Saxony Research Institute of Ethnology

today: Institute of Ethnology, Schillerstraße 6

Directly next to the student restaurant Mensa am Park, where today around noon there is bustling traffic of students, bicycle and car drivers, is located the Leipzig Institute of Ethnology. It was founded in 1914 as the »Saxony Research Institute of Ethnology«, which at the time was located in the old Grassi museum. Back then, the explicit goal of the young institute was to substantiate, through research and teaching, the entitlement to the reclamation of the former German colonies and in this way the rehabilitation of the international standing of Germany.

Otto Reche

Otto Reche connected ethnology with »racial studies« and was as such an ideological forerunner for the National Socialist ideology.

In 1927 the museum and the institute were separated, the latter moving to the Schillerstrasse 6, where it still located today. The new director Otto Reche complemented the ethnographical studies of the institute with the field of »racial studies«. Through the methods of physical anthropology, he sought to find the presupposed »racial prototypes«, advocating for »racial hygiene« and was in this capacity a forerunner to the National Socialist ideology of race, founding as early as 1932 the Leipzig dependency of the Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene (Society for Racial Hygiene).

That the work of Reche has an immediate effect on the inhabitants of Leipzig with an African background is manifested i.e. a letter which he wrote on the 8th of March 1934 to the chief of the Leipzig police.(1) In this letter he writes that he would, in the interest of racial hygiene, like to compose a register of all »bastards« living in Saxony, pleading for help of the police in locating these people.

Hendrik Verwoerd

In his function as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Hendrik Verwoerd contributed from 1950 on to the establishment of the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa.


In the person of Hendrik Verwoerdt these racist ideologies were exported to South Africa. Verwoerdt received a doctorate from the Leipzig Institute in 1927 and put his ideas into practice from 1950 on as »Minister for Indigenous Affairs«. This was the initiation of the Apartheid system.

In this light it cannot be foregone that ethnology as an academic discipline is in itself a heir to colonialism. Next to the exoticising curiosity towards foreign societies there existed an outspoken need for knowledge concerning the conquered populations, for reasons of more efficient administration and control, which the colonial administration hoped to gain from the ethnological research undertaken.(2) Through the exploration about the supposed »wild« ethnology furthermore contributed to the construction of the »other« through which Europeans could imagine themselves as civilised. This colonial setting still defines the discipline today: »in most cases a white researcher studies a non-white human being from former colonies«.(3)

  • (1) Vgl. Katja Geisenhainer und Bernhard Streck: »Ethnology and ›racial science‹.« In Adam Jones (Hg.): Africa in Leipzig. A city looks at a continent; 1730 – 1950. Institut für Afrikanistik: Leipzig 2000, S. 14.
  • (2) Vgl. Nike Herrberg und Caroline Willand: »Die Suche nach dem verlorenen Fremden. Ethnologie – Tochter des Kolonialismus oder postmoderne Wissenschaft?« In iz3w Nr. 257, Nov./Dez. 2001, S. 28 – 31.
  • (3) Thomas Brückmann: »Staubfänger aus Afrika. Wie der Europäer das exotische »Andere« entdeckte und es bis heute in ethnologischen Museen ausstellt.« In Jungle World Nr. 17 vom 25.04.2007.
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Images on this page:

above left: Wikimedia (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2005-0308-500 / CC-BY-SA) | bottom centre: Wikimedia

Further reading:

  • Sabine Schupp: Die Ethnologie und ihr koloniales Erbe. Ältere und neuere Debatten um die Entkolonialisierung einer Wissenschaft. Lit: Hamburg 1997.
  • Christoph Seidler: »Die deutsche Ethnologie und der Kolonialismus.« In: iz3w Nr. 276, April/Mai 2004, S. 36 – 38.
  • Homepage of the institute of Ethnology