Wilhelm Schmidt, Prof. Dr.

16.2.1868 – 10.2.1954
born in Hörde, Germany died in Freiburg im Üechtland, Switzerland

römisch-katholischer Priester


Ehrung Titel Datierung Faculty
Honorary Doctorate Dr. phil. h.c. 1947/48 Faculty of Philosophy

Schmidt, born into a Catholic working-class family, attended a private secondary school and the school at the mission seminary in Limburg, Netherlands, from 1880 until 1888 and then turned to philosophic-theological studies. In 1892 he was ordained as a priest. He had already become a member of the mission society Societas Verbi Divini (SVD) in 1890. From 1893 until 1895 he studied theology, philosophy and Oriental languages in Berlin and Vienna and became a teacher and researcher at the mission monastery St. Gabriel near Vienna in 1896. In 1902 he became an Austrian citizen. Four years later he founded “Anthropos”, a journal for ethnological and linguistic studies that is still being published to this day. He was its editor from 1906 to 1922 as well as from 1937 to 1949. In 1906 he also became a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences in Vienna and one year later received the Parisian academy’s Volney-award. He founded the “Semaine d’Ethnologie religieuse” (International Week for Anthropology of Religion) in 1912, which was held a total of five times between 1912 and 1929.

After the end of the First World War, in which Schmidt had volunteered as an army chaplain, he became active in the legitimist movement. He had already functioned as a consultant for the heir to the archduke Franz Ferdinand as well as for the emperor Karl and in general had a good relationship to the Habsburg family. Three years after his habilitation for ethnology and linguistics at the University of Vienna in 1921 he received the title of associate professor. Until then - the middle of the 1920s - he had mainly published linguistic works such as “Die Gliederung der australischen Sprachen” (1912-18) and “Die Sprachfamilien und Sprachkreise der Erde” (1926). He found a connection between certain South-East Asian and Oceanic languages. The term “Austronesian” was coined by Schmidt, for example. In the further course of his career he began focusing more and more on ethnology and the history of religion, which at the time were new fields of research. He developed his Vienna school of ethnology, which Wilhelm Koppers and Paul Schebesta among others also belonged to. Together with Fritz Graebner he was one of the best-known advocates of the theory of Kulturkreise (cultural circles). Schmidt and his followers tried to prove this theory, which included the idea of a universal primitive monotheism, through extended expeditions that were partly funded by the Vatican. These expeditions brought Koppers and Martin Gusinde, among others, to the Tierra del Fuego Indians (1919-24). Schmidt and his followers advocated the theory “that belief in a high-god must be verifiable among the most ‘ancient’ and ‘primitive’ peoples because they remained closest to the divine act of creation”. Therefore, “the most important ‘cultural circles’ of non-written history developed through several cultural steps and waves of expansion from a few of such ‘primitive cultures’”. This theory was therefore diffusionistic and can be seen as a counter reaction to evolutionism. The theory of cultural circles has no meaning in today’s research anymore, and even in Schmidt’s lifetime students such as Wilhelm Koppers rejected the speculative elements of his theories.

From the middle of the 1920s onward Schmidt gained some renown through the founding of two further institutions: In 1926 he was tasked with establishing the Pontifico Museo Missionario-Ethnologico Lateranese in Rome, where he also acted as director from 1927 until 1939 and afterwards became an honorary director. He also founded the Anthropos-institute in Mödling near Vienna in 1931. Beginning in 1928 Schmidt was a member of the administration of the International Institute for African Languages and Cultures. He went on lecture trips to England, Sweden and the USA as well as to Japan and China, among other places. Furthermore, he initiated the founding of a Catholic university in Salzburg as the president of the Episcopal commission.

Not least due to his good contacts to the Vatican, Schmidt was considered a “reliable supporter” of the Austro-fascist regime. Advocating a clerical anti-Semitism, he however also can be seen as an opponent of National Socialism and its racist components. This became especially clear in his work “Rasse und Volk”, which he extended to the three-volume book “Rassen und Völker in Vorgeschichte und Geschichte des Abendlandes” after the war. An undated report - presumably from the Sicherheitsdienst (security service) of the SS from 1936 - found in the Federal Archive in Berlin, criticizes him for this “unambiguous” statement “against race-law thinking”. In the file also a lecture is documented, held in February 1936 at the Museum for Art and Industry, with the title “Die Widerlegung der Irrlehre von Blut und Boden”, which was attended by the elite of the authoritarian corporative state: Cardinal Innitzer, Federal Chancellor Schuschnigg and State Secretary Hans Pernter among others.

Schmidt’s teaching license would have expired when he turned 70 in February 1938, but it was extended “until further notice” due to a request by the faculty at the beginning of that year. Because of Austria’s “Anschluss” to the German Reich he however had to give up his teaching position in any case: His venia was “suspended until further notice” on April 22nd, 1938. Due to his close ties with Austro-fascism and his support of legitimism, Schmidt had to endure other measures against him as well - he even was arrested temporarily. According to the aforementioned report Schmidt was also suspected of acting “in a way as a go-between for the Vatican and the Ballhausplatz”.

The Reichsdozentenführer (Reich head of lecturers) reported that a search of Schmidt’s quarters in the monastery had brought “to light incriminating correspondence with monarchist circles”. A letter from Schmidt to Schuschnigg from two weeks before the “Anschluss” is also documented, in which Schmidt writes:

“The more I want to hold myself back, Federal Chancellor, the more I feel the need to express my admiration of the fantastic turnabout that you have accomplished in all our souls, in Austria’s soul, after first achieving it in me.”

Schmidt decided to flee and managed to enter the Vatican in 1938. From Rome he continued to Switzerland with the help of Marius Besson, the bishop of Fribourg. He also accomplished moving his institute to Switzerland: In the fall of 1938 he established it in Châteu Freoideville in Posieux, in the Canton of Fribourg. The institute remained in Switzerland until 1962. Although the National Socialists had confiscated the library in St. Gabriel Schmidt had managed to take the most valuable collections with him, as the Reichsdozentenführung reported discontentedly. According to a report from April 6th, 1940, the disciplinary measure against Schmidt also brought with it problems for the Nazi regime and his still intact contacts to the “Third Reich” were troubling:

“Through his connections to Rome, his personal ambition, which feels dethroned, his friendship with centralist circles, as well as an extraordinary intelligence and work ethic P. Schm. is a not to be underestimated force that acts as an influence on morale. […] It would not be tactically prudent to take action against the man in any way, as long as his work in Mödling before 1938 does not give reason for this.”

Schmidt worked at the University of Fribourg from 1939 until 1954. At first a lecturer, he advanced to full professor for ethnology and linguistic studies in 1942 and continued teaching as an honorary professor after 1951. During the Second World War he supported Austrian resistance movements such as the Wehrverband (defense association) Patria.

Despite his advanced age he returned to Austria’s academic world after the war as a visiting professor. Faced with an age limit of 75 years - Schmidt was 77 years old at the end of the war - the dean’s office of the philosophical faculty advocated a positive decision by the ministry, arguing that Schmidt had been persecuted in National Socialism and citing his scientific achievements. The ministry agreed and Schmidt held lectures in ethnology as a visiting professor at the University of Vienna from 1946 until 1948. He also temporarily worked as a visiting professor in Salzburg. After the end of his teaching activity in Switzerland and Austria he acted as president of the 4th International Congress for Anthropology and Ethnology in Vienna in 1952.

Besides Schmidt’s main work, the book in twelve volumes “Der Ursprung der Gottesidee” (1912-55), the “Handbuch der vergleichenden Religionsgeschichte” (1930), “Das Eigentum auf den ältesten Stufen der Menschheit” (2 volumes, 1937-40) and the “Handbuch der Methode der kulturhistorischen Ethnologie” (1937) are among his most important works. He published on linguistics, ethnology, religious studies and prehistory of humanity and among other things was a member of the Papal Academy of Sciences, honorary member of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, member of the Austrian Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory and honorary president in 1948, as well as a member of the board of trustees for the conservation of farm houses. Schmidt was also active in Swiss farm house research. He received honorary doctorates from the universities of Bonn, Leuven, Milan, Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg.

Archiv der Universität Wien, Philosophische Fakultät, Personalakt 3332. | Archiv der Universität Wien, Rektoratsakten GZ 677-1937/38. | Bundesarchiv Berlin, MF R 58/86497. | Österreichisches Staatsarchiv/Archiv der Republik, Bestand Unterricht, Personalakt Schmidt.

Andreas Huber

Zuletzt aktualisiert am 08/28/23