Editors’ note: This essay is part of the series Socio-Cultural Anthropology under Hitler: Four Case Studies from Vienna
In January 1940, the young Dutch archaeologist F. M. Schnitger found employment at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, today’s Weltmuseum Wien. The position was a substantial advancement toward his goal of becoming a famous researcher. Yet his career ended abruptly only a few years later, through a chain reaction triggered partly by himself and by one of his local rival colleagues. The name of Frederic Martin Schnitger is still familiar to scholars and to a broader audience interested in Indonesian cultural histories. His best-known publication, Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra (1939), is still regarded as an important account of the archaeology and traditions of this part of Indonesia.
Schnitger was born on April 22, 1912 in Malang on East Java, where his father owned a sugar cane plantation and his mother worked as a teacher. His origin would later become a concern for several authorities of the Nazi state, since Schnitger’s maternal great-grandmother was Chinese. At the age of nine, Schnitger was sent to Holland where he attended primary and grammar schools. The young Schnitger developed a keen interest in Asia’s history, religion, and archaeology. He published his first article in 1929-1930, when he was still a teenager. After studies at Leiden University, he traveled to Sumatra in 1935 to conduct archaeological research across the whole island. One of Schnitger’s goals was to find evidence that Palembang in the South was the historical capital of the Srivijaya empire. In Palembang he contributed enormously to the development of the municipal museum, where he received the professional title of “Conservator.” From 1935 to 1938, Schnitger commuted frequently between Sumatra and Europe to maintain his contacts there. Disagreements with his teachers at the university in Leiden prompted Schnitger to leave the Netherlands and move to Vienna in 1935—a fateful decision, as it would later turn out.Continue reading