The forgotten tradition – Interview with Horst Bredekamp

The Humboldt Forum’s vocation is to host exhibitions on non-European cultures. But this ethnographic museum is now at the center of a controversy over the ownership of artworks and objects obtained during the German colonial empire in Africa and Asia. The art historian Horst Bredekamp responded in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (and in K.) to some of the criticisms coming from the decolonization movement of Berlin art and museums[1]. In this interview with him, we wanted to learn more about a forgotten German ethnographic tradition – and in particular about the contribution of Jewish scholars and collectors within this tradition.


Carl Einstein, by Anita Rée (before1921) © Wikimedia Commons


Julia Christ: The European public is not necessarily familiar with the principle on which the Humboldt Forum is based.  What should be clear from what you have said is that the tradition it inscribes itself in is not an imperial one, nor an imperialist one. So what tradition is it inscribing itself in? And to what extent is this tradition a specifically German tradition, the outstanding representatives of which are certainly the Humboldt brothers[2] – in other words, intellectual figures, private scholars one could almost say, who carried out their ethnographic and comparative work, in contrast to James Cook, for example, beyond any logistical or material support from an imperial power?

Horst Bredekamp: When I proposed the name “Leibniz Forum” before the commission that had to decide on the designation and name of the Humboldt Forum in 2001, this idea was defeated by one vote in favor of the name “Humboldt Forum”. I did not perceive this as a defeat, but rather as a confirmation. What was at stake was a long-drawn-out tradition of liberal universalism, which inevitably put forward the idea of the relativity of all cultures, because in contrast to, say, Great Britain and France, there was no nation state in Germany during the lifetime of Leibniz and the Humboldt brothers. After traveling 100 kilometers from one’s own place of residence, one encountered a small-state entity with different measurements, different means of payment and also a different jurisdiction. This has always led to thinking beyond one’s own sphere without making it the center of thought and the focal point of the world. It is this line of thought that has had an impact on Leibniz’s students, for example in the reform university of Göttingen. Han Vermeulen has memorialized the non-imperial ethnology there, which developed the concept of ethnology early in the 18th century, in Before Boas (2015)[3]. It was at Göttingen University that Alexander von Humboldt met Georg Forster, the revolutionary, with whom he then undertook a formative journey through the Lower Rhine to Holland and then on to London and Paris[4]. Georg Forster sailed around the world with his father on James Cook’s ship but, as his writings make clear, this did not mean he abandoned his convictions. The same applies to Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled with a Spanish passport but did not even begin to advocate the slave trade.

Alexander von Humboldt’s library, by Eduard Hildebrandt (1842) © Wikimedia Commons

On the contrary, anyone who assumes that someone who used the transport routes established at that time was a colonizer is assuming essentialistically that every person who moves within a certain structure of domination must be completely taken with its ideology. This would mean that the individual has no room for self-determination or resistance. This kind of thinking, however, has totalitarian features that explicitly deny the ethos of the diverse and autonomous.

J.C.: The tradition at issue here is a tradition that starts from the postulate of cultural diversity, which can already be found in Herder. In your text, you insist on the contribution of Jewish scholars of the empire to a specific anti-colonialism based on this postulate. What, in your eyes, is the specifically Jewish contribution to the thinking on cultural diversity among human groups?

H.B.: Three elements are crucial: first, sensitivity to diversity and the right of outsiders; then, the will to refrain from hierarchies between the bearers of differences; and finally, to envisage a broader horizon to allow for comparisons, evaluations and reactions. This triad of cognition was by no means limited to Jewish researchers, but they were particularly predestined to name the tensions between these three elements without abandoning even one of them. This was a starting point for Franz Boas’ anthropology[5].

As an example, however, I would like to mention Carl Einstein, another researcher who combines all these components[6]. His mention is frowned upon in the context of postcolonialism because in 1915 he titled his book on African art “Negro Sculpture”. In contrast to the common assumption today that the term “Negro” has always had a racist connotation, Einstein used this term explicitly in the mere sense of geographical assignment in the Niger region and thus in the same way we speak of “Greenlanders” today. Einstein’s book is one of the monuments of the 20th century because it makes it clear on a grand scale that African sculpture, while fundamentally different from European sculpture, is by no means subordinate to it. In the context of world art the quality of African works is to be equated with that of Renaissance art. Einstein, who founded the magazine Documents together with Georges Bataille[7], later took his own life in the Pyrenees, just like Walter Benjamin, fleeing from the Nazis. He belongs all the more to the aforementioned line of tradition.

J.C.: You cite Franz Boas as one of the outstanding anthropologists in whose tradition you situate the work of the Humboldt Forum. To what extent is the cultural anthropology of a Boas incompatible with colonialism?

H.B.: The crucial element of Boas’s anthropology, as laid down in his first articles in Science with strong references to Adolf Bastian of the Berlin Ethnological Museum, is that he abandoned the notion of a human stepladder running from the uncivilized and primitive to the peak of technically equipped modern societies[8]. His alternative was strongly inspired by Wilhelm von Humboldt’s philosophy of language: Every community and every culture carries its own telos within itself, and it cannot be subjected to a hierarchy that places it in a necessary grid of development. Consequently, there is no justification for oppressing and enslaving a community because it allegedly represents a far inferior stage of development.

Franz Boas reenacts a Kwakiutl ceremonial dance to assist Smithsonian Institution sculptors building a diorama. (Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives)

J.C.: Another great name close to your heart is that of Aby Warburg, a thinker to whom you recently dedicated a monography[9]. In your article, you insist on the gesture of collecting that is peculiar to Warburg, but one naturally thinks of Walter Benjamin’s text on Eduard Fuchs, the collector and historian. In your eyes, does the gesture of collecting as a response to a time of crisis and destruction have a connection with German liberal Judaism, in whose spirit you situate the Humboldt Forum project?

H.B.: Benjamin’s article contains the famous sentence: “It is never a document of culture without at the same time being one of barbarism”, in order to apply precisely this double determination to the exhibits of collections, insofar as these go beyond the aims of the creators and embody in themselves the pre- and post-history of their creation. In the Reproduction essay, Benjamin calls this the aura. Among the outstanding collectors Benjamin counts as most passionate is Adolf Bastian, the director of the Berlin Ethnological Museum, whose research career is an “inexhaustible treasure trove” for future research. This statement by Benjamin precisely names what the program of the Humboldt Forum could and should be. In the sense of Benjamin, who cites Bastian as a key witness, the necessity and joy of collecting refer to the conviction that a metaphysics operates in the objects that goes beyond the material.

In order to even begin to understand foreign societies, it was important to be able to acquire objects of daily use, objects from the context of the rites and media of rule. They were assembled according to their double play as shaped matter and as symbol so that something could be drawn from this community of works, what Alexander von Humboldt called the “glow of the exhibits”. A special tradition, essentially going back to Gustav Klemm, was devoted primarily to artifacts whose design was related to use in the sense of art and craft[10]. This gave the collections a special character that characterized the Ethological Museum of Berlin. At the end of his essay, Benjamin calls this principle of collecting beyond artistic master names a defensive weapon against the “Cult of the Führer “.

J.C.: In your text, you refer to other important but now largely forgotten figures of this German liberal Jewry. Heymann Steinthal and Moritz Lazarus. Could you tell us a little more about these two figures and explain their contribution to an approach to the whole world in its diversity that is based neither on colonial ideas nor on fantasies of conquest?

H.B.: Both were non-converted Jews. They met while studying psychology with Johann Friedrich Herbart at the University of Berlin. Moritz Lazarus founded the department of “Psychology and Ethnology” at the University of Bern, where he later became Dean and Rector. After returning to Berlin, he worked at the University of Berlin from 1873. Together with Steinthal, who taught as a private lecturer at the same university and as a lecturer at the “Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums”, Lazarus published the influential Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft from 1860 onwards, without which the life achievement of Boas, who was born a generation later, would hardly be conceivable. Openly or implicitly, the plea for a relativistic view of cultures was determined by the “Jewish question”, to recognize the particularity and at the same time to hold on to the unity of the whole, in order to remove the ground from the segregationist tendency of anti-Semitism, as represented by Heinrich von Treitschke, professor at the same Berlin university. The status of being an avowed Jew should in no way collide with belonging to the same nation and society as non-Jews. In this, Steinthal and Lazarus met with Rudolf Virchow, who in turn promoted Franz Boas to the best of his ability.

J.C.: Finally, we would like to ask you a question about forgetting. You yourself say that this liberal German-Jewish tradition has been forgotten and is actively forgotten today by equating it with colonial undertakings and forms of thought. Quite rightly, you see in this a complicity of postcolonialism and anti-Semitism. In any case, it is obvious that postcolonial theories want to erase the trace of Jewish humanist thought of the empire by equating it with colonialism. What connection do you see between this forgetting and the Mbembe affair? What does this affair reveal about that forgetting?   

H.B.:I can only make assumptions here. The problem with postcolonialism seems to be that once again an objective that is in itself to be welcomed and that arises from the tradition of left movements is radicalized in such a way that it runs the risk of becoming dogmatic and even doctrinaire. Any gesture that asserts a claim to sole representation and that diminishes or even despises everything that could compete in history becomes unproductive. It would be tragic if a specifically Jewish tradition of anti-colonialism were to fall victim to this. Presentist – that is, arguing solely from the present – considerations that want to see Israel as the “last colonial state”, for example, are more than just a criticism of the government. Achille Mbembe is not in the forefront here for my term; the controversy surrounding him has made him an object himself. In any case, this remains the key for my concept to dissolve the hardenings of the present, history is to be taken seriously in its diversity and for this case to be questioned as to what approaches in the sense of Lazarus, Steinthal, Boas and Carl Einstein can substantially contribute.

J.C.: Then one last addition: Is forgetting a general forgetting of history, or does it specifically concern the Jewishness of German history?

H.B.: Here, too, I can only offer conjectures rather than explanations. But perhaps one example may speak for itself. When I opened the exhibition Anders zur Welt kommen (Coming into the World Differently) at the Altes Museum in Berlin in 2010, which was supposed to provide an image of the Humboldt Forum that was to be built, I recalled that the described tradition of Jewish enlightenment was to be added as liberal ethnology to the anti-colonialism of our days in order to gain criteria for the future. There was spontaneous, thoroughly nasty resistance from the auditorium, and my book on Aby Warburg’s ethnological studies met with the same reaction, if only because Warburg saw himself as someone who possessed an “Indian soul” – this profoundly positive designation can no longer even be quoted today.

Aby Warburg with a Peublo Indian © Warburg Institute London

What crosses the currently dominant line seems to be the exoneration of a collective history of guilt, which moreover tends, as Steffen Kläver’s “Decolonizing Auschwitz?”[11] (2019) has analyzed, to substitute colonial history for National Socialism. Constructions of this kind see themselves challenged by references to other strands of tradition, as if they were unstated relativisations. From the umbrella of the “pure” anti-colonial stance, representatives of an image of history that takes up the resistant approaches can be condemned with the force of unblemished self-assurance.

Anyone who recalls the specifically Jewish tradition of the Enlightenment seems to be suspect, since it goes against a tendency towards fundamentalism, a kind of post-colonial Occidentalism that recognizes the history of the “West” as the basic evil of humanity and thus lets precisely those legacies that are as difficult as they are authoritative – Enlightenment, tolerance, democracy – go overboard with it. One can only hope that after this one-sidedness dies down, all that has been subjected to self-censorship and repressed will be brought out again, thus regaining a diversity that would allow a moment of freedom vis-à-vis the past as well as the future.

 Interview by Julia Christ.


1 Translator’s note: Criticism is voiced in particular by the No Humboldt 21 collective, whose position is summarized in an open letter: “The project [of the Humboldt Forum] in its current form is an attack on the human dignity and property rights of men and women around the world; it is Eurocentric, reactionary, and retrograde. The Humboldt Forum is opposed to the idea of an egalitarian cohabitation in a migratory society.
2 Translator’s note: Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), was a philosopher, linguist and Prussian state official, who founded the University of Berlin in 1815. He is best known for his work in comparative linguistics, which led him to conceive of each language and culture as a legitimate worldview on par with all others. His brother, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), was a naturalist, geographer and explorer. An outstanding observer, he left to posterity not only a monumental work of description and classification of the fauna and flora of the countries he visited, but also established the basis of a non-evolutionary cultural anthropology. He is notably known for having been one of the few scientists of his time to publicly protest against slavery and any mistreatment of extra-European cultures which, at the time, was always ideologically based on the idea of the superiority of European civilization and culture.
3 Han Vermeulen, Before Boas, The Genealogy of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment, Nebraska University Pres, 2015.
4 Translator’s note: Georg Forster (1754-1794), German naturalist and ethnologist, member of the Jacobin Club of Mainz and as such co-founder of the short-lived Mainz Republic (1793-1794), died of natural causes in Paris under the Terror, which he defended. An explorer who traveled with James Cook, Forster is known for having challenged the concept of race and defended the unity of the human race. The different cultures, according to him, are only different manifestations of the human race and in no way to be ranked. We owe him detailed descriptions of the rites and cults of the Polynesian peoples as well as a rich body of drawings of the fauna and flora of the regions he visited.
5 Translator’s note: Franz Boas, (1858-1942) was a German Jewish anthropologist. After his studies in Germany, he emigrated to the United States where he founded what is known as relativistic anthropology, that is, a non-evolutionary approach to cultures, according to which each culture has its own meaning and value in itself, and which does not allow for any hierarchy.
6 Translator’s note: Carl Einstein (1885-1940), was a German Jewish art historian who first published a study of African art not from an ethnological but from an aesthetic point of view in the book mentioned by Horst Bredekamp. A member of the Republican brigades during the Spanish war, he was exiled to Bordeaux after Franco’s victory. He committed suicide after the defeat of France in 1940.
7 Translator’s note: Surrealist magazine founded by George Henri Rivière, Georges Bataille and Carl Einstein in 1929. It published only fifteen issues and died out in 1931. The full title, rather programmatic, was “Documents. Doctrines, Archaeology, Fine Arts, Ethnology”. The journal juxtaposed and mixed both ethnography and avant-garde artworks with the aim of opening a debate between artists and writers, thinkers, art historians, ethnologists. The themes are very diverse, ranging from the study of cave paintings to contemporary painting (Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Paul Klee, André Masson, and others), passing through Siberian art, the so-called primitive arts in general, with a view to privileging the “ethnology of art”, ethnography, musicology, jazz, and pottery, and also exploring unexpected territories such as the music hall, children’s drawings, comic strips, slaughterhouses, etc.
8 Translator’s note: The Museum of Ethnology in Berlin was founded in 1873. It brought together part of the collections of the former Royal Kunstkammer. The rest of the collections came from what its director, Adolf Bastian (1826-1905), called “collecting trips.” Convinced that Europe’s expansion around the world was destroying non-European cultures, Bastian made it his goal to “save” as many objects as possible from destruction. The principle of the museum was purely scientific and documentary. Thus, the objects were not exhibited in a didactic way, but were collected for scientific study.
9 Translator’s note: Horst Bredekamp, Der Indianer, Berliner Erkundungen einer liberalen Ethnologie, Berlin, Wagenbach, 2019. Aby Warburg (1866-1929) was a German Jewish art historian. He is best known for the library he founded, which collected an immense amount of works on all world cultures. The Warburg Library, which was frequented by Panofsky, Cassirer and Scholem, aimed to transform the history of art, literature and music by integrating all the cultural facts of a given society. By adding to the library’s corpus works on such fields as astrology and magic, Warburg anticipated many developments in the modern understanding of the history of science. The library was saved from the Nazis in 1933 by moving to London, where it remains today (
10 Translator’s note: Gustav Klemm (1802-1867) was a German art historian and librarian. Author of a 10-volume work on the cultural history of humanity, he was also a great collector of cultural objects. These, after his death, were collected in the Museum of Ethnography in Leipzig.
11 Steven Klävers, Decolonizing Auschwitz ? Komparativ-postkoloniale Ansätze in der Holocaustforschung (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019). The book formulates a critique of postcolonial thought’s attempts to interpret the Holocaust using the colonial schema.

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Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.