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Klejn L.S. Archaeology in the saddle (Gustav Kossinna from the far distance)

Publ. In German (1974), in French (shortened version, 1978), in Russian (2000), all in journals

By Leo S. Klejn


A long article was published in Russian, with the above title and the subtitle Kossinna from the distance of 70 years, in the journal Stratum (2000,4) in the section entitled “Monograph in journal”. Indeed, it is comparable in its size to a small monograph.


It appeared for the first time in a shorter version under the title ‘Kossinna from the distance of 40 years’ in German in 1974 in the 58th volume of the annual Jahresschrift für mitteldeutsche Vorgeschichte (then DDR). The article was seen as significant both in German and world archaeological literature and in the author’s biography.


The Russian title of the work alludes to Kossina’s maxim: “Let us help prehistory into the saddle, and it will race itself”. Prehistoric archaeology was to him something like an ancient German crusader knight – armoured, armed and eager for the saddle - ready to ride out and conquer distant lands. For nearly half a century his words were a slogan. Kossina’s ideas presaged Nazi ideology in Germany. However, he introduced method of matching an archaeological culture with an ethnos, thus allowing archaeology to participate in the solution of ethnogenic problems. For a long time our (Russian) archaeology saw this as its main task.


In our country and in the rest of the world, Kossinna was seen as a migrationist, while in Germany he was seen as, just the reverse, an autochthonist. Indeed, he envisaged all European migrations as having originated from within Germany, while in Germany itself only autochthonous (local and independent) development was envisaged.


This theme was at the time of writing (and since) of great relevance to Soviet archaeology. In the ’70s Soviet archaeology had only just broken from obligatory autochthonism and begun reconstructing migrations. Kossinna, with his aggressive raids from Germany, was still as much of a bugaboo as ever, but it was necessary to study him objectively, and to accept his attainments. On the other hand our archaeologists (including such authoritative figures as Bryusov) had used Kossinna’s methods to construct our own migrationism, only in the opposite direction – into Europe from the steppes.


The author’s involvement with these questions in fact predates the article on Kossinna and can be dated from an article criticising the ideas of Aleksandr Yakovlevish Bryusov who, from 1961 renovated Kossinna’s migrationism/authochthonism but turned it into the opposite direction – arguing that migrations have to issue from our country. The author (Klejn) wrote a sharply critical article against migrationist constructions of A. Ya. Bryusov, focusing upon the Pit-grave and Catacomb-grave cultures, that play a central role in Bryusov’s fantastic travels, from the steppes into Central Europe.


It was impossible to publish this critical article, despite the support of Artamonov and Mavrodin. Bryusov, who worked in the ’60s as the deputy editor of Soviet Archaeology, was one of pillars of Soviet archaeology, and was responsible for one of theoretical fundamentals, namely that there is a straightforward equivalence between archaeological culture and ethnos. The veneration of Bryusov and the respect for his doctrine continued after his death, in 1966.


The author then decided to direct his criticism at the doctrine underlying Bryusov’s ideas and being fully accessible to criticism in the Soviet Union. This was one of the methods to avoid censorship and the demands of political ideology. In criticising Kossinna the author was in fact aiming at the dominant Moscow school of politically engaged archaeology. Yet to publish such article in Soviet press was again practically impossible.


And in Germany? German archaeologists generally avoided talking about Kossinna: they were afraid, so, in Germany too, nothing was published on Kossinna. Kossinna was intimately connected with the Kaiser’s Germany and moving to Hitlerite Germany  – he died two years before Hitler’s “nationalist revolution” of 1933. After World War II he was left as it were in a vacuum between the two Germanies – the democratic BRD and the (ostensibly) socialist DDR.


In the BRD seemed too close to the disgraceful past - from which Denazification had divorced the people. After Denazification no archaeologist dared to subject Kossinna’s doctrine to a thorough analysis. The only evaluation possible was a blanket negative judgement. However, many understood that this silencing was artificial. The West-German archaeologist Günter Smolla coined the term “Kossinna syndrome” for this situation. Moreover, as the author (Klejn) noted, in Western Germany Schuchhard’s disciples appeared more numerous than Kossina’s. Therefore everyone preferred not to touch Kossinna, to forget him. Archaeologists dealing with the same themes as Kossina (Wahle, Eggers, Hachmann) criticised his positions and methods in their particular works but did not devote any work specifically to him.


In the DDR no archaeologist within this autocratic country dared to write an article in which the Kossinna phenomenon would be analysed from all sides and in which not only his faults would be noted but also his valuable contributions. In the DDR he was estimated more critically and with hostility than in the Soviet Union (the DDR was then the vanguard bulwark of the Communist camp). It was in this context that a long article from a young Soviet archaeologist (politically from an ‘elder brother’) was received with pleasure. The article criticised Kossinna but stopped short of painting him as the devil incarnate.


‘Kosinna from the distance of 40 years’ (1974) broke from the tendency of over-oversimplification and as such was met with hostility by Kossinna’s followers (Korell 1975) but with approval from those pupils whose positions had moved from Kossina’s – pupils such as Ernst Wahle and Herbert Jankuhn (personal letters – cf. in Klejn 2000, 2006). ‘Kossina from the distance of 40 years’ inspired analogous, though less detailed, articles already of Western German archaeologists, including ‘Kossina after 50 years’ by G. Smolla (1984); Ulrich Feit (1984; 2000 a. o.). 30 years after the German publication the author (Klejn) published an expanded Russian version of the work, under the title Kossinna from the distance of 70 years; but, again, this was not published in Russia.


Here it seems appropriate to quote some statements from German and other Western archaeologists in order to illustrate the western reaction to this work. The editor Behrens took the risk of sending the manuscript of this work before it was published to Ernst Wahle, the doyen of West-German archaeology, a rebellious pupil of Kossinna. The old man was frail and it had seemed unlikely that he would live to see its publication.


From the letter by Prof. Ernst Wahle (Heidelberg) to Hermann Behrens (March 30, 1973), forwarded to in Leningrad:

“So this morning with the registered mail Klejn’s manuscript departs again to you and I wish it to a safe journey. I am very grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to read it already and it was a pleasure to become acquainted with it. The author works on a broad basis and many colleagues could learn from this here… I find that this penetration into Kossinna’s method (in his theory as well as in practice) is very instructive… For our domestic criticism of Kossinna is at a sorry level”.

From a letter of Prof. Rolf Hachmann (21 January 1975) to Klejn:

“Some days ago I have received your reprint of “Kossinna 40 after years” which I have already read before. I wonder how you have entered these our tangled inner German affairs. Such discussion from a distant perspective has a great value, especially for participants”.

From the letter of Prof. Bruce Trigger (Montreal, Canada, July 8, 1976):

“Dear Dr. Klejn,

I have enjoyed reading your various papers in English and German which are available at our university. In particular I enjoyed your paper on Kossinna – of which I would hope an English version appear in Current Anthropology [the English translation has not appeared, but the French translation has].

From the letter of Prof. Chr. Strahm (Freiburg, August 29, 1976):

„... the article you sent on Kossinna I have read with great interest and I can only congratulate you on it. I find this to be not only the best that has been written on Kossinna, but that just with its appearance Kossinna’s phenomenon is clearly understood and his position in prehistory is shown in the correct light. It has also become clear how long this blocked the methodological progress in prehistory, It is remarkable that such work we had to receive from abroad!”

Very curious was the letter from the only prominent post-war continuer of Kossinna’s “Siedlungsarchäologie”, the Göttingen professor Herbert Jankuhn. A high officer of the SS and a participant of Himmler’s Ahnenerbe, he subsequently underwent Denazification and directed an active trend that saved the term Siedlungsarchäologie, but rid of many of Kossina’s odious principles, turned it towards Environmentalism.

From the letter of Herbert Jankuhn (Göttingen) to Hermann Behrens (January 19, 1979), that was then forwarded to Leningrad:

“On a special occasion I had to deal with Gustav Kosinna and his modern evaluation (for a short collection New German Biography). For this I read an article by Herr Klejn from Leningrad on Kossinna from the distance of 40 years that has completely charmed me. Setting aside the Marxist viewpoint based on Historical materialism, there remains a very interesting and rich with knowledge presentation of Kossinna’s work, foremost from Russian literature far to be known to me. I find this article very good although although I do not agree with all its points; so he sees Kossina’s influence as much more influential in Germany than it was in reality, and especially his estimation of Schuchhardt is not completely correct. I would like to write to Herr Klejn and I am interested to know if his address as indicated in the publication is actual”. 


It remains to explain what is new in this article. For certainly criticisms had been made of Kossinna before. The author presents Kossina’s ideas in a systematic form.  This had not been done previously. Kossinna himself threw into the discipline now one idea, then another, without unity or integration. Correspondingly, critics have plucked at one or other vulnerable places without surveying and criticising the doctrine as a whole.


The author has brought the views of Kossinna together into a logical system - something that was not done by either Kossina himself or any of his disciples. The author has traced the run of Kossinna views and then presented his ideas as 13 dogmas joined to a few thematic blocks and united by certain philosophical and methodological principles. Kossinna’s dogmas follow from these principles.


One part of these dogmas concerns working in ethnic history – the origins of peoples and language families (the ethnic treatment of archaeological cultures, cultural heredity and typological relations/ migrations, the treatment of culture distribution, the ethnic attribution of ‘types’ and the matching of peoples with races). Another group concerns the use of research results (appeal to “historical right”, the selection of archaeological precedents as justification for modern plans of aggression and the doctrine of primogeniture). A third group concerns active forces of social development (the declaration of the Kulturträger mission of the Germans, the principle of imposing the past onto the present, biological determinism and the principle of eliciting of ideals and direct lessons from archaeology).


It is this system that the author criticises, while simultaneously revealing within it some positive aspects – that lend it vitality and ability to expansion under certain social conditions.


In the last part of the article the arguments of Kossinna’s critics are presented and the development of this criticism is traced – from the first critics (the venerable German scholars of the early XX century) and Polish adversaries of Kossinna to West-European opponents, Soviet Marxists, and West-German sceptics.


The author maintains that, despite its dilettantism and subjectivity, Kossinna’s work should be seen as a classic of German prehistoric archaeology. He opened in prehistoric archaeology an entirely new field of ethnogenetic research, founded a school and introduced some methods that entered the practice of research even of his enemies. It is a bit strange that  just such figure appeared to be classic in German archaeology of the early XX century. Yet this was caused by the social-historical setting and the spirit of time in Germany of the epoch of two World wars initiated by Germany.


Thus, in the article, a full and thorough analysis of Kossinism, and problems it poses, is presented. The work will long be valuable to anyone who wishes to know more about Kossinnism, - to understand it better, including both its faults and its grains of sense.

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Part I. Our relation to the heritage of Kossinna

1.       On the track of Kossinna (Lyrical introduction)

2.       Our label of Kossinnism (Historical introduction)

Part II. The doctrine in the making

1.       At the sources of “prehistoric ethnology”

2.       The beginning of the “archaeology of residence” (“Siedlungsarchäologie”)

3.       Confrontation and the struggle for domination

4.       An “Extremely national discipline”

5.       War and graves

6.       Nordic Aryans and their 14 raids

7.       Personality and heritage

Part III. “Archaeology of residence”

A. The Composition of Kossinna’s heritage

B. Kossinna’s principles for working in ethnic history: the origins of peoples and language families

1.       The Ethnic interpretation (ethnische Deutung) of archaeological cultures

2.       The Ethnic interpretation of cultural continuity (inheritance)

3.       The Ethnic interpretation of typological interrelations

4.       The Interpretation of culture distribution as migration

5.       The Ethnic attribution of types

6.       Matching peoples with races

C. Ethnic history: the use of results

7.       Appeal to “historical right”

8.       Selection of archaeological precedents for modern plans of aggression

9.       The Doctrine of primogeniture

D. The principles of studying culture history

10.       The Declaration of a Kulturträger (bearer of culture) mission

11.       Imposing the past on the present

12.       Biological determinism (racism)

13.       Eliciting ideals and direct lessons from archaeology

E. Critics of Kossinna

14.       Early critics

15.       Conflict with Schuchhardt

16.       The Polish-German archaeological battle

17.       Criticism from other well-known European scholars

18.       Criticism from Soviet archaeologists

19.       Modern criticism of Kossinnism in West-German archaeology

F. The Meaning of Kossinna’s heritage


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