Mahr, Adolf (1887–1951), archaeologist and Nazi activist, was born 7 May 1887 at Trent in the South Tyrol (then part of the Hapsburg empire), the son of Gustav Johann Mahr, military bandmaster, and his wife, Maria Antonia (née Schroll). (His grandfather and two uncles were also bandmasters in the Austrian army.) During his childhood the family travelled between military postings, spending time in Bregenz, Linz, and Kraków. Mahr's parents were Sudeten Germans, and he identified strongly with the German nationalist tradition within the Hapsburg empire. However, he reacted against his family in many respects. He was ostentatiously uninterested in music, and cherished the memory of an early fiancée who committed suicide after he was pressured by his family to break off the engagement because they saw her as socially unsuitable. Mahr was brought up catholic but in adolescence declared himself an atheist and later became a nominal convert to protestantism; his wife was a non-practising member of the Dutch Reformed Church and the Mahr children were brought up as protestants, in part because their father was afraid that a non-denominational upbringing might lead some people to think they were Jews. Mahr's abandonment of catholicism may have had political as well as intellectual origins, since German nationalists within the Hapsburg empire identified it with decadent and cosmopolitan dynastic interests and idealised the protestant-dominated German empire of the Hohenzollerns.
Following military service in the Austrian army in 1906 with the rank of lieutenant, Mahr studied geography and prehistory at the University of Vienna, where he was a member of a duelling fraternity which excluded Jews from membership. During his university studies he sustained a duelling injury to the ligaments of his right arm, which meant he could not straighten it fully; this led to his being declared unfit for military service. After graduation, Mahr was employed by the Linz Museum in 1913 and by the Vienna Natural History and Prehistoric Museum two years later; he eventually held the posts of curator and deputy director of the Anthropological-Ethnological Department. In 1921 he married the daughter of a Dutch university professor, Maria van Bemmelen (1901–75), with whom he had a son and three daughters. Their early married life was impoverished by postwar inflation, and they had to receive assistance from Maria's parents. Mahr is known to have blamed the Jews for the defeat of the Central Powers (he often spoke of the Balfour Declaration, whereby the British government promised to create a Jewish national home in Palestine, as the occasion of a declaration of war by ‘international Jewry’ against Germany) and for the subsequent inflation.
In 1927, while carrying out pioneering excavations at the Iron Age Celtic graveyard and salt mine at Hallstatt, Austria, Mahr successfully applied for the post of senior keeper of Irish antiquities in the National Museum of Ireland; like his precursor, Walther Bremer, who died shortly after taking up his position in the museum, Mahr was one of a small but influential number of German professionals in Dublin at this time, brought over to occupy important positions in the civil service of a young and developing independent Ireland wishing to avoid excessive reliance on Britain. (This also reflected the longstanding German scholarly interest in Celtic studies.) From December 1927 Mahr oversaw a major reorganisation of the museum's collections in accordance with a report drawn up by the Swedish Professor Nils Lithberg; he also developed an extensive card index of Irish finds and excavations which saved future scholars considerable labour. At the same time he cultivated potential donors such as the Dublin-born California insurance executive, art patron, and philanthropist Albert Bender (1866–1941), who donated a collection of Asiatic art to the museum in memory of his mother. Between 1931 and 1940 Bender and Mahr maintained a generally friendly correspondence, despite a disruption in 1933 when Bender (who was Jewish) referred to Nazi Germany as having relapsed into ‘fourteenth-century barbarism’ (Mullins, 48; Bender had apparently thought ‘A. Mahr’ was an Irishman whose name was a variant of Maher).
Mahr brought the museum back into the business of organising archaeological excavations, which had fallen into neglect over the previous thirty years. He developed a network of contacts who supplied him with information on archaeological finds around the country; in 1931, when the Harvard Anthropological Study applied to conduct excavations in Ireland (as part of the same project which produced the work by Conrad Arensberg (qv) and Solon Kimball on the Irish countryman), Mahr went to considerable lengths to overcome bureaucratic obstruction and secure permission for their work. He and the Harvard archaeologists used the subsequent digs (1932–6) to train a new generation of Irish scholars in modern excavation techniques; the importance of this work was such that Mahr is sometimes called ‘the father of modern Irish archaeology’, though this title has been disputed. Mahr introduced the use of photography in Irish archaeology, developed the study of craft traditions and folklife by the museum, and promoted the study of Irish palaeobotany.
Throughout his Irish career Mahr generously shared his knowledge and influence with such young archaeologists as Emyr Estyn Evans (qv), Joseph Raftery (qv), Seán Ó Ríordáin (qv), and Howard Kilbride-Jones (1907–95), and arranged for some Irish scholars to obtain much-needed work placements in British and continental museums and exhibitions; while he was resented by some museum staff for favouring an inner group of protégés and remaining aloof from others, there is no doubt of his central role in training the next generation of Irish archaeologists and museum directors. His most significant contribution to Irish archaeology is his lengthy presidential address in 1937 to the Prehistoric Society, entitled ‘New aspects and problems in Irish prehistory’ and published in their Proceedings for that year; this was a masterly synthesis of current knowledge of Irish prehistory in which Mahr drew on the expertise of many Irish archaeologists with whom he was personally acquainted. He also contributed papers on Irish archaeology to various journals, including the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, and was responsible, alongside the young Joseph Raftery, for the production of the sumptuous two-volume work Christian art in ancient Ireland (vol. i (1932) edited by Mahr vol. ii (1941) by Raftery). The first volume was specially commissioned as part of the celebrations surrounding the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. In July 1934 Mahr's achievements received official recognition when he was appointed by the Fianna Fáil government of Éamon de Valera (qv) to the prestigious post of director of the NMI.
When Hitler was appointed German chancellor in January 1933, a number of the 500 or so Germans in Dublin at that time joined the Nazi Party. Mahr's own membership dates from 1 April 1933. There may have been a link between Mahr's scholarly interests and his politics; many German scholars in archaeology and related disciplines saw their work as having German nationalist implications, and in 1932 Mahr commented: ‘the boundaries which separated mankind in the Stone Age are probably more important than the make-shifts of our present politicians’ (Mullins, 85; in assessing this passage it should be borne in mind that German nationalists regarded their own views as transcending ‘politics’, which they regarded as a futile and divisive distraction from the achievement of national unity and greatness). However, any such influence remained subliminal; after the war several prominent archaeologists such as the Oxford classical scholar Paul Jacobsthal informed Mahr's denazification tribunal that his scholarly writings ‘never defiled history by projecting racial or other doctrines of Nazism into the past’ (ibid., 186).
Mahr quickly assumed an unrivalled position among the Dublin members of the Nazi Party, serving as the Ortsgruppenleiter and as head of the Irish division of the Auslandsorganisation, the association of Nazi Party members living abroad, headed by Ernst-Wilhelm Bohle, which also served as an information-gathering agency and promoted German overseas trade. Group leaders such as Mahr were required to submit monthly reports on the political situation in their host country. Mahr's house at 37 Waterloo Place, Dublin, became a social centre for the German community in Ireland; Mahr also reported regularly on German residents in Ireland (including Jewish refugees). He assisted some Jewish scholars known to him to leave Germany, and appears to have distinguished between his prejudices against ‘Jewry’ in general and his individual Jewish acquaintances; his reports would have had lethal consequences for their subjects had Ireland been occupied by German forces. It is also noteworthy that Julius Pokorny (qv), when writing to a National Library employee about his plans to escape from the Reich, urged him not to repeat them in case Mahr got to know and informed the Nazi authorities. Even the German legation was subject to pressure from the local Auslandsorganisation. In 1934 the departing German representative in Dublin, Georg von Dehn-Schmidt, was photographed kissing the ring of the papal nuncio during a courtesy call; the photograph was reproduced in Julius Streicher's Der Sturmer, leading (amid widespread Irish outrage) to Dehn-Schmidt's dismissal from the diplomatic service on the grounds that such behaviour was unbecoming in a (Lutheran) representative of the Reich when relations with the Vatican were strained. It is believed that Mahr called the attention of the Nazi authorities to the photograph, although he later denied this.
During the late 1930s Mahr's activities came under the close observation of the garda special branch, army intelligence, and the Department of External Affairs, which expressed concern about the possible implications if the extent of his activities became widely known. Mahr added to these worries by remarking at a meeting called to discuss the safeguarding of the museum collections in the event of war that, if Ireland were occupied, it would be by a civilized nation which would respect these cultural treasures. In July 1938 he resigned as leader of the Irish Nazi group on the grounds that it might cause conflict with his civil-service position, though his resignation was not formally ratified by his German superiors until February 1939. A letter to Mahr, dated 11 July 1939 and signed by an SS officer, suggests he may have abused his position in Ireland by supplying maps and descriptions of the country which could later have been used in the aborted Operation Green, a blueprint for an invasion of Ireland; his biographer, however, disputes this on the grounds that the quality of the information used in the blueprint is inferior to what Mahr could have supplied.
On 19 July 1939 Mahr and his family left for Germany to visit relatives and tour the country. While some commentators later saw their departure as planned with foreknowledge of the outbreak of war, it is clear that the Mahrs in fact intended to travel back to Ireland on 14 September after attending the planned Nuremberg rally of 2–11 September, and that Mahr tried to return on the outbreak of war. (This had implications for his employment status; had he returned to Germany voluntarily, as most of the German community in Ireland did, he would have forfeited his official position, but instead he was regarded as having taken indefinite unpaid leave.)
Mahr subsequently found employment in the German Foreign Office. In March 1941 he submitted a detailed plan for the reform of radio propaganda directed against Ireland. He advocated a move away from the Irish-language enthusiasms of Ludwig Mulhausen to expressing German support for Irish neutrality and making appeals to the Irish diaspora and to religious sentiment. His proposals were accepted, and from May 1941 he took control, writing many radio talks (he did not broadcast personally because of his strong accent) and working with Irish émigrés and other German scholars familiar with Ireland, including Hilde Spickernagel. By 1944 he was head of the Foreign Office section dealing with political broadcasting to the USA and Britain as well as Ireland; on 3–4 April 1944 he spoke at a conference on the organisation and dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda, although by this time (as the result of a lecture tour to Riga in 1943–4) he knew of the mass murder of Jews by German forces.
Mahr ended the war at Oldenburg near the Dutch border, where he was eventually reunited with his family (most of whom had been evacuated to Bad Ischl in Austria; one daughter left Berlin at the last minute and had to travel long distances to rejoin her family). He was detained by British occupation authorities from January to April 1946, and subsequently underwent denazification procedures. In summer 1945 he applied to return to Ireland (his two younger daughters, born in Ireland, were entitled to Irish nationality) and resume his position. This met with resistance from Colonel Dan Bryan (qv), who recalled Mahr's record of Nazi activity and suspicions about his actions in regard to Ireland during the war, and from James Dillon (qv), who raised the matter in the dáil with the intention of making it as difficult as possible for the government to reappoint him. The government also had to take into consideration the question of whether Mahr had been involved in activities directly incompatible with his civil-service position, and the possible implications for British attitudes towards Ireland; from 6 November 1948 he was pensioned off as keeper of Irish antiquities. His family believed that his apostasy from catholicism and the fact that his former protégés were reluctant to make room for him also influenced this decision.
Mahr's last years were dominated by political regrets, fears for the future of his family in a devastated Germany, and the disintegration of his marriage as his wife blamed him for the family's misfortunes (a process which began about 1941). He made a living by giving occasional lecture courses in the Bonn area. At the beginning of 1948 he was offered the headship of an institution of mining history in Bonn, but the stress of preparing for this new position exacerbated an existing coronary condition and led to his death, from heart failure, in Bonn on 27 May 1951.
Mahr is in many ways a representative of the sort of German nationalist who saw in Nazism a path to national greatness and an opening for meritocrats held down by outworn conventions, without being too particular about the fate of those it regarded as enemies. No assessment of his commitment to Irish culture can ignore either his contributions to the study of the national past or the implications of his activities as what he himself called ‘Dublin Nazi No. 1’ (Mullins, 76).