The Emigration of German Sinologists 1933-1945: Notes on the History and Historiography of Chinese Studies

By Kern, Martin | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October 1998 | Go to article overview

The Emigration of German Sinologists 1933-1945: Notes on the History and Historiography of Chinese Studies


Kern, Martin, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


I

In 1949, Hellmut Wilhelm (1905-90), professor of Chinese history at the University of Washington, began his article "German Sinology Today"(1) with a critical observation:

In contrast to the general tendency of resurgence of academic life in Germany, which has been reported from all the former academic centers and even from an additional one at Mainz, the pace of the recovery of German Sinology has been rather slow. Some of the main former seats of Far Eastern studies still remain unoccupied. The reason for this special development is, in the first place, lack of personnel.

Where had the academic teachers gone? As Wilhelm makes clear, they had left in very different directions, revealing different consequences of the rise and fall of Nazism: several scholars had passed away, some of them directly or indirectly because of the war and its aftermath; others were still to return from abroad, mainly from China where they had gone during or even before the twelve years of the Third Reich, not as emigrants but with German scholarships or on official or professional missions; a third group were those who, as a result of their entanglement with the Nazis, had been removed from their chairs after 1945 and were not (yet) reinstalled by 1949; and finally, most substantially, both in terms of their number and of their established or emerging scholarly reputation, there were those who had been dismissed from the universities - on the basis of the infamous "Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums" of April 7, 1933(2) - and, threatened by the Nazi terror after 1933, had left the country as opponents of the regime. It is this last group to which the present article is devoted. A record of their names, their positions, and the consequences of their emigration, both in Germany and in their new homes offers insights into the institutional history of Chinese studies - insights without which we can hardly comprehend the development of these fields in Western academia during the last five decades.

The lists of political emigrants and of those who left Germany immediately after World War II reveal that the emigration, as a whole, was the single most significant hiatus in the short history of professional Chinese studies in Europe. The exodus not only of individual scholars but of whole fields and new approaches of scholarship is particularly obvious with regard to the study of Chinese (and East Asian) art history, social and economic history, ethnology, and linguistics; to a substantial degree it is apparent even in the study of the Central Asiatic aspect of Chinese history. In addition to scholars working in the several areas of Chinese studies, German Sinology lost museum directors, librarians, and the journal Asia Major, at the time of its suspension in 1935 "the only German professional journal of international rank"(3) in Chinese studies. To understand the effects of this exodus, it is also crucial to realize that it took place at a time when Sinology, as "our science" (as Hellmut Wilhelm was wont to say) with its own niche at German universities, had been in existence for little more than two decades and was still a young and very small field, especially when compared, for example, to the traditional "Oriental Studies" of the Near and Middle East. Hans Georg Conon von der Gabelentz (1840-93), for example, was professor of general linguistics (in Leipzig from 1878 to 1889, and afterward in Berlin) when he wrote his pioneer work Chinesische Grammatik, reit Ausschluss des niederen Stiles und der Umgangssprache (1881). The two most distinguished German Sinologists at the turn of the century, Friedrich Hirth (1845-1927) and Berthold Laufer (1874-1934), did not find employment in Germany but rather in the United States: Hirth at Columbia University, Laufer at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. When juxtaposed to the rather lengthy list of emigrants, the small number of teaching institutions with chairs in Sinology established before 1933 is indeed astounding. …

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