Professor Peter Ganz

Leader in English German studies who took Jacob Grimm as his sceptical academic role model


Peter Felix Ganz, Germanist and medievalist: born Mainz, Germany 3 November 1920; Assistant Lecturer, Royal Holloway College, London University 1948-49; Lecturer in German Philology and Medieval Literature, Westfield College, London University 1949-60; Reader in German, Oxford University 1960-72, Professor of German 1972-85 (Emeritus); Fellow, Hertford College, Oxford 1963-72; Fellow, St Edmund Hall, Oxford 1972-85 (Emeritus); Resident Fellow, Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel 1985-88; married 1949 Rosemary Allen (died 1986; two sons, two daughters), 1987 Nicolette Mout; died Oxford 17 August 2006.

Peter Ganz was for some 40 or 50 years a leading figure in the university world of English German studies. He was a German Englishman and an English German, the embodiment of the ambivalent outlook of that group of intellectuals, deeply embedded in German culture, who fled persecution in 1938/39 and have spent the remainder of their lives working out a complex set of cultural oppositions.

He was firmly agnostic - his grandparents had converted from Judaism to the Lutheran Church. However, he prefaced his edition of early Middle High German religious poetry (Geistliche Dichtung des 12. Jahrhunderts: eine Testauswahl, 1960) by a fine exposition of the principles of spiritual allegory. Both this and his 1964 edition of Dukus Horant, a medieval poem written in an early form of German or Yiddish in Hebrew characters, which he edited together with his teacher Frederick Norman and Werner Schwarz, showed a strong commitment to the significance of Christian and Jewish intellectual tradition.

Ganz styled himself a social democrat and would sometimes lay claim to views of the radical left, whilst by temperament and upbringing he was more conservative. "There is nothing for it," he would say, "but to close your eyes and vote Labour."

His special area of expertise was the German Middle Ages, but he was proud not to be thought of as just a medievalist. He wrote as eloquently on "not understanding" medieval poetry about the Virgin Mary as on "not understanding" the poetry of Paul Celan. Among Germanists he took on the pose of a historian, whereas in his historical work, for example in his edition of Jacob Burckhardt's lectures Über Das Studium der Geschichte ("On the Study of History"), he excelled in his use of textual-historical method in the tradition of his own discipline. He pretended to find the Oxford academic environment uncomfortable, but that was nothing compared to his disdain for the hierarchical privileges claimed by professors in Germany.

He found an academic role model in Jacob Grimm, who combined an independent and liberal view of German studies with a willingness to stand up for democratic values in the face of political oppression. Ganz's sceptical view of both Oxford and the German universities echoed that of Grimm, who had complained that "universities are gardens which do not like wild plants". He once said that, if Jacob Grimm were to walk into the room, you would say to yourself: "He can be difficult, you know, prickly and obstinate. He is really unbelievably poetic and politically naïve." Exactly that might be said of Peter Ganz.

Ganz was born in 1920, the eldest son of a well-to-do Mainz family in the carpet trade - life came to a halt on 9 November 1938, the "Kristallnacht". His father, Dr Hermann Ganz, who had distinguished himself in the German army in the First World War, was already in England. Peter was sent, as a so-called "non-Aryan", to Buchenwald and released six weeks later, before coming to England with his brother, to be followed later by their mother, Dr Charlotte Ganz. His grandfather was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.

Peter enrolled as a student of German and Spanish at King's College London in 1939, but his studies were interrupted by internment as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. After that he joined the Pioneer Corps and was talent-spotted to work in British intelligence. In 1945 he was one of the young Germans employed at Farm Hall, near Cambridge, recording the conversations of the German scientists who were interned there. Back at King's, where his teacher was Frederick Norman, he took his BA in 1947, MA in 1951, and PhD in 1955.

From 1948 he was assistant lecturer at Royal Holloway College, London, and from 1949 lecturer at Westfield College. Even more important than his employment by the single-sex women's colleges of London University was his marriage to a resolutely English zoology student, Rosemary Allen, who could not only correct his English, but was also to become an enormously supportive partner.

In 1960, when Peter was appointed to the readership in German, to be followed by a fellowship at Hertford College, the Ganzes moved to Oxford. In 1972 he was appointed to a newly created chair of German, with special responsibility for medieval and linguistic studies, and to a fellowship at St Edmund Hall. These were the years when he rose to eminence in his subject and acted as a facilitator in the establishment of contacts between German studies in England and in Germany. In recognition of this he was awarded, in 1973, the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz by the Federal Republic.

Ganz's work in the university was marked by the enthusiasm and idealism which he invested in Hertford College's crusade to attract applicants from state schools in the 1960s. His seminar drew together a group of young medieval historians and literary scholars, which included non- Germanists such as Margaret Gibson, Rod Thomson and Rob Bartlett, for the study of medieval Latin philosophical epic. In collaboration with German colleagues, he masterminded the founding of the Anglo-German colloquia in medieval German studies, and in 1970 the "Bertau-Kreis", a group of medievalists who have since then met annually, each time in a different European country. He was a co-founder of Oxford German Studies and an editor of the prestigious journal Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur.

In 1985 Ganz resigned his post in Oxford to become Resident Fellow at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, where he was responsible for the library's academic programme, and honorary professor of the University of Göttingen until his retirement in 1988. During this period, after Rosemary's death, he married the Dutch historian Nicolette Mout. After leaving Wolfenbüttel he divided his life between England and Holland.

Ganz's specific contribution to German studies resulted from his commitment to Jacob Grimm's broad conception of a discipline devoted to the literary, legal and social culture of the past founded on the commonality of language. His first book, Der Einfluss des Englischen auf den deutschen Wortschatz (1957), was on the influence of English on the German vocabulary. His work as an editor of medieval texts culminated in his edition of Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan (1978), a work to which he brought the full range of German literary and historical scholarship and which he was proud to present as a poem worthy to be enjoyed alongside the writings of classical antiquity and the European literature and music of later times by which he set his aesthetic standards.

Towards the end of his career he reversed his priorities and devoted himself to editing and commentating the historical writings of Jacob Burckhardt, whose symbiosis of scholarly rigour and honest commitment to personal judgement, which the professionals disdained as amateurism, he so greatly admired.

Nigel Palmer

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