Lord Dahrendorf: Philosopher and liberal politician who became the first foreign director of the LSE

The son of a Social Democratic Party politician and journalist, Ralf Dahrendorf looked destined for politics. Gustav Dahrendorf was the editor of the SPD paper Hamburger Echo, a member of the Hamburg city parliament and, briefly, one of Hamburg's members of parliament.

Arrested twice after the Nazi takeover in 1933, he spent three months in Hamburg's Fuhlsbüttel Prison. After a period of unemployment he moved his family to Berlin where he worked as a fuel wholesaler for the Flick concern, using his position, travelling around Germany, to maintain contact with his former comrades. Following the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler's life, in July 1944, the People's Court, under the notorious Roland Freisler, sentenced Julius Leber and other leading Social Democrats to death. In the same trial, Gustav Dahrendorf was sentenced to seven years in jail.

Ralf, born on 1 May 1929, in Hamburg, had served in the junior division of the Hitler Youth, the Jungvolk, and as a leader of 15 boys looked set to go to one of the Nazi's elite schools. However, the 15-year-old grammar school pupil became involved with the secret Freiheitsverband höherer Schüler Deutschlands [Freedom League of the Senior Pupils of Germany], the members of which exchanged political letters and distributed leaflets against the SS. Arrested after one of his letters was opened by the postal censor, Ralf was held for four weeks in the police cells in Frankfurt/Oder after which he was sent to the Oderblick labour camp in Schwetig, where thousands of foreign workers were incarcerated.

Remarkably, on 29 January, 1945 as the Russians advanced, an SS guard allowed Dahrendorf and a friend to leave the camp. Dahrendorf went into hiding in Berlin until the end of the war.

Liberated by the Soviet forces from the Brandenburg-Görden prison, Gustav immediately helped in the re-founding of the SPD. The Soviet authorities appointed him vice-chairman of the body running the fuel industry of their zone; however, he was soon in trouble again. Although he favoured co-operation between all left-wing parties, he opposed the forced merger of the SPD and Communist Party to form the so-called Socialist Unity Party of Germany Party (SED) in 1946. Forced to flee, with the help of the British, he later took on a new responsibility as head of Hamburg's consumer co-operatives.

In Hamburg, Ralf Dahrendorf completed his secondary schooling, joined the SPD and took up the study of philosophy and classical philology at Hamburg University, earning a doctorate in 1952 for a thesis on the concept of justice in the thought of Karl Marx. There he got to know T.H. Marshall, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, who was serving as educational adviser to the British High Commission in Germany. Dahrendorf enrolled for postgraduate studies in sociology with Marshall at the LSE, between 1952 and 1954, acquiring a second doctorate in 1956.

Returning to Germany in 1957, he took up a lectureship at Saarbrücken University and attempted to set up a pro-European party. Once the Saarlanders had voted to return to Germany, he campaigned against its "Germanisation". From there, most significantly, he spent 1957-58 as a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Behavioural Sciences in Palo Alto, California, where, he said, his "ideological Liberalism" was born. In West Germany, non-Nazi academics who knew the United States were in demand, and he was appointed Professor of Sociology at the Akademie für Gemeinwirtschaft, Hamburg (1958-60), a body set up by trade unions and cooperatives. He subsequently held chairs at the University of Tübingen (1960-66) and at the University of Konstanz (1966-69). Visiting professorships, among them at Columbia (New York), British Columbia and Harvard, also came in this period.

At this time two of his best-known studies appeared, firstly, his sociological volume, Soziale Klassen und Klassenkonflikt ("Social Classes and Class Conflict", 1957), and Gesellschaft Und Demokratie In Deutschland ("Society and Democracy in Germany", 1968), which reflected his preoccupation with the foundations of democracy and his fears for Germany's commitment to it. It was a time when the far-right NPD had gained seats in seven of the 11 regional parliaments.

As a prominent spokesman for reformist liberalism, Dahrendorf campaigned for equal opportunities, but against "equality". He seemed more understanding of the leftist student movement of the 1960s than many of the politicians of the day, and attempted to engage the student rebels in debate.

He became increasingly known to the wider public and made rapid progress in public life, from an advisory post on education policy with the Baden-Württemberg Land government to membership of the Land parliament (1968-69) as a Free Democrat and of the national executive committee of the Free Democratic Party (FDP, 1968-74). Perhaps his choice of the FDP was prompted, in part, by the thought that whatever the outcome of the election, this klein aber fein ("small but fine"), party was likely to be part of the government coalition. When the election of 1969 gave the SPD 224 seats to 242 for the right-of-centre Christian Democrats, the FDP's 30 seats were crucial to the election of the SPD's Willy Brandt as Chancellor. Walter Scheel, FDP leader, the new Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister, appointed Dahrendorf, who had been elected to the Bundestag, to the post of Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Dahrendorf soon seemed unhappy in this subordinate post. After all, he was reported to have said that his ambition was to be Chancellor one day.

After only a few months in office in Bonn, in July 1970 Dahrendorf moved to become one of the two German members of the European Commission in Brussels. Here he was responsible for the Community's foreign relations until January 1973 and then, until October 1974, for research, science and education. During his four years in Brussels, Dahrendorf made an important contribution to the European Community's progress. Nevertheless, he was clearly impatient with the more bureaucratic duties of his Brussels post and was a critic of the Community's ways of working. To the end of his life he remained unconvinced that the EU could become a counterweight to Nato or the United States. He wanted an "open Europe".

In 1974 Dahrendorf returned to the LSE, taking over from the controversial Sir Walter Adams to become its first foreign director. This was a time of financial stringency which gave him little room to manoeuvre and inevitably there were disagreements among his colleagues about how to resolve the situation. Although he brought prestige to the School, some thought he was too involved outside of it. As well as his many foreign trips he served on the Hansard Society's Commission on Electoral Reform (1975-76), the Royal Commission on Legal Services (1976-79) and the Committee to Review the Functioning of Financial Institutions (1977-80). A knighthood followed, in 1982. In that year, in his book On Britain he claimed: "Britain is moving back from a civilised contract of good behaviour to the hard core of power and obedience which always was its foundation."

In 1987, he became Warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, where he spent 10 years seeking funds for an academic institution which, founded in 1950, suffered from an acute lack of resources. The following year Dahrendorf took British citizenship, which paved the way for his elevation to the peerage. While at Oxford he wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in Eastern Europe (1990) which won wide praise, and LSE: A History of the London School of Economics and Political Science 1895-1995.

On his entry to the House of Lords, Dahrendorf sought to play an active role in British Liberal politics. In 1995 he chaired the Commission on Wealth Creation and Social Cohesion, the independent body set up by the then Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown. In 2004, he became a crossbencher. He surprised some by his support for the Iraq war, yet the results appalled him. On 5 December 2006, he told the Lords, "I was one of those who initially supported the war, but in my view damage limitation is now almost the only option there."

Ralf Dahrendorf received many honours, including honorary doctorates from around the world. Like his father, he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

David Childs

Ralf Gustav Dahrendorf, sociologist, political scientist, politician: born Hamburg, Germany 1 May 1929; Parliamentary Secretary of State, Foreign Office, West Germany, 1969–70; director, LSE, 1974-84, governor, 1986-; Warden, St Antony's College, Oxford, 1987–97; married 1954 Vera Bannister (three daughters), 1980 Dr Ellen de Kadt; KBE 1982, created Baron Dahrendorf, 1993; died Cologne, Germany 17 June 2009.