It was a promising start to her career: in 1916 Marianne Schmidl became the first woman in Austria to be awarded a doctorate in ethnology. Her academic work focused primarily on African art and culture.

The Schmidl family

Sepia photo. A middle-aged couple sitting on a garden bench with young ladies on either side.
The Schmidl family, around 1915.

Family collection / photographer unknown

However, Marianne Schmidl had actually started out studying mathematics. She did not inherit her passion for ethnology from her family either.

Her father, Dr Joseph Schmidl, was a lawyer. He was Jewish but converted to Protestantism in 1889 before marrying Marianne’s mother, Marie Friedmann. Marianne was born in 1890 and was baptized a Protestant, as was her younger sister, Franziska.

Zeichnung. Ein junger Mann mit Locken und Oberlippenbart
Friedrich Olivier at the age of 25, drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1816.

bpk / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Volker-H. Schneider

Zeichnung. Ein junger Mann mit Locken
Ferdinand Olivier at the age of 32, drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1817.

bpk / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Volker-H. Schneider

Friedrich and Ferdinand Olivier, sibling artists

Marie Schmidl, née Friedmann, came from of a well-known family of artists. Her grandfather, Marianne’s great-grandfather, was Friedrich von Olivier (1791–1859). Her brothers Friedrich and Ferdinand Olivier were members of the Nazarene group of painters, and her brother Heinrich was also an artist.

Marie Schmidl inherited many artworks from her family which formed the basis of an art collection.

‘Marie Schmidl, one of Friedrich Olivier’s granddaughters, kept a large number of prints by her grandfather, his more talented brother Ferdinand, and her brother-in-law Julius von Schnorr, that had remained in the family’s possession.’ Hans Tietze, 1910

Schwarzweißfotografie. Haus mit Erker und Walmdach
Colloredogasse 31, Wien.

Katja Geisenhainer

The art collection

In 1908 the Schmidl collection made it into the Österreichische Kunsttopographie (Austrian Art Topography), a kind of travel guide for art in two thick volumes that showcased the artistic monuments of Vienna. Among its entries was the address 31 Colloredogasse. This is where Marianne Schmidl grew up.

Schwarzweißfotografie. Zwei junge Frauen sitzen im Garten
Marianne Schmidl’s nieces Hildegard and Notburga Schiller, 1942.

Family collection / photographer unknown

Two nieces

After her husband’s death, Marie Schmidl moved into a Protestant-run residence in Wels, Upper Austria. Marianne Schmidl looked after the family-owned artworks. Her sister Franziska died in 1925, leaving behind two daughters. Marianne never married or had children.

A woman in academia

Schwarzweißfotografie. Stattliches Museumsgebäude
The Museum für Völkerkunde on the corner of Königgrätzer Straße and Prinz-Albrecht-Straße in Berlin, around 1905.

bpk / Neue Photographische Gesellschaft

At the museum

After completing her studies Marianne Schmidl started work as a research assistant in the Africa Department at Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde (Ethnological Museum). However, she was there only briefly as her father died on 24 June 1916 in Vienna and she had to take care of his estate. From 1917 she worked at the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart. She lost her job there in May 1920 due to staff cuts.

Schwarzweißfotografie. Bibliothek mit deckenhohen Bücherregalen
Reading room at the Österreichische Nationalbibiothek, Vienna, around 1935.

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

At the library

Back in Vienna, she found an internship at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library). Its director advocated her appointment as a member of staff. In 1924 she was awarded civil servant status. In January 1938, shortly before the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria to the German Reich, she was promoted to senior national librarian.

Farbfotografie. Geflochtener Korb und Deckel
Marianne Schmidl researched woven items such as this African basket made using the spiral coiling technique.

Fotostudio Daniel Hasse, Reinbek

A research project

Alongside her work at the Nationalbibliothek, Marianne Schmidl continued the research project on African weaving techniques that she had started in Berlin. The Sächsische Forschungsinstitut für Völkerkunde (Saxon Research Institute for Ethnology) financed the project from 1926.

In mid-1927, the anthropologist and ethnologist Otto Reche took over the management of the Leipzig Institute and thus the patronage of Schmidl's project. In 1933, Reche openly professed his allegiance to Adolf Hitler.

Schwarzweißfotografie. Porträt eines Herren mit Oberlippenbart in Anzug und Krawatte
Prof. Dr Otto Reche, Director of the Institut für Rassen- und Völkerkunde Leipzig (Leipzig Institute for Race Research and Ethnology), 1939.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2005-0308-500

A racist financier

Otto Reche (1879–1966) used his research to further the concept of ‘racial hygiene’. He devised the ‘biological certificate of descent’ (biologischer Abstammungsnachweis) which was later used in the National Socialist state for the purposes of Rassenpflege, or maintaining the ‘purity’ of the German race.

During World War Two his racial theories served to legitimize the expulsion and murder of the native population of the East European and Soviet territories conquered by Germany.

He was imprisoned for several months after World War Two but following his release he was able to continue with his work as a scientific expert. In 1965 he was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art.


Skizzen, die Flechtarbeiten zeigen
Sketches drawn by Marianne Schmidl in the course of her research.

Family collection / Katja Geisenhainer 🔍 Move the mouse over the image to zoom in

A half-finished manuscript

1934 kann Marianne Schmidl nur die Hälfte ihres Manuskripts über „Afrikanische Spiralwulstkörbe“ zur Beurteilung einreichen. Sie ist durch ihre zwei Parallel-Jobs überlastet und bei schlechter Gesundheit.

Otto Reche considered that if complete, this could be a ‘work of major significance’. However, as he reminded a colleague, the other issue was that Schmidl was Jewish. Reche said he was glad to be able to reject someone on this basis.

It was the end of her academic career: Reche refused to allow Marianne Schmidl to complete her research project. In 1938 he demanded that she repay the funding, and the following year he forced her to surrender her research materials.
Schwarzweißfotografie. Historische Aufnahme einer großen Straße, eine Menschenmenge mit Hakenkreuzfahnen
On 12 March 1938 the Wehrmacht invaded Austria. Two days later Hitler received a rapturous welcome in Vienna. Pictured here is his motor cavalcade in Mariahilferstraße on 14 March 1938.

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek / Dietrich & Co

After the Anschluss of Austria

Schwarzweißfotografie. Historische Aufnahme von männlichen Jugendlichen in Marschformation mit Hakenkreuzfahnen
Hitler Youth march in Vienna, around 1938.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 137-049269 / Friedrich Franz Bauer

After the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria, Marianne Schmidl came under mounting pressure.

She was instructed to produce a ‘certificate of Aryan descent’ (Ariernachweis) but had difficulty obtaining the necessary paperwork.

She informed the National Socialist authorities that she considered herself to be a Mischling of the first degree (Mischling 1. Grades) as her father had once been Jewish.

Abbildung einer Liste mit Namen
Enclosure sent with a letter from the deputy director of the Nationalbibliothek to the Austrian Ministry of the Interior and Culture, dated 30 June 1938.

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Archiv NB 1209/1938

Forced into retirement

In June 1938 the Nationalbibliothek was instructed to produce a register of its Jewish staff. Schmidl’s name appeared on the list sent by her employer to the ministry.

A few days later the director of the Nationalbibliothek advised Marianne Schmidl to apply for retirement on the basis of the ‘Regulation on the Restructuring of the Austrian Professional Civil Service’. On 1 October 1938 she went into ‘permanent retirement’ at the age of 48.

Schaubild auf vergilbtem Papier, geschrieben in Frakturschrift.
Under National Socialism anyone with three Jewish grandparents was considered a ‘full Jew’.

Public domain 🔍 Hover over the image to enlarge

Declared a ‘full Jew’

On 16 May 1939 Marianne Schmidle was notified that her application to be granted the same legal status as Jewish Mischlinge had been rejected. She was now classified definitively as a ‘full Jew’ (Volljüdin).

After lengthy investigations, in 1941 the National Socialist authorities found proof that Marianne Schmidl’s maternal grandfather Eduard Adolf Friedmann had also been Jewish before getting baptized in 1855.

Schwarzweißfotografie. Porträt eines älteren Herrn mit runder Brille
Karl Wolf (1886–1950) who was Marianne Schmidl’s brother-in-law and a friend from her student days.

Family collection

No way out

Even before this fateful decision, Marianne Schmidl had to submit a declaration of assets and pay the levy on Jewish assets (Judenvermögensabgabe).

She was reliant on financial support from her brother-in-law Karl Wolf, although in 1938 he too had lost his post as professor of physics at the University of Vienna for political reasons.

Quotation from Nebehay (in German). In his memoir, published in 1995, the art dealer recalled meeting Marianne Schmidl (Christian M. Nebehay: Das Glück auf dieser Welt. Erinnerungen, Vienna 1995, pp. 72-73).

The art dealer Christian Nebehay

Now in a grave financial position, Marianne Schmidl decided to sell her artworks from the family collection.

With a tatty portfolio under her arm, she went to see the art dealer Christian M. Nebehay. He was impressed with the drawings and put her in touch with the C. G. Boerner auction house in Leipzig.

Titel eines Auktionskatalogs
C. G. Boerner auction catalog, Leipzig, 28 April 1939.

UB Heidelberg,

Titel eines Auktionskatalogs
C. G. Boerner auction catalog, Leipzig, 18 May 1941.

UB Heidelberg,

Two auctions in Leipzig

C. G. Boerner took 19 of the drawings and put them up for auction in April 1939. In May 1941 C. G. Boerner auctioned additional artworks from the Schmidl family’s collection.

Marianne Schmidl did not, however, deliver the drawings in person. Her brother-in-law Karl Wolf and her friend Etta Becker-Donner, a colleague from the Museum für Völkerkunde, did so on her behalf. In this way the drawings were not labeled as being from Jewish ownership – it was hoped that they would therefore sell for a higher price.

Murdered in the Holocaust

Schwarzweißfotografie. Auf dem Bürgersteig steht eine lange Menschenschlange
Jewish passport applicants in line outside Vienna-Margraten police station, May 1938.

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek / Albert Hilscher

No funds to emigrate

Friends advised Marianne Schmidl to emigrate like so many other Jews at this dreadful time. Schmidl attempted to emigrate to the USA but lacked the funds. She had to hope that she would be able to survive somehow in Austria.

Historische Farbfotografie. Heruntergekommene einstöckige Häuser zu beiden Seiten einer morastigen Straße
A street in the Izbica ghetto, 1941.

bpk / Deutsches Historisches Museum / Max Kirnberger


On 9 April 1942 Marianne Schmidl was deported to the Izbica ghetto in Poland. The circumstances and precise date of her death are unknown, but Izbica was a transit ghetto where Jews were held prior to their onward deportation to the extermination camps in Sobibór and Bełżec. None of the approximately 4,000 Austrian Jews deported to Izbica survived.


Zeichnung. Ein junger Mann mit Locken und Oberlippenbart
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld: Friedrich Olivier im Alter von 25 Jahren (Friedrich Olivier at the Age of 25), pencil drawing, 1816. Restituted in 2014.

bpk / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Volker-H. Schneider 🔍 Move the mouse over the image to zoom in

Acquired for the Nationalgalerie

Important museums including the Nationalgalerie (National Gallery) in Berlin acquired artworks from Marianne Schmidl at the two auctions in Leipzig. The Nationalgalerie paid 4,600 and 3,700 Reichsmarks respectively for the artworks and added them to its ‘Sammlung der Zeichnungen’ (Inventory of Drawings).

Restituted from the Kupferstichkabinett collection

In 1992 the ‘Sammlung der Zeichnungen’ was transferred to the Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings) in Berlin. A project was launched in 2013 to investigate the provenance of the drawings.

Marianne Schmidl’s drawings were identified as cultural property looted as a result of Nazi persecution and they were returned to the rightful heirs in 2014.

Zeichnung. Zwei welke Blätter
Friedrich Olivier: Zwei welke Blätter (Two Withered Leaves), pen and ink, 1817. Restituted in 2014.

bpk / Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Volker-H. Schneider 🔍 Move the mouse over the image to zoom in

Zeichnung. Eine große Gruppe von Menschen beobachtet zwei Männer, die sich umarmen
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld: Esau versöhnt sich mit Jakob (The Reconciliation of Esau with Jacob), preliminary study for the Bilderbibel (Illustrated Bible), 1828. Restituted in 2018 and repurchased.

Hamburger Kunsthalle / bpk / Christoph Irrgang 🔍 Move the mouse over the image to zoom in

The following museums also returned artworks originally belonging to the Schmidl collection: the Albertina in Vienna (2013), the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Dresden State Art Collections) (2015), the National Gallery of Art in Washington (2016), the Hamburger Kunsthalle art museum (2018), and the Lenbachhaus museum in Munich (2019).

Film by rbb on Marianne Schmidl

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