Short Portrait: Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen

Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen
Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen

Otto Maenchen-Helfen was born in Vienna in 1894, being the son of a book printer. After finishing school he briefly took up his studies but had to participate in World War I between 1914 and 1918.

After the end of World War I Maenchen-Helfen studied at the universities in Vienna, Göteborg (Sweden) and Leipzig, where Archaeology, Anthropology, Sinology and Art History were his subjects. Maenchen-Helfen graduated in Leipzig in 1923.

After being a private docent for Sinology in Vienna for some years, Maenchen-Helfen took up a position at the Marx-Engels-Institute in Moscow in 1927, where he chaired the Department for Sociology and Ethnology. Moreover, Maenchen-Helfen did intense studies on Socialism and its history and was co-author of a biography on Karl and Jenny Marx. In 1927 he worked at the Marx-Engels-Institute/Moscow.
In 1929 Maenchen-Helfen travelled through various countries, namely Mongolia, Nepal, Afghanistan and the Cashmere region. A year later he returned to Germany and settled in Berlin. Due to political reasons he was not allowed to give lectures but nonetheless completed his habilitation thesis.

After the political takeover by the Nazi regime in 1933, Maenchen-Helfen moved to Vienna. There he completed his second habilitation but had to migrate to the United States when Austria became part of the Third Reich in 1938.

Maenchen-Helfen took up a professorship for Oriental Studies at the Mills College in Oakland, California, in 1939. From 1947 onward he held a full professorship at the Berkeley University. Maenchen-Helfen retired in 1962.

Due to his knowledge of many languages such as Russian, Ancient Greek, Chinese and Japanese, Maenchen-Helfen was able to do comparative philological studies. He also was one of the first Western Europeans to do research in remote Russian and Mongolian areas. Moreover, his work on the history of the Huns was a basic work for a long time.

Otto Maenchen-Helfen died in Berkeley in 1969.

(Text written by Vincenz Kokot in July 2012, based on articles at Neue Deutsche Biographie, and; photo source: