Resumé of Gerhard Bersu´s Life and Career
Gerhard Bersu was born in Jauer/Jawor in Silesia as the son of a Jewish manufacturer. He took part in C. Schuchhardt´s excavation of the „Römerschanze“ stronghold near Potsdam while still a schoolboy. He studied geology and archaeology and used all means possible in order to take part in wide ranging journeys to geological surveys and archaeological excavations. These took him to Rumania, Greece and Italy among other places. In his early twenties Bersu was already considered one of the leading excavators of his day. His excavations were characterized by his keen sense of observation and exact documentation. For this reason P. Goessler appointed him to be assistant in the office for monument protection in Stuttgart even before the end of his studies in 1913.
G. Bersu volunteered to fight in the First World War and was given the responsibility for the protection of monuments and collections in occupied France and Belgium from the German High Command in 1916. After the end of the war the German Foreign Office called him to join the Cease Fire and Peace Delegation in order to arrange the return of cultural property.
He realized his goal to continue archaeological research by accepting a position in the Römisch-Germanische Kommission (RGK Roman-Germanic-Commission a suborganisation of the German Archaeological Institute) in Frankfurt/M. in 1924. In 1925 he completed his belated doctorate on his excavations on the Breiten Berg near Striegau/Strzegom and was made 2cnd director of the RGK in 1929. In 1931 he became its director. His excavation on the Goldberg on the edge of the Nördlinger Ries in Bavaria which he had begun in 1911 was one of the most important of this period and is seen as a milestone in systematic settlement research.
The National Socialist takeover was a fundamental turning point for him. With the goal of the consolidation of power the political authorities tried to influence the German Archaeological Institute. Their attacks centred on Bersu’s Jewish origins. He was systematically defamed and pushed out of his professional positions and memberships in organisations. In 1935 G. Bersu was fired as 1st director of the RGK and demoted to Berlin as officer for excavations. Forced retirement ensued in 1937.
G. Bersu directed a series of excavations in England where he was surprised by the onset of the 2cnd World War. He was interned on the Isle of Man where he dedicated himself to researching its archaeological remains, a task which he continued until after the war. The Irish Minister President E. de Valera called him to become Professor on the Royal Irish Academy in 1947. A parallel offer was made to him from his one time German colleagues who asked him to take up his former position as first director of the RGK. He took up the offer in 1950. His tasks included rebuilding the war ravaged institute’s building whose reopening in 1956 was one of Bersu’s last acts before retirement. His most important challenge was, however, was to position the RGK in the newly emerging political system.
The life history of Gerhard Bersu up to the National Socialist takeover is an exemplary description of the European dimension of archaeology. His fate as well as his moral courage and scholarly achievement make him one of the great German archaeologists.
G. Bersu died in 1964 on an official trip to Magdeburg.
cf.: BBC History: Historic Figures >>