Short Portrait: Diedrich Westermann

Diedrich Westermann
Diedrich Westermann

Diedrich Westermann was born in Baden near Verden in Lower Saxony in 1875. After briefly working at a post office Westermann joined the North German Mission Society (Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft) in Bremen in 1895. Subsequently he was sent to Basel and Tübingen in order to study there. Furthermore, Westermann developed a growing interest in foreign languages.

After completing his studies and becoming a missionary Westermann was sent to the German colony Togo in 1900. There he learned Ewe and further African languages. Due to a sickness Westermann returned to Germany in 1903. After evaluating the linguistic data collected he published both an Ewe dictionary as well as a book on Ewe grammar.

Westermann went to Togo for the second time in 1907 but was forced to return to Germany cause of health problems again. In 1908 he resigned from the North German Mission Society and began lecturing at the Seminar for Oriental Languages of the Friedrich-Wilhelm University (now: Humboldt-University) in Berlin. Moreover, Westermann began to translate the bible into Ewe.

In 1909 Westermann took up a professorship at the Seminar for Oriental Languages, being the successor of Carl Meinhof. Two years later he published his important work on Sudanese languages. In 1925 Westermann was appointed to the Chair in African Languages and Cultures at the Seminar for Oriental Languages.

Besides lecturing Westermann did further researches in Africa throughout his career and became an Africanist of international renown. His attempt to combine linguistic and anthropological matters had a significant impact both on the scientific community and his many scholars.

Westermann was co-founder and first director of the International African Institute in London in 1926. Two years later he participated in founding the journal Africa and was its editor until 1940. Moreover, the Ethnographic Survey of Africa and the Handbook of African Languages” were published due to his initiative.

Between 1938 and 1941 Westermann furthermore was head of the Berlin Society of Anthropology, Ethnology and Early History (Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, BGAEU).

Diedrich Westermann died in Baden in 1956.

(Text written by Vincenz Kokot in July 2012, based on an article at and an obituary by Herzog, Rolf, 1957, Zfe, ed. 82, pp. 139 - 140; photo source: Streck 1987 Wörterbuch der Ethnologie)