History of Anthropology and a Name Change at the German Ethnological Society Meeting in Berlin: Conference Report

The 12th History of Anthropology workshop took place during the biannual conference of the German Ethnological Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde, DGV) at the Free University of Berlin on October 5, 2017. Convened around the theme “From the History of Anthropology to its Future: Historical, Moral, and Political Affinities,” the workshop was organized by Peter Schweitzer (Vienna, Austria) and the present author. It featured seven papers out of sixteen submissions, as well as a keynote address (see program under “Workshop 17”).

In his keynote address, titled “Solve et Coagula – Whoever Separates a Subject and its History Ought also to Join Them,” Bernhard Streck (Professor Emeritus, University of Leipzig) discussed recent developments in German ethnology. Taking this old adagium of the alchemists as a starting point, Streck argued that a separation between ethnology and the history of anthropology would be reductive and damaging to what they have in common. He argued that both perspectives belong together: ethnography must proceed not only descriptively but also historically; likewise ethnology conducted without grounding in the humanities can only lead to a “thin description.” With his paper, which will be published in the next issue of Paideuma, Streck took a stand in the highly contested vote on the renaming of the society that was scheduled to take place the next day. The new name represented a radical break with the past.

Thomas Reuter (University of Melbourne, Australia) reported on “World Anthropologies: Diversity, History and the Politics of Knowledge.” Discussing the efforts of the World Council of Anthropological Associations (WCAA) and the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) to reform the international landscape of the discipline in order to provide a platform for world anthropologies to encounter one another on an even playing field, he argued that historians of anthropology should document these developments and adopt a world anthropologies approach by paying more attention to the history of non-western anthropologies. One of Reuter’s articles on the WCAA will appear in the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Anthropology (ed. Hilary Callan, Wiley-Blackwell 2018).

Ingrid Kreide-Damani (University of Bonn) discussed the historical transformation of the “Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnology” into the “Julius Lips Institute for Ethnology and the Comparative Sociology of Law” in post-war Leipzig, emphasizing the role of Julius Lips (1895-1950) in facilitating this shift. After his exile to the U.S. in 1934, Lips traveled to East Germany in 1948 to accept a position as director of the Institute of Ethnology, founded in 1914. Under his predecessor, Otto Reche (1879-1966), this institute had been turned into an instrument for racial and ethnological research under the Third Reich. Lips succeeded in re-establishing the institute, an effort continued after his premature death in 1950 by his widow, Eva Lips (1906-1988).

Leonore Scholze-Irrlitz (Humboldt University Berlin) focused on the Austrian ethnologist Richard Thurnwald’s views on ethnology and ethno-sociology and their reception in post-war Germany. Thurnwald (1869-1954) had studied in Berlin before doing fieldwork in Micronesia, Melanesia and East Africa. In 1937 he became an extraordinary professor in Berlin and, after the war, led the Institute for Sociology and Völkerpsychologie in West Berlin from 1946 to 1948. His universalist views on a “science of peoples” (Völkerwissenschaft) were influential and found their parallel in the fusion of folklore studies and ethnology (Volkskunde and Völkerkunde) promoted by Wolfgang Steinitz (1905-1967) in East Berlin during roughly the same period.

In her lecture on “Interconnected Histories: Archaeology and Ethnology in Oceania,” Hilary Howes (Australian National University, Canberra) argued that at the turn of the nineteenth century, explorers, missionaries and colonial administrators working on ethnology often also worked in fields such as physical anthropology, archaeology and linguistics. Through her analysis of the work of Johann Stanislav Kubary (1846-1896), Otto Finsch (1839-1917), and Paul Hambruch (1882-1933), who came to hold different understandings of South Sea islanders, Howes concluded that the history of archaeology can only be meaningfully studied in connection to that of ethnology and anthropology.

Peter Schröder (Federal University of Pernambuco, Recife, Brazil) read a paper on “Curt Nimuendajú’s Collection in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin-Dahlem.” A Brazilian ethnographer of German descent, Curt Unckel Nimuendajú (1883-1945) conducted fieldwork among indigenous peoples in Brazil for forty years. He collected artifacts for museums in Brazil and for those of Leipzig, Hamburg, Dresden, and Berlin. His collection from the Canela, a treasure trove of 225 objects assembled for the Berlin Ethnological Museum, remained unknown until 2010. Archival research throws new light on the collector’s personality and his work as a defender of indigenous rights. By studying Nimuendajú, who worked for both Brazilian and North American institutions and was supported by Robert H. Lowie, it seems that Brazilian ethnology had begun to distance itself from the intellectual influence of German ethnology by 1929-36.

Talking about “Politics in a Highly Charged Field of Studies: German Ethnographers Working in Brazil,” Erik Petschelies (Unicamp, Campinas, Brazil) analyzed the contributions of predominantly German-speaking ethnographers in the recognition of indigenous rights. He discussed Karl von den Steinen’s 1887-88 critique of the christening of Indians in Brazil; Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s humanitarian defense of indigenous peoples around 1900; the Czech botanist Alberto Frič’s 1908 report on cruelties committed in Southern Brazil to the International Congress of Americanists in Vienna; the founding of Brazil’s “Indian Protection Agency” (SPI, now FUNAI) in 1910; and, finally, the work of Nimuendajú and his appointment to this agency.

Peter Rohrbacher (University of Vienna, Austria) examined “The Beginnings of Ancient Mexican Studies in Austria” by analyzing the work of Damian Kreichgauer (1859-1940) and Friedrich Röck (1879-1953) carried out between 1910 and 1945. Adopting ideas from their colleagues in Berlin, Kreichgauer and Röck interpreted pre-Columbian codices as comprising coded astronomical knowledge. While Kreichgauer assumed that the coding had been done by priests transporting Babylonian views into the Americas, Röck believed the codes to go back to the earlier Empire of Elam. Röck’s views, influenced by astral mythology and theosophy, were disregarded in Germany until the rise of National Socialism from 1933 on and Austria’s incorporation in the Third Reich in 1938. Röck directed the Ethnological Museum of Vienna from 1928 to 1945, until he was discharged after the war.

Overall, the workshop was a success, with 30 to 40 people in attendance. After intense discussions of the papers, the event concluded with the election of a new team of conveners, with Uwe Wolfradt (University of Halle-Wittenberg) elected as spokesperson (Sprecher) and the present author as deputy (Stellvertreter).

The following day, a highly contested issue regarding the society’s name change spoiled the fun for some historically-oriented ethnologists and led several senior members to resign. Founded as an “Ethnological Society” (Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde) in Leipzig in 1929, and renamed the German Ethnological Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde, DGV) in 1938, members voted in 2017 to rename it once more as the “German Association for Social and Cultural Anthropology” (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie, DGSKA).

Recently, the society’s name had already been rendered in unofficial translation as the “German Anthropological Association” (GAA) – following the model of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) – so as to emphasize its aim as a professional association (Fachverband) rather than as a learned society.

However, because scientists had misused the outcomes of research in physical anthropology to promote Nazi agendas in 1933-45, the word Anthropologie has negative connotations in German academia and is rarely used without an adjective.

Therefore, the Berlin-based board of the Gesellschaft presented members with a choice between preserving the original name, or two alternatives: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ethnologie and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie. Two rounds of voting took place during the assembly on October 6, 2017, with 216 members present. In the first round, members voted 198 to 15 in favor of a name change, with 88 members preferring the first alternative and 110 favoring the second. In the second round, 167 members agreed with a change from DGV to Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie (DGSKA), while 37 disagreed (DGV Vorstand 2018).

Thus, the German Ethnological Society reconstituted itself as an association to further both social and cultural anthropology. Considering that the terms Völkerkunde and Ethnologie were coined and practiced by German-speaking historians, naturalists, linguists and geographers in the eighteenth century and subsequently developed into a broad and rich tradition during the nineteenth century (Vermeulen 2015), this was a bold move. It demonstrates a move away from the history of the discipline into a more uncertain future over what might count as “ethnological” work.

The outcome reflected a two-year campaign to mobilize support for a name change in ever widening circles: first, in meetings with the directors of ethnological institutes held in Bonn (June 2016) and Hamburg (June 2017) and, second, through conversations with professors of ethnology who had been appointed in the past 10 to 15 years taking place in Leipzig (July 2016) and Cologne (July 2017). On all occasions, the participants were urged to carry these discussions to their home institutes and initiate a debate (DGV Vorstand 2018: 13). The proposal to change the name was also advertised in the DGV Newsletter of May 2017 and a letter sent to all members dated August 29. Finally, in September a debate began on the “AlleInstitute” e-mail list, which includes professors and directors associated with the DGV, and on the society’s Facebook page.

Although the DGV has a working group “History of Ethnology,” historians of anthropology were not consulted about the proposed change. This is significant. Obviously, the current generation of position-holders in Germany shows little interest in the history of the field, wishing to distance itself from the past as much as possible.

While some regard the name change as long overdue, having been a desideratum for the past thirty years or more (Streck 2001; Lentz and Thomas 2015), others see it as representing the most recent step in the reorientation of ethnology in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. In its “thought-provoking” proposal to change the name, published in the DGV Newsletter of May 2017, the board refers to various renaming procedures of German institutions, including ethnological institutes and museums. The best-known example of such renaming (not mentioned by the board) is that of the former Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna, since 2013 called a “World Museum” (Weltmuseum Wien).

Whereas the board emphasized the “positive connotations” of Ethnologie in German public life in the formal proposal that appeared in the Newsletter (DGV Vorstand 2017a), in a separate handout it stressed the “strongly negative associations” of Völkerkunde in the media, especially in connection to recent discussions about the Humboldt Forum (DGV Vorstand 2017b). This large-scale exhibition and discussion forum is scheduled to open its doors within the reconstructed Berlin Palace in 2019. The collections of the Ethnological Museum, founded under Adolf Bastian in the centre of Berlin between 1869 and 1886 and reopened in Dahlem, a suburb of West Berlin, after World War II, will be a central part of this forum, together with collections such as the Asian Art Museum. The planned move has led political activists to criticize ethnology for its alleged role in German overseas colonialism (1884-1918) and National Socialism (1933-45) and to reject Völkerkunde as a “colonial study” that should be “decolonized.” Another development, not mentioned by the board but equally significant, is the recent upsurge of populism in Germany and Austria, in which the ideas of Volk (a people) and völkisch are being exploited by people on the political right.

Wishing to dissociate themselves from such associations – caught between allegations from the political left and appropriations by the political right – a majority of German-speaking ethnologists voted to identify as “social and cultural anthropologists” in the future. Although this combination sounds awkward in German, German-speaking ethnologists opted for both Anglo-Saxon terms, combining British social anthropology with American cultural anthropology. Opposition from Austrian members to the fact that the term “German” was retained in the new name was ignored; “German-speaking” would be more appropriate, as members hail from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

While changing names to reflect political attitudes is a national practice not only in Germany, it seems a favorite game in Berlin. The literary critic, Victor Klemperer, for example, mentioned March 1946 plans to “rename more than 1,000 of Berlin’s 8,000 street names”; for example, the change from Carola-Platz via Adolf Hitler-Platz to Karl Liebknecht-Platz (Klemperer 2003: 88) reflecting the political turn from liberalism to National Socialism and communism. Today, in the age of neoliberalism, radical nationalism, and populism, there seems to be a strong urge among the younger generation of German ethnologists to get rid of the concept of Völkerkunde.

Although the conference demonstrated that current German ethnology is largely focused on socio-cultural identities, the name change may have undesired after-effects.

First, ethnology is a well-established term in German academia, coined in Vienna in 1781-83 (Vermeulen 2015); German media and publishers no doubt will continue to use it. Ethnologie and Ethnologe (ethnologist) are household terms in German academia, as they are in many parts of Europe, Asia, the Americas, etc.

Second, the replacement of ethnology by social and cultural anthropology will leave the ethnological museums hanging in the air. This is a major topic for the pending opening of the Humboldt Forum, which has increased popular and scholarly discussions about colonialism and decolonization, dialogic forms of communication, provenance research, the restitution of cultural property and human remains, etc. (see, e.g., the blog How to Move on With Humboldt’s Legacy? Rethinking Ethnographic Collections).

Third, the abolition of Völkerkunde and the associated idea of distinct peoples may have consequences for applied anthropologists and NGOs working with indigenous peoples (indigene Völker) to protect their rights.

Finally, the new name, social and cultural anthropology, does not do justice to historical ethnology, one of the hallmarks of German-speaking ethnology during the twentieth century (Haller 2012) and a research tradition still carried on.

The history of anthropology shows that name changes often indicate paradigm shifts. What the research program will be in the present case has not been revealed; the only thing that seems clear is that the advocates of the name change wish to link their field to the international community of scholars that is dominated by English-language colleagues, who use the terms “social” and “cultural anthropology.”

An alternative strategy might have been to maintain the name for historic reasons, to make more attempts to study the involvement of anthropologists and ethnologists in both colonial and national-socialist projects, and to take a firm stance vis-à-vis both radical nationalists and political activists by making clear what socio-cultural anthropologists actually do: study socio-cultural unity and diversity.

After the conference, an aftershock occurred. Articles and blogs were written, all listed on the DGV website. At least four senior anthropologists protested by resigning. A former DGV-president, Karl-Heinz Kohl, started a polemic in December 2017, which was joined by the current president, Hansjörg Dilger, in January 2018. Kohl revealed that Sozialanthropologie had been a racist concept that was actively supported by the Nazis. Favoring ethnology, he pointed out that 17 German institutes carry the name ethnology, whereas only four opted for the name “social and cultural anthropology.”

The opposition to the change can be explained partly because nobody sought the opinion of the elders, partly because there had been no time for a discussion during the assembly, and partly because the vote had been decided by a majority of young members, many of whom without a PhD, who know very little about the history of their subject and its various names. Therefore, the discussion about the aims, methods and scope of this academic field of studies will not cease soon, regardless of name change.

Note: An earlier version of this report appeared in Anthropology Today 34 (February 2018): 19-20.



DGV Vorstand. 2017a. “Völkerkunde ad acta? Ein Denkanstoß zur Umbenennung der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde e.V.DGV-Mitteilungen 49: 12-14.

———. 2017b. “Abstimmung zur Umbenennung der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde e.V. Handout für Mitgliederversammlung am 6.10. an der Freie Universität Berlin.” Reprinted in DGV-Mitteilungen 50: 19-20.

———. 2018. “Protokoll der Mitgliederversammlung der DVG e.V. am 6.10.2017.” DGV-Mitteilungen 50: 5-18.

Dilger, Hansjörg. 2018. “Mehr Ethnologie ins Humboldt Forum! Zeit für eine sozial- und kulturanthropologische Intervention.” In Wie weiter mit Humboldts Erbe? Ethnographische Sammlungen neu denken / How to Move on With Humboldt’s Legacy? Rethinking Ethnographic Collections.

Haller, Dieter. 2012. Die Suche nach dem Fremden. Geschichte der Ethnologie in der Bundesrepublik 1945-1990. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag.

Klemperer, Victor. 2003. Das Tagebuch 1945-1949. Edited by Harald Roth. Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag.

Kohl, Karl-Heinz. 2017. “Kollateralschäden. Eine Polemik.” In Wie weiter mit Humboldts Erbe? Ethnographische Sammlungen neu denken / How to Move on With Humboldt’s Legacy? Rethinking Ethnographic Collections.

Lentz, Carola and Silja Thomas. 2015. “Die Deutsche Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde. Geschichte und aktuelle Herausforderungen.” Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 140 (2): 225-253.

Streck, Bernhard. 2001. “Völkerkunde oder Ethnologie. Stellungnahme zur geplanten Abstimmung über eine Umbenennung der DGV in DGE.” DGV Mitteilungen 32: 27-29.

Vermeulen, Han F. 2015. Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment. Lincoln and London, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

———. 2018. “German Ethnological Society changes its name during a highly contested vote.” Anthropology Today 34 (1): 19-20.




Han F. Vermeulen: contributions / website / hfvermeulen@gmail.com / Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

1 Comment

  1. Thank you, Han. I very much enjoyed participating in the History of Anthropology workshop, and I think your discussion above of the pros and cons of the DGV’s decision to change its name is very even-handed and makes some excellent points.

Leave a Comment