German Mongolist’s work attracts growing interest

Adventurer and Mongolist Hermann Consten exploring Mongolia on horseback

The Mongol Messenger newspaper
12/04/2010 07:04:00 PM

The adventurous life of the German Mongolia expert and traveler , Hermann Consten will be published next year in a biography written by the journalist and former President of the German-Mongolian Society Doris Götting. The book resulting from five years of research will give, among others, some accounts of Mongolia as experienced by Mr. Consten during the early 20th century, including some photographs.

The Mongol Messenger’s Editor-in-Chief Borkhondoin Indra interviewed Central Asia specialist Dr Michael Balk of the Berlin State Library and Doris Götting about the remarkable work of the relatively unknown German Mongolist Hermann Consten.

MM: Dr. Michael Balk, when did you first find out about the German Mongolist and traveler Hermann Consten? What attracted you to this Mr. Consten?

Michael Balk – There were several Consten encounters on my part. Some years ago, I read his book ‘Weideplätze der Mongolen im Reiche der Chalcha’ published in Germany shortly after World War I. The English translation of the title is: ‘The Mongols’ Pastures in the Khalkha Empire.’ It is an account of Consten’s travels in Mongolia, which I found very exiting. It reads like an adventure story and partly, it is exactly that. It is not easy to stop reading once you have started. You learn a lot about Mongolian history because his travelogue gives you a vivid picture of the circumstances prevailing in Mongolia in those early years before World War I.

The next time Consten’s name crossed my path was when the journalist and private researcher Doris Götting visited our library to see his ‘encyclopedia,’ which has been kept on our shelves for decades. Doris Götting is writing his biography. It is no exaggeration so say that she is the world’s leading expert on Hermann Consten. She told me so many fascinating things about his life that I decided to take a closer look at his encyclopedia. Actually, it is not a book or manuscript but a collection of 32 boxes of cards containing some 50.000 notes on various subjects.

Consten knew the Mongolian script and language quite well but he also had a good command of Chinese and some knowledge of Tibetan. His handwriting shows that he had a real liking for Asian scripts. Sometimes he even used the Arab-Persian script for particular terms.

But there was a third instance that I came across the name of Hermann Consten. When former German President Horst Köhler was preparing his state visit to Mongolia in 2008, the President’s Office contacted our Library asking whether we had an idea about a suitable gift for Mongolia’s State President. We proposed making reproductions of some historical maps of Mongolia dating back to the early twentieth century. We own a collection of 182 maps from late Qing times, which have been digitalized in the meantime, and can be accessed on the internet ( digital/mongolische-karten). President Köhler accepted our proposal and brought with him a number of reproductions and the whole set of maps on a CD. Well, it was Hermann Consten who bought these maps in Beijing about 75 years ago. And after his death they came into our library.

MM: Have many studies been published about Mr. Consten?

Doris Götting – No, only a small handful of studies about Consten do exist. For many decades he has not been an interesting topic for scholars at all, and has been nearly forgotten in Germany. The first-ever articles about him and his life were published in 2002 in the annual magazine of Deutsch-Mongolische Gesellschaft (German-Mongolian Society) in Bonn, which, at that time, was edited by me. My interest in him, and also that of my colleague, Dr. Rita Mielke who wrote some biographical lines about him, was more journalistic. We found out that not only the Mongolian aspects of his life were interesting enough to write something about, but also the ‘rest’ of his quite adventurous life. Since Consten’s wife was still alive at the beginning of this century, Dr. Mielke and I saw her from time to time and talked to her, and many more details came up after our first publication.

Consten’s collection of ancient Mongolia maps have now been digitized by the Berlin State library

Finally the old lady, a renowned scholar of Far Eastern art herself, remembered a suitcase full of photographs which she gave to us to us to look through. Most of these photos–all-in-all nearly 3.000–could be identified as taken in China, and about 150 or 200 only were from Outer as well as Inner Mongolia. Thus, in 2005 we organized a photo exhibition as a project of the German- Mongolian society and published a catalogue. In this catalogue you’ll find another few articles on Consten written by Dr Mielke, Barbara Frey and myself. That’s all that existed about him until now–except of course Michael Balk has meanwhile started to take a closer look into Consten’s unpublished Mongolian encyclopedia and published Consten’s wonderful map collection on the Internet. And myself, I have been doing international archival research for a book on his life for about five years now.

Michael Balk – There was a conference in Saint Petersburg earlier this year, the 53rd meeting of the Permanent International Altaistic Conference devoted to ‘unknown treasures of the Altaic world in libraries, archives and museums.’ I delivered a lecture on the content of Consten’s notes.

MM: Mr. Consten traveled extensively throughout Mongolian territory between 1907-1913. As a result of this study, he published a two-volume book ‘The Mongols’ Pastures in the Khalkha Empire.’ Where was this book published and how many copies? How many copies remain today? Do you think it is a valuable source of information about the Khalkh people? Do Germany’s Mongolists plan to republish this book?

Michael Balk – Consten’s book was published in Berlin in 1919 and 1920. What I found is that the two volumes were sold for 105 Reichsmark in those days. But I am not aware of the exact number of copies. As far as I know, there are no plans for a new edition in Germany. But I would suggest translating it into Mongolian. It would probably find its readers here. Yes, definitely, it is a valuable source of Mongolian history. Doris Götting–Unfortunately, the archive of the publishing house was been destroyed in World War II but the number of copies could not have been very high, maybe 500 copies or so, since there was only this one edition. If you are lucky, you might find one of the other copies even today in second-hand bookshops. They are very expensive because of the still excellent quality of Consten’s photos published in that book.
Michael Balk amid Hermann Consten’s artifacts

It is only since 2005 that a less expensive facsimile reprint of the two volumes is available on the German market. Since it has been scanned, however, you can forget about the technical quality of the images. As for the quality of information about the Khalkh people, of course, I fully agree with Michael Balk.

Consten travelled in the country quite a lot between 1907 and 1913, he knew the language and the people, he was interested in Buddhism, and he also knew many Mongolian secrets. Although he himself was not a scholar in the academic sense at all, he collected all kinds of information, from geography to archaeology, history, economy and politics. Consten’s approach to Mongolia and the Mongols was a multi-facetted one. But I am speaking as a journalist and not as a scholar. Anyway, I think that the value of the book has been realized by a younger generation of historians since it is one of the very few books on Mongolia written by a foreign observer who had closest contact with and was trusted by the decisive politicians of the Mongolian independence movement of 1911. By the way, as far as history is concerned I would, at least, like to mention Consten’s three novels dealing with Mongolian history and published in Germany between 1925 and 1928. Two of them, ‘Mysterien’ (Mysteries) and ‘Der Kampf um Buddhas Thron’ (The Struggle about Buddha’s Throne) deal with Galdan, and the third one, ‘Der rote Lama’ (The Red Lama) is about Jal Lama (also called Dambijantsan). These novels are not held in high esteem among German Mongolists. In their opinion there is too much fantasizing about these historical figures. And from the literary point of view, Consten’s novels are not masterpieces. Anyway, they allow quite interesting insights into Consten’s own perception of Mongolia as a country with a great imperial past and a declining role after Galdan.

MM: It’s alleged Mr. Consten was forced out of Mongolia after he arrived here on his trip in 1927. What was a reason for this? Is there any clear evidence about the reasons for this? Did Mr. Hermann write about it himself?

Doris Götting – May I offer a slight correction: Consten left Germany for Mongolia in 1927, that’s true, but he did not arrive there before late autumn of 1928, and had to leave the country in March 1929. The reason for his expulsion was because he crossed the Chinese-Mongolian border at a border post which was not open to the public, and he had no valid documents with him. So, quite understandably, he was suspected of being a spy. He was taken prison near The Dariganga border section until his case was solved in Ulaanbaatar, which took more than two months. He spent the winter under the surveillance of the border post in a Ger, and was then permitted to come to Ulaanbaatar only to be informed that he had to leave the country for good. Maybe one should mention that Consten happened to enter Mongolia just at the time of the seventh MRP Congress, and that the official who had invited him, Batukhan, had been toppled during this congress. A complete change of the political situation had taken place. Consten himself has written about this experience only in his diary and in some letters to his friends, but never published. Fortunately these private documents still do exist. So we know about his fate.

MM: On his latest arrival to Mongolia, Mr. Hermann Consten had been living in China for over 20 years. Can you tell us how many articles he wrote about Mongolia’s Buddhism and culture and how many Mongolian maps and cultural items he collected during that period? Were the articles published in a newspaper or as a book in China or in Germany?

Doris Götting – It was only after his expulsion from Mongolia that Consten decided to return to China. He still hoped that the political situation might be more favourable in the near future and that there would be another chance for him to come back to Mongolia. He had also other reasons not to return to Germany immediately. But I think that he never expected to stay in China for 20 years. Since he lost all his fortune during the World Crisis of 1929, he was now confronted with the problem of making a living for himself, and he started to run a horse stable in Beijing. Only after getting married to a young German scholar in 1936 and encouraged by her, Consten started to write some articles about Mongolian Buddhism and began his Enyclopedia project. All-in-all he wrote five articles on Buddhism in Mongolia. Four of them have been published between 1939 and 1941 in a Christian Jesuit Monthly with a Latin Title: ‘Collectanea Commissionis Synodalis in Sinis’ (Collection of the Synodical Commission in China). They mainly dealt with the administration and religious life in Mongolian Monasteries. Another one about Lamaism in Mongolia appeared in 1943 in a German English language monthly called ‘The Twentieth Century’ in Shanghai. As far as Consten’s Mongolian art and map collections are concerned, it is difficult to give exact figures about numbers and size. As far as I know, he started these collections from 1907 onwards. Since he lived in Moscow until 1914, a certain part of his collection was lost after the outbreak of World War I and the October Revolution in 1917. Another part of his collection he brought to Germany, and presented it in an exhibition in his home town Aachen in 1913. This collection, including some precious gifts by Mongolian princes and high lamas given to Consten in 1911/12, still does exist as a private collection in Germany. Consten later continued to collect Mongolian art items while living in Beijing. Most of the old Mongolian maps which are now preserved in the Berlin State Library might have been bought in Chinese antique shops or second-hand book shops during the thirties and forties. Some of his maps Consten could sell to Professor Heissig after coming back to Germany in 1950, and Heissig has written about them. The rest were given to the Library after Consten’s death in 1957. And another 50 years had to pass by until somebody like Michael Balk took a serious scholarly interest in this unique collection.

Michael Balk – Well, my contribution is relatively small and I was definitely not the first one to take a scholarly interest. Consten’s maps were catalogued together with the rest of the Mongol holdings in Germany in a catalogue of Mongolian manuscripts, xylographs and maps (‘Mongolische Handschriften, Blockdrucke, Landkarten’) published in Stuttgart in 1961. The catalogue goes under Heissig’s name, but the map section was actually completed by my former university teacher, Professor Klaus Sagaster of Bonn. The catalogue was further complemented by studies on Mongolian place names and other related aspects by Magadbürin Haltod, Hans-Rainer Kämpfe and others.

MM: What did Consten do after returning to Germany in 1950?

Doris Götting–Well, after coming back to Germany, Consten was already more than 70 years of age, and the Germans still suffered from the aftermath of World War II. It was his wife who cared for him on a monthly income, while he tried to continue his encyclopaedia project as long as he lived. He gave a few public speeches about Mongolia.

MM: How many photos about Mongolia were taken by him? Where are they now? A photo exhibition was held in 2005 in Bonn. Have been there any exhibitions since then?

Doris Götting–As far as Consten’s Mongolian photos between 1907 and 1929 are concerned, the exact number is unknown. Many of them might have been left behind in his home in Moscow and he never got them back. And, I fear, quite a number of the old glass negatives simply broke or got lost during World War II. As
I have mentioned already, a number of the early ones (i.e. taken before 1913) were published in Consten’s book ‘Weideplaetze der Mongolen’. But you will find original copies of some of these photos, developed by Consten himself in Ikh Khuree in 1911 and 1912, in the Mongolian State Archive in Ulaanbaatar. For instance, the famous photo of the Mongolian cabinet members together with the Russian negotiator Korostovec and other members of the Russian delegation after the conclusion of the 1912 agreement were taken by Consten; or the portrait of Sajn Noyon Khan with his family, wonderful portraits of Jalkhants Gegeen or Diluv Khutagt, Damdinsuren, Khaisan Gung, Jal Lama, and so on. There might even be a photo or documentary of the Bogd Khan himself, because Consten was permitted to take photos of and to film his coronation in December 1912 with a camera, as we now know from Korostovec’s Diaries published in Ulaanbaatar in 2009. Consten’s later Mongolia photos, taken in 1928 and 1929, were those which had been found in the Chinese suitcase I had mentioned above. These photos are still kept in private property in Germany, while some of his photos of Mongolian Buddhist Art were given to the Seminar of Central Asiatic Culture and Languages at Bonn University immediately after Consten’s death.

These two latter groups were mainly used for our photo exhibition of 2005 which can still be seen from time to time at places in Germany. A second version of this exhibition does also exist in Mongolia. For many months one could see it at the German Embassy. It is now the property of the State Museum of Mongolian History, as a gift from the German-Mongolian Society. If you permit, there is one point which I would like to mention in this connection: I was quite surprised to find out that many of these Consten photos which have also been published in my catalogue, have reappeared as scans on Mongolian websites without any copyright permission. I was told that these photos are commercially used by a certain Mongolian Photo Agency. This disappoints me quite a lot, and I would like to appeal to that agency or individual who did it, to contact me in order to get a proper permission from Germany.

MM: Mr Consten was planning to publish an encyclopedia about Mongolia in the later years of his life. Unfortunately, he did not succeed. How significant are his manuscripts for Mongolian studies?

Michael Balk – I went through all these card boxes. Of course it was not possible to read each and every slip of paper carefully. But I grew a bit doubtful of the scientific value of Consten’s encyclopedia. I am not saying that there would not be one or the other interesting observations, but most of them are notes he took from books he read, excerpting whatever he found important. In other words, most of his notes are mere reproductions of information published up to the early fifties of the twentieth century. So his encyclopedia would be bound to be outdated if published today. I have roughly calculated that it would take a scholar three years to transcribe and capture Consten’s data in a database and check the information against his sources. Only if this could be done could we clearly say what exactly the significant benefit would be. I fear that a disproportionate amount of information would consist in things we already know and which can also be found elsewhere. It must also be stated that Consten was not an expert in the art of confinement. He wanted to cover not only the world of the Mongols but the whole sphere of Central Asian Buddhist culture. For example, his register of monasteries does not only include a (limited) number of Mongolian ones but also numerous monasteries in Tibet or Bhutan. In Tibetology, an enormous amount of literature on this subject has
been published over the past decades against which Consten’s notes are a bit few and far between.

MM: You said it seems true, Mr Consten ‘was not a fully accomplished scholar, being rather an adventurer and self-taught person, and that he was not always able to properly evaluate what he collected.’ Does this influence the credibility of his work for today’s scholars as a resource for Mongolian history?

Michael Balk – This sounds as if you are asking for an evaluation in more general terms. As far as I can see, Consten was an extremely gifted photographer. The photos he left us bear witness of an exceptional eye for the ordinary and the special. He also had earned lasting merits as a collector. Regarding the reliability of observations he made in his book on the ‘The Mongol’s Pastures in the Khalkha Empire,’ I think they are basically correct. What he describes re things he has seen himself and there is no reason to assume that he was spinning sailor’s yarns. The three other books Doris Götting has mentioned are mainly meant to be works of fiction. I must confess that I found them almost unreadable. His encyclopedia was planned as a work of scholarship. However, in spite of his remarkable diligence, I see some shortcomings with regard to his abilities as philologist and historian. Consten was a self-taught person without a solid university background. This is all too obvious. As a traveler and adventurer, however, he was a fascinating man. Like other Consten aficionados–a group of people which seems to be growing in constancy–I am very curious to read the biography Doris Götting is going to publish.

The Mongol Messenger Note:
Photographs from Hermann Consten’s collection published in Doris Götting’s catalogue have been reproduced as scanned images on Mongolian websites for commercial use, without copyright permission. To retain the integrity of Mr Consten’s work, Dr Götting is willing to discuss copyright permission and acknowledgement and contact can be organized through The Mongol Messenger.


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