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An anthropologist's past steps out of the shadows

Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, one of Colombia's best-known anthropologists, was seen as something of an Indiana Jones. Now a darker element has been added to his persona.

November 13, 2012|By Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times
  • A 1957 photo shows Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff flanked by his wife, Alicia, and Clifford Evans of the Smithsonian Institution.
A 1957 photo shows Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff flanked by his wife, Alicia,… (Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo )

BOGOTA, Colombia — The recent revelation of the secret Nazi past of one of Colombia's best-known anthropologists — and onetime visiting professor at UCLA — has shaken academic circles here to their core.

To many scholars, the late Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff was a charismatic Indiana Jones-like character, admired for his exploration of isolated Indian communities in the Andes, the jungles of the Panamanian isthmus and the northern Guajira Peninsula desert, places others had feared to tread.

The native Austrian, who immigrated to Colombia in 1939, was famed for his influential studies of indigenous communities and for his highly readable books on the unusual stone statues of Colombia's most important archaeological zone, San Agustin.

But Reichel-Dolmatoff, who died in 1994, apparently had a dark past to hide — as a member of the Austrian Nazi party and of Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, the Fuehrer's private army and death squad, which killed scores of rival Nazis in a June 1934 purge known as the Night of the Long Knives.

According to a diary fragment that historians have identified as Reichel-Dolmatoff's, he was also stationed at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, which set the template for Hitler's murderous gulag.

"What this whole affair has shown us is that there were many things in his life we thought we knew but which now are not so clear," said Carlos Uribe, head of the anthropology department at Bogota's University of the Andes, a department that Reichel-Dolmatoff and his anthropologist wife, Alicia, founded in 1964.

"He was an expert at covering his steps, a chameleon," Uribe said, adding that Reichel-Dolmatoff, as an academic, was a champion of cultural diversity and indigenous philosophies, and in the 1970s was a visiting professor at UCLA's Latin American Institute.

The revelation about Reichel-Dolmatoff's past has provoked heated discussions among former students and colleagues, and letters to local newspapers defending him. Some say those pursuing the matter are unnecessarily raking up the past and upsetting his aged widow, who has not commented on the scandal.

One such defender is Michael Nauenberg, a physics professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, whose German Jewish parents immigrated to Colombia a step ahead of the Gestapo in 1939 and were friends of the anthropologist. He says the diary must be more thoroughly analyzed before Nazi claims can be confirmed.

Until then, investigators should applaud his work, not cast aspersions "over his grave," Nauenberg said in an emailed comment from Santa Cruz.

Reichel-Dolmatoff wasn't as notorious as the Nazis who fled to South America after World War II, such as Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele or Holocaust overseer Adolf Eichmann. He apparently was a low-level rabble-rouser who was kicked out of the SS in 1936 for insubordination.

But his SS activities in the early 1930s might have made him subject to deportation from Colombia had they become known, said University of Florida anthropologist Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo, a Colombian academic who "outed" the eminent author in a paper presented in July at a conference in Vienna.

"We cannot advance as a human society if we hide criminal actions of individuals, no matter how many books or inventions or contributions they have made," Oyuela-Caycedo said in a telephone interview from Gainesville, Fla.. "We should know the total reality of someone before evaluating those contributions."

Once an admirer and friend who knew the author during his student days in Colombia, Oyuela-Caycedo began looking into Reichel-Dolmatoff's past intending to write his biography.

But clues to his early life, about which Reichel-Dolmatoff rarely spoke in any detail, slowly led Oyuela-Caycedo to the conclusion that he had been not just a Nazi but a member of the SS, the black-uniformed henchmen who killed, assaulted and extorted money from political and racial targets in Hitler's name.

The crucial finds in his research were excerpts from a diary Reichel-Dolmatoff apparently wrote after his SS expulsion and later published in a dissident journal in 1937.

The diary gave details of his early life that meshed with what was already known about him. It also described his SS activities, including participation in the death squads that killed Hitler's former comrade Ernst Roehm and scores of other Nazis in June 1934.

Oyuela-Caycedo got help from German colleagues Soeren Flachowsky and Holger Stoecker, both history professors at Humboldt University in Berlin, who confirmed Reichel-Dolmatoff's SS membership after locating his file in the German state archives and found another published fragment of the diary.

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