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Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences - Geography Department

History of the Department of Geography

The development of modern, “classic” geography is closely linked to the University of Berlin. Inspiration and ideas of national and international significance originated here.Johann August Zeune Although geography was read at almost all German universities, it fell under the broader context of theology, philosophy, mathematics and statistics. In the fall of 1810, when lectures began at the newly founded University of Berlin, geography was represented as an associate professorship by Johann August Zeune (1778-1853) who was the director of the home for the blind and inventor of the globe for the blind. Zeune made a name for himself with his textbook “Gea” (1808) and established a geographical association in 1809 which fell apart during the turmoil of the wars of liberation.  In 1835 Zeune withdrew form geographical teaching, outshined by Carl Ritter (1779-1859). The University of Berlin later became the Friedrich-Wilhelms-University (1828) and today’s Humboldt-University (1949).


Ritter, who had drawn the attention of the Prussian General staff with his first two volumes of  “Geography in relation to nature and the history of man ” (1817-18), was called to the “Berliner Allgemeine Kriegsschule” and university as associate professor of "Erd-, Länder-, Völker- und Staatenkunde" (Geography,Regional Geography Ethnology and Statistics ) in 1820. In 1825, this second associated professorship was upgraded into a full professorship of “Geography, Ethnology and History” which Ritter held until his death in 1859. However, Ritter encountered a total lack of interest from students under the impression that geography entailed endless memorizing. Nevertheless, his expertise as a teacher swiftly gave geography a new image and legitimized it as an independent discipline. Ritter was a success and not to be ignored. Karl Marx and Wilhelm Rabe were also followers. Some of his foreign followers are still regarded today as pioneering geographers in their own right. During this period, Carl Ritter attracted an audience with a positive and open-minded attitude towards geography. The result was a new image. Lectures were attended voluntarily and very rarely by those with the intention of becoming geographers. This was not a lucrative profession.


Alexander von HumboldtIn addition to Ritter’s lectures, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who attended Ritter’s lectures in the winter semester of 1834/35, also contributed to the shift in favour of geography.  At the Prussian king’s request, Humboldt returned from Paris to Berlin in 1827 and held his enthusiastically received cosmos lectures in winter 1827/28 which he then repeated in a parallel event in front of a broader audience. Following these lectures, the "Geographical Society" was founded, the second oldest in the world, the first being the Geographical society in Paris founded in 1821. Its first director, Carl Ritter, maintained this position with only brief interruptions until his death in 1859. He was the life and soul of the meetings with Humboldt being its spiritus rector in the background. At the time, the objective of the society was to spread geographical knowledge, to promote explorers and equip expeditions. To this day, the society still contributes to exchanging geographical information, by organizing colloquia, conferences and expeditions and through the publication of the journal “Die Erde”.

Heinrich Kiepert After Ritter’s death, the professorship remained unoccupied and budget resources were reassigned. It wasn’t until 1874 that Heinrich Kiepert (1818-1899) was installed as a full professor. Wilhelm SieglinHe was an expert in historical cartography and taught geography until his death in 1899. Teaching in the spirit of Ritter he found the more scientific orientation of younger geographers as one-sided. In the same year of Kiepert’s passing, at the instigation of Richthofen, Kiepert was followed by Wilhelm Sieglin (1855-1935) who headed the newly established “Seminar of historical geography” and practiced geography as an ancillary science to history. Luck was not on his side. In 1914 he resigned from his position for health reasons.



The leading representative of the above mentioned scientific orientation of geography was the famous sinologist, Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905) who also had a background in Geology.

Ferdinand von RichthofenHe began in 1883 to teach geography, first in Bonn and then in Leipzig. Gründungsurkunde des Geographischen InstitutsIn 1886 he was appointed to the newly established professorship of physical geography at the University of Berlin by the Prussian education minister. The Institute of Geography founded by von Richthofen on April 1, 1887 was first located in the “Schinkelsche Bauakademie” but moved to Georgenstreet close to the Friedrichstraße station in 1902. The Institute of Oceanology founded in 1900, also lead by von Richthofen, was established there along with the museum of oceanology which opened in 1906. Under his aegis, and influence as repeated president, the Geographical Society became a centre of German and international geographical work. The pinnacle of von Richthofen’s work was the international Day of Geography held in Berlin in 1899.Institut und Museum für Meereskunde Numerous geographical researchers, who occupied professorships at home and abroad, emerged from his well-attended colloquium.  To serve the political and economic interests of the German Reich overseas, Von Richthofen planned to create a Central Institute linked to the Berlin University. Along with theoretical maintenance of all aspects of Geography (as an earth science), its practical application would especially be developed and utilized. This endeavour was not successful.

Albrecht PenckTorn away from his scientific work, Ferdinand von Richthofen died suddenly in 1905. In 1906 he was followed by another internationally acclaimed academic Albrecht Penck (1858-1945) who had held a professorship in Physical Geography in Vienna since 1885. Penck was famous for his alpine ice-age research, through which he confirmed the evidence of three separate ice ages for the first time. He also expanded geomorphology, which was founded by von Richthofen,Albrecht Penck führte Exkursionen als Bestandteil des Geographiestudiums ein into an independent branch of geography and qualified it through regional geographical work. During his times in Berlin, he also promoted geomorphological and climatic geographical research. He repeatedly commented on political-geographical questions during the First World War and provided keywords for revisionism and beyond with his “Volks- und Kulturboden” theory of the German “Volkstumforschung” which flourished in the 1920s. The focus of his work, however, was the alpine and ice-age research. He was known as its leading representative both nationally and internationally as well as during his time in Berlin. As with von Richthofen, Penck headed the Geographical Institute and the Museum and Institute of Oceanology until 1921. His initiatives to enable more focus on Physical Geography by reoccupation of the Ritter chair were unsuccessful. Ritter’s professorship was lost in the turmoil of World War I, but Penck’s heavy workload remained consistent.

Alfred RühlAlfred Rühl’s (1882-1935) position as the head of the economic geography department of the Institute of Oceanology was of particular importance for the development of geography. Rühl turned away from the older scientific conception of geography which only looked at humans under the influence of physio-geographical conditions.  Instead he called for a sociological founding of economic geography. He is today viewed as its pioneer and true founder.


[A detailed acknowledgement of Rühl can be found here]


Norbert Krebs

The regional geographer Norbert Krebs (1876-1947) succeeded the world famous Geoscientist Albrecht Penck. He was a student of Penck’s, and like him, his work focused on geomorphology. Besides his expansive regional studies on the Austrian Alps, the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka formerly Ceylon , he devoted himself to  German Regional and Cultural Studies and like Penck, spent time on issues concerning borders and Germanity. He also took an interest in questions concerning countries and scientific methodology of landscape.

Geographisches Institut in der Universitätsstraße 3b

In March 1931, the Institute of Geography was transferred to Universitätsstraße 3b. With the end of World War II, the university with its previous structures including the Geographical Institute was dissolved. However, in 1946 the University of Berlin reopened its doors and on February 8 1949 was renamed Humboldt University of Berlin.

Fritz Haefke

The successor institute of the Geographical Institute of the pre-war period, now contained within the Mathematic-Scientific Faculty, was headed by Harry Waldbaur (1888-1961), Walter Behrmann (1882-1955), Fritz Haefke (1896-1980) and Herbert Lembke (1905-1983). In contrast to its predecessor it focused exclusively on physical geography. At the same time, the Department of Political and Economic Geography was formed within the Faculty of Economic Science which went on to become the Faculty of Arts.  It represented the human science disciplines of geography in the GDR, which had strong ideological links to the political situation. In 1966 both institutes were merged under the name of Institute of Geography within the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Science. In 1968, the Geography Department of the Humboldt University emerged which integrated the teaching methodology of geography.

Institutsgebäude in der Chausseestraße 86After 1989, there was a fundamental professional, personnel and organizational restructuring of the geography department.   This resulted in today’s Institute of Geography becoming a powerful teaching and research institution within the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Science which through its teaching complies with all sub-disciplines of geography. In February 1994, the Geographical Institute moved to the Chausseestraße 86, where it remained until moving to Adlershof in September 2003.

Since September 2003 the Institute of Geography has been located in the City of Science Adlershof.  The institute possesses its own institute building, consisting of an old and a new part, teaching rooms and accommodates all the infrastructure of the institute. Currently, the Institute consists of nine academic departments and the central services and has approximately 100 employees.



For a brief summary of the history of the map collection of the Geographical Institute, click here.