Sinological Profiles
Otto Franke
27 Sept 1863 (Gernrode) - 5 Aug 1946 (Berlin)

Franke was the major figure in German Sinology in the second quarter of the 20th century. His chief contribution is his five-volume History of the Chinese State (Geschichte des Chinesischen Reiches), which follows the older German tradition of political history, rather than the sociological style of some contemporary French scholars (chiefly Granet, whose influence can be seen in the parallel general history of Maspero, and whose work somewhat interested Franke as well). Franke's history was notable in its own context for presenting China as a changing rather than a static entity, and therefore as something which might be apprehended in the terms which were normal for the study of other civilizations.

Mediaeval Cloister in the Church at Gernrode

Franke was born in Gernrode, in the Harz, an ancient town of which his father had just become Mayor. His birth, as he himself notes, preceded by only a few days the appointment of Bismarck as Prime Minister, with all that this was to mean for the Germany in which he grew up, had his career, and died.

Following an undergraduate degree in history and comparative linguistics at Freiburg, and his stint of military service, Franke in 1884 began graduate study of Sanskrit at Göttingen, with a thesis on a minor Sanskrit phonetic treatise. Avoiding Greek philology, which he might have studied under Wilamowitz, he opted instead for German history. His stance at this time was partly a rejection of the constricting minutiae of philology as it was then practiced, and partly an acceptance of the German tradition of history as a narrative of the deeds of states. Franke wanted out of the cloister. He studied law and Chinese, and discovered an inclination toward academic scholarship, which however it was not possible to pursue at that time and place. He qualified as an interpreter, and in that capacity, arrived at the German embassy in Peking in 1888. From his Peking base, he traveled in China and in Mongolia, Korea, and Japan, during a term of service which ended in 1901; his diaries from that period have recently been published. From 1902 to 1907, back in Germany with his young family, he worked as a journalist, specializing in Asia, and informing the public on the Asian aspects of current events. He also served as an advisor to the Chinese Embassy in Berlin.

There had been talk of his succeeding De Groot at Leiden, in 1902, but nothing came of it. He entered academe in 1910, when he was named to a newly created chair in the Language and Culture of China at Hamburg. There he worked hard. As his son Wolfgang was later to recall, he had very little time for his family. His first major publication at Hamburg was a translation of the Gvng/Jr Tu manual for farming and silk production, which appeared in 1913. More in the line of his later work was his 1920 study of the Chun/Chyou text and its transformation in the work of the Han scholar Dung Jung-shu, an effort for which his diplomatic training and experience had perhaps not fully equipped him. To his view of the Dzwo Jwan commentary on the Chun/Chyou, Bernhard Karlgren replied in a notable monograph of 1926, in effect pointing out that Franke had merely summarized conflicting traditional opinions about the Dzwo Jwan, but had not decided between them. Here is Karlgren:

Franke's opinion is as clear as it is cautious. For the present he does not consider the spuriousness of the [Dzwo Jwan] proved, and admits the possibility of its having been written (not as a commentary but as an independent work) in the late Chou period. But at the same time he keeps open the other possibility, viz that it is really nothing but a fake by the hand of Liu Hin. The choice between the alternatives he has no reason to test, as the one important point for his own argumentation in the work mentioned is the question of its connection with the Chun Ts'iu. So, after having carefully reproduced the various arguments against the Tso Chuan adduced by the K'ang school, he leaves the choice open to future investigators.

Karlgren then proceeds to point out simple errors in Franke's translation of the key document, some of them sufficiently embarrassing in that Legge had earlier gotten them right. It is precisely philology, which has to do with the correct handling of such details, and the proper interpretation of the details, that can break the impasse of retailed opinions, and make a valid "choice between alternatives," or develop new ones if they should be needed. The historian who does not fully understand the sources is helpless in the presence of these problems. In Maspero's general history of ancient China (1927), the problem of the Chun/Chyou is handled with greater philological balance and historical insight, and more briefly: Maspero simply describes the Chun/Chyou as a chronicle of Lu. In the German-speaking world, it was left for Kennedy in his 1936 article in Sinica, taking Franke's 1920 study as his starting point, to depart from Franke's findings, and establish this naturalistic interpretation on a solid footing. Not by quoting authorities pro or con, but by examining the text itself.

The Chun/Chyou monograph did Franke no immediate harm; on the contrary. In 1920, Karlgren's response and Maspero's counterexample both lay well in the future. By 1923, Franke had accumulated more than a hundred publications, some of them, to be sure, in journalistic rather than scholarly media. Thus it was that in that year, at the age of 60, he moved to Berlin as de Groot's successor, not indeed in Leiden, but in the Berlin chair which had been established in 1912. It was not the oldest Sinological position in Germany, but it enjoyed an automatic political visibility. It also had depth. In Berlin at this time were Erich Hauer (philosophy, Manchu, history), Erich Schmitt (classical language, philosophy), Walter Simon (linguistics), and Erich Haenisch (bibliography, Mongolian), not to mention Alfred Forke (philosophy) at the Seminar für Orientalische Sprachen, and the personnel of the various Berlin museums. Franke's seminar at Berlin became an important center for Sinological aspirants. Many were German (Wolfram Eberhard, Franz Michael, Hellmut Wilhelm, Franke's own son Wolfgang), but some were from other countries, most notably Istvan Balázs, from Hungary, whose thesis on Tang economic history Franke praised as the best that had ever been done under his direction.

Otto Franke in Later Life

Franke officially retired in 1931, at the age of 68, after only eight years in the Berlin chair. He was succeeded by his colleague Erich Haenisch, but in his retirement he continued his research and writing, concentrating on his grand historical synthesis amid increasing difficulties. He launched v1 optimistically in his retirement year of 1931, with a long and confident preface. That year and the next may have been German Sinology's last good time. In 1933, Asia Major published a 70th Anniversary list of Franke's publications, a notice in the form of a Festschrift, but with a slight hint that Franke's scholarly production might be essentially finished. Also in 1933 came the Nazi purging of German universities, and with it the near obliteration of German Sinology. Several Berlin notables were either dismissed (Walter Simon, who was Jewish) or subsequently relocated to positions of less prestige (Erich Haenisch, who dared to to protest German treatment of Duyvendak in Holland, and later that of Maspero in Buchenwald). None of Franke's major students, except his son, had careers in Germany.

Franke himself, who had essentially no inner discomforts about Hitler, carried on. In 1937, with Germany on the verge of war, he was ready with his v3, containing the annotations for the previous two. His prefatory note, dated 26 April 1937, was now only three paragraphs long, and ended in a much less sanguine way. These are the three paragraphs:

In dem vorliegenden dritten Bande lege ich nunmehr das Quellenmaterial vor, auf dem die Darstellung im ersten und zweiten beruht. Des weiteren habe ich mich bemüht, für die dabei aufgetretenen Einzelfragen möglichst den heutigen Stand der Forschung darzulegen und meine Stellung dazu anzugeben.

Das Sachverzeichnis ist von Herrn Dr Balázs und von meinem Sohne, Dr Wolfgang Franke, das Namenverzeichnis des ersten Bandes von Fräulein Dorothea Horn, das des zweiten und dritten von meiner Frau angefertigt worden. Allen Mitarbeitern sage ich auch an dieser Stelle herzlichen Dank für ihre Hilfe, ganz besonders meiner Frau, deren unermüdlicher Geduld ausser dem Verzeichnis auch die Herstellung eines druckfähigen Manuskripts des Gesamtwerkes zu danken ist.

Ob und wie weit ich das leztere werde fortsetzen können, hängt bei meinem hohen Alter nicht mehr allein von meinem Willen ab.

He was 74, and had reached the Tang Dynasty. The war years followed quickly.


Marc Winter reflects on the situation of Maspero in Buchenwald and Franke in Berlin, both unable, for different but related reasons, to complete the work they had previously marked out:

Otto Franke lived to see the end of the war as an old and broken man, unable to finish his "Geschichte des Chinesischen Reiches." While in the foreword of the first volume in 1930 he enthusiastically wrote: "It is not in my power to decide the point in time for completing the whole (enterprise of such a history book), it depends on the life span and working power I am still to enjoy," in the foreword of the fourth volume he wrote in 1944 about the reasons he had taken so long to complete: "The only reason is the terrible great war since 1939, the end of which is not to be seen anywhere. It not only made the required concentration difficult, but also increasingly limited my use of libraries, and finally made it all together impossible. [...] My history of the Chinese empire remains but a torso [...] and I am not to finish the last volume." His library spread to different locations, his work of a lifetime impossible to complete, and his end fast approaching (he died on the 5th of August 1946), his life was ruined like Maspero's, albeit in a less direct and criminal manner.

Apart from his own disablement, the fact that German Sinology had been smashed was not something of which Franke was unaware. Patriotic German that he was, he expressed his thoughts on the subject in muted fashion, but unmistakably. The Nachtrag to his memoirs, dated 9 October 1945, the autumn of the surrender, with Berlin in ruins, ends as follows:

So sehe ich, so weit mein Blick reicht, keinen hellen Streifen der Hoffnung in dem dunklen Gewölk des Völkersturmes, wohl aber glaube ich in düsterem Lichte jenen Trostspruch der Verzweiflung zu erkennen: Una salus victis, nullam sperare salutem. Vielleicht wird es einem späteren Geschlechte einmal vergönnt sein, einen neuen deutschen Frühling zu erleben, heute vermag ich nicht mehr den Glauben zu unserem Volk aufzubringen. Dankbar bin ich, dass mich nur noch eine ganz kurze Strecke von der dunklen Pforte trennt, und der einzige Wunsch, der meine Frau und mich bewegt, ist der, dass wir diese Strecke gemeinsam zum Ende durchschreiten können.

Una salus victis, nullam sperare salutem. "One deliverance alone remains to the conquered: to hope for no deliverance" (Vergil, Aeneid 2:354). Franke died the following August, aged 83. His books, regathered from their dispersion during Franke's last years, are now part of the Berlin State Library. Truncated or not, that History has remained the standard work in German, and was reprinted by de Gruyter in 2001.

E Bruce Brooks


Joachim Gentz, Marc Winter, and Renata and Peter Franke contributed to this profile.

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