Professor Gordon A. Craig

Historian of diplomacy and of modern Germany


Gordon Alexander Craig, historian: born Glasgow 26 November 1913; Professor of History, Princeton University 1950-61; J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of Humanities, Stanford University 1961-79 (Emeritus), Chair, History Department 1972-75, 1978-79; President, American Historical Association 1981; married 1939 Phyllis Halcomb (one son, three daughters); died Portola Valley, California 30 October 2005.

Gordon A. Craig was a rare teacher, scholar, and public intellectual who, through his spoken lectures and printed words, could reach many different audiences, including students, specialists, political leaders and policy makers, the news media, and a general reading public interested to know how history impacted their lives and their world. A prolific and insightful writer, he became internationally renowned as an historian of diplomacy and of modern Germany.

His career was spent at some of the world's leading academic institutions: Princeton, where he taught for 20 years, Oxford (at Balliol College as a Rhodes Scholar in the late 1930s), Yale and, most notably, Stanford University, where in 1961 he became the first J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of Humanities.

Craig was born in Glasgow in 1913, moving to Toronto and then the United States as a child. He first enrolled as an undergraduate student at Princeton, fully intending to study law. But after taking a history course taught by a dynamic teacher, his interest changed and he never looked back. Intrigued by international history and politics, he travelled to Germany as a student in the 1930s, and became appalled by the Nazi abuses of culture and human rights, terrified about the prospect of another world war, and deeply impressed with the impact of history upon political events. He returned to the US, determined to share his experiences and passionate interests with others.

He took up his first academic post in 1939, at Yale, before moving to Princeton in 1941, also serving as a political analyst for the Office of Strategic Services and as a captain in the Marine Corps during the Second World War.

Craig became a dynamic teacher, winning the coveted Dinkelspiel Award for distinguished teaching at Stanford. His students admired him for his obvious passion for his subject, his quick wit, his powerful speaking style that made history come alive, his superbly organised lectures that made history both comprehensible to beginners and still fascinating for the more advanced, and the fact that he took them and their education very seriously. Some also initially feared taking a class from him due to his high standards and expectations around the seminar table, but eventually found comfort from the fact that he never asked more of them than he did of himself.

Writers reach many others beyond those who can attend university classes, and here Craig's reach was at its greatest. As a scholar, he was extraordinarily prolific, writing for many different audiences and feeling as comfortable with the details of diplomatic negotiation or the impact of military technology on strategic doctrine as with opera, ballet or poetry. He had a most unusual ability to select a particular phrase, quotation, document, painting, musical score, or incident, and then capture its essence and use it as an instructive vehicle to explore larger and enduring issues.

His keen and analytical mind first focused upon diplomacy and international relations. In this regard, he collaborated with others to publish The Diplomats, 1919-1939 (1953), The Diplomats, 1939-1979 (1994), and The Makers of Modern Strategy: military thought from Machiavelli to Hitler (1943), each of which focuses upon the critical role played by individuals in history.

These books were accompanied by From Bismarck to Adenauer: aspects of German statecraft (1958), Military Policy and National Security (1956), and War, Politics, and Diplomacy (1966). Always believing that he could learn from others, he revealed his deep interest in interdisciplinary work by writing the highly successful Force and Statecraft: diplomatic problems of our time (1983) with the distinguished political scientist Alexander George, a book that soon will appear in a new edition.

Given the enormous impact of Germany on so many of these subjects dealing with diplomacy, international relations, strategy, and modern history in general, it is hardly surprising that Craig would spend more and more time thinking and writing about German history. In fact, through time, he became one of the greatest historians of Germany in the world. His observations and advice about this fascinating country and the character of its people were sought by political leaders and the news media, especially at the time of German unification in 1990.

His fame derived from a growing number of notable, insightful, and wide-ranging publications, including The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640-1945 (1955), the popular Europe Since 1815 (1961), the erudite Germany, 1866-1945 (1978), the rich and nuanced The Germans (1982), Theodor Fontane: literature and history in the Bismarck Reich (1999), The Politics of the Unpolitical: German writers and the problem of power, 1770-1871 (1995) and Politics and Culture in Modern Germany (1999), a collection of essays that first appeared in the New York Review of Books.

He contributed his considerable knowledge and abilities in other ways as well. He provided wise guidance as a mentor to his graduate students and his colleagues, encouragement and thoughtful suggestions on manuscripts to other writers, advice to policy makers, direction to Stanford University as Chair of the History Department and of the Faculty Senate, guidance to his profession as the President of the American Historical Association, and a special kind of graciousness and warmth to his friends and family.

Paul Gordon Lauren

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