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History of SIEF

I  The early history of CIAP (1928-1939)
The initiative to the creation of la Commission des Arts et Traditions Populaires (CIAP) was taken in Prague in October 1928, at the Congrès des arts populaires organised under the auspices of the League of Nations. CIAP’s early history is strongly marked by the political tensions in inter-war Europe. Scientific and cultural activities under the umbrella of the League and its suborganizations were strictly supervised and controlled, as the politicians feared the role of culture for propaganda and territorial claims. Even if CIAP was a French initiative, German, Belgian, Dutch and Italian researchers played the most active roles in the first years. Its first president was the German Otto Lehman, who had to retire when Germany withdrew from the League in 1933. His successor, the Italian Emilio Bodrero, had to follow his example when Fascist Italy also withdrew a few years later.

CIAP was a resounding success from the start. It was a global organization, organized as a network of national commissions, and within one year the number of member countries passed 30.  Already at its first assembly, in Rome in October 1929, it was reorganized in order to escape from the iron grip of the League. Its first and only independent interwar congress was held in Belgium in September 1930.  However, the League of Nations soon after regained control over CIAP, through its suborganisation for culture in Paris, the IICI, which among other things appointed its general secretary.

During the following years CIAP withered quickly. Most meetings, including the planned general assemblies and congresses, were cancelled, and the scientific activities were kept at a low level. The crisis was triggered by a very meagre economy, but the political problems of and within the League were detrimental to CIAP. Several European scholars saw the need for international cooperation, but both the anglophone/Nordic and the francophone spheres preferred to establish their own competing international organisations from 1936, the first one led by Sigurd Erixon (Sweden) and the second one by Georges Henri Rivière (France). The rising Nazi and Fascist movements in Europe caused great problems, however, and world War II put an end to all cooperation efforts.

II  Postwar CIAP (1945-1964)
In 1945 CIAP was resurrected, mainly thanks to its (then) UNESCO-attached general secretary E. Foundoukidis. In October 1947 CIAP was formally reorganized again, at a general assembly in Paris, and in the following years it was hosted by the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris. Its membership was now based on individual members, not national commissions. 

The Paris assembly in 1947 seethed with postwar optimism and literally boiled over with proposals and ideas for the envisaged role of ethnology and folklore in the reconstruction of Europe. The program for cultural action ended up in nothing, however, but the scientific activities were not insignificant. The CIAP journal Laos was edited by Sigurd Erixon, who also led the cartography commission. A dictionary of ethnological terms was proposed by Arnold van Gennep (France) and worked out by Åke Hultkrantz (Sweden), and Robert Wildhaber (Switzerland) was in charge of the international bibliography. These projects received some economic support from UNESCO. Already at the 1951 congress in Stockholm, however, it was obvious that the administrative problems were growing. The situation worsened in the following years, with the withdrawal of its Spanish president, legitimacy quarrels among some of its main officers, accusations of embezzlement and the subsequent forced demission of its general secretary. 

The rescue operation started at the Namur (Belgium) conference in 1953 and was concluded at the Paris conference in 1954. The architects behind the remoulding were Georges Henri Rivière and Sigurd Erixon. The following three years may be called the Dias period, after its new, popular general secretary Jorge Dias (Portugal). The congress in Arnhem/Amsterdam in 1955 represents a peak in the scholarly life of CIAP. In 1955 the congressists were willing to discuss difficult issues like the importance of studying contemporary topics and the social dimensions of culture, the unity of the discipline (ethnology versus folklore), its delimitation towards general anthropology and its designation. The congress was also marked by the Loorits–Steinitz controversy, an epitome of the Cold War and the difficult relations between ethnologies of the two sides of the Iron Curtain.

However, two administrative issues should continue to haunt the organization: the economy and the membership question. CIAP’s president from 1954 to 1964, the Norwegian Reidar Th. Christiansen, was mostly occupied elsewhere and strived hard to keep the organization together. In 1954 there had been a return to membership based on national commissions, a solution that did not function. When Dias resigned as secretary in 1957, CIAP was thrown into its worst crisis ever. The years until 1960/61 were marked by a continuous lethargy, except perhaps in some of the commissions. It was obvious to everyone that a new remoulding of CIAP was necessary, but this work brought to the surface all the latent oppositions in the field of European ethnology and folklore. The years from 1961 to 1964 were marked by a continuous and conspicuous warfare. The two protagonists – and antagonists – were Sigurd Erixon and Kurt Ranke (Göttingen). One of the main issues at stake was the relation between folklore and ethnology (understood as the study of material culture and social life), another the relation to anthropology, a third the delimitation of the field (Europe or the whole world), a fourth the designation of the discipline(s). 

SIEF replaces CIAP (1964 – present)
The battle of CIAP, which lasted from 1961 to 1964, engaged hundreds of folklorists and ethnologists throughout Europe and in the United States, where the socalled ‘literary folklorists’ (contrary to the ‘anthropological folklorists’) participated actively. The final trial of strength between those who wanted one unified discipline (European ethnology) and those who wanted to keep folklore as a separate discipline, between those who considered general ethnology/anthropology to be the mother discipline and those who saw the disciplines as clearly separate, and between those who wanted the organization to cover the whole world and those who saw Europe only as the field, took place during a folklorist congress in Athens in September 1964.

The ‘folklorists’ won the final trial in Athens and took most if not all places on the board, and they changed the name to SIEF – a name that insisted upon the duality of the discipline: ethnology and folklore. The grey eminence and the person who had orchestrated the victory was Kurt Ranke. The loosing part was Sigurd Erixon and his fellow partisans J. Dias, B. Brataniç (Zagreb), P. J. Meertens (Amsterdam), W. Steinitz (East Berlin), and G. de Rohan-Csermak (Paris). Ranke’s close associate, Karel C. Peeters (Belgium), took over the presidency (1964 – 1971). Once more history repeated itself. The strong optimism after the mobilization in Athens was soon replaced by a new lethargy, and the new SIEF began once more a process of withering. During the next seven years hardly anything happened in SIEF, whereas the Erixon fraction started a new journal, Ethnologia Europaea, and launched a series of conferences on ’European ethnology’. However, the momentum of the Erixon camp was strongly reduced through his death in 1968. 

SIEF lingered on. The scholarly activities took place in the commissions, which tended to end up as independent satelites in relation to the mother organization. The heaviest loss was the cartography group, first established in Namur in 1953, which decided in 1965 to break with SIEF and become independent – as die Ständige Internationale Atlaskommission (SIA). One of its aims was a stronger collaboration with Eastern Europe than SIEF had been able to offer. For most purposes, SIEF reverted to a congress organization between 1964 and ca 2000, with long periods of inertia in between the congresses: Paris 1971, Susdal 1982, Zürich 1987, Bergen 1990, Vienna 1994, Amsterdam 1998, and Budapest 2001 (followed by Marseille in 2004 and Derry in 2008). 

From around 2001, however, under the presidency of Regina Bendix (Göttingen, 2001-2008), can be observed a pronounced will to fill SIEF again with activities and make it more relevant to the scholarly community, by the organizing of thematic seminars in the wake of contemporary political events, by following more closely political processes concerning heritage policy, by the establishment of networks and the strengthening of communication internally (with the membership) and externally, by a new membership policy and – not least – by bringing the scholarly satelites (the ‘commissions’ or working groups) into orbits closer to the mother organization. As an octogenarian, SIEF seems to be more vital than it has been for decades.

Bjarne Rogan, University of Oslo
6 October 2008


Visit the collection of publications about the history of SIEF here.