History of the Typical

A History of the “Typical”: Scientific Research in Prisoner-of-War-Camps from 1915 to 1918

Britta Lange

During the First World War, the politically allied governments of Germany and Austria encouraged scientific commissions to conduct extensive research in their POW camps. Physical and cultural anthropologists, comparative philologists, linguists, musicologists, and lawyers gathered data on thousands of prisoners—human material—between 1915 and 1918. They considered the camps to be ethnographic research fields exported to Europe. The prisoners represented nearly all foreign “nations” or “races” as the Central Powers waged war against the “whole world”—the other European nations and their colonies as well as against the Russian Empire and the United States.

Regardless of the academic discipline, German and Austrian scientists (among them Felix von Luschan and Rudolf Poech) were eager to find and collect “typical” examples of different ethnic groups, so-called Völkertypen and Rassetypen, using statistical methods relying on complicated measurements, or simply “seeing” or “feeling” the typical. They not only wrote down detailed descriptions of selected prisoners, but also made finger- and footprints, and plaster casts of hands, feet, and heads, and they produced phonographic and cinematographic recordings. By the end of the war, huge collections of data and media were stocked in Berlin and in Vienna. They were partly used as didactic materials in institutions—museums, archives, and universities—and partly analyzed in the decades to come for scientific publications as well as for propagandistic uses.

The occasion of field research in the middle of Europe under identical conditions led to new definitions of the biologically or ethnographically “typical” of certain groups as regards content. Britta Lange's project tried to exceed this historical question of what and who was “typical” by analyzing the structural level: How was the “typical” constructed, and what (standardized) methods, presumptions, and strategic interests (e.g., personal and national competition) were in play? The scientific conditions and systems also played a crucial role in a third level of the construction of the “typical”: its reproduction. By technically recording individuals or groups of Völkertypen, scientists highly influenced the distribution of images, voices, and (moving) bodies of the “typical” of human “races.” This work sought to investigate these three constructions of the “typical,” their reciprocal dependencies and interferences, as well as their historical tradition and their relation to the camp research conducted during the Second World War.