A biography of Karl Wittfogel, from an e-gallery set up by the anthropology students of Minnesota State University. Safety copy Jun 00. Original document.
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Karl August Wittfogel (1896-1988)

Karl August Wittfogel, a historian and sinologist, was born September, 1896 in Woltersdorf, Germany. He was involved in German Government and social movements at an early age. First the German Youth Movement, later he was drafted in the German Army Signal Corps. After he married, he became an active member of the German Communist Party (KDP). Because of his activities as a playwright in his youth, he was able to join the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, founded by Felix Weil. His interests lay in Marxism and the examination of nature.

Wittfogel, in his paper "Geopolitics, Geographical Materialism, and Marxism," criticized those who suggested Marx did not examine nature fully. He believed that geographical factors, such as location, race, soil, physical terrain and climate did not directly influence political life, but instead helped to determine politics in societies. He drew on the categories of man, nature, labor and production, which he continued to examine in his later works. Wittfogel viewed geopolitics as unscientific and therefore worthless. Wittfogel drew on Orthodox Marxism as the method that allows one to see the entire picture, versus the mystifications that the Bourgeois science produces.

In 1931 Wittfogel terminated his work to fight the Nazis. Trying to escape Germany, he was arrested and suffered through prison and concentration camps. In 1934, he fled with his wife first to England and then on to the United States where he became a naturalized citizen 1939. He taught at the University of Washington and Columbus University.

He published "Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power" in 1957. The book examines the origins of complex societies and states. Historical in nature, the book identifies the management of water as a method for Chinese emperors to gain total power over their people. The emperors developed "hydraulic societies" that inspired others like the Communists to the same ends, central power.

At 91, Karl Wittfogel died leaving behind his wife Ester Goldfrank, a renowned anthropologist.

by: Connie Johnson