The Atlantic interviews Harvard geneticist David Reich, one of the anthropologists whose DNA-influenced work is revolutionizing human history. He relates this interesting anecdote:
Reich: Archaeology has always been political, especially in Europe. Archaeologists are very aware of the misuse of archaeology in the past, in the 20th century. There’s a very famous German archaeologist named Gustaf Kossinna, who was the first or one of the first to come up with the idea of “material culture.” Say, you see similar pots, and therefore you’re in a region where there was shared community and aspects of culture.
He went so far as to argue that when you see the spread of these pots, you’re actually seeing a spread of people and there’s a one-to-one mapping for those things. His ideas were used by the Nazis later, in propaganda, to argue that a particular group in Europe, the Aryans, expanded in all directions across Europe. He believed that the region where these people’s material culture was located is the natural homeland of the Aryan community, and the Germans were the natural inheritors of that. This was used to justify their expansionism in the propaganda that the Germans used in the run-up to the Second World War.
So after the Second World War, there was a very strong reaction in the European archaeological community—not just the Germans, but the broad continental European archaeological community—to the fact that their discipline had been used for these terrible political ends. And there was a retreat from the ideas of Kossinna.
Zhang: You actually had German collaborators drop out of a study because of these exact concerns, right? One of them wrote, “We must(!) avoid … being compared with the so-called ‘siedlungsarchäologie Method’ from Gustaf Kossinna!”
Reich: Yeah, that’s right. I think one of the things the ancient DNA is showing is actually the Corded Ware culture does correspond coherently to a group of people. [Editor’s note: The Corded Ware made pottery with cord-like ornamentation and according to ancient DNA studies, they descended from steppe ancestry.] I think that was a very sensitive issue to some of our coauthors, and one of the coauthors resigned because he felt we were returning to that idea of migration in archaeology that pots are the same as people. There have been a fair number of other coauthors from different parts of continental Europe who shared this anxiety.
So, instead of allowing modern, reliable scientific techniques to improve our understanding of human origins and modern population patterns, German scientists back out — because the results might tangentially lend support to a theory which was propounded by a man who died before Hitler even took power, but whose theories were cited by prominent Nazis.
The issue of whether Kossinna was right on the science doesn’t come up.
This is a good example of what I call, for lack of a better term, the Diffuse Fascist Association Problem (DFAP). Of course, it’s found in its most intense form in Germany, which had the most intense form of Fascism.
The mechanism of DFAP is simple: At one point, National Socialists became interested in some aspect of scientific inquiry, public policy, and/or culture. This represents the Original Sin, the taint, the ideological infection. Over the decades since World War II, this area of science, policy, or culture changes drastically: the laws have changed, the original generation of scientists or composers or officials is long-dead, German society has been revolutionized in ways which would have been inconceivable in 1935.
Yet the taint still exists — but it is now diffuse and unfocused, like a tattoo on someone who’s gained 100 pounds. It still pops up in the most unexpected areas, sometimes inhibiting sensible policies. A few examples:
- Because the Nazis deported millions of innocent people, many German citizens, from the territory of Germany, deportation, as a whole, has a DFAP problem. In fact, you cannot even used the word “deportation” in German. So Germany has the most lax deportation laws of any country, even though now, no German citizen can possibly be deported under German law, and there are large numbers of illegal immigrants to Germany whose asylum claims have been denied. Any other country would and does deport these people as a matter of course, but Germany still has a DFAP problem with the very concept of deportation, so it permits hundreds of thousands of these people to remain in Germany for no reason.
- Because German policies during World War II created large numbers of people who needed political asylum because they were in imminent danger of being imprisoned or murdered for no legitimate reason by the National Socialist regime, Germany adopted Art. 16 of its post-war constitution, which promised every human on earth a personal right of political asylum in Germany. Merely mentioning the word “asylum” automatically grants an illegal immigrant to Germany the right to start a long and expensive court proceeding to determine their eligibility for political asylum. The policy proved to be so lenient, and subject to abuse, that Germany completely overhauled its constitution in the early 1990s to restrict the process and improve its integration with European law. Yet it is still unwieldy and bureaucratic.
- Germany euthanized the mentally ill against their will, without their families’ consent, during the notorious T4 program. Therefore, euthanasia has a DFAP problem, even though it is now inconceivable that anyone would be euthanized in Germany under these conditions. It’s possible to disapprove euthanasia for logical policy reasons, and some Germans do, but debate on this issue in Germany is routinely shut down with a simple hand-waving reference to history.
- Because the Nazis were interested in intelligence measurement, the general consensus in Germany is that IQ testing is, in and of itself, immoral. Opponents also claim it is inaccurate and misleading, just to try to warn off anyone who might be interested in it. The entire field is radioactive, and few German scholars and researchers are prominent within it. This means that the debate about human intelligence in Germany is decades behind where it is in the Anglo-Saxon world. The majority of educated Germans still thinks that IQ tests are inherently biased and tell us nothing valuable, simply because that’s the consensus which developed in the 1970s, and most Germans are uninterested in updating it, or are afraid to do so.
- Both the National Socialist and East German regimes created vast, intrusive internal surveillance and spying bureaucracies with nary a thought to personal autonomy or privacy. As a result, there is still a vocal minority of Germans who are militantly opposed to installing video surveillance cameras in high-crime areas, even though this is a proven, safe, effective, and cheap crime-fighting tool used routinely in other countries. Although the attitudes of ordinary Germans have changed — 79% now favor more video surveillance (g) — the dedicated opposition of the people who oppose it has often prevailed. The situation is like gun control in the USA: Most Americans favor it in the abstract, but it’s not a high priority for them. The minority of people who oppose it oppose it fiercely — and in a democracy, a policy favored by a fanatical minority will usually win if the majority’s opposition is unfocussed and half-hearted. The same goes for using rapidly-advancing DNA technology to create profiles of suspects in serious violent crimes: this is illegal under German law, believe it or not.
The example of deportation and video surveillance also involve another aspect of DFAP: bureaucratic inertia. Even when a policy is now legal and permitted, if there is still a controversial DFAP “taint” to it, it is likely to be implemented only slowly and partially, if at all.
In order to deport someone, for example, many officials, from judges to bureaucrats to government purchasing agents (who need to buy the plane tickets or charter the flight) to social-welfare workers to police, all have to work together to make it happen. The process requires active support and coordination, and is only as strong as its weakest link. Since there is an inherent tendency to be skeptical of deportation among some of these people (especially government officials and social workers), it’s not regarded as a catastrophe if a deportation doesn’t come about. Nobody is held accountable for failed or stalled deportation proceedings, and the risk of deporting someone wrongfully is considered much more important than the risk of trying but failing to deport someone who has no right to be in the country.
The same thing is true of video surveillance: Even when police and local leaders decide that cameras should be installed in high-traffic public areas, they quickly become outmoded, delivering videos too blurry to be useful (g), and are subject to dozens of restrictions on how they can be used. When it comes time to update them to the latest technology, that will mean yet another fight with the dedicated, unpersuadable opponents of video surveillance (g), so the process will again take months, if not years. Who wants all the hassle and aggravation? As with deportations, no one specific person will be held accountable if the policy fails: if a camera was pointed at the location of a murder but had been broken for months because nobody bothered to fix it, nobody will get in trouble, since Germans have been conditioned to (1) not expect video surveillance to help solve crimes, and (2) not demand personal accountability from civil servants.
To be fair, there are many positive effects of the DFAP. Germany has enshrined human rights and human dignity in its constitution, is extremely wary of deploying troops, has robust free-speech protections, and has eliminated the death penalty. I find these policies admirable. But all of these can be maintained while we trim away the most problematic excrescences of DFAP.