Fighting Over the Goths

30 March 2012, 11:00

Appeals to “a historical right” were and remain a frequently used tool in politics. At the turn of the century, a new genre appeared in this field – “wars waged on archaeological maps.” It turned out to be very tempting to link the “bounty” of archaeological excavations with some ancient people and thus justify one's own claim to “ancestral lands.” Academic battles over the Goths are a vivid example of this type of “war” and reveal the ideological underpinnings of two superpowers pitted against each other – first the “old empires” of Russia and Germany and later their successors.


The doctrine of “Gothicism,” whose main tenets are that the Goths were the most ancient Germanic people to have their own state and that they brought the “light of culture” to numerous barbarians in Central  and Eastern Europe originated in Sweden in the late Middle Ages. By the 17th century and through the 18th, “Gothicism” was actively exploited by Swedish kings, and subsequently became part of the German national project in the 19th century. At the turn of the century, archaeological “evidence” was added to historical facts in this doctrine.

Kyiv resident Vikentiy Khvoika excavated fields with burial places near the villages of Romashky and Cherniakhiv in Kyiv Oblast in 1899-1901. He found the first materials of a distinct culture dating back to the time of the late Roman Empire which has since been called the Cherniakhiv culture. Khvoika was quick to incorporate these findings into his own vision of the ancient history of Dnipro Region in which all settled agriculture populations in what later became the core of Kyivan Rus' reflected various chronological stages of the progress of Eastern Slavs.

Initially, German academic circles reacted to the findings in Kyiv Oblast without any hidden agenda. One of the loudest academic “mouthpieces” in early 20th-century archaeology was Gustaf Kossinna, the founder of “settlement archaeology” and an ardent promoter of the Nordic peoples as “carriers of culture.” His theory also incorporated racist points about the “anthropologically defined” cultural supremacy of North Indo-Germans. His works emphasised the civilising role of the Goths on the population of Eastern Europe. Not surprisingly, the results obtained by this “classic” scholar and his students were later actively incorporated into Nazi propaganda.

The level of debate on the part of soviet scholars was not much different. To “impudent Nazi allegations” they replied not with thorough analysis of historical data and archaeological materials but with theoretical constructs that lacked real evidence.


The closer the war loomed, the more the ideological component of the Gothic issue gained prominence. It maintained its influence even in conditions of relative “propaganda peace” after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Nazis had a fairly well-founded programme for establishing a new order after conquering Lebensraum in the East. This programme included intensive propaganda and the search for material evidence to prove the Germans’ “historical right” to these territories and evidence of “the supremacy of the German Aryan culture” at all times. Gothic heritage featured prominently in these far-reaching plans. Crimea was to become the restored capital of the Crimean Goths, Gotengau, with Gotenburg (Simferopol) as the capital and Theoderichshafen (Sevastopol) as its main sea port.

Both the military and the civilian administrations oversaw the archaeological search for Gothic heritage. The civilian side was governed by Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories Alfred Rosenberg. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) unit operated since 1939 and had the authority to expropriate any objects of cultural value.

The Ahnenerbe society was the leading research organisation in the territories administered by the military. It was a kind of academy of sciences in the SS and had the mission of furnishing scientific evidence to buttress the claim to racial superiority and to popularise “scientific findings” in the area.

While they did not manage to carry out full-fledged excavations in the Crimea, the Nazis did loot several museums on the peninsula. Hundreds of boxes with card catalogues, books, archival documents and fund collections were taken out.

Another “research centre” of the occupation authorities was Dnipropetrovsk. In the summer and autumn of 1942, historical monuments from various epochs located in the Dnipropetrovsk Arc (from Kremenchuk to Nikopol) were thoroughly studied under the guidance of Rudolf Stampfuss and Walter Modrian. Over 1,000 items from these excavations were made part of the exposition in the Gothic room in Dnipropetrovsk, and 57 boxes with findings were shipped to the Reich.

Stampfuss’ energetic activities culminated in the book Germans in Ukraine published in Berlin in late 1942. It featured numerous photos of graves and tools which, the author believed, proved that Germanic tribes inhabited Ukrainian lands since ancient times. The main tenet of the publication is quite simple: “The fertile black soil of this land which the German sword liberated from Bolshevik oppression was the target of Nordic and later Germanic tribes since the 3rd millennium BC.”


Ideology continued to be a key factor after World War II. As "the victor is always right", the soviets dismissed all Nazi claims, including the Gothic issue and the ethnic backdrop of the Cherniakhiv culture was again high on the agenda.

Continued efforts to “Slavicise” this culture were made throughout the 1940s and the 1950s. The most radical approach was taken by noted Ukrainian archaeologist and historian Mykhailo Braichevsky who published the book Bilia dzherel slovianskoi derzhavnosti (At the Sources of Slavic Statehood, 1964) in which he argued that Cherniakhiv culture was an archaeological reflection of a proto-state of the Slavs (Antes). Even the supporters of a compromise view (in the 1950s) that the people who produced this culture were of mixed ethnic background put the Germans last on the list of contributing ethnicities and the Slavs invariably at the top.

The anti-German(ic) sentiment was a distinctive feature of post-war soviet history and other members of the soviet camp. Slavicisation was pursued with special vigour in Poland, which faced the problem of supplying “historical evidence” to justify its newly established western borders on the Oder-Neisse line.

Scholars were able to overcome the inertia of post-war “anti-Fascist” attitudes only in the late 1980s when the political agenda finally yielded to well-founded academic discourse. Even though contemporary archaeologists and historians largely agree that the Goths were instrumental in producing the Cherniakhiv culture, the public at large still “lives in the past.” This is no wonder — school textbooks and even a large part of college textbooks treat the Cherniakhiv culture as Slavic or at least predominantly Slavic. So the war between the Goths and the Antes is not yet over.

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