Sunday, October 19, 2014

Alexander von Humboldt. A Metabiography by Nicholaas A. Rupke.

Metabiography studies the relationship between the individual portrayed in a biography and the socio-political context of the writer. It is an offshoot of metahistory, as first elucidated by Hayden White in his 1973 Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe, which views the relationship of a period or event to the socio-political context of the historian. The focus of such examinations is more upon what they reveal about the writer, her time and her influences, than what they say about the subject.

Nicholaas A. Rupke admirably performs an immense task by both instructing his readership about what metabiography is, as well as tackling the subject of Alexander von Humboldt and his representation in the continually changing landscape of Germany. He begins by discussing the conflicting perceptions of Humboldt during his lifetime, when both the revolutionaries of 1848 and their opposition, the monarchists, laid claim to Humboldt. Both have a point; Humboldt was a courtier of King Frederick William IV, while simultaneously writing letters that were critical of the king and democratic in their ideals. Rupke follows Humboldt scholarship through Germany’s many periods of change.

Perhaps the most profound example of differing socio-political perceptions of Humboldt is exemplified by the whiplash speed with which images of the scientist were altered between World War II and the Post-War period. During the war, the Nazi Party laid claim to Humboldt as an example of German superior genius. After the war, as Germany was divided between East and West, two differing national perceptions of the subject developed. East Germans emphasized features like his abolitionist values (as a criticism of the US), his work as a mining inspector (to develop his proto-communist worker credentials) and his anti-colonial remarks (a criticism of Western European powers). In West Germany, scholars emphasized Humboldt’s familiarity with the West (i.e. his living in France and writing major works in French), and his relationships with cosmopolitan Jews in order to de-Nazify him.

During the course of this book, my primary question was “Who is monitoring the socio-political influences of the metabiographer? This is not an attempt to play “gotcha” with a superior writer. Rupke is a brilliant, careful historian. But even the best writer will let biases slip-out if given a long enough project. The following is in the spirit of Rupke’s own self-reflection, where he states “this book itself now becomes part of the raw material for further metastudy” (Rupke, p. 217).

As a Dutch historian of science, who has worked in Britain and the US, Rupke’s Western European and Cold War views are visible in his work. In his discussion of post-war Germany, he refers to East German studies of Humboldt as “shrill political rhetoric” (Rupke, p. 141). While he does credit East German efforts in establishing “the most extensive basis of primary sources” (Rupke, p. 175), Rupke also claims that “West Germans were not under pressure to argue the legitimacy of their state” (Rupke, p. 144). I doubt this latter claim is so. Let us use the author’s own example of Werner Heisenberg, who was the first post-war president of the Humboldt Foundation. Prior to the war, Heisenberg expressed his admiration for Jewish scientist Albert Einstein. During the war, Heisenberg did not join the Nazi Party; but he did work for the Nazis on Hitler’s project to build an atomic bomb.  This was an individual in a conflicted relationship with the Nazi Party, employed to direct Humboldt scholarship by a nation equally conflicted in its relationship with the Nazi Party. The resulting scholarship was designed to “serve the cause of rapprochement between…West Germany and its occupying powers” (Rupke, p. 141). How is this not a “pressure to argue the legitimacy of their state”?

Another element of Rupke’s study that expresses a Western European/US bias is his characterization of “Spanish-American interest in Humboldt, taking at times the form of hero worship” (Rupke, p. 134). While this may be true in some quarters, there is also a strong anti-colonial tendency in Latin American historiography where some native authors would be unlikely to regard a white western explorer as a hero. However, a Germanophile westerner from a colonizing culture may not hear these voices and create a balanced view.

Thirdly, there is an interesting passage where Rupke refers to German citizen Carl Troll as a “collaborator” with the Nazis. This is an unusual choice of words, designed to separate “passive fellow travelers” from “active collaborators” (Rupke, p. 156). But a collaborator is someone who aids a foreign, invading power in its domination of a country. The Nazi Party was not a foreign power victimizing Germany, it was an elected political body supported by the majority of German citizens. It would be hard to imagine a Jewish historian defining wartime German citizens as collaborators. Conversely, it is probably difficult for a historian working among Germans to avoid insulating himself from the notion that this was once a nation which caused such widespread harm.

So Rupke’s book presents examples of how metabiographies or metahistories themselves are influenced by socio-political environment. Further, even how one views the purpose of metabiography is altered by environmental influences. Rupke chose to study Humboldt. He did so in the context of a Germany, whose politics have changed so dramatically and rapidly in the course of his lifetime, that he concluded “the task of metabiography is primarily to explore the fact and the extent of the ideological embeddedness of biographical portraits, not to settle the issue of authenticity” (Rupke, p. 214). Ideology is a system of ideas, not necessarily a system of beliefs, which are based more upon religious feeling than intellectual conclusions. If Rupke were performing a metabiography of Charles Darwin in the context of Kansas, would he change his characterization of the task of metabiography to exploring “the fact and extent of the ideological and belief-based embeddedness of biographical portraits”? Since Rupke himself states that “the issues we raise come from contemporaneous anxieties and interests” (Rupke, p. 215), it is clear that even the defined purpose of metabiography is susceptible to such influences.

History is a tangle of individual points of view on periods, events and people. The methods of metahistory and metabiography seek to untangle this fascinating mess of perspectives. But in the end, they simply represent the views of more individuals who have their own biases and personal colorings when observing historical evidence. It is only an ideal that historians employ the methods of science; using empirical evidence and primary sources to draw conclusions. Aside from the most basic conclusions (i.e. “We have evidence that Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin), the ideas engendered by the evidence are products of individuals with their own socio-political backgrounds. For this reason, history is as much Art as Science, (but not in a good way). Art is all about the individual perspective of the artist in a creation. History is a combination of evidence with personal creation. All of this means that a reader of history is required to have a more active role than simply reading and taking-in what one is being told. The reader is required to parse the Art from the Science; the personal coloring from the empirical evidence. This is the only way for one to determine wherein lays historical accuracy. The reader is actually required to be a historian of the piece that they are reading. One must ask whether a statement is backed-up with reference to a primary source that directly states or proves what the author claims, or whether the statement is a product of the author’s imagination. The answer will not always be clear. To cloud matters further, one must also take into account one’s own socio-political background and explore how one’s own ideas are colored. But this is the challenge of history and where active learning occurs. When one reads a history book, one learns not only some facts about the past; one learns how to investigate. The ability to investigate, to ask questions and go about answering them, is a valuable tool for an active mind; a tool that will serve a reader in most other aspects of life.

The study of history has been in the midst of a transitional period for a few decades; at least since Hayden White first began exploring the socio-political perspectives of the historians themselves. It is a somewhat confusing period where historians can no longer just tell stories and readers can no longer just read them. Since the examination of bias, based upon the historian’s and the reader’s socio-political views entered the equation, the study of history has been in a crisis (but not in a bad way). A crisis is a turning point; a decisive or critical moment. We are in the midst of more questions than answers about historiography. I’m not sure where this period of questioning will lead. But eventually someone smarter than me will develop a few useful answers and strategies. These will result in intellectual growth and new ideas about how to approach history for more accurate portrayals. For all we know, the kernel of truth may be somewhere in our biology; at least we all have that in common. Then again, maybe this is all just something I’d say because I’m merely a product of my socio-political environment.


Rupke, Nicholaas A. Alexander von Humboldt. A Metabiography. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, 2005.