Who Was Breutz?

During a career spanning five decades, Paul-Lenert Emil Breutz (1912-99) compiled the largest set of oral histories of Batswana collecting oral traditions from more than 100 Setswana-speaking communities located across present-day South Africa and Botswana.

Between 1953 and 1968 much of the information he gathered was published in eight paperbacks, known as the Tswana ‘tribes’ series. Unfortunately, all of these volumes are currently out of print.

His immense effort resulted in additional publications culminating in his 1989 self-published compendium, “A history of the Batswana and origin of Bophuthatswana: a handbook of a survey of the tribes of the Batswana, S. Ndebele, QwaQwa, and Botswana.” While Breutz’s various works have served as a gold mine for many scholars, his legacy has been relatively neglected. His obscurity is undoubtedly due in part to his upbringing as a Nazi social scientist and subsequent status as a state ethnologist working for the Apartheid regime. Notwithstanding this baggage his accounts endure as invaluable evidence for reconstructing early Setswana society. In the words of Jan Boeyens and Fred Morton: “Though Breutz’s mind was skewed by racism, his craft of recording the past was systematic, based on knowledgeable informants he interviewed and guided by the ethnological and language tradition of his doctoral studies at the Hamburg School.

Breutz was foremost an antiquarian collector of information. Scholars will find some of his interpretations wanting, but they can place confidence in the historical record he carefully recorded.” Paul-Lenert Emil Breutz was born in Hamburg, Germany on February 7, 1912. In 1932 he enrolled in Hamburg University. Already a staunch anti-communist and anti-Semite from 1933 he was an active Nazi. At university, in Hamburg and Berlin, he took courses in prehistory, physical anthropology, ethnology, mission work and history, sociology, political science, geography, tropical diseases, agriculture, world economy, and, above all, languages.


Apart from his native German, during the 1930s Breutz read Latin, English, Afrikaans, Spanish, and Portuguese, and had introductory knowledge of Malay, Swahili, Hausa, and Sepedi. Among his professors was the linguist Professor Carl Meinhof, who was then the leading German authority on Bantu languages. Breutz's association with South Africa began in January 1936 when he arrived in Pretoria as one of the first three German doctoral exchange students sponsored by the Afrikaans-German Cultural Association. His interest in South Africa was sparked by several prominent Afrikaner scholars who had studied at Hamburg. One of these was N.J. van Warmelo, who became the chief state ethnologist in the Department of Native Affairs in Pretoria.

To further his doctoral studies, Breutz reached out to van Warmelo who facilitated Breutz’s initial fieldwork among the Bapedi in the then Sekhukhuneland Reserve, the Hananwa of Blouberg, the Batlokwa in the northern Transvaal, and Bahurutshe at Dinokana, where he began learning Setswana. He also visited Setswana communities in the south-eastern Bechuanaland Protectorate (Bakgatla ba ga Kgafela of Mochudi, Bakwena of Molepolole, Batlokwa of Gaborone, and Balete of Ramotswa), usually staying with Lutheran and Dutch Reformed Church missionaries. Breutz also spent time at the University of Pretoria before returning to Germany in 1937.

In September 1939, he obtained his doctoral degree from the University of Hamburg for a thesis exploring the socio-political systems of the Sotho-Tswana in the Transvaal and Bechuanaland, which was published in Germany in 1941. On September 17, 1939, Breutz passed the Foreign Affairs examination and was employed in the Cultural Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Berlin. During World War II he served the Nazi regime as a propagandist. From December 1939, he produced publications that were critical of British colonial rule in Africa. By 1942, he was a war correspondent in the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, publishing the newspaper The Veld/Die Veld for South African prisoners of war, while serving in the Wehrmacht.

Having married in 1941, his wife and child were killed in a bombing raid on Berlin. After the war, Breutz returned to Hamburg, and on June 5, 1947, was re-married to Elisabeth Margarete Vietheer. In 1948 he returned to South Africa after van Warmelo offered him the position of the assistant ethnologist in the Department of Native Affairs. In addition to his writings, Breutz also assisted with radio programmes on the Setswana service of Radio Bantu. Notwithstanding his Nazi past and Apartheid regime employment, Breutz avoided affiliation with race-based academic organisations that excluded black people, such as the South African Sociological Association and Association of Afrikaans Ethnologists. Instead, he joined the non-racial regional Association of Sociology in Southern Africa. Breutz retired from the Ethnological Section at the beginning of 1977, relocating from Pretoria to the south-eastern coast of KwaZulu-Natal, where he and his wife lived in the seaside village of Ramsgate. In his final decade, Breutz self-published several monographs in English and German.

These included his attempt to synthesise his Tswana fieldwork and an English translation of his 1941 published doctoral thesis, to which he added a short appendix on the history and survey of the South Sotho. Unfortunately, these publications now appear to be virtually unobtainable. Breutz died on July 15, 1999.

Editor's Comment
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