Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Did a Great Colombian Hide a Nazi Past?

Gerardo Reichel, during his second life. 

Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff holds a well-earned place in Colombian academics.

After emigrating here in 1939 he pioneered research on indigenous peoples throughout the country. In 1946, he and his wife Alicia Dussan founded the Ethnological Institute of the Magdalena and in 1963 they founded Colombia's first department of anthropology, at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. Reichel-Dolmatoff was also a member of the Colombian and United States academies of science, received many awards and wrote an astonishing 33 books and hundreds of scientific articles, according to his Wikipedia entry. Reichel-Dolmatoff is, deservedly, called the 'father of Colombian anthropology'.

However, if research by a Colombian academic working for a United States university is accurate, the Austrian-born Reichel-Dolmatoff, who died in 1994, was also hiding a horrific past. 

Prof. Oyuela-Caycedo motions to a photo of Nazi
leaders during his talk at the Americanists conference.
(Image from YouTube)
There had previously been hints of links to the Nazis in Reichel-Dolmatoff's youth in Austria, but they were apparently ignored or brushed off as attacks by his enemies. However, in preparation for the 54th International Congress of Americanists, held in July 2012 in Vienna, Austria, University of Florida Associate Prof. of Anthropology Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo began researching the youth of Reichel-Dolmatoff, under whom he had studied. Presumably, the Colombian-born Oyuela-Caycedo expected to fill in some gaps and produce yet another laudatory piece about this 'great man of Colombian academia.'

But, instead, what Oyuela-Caycedo found, with the assistance of researchers in Germany, has threatened the legacy of Reichel-Dolmatoff and perhaps even shaken the foundation of Colombian anthropology.

'The German Revolution,' a dissident Nazi newspaper
 which published alleged extracts from
Reichel-Dolmatoff's diary. (Image from YouTube)
Poring thru pre-World War II newspapers, old Bundestag records and even the Nazi Party's own documents, Oyuela-Caycedo and the Geman researchers compiled strong documentary evidence that the Reichel-Dolmatoff who accomplished great things for Colombian science had between the ages of 14 and 25, been a member of the Nazi Party and the SS, murdered Hitler's enemies and  trained guards at the notorious Dachau Concentration Camp. Oyuela-Caycedo's talk at the Americanists Conference is here, in Spanish, on YouTube.

In his talk, Oyuela-Caycedo read a chilling account, allegedly copied by dissident Nazis from Reichel-Dolmatoff's own diary, describing Reichel-Dolmatoff gunning down of an old man in 1934 during the 'Night of the Long Knives,' the mass murders of Hitler's opponents in the German government. The next year, Reichel-Dolmatoff worked as a guard and trained other guards in the notorious Dachau Concentration Camp, the model for Hitler's system of mass murder, according to Oyuela-Caycedo.

The current issue of Arcadia
magazine reports the story.
But in 1936 Reichel-Dolmatoff suffered something of a nervous breakdown and was briefly institutionalized, Oyuela-Caycedo found. Soon after, Reichel-Dolmatoff was declared 'inapt' to serve in the SS. The current edition of the magazine Arcadia reports that Reichel-Dolmatoff left the SS complaining of head pains. By 1937, Reichel-Dolmatoff was living and studying in France and working with anti-Nazi organizations, according to Arcadia (but the German researchers found no evidence of such anti-Nazi activities). In 1940, Oyuela-Caycedo found, the Nazi Party expelled and blacklisted Reichel-Dolmatoff.

The story seems incredible. But Oyuela-Caycedo found so many coincidences of time and place between the Reichel-Dolmatoff who was an outstanding anthropologist and the Nazi killer with the same name that his case is solid.

"It hurts me to read this," Oyuela-Caycedo says during his talk, "because I knew Gerardo Reichel."

My lingering doubts about whether this was the same Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff were mostly cleared away by one line in the Arcadia article: Reichel-Dolmatoff's family had no response to the findings. That suggests that they have reason to believe the account's truthfulness.

A notice issued by the Nazi party seeking
Reichel-Dolmatoff  after he had left Germany.
The story invites reflections about human nature: how malleable and changeable and even unprincipled it can be - concepts which perhaps influenced Reichel-Dolmatoff's own anthropology researches. It also makes me ask what drove Reichel-Dolmatoff out of the SS - was it a core of decency, a kind of weakness of will, or an inability to tolerate terrible crimes? Did he invent his headaches to leave the organization? Certainly, his later anti-Nazi activities and even his studies of Colombia's decidedly non-Aryan indigenous peoples were rejections of everything that Naziism stood for. 

Did Reichel-Dolmatoff leave his family an autobiography to be released 50 years after his death? We can only hope so. It would be yet another contribution to science and the study of man. But we can also regret that Reichel-Dolmatoff kept this part of his life story secret. Perhaps his turn from darkness to light could have provided answers for resolving Colombia's own conflict.  

El Tiempo interviewed two German researchers who are reconstructing the history of Reichel-Dolmatoff and other participants in the Nazi Party. They don't believe that Reichel-Dolmatoff left the movement for ideological or moral reasons, but simply because he came from an elite background and didn't feel comfortable among the Nazi soldiers, who were mostly unsophisticated men. They found no evidence of repentance in his writings or of his reported work for the anti-Nazi resistance.

The researchers don't find Reichel-Dolmatoff's dramatic transformation from apparent Nazi killer to respected humanist at all surprising: they've seen many such cases.

To me, it's yet another indication of the plasticity of human nature. Reichel-Dolmatoff was clearly an intelligent, dynamic person. But he just as easily conformed in a group of vicious murderers as in an elite academic environment.

"We are German historians and are accustomed to cases such as this one and even more jarring ones. We understand that Reichel's history in Germany has caused stupor in Colombia because of his later career. But here it is just one more such case among many," researcher Holger Stoecker told El Tiempo.

Related posts:

Shoa Remembrance in Bogotá

German Immigrants in Colombia

The Sinking of the Resolute

Karl Buchholz, Brave Bookseller

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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