Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany

Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany

by Andrew Zimmerman

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With the rise of imperialism, the centuries-old European tradition of humanist scholarship as the key to understanding the world was jeopardized. Nowhere was this more true than in nineteenth-century Germany. It was there, Andrew Zimmerman argues, that the battle lines of today's "culture wars" were first drawn when anthropology challenged humanism as a basis for


With the rise of imperialism, the centuries-old European tradition of humanist scholarship as the key to understanding the world was jeopardized. Nowhere was this more true than in nineteenth-century Germany. It was there, Andrew Zimmerman argues, that the battle lines of today's "culture wars" were first drawn when anthropology challenged humanism as a basis for human scientific knowledge.

Drawing on sources ranging from scientific papers and government correspondence to photographs, pamphlets, and police reports of "freak shows," Zimmerman demonstrates how German imperialism opened the door to antihumanism. As Germans interacted more frequently with peoples and objects from far-flung cultures, they were forced to reevaluate not just those peoples, but also the construction of German identity itself. Anthropologists successfully argued that their discipline addressed these issues more productively—and more accessibly—than humanistic studies.

Scholars of anthropology, European and intellectual history, museum studies, the history of science, popular culture, and colonial studies will welcome this book.

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Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany

By Andrew Zimmerman
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2001 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-98342-4

Chapter One
Exotic Spectacles and the Global Context of German Anthropology

The history of anthropology has been written inside out. At least in Germany, it depended not so much on European scientists venturing out into the colonies as on colonial subjects venturing into a Europe that was dangerous, exciting, and potentially profitable for them, much as the colonies were for Europeans. In the years before the First World War, the majority of encounters between German anthropologists and the people they studied occurred in Germany, in circuses, panopticons, and zoos. To dismiss science of this sort as "armchair anthropology," as groundless speculation based on unreliable sources, would be to ignore the foundations of anthropology in a global culture of imperialism and in the popular culture of exotic spectacles. Although anthropologists themselves rarely conducted research abroad, they did study individuals from around the world who traveled to Europe to perform in popular ethnographic shows, or Völkerschauen. Performers, however, were not merely shaped according to anthropological expectations; they often came to Europe with personal and political agendas that sometimes led to conflicts with anthropologists. They often disrupted-and thereby illuminated-the conceptual and political structures presupposed by anthropology.

Even before the late nineteenth century, a considerable number of individuals from every part of the globe visited or lived in Germany. Some came to learn a trade or to go to school. Non-European sailors took shore leave when their ships were docked in German ports. A large number of Africans who fought in the French army against Germany in 1870-71 came as prisoners of war. Most importantly for the development of anthropology, individuals were enlisted to perform in German zoos and variety shows. Such shows of non-Europeans had taken place in Germany since the eighteenth century and became much more frequent in the second half of the nineteenth century. In one case, two enslaved individuals from the Aka society were brought by the German colonial hero Franz Stuhlmann; they were then used by the German Colonial Society for promotional demonstrations. They were also presented in the Royal Museum of Ethnology in Berlin, where the anthropologist Rudolf Virchow was invited to study them.

Non-Europeans in Berlin could perform in the so-called panopticons (Panoptiken), institutions of popular entertainment where visitors could, as the name implies, see everything. There were two such panopticons in Berlin's commercial arcades, Castan's Panopticon, which opened in 1873, and the Passage-Panopticon, which opened in 1888 (see fig. 1.1). Both were centered around wax museums presenting figures from history and popular culture. Castan's Panopticon presented displays of ethnographic objects and wax "racial busts" depicting various ethnic groups (see fig. 1.2). Several times a day, both panopticons staged humorous song-and-dance routines as well as appearances by remarkable individuals such as the Captain of Köpenick or the "hunger artists," accurately described in Kafka's story. The Passage-Panopticon had a thousand-seat theater in which "natural wonders such as giants, dwarves, two-headed children, etc." performed every day. Castan's Panopticon similarly presented numerous freak shows. The Passage-Panopticon offered an "Anatomical Museum and Hall of Abnormalities," and Castan's Panopticon boasted a display of wax medical statues, many of which represented both diseased and healthy sexual organs. Attendance at certain unusually risqué shows, such as an 1898 display of a hermaphrodite, was limited to medical doctors and university faculty and students. Apart from these occasional restricted shows, the panopticons were enormously popular, and Castan's reported that, on Sundays and holidays, more than five thousand people visited. Tourist guidebooks presented the panopticons as important sights, and one suggested a visit even during a stay in Berlin of only three days.

The panopticons, as well as zoological gardens and other arenas of popular amusement, were ready markets for non-European performers, who could draw large crowds to ethnographic displays, or Völkerschauen, in which they presented what were supposed to be their native customs, dances, and other entertaining practices. The most important promoter of these so-called Völkerschauen was the animal importer and zookeeper Carl Hagenbeck, whose first show consisted of a group of Laplanders whom he included in an 1874 reindeer exhibition (see fig. 1.3). The show turned out to be so popular and profitable that Hagenbeck began regularly to organize displays of humans. Louis and Gustav Castan, the brothers who owned Castan's Panopticon, were also very important Völkerschau promoters. Many ethnographic performances were also organized by colonial merchants returning to Germany, who would bring a few individuals with them to promote their firm and earn extra money.

Both Hagenbeck and the Castan brothers worked in close contact with Berlin anthropologists in staging and promoting these shows. This was not merely because of their own scientific interests but also because they needed anthropologists to attest to the authenticity of their performers and to legitimate them to the police. These shows brought non-Europeans into Germany, sometimes violated child labor laws, often included more sexualized nudity than the law generally tolerated, and seemed generally weird and suspicious to the Prussian police. There was even the suggestion that the exotic performances were a cover for "a bordello of the worst sort." The appearance of what was often referred to as "a certain scientific interest" behind these shows helped allay official suspicions and get the required police approval. For example, the Passage-Panopticon was allowed to present "scenes from a Tunisian harem" when a police inspector concluded that it was of "solely ethnological interest." Anthropologists regularly wrote professional evaluations of the displayed people, which impresarios used to promote their shows, attesting both to their authenticity and to the "high degree of interest aroused" by the performers.

Performances were not merely opportunities for anthropological study: the cooperation of anthropologists was necessary if these Völkerschauen were to be allowed to take place. Exotic shows thus required that performers satisfy anthropologists as well as popular audiences. Performers often made special appearances at the meetings of the Berlin Anthropological Society, and the anthropological society held special meetings at the zoo or the panopticons. Performers had to let themselves be studied and also had to prove their authenticity to anthropologists or risk having their shows banned. For example, when a promoter refused to allow anthropologists to take measurements of a group of Abyssinians performing at Castan's Panopticon in 1906, the anthropologist Felix von Luschan considered having "the entire show forbidden as 'crude mischief' if the people are being displayed under a false flag and if a scientific examination is hindered." Anthropologists played an important role in determining both the credibility and the legality of these shows.

Performers were thus expected to conform to a certain anthropological understanding of the non-European. In the next chapters, I consider in greater detail the philosophical and cultural background of this understanding. What is essential here is that anthropologists expected Africans, indigenous Americans, Pacific Islanders, and marginalized societies in Europe and Asia to be "natural peoples" (Naturvölker). Natural peoples supposedly lacked writing, culture, and history and thus contrasted sharply with "cultural peoples" (Kulturvölker), such as Europeans. Anthropologists believed that in natural peoples they would be able to glimpse human nature directly, unmasked by the complications of history or culture. Anthropologists did not communicate this theory directly to the performers, and it is often clear that the performers would not have been willing to conform to it in any case. However, these anthropological expectations shaped the interactions and mutual misunderstandings that occurred between the natives of Germany and the travelers who came from abroad. The ethnographic performances, made possible by the growth of European imperialism and mass culture, provided social, cultural, and political foundations and fault lines for the new discipline of anthropology and its challenges to humanism.

In 1878, a group of thirty-two individuals from the Sudan traveled to perform in Germany, Paris, and London, managed by an employee of Carl Hagenbeck's. They were the second group of Sudanese to travel to Germany, where they were billed as "Nubians" to suggest something more primitive and exotic than the Arabic-speaking Christian and Muslim population of the modern Sudan (cf. fig. 2.2 below). There is no record of the terms of their contract, although the fact that Hagenbeck made assurances to the Egyptian government about their eventual repatriation indicates that they were not simply abducted. When the Sudanese performed for two weeks in the Berlin Zoological Garden, they became the subject of what the president of the German Anthropological Society, Johannes Ranke, called "a true paradigm of an anthropological-ethnological study." It was also a paradigm of the difficulties that anthropologists and performers faced in these efforts to create natural peoples.

The study was directed by the head of the Berlin Anthropological Society, Rudolf Virchow, whose political connections had been instrumental in persuading the Egyptian government to allow the Sudanese to embark on this tour in the first place. Virchow began his studies by measuring the width (side to side), length (front to back), and height (top to bottom) of their heads, the length and breadth of their noses, the height and width of their faces, the distance from the tip of their noses to their chins, and the width of their jaws. Virchow and several colleagues used a color table to determine the hues of their skin, their finger- and toenails, and their lips and eyes. Two other anthropologists tested the color perception of the performers and recorded their color vocabulary. Three philologists specializing in Ethiopian and Egyptian languages found that they could say little about the performers because the "Nubians" did not speak an indigenous language, only Arabic. Inquiries into the performers' religion also produced few results that interested anthropologists since all performers had converted to Christianity or Islam and were no longer "heathens." Before the group returned to Africa, Virchow had photographed eight individuals whom he considered typical. Another member of the society traced the outlines of the hands and feet of each performer. After some difficulty, Louis Castan convinced two performers to let him make plaster casts of their faces, hands, and feet. A sculptor made a bust of one of the performers and sold copies to members of the society, including to Virchow.

During the regular meeting following its visit to the show, the Berlin Anthropological Society debated whether these so-called Nubians were more closely related to sub-Saharan Africans or to West Asians. At the time, this was one of the more important questions in the field of the anthropology of Africa. Both because of their physical appearance and because of their geographic location, the people of the Sudan were considered intermediaries between Asians and Africans, and thus their ethnic makeup and origins had important implications for understanding both Africa and Asia. Members discussed the physical appearance of the performers, their customs, and their tools (which were displayed with them in the zoo). One group, led by the anatomist and North Africa specialist Robert Hartmann, believed that the Sudanese originated from sub-Saharan Africa and that they may even have exerted some influence on the Semitic population of the Arabian peninsula. This group pointed out that the Sudanese possessed tools, customs, and economic practices more similar to those of the rest of Africa than to those of the Near East. Johann Gottfried Wetzstein, a former Prussian consul to Damascus and an expert on the history and languages of Syria, cited the supposed cowardice of the Bedouins to support his claim that Arabs never could have ventured to travel to the Sudan, although others pointed out that they might have come as traders rather than warriors. They failed to reach a conclusion and looked forward to further discussions based on future Sudanese shows in Berlin. Unfortunately for the anthropologists, only one more group could be brought to Europe before the Mahdist uprising in 1881 made it impossible to recruit any more performers from the region.

This "paradigmatic" study of natural peoples was unable to wrest the individuals under consideration from history, even though the lack of history was supposed to be a defining characteristic of natural peoples. The type of information that anthropologists collected was modeled on natural scientific data: measurements, photographs, and diagrams rather than narrative descriptions or textual evidence. The language and the religion of the performers were of interest only insofar as these traits represented a "natural" condition. When it was discovered that the performers spoke Arabic and practiced Christianity and Islam, that their language and religion were historical acquisitions, these phenomena lost their significance. The knowledge that anthropologists desired about "authentic" Nubians had been effaced by history. Despite the mass of "natural scientific" data that anthropologists had been able to collect, the debate about racial relations among Africans and West Asians continually returned to questions about historical events. Virchow attempted to stifle these inquiries, insisting that the participants restrict themselves to a "concentrated and deliberate" course of inquiry, either to linguistics or to physical anthropology, and eschew speculations based on history. The final intervention of history occurred in the Mahdist uprising, when the history of colonialism itself prevented further "Nubian" performances, which, anthropologists hoped, might have offered more conclusive evidence. This, however, did not lead anthropologists to abandon their quest for natural peoples; they simply looked elsewhere.


Excerpted from Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany by Andrew Zimmerman Copyright © 2001 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Andrew Zimmerman is an assistant professor of history at George Washington University.

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