Professor Wolfgang Mommsen

Bridge-building historian of Germany and Britain
Click to follow

Wolfgang Mommsen was one of the best known of the post-war generation of German historians whose burning interest was to understand his country's fall from grace which produced the disaster of 1945. He believed historians had a responsibility to promote democratic values. As director of the German Historical Institute in London from 1977 until 1985, he made an important contribution to bringing German and British academics closer together.



Wolfgang Justin Mommsen, historian: born Marburg, Germany 5 November 1930; Professor of Medieval and Modern History, Düsseldorf University 1968-96 (Emeritus); married Sabine von Schalburg (two sons, two daughters); died Bansin, Germany 11 August 2004.



Wolfgang Mommsen was one of the best known of the post-war generation of German historians whose burning interest was to understand his country's fall from grace which produced the disaster of 1945. He believed historians had a responsibility to promote democratic values. As director of the German Historical Institute in London from 1977 until 1985, he made an important contribution to bringing German and British academics closer together.

Born in Marburg in Germany in 1930, the son of Wilhelm Mommsen, a history professor, he grew up in the sheltered society of a small university town. However, he was conscious that he was part of an illustrious family for, although his grandfather was a banker, his great- grandfather was the historian Theodor Mommsen, the first German to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1902.

Wolfgang Mommsen's world was shattered in 1945 when his father lost his job after accusations of pro-Nazi sympathies. He never accepted that his father really was "so brown", feeling that the campaign against him was the result of academic backstabbing. In any case, few history professors were sacked for having supported the Nazis. In this situation, Mommsen decided to study science or maths rather than history. He also sought employment in a factory to finance himself.

He changed his mind, however, and studied history, philosophy, politics and art history in Marburg and Cologne, gaining a doctorate for his thesis, Max Weber und die deutsche Politik 1890-1920 ("Max Weber and German Politics, 1890-1920") - Weber became a life-long interest. Mommsen's study was published in 1959 and came under attack from American, and some German, sociologists.

Mommsen spent the academic year 1958-59 at Leeds University on a British Council scholarship. As he later revealed, he would have preferred the London School of Economics, but he admitted that,

Instead I ended up in Leeds, in Yorkshire, with Asa Briggs, and this was very fortunate. During my time at Leeds University, I got to know English society very well; indeed in some ways Yorkshire is a much better place than London for doing so.

He also spent time at William Gladstone's country house in Hawarden Castle near Chester, where read his papers and nearly got thrown out for being out after "lights out" - 10pm. His sojourn at Hawarden led to his first book, on Egypt and European Imperialism, Imperialismus in Agypten (1961).

Back in Germany, Mommsen took up a lectureship at Cologne University, with a visiting assistant professorship at Cornell University in 1961. After a year at the Technical University of Karlsruhe, he was appointed in 1968 to a chair of Medieval and Modern History at Düsseldorf University, a new university, retaining this position until his retirement in 1996.

In 1977 Mommsen became the Director of the German Historical Institute in London, founded the year before. He had been associated earlier with the activities to establish a research institute in London and he considered that his job was to put it on a firm academic basis. He later commented that the years in London were in some ways "my best time".

Certainly, under his direction, and with a small band of colleagues, the GHI flourished. Housed in magnificent surroundings in Bloomsbury Square, it became a meeting place for German and British academics and interested members of the lay public. It was also able to call on distinguished speakers from politics, diplomacy and other sectors of German and British public life. Towards the end of his directorship, the GHI published his Two Centuries of Anglo-German Relations: a reappraisal (1984).

Mommsen also co-edited Emergence of the Welfare State in Britain and Germany (1981), Social Protest, Violence and Terror in 19th- and 20th-century Europe (1982), The Fascist Challenge and the Policy of Appeasement (1983), The Development of Trade Unionism in Great Britain and Germany, 1880-1914 (1985), Imperialism and After (1986) and Max Weber and his Contemporaries (1987).

His return to Düsseldorf in 1985 Mommsen found not so congenial. Some of his colleagues thought he had had an easy time in London and, according to Mommsen, there developed a nasty atmosphere. He was able to get away to other universities overseas, to Washington, DC, Princeton, Chicago, Oxford and Uppsala. He was also honoured by being elected chairman of the German Federation of Historians.

In his research Mommsen concentrated on German history. Among his later works were Der autoritäre Nationalstaat: Verfassung, Gesellschaft und Kultur im deutschen Kaiserreich, 1990 (published in 1995 as Imperial Germany 1867-1918: politics, culture and society in an authoritarian state), and 1848 - Die ungewollte Revolution. Die revolutionären Bewegungen in Europa 1830-1849 (1998, "The unwanted revolution. The revolutionary movements in Europe 1830-1849"). In 2002 his War der Kaiser an allem schuld? Wilhelm II und die preußisch-deutschen Machteliten ("Was the Emperor guilty of everything? Wilhelm II and the Prussian-German power elites") was published. In this, in contrast to some other writers, he saw the Kaiser not as an autocratic ruler, but as a prisoner of Germany's power elites.

One admirer of Mommsen estimated that he wrote about nine articles or books each year for 40 years. Whether that is true or not, Mommsen was never completely satisfied either with his output or with its quality.

He is survived by his twin brother Hans, also a well-known historian.

David Childs

Comments