8 October 2004

Ethiopia: Five Centuries of Ethio-German Relations


Since the first news from Ethiopia had reached Germany in medieval ages, it has always played a special role in German conscience, attracting Germans from all social layers and from all professions through the centuries, especially starting from the early 19th century.

Be it adventurers, princes of ruling houses, natural scientists or philologists, merchants, industrials or poets and painters - it is surprising to look through the names of all those Germans who in one way or the other were involved in Ethiopia. Somehow one may get the impression that more or less all prominent German travellers also made their way to Ethiopia, at least once. One may for example mention the name of Karl May, the famous novelist - one of his novels plays in Harar; the most popular German zoologist, the "Tiervater Brehm", once led an expedition, at which also the bestseller author Friedrich Gerstäcker had participated (in 1862); most explorers of Africa also passed through Ethiopia, like Rohlfs in 1868 and 1882 or Schweinfurth. Alexander von Humboldt would have preferred to travel to Africa but the circumstances "forced" him to "explore" South America. The modern painter Hansen-Bahia was a teacher at Addis Ababa Art School. Finally, the famous Anglo-German actor Sir Peter Ustinov even was of partially Ethiopian descent, through his grandmother Magdalena Hall, who was born in 1868 during the battle of Magdala.

A history of the relations between Germany and Ethiopia has to start with the scholarly interest German theologians took into this biblical country in the late medieval period - since then scholarly research on Ethiopia and its southern neighbours never stopped. Much later, in the mid-19th century, missionary undertakings became a crucial factor in the establishment of relations between Germans and Ethiopians, and later between the states. Diplomatic and commercial relations, however, started comparatively late (different from France, Great Britain and even Austria). After both Germany and Ethiopia had (re-)constituted themselves as unified states, they occasionally exchanged letters and envoys starting from the 1870s, until finally permanent diplomatic relations were established in 1905.

Already in the medieval period, the Ethiopian region (which was in that time mostly called "India" or "Minor India") occasionally appeared in German literature, e.g. in the 12th/13th century. poetical work "Parzival" by Wolfram von Eschenbach, which was possibly adapting the Queen of Sheba myth. The chevalier of the grail Parzival was the uncle of "Prester John" of India. Renaissance literature linked with pilgrimages to Jerusalem contains information on Ethiopia collected at the Ethiopian monastery (see, e.g., the publications of the 15th century. pilgrims Siebald Rieter from Nürnberg and Bernhard von Breydenbach from Mainz). German scholarly interest in Ethiopia is deeply linked with the first origins of Oriental Studies, which were a branch of biblical research. The existence of a Christian people far in the South, whose origins might be linked with biblical peoples, caused speculations, if their culture or their language could have preserved extra-biblical wisdom from the first biblical fathers. The hope existed to identify the "lost" language Chaldaic, probably bearer of ancient wisdom - and this hope seemed to be confirmed, when the first samples of the Gi'iz script were published in Germany (by Breydenbach in 1486), and later the first manuscript(s) reached German theologians. In 1513 Johannes Potken from Cologne, a Gi'iz student of abba Tomas of Weldebba in Rome, published the Ethiopian Psalms of David, believing that Gi'iz could in fact be identified as Chaldaic.

Students of the history of Ethiopian Studies are well acquainted with the figure of Hiob Ludolf in Frankfurt, considered to be the founder of scientific Ethiopian Studies in Europe. Less known is the fact, that he himself was already a follower of an older tradition of Ethiopian Studies in Germany. Before him, the famous Orientalist Athanasius Kirchner (the first, who "deciphered" the hieroglyphs - but wrongly) had learnt Gi'iz and then had caused much amusement among the Ethiopian Catholics at the Ethiopian Seminar in the Vatican, when he tried to speak Gi'iz with them, with his strong German accent. The interest in Ethiopia in Germany especially rose during the times of the reformation. The German reformation movement, which was primarily directed against the supremacy of the pope and the ignorance of the bible's teachings among both priestry and the population, also took interest into Ethiopia, being another country, which did not recognize the pope. Peter Heyling (1607-1652), a lay missionary from Lübeck, lived at the court starting from 1634, assuming high political posts and translating Gi'iz manuscripts into Amharic. He was a student of Hugo Grotius, the founder of modern international law, who had dreamt of an alliance of all Christian kingdoms of the world.

Among the German Orientalists the most prominent Ethiopianist has been Hiob Ludolf. His encounter with the small Ethiopian community of the Vatican as a young student of Gi'iz (his first informant being the half-Ethiopian priest Antonio d'Andrade) was crucial for his further writings and for Ethiopian Studies in general. Following the invitation of the Duke Ernst I of Saxe-Gotha (1601-1675), his most important linguistic and ethnographical informant, the exiled Catholic priest abba Gorgoryos from Mekane Sillasé in Amhara, travelled to Erfurt in 1652. He stayed with Ludolf at the Duke's castle Friedenstein for months, laying the foundations for Ludolf's Historia Aethiopica of 1681 and other works, which can in a way be considered as precursors of modern ethnological research, and his Amharic and Gi'iz word-books. Ludolf was also an influential teacher. Among his most important students were Johann Heinrich Michaelis in Halle, later the editor of a chronicle of Heyling's life (1724), and Johann Michael Wansleben. The Duke funded a scientific expedition of the latter in 1663, which, however, never reached Ethiopia - but he had at least been quite successful in collecting Ethiopian manuscripts in Egypt (today kept in Paris). In another attempt the Duke, helped by Ludolf, tried to organize an alliance of Christian kingdoms, including Ethiopia, against the Turks, who had invaded the neighbouring Austrian Empire. But the idea of a political alliance came much too early. All attempts of establishing a direct contact through the help of Dutch seafarers stayed fruitless. Christian Ethiopia, however, had started to attract the public's interest. Dependent on Olfert Dapper's Umbständliche Beschreibung von Africa (1670), a pioneering work of African geography, the novelist Happel describes Abyssinia positively in his novel Africanische Tarnolast (1689), contrasting it with its "wild neighbours". In the context of a new philosophical-anthropological discourse in the 18th century, led by the anthropologist and philosopher Immanuel Kant (who created a modern classification of peoples and "races", following which Africans were now judged as culturally inferior), Ludolf's works were crucial for the preservation of a positive image of Ethiopia, in contrast to all other regions of Africa.

German scholarly expeditions started in the 1820s, but mostly reached only the northern regions, Massawa and Tigray. The first were the prominent natural scientists Ehrenberg and Hemprich in 1825. Eduard Rüppell carried out meteorological, zoological and ethnographical studies (1830-34). In 1837 he was followed by the botanist Wilhelm Schimper. He even settled permanently in Tigray and became the governor of Enticco (called "Antitschau" in German sources) under the ruler of Tigray and Simén, dejjazmach Wubé. He and his assistant, the painter Eduard Zander, later entered into the services of atse Tewodros II. According to his biography, which depended on his letters sent from Ethiopia, Zander became the military instructor of Wubé and introduced a flag to be carried by his troops, which was an almost exact copy of the flag of his fatherland, the Dukedom of Anhalt, one of the German states - and strikingly similar to the flag carried later by the troops of unified Ethiopia. Together with Schimper, he also built the palace and church of Debre-Egzi in Simén for Wubé. Later, after Wubé's defeat in 1855, Tewodros II held his coronation ceremony in this church.

The Deutsche Afrika-Expedition of 1861, led by Theodor von Heuglin from Württemberg and the Swiss Werner Munzinger, was mainly carried out in Bogos in today's Eritrea, in Tigray, Kunama and Sudanese areas, and was followed by the publication of detailed ethnographic and cartographic material in Gotha. Gotha thus again became a centre of research on Ethiopia. Shortly thereafter, this expedition was followed in 1862 by the first visit of a head of state to the region, Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (brother-in-law of Queen Victoria) to the northern borderlands of "Abyssinia", accompanied by several scholars like the zoologist Brehm and the medical doctor Bilharz, the discoverer of "bilharzia". Indirectly, this "touristic" expedition also had political implications. His nephew Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who had also participated in the expedition, later became one of the prominent promoters of German colonialism. However, the 1880s' idea to "lease" the Eritrean coast from the Ottoman Empire, circulated by such circles, was never taken up by the German leadership.

A crucial period in the creation of the traditional and special relationship between Germans and the Oromo were the 1840s, when most Oromo areas were still outside the control of the Ethiopian kings. Two parallel undertakings of two South Germans - Tutschek and Krapf - led to a permanent public interest in Germany into these people and to the establishment of the first serious Oromo Studies. The first was the young Bavarian Karl Tutschek, who was nominated teacher of several Africans, freed slaves, who were brought to Germany by South German princes - and a few of them were Oromo. Learning to speak their language from them, he wrote the first existing Oromo dictionary and grammar (published in 1844 and 1845). Particularly important were Akafede (also known as "Osman") and Aman (also called "Karl Habasch"), whose letters in German and Oromo and records of oral traditions of 1840 are of particular interest for researchers today. This extraordinary cultural encounter is to be seen in the context of the traditional interest of German courts for "curiosities" and their wish for the accumulation of entertaining and "instructive" knowledge about the world. It was in fact mainly through nobles, that several Oromo were freed and later brought to German states in that period. The Prince Pückler-Muskau, an adventurer at the court of Muhammad Ali of Egypt, purchased and later married "Machbuba" (Bilille), a kidnapped Oromo.

Also another noble traveller, John von Müller, brought a former Oromo slave from Egypt to Germany, Ganame (later called "Pauline Fathme"), who became a key figure for the first Protestant German Oromo mission. From 1855 to 1927 the biography of this pious young lady was reprinted several times, together with calls to open a mission in "Ormania" (as the Oromo regions were called by German missionaries). The first one to try was Johann Ludwig Krapf, who was convinced that the Oromo were similar to the ancient Germanic tribes. He hoped, that a Christian reform movement could start with them and later encompass whole Africa, similar to Germany, from where once Protestantism had started. Krapf started to translate the New Testament together with his assistant Berki during his stay in Ankober in Shoa (1840); much later in 1866, after the establishment of a mission in Ethiopia and the Sudan, he could retake this work: His colleagues sent a former Oromo slave, Rufo, to Württemberg, whom they had purchased at the border town Metemma. In fact both were successful in completing the New Testament's translations, which were immediately sent to Ethiopia. After the failure to open a mission in Beni Shangul and Gubbe in 1867, in 1871 the missionary Johannes Mayer got the permission by nigus Menilek to establish an Oromo mission in Shoa, Menilek wishing their christianisation. Helped by other missionaries, including the German-speaking Gebru Gobbaw Desta (the well-known diplomat and intellectual kentiba Gebru), they could stay in their missionary station "Balli" until 1886. Another German Oromo mission was established again in 1927 by the Hermannsburg Mission in Wollega, which was facilitated by the close relationship between the regent ras Teferi and the missionary family Flad.

Also Christian Ethiopia itself and the "Jewish" Béte-Isra'él attracted German missionaries. The British- and Swiss-funded Protestant mission in Ethiopia was mainly carried out by Germans, the first being Isenberg, Blumhardt and Krapf in the 1830s in Tigray and Shoa. Isenberg, however, caused disputes about questions of doctrine, following which the mission was closed down. An invitation of atse Tewodros II, wishing to introduce European technical know-how, led to the re-opening of the mission in 1856. German lay missionaries founded a German artisans' colony in Gefat, and also settled in Jenda among the Béte-Isra'él, the "Falasha Mission" there being directed by Martin Flad. Emperor Tewodros II even married one of his relatives to the missionary Theophil Waldmeier. Their aim was primarily the promotion of a reform of the Orthodox Church from within. They set up schools, at which also German was taught, as German letters written by Ethiopians show. Starting from 1865, however, Tewodros' discontent with European politics resulted into the subsequent arrest of all Europeans, most of whom were Germans. This motivated the 1867/68 British military intervention, led by General Napier from Bombay, and finally the expulsion of all Europeans. Several Ethiopian students were then brought to Jerusalem to stay at a German-directed school "Das Syrische Waisenhaus". Later a number of them continued their education in St. Chrischona near Basle and also in Württemberg (see Smidt 2004). Among the most prominent of those was Mika'él Aregawi, who in 1873 continued the Béte-Isra'él mission under the direction of Flad. Also another historical figure, the above-mentioned kentiba Gebru Desta, was a student of St. Chrischona. Starting from 1877 he was working as a German missionary, and from the late 1880s as a diplomat and administrator in Menilek's services, and after the establishment of the German Legation in 1905 as their official interpreter. The Hamasen priest qeshi Welde-Sillase Kinfu, attending the theological courses at St. Chrischona in the 1870s, worked on the Amharic bible together with Krapf and was then in 1874 sent as a missionary to Tse'azzega in today's Eritrea. "Scholarship programmes" thus started very early, even if interrupted again after 1877. The first Ethiopian following studies in Germany in the early 20th century was the artist, poet and singer Tesemma Eshete, later an influential friend of the heir to the throne lij Iyasu.

Ethiopians appear at German universities at a comparatively early stage. The first academic of Ethiopian origin, studying in Germany, was Ingdashet, also known as Wilhelm Schimper junior (son of the above-mentioned German immigrant to Tigray), who after visiting theological courses in St. Chrischona in 1872-73 studied at the Polytechnicum at Karlsruhe until 1877. Later he worked as an engineer in Eritrea and then served, among others, as the interpreter of the scholarly important Deutsche Aksum-Expedition to Eritrea and Tigray in 1906, at the Legation and at the court of atse Menilek II in 1907. When Germany formally established permanent diplomatic relations with Ethiopia in 1905, atse Menilek II also sent a university teacher to the Oriental Seminar at Berlin University, the Protestant aleqa Tayye Gebre-Maryam. His only student, Lorenz Jensen, later served as German diplomat in Addis Abeba, Harar and Desé (the only diplomat residing at the court of nigus Mika'él and lij Iyasu). The Africanist chair of Hamburg University also employed Ethiopian lecturers already starting from the 1920s.

German scholarly interest in Ethiopia, first by natural scientists, then by linguists and ethnographers, reinitiated Ethiopian Studies in the 19th century Augustus Dillmann (1823-1894) created the most important Gi'iz dictionary, followed by a grammar. With his publications of the years 1847 to 1894 he was practically the re-founder of Ethiopian Studies in Europe. Franz Praetorius (1847-1927) at a very young age acquired an impressing command of Tigrinnya, publishing later further linguistic works on Ethiosemitic and Cushitic languages, which are still important today. The Orientalist Enno Littmann during his 1905/06 Princeton Expedition recorded Tigré traditions and songs, continued later for two years in Straßburg together with Naffa' wad 'Etman, and thus laid new grounds for Tigré Studies. Additionally his archaeological studies during the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition were the first serious undertaking in this field. The Semitist Eugen Mittwoch in Berlin - closely collaborating with Ethiopian scholars like blatten geta Hiruy Welde-Sillase (who stayed in Berlin in 1923) - and the Africanist August Klingenheben in Hamburg initiated Ethiopian Studies at their chairs. Both Universities have kept these research traditions until today - the chair in Hamburg becoming the only purely Ethiopianist chair of Europe under Ernst Hammerschmidt. Ethnological interest in Ethiopia mainly started with Leo Frobenius (whose expedition of 1915 to Eritrea together with Solomon Friedrich Hall, however, also had political aims). Ethnological expeditions carried out by his successors were the "XII. Deutsche Inner-Afrikanische Forschungsexpedition" of 1934 (led by Adolf Jensen) and those the 1950s (the most prominent participant being Eike Haberland). The research in Ethiopia had a great influence on German ethnological theories on divine kingship and the meritorious complex (Braukämper 2001). A major characteristic of traditional Ethiopianist anthropologists in Germany is the historical perspective on the Ethiopian peoples, especially in the South, the major use and recognition of oral tradition as sources and a focus on material culture.

Political and diplomatic involvement of Germany in Ethiopia started only hesitantly, as Germany did not have any colonial or economic interests in the region. Starting from 1872 the emperor Yohannes IV had tried to gain the support of the emperors Wilhelm I and II for his claims over "lost territories" of his Empire (Bairu Tafla 1981:188ff.). The diplomatic mission of the German envoy Gerhard Rohlfs, sent in 1882 as a response to the emperor's letters, stayed without practical consequences. It was only in 1905 that Germany concluded a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce as a result of the diplomatic mission of Friedrich Rosen, followed by the establishment of a permanent German Legation at Addis Abeba. Immediately thereafter the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition, led by Littmann, carried out detailed archaeological and philological research at Aksum in 1906. In 1907 a diplomatic mission led by dejjazmach Meshesha visited Berlin and was received by Wilhelm II.; an important consequence was the facilitation of weapons export to Ethiopia. Quickly Germans individually and half-officially got involved in Ethiopian affairs on different levels, encouraged by Menilek. Following his demand, the economic consultant of the Rosen mission, Carl Bosch, sent artisans, among whom the architect Karl Haertel became a prominent personality at the court (building, among others, Menilek's mausoleum). Concessions were also given to Germans, the first being Arnold Holtz. The turning point in the relations with Germany seems to have been in 1902 the arrival of the Ethio-German family of Welette-Iyesus Hall (a daughter of the above-mentioned Zander). She became a courtier of Empress Taytu, and her son Jakob the Emperor's consultant and interpreter. Later other sons and daughters arrived, of whom David Hall was the most important, facilitating Ethiopian contacts to the Germany of the 1930s and later still in the 1950s. The end of the reign of Menilek II was marked by a permanent rise of German involvement, Menilek using them to counterbalance the (semi-)colonial interests of Great Britain, France and Italy. After the departure of his Councillor of State Ilg, he employed Zintgraff as his successor; a medical doctor, Steinkühler; and Pinnow as the teacher of the heir to the throne, lij Iyasu. Temporarily the Germans' influence decreased due to the disease of Menilek of 1909/10 and his wife's regency. Iyasu, however, again allied himself with Germans, when he took power in 1910/11. This alliance played a most dramatic role in World War I, lij Iyasu preparing anti-colonial resurrections in the neighbouring colonies, thus de-facto entering into the war on the side of Germany and Turkey. Only the coup d'état of 1916 stopped this alliance.

Germans continued to play a role in the country, e.g. as settlers like "Papa Götz" in Arsi (see the Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch 1973), and also at the court. The wife of architect Haertel became the courtier of Empress Menen (this is also the subject of a recent novel, "Maskal" of Brigitte Beil), while Christine Hall, a younger Hall-daughter, became the governess of the Emperor's children. Also political relations stayed friendly. The regent ras Teferi, the later Emperor Haile Selassie I, visited Germany twice, in 1924 and in 1954. Starting from the 1930s David Hall was his councillor of state and played a remarkable role in the relations with Nazi Germany. Himself being of partially African and Jewish descent, the good reputation of his family in Germany helped to facilitate quite unusual contacts with the German leadership: Through his good offices, the German state even delivered weapons to Ethiopia, in a moment, while fascist Italy was already preparing the invasion (1935). Generally one can observe, that the Nazi propaganda tended to exclude Ethiopia from its racist campaigns. - After World War II emperor Haile Selassie was the first head of state to visit the Federal Republic of Germany. This was answered by the state visit of the West-German Federal President Lübke and the foreign minister Scheel. Engineers, teachers, merchants and medical doctors from Germany entered into the services of Ethiopia.

After the fall of the Emperor, the relations with the Western part of Germany became more difficult. The German School was "nationalized", and the German Cultural Institute closed down. Later, however, especially starting from the mid-1980s, this was followed by massive West-German involvement in development aid through inter-state agencies like the Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) and private associations like Menschen für Menschen. Technical, military and political consultants were sent from the Eastern part of Germany after the revolution of 1974. The Medical College of Gondar owes its existence much to the aid of the German Democratic Republic. A series of state visits from unified Germany starting from the 1990s, again by the Federal President and later also by the Chancellor, responded by state visits from Ethiopia, underlined the continuation of the "special relationship" between both countries.

To finish, I may refer to two rather unusual examples for quite practical consequences of Ethio-German relations - the first from the early 19th and the second from the late 20th century. Unknown to most of today's potato eaters, the first historical appearance of potatoes in Northern Ethiopia is linked with the German immigrant Wilhelm Schimper. When he became a governor of Enticco in Tigray under dejjazmach Wubé, he planted the first potatoes imported from Germany in his gardens. During his subsequent posts under the Ethiopian leaders Wubé, atse Tewodros II. and atse Yohannes IV., in Simén, Debre Tabor and Adwa, he continued to promote the cultivation of potatoes until the 1870's. - Also modern development aid has quite recently contributed to the appearance of one more change in agriculture: Especially in Oromo areas one can today observe a rising number of "Dutch" or Frisian black-white cows, which have their origin in the German-Dutch border area, which over the centuries was renown for the breading of high-quality cows. In fact, for a North German, travelling through some of the fertile Southern regions, the landscape may often strikingly remind him of North German areas with their herds of black-white cows. This may illustrate the feeling of "closeness" which, in spite of all differences, continues to animate the relations between both countries and both peoples.

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