AUTOCRATIC ETHNOLOGY: ON THE CONFLICT OF INDIVIDUALISM AND RESEARCH

Stoecker, Holger. 2007. “The Advancement of African Studies in Berlin by the ‘Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft’ 1920-1945*”. In Helen L. Tilley and Robert J Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa, pp. 49-66. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

 

Germany’s colonial empire was never very large, nor very profitable for its administrators. It was a vestigial appendage of Imperial Germany, and it was captured mostly out of a spirit of competition with France and England. Still, its loss, like many of the trappings of Imperial power, had powerful repercussions for the people of the Weimar Republic and the ensuing Third Reich. Stoecker’s article shows an anthropology mobilized by nationalist forces in pursuit of long-lost Colonial power.

The Notsgemeinschaft, later renamed the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, then mercifully abbreviated DFG, was a product of postwar reconstruction in Germany. The recently republicanized nation was in dire financial straits, and Academia was suffering from the same deprivaitons as society at large. The DFG was actually founded as an ’emergency’ organization to consolidate scarce scientific funding into one organization nationwide. Beginning in 1920, the DFG was established as a private organization, albeit one whose main source of funding was the government. This collection of committees and subcommittees was organized based on academic disciplines, and admirably enough the ultimate approval or denial of grants was in the hands of legitimate experts in the fields represented.

Interestingly enough, anthropology had to struggle for inclusion in the DFG as an independent  department, originally being seconded to Geology, of all things. The Committee, devoted to Ethnology, Anthropology, Folklore, Prehistory and Native Languages’ (71) was from its inception, devoted to Africanism. Furthermore, the money allocated for studies in Africa went almost entirely to applicants from Berlin. With members appointed indefinitely by a department head who was subject only to non-binding recommendations, and a veto practiced by ‘autocratic’ DFG president Friedrich Schmidt-Ott, there was never really a chance for a less dogmatic distribution of funds.

The old Berlin establishment received most of its disbursements between 1925-1933 (before the group’s reorganization under the Nazi government) (73) and they were contingent on following a particular methodology known as Afrikanistik. This method stressed linguistics above all else, and was itself subject to expectations of productivity. A study would have to produce a book, or an article to be considered ‘productive’ for the DFG, and even equipment like audio recorders and photography gear were rationed very strictly with the understanding that their use was ancillary to print publishing. (77)These rigid standards for research were established with the tacit understanding (later made explicit under the Nazis) that the German Colonial Empire would be reclaimed. In fact, the DFG anthropology group was producing research for this express goal as late as 1943, when the defeat at Stalingrad dashed any hopes of recapturing colonies. (83)

The story that is told in this chapter is presented without a beginning or an end. We enter the narrative a few years after Germany’s colonies are confiscated by the Entente, and we end after the collapse of the Nazi government without much resolution as to the fate of German anthropology or the academics who conducted it in the preceding 25 years. Therefore, we see anthropology essentially in the service of a colonial administration that no longer exists, or else a future one that is yet to be established. The DFG collaborated directly with the Nazi armed forces, using African POW’s in internment camps for linguistic research, and presumably would have done likewise in any campaign to retake Cameroun, Namibia or Tanzania. But in actual practice, the organization seems to have participated almost in a colonial  anthropology of potential. The author makes no mention of collaboration during the actual era of colonial administration- which seems to be a crucial element of the story, especially given that the German colonial empire was notoriously brutal to its conquered subjects, including the perpetration of genocide against the Herero people.

Notably, the DFG and its related organizations were largely dominated by individual personalities. The Forschungsgemeinschaft was known as the personal dominion of its President Schmidt-Ott, who was replaced by the equally autocratic Johannes Stark- a creature of the Nazi government. (79) Stoecker identifies Stark’s regime as functioning on the Fuhrerprinzip (leader principle) established by the Nazis, but it seems that even his predecessor had few or no checks on his authority. Subcommittees likewise were treated as personal fiefdoms and research topics were vetted and approved by men like Georg Thilenius who made no secrets of their pet projects and interests, to the exclusion of all others. The DFG’s obsessive focus on colonial-minded research- was it an accurate reflection of German popular sentiment or merely the product of these few men with unlimited power in their respective posts? We cannot tell from this article alone. The author’s focus is quite conservative and he does not permit himself to speculate as to the legitimacy of the research performed- but the reader cannot help but wonder.

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