Under the title “Why History of Anthropology and Who Should Write It?” the History of Anthropology Working Group of the German Anthropological Association (DGV) organized a two-day conference on “Cultural and Social Anthropology and its Relation to its own History and to the Historical Sciences” at the University of Vienna (Austria) on December 9–10, 2016. Peter Schweitzer, Marie-France Chevron, and Peter Rohrbacher, staff members of the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna, convened the conference. The central questions they formulated were: (1) “To what end should a history of anthropology be written,” (2) Is there “a ‘best practice’ for this form of historiography,” and (3) “For whom should a history of anthropology be written”?

Presenters offered eleven papers, five of which concerned anthropology in Austria. Vienna is the only location in Austria where socio-cultural anthropology is practiced, not only at the university, but also at the ethnological museum (now Weltmuseum) and the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Most of those presenting papers are connected to Vienna, the others work in Germany: Berlin, Frankfurt, and Halle. I will first summarize the papers on Austria.

Peter Rohrbacher (Vienna) set the stage by discussing “Dominik Josef Wölfel (1888-1963) and his research on the Canary Islands 1938-45.” Having carried out research on the Canary Islands during the 1930s, Wölfel wished to settle there with his family and, to this end, published a Franco-friendly book on the Spanish civil war in 1937. The National Socialists ruled Germany from 1933 on and Austria from 1938 until the war’s end in 1945. After Austria’s Anschluss to Hitler’s Germany in March 1938, the Nazis forced Wölfel to resign from his post as curator of the Africa department at the Vienna Museum of Ethnology in April 1939, because his wife was half-Jewish. The accusation that he was “politically unreliable” was dropped after two of his colleagues, including Viktor Christian (see below), intervened on his behalf in order to safeguard the publication of an Italian manuscript concerning the pre-Spanish population of the Canary Islands. Dating from 1590, this manuscript had been discovered by Wölfel, who published it in Leipzig in 1940. Wölfel was prevented from accepting a professorship at Tenerife in January 1941, as he was not granted permission to leave Vienna on account of his 1937 book, which was considered unfriendly to Germany. Despite the fact that he had lost his job and was living on a small pension, Wölfel continued his linguistic research by means of four scholarships provided by the Imperial Research Council between 1942 and 1945. Wölfel’s research was supported by Eugen Fischer and Diedrich Westermann, both professors in Berlin, who held leading positions in this council. Most of these subsidies were given to Wölfel’s brother-in-law, Leopold Grünwald, who had been forced to retire as a “half-Jew” by the Nazi authorities and who assisted Wölfel’s linguistic research. Rohrbacher used this material to exonerate Wölfel from a verdict passed in 2013 by the Viennese Historical Commission claiming that his publications display “racist standpoints” and that he had supported National Socialism with his “public work.” Rohrbacher concluded that the commission’s interpretations cannot be endorsed.

Gabriele Habinger (Vienna) discussed “gender in the history of anthropology” by way of an analysis concerning Annemarie Hefel (1916-1991), a research assistant at the Vienna Institute of Ethnology during the Nazi era. Having studied art history in Vienna from 1935 on, Hefel shifted to ethnology (Völkerkunde) as her main subject in 1938. She earned her PhD in May 1941 under Hermann Baumann (1902-1972), appointed professor of ethnology in 1940 as the successor of Wilhelm Koppers, who had been expelled by the Nazis in 1938. In July 1941 Baumann offered Hefel the position of temporary research assistant at the Institute, beginning in October that year. After working on the African collections, Hefel resigned in April 1944 under pressure from Baumann. After World War II, she worked as a curator of the Africa department in the Vienna Museum of Ethnology, at the recommendation of Dominik Wölfel. Habinger analyzed these events by considering both gender relations and political factors, noting that Hefel was appointed despite her connection to critics of National Socialism (her father had been sent on leave in 1938). Important reasons for Baumann to employ her were that the Institute was suffering from a shortage of male personnel, many of whom had by 1942 been drafted into the army, and that an African collection from Berlin had arrived in May 1941. In addition, Hefel had qualified with her widely praised dissertation on gold exports in African history and she was not expected to oppose Baumann. A reason for her forced resignation was presumably Erika Sulzmann’s availability at the end of 1943, a student from Frankfurt who was loyal to the regime. Subsequently, Baumann obstructed Hefel’s appointment at the museum, in spite of the support she received from museum employees resisting the regime. Baumann employed several female anthropologists at a time when male anthropologists dominated the field. Another female anthropologist, Marianne Schmidl, had been supported by Wilhelm Schmidt but was murdered in a concentration camp (Geisenhainer 2005). Habinger ascribes Baumann’s support of women to the shortage of male anthropologists, a thesis supported by the fact that the female “assistants” were offered temporary contracts explicitly meant for the duration of the absence of their male colleagues.

Andre Gingrich (Vienna) presented a paper on Viktor Christian (1885-1963), a philologist-cum-historian who, as a Faculty Dean and holder of several other powerful positions, was extremely influential during the Nazi period. Christian had studied Semitic languages and ancient oriental studies, with ethnology as a subsidiary subject. At the time the latter field included “anthropology and ethnography” at the Museum of Natural History (NHM) and the University of Vienna (Gingrich 2016). After acquiring a PhD, Christian worked at the NHM for eight years, accepting a chair in Oriental Studies at the University in 1924. Following Austria’s Anschluss, he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and served as Prorector of the University from 1943 on. He was also a member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences from 1938 until the 1960s, even after his dismissal as a professor in 1945. Between 1938 and 1940 Christian served as the acting director of the Institute of Ethnology, where he forced Koppers out, saw to it that Baumann was appointed, and excluded c.15% of the students from the Institute. Gingrich analyzed Christian’s involvement in “research” carried out in two prisoner-of-war camps near Vienna, as well as his role as President of the Anthropological Society of Vienna in the preparation of hundreds of “racial reports” (Rassegutachten) written by four Austrian physical anthropologists between 1940 and 1944. Gingrich concluded that for Christian ethnology was “only a subsidiary subject,” but it was “very close” to physical anthropology, and that the “criminal entanglement” of those involved was “ethically extremely problematic.”

Gabriele Anderl (Vienna) dealt with the “results of and problems related to provenance research in the case of the World Museum in Vienna.” Formerly known as the Museum of Ethnology, it was founded as the Anthropological-Ethnographic Department of the Museum of Natural History in 1876. Following the 1998 Art Repatriation Act, provenance research was also carried out in this museum with the aim of locating objects that had been appropriated between 1933 and 1945 and returning them to their rightful owners. Taking the “Popper collection” as a case, Anderl outlined the pain-staking research required to establish the provenance of the artifacts, which have rarely been attributed to an artist.

Katja Geisenhainer (Vienna) analyzed “connections between ethnologists from Vienna and Frankfurt during the interwar period and the years immediately following Word War II.” As part of a wider project on relations between Vienna scholars and their German colleagues, Geisenhainer presented numerous cases of their entanglements starting in the early 1920s and continuing into the late 1940s. She concluded that these connections had been determined more by personal relations linked to a common theoretical orientation than by political preference. This implies that the cultural historical approach, even while it encompassed varied perspectives, was the main thread between ethnologists from Vienna and Frankfurt. The doctrine of cultural provinces (Kulturkreislehre) was developed by Fritz Graebner and Bernhard Ankermann in Berlin, Bonn, and Cologne; by the Roman Catholic fathers Wilhelm Schmidt and Wilhelm Koppers in Vienna; and by Leo Frobenius in Frankfurt. However, while the Nazis imprisoned Schmidt and expelled Koppers, the latter’s successor, Hermann Baumann, continued the cultural historical approach, albeit by postulating a link between a culture and a “racial substratum.” Baumann, who had joined the Nazi party in 1932, served as the Director of the Vienna Institute and as a government adviser between 1940 and 1945, returning to Berlin just before the war’s end in March 1945. By contrast, Frobenius, whose “Research Institute for Cultural Morphology” had been founded in Munich in 1920 and moved to Frankfurt in 1925, never joined the Nazi party and collaborated only to a limited extent. Moreover, even if Frobenius was graced with the mercy of an early death in 1938, his theory of cultural morphology was not compliant with Nazi racial theories. His student, Adolf Ellegard Jensen, was not appointed as Frobenius’s successor because of his marriage to a woman partially of Jewish descent. Yet Jensen was able to continue his work with support of the Colonial Office; for instance, he worked on a handbook for applied ethnology of Africa edited by Hugo Bernatzik and published in 1947. Considered unblemished (unbelastet) after the war, Jensen was appointed director of the Frankfurt research institute, soon to be renamed the Frobenius Institute. While Koppers carried forward the cultural historical tradition in Vienna, Jensen continued the cultural morphological tradition in Frankfurt.

Gingrich and Rohrbacher are currently editing a volume of papers on the history of ethnology in Vienna during National Socialism, which will include Habinger’s and Geisenhainer’s papers as well as many others. Why the interest in this dark age? In Gingrich’s view, current socio-cultural anthropologists have political, public, and ethical responsibilities to research these issues. Several scholars mentioned were appointed professors at universities after the war, including Baumann who played a key role in re-establishing cultural history (Gingrich 2005). A discipline remaining silent on its involvement in past war crimes would lose its legitimacy in the present (see also Dostal 1994). In order to arrive at a balanced view, Gingrich finds that one needs a great deal of inside knowledge, a “thick description,” and a combination of both emic and etic perspectives of the perpetrators and their henchmen, followers, and victims. In Rohrbacher’s opinion, the aim of the history of anthropology is to analyze continuities and ruptures by looking into the causes generating the various aspects of the tradition. In close cooperation with historians, and with the help of an in-depth study of the sources, events must be historically contextualized, especially if ambiguous. Like Rohrbacher, Habinger adheres to a differentiated, nuanced approach, taking into account all factors and studying as much source material as possible. Also favoring interdisciplinary cooperation with historians, Habinger feels that aspects of anthropology’s history will continue to be developed by socio-cultural anthropologists. Geisenhainer agrees with the latter position and adds that the history of anthropology helps practitioners to reflect on their work and to critically assess new theories and methods.

The remaining lectures dealt with subjects not directly related to Austria. Felix Wiedemann (Berlin) discussed the role of migrations in cultural historical narratives concerning Bedouins around 1900. Distinguishing between an internalist or presentist approach, “usually” applied by disciplinary historians, and the externalist or contextual approach applied by historians, Wiedemann opted for the latter. He analyzed Friedrich Ratzel’s work on the nomadic way of life as the original state of nature that from the 1880s on became a point of reference for debates about waves of migrations from the Arabian Desert.

Khaled Hakami (Vienna) discussed the “uses and abuses of evolutionism: why most people are progressivists and why Herbert Spencer would have objected.” Opposing the view that evolutionists arrange societies on a unilinear scale from lower to higher forms, and that all cultures pass through the same stages of moral development, as Robert H. Lowie wrote, Hakami argued that this is not a valid representation of the original nineteenth-century sources. Instead, it is an image or a “straw man” created by cultural relativists in order to discredit the work of their predecessors. Spencer’s aim was to study complexity, understood as differentiation and integration. Hakami pointed out that many evolutionary theories from the nineteenth century have been falsified, but that most of the main principles have survived in modern macro-sociology. Modern anthropology has largely ignored this fact, risking reductionism since these principles can be of great value to anthropology. Accordingly, as a complement to a historical, emic approach, which places Spencer’s ideas in the context of his era, historians of anthropology, following Popper, need to distinguish between correct and incorrect theories, between principles and theories—on a logical and empirical level, by using an etic approach, just as natural scientists do.

Marie-France Chevron (Vienna) posed the question “Why Bastian?” in order to deal with the sense and purpose of studying the work of Adolf Bastian (1826-1905). The history of anthropology has surplus value not only in revealing “paths of knowledge” and shifts in theoretical orientation, but also in illustrating how social and scholarly contexts have shaped the way in which research topics have been constructed (Chevron 2007). Viewing the relation between anthropology and history as vital on many levels, Chevron feels that the history of anthropology must act responsibly towards the subject, society at large, and the people involved. Considering that a plurality of approaches is “best practice” in this field, the subdiscipline has an important contribution to make to the “longue durée” of anthropology.

Zsófia Hacsek (Vienna) explored the “roots of ethnology in Hungary” by focusing on the founding of the Ethnographic Department of the Hungarian National Museum (1871-72) and the Hungarian Ethnographic Society (1889). She also discussed research expeditions, both in the Kingdom of Hungary, which from 1867 on had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and abroad. Hacsek concluded that the study of néprajz included both Volkskunde (the study of peoples in one’s own territory) and Völkerkunde (the study of peoples worldwide), but observed that studies of the latter type were not welcomed in Hungary if they were not directly associated with the Hungarian homeland or other people speaking a Finno-Ugrian language. For the same reason, the study of kulturális antropológia, instituted after the fall of communism, runs the risk of being abolished in the current era of Hungarian populism.

Gertrud Boden (Frankfurt) discussed the fieldwork practices of the German Africanist Oswin Köhler (1911-1996) among the Khwe in Namibia and raised the question of “Why the reappraisal of disciplinary history and research practice is relevant for the societies studied by anthropologists.” Boden is currently editing the final two volumes of Köhler’s encyclopaedia, Die Welt der Kxoé-Buschleute, of which three volumes appeared in 1989, 1991, and 1997. Köhler undertook 22 research trips to Namibia, all but one together with his wife Ruth, and set up two field stations in order to document Khwe culture. Köhler assumed his research to be based on a “general cultural consensus,” which Boden questions since he only interviewed elderly Khwe men and avoided political issues related to warfare in southern Africa. Thus, the perspectives of women, young people, and Khwe from the eastern part of the Khwe settlement area were excluded. The issue of representation is important as nowadays, in times of socio-cultural change and language-loss, Khwe want to be given access to Köhler’s field data in order to revitalize their language and culture. Thus, according to Boden the history of anthropology has great relevance for the members of societies studied by anthropologists.

Finally, in my own paper I argued that the history of (early) anthropology during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can be relevant to the current juncture. Taking my recent book on the genesis of ethnography and ethnology in the German Enlightenment as a point of departure, I stated that I conduct the history of anthropology to analyze theories and methods for the benefit of the past and the present. One has to apply a historicist method in order to avoid anachronism, but also because it is the most effective for contextualizing ideas and practices—especially when combined with an emic approach and a paradigmatic perspective. Following Lakatos, paradigms can be defined as research programs. This “historicist-emic-paradigmatic method” enabled me to produce results for anthropologists, historians, and historians of science interested in the history of anthropology, ethnography, and ethnology, as well as related fields such as linguistics (Vermeulen 2015: 35). In my view, confirmed by this conference, the subdiscipline must be conducted with great care while combining scholarly and moral responsibility, especially when dealing with sensitive issues from the past.

Up to 30 people attended this fascinating conference and brought forth lively discussions. Striking to an outside observer was that the history of anthropology has such a strong, enduring resonance in Austria and that the involvement of Viennese ethnologists in Nazism (or their exile) is dealt with in such a detailed and responsible manner. Discussions on the questions of “Why, How, and For Whom a history of anthropology should be written” will continue during a workshop on the history of anthropology taking place at the biannual conference of the DGV in Berlin, October 4-7, 2017 (for the Call for Papers, see here).

Current anthropology in Vienna focuses on many different topics, as a recent one-day conference on “Anthropology in Austria” at the Royal Anthropological Institute demonstrates. Yet one has to admire the intellectual and moral courage of Viennese anthropologists to face the darker sides of anthropology’s history in such a persistent and nuanced manner.



Chevron, Marie-France. 2007. “Bastian and the Future of an Ethnological View of the World.” In Adolf Bastian and His Universal Archive of Humanity: The Origins of German Anthropology, edited by Manuela Fischer, Peter Bolz, and Susan Kamel, 32-38. Hildesheim, Zürich, and New York: Georg Olms Verlag.

Dostal, Walter. 1994. “Silence in the Darkness: German Ethnology during the National Socialist Period.” Social Anthropology 2: 251-262, 346-347.

———. 2015. “Anfänge der Ethnologie in der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien. Die ersten Phasen der Institutionalisierung.” Anthropos 110: 503-514.

Geisenhainer, Katja. 2005. Marianne Schmidl (1890-1942). Das unvollendete Leben und Werk einer Ethnologin. Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag.

Gingrich, Andre. 2005. “The German-Speaking Countries: Ruptures, Schools, and Nontraditions: Reassessing the History of Sociocultural Anthropology in Germany.” In One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French, and American Anthropology, edited by Fredrik Barth, Andre Gingrich, Robert Parkin, and Sydel Silverman, 59-153. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2016. “Science, Race, and Empire: Ethnography in Vienna before 1918.” East Central Europe 43: 41-63.

Gingrich, Andre and Peter Rohrbacher, eds. (In progress). Geschichte der Wiener Völkerkunde in der NS-Zeit [History of Ethnology at Vienna during National-Socialism].

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

Han F. Vermeulen: contributions / website / vermeulen@eth.mpg.de / Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology