Wolfram von Soden

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Wolfram Theodor Hermann Freiherr von Soden (19 June 1908 in Berlin – 6 October 1996 in Münster) was the most notable German Assyriologist of the post–World War II era, in a discipline long dominated by German scholars and German scholarship.

Life and work[edit]

Born in Berlin, Wolfram von Soden was a gifted student of the ancient Semitic languages who studied under the noted Jewish Assyriologist, Benno Landsberger, at Leipzig and received his doctorate in 1931, at age 23, with his thesis Der hymnisch-epische Dialekt des Akkadischen (The Hymnic-Epic Dialect of Akkadian). In 1936, he was appointed a professor of Assyriology and Arabic studies, a new position, at the University of Göttingen. While his mentor, Landsberger, was obliged to leave Germany due to National-Socialist racial policy, von Soden joined the Sturmabteilung (the SA, the so-called Brownshirts) in 1934. An ardent German nationalist, he never joined the NSDAP--the Nazi Party. Nonetheless, in 1944 the SA and its members were compulsorily integrated into the NSDAP, a fact that has led to certain American detractors portraying von Soden as a Nazi and anti-Semite, despite his personal ties to Landsberger.

From 1939 to 1945, von Soden served in the military, primarily as a translator, and in 1940 this work prevented him accepting the offer of a chair in Ancient Near Eastern studies at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. Von Soden published significant works that implicitly supported Nazi cultural and racial policy.

Following the Second World War, von Soden’s former activities as an involuntary member of the Nazi Party initially barred his reentry to the teaching profession. Because of his extraordinary abilities, however, and thanks to his Doktorvater, Benno Landsberger, who wrote in his support, von Soden was appointed to an academic position at the University of Vienna in 1954. In 1961, he accepted the offer of a professorship at Münster, where he served as director of the Oriental Seminar until his retirement in 1976. At his death in 1996, he left his scholarly library to the newly revived Institute for Near Eastern Studies at the University of Leipzig, where he had earned his doctorate.


After World War II, von Soden became the pre-eminent scholar in the world in ancient Semitic languages, and his scholarship dominated the post World War II era. He was an integral member of the "history of religions" (Religionsgeschichte) school at Goettingen, and disproved the long-standing claim that the Babylonians had believed in their creator god, Marduk, as a "dying, rising god". Instead, he was able to show that the texts that purveyed this view were polemical Assyrian works deriding the chief god of their chief rival state. Von Soden's philological works, particularly the Akkadisches Handwörterbuch (AHW), in which the Dutch scholar Rykle Borger assisted, laid the basis for the detailed philological contributions that later appeared in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. His Grundriss Akkadischer Grammatik (GAG) and the AHW remain the definitive foundational works of Assyriology today and establish von Soden as the dean of ancient Near Eastern Studies in the world.

No other single scholar has made a contribution to the modern understanding of ancient Semitic languages that comes even close to von Soden's in the areas of philology and lexicography, the foundational elements of any historical discipline. Charges that his work evidenced a Nazi outlook primarily by denigrating Semitic cultural influences in the ancient Near East in favor of Indo-European or “Indo-Germanic” cultures, are refuted by his detailed work on the history and languages of the ancient Semitic peoples in his Einführung in die Altorientalistik, translated into English by Dr. Donald G. Schley and published by Eerdmans in 1994 as The Ancient Orient: An Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East. So far was von Soden from a Nazi outlook that he made substantial contributions to Old Testament philology and history. Earlier works included Der Aufstieg des Assyrerreichs als geschichtliches Problem (1937, The Rise of the Assyrian Empire as an Historical Problem) and Arabische wehrsprachliche Ausdrücke (1942, Arabic Military Terminology and Expressions). His Einführung in die Altorientalistik contains an account of the sub-Saharan African origins of humanity and the dissemination of languages therefrom.

Works (partial)[edit]

  • Das akkadische Syllabar (1948, rev. 1967, 1976, 1991, ISBN 88-7653-257-9)
  • Grundriss der akkadischen Grammatik (1952, ISBN 88-7653-258-7)
  • Das Gilgamesch-Epos (1958, with Albert Schott; ISBN 3-15-007235-2)
  • Akkadisches Handwörterbuch (1965–1981, 3 vols; ISBN 3-447-01471-7)
  • Das akkadisch-hethitische Vokabular KBo I 44+KBo XIII 1 (1968, with Heinrich Otten)
  • Einführung in die Altorientalistik (1985; ISBN 0-8028-0142-0); translated (by Donald G. Schley) into English as The Ancient Orient: An Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.


  • Rykle Borger, "Wolfram von Soden". In: Archiv für Orientforschung 44/45, 1997/98, pp. 588–594.