Department’s History since 1900: An Overview

This text provides an overview of the field’s history at the University of Vienna since 1900, i.e. along five short sections. They highlight basic aspects that are especially significant from today's perspective. Thus, important details have been omitted and can be looked up through the references at the end. 

From the first professorship in “Anthropology and Ethnography” to the Institut für Völkerkunde’s foundation

Similar to other parts of the German-speaking world, academic interest in ethnographic questions also intensified in Vienna during the second half of the 19th century, i.e. in the late imperial and colonial period of global and continental European history. In the multiethnic Habsburg monarchy there was little interest in institutionalising the Herderian distinction between so-called "civilised" and "primitive" peoples (Gingrich 2005). Initially no fundamental distinction was made between research conducted in the two corresponding fields (i.e. at home and overseas), and both were seen as part of natural history. Up to the turn of the century this research field’s main institutional location in Vienna was located at the Natural History Museum (NHM), evidence of which can still be seen today in the inscription on the museum's golden dome (Gingrich 2012). In this field known as "Anthropology and Ethnography" the first individuals to qualify as professors in Vienna were Michael Haberlandt and Wilhelm Hein. Museum curator Michael Haberlandt (Habil. 1892, 1910 associate prof.) had graduated as an Indologist and primarily operated as a co-founder for "Volkskunde" (i.e. the anthropology of Europe), which established an independent private museum early on in Vienna but was not organised as an independent university institute until after 1945). Wilhelm Hein (Habil. 1901) was the Vienna Anthropological Society’s secretary for some time. He conducted lengthy ethnographic field research in South Arabia with his wife Marie in 1901/02. Marie Hein would later become the first woman employed as an academic staff member at the Ethnology Museum (Museum für Völkerkunde) (Geisenhainer 2005: 67–75; Sturm 2007). In 1912 during the final years of the Imperial and Royal monarchy a first professorship in "Anthropology and Ethnography" also became established at the University of Vienna’s Philosophical Faculty for Rudolf Pöch (1870 - 1921). He already was a well known physician and physical anthropologist, who gained additional prominence in the field of ethnography as a result of early, albeit not unproblematic film and audio documentaries compiled during extensive, imperial-style expeditions to New Guinea and southern Africa. Many of Pöch's physical anthropological surveys and "collections" were illegal even according to the standards of the time, but it was not until 2010 that restitutions began to be made to South Africa. During World War I Pöch directed large-scale Austrian surveys of prisoners of war (Lange 2013). These were carried out in partial cooperation with similar German studies headed by Pöch's former teacher at the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin, Felix von Luschan, a native of Lower Austria (Six-Hohenbalken 2009).After the First World War the post was upgraded into a full professorship as part of a formal institute (1919). Following Pöch's early death, the Silesian Otto Reche (1879 - 1966) succeeded Pöch as the new professor (1924-27) in Vienna. Reche had participated in the Hamburg South Sea expedition in 1908/09 and in POW surveys during World War I. With his appointment begins a more than 30-year succession of experts socialised in Germany filling this Viennese professorship. From his base in Vienna Reche pursued a more intense subordination of "ethnography" under physical anthropology with a concentration on questions of "ancestry" and proof of paternity. Reche later perfected this programme in Leipzig, where he became one of the most prominent agents of the integration of "ethnology" under the primacy of a racist anthropology shaped by Nazi ideology until 1945. In 1945 Reche was arrested. He was subsequently divested of the right to teach at universities in Germany. However, this did not prevent the Republic of Austria from awarding Reche the "Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1st Class" in 1965 (Geisenhainer 2002).After Reche moved from Vienna to Leipzig (1927), Father Wilhelm Schmidt (1868 - 1954) successfully promoted the increased separation of ethnography from physical anthropology at the University of Vienna. Schmidt was born in Westphalia, he was the founder of the SVD’s (Societas Verbi Divini) mission school in St. Gabriel near Mödling and elsewhere. – By 1928/29, two new institutes thereby emerged at Vienna University: the Institute of Ethnology (Institut für Völkerkunde) and the Institute of (physical) Anthropology (Institut für Anthropologie). The first institute’s director for ethnology was F. Wilhelm Koppers (1886 - 1961), F. Wilhelm Schmidt's associate and close academic colleague.Together Schmidt and Koppers had devised the so-called Vienna School of "culture circle theory” which—with the exception of the Nazi period—characterised this Vienna institute’s academic orientation until the early 1950s. This theologically informed research approach assumed the basic notion that the "most primitive" peoples stood closest to divine creation, thus providing evidence for "primeval monotheism". So-called "culture circles” were reconstructed based on questions regarding the origins and diffusion of material objects. Nevertheless, several empirical works by Schmidt and Koppers as well as by many of their disciples (e.g. Gusinde, Schebesta, Haekel, Henninger) contained some useful and relevant insights. In addition, before Austria's annexation by Hitler's Germany, South East Asia expert Robert (von) Heine-Geldern (1885 - 1968) was a productive researcher at this institute. He served as a sort of non-theological yet diffusionist counterweight to the "Vienna School", and was forced to emigrate when the Nazi regime took over (Schweitzer 2011). Another type of counterweight was represented by the India and Himalaya expert Christoph (von) Fürer-Haimendorf (1909 - 95). Although he was Koppers’ assistant, he leaned towards functionalism and social anthropology. Despite his initial sympathy for the Hitler movement he moved to India with the British just before the war broke out in 1939. After 1945 he worked at and became a leading member of the field’s largest institution in Europe's, i.e. the London School of Oriental and African Studies; later he also served as president (1975-77) of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Brandewie 1990; Gingrich & Steger 2011; Marchand 2003; Mayer 1991; Neller 2012; Schäffler 2006).

Under the Nazi regime

After the “Third Reich” annexed Austria, the SVD’s representatives were immediately stripped of their university posts in Vienna under Nazi reign (1938-45). These processes and their follow-up were managed by the (up till then illegal) Nazi party member and new dean Viktor Christian (1885 - 1963). In principle a philologist of Semitic languages and expert for the Middle East, Viktor Christian also had been head (from 1921-24) of the ethnographic museum department at the NHM. As dean he also made himself interim director of the ethnology institute, initially with the collaboration of Fürer-Haimendorf (until the latter left for India; see also Campregher & Mihola 2006). Christian was also a member of the SS and became head of a "research centre" in the SS Ahnenerbe ("Ancestral Heritage") (Gingrich & Bendix 2014). Also involved with Christian at that Ahnenerbe “research centre” was Walter Hirschberg, a doctoral graduate from this institute and at the time a new museum curator for Africa (Dick 2009, Loidl 2008). Under Christian's supervision the Anthropological Society in Vienna and their journal (“Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft zu Wien”) also were incorporated into the Ahnenerbe and its publishing house.

Christian also orchestrated the recruitment of a successor to Koppers: under the leadership of that new director from Berlin, Hermann Baumann (1902-72), research priorities were set that were completely compliant with the goals of the totalitarian regime. Baumann was an expert in Africa and a representative of the non-theological branch of culture circle theory. He was an early member of the Nazi party and closely collaborated on plans for colonial reconquests and expansions by Hitler's Germany in Africa—plans that were never realised due to the way in which the war progressed (Linimayr 1994). Baumann's scientific works were also infused with highly biased elements. In particular his observations regarding Africa's cultural history are underpinned by obsolete ideas about: history was seen as primarily being marked by expansions of superior, light-skinned and bellicose invaders from the north and north-east (Braun 1995; Gohm 2006; Gohm & Gingrich 2010; Rohrbacher 2002). Beyond these racist basic assumptions—which were intersecting with the "Hamitic theory" that also had prominent supporters in the USA and Western Europe—Baumann's summarised presentations of Africa's material culture and its socio-cultural diversity constituted an extremely problematic yet representative contribution to Euro-American knowledge of Africa in the middle of the 20th century.

Baumann returned to West Germany at the end of the war, where he eventually held a professorship in Munich. Several of those who graduated in Vienna under Baumann (e.g. Karl Anton Plügel; see Gottschall 2010; Michel 2000) were also heavily involved in the Nazi regime’s criminal activities. Since the late 1980s (Dostal 1994; Dostal & Gingrich 1996; Pusman 1991) members of the institute’s staff have worked on the systematic analysis of the relevant periods in the field’s local history (see literature).

End of the Vienna “culture circle theory” School and transitions to new empirical and historical priorities

Safeguarding the institute’s ethnographic and library collections in spring 1945 and the subsequent infrastructural reorganisation are owed to a large extent to Anna (von) Hohenwart-Gerlachstein (1909-2008). She worked at the institute for decades—for the longest time as assistant to Heine-Geldern (after his return from exile) and then a chief assistant (Beer 2007; Marquardt 2012; Smetschka 1997). After the war had ended, the pre-war academic programme at first was re-instituted in a somewhat modified form both in terms of content and personnel under the direction of Wilhelm Koppers. He quickly returned from exile in Switzerland by 1945 to take on his earlier professorship, which once again had become vacant. At the same time Koppers carefully worked on a new, democratic basis for the course of studies at the University of Vienna, and he also encouraged Robert Heine-Geldern's return from his New York exile (1949): this reintegration of a Jewish emigrant constituted a rare exception at the University of Vienna after 1945.

One can also call this era the final stage of the "Vienna School", as the theoretical methodical dead-end of the perspective it represented could no longer be supported. In 1956 the "Vienna School" approach was finally declared obsolete and abandoned to the academic public, with leading roles played by Josef Haekel (the long-time assistant to Koppers and to Baumann; see Stachel 2011) and Robert Heine-Geldern (Gingrich 2006). Heine-Geldern also facilitated the partial institutional establishment in Austria of the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research - the largest private research foundation in the field - which had its conference centre at Burg Wartenstein Castle in Lower Austria until the 1980s. Heine-Geldern also established a "Commission for Urgent Anthropological Research" with the help of UNESCO.

At about the same time the NIG (Neues Institutsgebäude, or New Building for Institutes) was built, and the Institute for Ethnology moved away from the Hofburg and its original home there, i.e. in the direct vicinity of the Museum of Ethnology (today: Weltmuseum Wien) to its new address. Despite the advantages for both sides, the spatial, social and institutional distance between the museum and the university institute gave rise to new problems.

Koppers' successor Josef Haekel (1907-73) constituted the first occasion that an Austrian again took over this professorship since Pöch's death. (Heine-Geldern's associate professorship was briefly declared a full professorship ad personam until he retired. Yet that position was not upgraded into a permanent second chair professorship until the early 1970s, i.e. towards the end of Hirschberg's period of service at the institute.) – The era of grand theories and methods was now over for a long time. In his capacity as first professor between 1957 and 1973 Haekel pushed for an empirically grounded methodology, with a small percentage of field research and a large percentage of cultural historical reconstructions. Once vacated by Heine-Geldern, that post was briefly taken over by his junior associate Karl Jettmar (1918 - 2002) before Jettmar took on his long-term professorship in Heidelberg. The post in Vienna was then given to the former museum curator and Africa historian of sub-Saharan Africa Walter Hirschberg, whose clearing procedures for re-entering academic service had taken quite some time in view of his Nazi record. Continuing but revising some of his previous historic approaches, Hirschberg began devising a version of "ethnohistory" in German. In 1971 he was able to permanently establish his post as the second chair professorship. Thus, it was only at this relatively late point in its history that this institute ceased to be a university unit with only a single full professorship.

From a theoretical conceptual perspective, the research output in the decades from 1945 to 1975 remained relatively sparse. Similar to academic ethnology in West Germany and in German-speaking Switzerland (Gingrich 2005), the grand theories were increasingly avoided - also as a means of disassociation from Nazism and Communism - and the focus in research and education was put on empirical and methodological questions. Within these frames, research on South Asia, the Americas and Africa represented priorities. The handling and recording of the end of the colonial era was also a profound intellectual challenge to many among the older generation of researchers at the instituted. It is also worth mentioning, however, that precisely during this same period a number of future experts and intellectual leaders of the field in its German-speaking dimension (and beyond) gained some of their basic academic education at the Vienna institute (e.g. Johanna Broda, Christian F. Feest, Karin Knorr-Cetina, Walter Schicho, René Nebesky-Wojkowitz).

Re-connecting with West European legacies before the millennium’s turn: from re-orientations in social sciences and humanities to a department with a new name

New priorities were set for research and teaching starting by 1975 when Walter Dostal (1927-2011; emeritus since 1996) became first chair, as of 1980 together with Karl R. Wernhart (*1941; retired since 2002) as second chair. Both had graduated at the institute, but in contrast to previous orientations toward either speculative historic sequences or historiographic descriptions, they promoted a rapid modernization by new approaches. In Vienna the discipline from that point on highlighted its positioning inside contemporary social sciences and humanities primarily in their West European dimensions. This was accompanied by an increased involvement in wider international traditions and debates. Related to this is the fact that ethnographic fieldwork as a basic methodological process in this internationalizing field became mainstream practice at the institute with Dostal's and Wernhart's professorships.

Together with the reorientation and improvement of the institute’s profile, these two professors also set a series of important priorities in terms of large scientific projects during the last quarter of the 20th century - Wernhart in particular in the field of ethnohistory and in research on Oceania and the Caribbean; Dostal in particular in the field of research on Arabia and in ecological anthropology. Moreover, numerous faculty members working today at this department received major elements of their basic academic and professional education from one or both of these professors. In addition to their work in research, teaching, and mentoring, both professors also contributed much in institutional terms to the development of the department's reputation: Dostal in particular through his activities as a member of the ÖAW (Austrian Academy of Sciences) and as the founding president of the Austrian Society for the Middle East (Österreichische Orient-Gesellschaft Hammer-Purgstall); Wernhart in particular as dean (1985-89) and then as the first president in the University of Vienna’s history of more than six centuries to graduate in the field of ethnology (1989-91).

This period in the institute’s history is also characterised by an enormous increase in personnel. On the one hand this pertains to the number of students and graduates and was achieved in part as a result of the introduction of a diploma programme (until the end of the 1970s it was only possible to graduate with a doctorate). The percentage of female students also increased as part of these developments, so much so that the number of female students and female graduates became consistently greater than the number of male counterparts (Nemét 2003). On the other hand, the academic faculty at the institute also increased to 3-4 faculty members per professor, many of whom were themselves able to qualify for higher positions by obtaining a venia docendi. Following a university reform by which all institutes were legally transformed into departments, the name was also changed under Karl R. Wernhart: it was at first re-named as Department of Ethnology, Social and Cultural Anthropology, which was later shortened into its current appellation. This now officially is “Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology” in English, and “Institut für Kultur- und Sozialanthropologie” in German. The new name alludes to the contextual pluralism of academic traditions and contemporary research fields as represented by faculty members (Khittel et al. 2004).

The present-day department: a leading force in the German-speaking world and in continental Europe

The university reforms of 1993 and 2002 resulted in pivotal structural changes. Taken together with a doubling of the scientific faculty, they have facilitated increased pluralism in research and teaching since 2011 (for information on the current makeup of the department's faculty see Since the introduction of new curricula in accordance with the "Bologna" guidelines, the increased incentives to embrace EU-wide quality standards in teaching and research have been actively seized upon at this department. An international evaluation from 2013 attests that the department - with its broad research profile - numbers amongst the "leading institutions in Europe" in its field. Regarding the teaching of and support for BA, MA, and PhD students there is hardly a department in the German-speaking world with as broad a portfolio.

Since the beginning of the 21st century the international focus and the high quality of research conducted by graduates and academic faculty have found a variety of national and international recognition that is unrivalled in the department's history. This demonstrates the successful combination of a critical view of the department's past with a new chapter of present day- and future-oriented teaching and research. Today (winter term 2013/2014) 2,537 students are studying the department's various curricula; there are currently (April 2014) 25 scientific faculty members (five of whom are here via third-party funding) as well as 55 (adjunct) lecturers. Representatives of the department are or have been active in international associations such as the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), in national and international institutions for research funding in EU-wide educational programmes, and in leading professional journals.

(Andre Gingrich)


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