Anthropology at War: World War I and the Science of Race in Germany

Anthropology at War: World War I and the Science of Race in Germany

by Andrew D. Evans

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Between 1914 and 1918, German anthropologists conducted their work in the midst of full-scale war. The discipline was relatively new in German academia when World War I broke out, and, as Andrew D. Evans reveals in this illuminating book, its development was profoundly altered by the conflict. As the war shaped the institutional, ideological, and physical environment for anthropological work, the discipline turned its back on its liberal roots and became a nationalist endeavor primarily concerned with scientific studies of race.

Combining intellectual and cultural history with the history of science, Anthropology at War examines both the origins and consequences of this shift. Evans locates its roots in the decision to allow scientists access to prisoner-of-war camps, which prompted them to focus their research on racial studies of the captives. Caught up in wartime nationalism, a new generation of anthropologists began to portray the country’s political enemies as racially different. After the war ended, the importance placed on racial conceptions and categories persisted, paving the way for the politicization of scientific inquiry in the years of the ascendancy of National Socialism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226222691
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Andrew D. Evans is assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Read an Excerpt

Anthropology at War

World War I and the Science of Race in Germany

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-22268-4

Chapter One

Institutionalizing the "Most Recent Science": Anthropology in the World of German Learning at the Fin de Siècle

In the fall of 1916, the Munich anthropologist Ferdinand Birkner sent a copy of his most recent anthropological work to a high-ranking Bavarian minister, as was the custom of the day. The book, entitled The Races and Peoples of Humanity, was a massive tome that he had worked on for many years and finally published in 1913. Despite its daunting size and heft, the volume was primarily designed to introduce the layperson to anthropological questions and to awaken a general interest in the discipline. With the book, Birkner included a short note that read, "In order to show your Excellence that somatic anthropology has full justification alongside the older disciplines in the natural sciences, please allow me to present my work.... Your Excellence will see from it which problems fall in the area of anthropology." The minister responded, perhaps disingenuously, that he would greatly enjoy the "fine hours" of reading over the work and absorbing its explication of "old and new research in the field of anthropology."

In the life of the Bavarian bureaucracy, this exchange was wholly unremarkable, except perhaps for Birkner's tone. For the anthropologist, the presentation of the volume was an opening to affirm the worth of his discipline. In what would normally have been a trivial and unimportant message, Birkner felt it necessary to defend anthropology's right to take its place alongside the traditional disciplines in the natural sciences, such as physics, biology, and medicine. These were the fields that received a great deal of public attention and state support, and he sought to include anthropology among their ranks. Moreover, he hoped—probably in vain—that the minister would truly learn which issues fell into the purview of the discipline, or, in other words, what the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology really were. The note demonstrated a desire to increase anthropology's visibility within the world of German science and to attract the attention of the government. Birkner's short message exemplifies a larger theme in the history of German anthropology in the decades before World War I: the attempts of a new science to fashion itself as an independent and respected field of study with a strong line of state support.

In 1890, the anatomist and anthropologist Wilhelm Waldeyer (1836–1921) described anthropology as "one of the most recent sciences." The discipline remained a relative newcomer in the world of German learning at the turn of the century. Anthropologists were still working not only to define their field, but also to gain its acceptance as a legitimate scholarly pursuit. In previous decades they had achieved only limited success in creating firm institutional anchors supported by the state. Leading figures in the discipline had managed to create anthropological societies and found ethnographic museums, but efforts to position anthropology as an established field in the German university system were less successful. Moreover, the forces of professionalization and specialization, increasing in intensity around 1900, had begun to alter the shape and goals of nearly every scientific enterprise, including anthropology. Specialization increased the pace of differentiation among the three anthropological subdisciplines—physical anthropology, ethnology, and prehistory—and highlighted the growing tensions between them. Professionalization contributed to the situation by creating a cadre of scientists trained specifically in one subfield, rather than two or three.

Taken together, these factors meant that the anthropological disciplines developed along a different path than the more established sciences in the Kaiser's Germany. The traditional historiography on the rise of German science in the nineteenth century has emphasized the tight connection between the university and the state in fostering scientific innovation. Anthropology, however, developed almost entirely outside of the university and without a great deal of help from the state. The effect of anthropology's outsider status was to create an even greater desire in anthropological circles for state support and the establishment of solid institutional underpinnings. This was particularly true in the field of physical anthropology. As the anthropological subfields became increasingly distinct, the disparity between their institutional circumstances became clearer. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, ethnology developed strong, state-supported institutional bases in ethnographic museums, which quickly became the conceptual and professional center of ethnological work. Physical anthropology, once the most dominant of the three fields in local anthropological societies, fell somewhere in between the university and the museum, failing to find a secure home in either institution or to tap into a consistent line of state support. The result of these pressures was institutional uncertainty within physical anthropology, whose proponents longed to prove the worth of their science, attract the attention and resources of the government, and carve out their own institutional and intellectual domain.

Feelings of institutional insecurity and the accompanying desire for greater professional opportunities proved to be major forces for change in German anthropology. The marginal position of the discipline within the larger landscape of German science gradually drove physical anthropologists to seek greater social and political relevance. This process began around 1900, as select members of the anthropological community slowly shifted their scholarly focus toward national and imperial themes in the hopes of attracting state support and more attention from society at large. Germany's colonial project, gathering force under Wilhelm II, appeared to be the perfect opportunity for the anthropological disciplines, since it required research into the peoples and places that Germans sought to rule. Here too, however, physical anthropologists found themselves eclipsed by ethnologists, who were more successful in arguing that their discipline would be useful in the nation's colonial efforts. In an era of scientific growth, anthropologists felt underappreciated. In the years leading up to 1914, the discipline was dominated by a creeping sense of institutional anxiety that later encouraged the transformation of the field into a political and nationalist tool during World War I.

The Changing World of German Science

Scholarship, especially in the natural sciences, played a crucial role in Wilhelm II's Germany. German science was entering a new era of unprecedented development in the first decade of the twentieth century, a period characterized by increasing levels of state support and heightened prestige for scientists. Spurred by its domination of the "second industrial revolution," Germany was fast becoming the most important industrial nation in the world, demonstrating a marked superiority in new sectors such as chemistry and electricity. Advances and innovations in the German natural sciences—from physics to pathology—fueled this new dominance. Hoping to continue Germany's industrial ascendancy, both state bureaucracies and private industry sought to encourage scientific research. In the 1880s, for example, dyestuff companies created their own scientific research units, designed to improve manufacturing and formulate new products. Large industrial firms also began to compete for scientific talent like the German chemist and professor Fritz Haber, who developed the process of fixing nitrogen from the air in a laboratory run by the German chemical firm BASF, which also gave him a large grant that effectively doubled his salary. Perhaps most important, government and industry alike recognized that the practical worth of scientific knowledge went well beyond the achievement of industrial or economic goals: advances in bacteriology and other medical sciences appeared to be leading the world into an age where epidemics and disease would be distant memories.

Thus, in the first decade of the new century, science was more than simply a cause of industrial dominance or a force for social improvement; it was also a source of national prestige. Germany was internationally known as a leader in scientific research and innovation. German universities had become increasingly famous around the globe throughout the nineteenth century, and by 1900 they were the preeminent international centers for scientific education. As innovations in German science continued, the German language increasingly became the standard tongue of international scientific discourse. The top German scientists, such as Paul Ehrlich, Robert Koch, and Rudolf Virchow, were national and even international celebrities, the "new heroes" of the modern era. In the eyes of many in Europe and around the world, Germany's scientific achievements even served to counterbalance the authoritarianism and militarism of the German Empire. By 1900, natural science was closely linked in the popular mind with modernity, an association that the Second Empire encouraged by placing the achievements of German scientists at the center of its self-representations as a modern nation-state. At the 1893 and 1904 World's Fairs, the German pavilions not only highlighted the central features of the Bismarckian social insurance system, but also trumpeted the achievements of German scholarship and education. In the new Germany of the twentieth century, the natural sciences enjoyed an unprecedented level of national and international prestige.

The boom in German science was also accompanied by momentous changes in the German university system. Chief among these was massive growth. The number of university students nearly tripled from 1876 to 1908.10 The size of academic staffs also increased over the same period, usually by hiring temporary teaching faculty. University budgets expanded rapidly. While Friedrich Althoff was in charge of Prussian higher education from 1882 to 1908, the portion of the state budget allocated to Prussian universities rose from 5.6 to 12.25 million marks.11 In 1899, the government awarded technical colleges university status, allowing them to confer doctoral degrees. New fields proliferated, especially in the sciences. Chemistry, for example, soon splintered into a host of new subfields including physical chemistry, electrochemistry, pharmaceutical chemistry, and biochemistry.

These changes had their detractors. To entrenched members of the professoriate, the proliferation of new fields and the advance of specialization appeared to threaten their power and prestige. Full professors, or Ordinarien, wielded great power within the university system because they made up the corporate body at the heart of each institution and served as the heads of institutes, where research took place. By 1900, the German professoriate adopted a defensive stance toward specialization, generally opposing the addition of new fields, especially those associated with applied sciences like engineering. They likewise resisted the extension of university status to technical colleges. Disciplines that were either already well established at the university, such as clinical medicine and experimental physics, or that didn't require extensive laboratory facilities saw a good deal of growth, but newer experimental fields often had difficulty gaining a foothold in the academy. The intransigence of the universities provoked strong reactions from state officials and scientists. State governments began to take a greater role in supporting scientific research, even forcing universities to accept new areas of study in some cases. Other scientists decided to create centers for scientific research outside the university with the support of industry and the imperial government. The formation of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (Imperial Physical and Technical Institute or PTR) in 1887 and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for Chemistry in 1912 provided new models for scientific production outside of the academy.

Despite the resistance of traditionalists, the forces of specialization and professionalization gained momentum throughout this period. As the pressure for innovative research increased and alliances with private industry became more common, scientists in fields such as chemistry, engineering, and pathology developed narrower specialties. Once removed from the university structure, scientists were able to abandon the Humboldtian scholarly ideal of uniting teaching with research. In new institutional settings like the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, they focused solely on experimentation and innovation. Moreover, as the practical knowledge in the sciences and other academic disciplines increased exponentially around the turn of the century, experts were forced to specialize in order to keep up with the expanding production of knowledge in their fields. The related phenomenon of professionalization also accelerated in the first decade of the new century. By 1900, a rigorous system of academic training and credentials was in place in all the major sciences. In order to enter a field like chemistry, for example, a student needed an advanced degree from a university, which required the completion of a Habilitation, an original work of research, under the mentorship of an advising professor. With a degree in hand, one could embark on an academic career or find work with a chemical firm. Professional associations in fields like chemistry and medicine also increased in strength from 1900 to 1914 by enforcing further educational requirements and unifying professional standards.

At the turn of the century, conditions in the late Wilhelmine Empire appeared promising for the further development of the anthropological sciences. The natural sciences in general were experiencing an unprecedented boom, lending clout to almost all kinds of scientific endeavor. The German government sought to exploit scientific research both for industrial gain and for national prestige, and state support for science was on the rise. Professional scientists in a myriad of specialized fields were in high demand. And yet these factors benefited ethnology much more than physical anthropology. Even in an era of scientific expansion, the institutional aspirations of physical anthropologists remained largely unfulfilled. Throughout this period, anthropologists sought the approval and support of the state without a great degree of success.

The Anthropological Disciplines in the Late Nineteenth Century

As they developed in the nineteenth century, the anthropological disciplines were notoriously difficult to define, and their boundaries shifted considerably over time. Generally understood as the "science of man," anthropology encompassed a wide range of methods and had different meanings in various intellectual contexts. In early nineteenth-century philosophy and history, the word often simply implied the general study of human nature. Even as late as 1850 in Germany, anthropology could refer to nearly any empirical study of humankind. Scholars employed the term in a variety of other fields of knowledge such as sociology, cultural history, and linguistics. Even for those who defined anthropology as the comparative study of culture, several nascent and competing models for its creation as a specific field of knowledge existed, many of which drew on humanistic disciplines like history and geography. The discipline only began to take formal shape with the foundation of anthropological societies in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Within these organizations, anthropology as a field of inquiry was organized around three subdisciplines: physical anthropology, ethnology, and prehistory. In theory each area had a distinct purview, but in reality a great deal of overlap existed between them in the first several decades of their existence.

Physical or "somatic" anthropology was understood to be a "natural science of humankind" or a "natural history of hominids." It aimed at the systematic classification of the human species, much like zoology sought to achieve for the animal kingdom. Wilhelm Waldeyer explained in 1890 that physical anthropology was the field that "takes the physical composition of the human species as [its] subject, primarily pursues the study of race, and seeks to ascertain the differences and similarities which occur in the construction of humans across the globe." The goal was to discover, by using the empirical methods of the natural sciences, the physical characteristics that differentiated humans from each other. Anthropologists understood their project as identifying and cataloging the myriad forms of human variation, which they classified as "races" or physical "types." The methods varied, but usually incorporated the measurement and quantification of anatomical attributes, with particular attention to the bones and skull. By investigating the bodily characteristics of individuals, anthropologists hoped to come to conclusions about the aggregate, especially the relations between peoples and regions. Anthropologists emphasized a lineage for their field reaching back to the eighteenth-century naturalist Johann Friederich Blumenbach (1752–1840), who published his foundational work, On the Natural Varieties of Humankind, in 1775. Blumenbach, an anatomist and professor at the University of Göttingen, pioneered the field of craniometry, the study of the human skull as a method of classifying human "races."


Excerpted from Anthropology at War by ANDREW D. EVANS Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
List of Illustrations

INTRODUCTION ONE / Institutionalizing the “Most Recent Science”: Anthropology in the World of German Learning at the Fin de Siècle
TWO / The Meaning of Race: The Liberal Paradigm in Prewar German Anthropology
THREE / Nationalism and Mobilization in Wartime Anthropology, 1914–18
FOUR / “Among Foreign Peoples”: Racial Studies of POWs during World War I
FIVE / Capturing Race: Anthropology and Photography in POW Camps during World War I
SIX / Anthropology in the Aftermath: Rassenkunde, Racial Hygiene, and the End of the Liberal Tradition


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