Richard Wolfram

The Austrian ethnologist Richard Wolfram (1901-1995) was one of the leading figures in his field in the German-speaking world, and an enthusiast for sword dancing who conducted important field research into Austrian sword dances. However, his legacy is tainted by his active membership of the Nazi party in the 1930s and role in the SS during the war, and some of his publications have been subject to academic criticism as well.

Wolfram's research

Wolfram is still best known for his extensive research and publications on folklore and folk customs, which he performed on a European scale. His field research into the sword dances of the region around Salzburg in Austria provided a great deal of information on these traditions, and was done with the full academic rigour of a trained professional researcher.

One ongoing concern with Wolfram's work was his theory that sword dance traditions were essentially the remnant of a ritual performed by secret societies. This theory was the basis of publications both in English and in German, and one that was held persistently by Wolfram even though the available evidence showed this theory to be completely unsubstantiated. His tenacity with this particular hobby horse has caused some to doubt the value of his other work.

A second concern was Wolfram's involvement in the Nazi party. Folklore research was a key part of the Nazi pseudoscience of an Aryan master race, and so in the Third Reich was suborned to the purposes of Nazi propaganda. Wolfram played his part in this, as will be seen.

Involvement in the Nazi party

The 31-year old Wolfram joined the Nazi party on the 1st June 1932, with membership number 1088974, and remained a member after membership of the party was illegal in Austria in 1934. At the time he was a researcher at the University of Vienna, and his anticipated Habilitation (an academic step needed for future progression to a professorship) within the University was blocked in March 1934 as he was suspected of involvement in Nazi party activities.

During the mid-1930s Wolfram was an active promoter of the Nazi party in Austria, acting as a reporter for the pro-Nazi Swedish newspaper Nya Daglig Allemanda publishing criticisms of the Austrian government using manuscripts smuggled out of Austria, and set up a new Austro-Swedish group called “Svea” to oppose the “Jew-ridden Austrian-Scandinavian Club.” This group, whose members received copies of the Nazi journal Rasse (“Race”), was placed under police surveillance due to the Austrian authorities' (well-founded) suspicions of Nazism and had close ties to the Nordische Gesellschaft (“Nordic Society”) in Lübeck, on whose committee sat a certain Heinrich Himmler.

After the Anschluss in 1938, when Austria was subsumed into the Third Reich, Wolfram's Nazi credentials were confirmed personally by Odilo Globocznik, the new Gauleiter of Vienna who would later gain notoriety as the leader of Operation Reinhard, the pilot project for the Final Solution. Wolfram's reward was to head the Vienna office of the Ahnenerbe, an SS-affiliated body dedicated to researching cultural history with a view to proving that an Aryan master-race had once ruled the entire world.

Wolfram played an important role in the cultural research of the Ahnenerbe, and was soon assigned research assistants, allowing him to perform his extensive field research within Austria. His enthusiasm for the Nazi party, previously a brake on his academic career, now became a major advantage, and he was appointed associate professor of Teutonic-German folklore at the University of Vienna in June 1939.

Wartime activities

In April 1940 Wolfram wrote to SS-Obersturmbannführer Harmjanz in Frankfurt to tell him he did not have adequate space for his work, and that he was aware of a Jewish-owned apartment next to the Institute of Ancient History which “would soon become free” and into his department could expand. This apartment in the Wasagasse, belonged to “Israel” Leopold Harth, a Jewish lawyer, who was deported with his wife Elisabeth to Theresienstadt on the 17th July 1942 and later died in Auschwitz. Wolfram's Institute was then extended into the apartment.

Wolfram's work within the Ahnenerbe, apart from his field research included work in the South Tyrol and in Norway. In the South Tyrol he was part of the secret South Tyrol Cultural Commission, carrying out work for the resettlement of ethnic Germans within the Reich, with particular attention to recording their folklore. In Norway he researched Norwegian folklore to show connections to that of the Germans, but also supervised the closure of the University of Oslo and the transfer of 349 selected students (based on racial suitability) to a “re-education” camp at Sennheim in Alsace, where they would be indoctrinated in the Nazis' pan-Aryan cultural theories. Wolfram was responsible for the cultural aspects of the curriculum in the Sennheim camp. Around 150 of the Norwegian students resisted the “re-education” and were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp; the extent of Wolfram's role in this is unknown.

In February 1943 Wolfram was conscripted into the Wehrmacht but following the intervention of Sievers, the head of the Ahnenerbe, Wolfram secured exemption on medical grounds and was instead inducted into the Waffen-SS, on the personal staff of Himmler. The Ahnenerbe doctor who examined Wolfram happened to be the head of the Nazis' compulsory “euthanasia” programme, was subsequently in charge of the medical experiments carried out in the concentration camps, and with Sievers was convicted of crimes against humanity at the first Nuremberg trial and executed in 1948.

After the war

Following the war, the Ahnenerbe attracted the attentions of the allies. Most egregious among its extensive activities were the medical experiments in the concentration camps. Wolfram was a folklorist who assisted in the Nazis' propaganda, minor misdemeanours in comparison to some of the Ahnenerbe crimes, and so he did not come to the attention of the Nuremberg trials. Wolfram did not entirely escape justice though, as he was summarily dismissed from his professorship at the University of Vienna and went into an academic wilderness for a number of years.

In 1951 Wolfram presented his research at a German ethnology conference for the first time since the war. He managed his Habilitation in 1954 and was reappointed as associate professor in the University of Vienna in 1959. His academic career continued to progress with a full professorship in 1963, which he held until his retirement in 1972.

Wolfram continued his research and publication on Austrian and European ethnology, including the publication of an atlas of ethnology, and is generally regarded as the founder of the academic discipline of ethnology in Austria. For his academic achievements he was awarded the Austrian Ehrenkreuz (“Honour Cross”), First Class for Science and Arts in 1977. The Salzburg Institute of Ethnology named a research centre after him in 1985. Wolfram died in the Austrian town of Traismauer in 1995.

Wolfram's legacy

Richard Wolfram was the founder of academic ethnology in Austria, with a true European perspective, and carried out much valuable research. His field research into the sword dances of the Salzburg area is of particular interest to this website, although his research into the customs of the ethnic Germans of the South Tyrol is also valuable as there would not be another opportunity to do this once that population had resettled in Germany.

Wolfram was clearly at the very core of the Nazi party, and his wartime research findings may have been distorted by the overwhelming need to produce results consistent with Nazi pan-Aryan racial theories. Although he seems to have escaped punishment for his wartime activities and does not seem to have been required to publish any retractions as part of his post-war rehabilitation, his ongoing original research was good enough to pass the rigorous scrutiny of the Habilitation in 1954 and earn him a professorship in 1963.

In conclusion? An important researcher, but tainted by a murky past from which he might not quite be redeemed by his scholarship.


James Dow and Olaf Bockhorn, The Study of European Ethnology in Austria, Aldershot, 2004

James Dow and Hannjost Lixfeld, The Nazification of an Academic Discipline: Folklore in the Third Reich, Indianapolis, 1994

Richard Wolfram, Sword Dances and Secret Societies, JEFDSS 1(1):34-41, 1932

Richard Wolfram, Schwerttanz und Männerbund, Kassel, 1935

Richard Wolfram, Die Volkstänze in Österreich und verwandte Tänze in Europa, Salzburg, 1951


The linked article on Richard Wolfram from the Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes provides an excellent overview in German of Wolfram's involvement in the Nazi party and Ahnenerbe, with references to evidence from the Austrian State Archive and other sources. The article is highly recommended to those who understand German.