German Orientalism in the Age of Empire

Suzanne Marchand


In 1978, the Palestinian-American literary scholar Edward Said published a landmark study, Orientalism, which took as its subject what the author called the West’s ‘discourse on the Orient.’  For Said, this ‘discourse’ included all European and American representations of East Asia and the Middle East, whether scholarly, artistic, literary, political, or popular, and especially those composed between about 1770 and 1970.  The period under scrutiny, for Said, was the period of high imperialism, which, Said argued, deeply structured a set of oppositions that rendered the West rational, male, progressive, and scientific, over and against an East that was irrational, feminized, static or backward, and (anachronistically) religious.  Although most of Said’s evidence came from literary sources, and from French and British writers rather than from a wide sample of European and American voices, his argument was meant to apply across the board, and to characterize what all westerners thought about the East—whether the former were Hungarian expatriots writing about Japan, Frenchmen writing about Persia, or German women writing about ancient India.  ‘Orientalism’ was, in short, the way the West thought about the ‘otherness’ of the East, for at least 200 years; there was no real conversation, just the sound of one side (the West) applauding its own triumphs.

            Said’s book has had an enormous impact on scholarship since its publication, though it has always had its critics, especially among the ‘orientalists’ themselves.  These scholars had written and learned the histories of their fields in much different ways, all too often hagiographic and/or without any reference at all to the political situations in which their forefathers had done their work.  But they pointed out, from the beginning, several crucial aspects of the study of the Orient that the Saidian paradigm obscured, namely the diversity of the different fields of orientalist study, the diversity of ‘western’ persons involved in these fields, and the diversity of motives that provoked these individuals to invest long years of study of languages and subjects often considered arcane to other western scholars.   They also pointed out that without the very laborious endeavors of some of these scholars neither westerners nor Asians would know anything at all about, for example, ancient Assyria.  And one of their key complaints was that Said had rolled into his ‘discourse’ the entirety of a tradition that diverged in many ways from that of the French and the British, namely, the tradition of German Orientalism, one that depended very greatly on the humanistic enterprise of ‘going back to the source,’ and obtaining a deep and wide understanding of texts in their original languages.

Intrigued by this debate, and having studied intensely the history of German philhellenism—in many respects the elder and more powerful brother discipline of oriental studies—I set about surveying the tradition of German orientalism, anticipating more or less ratifying Said’s view.  As suggested below, I did find that some aspects of the German study of eastern languages and lands very much undergirded real or anticipated colonial expansion; this was particularly so in the case under study here, the study of the Islamic world of the Ottoman Empire.  But I also discovered that the German tradition owes a very great deal to the Reformation and its key ‘science’ of Christian Hebraism; German Orientalistik was very much the outgrowth of Protestant biblical exegesis.  Even after the tradition diversified to include fields not directly related to Biblical interpretation it retained its emphasis on ancient and religious texts.  Coming late, too, to overseas colonizing was crucial here; the Germans, unlike the French, Dutch, or British, did not need expertise in spoken languages to rule in Syria, Indonesia, or India, and throughout the nineteenth century, the study of modern oriental languages thus remained much less prestigious and ‘scientific’ in German eyes than the study of deeply ancient languages, such as ancient Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, cuneiform, and hieroglyphics.



Please find a full version of Suzanne Marchand's text in the upcoming publication


Judith Raum: eser


archive books Berlin June 2014