Editors’ note: This essay is part of the series Socio-Cultural Anthropology under Hitler: Four Case Studies from Vienna

Marianne Schmidl was the first woman in a German-speaking country to obtain a doctorate in ethnology and was one of the pioneers in the field of ethnomathematics.[1] Her main interest for many years was the cultural-historical study of African baskets. Eighty years ago she was deported and murdered by the Nazis. Now a document has surfaced indicating that she tried to emigrate to the USA before her life was violently ended.[2]

The following information on her life and work is based in particular on archival material and family memories. It is as an important addition to the curriculum vitae she prepared for the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars (see Fig. 1).

The family of Marianne Schmidl had Jewish ancestors; her father converted to Christianity only before his wedding. Marianne Schmidl and her younger sister grew up in Vienna in a learned and liberal environment rich in cultural interests. After some years at Eugenie Schwarzwald’s reform school, taking graduation exams in 1910, Marianne Schmidl began studying mathematics and physics at the University of Vienna. She also attended courses in ethics, psychology, archaeology, and ethnography. Travelling to the Ötztal in the East Central Alps, she acquired various objects on behalf of Michael Haberlandt, director of the Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art. Furthermore, Schmidl did research on the cultivation and preparation of flax, resulting in her first publication in 1913. Although she changed academic subjects, she maintained an interest in numbers and systematics in parallel with her ethnological studies.

Schmidl attained her doctorate in 1916 with her study Zahl und Zählen in Afrika (Numbers and Counting in Africa), which was published in 1915. In her thesis she first addressed the question of how people in Africa count and how concepts of numbers are formed. She then demonstrated that even mathematical concepts are not universal in terms of approach and development, but can vary significantly depending on the environment and cultural context. Her study was positively reviewed internationally.

Starting in 1916, she worked first at the Berlin Museum of Ethnology, then at the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart and finally at the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Weimar. From the beginning Schmidl had been taught by representatives of very different theories and methods. Among her teachers was Haberlandt who was critical of the diffusionist approach and instead assumed innumerable parallel developments and convergences all over the world. According to Haberlandt, ethnology deals not only with cultural history (the major focus of the diffusionists), but above all with peoples, their social and psychological structures, and their material culture. Schmidl’s doctoral supervisor Rudolf Pöch was an expert in both ethnology and physical anthropology, with a focus on the latter. In Berlin Schmidl also worked with Haberlandt’s opponent on theoretical issues, Bernhard Ankermann, one of the main representatives of the so-called Kulturkreiselehre. Schmidl herself did not seem to have a problem with this constellation; instead, she may have been stimulated by these different influences. Furthermore Schmidl, whose parents held different political views, was familiar with a culture of constructive debate that did not endanger mutual respect.

After working at these museums in Berlin, Stuttgart, and Weimar, Schmidl failed to find employment at an ethnological institution, despite bringing with her numerous positive references from Haberlandt, Ankermann, Theodor Koch-Grünberg, Felix von Luschan, and Father Wilhelm Schmidt among others. Finally, in 1924 she was employed at the Austrian National Library as a librarian with official status and a consultant for prehistory, ethnology, mathematics, medicine, and the natural sciences.

Alongside her full-time employment, Schmidl continued her ethnological research. In 1924 she traveled to Bulgaria for studies among the so-called Shopi in the Sofia Valley. She again brought back artifacts for the museum and published two articles dealing in particular with material culture, crafts, and everyday activities. Her articles also concluded with reflections on the spatial and temporal spread of the Shopi. At that time, Serbs and Bulgarians in particular argued about the origin and ethnicity of this population; moreover, at the same time, in Austria and Germany, there was general interest in reconstructions of the past of peoples and nations, which was very often connected with an idea of unity, purity, and continuity. Schmidl urged restraint with speculations about the Shopi’s origins. Just as elsewhere, one could not assume a historical continuity of forms in the Eastern European cultural heritage; rather, she wrote, the most diverse forms could emerge at very different stages of development and from very different directions. In order to determine the position of the Shopi among Bulgaria’s peoples, linguistic and purely historical studies would have to be carried out in addition to ethnographic studies. Unlike many of her colleagues Schmidl did not refer to then widespread racial studies as a discipline capable of contributing to the findings.

Schmidl’s main interest was the cultural-historical study of African baskets, which she had begun in Berlin at Ankermann’s suggestion. In 1926 Fritz Krause, interim director of the Saxon Research Institute for Ethnology in Leipzig, promised her financial support for her study without stating a deadline. In the following years, while still employed at the library, Schmidl visited the relevant Western European museums to scrutinize African basketwork.

Here, her mathematical knowledge was a great advantage. Symmetrical and geometric understanding was crucial for the both the production process itself—the weaving of a regularly patterned object—and for its study, particularly with reference to technique and predefined ornamentation.

Schmidl came into contact with renowned experts on site and built up a professional network beyond the borders of Austria and Germany. She became a member of the recently founded Association for Ethnology (today the German Anthropological Association), and was part of the Viennese Working Group for African Cultural History which was formed to identify alternatives to the rigid Viennese theory of cultural circles. In her studies of cultural history, Schmidl herself tried to take all influences on culture into account, because “a phenomenon could never be explained by one side alone.”[3] Academically socialized by representatives of quite contrary approaches, she broke away from then-widespread ideas and theories. Deliberation was characteristic of Schmidl’s general approach in her research, along with a restraint towards the broad categorizations that were common at the time. Over the years, she increasingly distanced herself from the then-widespread Hamitic theory. Schmidl wrote in 1935 that the “equation Hamite = large cattle breeder” had to be dropped.[4] It not only blurred the boundaries between cattle breeders on the one hand and arable farmers on the other, but also between culture-creating and culture-receiving peoples. Perhaps it was partly due to her Christian-Jewish background that, unlike many of her colleagues, she saw no disadvantage in the mutual influence of cultures.

The new director of the State Saxon Research Institute in Leipzig, Otto Reche, repeatedly urged Schmidl over a period of years to complete her work on African baskets. She was not able to finish the study with her usual thoroughness in the time available to her: “I think it is not enough simply to draw up a typology and trace the distribution of these types. The stratifications today are far too complicated for that.” She wanted to trace the “history of each individual tribe” in Africa and gain the “most precise knowledge of the historical conditions” on the African continent. Nobody pointed out to her that a single person could not handle this in a manageable time.[5] In addition, her health became increasingly unstable starting in the early 1930s.

After the so called “Anschluss” of Austria to the German Reich under Hitler in 1938, Schmidl was dismissed from the library, due to the Nuremberg Laws denying citizenship to Jews. Her “application for equality with Jewish half-breeds of the first degree” was rejected. Further, she was unable to meet Reche’s demand that she repay the grant she had received. In December 1938, Reche asked the Reich Commissioner for the Re-Unification of Austria with the German Reich for permission to reclaim the grant paid to Schmidl—without mentioning that the Research Institute had already ceased to exist in 1936 and that claims against third parties had been transferred to the Saxon Academy of Sciences. With the support of her brother-in-law, Schmidl asked Reche for understanding. Under duress and increasingly suffering from discrimination and persecution by the National Socialists, she agreed to send all her research materials to Leipzig. She was almost 50 years old, unemployed, and living alone; now she was forced to give up her plan to devote herself to her studies.

It must have been during this time—in the spring of 1939—that Schmidl considered emigrating to the United States. She drafted the aforementioned resume in English for the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars and wrote about her long-term study on African baskets and her current situation: “The publication of these studies was delayed by my illness and later on by the political changes in Germany. (Nobody who is not pure Aryan can publish work in Germany since 1933.) The greatest part of the manuscript is ready for print.”[6]

According to a note dated the 3rd of March 1939, the emigrated Viennese ethnologist Robert Heine-Geldern, who had completed his doctorate two years before Schmidl at the same institute, approved her application in New York, saying she was “really a first rate scholar” (see Fig. 2)

Figure 2. Source: Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars records. Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations; b. 112 f. 49

Perhaps Ankermann in Berlin was also informed about Schmidl’s attempt to emigrate. He stood up for her and wrote to Reche: “The author herself will probably have to go abroad and hopes to find a job somewhere there on the basis of this work.”[7] Krause also spoke highly of her, stressing that she was the only one who could complete her manuscript.

But Marianne Schmidl did not have the chance to emigrate. She had to send her unfinished manuscript to Leipzig in 1939, along with other material including countless sketches and notes on baskets (see Figs. 3 and 4), distribution maps for the different basket types, as well as specially created tables into which she had entered the baskets, named the respective region or “tribe,” recorded the material, type of use, technique, and—if available—further information. Schmidl also noted whether the baskets were made by men or women, but in her manuscript she criticized the often overly general information found in the literature: “Usually, not all the baskets of a tribe are made only by the men or only by the women, but each sex is assigned certain techniques.”[8] Her manuscript reflects her assumption that this craft originally was practiced by women.

In addition to the method of production, Schmidl dealt with the geographical spread of different baskets in general and basket details in particular. She placed these distributions in a cultural and ethno-historical context. Although she saw different influences at work in many cases, she often assumed a flow spreading in only one direction. Since she had already begun this study in the 1920s and intensively studied cultural-historical approaches and the history of Africa in subsequent years, Schmidl would probably have revised some of its content herself if she had had the opportunity. While in many cases the cultural-historical interpretations would obviously no longer stand up to the current state of research, Schmidl’s explanations of the different practices of basketry in different regions of Africa certainly remain of interest today.

Marianne Schmidl was deported to Izbica in April 1942 and very probably died the same year, either there or in the extermination camp of Sobibor or Belzec.

Return to series introduction and links to other essays

[1] Many thanks to Nicki Schiller and her husband Johann Schiller, grand-nephew of Marianne Schmidl, for proofreading this article. On Marianne Schmidl, see the following publications by Katja Geisenhainer: Marianne Schmidl (1890-1942): Das unvollendete Leben einer Ethnologin (Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2005); “Schmidl, (Therese) Marianne (1890–ca. 1942), Ethnologin und Bibliothekarin,” in Österreichisches Biographisches Lexikon ab 1815 (2. rev. ed., 2021), online: https://biographien.ac.at/ID-0.3055412-1; “Jüdische Lebenslinien in der Wiener Völkerkunde vor 1938: Das Beispiel Marianne Schmidl” and “Verfolgung, Deportation und Ermordung: Die letzten Lebensjahre von Marianne Schmidl,” these both chapters in Andre Gingrich and Peter Rohrbacher, eds., Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien (1938–1945): Institutionen, Biographien und Praktiken in Netzwerken (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 2021), 153-204, and 1553-1581.

[2] Her last name on the file of the “Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars records” was misspelled, as happened in other archives. I thank the archive’s staff for confirming my assumption.

[3] Marianne Schmidl,  “Die Grundlagen der Nilotenkultur,” Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien 65 (1935), 86-125, 110 (except for citations from the documents shown here, all quotations in this text are translated from German by the author).

[4] Ibid.   

[5] Universitätsarchiv Leipzig (UAL), Ethnologie Re XXXV; Schmidl to Reche, 7/23/1930.

[6] See Fig. 1.

[7] UAL, Ethnologie Re XXXV; Ankermann to Reche 4/28/1939.

[8] Marianne Schmidl, “Afrikanische Spiralwulstkörbe,” in Geisenhainer, ed., Marianne Schmidl (1890-1942), 257–367, 310.

Katja Geisenhainer: contributions / katja.geisenhainer@univie.ac.at