An inter­view with

Klaus Sagaster

Pos­i­tion & Affil­i­ation: Pro­fess­or emer­it­us of Cent­ral Asi­an Stud­ies, Uni­ver­sity of Bonn
Date: Novem­ber 23, 2018 in Oel­ing­hoven, near Bonn, Germany
Inter­viewed by: Anna Sehnalova
Tran­scrip­tion: Rachael Griffiths

Childhood and upbringing

Thank you for agree­ing to the interview.

It’s an hon­our, a pleasure.

Well, for us it’s an hon­our. Could we start with your child­hood? Where do you and your fam­ily come from? When and where were you born?

I was born in present-day Cze­ch­ia, in the north of Bohemia, in a small town called Niemes in Ger­man and Mimoň in Czech. My fath­er was a sec­ond­ary school teach­er, also teach­ing Czech. He went to school for 1 year in a Czech school. Well, I had a happy child­hood. I still remem­ber a little bit.

I was born a Czechoslov­akia cit­izen, so my birth cer­ti­fic­ate is in Czech. Then in 1938, the Ger­mans invaded the coun­try; I still remem­ber it. I was only 5 years old or so, but it made a big impres­sion on me.

In 1941 we moved to Aus­sig an der Elbe, in Czech Ústí nad Labem. And from there, in 1945, we had to leave the coun­try and came to Cottbus in East­ern Germany.

How do you remem­ber your child­hood? What kind of child were you? What hob­bies did you have?

Which hob­bies? Well, for example, I was play­ing the drums at 6.30 in the morn­ing in our street. People were not very amused about it.

Yes. I had a good child­hood. I was sup­posed to go to kinder­garten. Well, I agreed to have a look. They presen­ted me with some Knäck­ebrot with but­ter, it was very tasty. And then I thought well it’s quite nice here, but I prefer to play at home in my street with my friends. There were no cars in those days, you see. It was a very good child­hood, I must say.

And then the war star­ted, but we did not suf­fer, actu­ally. I mean there was always food. My mother’s broth­er was a farm­er, so we always got some addi­tion­al food. So, we did not starve. I could tell you many more things, but I don’t think it’s so import­ant now.

How many sib­lings do you have?

1 sis­ter. Only 1 sis­ter. She was 5 years older than me. She is already dead.

And you had a Ger­man schooling?

Yes, a Ger­man school­ing because our place was, I think about 90% Ger­man. We had Czechs but the prob­lem was that more and more offi­cials came from Prague, from the Interi­or. I mean we do not speak about polit­ics now but that this was the out­come of nationalism.

So, the Ger­mans had the feel­ing that more and more rights were taken from them. That is at least what I remem­ber and also what my par­ents said. But on the oth­er hand – I’m jump­ing a little – until 1938 there were always close rela­tions between the Czechs and the Ger­mans. I think life, liv­ing togeth­er, was possible.

As a teach­er, my fath­er went sev­er­al times to Moravia. There was a hol­i­day camp for Ger­man and Czech chil­dren, I think until 1937, per­haps even 1938. The Czech chil­dren were taught by the Ger­man teach­ers, I mean in a hol­i­day way, and vice versa. And my sis­ter also [went] there, at least 2 times.

My moth­er was the daugh­ter of a farm­er, and they had guest chil­dren, Czech guest chil­dren, who were sup­posed to learn Ger­man. And my moth­er and her broth­ers, and, I think, also her sis­ter went to the interi­or of Bohemia and stayed with a Czech fam­ily. I still remem­ber the name of this fam­ily. And they became friends.

What was the name of the family?

Holan. Is it not a good way to estab­lish good rela­tions between peoples?

But there was polit­ics. Dur­ing the years more and more Czech offi­cials came to the areas where Ger­mans lived. And on the oth­er side of the bor­der, there was a Ger­man Empire in those days. We need not talk about it for very long, but it was one of the reas­ons for this conflict.

And then the Munich treaty. The Brit­ish and the French made a treaty with Hitler without ask­ing the Ger­mans in Czechoslov­akia. What inform­a­tion did these Ger­mans have? They thought the powers made this agree­ment, so everything was okay. The res­ult is known.

You con­tin­ued your school­ing through­out the war?

Of course.

In Aus­sig an der Elbe?

Yes. I went to a Gym­nas­i­um there for 2 years.

The family’s relocation to Eastern Germany

And then you went to, what became, East­ern Germany? 

Yes. Inter­est­ingly enough we came again to a Slavic sur­round­ing because Cottbus is the cap­it­al of Lower Lusa­tia. It is where the Sorbs live. Our vil­lage was a Sor­bic vil­lage, and our hosts where we lived were Sorbs. The old people, they spoke very heavy Ger­man still.

How was it com­ing to a new envir­on­ment? It was a Ger­man envir­on­ment but a dif­fer­ent Ger­man envir­on­ment to what you grew up in, probably?

Not so dif­fer­ent, I would say. No. It was more or less the same cul­ture. The same lan­guage, although our cul­tur­al feel­ing was more Aus­tri­an. We were so-called refugees. That meant we had some dif­fi­culties, but on the oth­er hand, we had a lot of help from loc­al people. I have no bad memor­ies, I must say.

Could you choose the place that you could go?


You were allocated?

Yes and no. Right at the begin­ning we could not choose the place because we were evac­u­ated and came to Cottbus. And from there all these refugees were dis­trib­uted to dif­fer­ent vil­lages. I mean, to the town and the sur­round­ing vil­lages. But then after some years, my fath­er got employ­ment as a teach­er of agri­cul­ture in the town of Cottbus, so my par­ents moved there.

Have you ever returned to Bohemia?

Twice. Once my wife Ursula and I went with my par­ents to the place where I was born. And we were a little bit nervous because of my par­ents. Par­tic­u­larly, because of my moth­er who was a farmer’s daugh­ter. I still remem­ber when we went to the vil­lage where she came from, she finally said, “Well I am very happy that I saw it again, but this is no longer my home country”.

Memories of the University of Leipzig

So, what happened then when you moved to Germany?

Well, I went to school in Cottbus. I had my Abit­ur exam­in­a­tion and then I went to Leipzig for stud­ies. The reas­on for that was Eduard Erkes, Pro­fess­or of Chinese Stud­ies, Sino­logy, at the Uni­ver­sity of Leipzig. In those days we had these little book­lets about the his­tory of, for example, China. Our teach­er [at sec­ond­ary school] asked us if some­body would be will­ing to read this book­let and to tell us, in short, its con­tents. And I thought, well it’s quite inter­est­ing. So, I did it. And then I got inter­ested in the his­tory of China.

I looked for the name of the author, it was Eduard Erkes, a pro­fess­or at the Uni­ver­sity of Leipzig. So, I knew that there was some­thing like Chinese Stud­ies. This was the reas­on that I took Chinese Stud­ies for my uni­ver­sity stud­ies. All my class­mates went to Ber­lin for their uni­ver­sity stud­ies. I was the only one to go to Leipzig.

In Leipzig, in those days, there was an East Asi­an Insti­tute. The dir­ect­or was Pro­fess­or Eduard Erkes. In this insti­tute, there were 2 teach­ers: 1 for Mon­go­li­an and 1 for Tibetan. So, I thought that that was very inter­est­ing, and I star­ted Mon­go­li­an. And then I took Tibetan with Dr. Johannes Schubert.

Who was the Mon­go­li­an teacher?

Dr. Paul Ratch­nevsky. Per­haps you don’t know his name? He stud­ied in Par­is, where he was a pupil of Paul Pelliot.

How do you remem­ber Dr. Schubert as a teach­er? And as a person?

Oh, he was a very kind per­son. Very learned. Very near to his stu­dents. We had only 1 Tibetan text, I mean only 1 copy. And we had to read it. And he read it from the oth­er side, upside down. I was very much impressed by him. I still have the book that he donated to me. I still remem­ber that he lived in a flat, on the fifth floor, very high. Without an elev­at­or. And he said, “Well I delib­er­ately do that because I must keep myself fit.” And then he went to the Him­alay­as. I have very good memor­ies of him.

What did the pro­gramme look like? How many stu­dents were there? What text­books did you use?

We didn’t have any text­books. I must con­fess, I can’t remem­ber what he gave us. I mean, simple sen­tences. It could be that we read some­thing from Jäschke’s Tibetan Gram­mar, but I don’t think [so]. I think he had his own texts.

We were very, very few stu­dents. In Mon­go­li­an, there were two. And in Tibetan, I don’t remem­ber, but I think also not much more. Three, perhaps.

Who were your classmates? 

In Tibetan?

In gen­er­al.

Well, there was Man­fred Taube, but he was seni­or to me. Erika Taube, you know may have heard of her? She was in the class under me, in Chinese Stud­ies. She did not do Tibetan. I must con­fess, it escapes my memory now.

Why did you find it inter­est­ing to study these lan­guages and cultures?

Well, it star­ted, for example, with Greek. It must be in my genes. Because I remem­ber I could choose my sec­ond­ary school myself, without being forced by my par­ents in any way. There were, I think, 3 choices. And 1 of them was a gym­nas­i­um, and I took it because I could learn Lat­in and Greek there. And that was some­how fas­cin­at­ing. Dif­fer­ent cul­ture. Inter­est­ing lan­guage. I can’t explain it. I think it was always like that—you sud­denly feel a lik­ing for a cer­tain field. Either Math­em­at­ics or God knows what. And the same with Ori­ent­al Stud­ies, with Chinese. I told you how I came to Chinese Stud­ies. Then there was Mon­go­li­an and Tibetan, and it soun­ded so fas­cin­at­ing and attract­ive. Which it was. So that is, I think, the reason.

What did your classes look like? Was it only the lan­guage you learned?

No. In Chinese Stud­ies, it was mainly Palaeo­graphy, His­tory and Lit­er­at­ure. Erkes gave a 3‑term course in Chinese His­tory. I still have the type-writ­ten manu­script which was hec­to­graphed and dis­trib­uted among the stu­dents. Then we read Chinese clas­sics. The pro­fess­or wrote the texts on the black­board, trans­lated and explained them, and we would make our notes. So, it was not us who had to trans­late, but he did it. The res­ult was that we, in 1 term, could read 1 whole text. That was very inter­est­ing, not only methodologically.

Then we had also [classes on] Chinese palaeo­graphy. A long, long course of Chinese palaeo­graphy. I still remem­ber we used to come, my class used to come, a little bit late to this lec­ture because we had anoth­er lec­ture [before­hand]. So, there was a Pro­fess­or of Math­em­at­ics there who had learned Sanskrit and now he was learn­ing Clas­sic­al Chinese, and he reserved a place for me. Then he was look­ing at my writ­ing, I was a begin­ner, and once while I was copy­ing a com­plic­ated Chinese char­ac­ter with, I think, 16 strokes, he said, “Excuse me, may I tell you that you for­got 1 stroke”.

We learned a lot, I think. It was a good time. I also did Indi­an Stud­ies with Pro­fess­or Friedrich Weller and Dr. Ulrich Schneider.

Was it com­mon to learn sev­er­al Ori­ent­al lan­guages at the same time? 

Yes. We had, for example, Chinese Stud­ies and then you could take oth­er Asi­an lan­guages. Even Indi­an or whatever. I stud­ied in Leipzig for 2 and a half years, so we had to pass exam­in­a­tions after the aca­dem­ic year in Chinese his­tory and lan­guage and (Com­mun­ist) Social Science.

At the end [of the degree] was the state exam­in­a­tion, Staat­sexa­men. I did not reach this stage in Leipzig.

How did you fin­ish your studies?

In Bonn. I had to leave the Ger­man Demo­crat­ic Repub­lic in March 1954 for polit­ic­al reas­ons. I went to West Ber­lin and from there to West Ger­many, to Göt­tin­gen and then to Bonn. Between Göt­tin­gen and Bonn, I had the chance to spend 2 terms in Copenhagen.

Education and study environment in the German Democratic Republic (GDR)

How was it par­tially grow­ing up and study­ing in East­ern Germany? 

Well, it was not so bad. I was lucky. My fath­er was a so-called intel­lec­tu­al, and in the begin­ning chil­dren of intel­lec­tu­als were not allowed to enter a uni­ver­sity. My sis­ter, for example, was not allowed to study. But I was young­er, 5 years young­er, and the polit­ics had changed. So, I could choose my field of stud­ies without any influ­ence. I even got a grant, so I did not depend on my par­ents financially.

The sys­tem was very good and if you passed your exam­in­a­tion, you got a grant.

So, it was very social for the students?

It was very social. And some pro­fess­ors helped the stu­dents even if they obvi­ously were not fol­low­ers of the party ideo­logy. I will give you an example. One of these pro­fess­ors was Eduard Erkes. He was a mem­ber of the Social­ist Unity Party (SED), but his main interest was his Insti­tute of East Asi­an Stud­ies which he wanted to flour­ish without con­sid­er­a­tion of polit­ic­al issues. At the end of the aca­dem­ic year, we had to pass exam­in­a­tions in Chinese lan­guage and his­tory (with Erkes) and Polit­ic­al Sci­ence (with Pro­fess­or Josef Schleif­stein). When announ­cing the res­ults of the exam­in­a­tion, Pro­fess­or Erkes said, “Mr. So-and-so, lan­guage grade 1, his­tory grade 1”, then some­body had in both fields only 2, although the grades went from 1 to 5!). That means that the poor fel­low must have been rather bad. Then in the end Pro­fess­or Erkes said, “Well ladies and gen­tle­men, I am very happy about the excel­lent res­ult of the exam­in­a­tion. None of you must now be afraid of get­ting a bad grade in Polit­ic­al Sci­ence.” This was Eduard Erkes. His stu­dents, his col­leagues, and his insti­tute were more import­ant than party ideology.

And you also had to learn Rus­si­an? At high school?

Of course, at school. Well, like your par­ents of course. I still remem­ber we star­ted, I think, 7 times with les­son 1. This was pos­sible since we always got new teach­ers. But in the end, this could not be defen­ded any­more. And there­fore, we star­ted 7 times with les­son 14. I heard from oth­er people from oth­er so-called social­ist coun­tries that it was the same there.

Your Rus­si­an lan­guage teach­ers were German?

Most prob­ably. I remem­ber that we had 1 teach­er, a lady, who was a Peters­burg Ger­man. As far as I remem­ber, the oth­er teach­ers of Rus­si­an were also Ger­mans, but I am not quite sure.

Then I had to leave, and it was not a good time for me. For you it is inter­est­ing, of course you know Jaroslav Průšek, he was giv­ing a lec­ture in Leipzig and dur­ing this lec­ture, 2 gen­tle­men in leath­er coats came and took me.

Oh, I see.

Further studies in Göttingen and Copenhagen

It was dur­ing Jaroslav Průšek’s lec­ture. And then I came to Göt­tin­gen, rather quickly, which is also in rela­tion to the prob­lems now with the refugees, inter­est­ingly. I left Leipzig on March 15th and star­ted my stud­ies in Göt­tin­gen on May 2nd.

One month!

So quickly and it was a whole pro­cess, you see. But it was so well organised.

How did you man­age to escape? It prob­ably wasn’t easy?

It was not actu­ally dif­fi­cult, because there was no wall, but there were con­trols around Ber­lin and the trains. I took a bag with some under­wear and a book­let by Ber­to­ld Spuler, Die Mon­golen, pre­tend­ing to go to the state lib­rary in East­ern Ber­lin, in case the police came, and I had to tell them a story, but nobody came and then I took the train to West Ber­lin, which was pos­sible without dif­fi­culties. There I was.

And then you applied for cit­izen­ship, how did it work?

It was like that. Only to give you an example, [of] the organ­isa­tion in this bad time. Many people are blam­ing it, but it was like that, that I had to be inter­viewed by rep­res­ent­at­ives of the Ger­man Uni­on of Stu­dents, in West Ber­lin, in the camp.

So, I was inter­viewed, and they asked me what I was going to do now. Well, I had to earn money because I was alone, I had some rel­at­ives in Aus­tria, but, I mean, I had no money. I said I wanted to study in Göt­tin­gen because I was look­ing where I could do Chinese, Mon­go­li­an and Indi­an stud­ies. I did Indi­an stud­ies also. Tibetan was not rep­res­en­ted in Göt­tin­gen. Because in Göt­tin­gen, there was Heis­sig, and I wanted to study with him. So, they said, Jawohl, here are the applic­a­tion forms for Göt­tin­gen Uni­ver­sity, they had them there, the forms. You sit down, you write and then if you are recog­nised as a polit­ic­al refugee, you will be entitled to get help with­in a spe­cial pro­gram, which meant in West­ern Ger­many, every­body has to con­trib­ute to the con­sequences of hav­ing lost the war. Those who had lost their prop­erty, they get money from the oth­ers for those who had kept their prop­erty; that was the basic idea. I was entitled to get this help and then they said, “But it will take about 2 months until it works and dur­ing this time you will get money from us.” So I could start without work­ing, I mean earn­ing money. 1 and a half months later, it was amaz­ing. It was amaz­ing. I mean I did not get much; you don’t expect much really.

How did you get from Ber­lin to Göttingen?

That was by plane, I mean to Han­nov­er, and then I had to go to anoth­er camp, to fin­ish the pro­cess. I had to pass my final sec­ond­ary exam­in­a­tion for a second time. I could not pre­pare myself, it worked, a long story, but it worked.

Where did you do the exam again?

Well, in Han­over, in the cap­it­al of [the former] Fre­d­er­ick [Prus­si­an] state.

In Göt­tin­gen, I could con­tin­ue my Chinese, Mon­go­li­an and Indi­an stud­ies. Chinese with Pro­fess­or Hans Stange, Mon­go­li­an with Dr Walth­er Heis­sig and Indi­an with Pro­fess­or Ernst Wald­schmidt and Dr. Siegfried Lien­hard. Tibetan was not rep­res­en­ted in Göt­tin­gen. The main reas­on why I went to Göt­tin­gen was the pos­sib­il­ity to con­tin­ue Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies, a field which was rather rare in West­ern Germany.

It was a good time in Göt­tin­gen. It was my best time dur­ing my stud­ies and [there were] good teach­ers. Walth­er Heis­sig, said, “You should go to Copen­ha­gen [Uni­ver­sity] to do fur­ther stud­ies in Mon­go­li­an with Pro­fess­or Kaare Grøn­bech. He was a Turko­lo­gist, also teach­ing Mon­go­li­an. He was ill when I went there. He also died, unfor­tu­nately, dur­ing my stay there. But he had a very good assist­ant, Dr. Kaare Thom­sen Hansen, and I could do Mon­go­li­an with them. And I could even do Tibetan with Dr. Erik Haarh.

How do you remem­ber Erik Haarh as a teach­er and as a person?

As a teach­er, he was very ser­i­ous and very good and a very kind per­son. I remem­ber him in the best way. He was a good teach­er. I for­got which Tibetan texts we read. Per­haps I still have some notes, but right now I do not remember.

Who were your class­mates in Göt­tin­gen and Copen­ha­gen? What did the pro­gramme look like? How did you study?

Well, in Göt­tin­gen I had classes in Chinese, [and] in Mon­go­li­an with [Walth­er] Heis­sig. I still remem­ber the first time we had a class; he was check­ing me and then he said, “Well, it’s okay.” He wanted to know what I knew. We were only 2 [stu­dents]; one stu­dent of Egypt Stud­ies, Gün­ther Schmidt, and me. My main field in those days was Chinese Stud­ies because there was no cur­riculum for Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies. It was only a Neben­fach (minor subject).

I still remem­ber we only had 1 text, I don’t know what it was, but only 1 copy of a Mon­go­li­an text. Heis­sig was sit­ting here and Gün­ther was sit­ting there, and I was sit­ting in the middle. I was sup­posed to read but I could not, the reas­on was that Heis­sig was smoking a pipe and Schmidt was smoking cigar­ettes. By the end of the month, Gün­ther had run out of money and was smoking the worst kind of cigar­ettes (blows). I simply could not see any­thing and hardly breathe because of all the smoke.

Reflections on different university experiences

From your exper­i­ence, was there a dif­fer­ence between uni­ver­sit­ies in East­ern and West­ern Ger­many at that time?

No. No refers to Ori­ent­al Stud­ies. Of course, in East­ern Ger­many, we had to attend courses in Marx­ism and Len­in­ism. We had a very good teach­er, a philo­soph­er, who dur­ing Nazi times spent his exile in Eng­land. Not in Rus­sia. We had 6 hours of Marx­ism-Len­in­ism per week, 4 hours of lec­tures and a 2‑hour seminar.

What was the name of the teacher?

Pro­fess­or Josef Schleif­stein. He was inter­na­tion­ally known and was delib­er­ately placed as a teach­er in the Fac­ulty of Philo­sophy and Theo­logy in Leipzig.

Oth­er­wise, the teach­ers that we had in Leipzig were still of the old brand. There was the Japan­o­lo­gist, Pro­fess­or André Wedemey­er. I did not do Japan­ese, but he also gave a beginner’s course in Clas­sic­al Chinese. Then there were Pro­fess­or Weller, Dr. Ratch­nevsky, Dr. Schubert and even Pro­fess­or Erkes. They were all of the old brand. There was no polit­ics in their teaching.

Then I had one teach­er [Siegfried] Morenz. He was a Pro­fess­or of Egypt Stud­ies but also taught the reli­gious his­tory of the Near East. There­fore, I atten­ded his classes. He was the only one who wrote me a let­ter when I had left Leipzig say­ing I could con­tact his col­league in West Ber­lin to help me, which was very brave in those days.

And then class­mates. In Leipzig, my class­mate in Mon­go­li­an was Siegfried Seumel. There were oth­ers in Chinese and Indi­an Stud­ies, for example, Rolf Trauz­ettel and Erika and Man­fred Taube. It was typ­ic­al for the polit­ic­al sys­tem that half of my class­mates in sec­ond­ary school went to the West and half of my class­mates at the uni­ver­sity also went to the West. My class­mate in the uni­ver­sity, Ralf Trauz­ettel, became a Pro­fess­or of Chinese Stud­ies in Bonn. And Dr Schneider became a Pro­fess­or of Indi­an Stud­ies in Mün­ster. So, it was a real brain drain.

After I had left Leipzig, Pro­fess­or Erkes was of course con­tac­ted by the Secret Police, the notori­ous Stasi (Staats­sich­er­heit). And he told them that if they con­tin­ue this polit­ics, all his stu­dents will go to the West.

What did they reply?

It is not said. I think they did not reply at all.

It was sim­il­ar in the Czech Repub­lic. The Jews and the Ger­mans were lost, and then the clev­er Czechs. 

It is unbe­liev­able. You can only have shame about what has happened. Just now we had dis­cus­sions about the end of World War I. They signed a treaty, and it was so bad for Ger­many. I am not a his­tor­i­an but almost inev­it­ably it star­ted this devel­op­ment, I would say.

In Czechoslov­akia, we did not feel that the eco­nom­ic situ­ation was bad. I still remem­ber this time only dimly. But in Ger­many, it was obvi­ously dra­mat­ic, dur­ing the crisis in 1923 and later. Then Hitler man­aged to intro­duce some reforms which instig­ated the eco­nomy, and many people fol­lowed him. What later happened can simply not be excused. The per­se­cu­tion of the Jews is inex­cus­able. They said that so many people didn’t know about it. Frankly, I doubt…

I’m sure that many people did not know but when the war was over, I was 12. Just 12. And I remem­ber 4 examples that were proof that some­thing was wrong. I still remem­ber the places. Strangely, I have it in my visu­al memory. I don’t know with whom I was, per­haps it was my fath­er. We met a lady, and I was intro­duced to her, and I was told she was an hon­or­ary Ary­an. So, she was a Jew but declared to be an hon­or­ary Ary­an because of her mer­its for the Hitler regime.

Then when I went to school there were houses on my road, and I was told these were the houses of Jews, but people said that they had moved to Mad­a­gas­car, I think. And I thought, why to Mad­a­gas­car? Then I saw a man, near the mar­ket­place in Aus­sig an der Elbe, in a black suit with a yel­low star on his jack­et: a Jew. He was load­ing char­coal some­where. To me, this seemed not nor­mal. And then in our house, there was a fam­ily from Bre­men. Real Ary­ans, I still remem­ber them, blonde. The man was rather tall, and he was in the SS. People said he had to show places for exe­cu­tion but he him­self was of course (!) not involved in the executions.

And then the grown-ups didn’t know about it? No. But this has noth­ing to do with Ori­ent­al Studies.

But it’s part of your his­tory and the envir­on­ment. So, how was Copen­ha­gen? Did you con­tin­ue your stud­ies there?

Yes, Mon­go­li­an and Tibetan. And old Turkish.

No Indo­logy?

No. I did not attend Indi­an Stud­ies in Copen­ha­gen, no.

Who was your Turkic Stud­ies teacher?

It was Kaare Thom­sen Hansen, the assist­ant of Grøn­bech, who also taught Mongolian.

Why did you decide to com­bine the lan­guages? Now it would be quite unusual.

Unfor­tu­nately, I would say. Well, the reas­on was a very simple one. In Leipzig, in the East Asi­an Insti­tute, Mon­go­li­an and Tibetan were offered.

May I ask you what the reas­on for this might be? It seems that in some depart­ments in Ger­many, but also Poland, Hun­gary and Prague, Mon­go­li­an and Tibetan stud­ies are usu­ally taught together.

In Leipzig, I think the reas­on was that Pro­fess­or Erkes wanted to cre­ate a big East Asi­an Insti­tute. Not con­fin­ing it to Chinese Stud­ies and Japan­ese Stud­ies, but also the minor­ity stud­ies. There was Dr. Schubert, who was work­ing as a Lib­rar­i­an in the Uni­ver­sity Lib­rary, and there was Dr. Ratch­nevsky. And then Pro­fess­or Erkes wanted to send me to Ham­burg, to West­ern Ger­many, to study Old Turk­ish with Pro­fess­or Annemarie von Gabain, because he also wanted to intro­duce Ancient Turk­ish Stud­ies in his insti­tute. But then I had to leave East­ern Ger­many, so I could not go to Hamburg.

Can I ask you which year did you go to West­ern Germany?

It was in 1954. March 1954.

PhD thesis

And to Copenhagen?

In 1956. 1956–1957. From there I went to Bonn, because of [Walth­er] Heis­sig. I already had the top­ic for my dis­ser­ta­tion, with Heis­sig as my super­visor. The text of my dis­ser­ta­tion was kept in the Roy­al Lib­rary in Copen­ha­gen. A bio­graphy in Mongolian.

What was the topic?

The bio­graphy of the First Changkya (Lcang skya) Khu­tuktu. Dur­ing my stay in Copen­ha­gen, Dr. Heis­sig was offered a pos­i­tion in Bonn. So, I came to Bonn and I’m still here. I fin­ished my stud­ies, the main field was Mon­go­li­an and the second field, or sec­ond­ary fields, were Chinese and Indi­an Studies.

Would you say there was any dif­fer­ence between Ger­man and Dan­ish aca­demia at that time?

No. I would say no. It was rather free, you could choose what you wanted. I delib­er­ately wanted to do Tibetan and Mon­go­li­an there, but I think it was the same. In Prague too, and in Aus­tria. The Cent­ral European Sys­tem: Aus­tria, Poland, it was the same, I think.

Have you fin­ished your Masters?

No, we had no Masters.

So how did it work? What did you fin­ish in Bonn? 


That was after how many years of study?

I had 8 years. I was a little bit slow.

So, you went from under­gradu­ate to the doctorate?

Yes. There was no Master’s in those days.

 You had to pass a cer­tain series of exams?

Yes and no.

To go into the next year?

No. In East­ern Ger­many you had exam­in­a­tions but not in the West. You stud­ied and then you had your “Rig­orosum”. This was the first exam­in­a­tion. In my opin­ion, that was not so good because one was not trained suf­fi­ciently for examinations.

For example, Heis­sig asked me in the Rig­orosum about the top­ic of my dis­ser­ta­tion and I could not tell him. I was not able to speak. He should have giv­en me a little hint so that the machine starts run­ning, but he would say, “You know this, you know this.” But no. Well, it went well but I thought that some exam­in­a­tions before this final exam­in­a­tion would have been quite a good idea.

So, you had an exam­in­a­tion along with your viva? 

Ah, I under­stand what you mean. No. There was noth­ing like a defence of the dissertation.

There was an exam­in­a­tion of dif­fer­ent top­ics in the field. We had to trans­late a text and then answer ques­tions. For example, there was an exam­in­a­tion in Chinese Stud­ies. The pro­fess­or, Peter Olbricht, was a good exam­iner. We had a nice talk. After that, I real­ized that he had pushed me through the whole field, and I had not noticed it because we were just talking.

And then the Pro­fess­or of Indo­logy, Paul Hack­er, gave me 4 pages, nar­rowly prin­ted, of Sanskrit text. We had agreed on this text before, which was a whole book, and I could not read it in full dur­ing all the oth­er pre­par­a­tions for the exam­in­a­tion. Later on, when I myself had stu­dents, I knew how much you can do in 30 minutes or 45 minutes of oral exam­in­a­tion. But he gave me 4 pages to just translate.

Teaching at the Institute of Central Asian Studies in Bonn

You had no exam­in­a­tion in Tibetan Studies?

No, because there were no Tibetan Stud­ies in Bonn.

Why did I con­tin­ue my stud­ies in Bonn?

Dur­ing my stay in Copen­ha­gen, Dr. Heis­sig came to Bonn. What had happened? In Bonn, there was an Insti­tute of Ori­ent­al Stud­ies. The Dir­ect­or was Pro­fess­or Otto Spies. Ori­ent­al Stud­ies now means Arab­ic, Per­sian, and Turkic Stud­ies. But at that time, the Insti­tute also included Chinese Stud­ies, Japan­ese Stud­ies, and Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies. Indi­an Stud­ies were sep­ar­ate. Otto Spies was ready to make Chinese and Japan­ese Stud­ies “inde­pend­ent”, and he really man­aged to cre­ate chairs for Chinese Stud­ies and Japan­ese Stud­ies, with the lec­tur­ers (Dozent) Peter Olbricht and Otto Karow as full pro­fess­ors. But Spies wanted the lec­turer Walth­er Heis­sig to become a full pro­fess­or as well, with his own institute.

Heis­sig was a Mon­gol­ist. But could the insti­tute be an insti­tute of Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies? The Min­istry in Düs­sel­dorf, which had the final decision, said that Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies is too nar­row. This is true since com­pared to Chinese Stud­ies, Ira­ni­an Stud­ies, and Slavic Stud­ies it would have been too small. There­fore, they pro­posed to cre­ate an insti­tute which cov­ers the study of the lan­guages, his­tory, and cul­tures of the coun­tries between China, Iran, Siber­ia, and India. And so, the Insti­tute of Cent­ral Asi­an Stud­ies of Bonn Uni­ver­sity (Sem­in­ar für Sprach- und Kul­tur­wis­senschaft Zen­t­ralasi­ens der Uni­versität Bonn) was cre­ated in 1964. In my opin­ion, this was a very good decision. Heis­sig became a full pro­fess­or, and I was lucky enough to become his assistant.

And then, of course, a cur­riculum was needed. There were Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies and then a second one, Tibetan Stud­ies because Heis­sig was also teach­ing some Tibetan, but he did not like it very much. Then he told me, as his assist­ant, “Sagaster, you will teach Tibetan.” So, I had to teach Tibetan.

Well, I said, “Yes, Pro­fess­or.” What could I do? I mean, I liked it, of course. In a way, I was hon­oured. Then some­time later Heis­sig was blam­ing me. He said, “You com­pletely for­got [about] Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies. You only do Tibetan Stud­ies.” I told him, “But you ordered me to do Tibetan Stud­ies.” And he was laugh­ing like any­thing. In fact, I did both [Tibetan and Mon­go­li­an Studies].

Did you like teaching?

Very much. It was great fun. I had good stu­dents. I even had a stu­dent of Iceland­ic Stud­ies, ima­gine! That was pos­sible in those days. Iceland­ic Stud­ies was Ger­man­ic Stud­ies and his spe­ci­al­ity was Iceland­ic, old Iceland­ic and also, per­haps, mod­ern. His sec­ond­ary field was Tibetan. He did his master’s and doc­tor­ate with me and after his exam­in­a­tions, I asked him wheth­er Tibetan Stud­ies were of some use for him. He said some­thing inter­est­ing: “Of course. I came to know quite a dif­fer­ent cul­ture. And you know, study­ing Tibetan brought me new ideas for my own field.” Later on, I asked his Dok­t­or­vater (Ph.D. adviser), “How is Mr Schulte?” He said, “He is now a pro­fess­or in Nor­way. So, there is no harm in study­ing Tibetan.” There­fore, also a com­bin­a­tion of Iceland­ic and Cent­ral Asi­an Stud­ies is obvi­ously useful.

There would prob­ably be less free­dom for such a com­bin­a­tion in the Cent­ral European uni­ver­sity sys­tem now… 

Yes, less free­dom. I don’t think it’s so good. For example, I gave a class on the Rgy­ud bzhi. I’m not a spe­cial­ist in [Tibetan] medi­cine but it came about because of a Ph.D. stu­dent of medi­cine who was very inter­ested in Tibetan medi­cine. In those days it was also pos­sible to com­bine Tibetan Stud­ies with Medi­cine, as a sec­ond­ary field. I think this is no longer possible.

The use­ful­ness of com­bin­ing Med­ic­al and Tibetan Stud­ies was also proved by Dr. med. Eliza­beth Finckh from Ham­burg, who was very much inter­ested in Tibetan medi­cine. She asked my col­league in Indi­an Stud­ies, Claus Vogel, who also did Tibetan, and me wheth­er we could read the manu­script of her book on Tibetan medi­cine. She had writ­ten a long intro­duc­tion on Tibetan reli­gion, philo­sophy, embed­ding medi­cine, and the sys­tem of Tibetan reli­gion. We were read­ing it and thought this was typ­ic­al of what is writ­ten by a layper­son. There was no harm, but as she was ask­ing us, we told her to take it out. Shorten it. She was very grate­ful. Through this, I became inter­ested in Tibetan medicine.

I’m jump­ing a little bit, but now you have these short-term employ­ments. I know this from my daugh­ter who is a Turko­lo­gist and also went through this. One short-term employ­ment after anoth­er and you are always shiv­er­ing and think­ing “How can I continue?”

When I did my Habil­it­a­tion (advanced postdoc­tor­al thes­is to qual­i­fy for pro­fess­or­ship), I became a Privat­dozent. I was put at the bot­tom of a list for becom­ing a Diäten­dozent. Don’t ask me about the ori­gin of this term. But this was a per­man­ent pos­i­tion, not as a pro­fess­or but as a Dozent.

First, I was at the bot­tom of the list. Then I climbed because the people at the top [of the list] became pro­fess­ors, so one became high­er and high­er on the stair­case. Even if a schol­ar of Nuc­le­ar Phys­ics was after me, he would not have got the pos­i­tion before me. That was the sys­tem. Now it is no more.

So you had to wait a bit? For those above you to become pro­fess­ors before you could?

Yes, but it worked. I remained in Bonn and became a Dozent and later a professor.

After my retire­ment, some­thing happened. I mean, we always had this com­bin­a­tion of Mon­go­li­an and Tibetan Stud­ies. Nobody was forced to do both. Some people did Tibetan or who only did Mon­go­li­an, but you could com­bine. Man­chu Stud­ies and Turkic Stud­ies were also pos­sible. We nev­er had the pos­i­tion of Pro­fess­or of Turkic Stud­ies because of fin­an­cial reas­ons. Heis­sig did not achieve it and I also did not achieve it. It was simply not pos­sible for fin­an­cial reas­ons. How­ever, we had guest pro­fess­ors for Turkic Studies.

In the­ory, the whole area of Cent­ral Asia was pos­sible [to study]. And then, there came a uni­ver­sity reform and my col­leagues decided to abol­ish the idea of Cent­ral Asi­an Stud­ies as a lar­ger field. What remained were Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies and Tibetan Stud­ies. In my opin­ion, until now it worked, but it is not ideal because both are prac­tic­ally sep­ar­ated under the roof of one depart­ment. The idea of Cent­ral Asia as a lar­ger field of stud­ies has been abol­ished and I’m afraid, I hope I’m not right, that one day people will say, “Oh, Tibetan Stud­ies are no longer neces­sary”. For­tu­nately, at present the chair will be still pre­served. But I was very nervous, I thought it would be a good oppor­tun­ity to abol­ish it. Because Tibetan Stud­ies are in Ham­burg, Ber­lin, and Munich, why should there be Tibetan Stud­ies in Bonn as well? And Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies have already been abolished.

When was this?

It was in 2012. They were abol­ished. We had a pro­fess­or from China who went back to his coun­try. I under­stand why because the con­di­tions here were not appro­pri­ate any­more. And then Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies were dead. By a mir­acle, they were revived.

Ima­gine, even Slavic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Bonn have been abol­ished. Even the inter­ven­tion of Gorbachev had no effect. It was around 2012, recently.

When you star­ted teach­ing it was Cent­ral Asi­an Stud­ies? And with­in it was both Mon­go­li­an and Tibetan Studies?

Yes, these were the 2 offi­cial cur­ricula. But one could also do Man­chu and oth­er fields.

Then it changed? And so now we have inde­pend­ent Tibetan Studies? 

Yes, but still under the roof, as before, of the Depart­ment of Mon­go­li­an and Tibetan Stud­ies, as it is called.

Was it the same before?

No, it was the Insti­tute of Cent­ral Asi­an Stud­ies (Sprach- und Kul­tur­wis­senschaften Zentralasiens).

What did you teach and how did you teach it? Which mater­i­als did you use?  

Well, I gave intro­duct­ory courses. Then we had sem­inars, we were read­ing dif­fer­ent texts: his­tor­ic­al texts, lit­er­at­ure, medi­cine. For example, we had sem­inars on mod­ern Tibetan his­tory,  on the Peres­troika in Mon­go­lia, and I gave lec­tures on Tibetan his­tory and lit­er­at­ure. Of course, over the years there were many topics.

Fieldwork in Baltistan and traces of the Gesar epic

You were teach­ing what we usu­ally call clas­sic­al Tibetan? There wasn’t much mod­ern lan­guage in the curriculum? 

No, not so much mod­ern because, you see, I nev­er had the chance to prac­tice mod­ern Tibetan to be flu­ent in the lan­guage. But we had a Tibetan lec­turer, Jampa Phukhang Khen­trul. Of course, we read some mod­ern texts, I have for­got­ten what we read, but I can­not say that I was qual­i­fied to teach mod­ern Tibetan adequately.

I should tell you about my field­work in Baltistan, in North-East­­ern Pakistan. My prob­lem was that I could not do field­work in Tibet itself, not in China, and not in Mon­go­lia because I was a polit­ic­al refugee. I always regret­ted that. But then a chance came. Since 1972 we had a spe­cial research pro­gramme for Cent­ral Asi­an Stud­ies, includ­ing Chinese and Indi­an Stud­ies related to Cent­ral Asia. This was fin­anced by the Ger­man Research Asso­ci­ation (Deutsche Forschungs­ge­meinsch­aft). This meant that we got money to employ research­ers in addi­tion to the staff, which was not very big, of course. The Chinese and Indi­an Insti­tutes joined, and there were sev­er­al research pro­grams like epic stud­ies, icon­o­graphy, mater­i­al cul­ture, and so on.

The main top­ic of epic stud­ies was Gesar/Geser/Kesar, and Gesar stud­ies should cov­er the whole area where the epic was spread: in Mon­go­lia, Tibet, Ladakh – and Baltistan. There was evid­ence that the Gesar epic was also present there, in Muslim Tibet since the eth­no­graph­er Pro­fess­or [Karl] Jettmar of Heidel­berg Uni­ver­sity had recor­ded a Balti ver­sion of the Kesar epic.

So, Pro­fess­or Heis­sig, the head of the research pro­gramme, pro­posed that I go to Baltistan, togeth­er with the Indo­lo­gist Dr. [Ren­ate] Söhnen in order to record Balti ver­sions of the Gesar epic. And so, we went to Baltistan for the first time in 1980, the second time in 1981, and then in 1983 also. My wife Ursula joined in 1981 and 1983. Ursula used this oppor­tun­ity to col­lect mater­i­al of Balti mater­i­al cul­ture. We got research per­mits with­in the Pakistani-Ger­­­man Karakor­um High­way pro­gramme. Pro­fess­or Jettmar and his Pakistani col­league, Pro­fess­or Ahmed Has­san of Islamabad Dani had found inscrip­tions in dif­fer­ent lan­guages along the Karakor­um high­way south of Gil­git and then also on the high­way between Gil­git and the Chinese bor­der. Now they could make full doc­u­ment­a­tion of the inscrip­tions in a spe­cial pro­ject. We could com­bine our pro­ject, I mean offi­cially, with this pro­ject. It was not a trick, but it was easi­er to do it this way. On the Pakistani side, they knew that. And so, we went to Baltistan.

Dr. Söhnen recor­ded a ver­sion from the west of this little coun­try, and I recor­ded oth­er ver­sions. I real­ised very early [on] that there was no use record­ing only Kesar stor­ies because they were some­times related to oth­er stor­ies. So, I said to myself, well, I have this storyteller, so let him tell whatever he knows. This was the reas­on that I also recor­ded the story of the King of Yemen, the King of Rum and even the King of Egypt and oth­ers. By the way, Egypt is a dir­ect neigh­bour of Baltistan.

Is it?

Yes, of course. One storyteller told me, “Well now I should tell you the story of Kesar going to Hor (in the North of Kesar’s coun­try), but the oth­er man already told you this story. I take you now to Egypt”. So, I recor­ded all that I could because, some­times parts of the Kesar stor­ies became inde­pend­ent stor­ies or oth­er stor­ies were integ­rated into the Kesar epic. And so, it came that I could do some fieldwork.

Did you like it?

Very much. I must say, shame on me, I could not yet pub­lish it all. The reas­on is that since 1990 I got the chance to go to Mon­go­lia very often. And my Balti stud­ies had to suf­fer. Now I am try­ing to fin­ish. I had Balti schol­ars here who trans­lated the stor­ies because I simply needed nat­ive speak­ers. I tran­scribed some examples phon­et­ic­ally, but it is impossible to tran­scribe the whole mater­i­al. It is so volu­min­ous, but I hope to pro­ceed in work­ing and to still pub­lish most of it. Some of the storytellers were talk­ing so quickly or so indis­tinctly that only nat­ive speak­ers could really under­stand [it]. I laugh some­times when I read these trans­la­tions. One of my friends who made the trans­la­tions, Mr. Mohammed Iqbal of Islamabad, an eld­erly gen­tle­man, very know­ledge­able, wrote, “Well, and now the people, listen­ers, they join the song of the storyteller. And one can simply not under­stand one word because of the noise of the com­ment­ar­ies which they make dur­ing the recitation.”

Then I also asked the storytellers ques­tions. For example, “Is Kesar still alive?”

Ah yeah, of course. He’s still alive. He lives in Soghzgo Broq in Nubra Valley/Ladakh. His wife Brukmo is a faith­ful Muslim. And Kesar him­self is a dirty Buddhist. And he will be defeated in the last battle between Islam and Buddhism. Defeated by Imam Mehdi and Jesus Christ.”

Then they said, “He is pro­du­cing weapons for this apo­ca­lyptic battle dur­ing the day. Dur­ing the night Brukmo is des­troy­ing all of them and then he has to make them again.”

Then I asked, “If Kesar is such a dirty Buddhist, an enemy of Islam, why do you tell his story?”

We tell this story in order to be aware of the most dan­ger­ous enemy of Islam.” And then “We tell this story because it is so interesting.”

Travel to India in the 1960s, memories of Dharamsala and meeting the Dalai Lama

It is very inter­est­ing. Was Baltistan your first trip to Asia? 

No. I first went to Asia in Janu­ary 1964. Long ago. There was an Inter­na­tion­al Con­gress of Ori­ent­al­ists in Del­hi. I even saw Nehru, half a year before he died. He came to give the vale­dict­ory address, with the red rose on his jack­et. This was very moving.

My vis­it to India had a very spe­cial mean­ing because when I was study­ing Indo­logy in Bonn, I had a class­mate, much seni­or to me, from Del­hi, Dr. Sita Nam­bi­ar. She was a friend of my [then] future wife. My wife, Ursula, took care of her right after she arrived in Bonn as part of an inter­na­tion­al stu­dent organ­isa­tion which took care of for­eign stu­dents. In those days we had many Indi­an [stu­dents]. She took care of her, and they became very close friends. Through this Indi­an lady, I came to know my future wife. Of course, Sita was very proud because this was her work. At that time, she was already mar­ried to an Indi­an gen­tle­man whom she met in Bonn, work­ing in the Indi­an Embassy. I wanted to vis­it them, and I stayed in their house. They were very, very nice people.

After the con­fer­ence, I wanted to go to vis­it the Tibetan set­tle­ments in the Him­alay­as, par­tic­u­larly Dharam­sala. So, I went there and went to Dharam­sala. There I stayed in the Gov­ern­ment rest house. It was Janu­ary, there was snow, and it was cold. I was the only guest in the house. Well, no prob­lem but nobody had received me, although my vis­it had been announced by our Tibetan lec­turer Jampa Phukhang. Later on, it turned out people were wait­ing for me. But it was the wrong bus or God knows, but it did not work.

Jampa Phukhang had writ­ten a let­ter to Dagyab Rinpoche, who in those days was the head of the cul­tur­al depart­ment of the Dalai Lama. I had the let­ter with me and wanted to deliv­er it to the Rinpoche.

First, I went to a res­taur­ant to have momos and showed the let­ter [and said], “Dagyab Rinpoche, how can I reach him?”

Oh yeah, we will take care of it.” They delivered the let­ter, and then they even took me to Dagyab Rinpoche’s office. The Rinpoche was sit­ting there with a poker face. The reas­on was his Eng­lish was not good and my Tibetan, spoken Tibetan, was prac­tic­ally zero. So, we could not speak much. I felt really uncomfortable.

Then I went back to the rest house, and I thought no, I won’t stay here. I wanted to pack my things and take the next bus. But sud­denly a Tibetan came [and said], “Hurry up, hurry up. The Rinpoche invites you to stay with him. “The bus (from Lower Dharam­sala to Upper Dharam­sala) is just leav­ing.” I thought, well if he invited me, I obvi­ously had the wrong impres­sion, it can­not be so bad. So, I took my things, and I was pulled into the bus, which was already run­ning, and we went to Upper Dharam­sala. Then I stayed in the Rinpoche’s house. He even gave me his bed­room, a little room, very mod­est. I had my first but­ter tea, and it was very, very good.

Then Dagyab Rinpoche said, “Well, don’t you want to vis­it the Dalai Lama?”

I said, “Is this possible?”

He said, “Why not?” They were friends, you see. “I will announce your vis­it. No problem.”

Of course, it was tempt­ing. But I said, “How should I behave?”

He said, “Well, you should behave quite normally.”

But what should I do?”

He said, “One thing is import­ant, you must offer a khatag.”

I said, “But I don’t have a khatag.”

My good­ness, I have lots of them.”

But how to present it?”

He said, “Well, you have to roll it up, draw it, and with the open side in front you offer it. And that’s all.”

We tried, it worked. So, I said, “Will you come with me?”

You’re a grown-up per­son, you can go alone. Why should I come with you?”

So, I went to the Dalai Lama’s house. It was not yet the present res­id­ence. It was a very simple but large house. I was wait­ing and then a gen­tle­man came, Kazi Sonam Tobgy­al, the inter­pret­er of the Dalai Lama. We went and then we came to a ver­anda. On the oth­er side, I saw a monk stand­ing. When I was look­ing closely, I real­ised it was the Dalai Lama who had come to receive me. I imme­di­ately wanted to take out the khatag, but it did not work because there was it in my coat pock­et a but­ton, and the fringes of the khatag got stuck. I could not take the khatag out.

Then the Dalai Lama said some­thing, from the oth­er side. I did not know that he had a rather deep voice. So, I thought that he was angry. But he was not at all angry. I think he thought, “My good­ness boy, don’t be so nervous and come on over.” And then I took out the khatag and the but­ton was jump­ing through the air. I wanted to fold it but it did not work. You see, everything went wrong. I think the Dalai Lama was very much amused. Then we had a long talk. The inter­pret­er – the Dalai Lama did not yet speak Eng­lish in those days, very little – said, “You were lucky. This was much longer than usu­al.” Because he wanted to know so many things, for example how Jampa Phukhang was get­ting along in Bonn. So, this was my first meet­ing with the Dalai Lama. It was my first vis­it to Asia.

How do you remem­ber the Tibetan exile com­munity at the time?

Noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar. Later I came to Dharam­sala again. I went to the children’s camp being taken care of by the Dalai Lama’s sis­ter. How­ever, I had the feel­ing that the Tibetan refugees were wel­comed by the Indi­ans. That is also what they said, the Indi­ans were very fair.

I remem­ber when I went back by bus from Dharam­sala to Path­ankot, I don’t know when, dur­ing my first vis­it or later, my neigh­bour was an Indi­an gen­tle­man. We star­ted talk­ing and he asked if I vis­ited the Dalai Lama. I said yes, I could vis­it him. He was a little bit dis­ap­poin­ted and said, “Well you, as a European com­ing here, you get an audi­ence with the Dalai Lama. But we Indi­ans, we do not have this chance so eas­ily.” Then I said, “You know, you come to Rome and you wish to see the Pope, you will see the Pope. But I myself as a poor Cath­ol­ic, will not have this chance.” I think my neigh­bour was comforted.

Then there was a very inter­est­ing thing. It was also in the late 1960s, I think. The vice-pres­id­ent, at that time vice-dir­ect­or of the Tibetan Lib­rary in Dharam­sala, came to Bonn to col­lect money.

What was his name? 

Gyatso Tser­ing. He is no longer alive, as far as I know. The lib­rary was not yet built.

The Lib­rary of Tibetan Works and Archives?

Yes. Well, he wanted to col­lect money for the con­struc­tion of the lib­rary build­ing. I said, “What should we do?” So, we went to the For­eign Office, which was con­veni­ently with­in walk­ing dis­tance of our insti­tute in Bonn. There they said, “No, we can­not give money.” It was not in their sched­ules. “But here is a list of wel­fare organ­isa­tions. You go there and per­haps you will get something.”

Num­ber 1, alpha­bet­ic­ally, was Arbeit­er­wohl­fahrt, the Worker’s Wel­fare. And the main office was in Bad Godesberg, a part of Bonn, so we went there. We were received and I said, “Well, this gen­tle­man is Tibetan, and they want to build a lib­rary. They need some money.” I don’t know how I phrased it exactly but that was the mean­ing. They said, “Well, we will ask the sec­ret­ary-gen­er­­al to come and you can talk to him.” And then the sec­ret­ary gen­er­al came. Gyatso Tser­ing explained his wish and the sec­ret­ary gen­er­al said, “This is cul­ture. No. For this, we have no money. But couldn’t it be some­thing else? Some social help or so.”

Gyatso Tser­ing was clev­er, he said, “Of course.”

The sec­ret­ary-gen­er­­al said, “We have a pro­ject in South­ern India, near the Tibetan camps. We could integ­rate the pro­ject for the Tibetan refugees into this Indi­an pro­ject. But, unfor­tu­nately, we can­not give so much money. I mean, would 100,000 DM (Deutsche Mark) be of some use?”

My guest was very happy and imme­di­ately accep­ted this offer. It was quite a lot of money in those days. Then it turned out that the lady who received us was in charge of this Indi­an pro­ject. And later on, she told me that it was the Tibetan pro­ject she liked best. She said it was so use­ful. For example, the women still had thick clothes. It was a hilly area in the south of India, but it was not a Him­alay­an cli­mate. So, they were taught not to wear such thick clothes, and to brush their teeth, and things like that. The out­come was a little book in Tibetan. I still have it somewhere.

The story goes on, it was in 1973 when the Dalai Lama vis­ited Europe for the first time.

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Germany in the 1970s

He came to Bonn at some point. Was this then? 

Yes. The phar­ma­co­lo­gist, Pro­fess­or Wern­er Schule­mann, a col­lect­or of Tibetan art, and Pro­fess­or Heis­sig pre­pared the vis­it. Then some­thing not so good happened. Some people from our insti­tute pro­tested against the vis­it of the Dalai Lama to the insti­tute, in the uni­ver­sity, because they were afraid of China. It would be bad for rela­tions with China. Well, we did not have one single Tibetan book from China in those days. They went to the rect­or and the rect­or said he would not receive the Dalai Lama in the uni­ver­sity. In those days I was not in Bonn, I came very late. So, it was done.

But Arbeit­er­wohl­fahrt were will­ing to receive the Dalai Lama. Oth­er insti­tu­tions, [for example] the Divine Word Mis­sion­ar­ies (Steyler Mis­sion­are) of Sankt Augustin near Bonn, also received him. Arbeit­er­wohl­fahrt even gave a big recep­tion. All the lord may­ors from the Ruhr dis­tricts, Social Demo­crats, came. Even Katja Epstein, you will not know her, she was a fam­ous sing­er in those days, par­ti­cip­ated and presen­ted a song. The Dalai Lama was obvi­ously very much amused. There was a very good atmo­sphere. Then, I did not trust my eyes, a lady appeared with such a hat; it was Annemarie Renger, the pres­id­ent of the West Ger­man Parliament.

I thought this was quite impossible, because the pres­id­ent of Par­lia­ment is num­ber 2 in the state hier­archy, after the pres­id­ent of the repub­lic. The chan­cel­lor is only num­ber 3. I asked my acquaint­ance, this lady, “How could she come?” She said that it was a little prob­lem because she was severely cri­ti­cised. And you know what she said, she said, “Yes, I know. I am the pres­id­ent of Par­lia­ment, but I am also a mem­ber of Arbeit­er­wohl­fahrt. And in this capa­city, I came, and nobody can pre­vent me from doing that.”

The gov­ern­ment did not receive the Dalai Lama, for polit­ic­al reas­ons. When I went to the For­eign Office dur­ing these days, I asked them, “The uni­ver­sity did not receive him, well why?”

They said, “The uni­ver­sity is inde­pend­ent, we can­not do any­thing. But we do not have any­thing against the vis­it of the Dalai Lama. It is doc­u­mented by the fact that we gave him the visa.”

That was the first vis­it of the Dalai Lama to Bonn.

I think Jaroslav Pon­car was tak­ing pho­to­graphs of him, as his per­son­al photographer?

Could be.

When the Dalai Lama again came to Bonn, he was received in our insti­tute. It was his first time at the uni­ver­sity, his second time in Bonn. Many pro­fess­ors and oth­er people came to our insti­tute, but the stu­dents had to stay behind. I thought it was not very nice.

Then the Dalai Lama came for the third time, his second time to the uni­ver­sity. I asked wheth­er he would be will­ing to give a sem­in­ar to the stu­dents. He said yes. And he met the stu­dents, and they could ask him ques­tions. So, they were happy. I think he liked it also. And he also gave a pub­lic lec­ture in the great hall of the university.

More memories of Baltistan in the 1980s

 Could you say more about Baltistan and how you remem­ber it from the 1980s?

Yes, of course. In those days Baltistan was still a coun­try almost untouched by mod­ern civil­iz­a­tion. There was radio, but no tele­vi­sion, and it was still dif­fi­cult to reach there. You could fly there by Fok­ker Friend­ship, along the Nanga Par­bat, but hardly by road. Now the Chinese had built a high­way along the river Indus through the very nar­row and deep val­ley from Gil­git to Skardu, the little cap­it­al of Baltistan. I was lucky to have the chance to attend the arrival of the first truck com­ing from Gilgit.

In 1981 I again went to Baltistan, with my wife Ursula and my son Mat­thi­as. Times had already very quickly changed. Dur­ing this stay, we also went to a val­ley in the North-East of Baltistan, the Saltoro Val­ley lead­ing to the Siachen gla­ci­er where there were many storytellers. We were lucky enough that the “Super­in­tend­ent Police” of Baltistan, Ali Ahmed Jan, a prince of Nagar, came with us. He was very inter­ested in our pro­ject and, know­ing the people there, wanted to help us in this far-off area, using the oppor­tun­ity to have a look at the situ­ation there. He was a very nice per­son. People said, “He is fit for any pro­fes­sion except one, the pro­fes­sion of a policeman.”

The super­in­tend­ent urged us to pass by the last small town in East­ern Baltistan, Khaplu, as quickly as pos­sible, because he was afraid of being called back to Skardu for this or that reas­on. On foot, we reached the vil­lage where there lived many storytellers. After 2 days, a mes­sen­ger came and called the super­in­tend­ent back to Skardu. Indi­ans were seen on the Siachen gla­ci­er, high up. This side of Baltistan was com­pletely open. The bor­der to Ladakh itself was closely watched, also by the United Nations sol­diers. But this side was open because it was so high, and nobody ima­gined invaders could come. But some Indi­ans were seen and so the chief of the police was ordered to look for them.

After 3 days or so he came back from Skardu with some police­men equipped with very old guns. The super­in­tend­ent said [to me], “Can I have your map? I have no idea where to go.” I had an Amer­ic­an satel­lite map; one could buy it here. He had no map, nothing.

I said, “Well, by all means take it.”

Then he said, “Well, good­bye. Per­haps we will meet again. It depends on who will shoot first.” And then after some days, he came back with his people because the Indi­ans had dis­ap­peared. From then on, the area became a closed area. The mil­it­ary came to Skardu, and a jet con­nec­tion was estab­lished. And that was the begin­ning of the Siachen con­flict between India and Pakistan. I can say, as I was a wit­ness, it was not the Pakistani side that star­ted the con­flict. It was the Indi­an side, quite clearly.

The storytellers were will­ing to recite. It was a very nice time. Many listen­ers always came. Once, the storyteller stopped because there were only a few [people]. The last one left to go to the toi­let, or some­where. The storyteller imme­di­ately stopped, as I was nobody for him. He knew that I would not under­stand. He was very nice. It was a very good exper­i­ence of oral recit­a­tion. How it works. Also mov­ing. I had a storyteller who was 93, they said. In any case, he was very, very old, that was clear. He recited for me, I think, for 1 and a half days or so. Very long. And then he said, “Now I stop. I am tired. Now I want to go to the home of my son.”

But he said, “When you come next time, I will tell you the story of the King of China since I have many more stor­ies. But now no more.” I could under­stand, of course. Then, when I came again 2 years later, he was dead.

My first storyteller was 14, in the rest house in Skardu. We were talk­ing and then I had the idea to ask him, “Do you know the story of Kesar?”

He said, “Yes, I can even recite 1 chapter. I heard it from a man from my village.”

How did you learn it?”

Well, I heard this story and then I knew it by heart. I recited it for the storyteller, and he said, ‘Yes, it’s okay’.” And the boy did it in the way of an old storyteller. It was very interesting.

Then there was anoth­er kit­chen boy. He told me anoth­er story. He was even young­er. Because in those days they had no iPad, no iPhone, no mobile, noth­ing. They were still listen­ing to stories.

Fieldwork in Mongolia

Can you tell me about your time in Mongolia?

Well, I went many times to Mon­go­lia after 1990, very often with the Itali­an Mon­gol­ist Dr. Elisa­betta Chi­odo, who was work­ing in Bonn. We col­lec­ted writ­ten mater­i­als and atten­ded con­fer­ences. We were even asked to edit a col­lec­tion of manu­scripts found in the ruins of the old, ruined town Khar­bukh­in Bal­gas dat­ing back to the 1600s. This col­lec­tion was edited by Dr. Chi­odo with­in the frame of a spe­cial research pro­ject. The manu­scripts are very import­ant. For example, they con­tain very early inform­a­tion about Geser in Mon­go­lia. I don’t know wheth­er you need details about my time in Mongolia.

Well, if there has been some­thing import­ant or influ­en­tial on you…

Well, I could see the renais­sance of Buddhism and Genghis Khan. I also went to Inner Mon­go­lia to the Genghis Khan sanc­tu­ary in Ordos. This was very, very inter­est­ing. I was in Mon­go­lia also imme­di­ately dur­ing the revolu­tion of 1990. By chance, I was in Ulaan­baatar when protest­ing people gathered in the cent­ral place, and one didn’t know wheth­er the police and the mil­it­ary were behind the Gov­ern­ment Build­ing and would come and shoot. But noth­ing happened.

In the same year, there was a con­fer­ence on the anniversary of the com­pos­i­tion of the Secret His­tory of the Mon­gols. Prac­tic­ally it was a cel­eb­ra­tion of the renais­sance of Genghis Khan and Buddhism. It was amaz­ing that the people, as well as artists, still knew the old icon­o­graphy and sym­bol­ism. So, one could see how Mon­go­lia arose from com­mun­ist times.

You have been work­ing through­out your life on Mon­go­li­an manu­scripts. Why did you find it so inter­est­ing? Also, why did you find it import­ant to see the rela­tion­ship between Tibetan and Mon­go­li­an cultures?

Well, because Mon­go­lia was strongly influ­enced – of course it is com­mon know­ledge – by Tibetan cul­ture. But it has its own fea­tures to bring in. Many Mon­go­li­an monks con­trib­uted to Tibetan lit­er­at­ure. Now the Mon­gols hold the opin­ion that Mon­go­li­an Buddhism is some­thing dif­fer­ent from Tibetan Buddhism. So, they want to show their own iden­tity, reli­gious identity.

I also once met a high lama who returned from India to Mon­go­lia. Now he’s dead. There’s a cer­tain con­flict between the strict Tibetan way of Buddhism and the Mon­go­li­an [way], which is clearly to be felt. Now I am very cau­tious in my state­ments because I could not vis­it Mon­go­lia for many years. So, I do not want to speak about the present. But I just pub­lished in the series Die Reli­gion­en der Mensch­heit the part on Mon­go­li­an Buddhism, deal­ing not only with Buddhism in Mon­go­lia itself but also in the Altai Moun­tains, Burya­tia, and Kalmykia.

Now we have a pro­ject edit­ing tape record­ings of Mon­go­li­an epics and stor­ies. These are mainly mater­i­als col­lec­ted by Walth­er Heis­sig and kept in the Academy of Sci­ences and Arts in Düs­sel­dorf, the so-called Heis­sig col­lec­tion. It is again Dr. Elisa­betta Chi­odo who is work­ing on it because I still have to deal with my Balti mater­i­al, oth­er­wise, I will nev­er fin­ish [it]. The Mon­go­li­an mater­i­als will be put online, it is almost ready now. [The online edi­tion is now avail­able: Oral Tales of Mon­gol Bards]. These are stor­ies, and romances, influ­enced by Chinese lit­er­at­ure, for example, Mon­go­li­an ren­der­ings of Chinese hero­ic stor­ies like the story Jour­ney to the West. All this work is done in cooper­a­tion with the Uni­ver­sity of Cologne, the Depart­ment for Elec­tron­ic Human­it­ies. There are still more record­ings, but there is always the prob­lem of find­ing money to do it.

Memories of Pavel Poucha

Would you mind repeat­ing the story with Pavel Poucha?

Of course. So, we had a meet­ing of the Per­man­ent Inter­na­tion­al Altaist­ic Con­fer­ence in a little castle near Bonn (BIAK). It was the first time that col­leagues from the Soviet Uni­on [and the East­ern Bloc] were allowed to par­ti­cip­ate. When mak­ing the pre­par­a­tions for the lodgings we were think­ing of put­ting one of these col­leagues into a room where they say Napo­leon stayed. But then doubts came and we thought per­haps it was not a good idea, it could be a polit­ic­al issue. So, bet­ter not, so whom? Then, we knew Pro­fess­or Pavel Poucha would come from Prague and per­haps he would like to stay there. We offered him the room and he was very happy.

The con­fer­ence went from Sunday even­ing to Fri­day noon. One day Pro­fess­or Poucha approached me and said, “You know, I have a problem.”

Oh Pro­fess­or, what prob­lem do you have?”

Well, you know, the Czech air­lines oper­ate only on Tues­day and Fri­day from Frank­furt. The con­fer­ence ends Fri­day at noon but I would have to leave earlier.”

I real­ised imme­di­ately what his wish was. So I said, “Pro­fess­or Poucha, it would be an hon­our if you would stay with us in our house until the com­ing Tues­day. No prob­lem.” So, he was very happy.

The week­end came, but then I had a prob­lem because it was elec­tion time and Willy Brandt was going to give an elec­tion cam­paign speech in Bad Hon­nef, the little town where we lived in those days. So, I said to Pro­fess­or Poucha, “Would you mind if I left you alone this even­ing because Willy Brandt is going to come to Bad Honnef?”

No, of course not, but could I join you? It would be the first demo­crat­ic elec­tion party since 1938 which I can attend.”

I said, “Of course, it would be nice if we could go togeth­er.” So, we went togeth­er. Of course, there was a lot of elec­tion pro­pa­ganda mater­i­al which could be col­lec­ted, and he was look­ing “Oh that is inter­est­ing, and that would be of interest for my wife, and that would be of interest for my moth­er” who must have been at least 120 years old. And he took a great heap. And then, when we came home, he went to his room and said “I have to pack. Tomor­row, I have to leave.” And then after some minutes he came and said, “You know, I took so many pamph­lets and I think I can­not take them all. The prob­lem is not that they are heavy. The prob­lem is the Czech bor­der con­trol because they would not be happy to see so much pro­pa­ganda mater­i­al from the West.”

I said, “Well, just leave what you want. I can dis­pose of it.” Then the next morn­ing he came and said, “Well, you know, it is too inter­est­ing. I take all” and then it turned out that there was no prob­lem with the bor­der police. He could take all [of it]. His wife and his moth­er were most prob­ably very happy about it.

Concluding questions

I have a few con­clud­ing ques­tions, which we ask every­one. The first one is: what has your career in Tibetan and Mon­go­li­an stud­ies giv­en you personally?

Well, it’s my life. What else can I say?

What did you find the most inter­est­ing? And the most challenging?

To become acquain­ted with quite dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing, with oth­er cul­tures, but this is almost com­mon­place. For me, the most inter­est­ing [thing] is that cul­tures which are far from ours are basic­ally the same as ours. The ways of think­ing and behav­ing, there’s not so much dif­fer­ence. It always depends on you – how you con­front your­self with a for­eign cul­ture. I nev­er had dif­fi­culties. Only once, but this was a very nice exper­i­ence. It was in India. I was invited by an Indo­lo­gist who stud­ied at Heidel­berg and lived in Del­hi with her moth­er. I was invited and I man­aged to buy some flowers, as we do. I brought these flowers, and the old lady was very much sur­prised since she did not know this custom.

And there is also an example of mutu­al under­stand­ing. It was in India, but the same could have happened in Mon­go­lia too. Once, when I stayed in the house of our friends, Sita and Krishna, in Del­hi, Sita said, “Sorry, I must leave you alone in the even­ing because the garden­ers of my col­lege have a meet­ing.” She was a pro­fess­or of Indi­an Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Del­hi, so she had to go there. The garden­ers would have been insul­ted if she did not come. Like Pavel Poucha [men­tioned above], I asked, “Could I join you?” and she said that was fine. So, it turned out that the garden­ers were recit­ing the Ramay­ana. This was a very strong exper­i­ence for me, even if I could not under­stand the words of the songs. The atmo­sphere was so intense. It turned out that they were very hon­oured that a for­eign­er would join their meet­ing. The next days they came, and I could record some of the singing.

Are there still top­ics or interests you would like to pursue? 

No. Well, there would be many. I want to fin­ish these Balti things and then the organ­isa­tion of the Mon­go­li­an things because there are many more mater­i­als. It is not always what I wanted to do. I am, for example, very much inter­ested in sym­bol­ism. I myself did not do so much with manu­scripts, but I have done quite some work with the Shéja Rapsel (Shes bya rab gsal) by the Pakpa Lama (‘Phags pa bla ma). It was very, very inter­est­ing. I gave lec­tures and I thought it was, not for me but for oth­ers, a dry top­ic. It was strange that the people liked it, they found it so inter­est­ing. This view of the world, it is simply fantastic.

Then I am very inter­ested in the prob­lem of trans­la­tion and ter­min­o­logy. I had sem­inars on trans­la­tions of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan and Mon­go­li­an, and trans­la­tions of Chris­ti­an texts into these lan­guages. How do you trans­late “God”? For the Mon­gols, God is bur­qan, the Buddha. And in Tibetan, it is clearly not lha. “God” is trans­lated as Kön­chok (Dkon mchog; “Jew­el”). They were delib­er­ately think­ing about the best way to con­vey the mean­ing. And there are so many terms, for example, “Bap­tism”. It is fas­cin­at­ing how they man­aged to con­vey the ideas from a really dif­fer­ent back­ground. I wrote a few art­icles about it, for example, on the trans­la­tion of the Lord’s Prayer.

We are con­duct­ing this pro­ject for con­tem­por­ary and future stu­dents of Tibetan and Mon­go­li­an stud­ies, would you have any advice for them, and us?

My advice would be to read as much as you can. I have the feel­ing, and it is also what I was told, that many people simply do not read enough. They can­not listen to the teach­er and do only what is required for the exam­in­a­tion. The exam­in­a­tion is, of course, neces­sary. If you only think of the exam­in­a­tion, you will nev­er become a schol­ar. You must be curi­ous. I mean, curi­os­ity is the main point. There­fore, I find it a little bit deplor­able that, for example, we have a com­mon lib­rary in our Insti­tute of Ori­ent­al and Asi­an Stud­ies for all the Ori­ent­al dis­cip­lines, from Islam­ic to Japan­ese Stud­ies. The lib­rary is no longer eas­ily access­ible. Form­ally every “Sem­in­ar” had its own lib­rary and stu­dents had always access. They could go and they could look for one par­tic­u­lar book. Then they saw it on the shelf and also the next book, “Oh, inter­est­ing.” You take it out and have a look. But times have changed. One should read and one should be curi­ous. If you are not curi­ous, you should not study the field you have chosen. That applies, I think, to all fields: in sci­ence, every­where. That is my main advice. Also, to ask, to con­tra­dict, and to dis­cuss. That is not a great philo­sophy, but true.

I’ve been out of teach­ing now for many years. After my retire­ment, I went to Göt­tin­gen, where I was teach­ing Mon­go­li­an. I think this is the most import­ant thing. Oth­er­wise, why do you choose such a field? Yes, you must be a little bit crazy to do that, of course. Or you will become a law­yer. Noth­ing against law­yers, not at all.

When teach­ing, and this is not so much of rel­ev­ance for uni­ver­sity [teach­ing], but when you give lec­tures to a lay pub­lic — it is very dif­fi­cult to find the right way between being more sci­entif­ic or of pop­u­lar under­stand­ing. I remem­ber I had to give a lec­ture about Buddhism at an adult edu­ca­tion­al centre (Volk­shoch­schule). I was try­ing to be as clear as pos­sible, but you can­not be too simple. So, I tried not to be too simple. And then after that, 2 ladies came and said that they did not under­stand one word. I was shocked. It only happened once, I must say. I still remem­ber that the fam­ous Mon­gol­ist Pro­fess­or Nikolas Poppe from Seattle, formerly St. Peters­burg, could explain things in such a way that you would under­stand. Once, when he was a guest pro­fess­or in Bonn, he gave, as part of the series of lec­tures “Peoples and Lan­guages of the Soviet Uni­on”, a lec­ture about the gram­mar and struc­ture of the Turkic lan­guages. I knew Poppe but thought the top­ic, for a pub­lic lec­ture, was dif­fi­cult. It was per­haps the best lec­ture of the whole series. Fas­cin­at­ing. He had the gift of explain­ing things and mak­ing them inter­est­ing. It was really remarkable.

I think the basic concept is curiosity.

Thank you for allow­ing us to inter­view you.

It has been my pleasure.

Additional info

(Taken from Weirong, Shen, and Karén­ina Koll­­mar-Paul­enz. 2013. “Fest­s­chrift Für Pro­fess­or Dr. Klaus Sagaster Zum 80. Geburtstag.” His­tor­ic­al and Philo­lo­gic­al Stud­ies of China’s West­ern Regions 6)

In the intro­duc­tion to a recent volume on the Mon­go­li­an-Tibetan inter­face, Hilde­gard Diem­ber­ger men­tions Klaus Sagaster as the schol­ar who has done “[p]erhaps the most sub­stan­tial work” in this field of study.1  What in recent years is dis­covered anew in Inter­na­tion­al Tibetan stud­ies as an excit­ing ven­ture into more or less unknown research ter­rains, has in fact been a long estab­lished tra­di­tion in both Ger­man and Rus­si­an schol­ar­ship. Since its estab­lish­ment in 1964, the Sem­in­ar für Sprach-und Kul­tur­wis­senschaften Zen­t­ralasi­ens at the Uni­ver­sity of Bonn belonged to this tra­di­tion of study­ing the entangled his­tor­ies of the Tibetan and Mon­go­li­an cul­tur­al regions, a tra­di­tion that its former dir­ect­or, the mon­gol­ist and tibet­o­lo­gist Klaus Sagaster, decis­ively shaped. On March 19, 2013, Klaus Sagaster will cel­eb­rate his 80th birth­day. As his long and dis­tin­guished career is well known to his col­leagues and friends, already hav­ing been told in detail in the feli­cit­a­tion volume pub­lished on the occa­sion of his 65th birth­day, the inter­ested read­er is referred to this volume. This short fore­word there­fore takes off where the account in the pre­vi­ous feli­cit­a­tion volume stopped. Since his retire­ment in 1998 from the chair for Cent­ral Asi­an Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Bonn/Germany, Klaus Sagaster has con­tin­ued to engage act­ively in the field of Mon­go­li­an and Tibetan Stud­ies. It is mainly due to his act­ive sup­port that some import­ant research pro­jects in Mon­go­li­an archeao­logy, his­tory and lit­er­at­ure have been real­ized in Ger­many (always with inter­na­tion­al col­lab­or­a­tion) in the last ten years. In 1997 Sagaster, who dur­ing his long career had cul­tiv­ated close con­tacts to col­leagues in Mon­go­lia, was asked by the Mon­go­li­an Academy of Sci­ences to lend his sup­port to the new excav­a­tions in Karakor­um (Khark­hor­in), the old cap­it­al city of the Mon­go­li­an empire. He thus played an act­ive role in the ensu­ing endeav­our to start a cooper­at­ive archae­olo­gic­al pro­ject under the pat­ron­age of the Mon­go­li­an and Ger­man gov­ern­ments to excav­ate the former Mon­go­li­an cap­it­al. That pro­ject brought togeth­er sci­ent­ists from the Uni­ver­sity of Bonn and the Com­mis­sion for Gen­er­al and Com­par­at­ive Archae­ology with their Mon­go­li­an col­leagues. The pro­ject also provided the basis for the exhib­i­tion “Dschin­gis Khan und seine Erben” real­ised by the Kunst-und Aus­s­tel­lung­shalle Bonn, receiv­ing nation-wide atten­tion and media cov­er­age. The exhib­i­tion was accom­pan­ied by an inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence in which Sagaster was also act­ively involved. Apart from these more

spec­tac­u­lar activ­it­ies which brought Mon­go­li­an stud­ies to the atten­tion of a broad­er pub­lic audi­ence, Klaus Sagaster was able to com­plete some import­ant research pro­jects. The long term pro­ject of the descrip­tion of the Mon­go­li­an manu­scripts on birch bark from Xar­buxyn Bal­gas, which was brought to its con­clu­sion with the pub­lic­a­tion of the second volume of Elisa­betta Chiodo’s edi­tion, owes much of its suc­cess to the sup­port of Pro­fess­or Sagaster who man­aged to secure the finan­cial sup­port of the Ger­man Research Found­a­tion and the Gerda Hen­kel Found­a­tion. Sagaster also secured the sup­port of the Ger­man Research Found­a­tion and the Gerda Hen­kel Found­a­tion, respect­ively, for a pro­ject about “East Mon­go­li­an folk lit­er­at­ure”, based on the Heis­sig col­lec­tion of Mon­go­li­an oral lit­er­at­ure which is pre­served at the North-Rhine West­phali­an Academy of Sci­ences in Düs­sel­dorf. And it was again Sagaster who in recent years repeatedly invited Mon­go­li­an col­leagues for an exten­ded stay at Bonn Uni­ver­sity, thus strength­en­ing the exist­ing ties to Inner-Mon­go­li­an and Mon­go­li­an schol­ars. His latest pro­ject, newly launched with funds provided by the Gerda Hen­kel Found­a­tion and entitled “Der Held und der Barde. Kontinu­ität und Ver­än­der­ung in der münd­lichen Lit­er­at­ur der Mon­golen”, once again focuses on the oral cul­ture of the Mongols.

In 2006 Klaus Sagaster was elec­ted hon­or­ary mem­ber of the Soci­etas Uralo-Alta­ica in Göt­tin­gen (Ger­many), and in 2008 he was hon­oured by the Perm­a­ment Altaist­ic Con­fer­ence of Indi­ana Uni­ver­sity (Bloom­ing­ton, Indi­ana, USA). The last two years, how­ever, were over­shad­owed by the uncer­tain future of Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies in Ger­many. In the wake of the Uni­ver­sity reforms of the last dec­ade, the once thriv­ing dis­cip­line had suffered greatly, like oth­er so called “small dis­cip­lines” (“small” in regard to stu­dent figures, not in regard to sci­entif­ic out­put) have. When early this year, the Rect­or­ate and the Fac­ulty of Human­it­ies of Bonn Uni­ver­sity finally decided to close down Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies, Klaus Sagaster was on the fore­front in the attempt to res­cue the-mean­while-sole remain­ing pro­fess­or­ship of Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies in the whole of Ger­many. The fate of Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies in Ger­many has even drawn the atten­tion of the Mon­go­li­an gov­ern­ment. At the time of writ­ing this fore­word, it seems that the efforts will bear fruit and the long and dis­tin­guished tra­di­tion of Mon­go­li­an Stud­ies at Bonn Uni­ver­sity will be con­tin­ued. These recent events demon­strate that Klaus Sagaster, to whom Mon­go­li­an and Tibetan Stud­ies owe so much, nev­er was one for the “ivory tower” (Elfen­bein­turm) of sci­ence, but always will­ing to reach out to the wider pub­lic. To our aca­dem­ic teach­er we ded­ic­ate this feli­cit­a­tion volume and wish our bag­sh many happy returns of the occasion.

Bern, in the sum­mer of 2012 Karén­ina Kollmar-Paulenz

Beijing, in the sum­mer of 2012 Shen Weirong

1 Uradyn E. Bulag and Hilde­gard G.M. Diem­ber­ger (eds.), The Mon­go­lia-Tibet Inter­face. Open­ing new research ter­rains in Inner Asia. Leiden/ Boston: Brill, 2007, p.1.

Akademischer Werdegang

  • 1951–1959 Stu­di­um der Sino­lo­gie, Mon­gol­istik, Indo­lo­gie, Tibet­o­lo­gie und alt­türkischen Philo­lo­gie an den Uni­versitäten Leipzig, Göt­tin­gen, Kopen­ha­gen und Bonn
  • 1959 Pro­mo­tion an der Uni­versität Bonn
  • 1969 Habil­it­a­tion
  • 1970 Wis­senschaft­lich­er Rat und Professor
  • 1982 Uni­versität­s­pro­fess­or C4 für Sprach- und Kul­tur­wis­senschaft Zen­t­ralasi­ens an der Uni­versität Bonn


  • 1982–1989 1. Sprech­er des Son­der­forschungs­bereichs 12 “Ori­ent­al­istik unter beson­der­er Ber­ück­sich­ti­gung Zen­t­ralasi­ens” an der Uni­versität Bonn
  • 1993–1996 Mit­glied des Wis­senschaft­lichen Beir­ats des Bundesin­sti­tuts für ostwis­senschaft­liche und inter­na­tionale Stud­i­en in Köln
  • 1994–2003 Geschäfts­führender Präsid­ent der Soci­etas Uralo-Alta­ica e.V. Göttingen
  • 1997 Hon­or­ar­pro­fess­or der Uni­versität der Inner­en Mon­golei in Huh­hot, China
  • Seit 1995 Ordent­liches Mit­glied der Nordrhein-West­­fäl­is­chen Akademie der Wissenschaften


  • 2006 Ehren­mit­glied der Soci­etas Uralo-Alta­ica e.V. Göttingen
  • 2008 Pre­is­träger der Per­man­ent Inter­na­tion­al Altaist­ic Con­fer­ence, Indi­ana Uni­ver­sity, Bloom­ing­ton, Indiana


Lit­er­at­ur, Geschichte, Kul­tur- und Reli­gionsgeschichte Tibets und der Mongolei