Summer Research in Berlin


Ian Gavigan ’14 spent six weeks of his summer research fellowship working in archives and libraries in Berlin, Germany. He didn’t spend all his time there buried in old newspapers. Here, Ian enjoys a late afternoon in Berlin’s neighbor to the southwest, Potsdam. Notice his pockets full of basil.

Last Wednesday, I got back from six weeks in Berlin. Before that, I spent days sitting in an archive I happily stumbled upon, juggling dozens of WorldCat entries, boxes of micro-film, piles of history books, and folders of newspaper clippings. Out of this mess I’m supposed to write a thesis. We’ll see about that. For now I’m enjoying picking through the haphazard collection that’s building around my ever-evolving topic: turn-of-the-century (19-20th) mass media (newspapers), the “academy’s” scientific production of knowledge about humans and culture, and popularly-circulating ways of understanding and “thinking” racial difference.

Although this project started before I arrived at Haverford, it began taking recognizable shape last fall in Professor Travis Zadeh’s  Religion major area seminar called “Religion and Translation.” Early in the course we read the book “Languages of Paradise” by Maurice Olender. It is a history of the connections between 18th and 19th century philologists–people who studied and compared the history of languages and grammar, especially “Oriental” languages like Sanskrit and Persian–and Indo-European or Aryan racism. Through “Indo-European” linguistics, these academics elaborated detailed and complex “histories” of the Aryan race. Comparing languages like German, Latin, Sanskrit, Persian, and Greek and identifying shared structures and vocabularies among them, philologists theorized a shared “Ursprache” or original language and imagined a pre-modern Golden Age of racial purity. Modern German, and accordingly modern Germans, constituted then the racial successors to the “harmonious” and “perfect” Aryan race.

While reading about the development of the philological Aryan mythology I found myself wondering about the connection to the “public”–to the rest of the world that didn’t spend its time gushing over the grammatical and racial perfection of the Vedas. Obviously (think Third Reich, purity laws, Holocaust) these racial ideas weren’t limited to universities–they went viral. With the help of Professor Zadeh, I decided to look at newspapers, thinking that among their pages I could encounter the fin-de-siecle German public’s interface with all kinds of knowledge, racial and otherwise, they weren’t encountering elsewhere. And, thanks to the generous support of the HCAH,  off to Berlin I went!

I started this summer thinking I would be looking for explicit and implicit connections between philology, racism, and the elusive “public” in German newspapers from around the turn of the century. I’m still in the general ballpark, but my focuses have shifted in the course of researching. As it turns out, finding references to philologists in popular newspapers isn’t too easy. I spent time poking around popular Berlin newspapers and wasn’t having much luck encountering explicit discussions of philologists or philological work. However, I was, predictably enough, encountering lots of highly racialized language. Repeatedly, the references were not to philologists but instead to scholars like anthropologists, geographers, and historians as well as to less academic people like travel writers and amateur ethnographers.

One newspaper in particular, the “Berliner Morgenpost,” founded in 1898, published a daily section called “Populäre Wissenschaft” or “Popular Science” from 1898 to mid-1900. Many of the articles I’m talking about were published there. While other newspapers that predated the Morgenpost also reported regularly on anthropology, geography, ethnology, etc. in terms of race (I’m currently looking through clippings from the well-heeled “Vossische Zeitung” from around 1880 which regularly reported on the meetings of the Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte” the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory), the Morgenpost is important because it became the foremost popular newspaper of the turn of the century period in Berlin, reaching a broader public outside of traditionally well-educated and scientifically-literate audiences.

Simultaneously I’ve been trying to immerse myself in the time period more broadly. No history of Germany, especially with things like race in mind, can ignore German and European colonialism alongside/inside of which this history of race is playing out. There’s also literature  I’m looking at on the political developments, workers’ movements, popular literacy, and consumer cultures of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that illuminate the intersecting political and quotidian commitments of Germans c. 1900. A massive amount of literature is available, a small slice of which I’ve looked at, considering the history of ideas of race in local and global contexts, tracing the philosophical and social movement of the category. Histories of “Öffentlichkeit” or the public sphere, nationalism, Aryanism, and ideology in general–each of these helps make up the fabric of this history. And there’s more, but I won’t go into it in this post. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to be read.

So this is where I am. I’ve been in Berlin working at a few different archives and libraries since early June. Now that I’m back home, I will use the rest of my summer vacation to read, re-read, and digest the material I’ve been encountering. Watch out for another update from me. Enjoy the heat!