Humboldt amid the Hohenzollerns

August, 2018

Berlin -- This city is full of ironies and contradictions: war and peace, ugliness and beauty, superstition and science.

Add another contradiction as the new Humboldt Forum is being completed. It is the centerpiece of the reconstruction of the massive old palace of the Hohenzollern royalty on Unter den Linden, in the heart of Berlin. The Humboldt Forum will house antiquities and artifacts acquired by German expeditions and colonizations.

The irony is that Alexander von Humboldt, among the world's greatest scientists and a native of Berlin, was anti-colonialist. When he met Thomas Jefferson in 1803, in Washington, at the end of Humboldt's exploration of the Americas, they agreed that the colonial system was destructive of peoples and their habitats. Humboldt was appalled at what Spanish colonial governments were doing to South and Central America. He soon would meet with Simon Bolivar in Europe and inspire him to revolution.

Humboldt gave us a unified view of the natural world; he was the "inventor of nature," as the title of a new biography* of Humboldt suggests. He is, of course, honored in Berlin with the eponymous university and around the world with countless Humboldt-named places. But when the Humboldt Forum opens next year in Berlin, it would be well to remember his anti-colonialist convictions.

* The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf.