Germany Discovers the World: Scholarly Engagement with Foreign Cultures in the Age of Empire

Mar 11, 2010

Panel Discussion at GHI Washington | Speakers: Andreas Eckert (Humboldt University Berlin), Suzanne L. Marchand (Louisiana State University), and Anke Ortlepp (German Historical Institute)

Asia, Africa, and the Americas became the subjects of wide-ranging scholarly inquiry in Germany over the course of the nineteenth century. The scope of traditional humanistic disciplines broadened to encompass peoples and cultures beyond Europe and the ancient Mediterranean world. New fields like anthropology and scientific archeology similarly extended the horizons of study at German universities. To explore the contexts -intellectual, political, and institutional-in which this transformation of the human sciences took place, the GHI held the panel discussion "Germany Discovers the World: Scholarly Engagement with Foreign Cultures in the Age of Empire" on March 11, 2010. 

The panel participants were Andreas Eckert (Humboldt University Berlin), Suzanne Marchand (Louisiana State University), and Anke Ortlepp (GHI). Marchand, whose book German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship was recently published in the GHI's series with Cambridge University Press, opened the discussion with a brief account of the four "Turfan Expeditions" to Chinese Turkestan that Berlin museum officials undertook between 1902 and 1914. The region was home to many early Buddhist sites, but it was less interest in Buddhism per se than the hope of finding artifacts attesting to Hellenistic influence on Buddhist culture that drew the expeditions' organizers. The prodigious quantities of artworks and manuscripts that the expeditions yielded for Berlin's museums and libraries did, however, in the long run prompt German orientalists to engage with Central Asia's cultural traditions on their own terms. Turning to the history of African studies in Germany, Andreas Eckert noted that practical concerns had a decisive influence on the field. The needs of colonial administrators and foreign traders resulted in strong institutional support for the study of African languages at German universities and research institutes. That focus was reinforced, Eckert suggested, after Germany lost its African colonies at the close of World War I and German researchers were largely deprived of the possibility of long-term fieldwork in Africa. Unlike Central Asia and Africa, the United States was not exotic to German eyes in the late nineteenth century, Anke Ortlepp noted by way of introduction to her comments on the beginnings of American studies in Germany. By the time of the American Civil War, Germans had been migrating to North America for nearly two centuries, and those who remained at home had long heard about life in the New World from friends and family members who had settled across the Atlantic. German historians, legal scholars, and political scientists produced many studies of American political and constitutional history in the decades before World War I, but most of the German scholars in that period who wrote about the U.S. had little firsthand experience of the country and relied exclusively on secondary sources rather than original research. One area in which German scholars were to have a major influence on their American colleagues, Ortlepp went on to note, was the study of Native American cultures. For instance, Franz Boas, the "father of American anthropology," was German born and trained. Boas undertook his first research trip to study the Inuit of Baffin Island while a postdoctoral student of geography at Kiel in the early 1880s. After emigrating from Germany toward the end of that decade, Boas was to play a key role in institutionalizing ethnological and anthropological research in the United States. 

As evidenced by the lively discussion that followed the presentations, the program "Germany Discovers the World" made clear the value of taking a comparative approach to the history of science, learning, and knowledge. It also suggested that extending the comparison to include other European academic cultures would be worthwhile. 

David Lazar (GHI)