Obituary: W. L. Guttsman

Click to follow
The Independent Online
W. L. GUTTSMAN was appointed founding Chief Librarian of the University of East Anglia at Norwich in 1964. He created a teaching collection with remarkable speed, and one which soon aspired even to the level of scholarly research.

Willi Guttsman was more than a librarian, however; he was a scholar. He had taken a part-time degree in Sociology at the London School of Economics, while working there as a library assistant in 1946, and his published books range from The British Ruling Class, which he edited in 1969, to his histories The German Social Democratic Party 1875-1933 (1981) and Worker's Culture in Weimar Germany (1990) and his Art for the Workers, published last year.

In his most recent researches, published in books and papers, he opened up a new aspect of art history. He combined his knowledge of German social democracy with his unrivalled knowledge of the visual arts (much of it ephemeral) that served left-wing political ends. It is an important contribution to the "New Art History", no longer restricted to the mere study of style and connoisseurship.

Guttsman had a passion for culture in the widest sense, but perhaps especially for the visual arts, including architecture. He provided crucial support in attempts to persuade the Senate of UEA to allocate funds for a collection of works of art, and

heroically defended the university architect, Denys Lasdun, when lesser voices were raised in criticism. He collected works of art too, usually from artists he knew personally, selected with a discerning eye for quality.

Willi Guttsman and I had much in common - we went to the same school in Berlin, we both came to England as refugees from Germany before the Second World War, and we both loved the arts. However, it was not until I read an interview he gave to the Eastern Daily Press on the publication of his last book that I discovered that he had suffered in a concentration camp before his parents managed to get an emigration visa for him to enter England, that he had lost both his parents in the Holocaust,and then, after arriving in England alone at the age of 19, been interned as an enemy alien and sent to Australia. He accepted these trials philosophically, without any bitterness.

His inborn reticence prevented discussion of such deeply personal matters. Even when, on rare occasions, I attempted to exchange a word or two in German, he never responded - indeed, when I met him by chance on the S- bahn in Berlin, where he was pursuing his researches for his last book, he replied in English.

It was only in that last book he allowed himself the revealing dedication "To Valerie and Janet". Willi Guttsman's pride in his wife's Lord Mayorship of Norwich and her contribution to the life of the city as a psychiatric social worker, and his daughter's professional success as a Reuter correspondent, typically remained unspoken.

William Leo Guttsman, librarian: born Berlin 23 August 1920; Chief Librarian, University of East Anglia 1964-85; married 1942 Valerie Lichtig (one daughter); died Norwich 13 February 1998.