How a 19th-Century German Anthropologist Planted the Roots for Nazi Racial Theories

In the ninetieth century, the great cultural institutions of France were sited, as a matter of course, in Paris. The British Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery were in London. In contrast, the thirty-nine states that made up the loose German confederation funded their own universities, art galleries, museums, concert halls and opera houses. Even after the unification of Germany in 1871, cultural affairs were controlled by the regions.

The ducal city of Weimar hosted the greatest writers in Germany: Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. The king of Prussia took great pride in his reluctant courtier, Alexander von Humboldt, who combined scientific expertise, humanist sensibility and the glamour of an explorer. Humboldt was a friend of Goethe. The young Charles Darwin was inspired by his travel writing. Thomas Jefferson said he was, “the most scientific man of his age.” Yet whenever Humboldt was back home from his travels, he was expected to be in attendance at the Berliner Schloss, dressed in court uniform, and prepared to read to the king after dinner.

Good taste, intellectual sophistication and artistic connections were marks of caste for the rising educated bourgeoisie.

It was not only the courts that looked to the sciences and the arts to confer prestige. Good taste, intellectual sophistication and artistic connections were marks of caste for the rising educated bourgeoisie. Societies sprang up to support causes ranging from Richard Wagner’s music festivals in Bayreuth to art galleries, aquariums, zoological gardens—and rival ethnographic museums in Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg, Leipzig and Munich. Gustav Klemm (1802-67), director of the royal library in Dresden and inspector of the royal porcelain collection, was the epitome of the court intellectual. Naturally, he collected antiquities and wrote history books.

Klemm’s first monograph was a study of Attila the Hun. By his own account, this led him to “compare the ancient Germanic monuments with those of other peoples—and since I had been given the task of rearranging and exhibiting the royal porcelain collections, this became connected with renewed studies of China, and reflections on the technical production of porcelain.”

He traced the development of pottery from prehistoric German clay vessels to Chinese porcelain, which, he explained, was perfected in Meissen in Saxony. Between 1843 and 1852 he published a General Cultural History of Mankind (Allgemeine Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit), and followed up with a two-volume General Science of Culture (Allgemeine Kulturwissenschaft, 1854-5).

Klemm’s theory of cultural history was conceived on a grand scale, but it was an amalgam of ideas that were current in educated, liberal circles at the time, notably Alexander von Humboldt’s global environmentalism and Enlightenment accounts of the evolution of civilization. To this he added Thomsen’s Three Age System. The whole concoction was topped off with newly fashionable racial theories.

“We will set aside the usual geographical, ethnographical, and synchronic arrangements,” Klemm wrote, “and divide the races of men into three fundamental classes—the savage, the barbarians, and the enlightened (represented in time, roughly, by the stone, the bronze, and the iron age).” Races were further divided between the “passive” and the “active,” which Klemm also characterized as feminine and masculine.

…man is not only different from woman in his strengths, but also in his inclinations. He is disposed to lead enterprises and adventures of all kinds. He also does not shy away from using intoxicating and narcotic means to raise his spirits and enhance them to a wild exuberance…

Woman, whose gentler and milder nature announces itself through softer and more rounded forms, offers compassion and mercy: where man in blind passion often only becomes destructive, woman preserves with love, what man recklessly drives to ruin.

In the Lamarckian tradition, Klemm assumed that physical and psychological features were shaped by the environment. Feminine, passive, dark-skinned races were forest-dwellers. Conservative, placid and timid, they made a living by hunting and fishing. More advanced passive folk lived in open prairies, domesticated animals and became nomads. At last the farmers appeared, the supreme representative of the passive races.

Active, light-skinned, masculine races flourished in challenging environmental conditions. They tended to be violent, impulsive, destructive. But then came a world-historical dialectical advance: the active, masculine races conquered and subdued passive, feminine races. At first, a caste system developed. In yet more progressive societies there was a happy marriage of the best of the masculine and feminine qualities.

This was Klemm’s ideal: “I see in this mixture of the originally divided active and passive races the fulfilment of the purpose which nature pursues in all branches of its organic creation. Just as each male or female individual does not fulfil the purpose of nature if they remain alone, so too is a people, which is only made out of the active or only from the passive races, something unfulfilled, something halved.” And where was this happy synthesis achieved, advancing humanity to its highest stage of development? Klemm had no doubt. “We therefore find in Germanic Europe, where the active and passive races are perhaps most equally mixed, true culture, true art, true science, and the most life, law and freedom.”


Klemm was no traveler. The only journey he made in his whole life outside Germany was a brief visit to Italy in 1838 in the entourage of the Saxon royals. But he had an interest in exotic lands—he claimed that this was triggered when as a boy he saw foreign troops in their colorful uniforms marching through his home town of Chemnitz during the Napoleonic wars. He collected Germanic, Chinese, South Pacific, African and Arctic antiquities and crafts. He wrote a pioneering history of German cabinets of curiosities. And then he developed his neo-Hegelian theory of culture history.

This trajectory was nicely characterized by that great historian of classical European scholarship Arnoldo Momigliano: “As soon as the antiquarian leaves his shabby place which preserves something of the eighteenth century and enters modern life, he becomes the great collector, he is bound to specialize, and he may well end up as the founder of an institute of fine arts or of comparative anthropology.”

Klemm’s theory of cultural history was conceived on a grand scale, but it was an amalgam of ideas that were current in educated, liberal circles at the time.

“Klemm’s vision of human history,” Peter N. Miller remarks, “was a collector’s vision.” In 1843, Klemm published a “Fantasy Museum of Cultural History” as an appendix to the first volume of his sprawling, ten-volume Cultural History of Mankind. Each room in this fantasy museum was designed to illustrate a volume of the Cultural History.

Room 1: natural products. Room 2: “wilder” examples of the “passive race” (fishermen and hunters from America and the polar region, African and Asian nomads, South Sea islanders). Room 3: Mexico, Egypt and India. Room 4: China, highest level of the culture attainable by the “passive peoples.” Room 5: Original state of the “active race” (Circassians and Tatars, followed by Arabs, Persians and Turks). Room 6: Cultures of classical antiquity, Greeks and Romans. Room 7: Original condition of Germanic and Scandinavian nations. Room 8: the Germanic and the Romanesque-Christian Middle Ages. Room 9: modern times.

This fantasy museum was a blown-up, idealized counterpart to Klemm’s personal collection, and both were supposed to illustrate and support his theories. By his own account, he collected “industrial and artistic products from all times and all areas” in order to “establish a cultural science whose foundations shall be built by the ten volumes of my Cultur-Geschichte…With the help of God and numerous benevolent friends, we have managed, in the course of more than twenty-five years, to come as close to this goal as is possible.”

Klemm’s collections soon overflowed the rooms of his apartment. In 1840, he bought a large house in the north of Dresden and dedicated five rooms to his personal museum. It was described in 1864 in a popular weekly journal of geography, Das Ausland. Bursting at the seams, “the collection is currently packed around give moderately sized rooms, but a complete arrangement would require a six-fold greater space.”

Yet even in these cramped conditions a philosophical design was apparent. The exhibits illustrated the progress of humanity from a state of nature to a cultured condition. The visitor proceeded past “rocks; skulls, busts and body parts; natural material used by humans; tools and weapons; examples of habitation, transport, clothing and jewelry; objects related to private, public and religious life; and finally a set of history ‘relics,’ including Napoleon’s pen-stand and the Empress Marie Theresa’s shoes.”

“By the time he died in 1867, the Museum Klemmium was one of the largest private collections in Europe, containing almost eight thousand classified objects and sixteen thousand other pieces,” Chris Manias writes. Adolf Bastian described it as the first major museum of its kind in Europe. Visitors were permitted, though they were not always welcome. Klemm complained in a letter to a friend that a collector’s “worst enemies are visitors who pick up everything with their hands, and doubt the accuracy of widely proven things, confusing bronze with stone or iron, or asking if Luanda is in America or Asia.”

A year after Klemm’s death, his son sold his German antiquities to the British Museum. (Franks traveled to Dresden to make the selection himself.) The University of Leipzig refused to buy the rest of the collection and acquired it for what became the Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig. Adolf Bastian advised the committee, and when the Leipzig museum was finally opened in 1895 it was arranged on geographical principles. Klemm’s stages of culture history were abandoned. His fantasy museum died with him. In the twentieth century the Nazis could claim Klemm as a forerunner of their racial ideas.


the museum of other people

From The Museum of Other People: From Colonial Acquisitions to Cosmopolitan Exhibitions by Adam Kuper. Copyright © 2024. Available from Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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