Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences - Institute of Asian and African Studies

History of the Department

Brief historical overview


The Founders

Through the personal agency of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Franz Bopp (1791-1867) was invited to the Berliner Universität. Eleven years after its 1810 founding, Bopp was appointed to an associate professorship which in 1825 was converted to a full professorship in Oriental literature and languages. The first professor in the German-speaking world to hold a chair of this kind, Bopp was for forty years the most prominent representative of Indology and comparative Indo-European philology.

A second chair in Indology was added in 1856. Berlin soon brought forth further greats in this field, most notably Albrecht Weber and Heinrich Lüders. From 1856 Weber was an associate professor and from 1867 a full professor of Old Indian languages here. His “Academic Lectures on Indian Literary History” (Akademische Vorlesungen über indische Literaturgeschichte. Berlin 1852, 2nd exp. ed. 1876) was a landmark work in German-language Indology. Lüders, who had studied at Oxford, where Max Müller was his teacher, also played a seminal role in developing the discipline at the by then renamed Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität, until his forced retirement in 1935.   

A Colonial Cultural and Language Institute

The German Reich’s ambitions and activities beyond the European continent led the imperial government under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to found, independent of the university, the Institute for Oriental Languages in 1887. Language training was regarded as critical for the economic expansion of the young empire. Instruction in “Oriental” languages was accorded highest priority in the curriculum, in which Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Hindustani were taught in combination with courses in religion, customs and traditions, modern history, and geography.

However, Germany’s loss of its colonies in 1919 did not put a stop to the teaching and research activities. On the contrary, the Institute broadened its scope. Helmut von Glasenapp taught “Indische Realien” from 1920 to 1928. In addition to “Hindustani/Persian,” Gujarati (1896), Bengali (1929), as well as Tamil and Telugu (1934) were taught. The missionary Hermann Beythan authored a textbook in Tamil that continued to be used and valued for decades.

Elite Training in the Third Reich

Following long and intense debates over its purpose and future, the Institute was renamed “Deutsche Auslandshochschule an der Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität” in 1936, and again just four years later the “Auslandswissenschaftliche Fakultät der Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität.” It served essentially as an elite school for the Foreign Office, training specialists in foreign countries and regions and providing them with the corresponding requisite linguistic skills. Special emphasis was placed on the study of Africa’s diverse languages and regions.  

Indian Studies in the German Democratic Republic

A systematic expansion of Indology took place after the Second World War. South Asian studies as a whole encompassed regional studies, modern languages, history and socioeconomic developments on the Indian subcontinent. Research and teaching was conducted on nearly all of the countries of South Asia. This was unique among German universities up to that time.

From January 1, 1950, Walter Ruben was professor of Indology at the newly reopened university, now renamed Humboldt-Universität. He directed the Institute of Indian Studies (Institut für Indienkunde) until 1964. One year later, the institute was merged with a department of the East Asia institute and its name changed to Institute of South and Southeast Asian Studies (Institut für Süd- und Südostasien). In the course of the third Reform of Higher Education of 1968, the Institute of South and Southeast Asian Studies became a part of the newly installed Asian Studies Section, which was intended to take a preeminent role in the GDR.

The Department of South Asia Studies

The Department of South Asia Studies presents a broad academic profile, with a range of disciplines which includes modern languages and literature, history, geography, and philosophy. Methodologically, it is oriented to social-scientific investigative practices as well as interdisciplinary analyses of historical, political, socioeconomic and cultural processes. The spectrum of research and teaching in the Department encompasses questions of urbanization, industrialization, migration/circulation, historiography, and environmental and gender history. In the area of language and literature studies, as a second language alongside Hindi and Urdu, the Department for South Asian Studies also offers Telugu. The establishment of an interdepartmental chair in mediality and intermediality in the societies of Asia and Africa – with a focus on South Asia as of autumn 2009 – affords students in the Department the choice of a further academic discipline.