect (Zimbardo’s work) and/or what David Eagleman/ other neuroscientists call syndrome E
    2.) In 1936 (year of crisis) he was 24 without a completely formed frontal lobe.
    3.) To go from that high of a position and then have a “crisis”, then instantly join the other side, probably just means some metacognition and morality kicked in…
    4.) Having traveled extensively in South America and engaged in many native ceremonies, I am completely aware of how certain medicines can take a wrecking ball through previously held schema.
    5.) I wish he was a live today to tell of his transformation…

    Although this information is extremely dark and interesting, people can change and are largely a product or their environment. This does not taint his work for me; to me it shows the awesome ability of humans to transcend a dark past and create a meaningful future.

  5. Minor point I wish I’d caught earlier….there was no French Resistance in 1936-39. Fall of France wasn’t until 22 June 1940.

    Is it possible revisionist history is being applied here?

    1. The Arcadia article notes that “In 1937, he arrived in France and joined the anti-Hitler French resistance led by Paul Rivet, creator of the Museum of Man”. This BBC article notes that “furthermore, during the Second World War, the researcher [Reichel-Dolmatoff] was an active member of the organisation the Free French in Colombia (the anti-Hitler French resistance) which led to him being decorated with the National Order of Merit by the French government”. I suspect the first organisation was this which was the forerunner of the French Resistance proper. My translation of both quotes.

    2. Yes, it is a error, that some people are making, I am not sure why. He was secretary of the Free France in Bogota, Colombia from 1942 to 1943.

  6. The mental episode: Reichel himself mentioned “incapicating headaches” that led to his expulsion from the SS. Then there’s a dark year (the nazis were searching for him) that he might have spent in Hungary, before arriving in Paris. So, no proof of a conversion process, but it could have been one. And doesn’t the fact that he published those diary extracts in an anti-Hitler (though Strasser-nazi) journal under the title of “Confessions of a Gestapo murderer” show some repentance?

  7. Do you see a taint in his later work anywhere? Anybody?

    At a guess, I think he’s already redeemed himself. Except, of course, in the minds of those “civilised” people who seem to believe that being on the wrong side once taints one forevermore. People who tell a harrowing tale of erring and repenting, ending with what looks suspiciously like a rhetorical question.

  8. Sounds like a classic example of a conversion experience. We see a lot of them on the American Right – former Communists who have a conviction-shattering fall from the radical faith, and then end up the most fierce of movement conservatives. They usually retain the same personality traits and polemical habits which they developed on the radical Left.

    And people who have difficulty reconciling these “first a Nazi, then a respected member of the institutional Left” cases – of which there are many – are suffering the cognitive dissonance which comes from misunderstanding the early radical-political appeal of parties like the National Socialists. Although Reichel-Dolmatoff having participated in the Hitlerite purge known as “the Night of the Long Knives” argues against him being an active or witting part of the Nazi left wing… Still, 1937 is remarkably early for an ex-Nazi to have undergone the red-washing process & joined the anti-fascist Left. I actually find it harder to *not* see a political aspect to his whatever-the-hell-it-was.

  9. I am looking for Rene Reichel, son of Gerardo and Alicia. Does anyone have any idea where he might be? And how I could get in touch with him?

    1. Hi KC, My husband and I were friends of Rene in the middle 1970’s in Victoria, BC, Canada and have lost touch with him. We would appreciate any assistance in finding him! Thank you!! Laurie

      1. Yes, the last time I heard from him he was in Canada. I wonder if he went back to Colombia? If I hear anything, I’ll let you know. Please let me know if you do. Thanx, KC

  10. I grew up with dr. Reichels son Rene. My family were close friends. I knew them very well, but have lost track over the years. He was a great anthropologist. One of my favorite works was “people of Aritama”. I would like to know what happened to Rene.

  11. We still have not been able to find Rene. If there is any info available as to his whereabouts, we would really appreciate it!

    Thank you!
    PS Rene would have known us with last name of White.

  12. Rene Reichel the son of Gerardo is in Bogota, he suffers of mental health issues (schizophrenia)an lives under care in a mental institution.

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